Vintage Pleasures

A tour through California’s Wine Country offers a bounty of food, drink and striking design

WORDS Tom Austin
May / June 2019

Newton winemaker Alberto Bianchi

In the summer of 1992, I first visited Wine Country with a friend from Oakland, an artist and occasional waiter with a wheezy truck, ideal for Sideways-style jaunts. The area back then nursed a lingering Summer of Love hangover, and was still home to characters like Woodstock darling Wavy Gravy.

In Napa, which had about 50 wineries in the early 1990s, my buddy asked me to help out on a job at a splendid Victorian gingerbread palace. As it turned out, we were serving canapés at the home of Francis Ford Coppola. I promptly took off my uniform, put on a blue blazer and wound up chatting with Coppola, who now has a wine and hotel empire.

Almost three decades later, I finally return to Napa, which has bounced back from the fires of 2017. These days, Napa has more than 600 wineries, including Shafer Vineyards and Antica Napa Valley, and my visit is a weekend of $250 wine tastings, hired town cars and Michelin-starred restaurants. As with the Hamptons and Aspen, art and architecture (Napa’s Dominus Estate was Herzog & de Meuron’s first U.S. commission) serve as signifiers, an announcement that money is spoken here.

The Village—with nine tasting rooms and a picnic area serviced by a “lawn butler”—is at the heart of the new and comfortable 145-room Vista Collina resort, just outside the town of Napa. After
a massage at the adjacent sister property, Meritage Resort and Spa, the weekend begins with Trinitas Cellars’ forthright 2014 cabernet sauvignon. Executive chef Vincent Lesage presides over Fivetown Grocery—a casual restaurant and shop with curated fare from Napa Valley’s five main towns—as well as the Food & Wine Center, used for demonstrations and cooking classes. With chef de cuisine Mackenzie Rupp, I happily make a frittata—cooking is fun when it’s not a living. 

Domaine Chandon

The following day brings tastings at two wineries owned by Moët Hennessy of LVMH. In St. Helena, Newton—built by Englishman Peter Newton and his wife, Su Hua—has a formal French garden, a whimsical English phone booth, a traditional red Chinese gate and exquisite Spring Mountain single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon. Domaine Chandon in Yountville is all gardens, mossy walls, flowering vines, cabanas and a grotto, a blur of subtle reserve blanc de noirs and étoile brut alongside Point Reyes blue cheese.

My final day begins at the terminally chic Artesa vineyards, designed by Barcelona architect Domingo Triay. Artesa is the first American outlet for Spain’s Codorníu Raventós group and known for nuanced 2014 Codorníu Napa grand reserve brut.

St. Helena’s Cameo Cinema has walk-of-stars salutes to George Lucas and former resident Robert Redford. The nearby Castello di Amorosa, a looming medieval-style castle built by winemaker Dario Sattui, is akin to stepping into an episode of Falcon Crest

In Calistoga, renowned for its natural hot springs and mud baths, the afternoon brings a tour of the elegant bed-and-breakfast Francis House. Cocktails at Solage’s Solbar, part of the Auberge Resorts Collection, are accompanied by chef Gustavo Rios’ Périgord black-truffle risotto.   

Downtown Napa is home to the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa outpost, CIA at Copia, and Model Bakery’s English muffins, hyped by Oprah Winfrey, while the Fatted Calf is a fountainhead of cured meats. Napa Valley enjoys a certain plutocratic abandon, but the spirit of Wavy Gravy endures with a cheering mural: “How have you improved the world today?”


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