After spending a lot of time in Napa, like in any other tourist destination, sometimes the most special experiences happen when you get off the proverbial “beaten path.” I could spend weeks in wine country and never become tired of the planned tours and tastings (such as Trinchero, and Robert Mondavi) — you learn so much and become enthralled by the local personalities. Still, on my most recent trip, I was dragged against my will (haha) to a private lunch at the home of Garrett Ahnfeldt, one of the most gorgeous private Napa vineyards. Upon arrival, local ingredients were being pounded into the most delicious of dishes. As everything was being prepared, we were served wine (when isn’t there wine being served in that neck of the woods?) and took in the views.
With delicious wine comes sumptuous food, and Northern California wine country certainly doesn’t disappoint. The best part of the food offerings: the wide array of choices. My favorite eateries range from casual pull-up-a-chair joints to a five-star hot spot by a world-famous chef. At the risk of boring my more loyal readers who have heard this before, Oxbow Market is my absolute favorite hangout in the area. I can’t think of a single trip to the wineries in Napa that didn’t kick off with a stop at Oxbow’s Hog Island Oysters. Who can blame me? Gorgeous oysters and a heavy pour of local Domaine Carneros champage — it’s perfect!
My last name ends in a vowel, and I am a bona fide sucker for stories of Italian immigrants like those in my family, arriving in New York City in search of their dreams. In the case of the Trincheros, that journey took them through the glamourous Grand Central Station and then out west, to the rolling hills of Napa to capitalize on their strong wine-making skills from back home. The estate now owns Folie a Duex, Napa Cellars, Sutter Home (where for better or worse, one of the Trinchero sons is credited for creating White Zinfandel, still a huge seller), and Trinchero Napa Valley, where we visited on this trip having an amazing time at Benziger and Robert Mondavi. Sutter Home was the family’s original, which they purchased in 1948. At first, they sold wines to their neighbors, who would drop by with their own barrels, bottles, jugs (or whatever else was lying around). But after Prohibition, everything really took off. These days, there is a much different scene at the more mass market Sutter Home and the brand-new hospitality center and tasting room at the Estate’s highest-level winery, Trinchero Napa Valley in St. Helena. The 22-acre site is an ode to the family’s history, down to the loads of personal photos, mementos and letters — and the men’s and women’s room labeled only “Mario” and “Mary,” after the late patriarchs.
The winery is still family-owned, with Mario and Mary’s sons, Bob (the very son who invented White Zinfandel) and Roger, serving as chairman and CEO.
Yes, Benziger certainly has the acres and acres of rolling green hills that wineries in Sonoma are known for, but they were also groundbreakers when it came to “green” wine-making tactics. The winery is famous for becoming the first in the area to be named Demeter-certified Biodynamic, the highest level of organic farming. To get there, the family-owned affair rotates crops, balances vines with olive trees, creates eco-systems that control insects instead of killing them with pesticides, and recycles a whopping two million gallons of water a year through ponds. No wonder Tiffany and I had an extra pep in our step! After an amazing kick-off at Robert Mondavi, we loved the gorgeous ride out to Benziger — and then when we got there, we were rewarded with sun and lengthy tour outdoors in all of that pesticide-free fresh air.
My most recent trip to wine country turned out to be life-changing… but more on that later. (That’s a pretty evil way to begin, I know.) Our first stop: Robert Mondavi, one of the wineries in Napa I had long wanted to go to. I have always admired the guts and smarts it takes to be a pioneer, and that’s what Mondavi was. He brought world-wide recognition to Napa, then a fledgling little slice of wine country, before he died in Yountville in 2008 at the age of 94. (He had been forced to sell his beloved winery to Constellation Brands four years prior, after a public offering led to financial strain and then the takeover.) Mondavi is most well known for creating the Fume Blanc style of Sauvignon Blanc and his partnership with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, which led to the famous Opus One. But he also brought higher-density plantings (to make the vines work harder, producing heartier grapes) and French oak barrels to Napa, among many other technical improvements. He is considered by many to be the single-most influential winemaker in Napa’s history.
In addition to the relaxing atmosphere that has me calling it my happy place, and its status as a gateway to some pristine beaches in Nicaragua, San Juan del Sur is a charming little town in and of itself. I love the color splash, and there are loads of flowers on every block. Even though SJdS is tiny, all of the little details make walking around a fascinating afternoon. I’ve been so many times, thanks to it being where I headed for visa runs when I lived in Costa Rica, making it one of the few places that I haven’t lived yet I go again and again. More and more travelers are discovering this relaxing bay town as a more affordable alternative to some of the more touristy parts of Costa Rica, but it hasn’t been overcrowded yet.