Napa is a bucket-list place for me. I try not to get caught making endless lists of all the places I’d love to go because there are just so darn many of them. But when it comes to the USA and California, the thought of the Napa Valley has always quenched my thirst for a quintessential USA road trip. Images of rolling hills with vineyards aplenty taken in with a glass of wine swirling in my hand spring to mind and by the time I jump in my brand new Chevy to head out there, I’m chomping at the bit to get out there.
At the time I’m going, though wildfires have raged through California causing mass destruction in the Napa and Sonoma region. I’m driving in the direction of this magical area not knowing exactly what I’m going to find. Will it be the magical wine country I’ve always read about? Or am I making a mistake visiting so close after the devastation?
Well, as I pull into my first stop at Artesa Winery I can see black charring on the hills BUT it’s by far overshadowed by the incredible beauty stretched out before me. It’s Autumn, or Fall as the Americans like to call it and the orange, gold and brown leaves on the vines are simply enchanting. Amid the vines, a little house is nestled, just poking out enough to be noticed and I find myself thinking how incredibly lucky whoever owns that residence must be. Lucky to be living in such a breathtaking environment, but also unbelievably lucky that the fires that raced towards it were stopped in the nick of time.
The views from Artesa are amazing and the grounds are free to wander around, so that alone makes this stop worth putting on my list. My goal, though is to learn how to properly taste and appreciate fine wine, so I stay on task and hit up the sommelier inside for a wine tasting. I quickly learn the importance of the five S process to taste wine. See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Savour is the way to do it!
After churning through just enough sparkling, white and red and purchasing a couple of takeaways it’s time to head outside and take in the view whilst I wait a while to ensure I’m right to hop back behind the wheel. Responsible driver here, ya’all!
Unfortunately, my day then goes pear shaped. My brand-new Chevy Malibu bursts a tyre. I don’t mean a tiny little hole that can be patched up either; I’m talking a huge bang and a tyre ripped to shreds. So, instead of tasting wine and enjoying the sun in the valley, I’m stuck on the side of the road for an hour or so waiting for the tyre to be changed. Then I am sent off to a partner car hire joint for a replacement car… except all they have available is a minivan. There is absolutely no way in hell I want to do that, so they send me off to a tyre repair shop instead. The catch? Because the whole tyre has to be replaced, they need to raise a purchase order and by this time it’s after 5pm so they can’t do it until the next day. At this point, luck is not on my side and I give up and agree to come back in the morning.
Exhaustion hits hard and I’m faced with the choice – do I head out into the Napa Town Centre or do I call it a night and chill out in my hotel? I’m not proud to say that on this occasion weariness wins and I skip dinner and fall asleep after a glass of wine from a bottle purchased from Artesa today.
When the morning rolls around I’m feeling positive again. A good sleep has done wonders and I stop in for a quick hotel breakfast before venturing back out to my Chevy to drive it to the tyre place and put the burst tyre saga behind me once and for all. In fifteen minutes it’s fixed and I’m on the road again. I have a special appointment this morning at Maroon Wines where Local Wally, the Napa Wine expert has recommended I pay a visit. This visit feels less like a formal tasting and more like sitting down and chewing the fat whilst surveying the beautiful land. This winery came terribly close to being wiped out in the fires and I can see as I look out at the hills just how far down the hill facing the winery that blackened ground extends. Luckily, though Maroon Wines remains undamaged, although I am told that the smoke from the fires will affect the taste of the wine in years to come.
The wine here is beautiful, but visits are by appointment only. It feels much less commercial than the other wineries I’ve visited and rather than having a tasting room or a big sprawling building, we’re sitting around an outdoor table on deckchairs. This is definitely a cool Napa experience and the wine is so good that I find myself buying a bottle to take with me.
After leaving Maroon Wines it’s time to travel a little further up through the Napa Valley to St Helena where I check in at the kitschy and quaint El Bonita Motel. My room is sweet and spacious, but the real awesomeness comes from the open fire pit in the communal area of the Inn, where later on at night I open a bottle of local wine and work by the flames.
First, though, it’s time for my final tasting of the day at Auburn James wines. The last tasting of the day proves to be a relaxing affair, as I sit down with a young wine-loving sommelier who shares with me her stories of the fires that ravaged the area the week before. She tells me that phone reception has only just come back on after the disaster and that her whole family were out of town so it was up to her to try and protect her family property. Like the other wineries, the wine itself is amazing quality, but it’s the company that makes this stop so much fun.
When it’s time to leave, I decide to head back into town and take a sunset walk on way to dinner at the local favourite, The Farmhouse. The sun setting through the vines is absolutely stunning and the autumn colours paint the vineyard yellow and orange.
The perfect end to a perfect couple of days in California Wine Country.
Napa Valley is still rebuilding after the devastation of the October fires and whilst luckily only a small number of the area’s 1200+ wineries were severely damaged or destroyed, 43 people were killed and nearly 9,000 buildings were destroyed. The region is ready and waiting for tourists and visiting is a great way for you to support the region. If you can’t make it to Napa Valley, you can donate to the Community Relief Fund here.