Destination of the Week: Napa Valley
America's premiere wine country is well-known for its reds and whites, but Napa and its vineyards boast plenty of green, too. Plus, watch a special video dispatch direct from the Valley.
Sat, Jul 04 2009 at 5:13 AM
GRAPE GATSBY: Outside the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley. (Photo: Bala/Flickr)
Ahhh, Napa — the land of the grape and home of the wine. First inhabited by the Wappo Native Americans and later settled and cultivated by homesteaders like George C. Yount, the rich, fertile region has grown into one of the country's premiere winemaking regions, on par with Italy, France and Spain.
Sommeliers and wine lovers from around the globe flock to Napa to pay homage to the breathtaking vineyards and powerful cabernets that brought the area international acclaim back in the 1980s. More recently, Napa has blossomed into a hotbed for sustainable agriculture, land preservation and that sunny, effortlessly eco-friendly lifestyle that Californians do so well.
In a region where fresh produce (namely grapes, but also lots of vegetables and fruit trees) is a ubiquitous part of the scenery, finding delicious, local food is not only a treat but a breeze. In downtown Napa Valley, the upscale vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu serves up beautifully crafted, produce-centered dishes (i.e., don't come expecting soy meat). Most of the vegetables are grown by nearby farmers including the restaurant's own biodynamic gardens. Before their meal, diners can stretch out in a yoga class held at Ubuntu's onsite yoga studio.
In (very) nearby Yountville, world-renowned chef Thomas Keller launched his celebrated restaurant French Laundry in 1994. The menu, consistently hailed as one of the world's best, features highly conceptualized, seasonal and intricately designed dishes often featuring vegetables from the gardens across the street. Now that's local.
Sustainability is the name of the game in Napa winemaking today. While many of the older, more traditional vineyards continue to use conventional farming practices, every year more wineries are switching to solar-powered facilities, organic or biodynamic growing philosophies, and other eco-friendly practices. Two examples (of too many to name) in and around Napa include the organic and biodynamic Robert Sinskey vineyard, and the solar-powered Frog's Leap Winery.
A program called Napa Valley Grapegrowers also enables local landowners (the majority of whom are winemakers) to work together to preserve the area's habitats and watersheds.
Residents and tourists hoping to bring home some of Napa's farm freshness can head to the Napa Farmers' Market in downtown Napa every Tuesday and Saturday. Nearby, from May through July, Napa plays host to the unique Chefs' Market, which features wine-tasting and cooking demonstrations by some of the area's most beloved chefs.
Napa isn't just about the grapes — it (not surprisingly) produces grapeseed oil as well. Made from the seeds leftover after grapes are pressed for wine, grapeseed oil has a neutral flavor that makes it incredibly versatile for cooking, marinades and baking. A local company called Food & Vine produces non-GMO oils under the name Salute Sante. The company also offers an alcohol-free grape juice called Vin Jus.
Meanwhile, Napa's eco-friendly pets can get pampered with special dog and cat products — like the organic, handcrafted Woofie Treats — made by the Napa Farm House 1885. The Farm House also makes environmentally friendly and repurposed gifts, housewares, and natural bath and beauty products.
The wildly successful Edible Communities regional food magazine series has taken America's local food communities by storm. Started in Ojai, Calif., and available in cities and towns across the country, the brand now includes Edible Marin and Wine Country, which chronicles the area's most delicious and quirky food stories. The inaugural issue (which came out in Summer 2009) includes a guide for finding "steals and deals," in the notoriously pricey Napa Valley.
Visitors hoping to spend some of their vacation in Napa sober should probably just stay at their bed-and-breakfast. Napa Valley Bike Tours rents bicycles and leads guided bike tours of the area's most beautiful terrain ... but of course, most tours stop by at least one winery, if not more.
Meanwhile, Napa River Adventures and the Napa Valley Wine Train are no better at curbing the wine consumption. While both companies offer unique, environmentally friendly ways to tour vineyard country (by boat and vintage rail car, respectively) the wine flows liberally throughout.
There's no shortage of opportunities for relaxation in Napa. Spa lovers can pamper themselves with a hot stone massage or mineral soak at Gaia — Napa's first fully environmentally sustainable (and LEED-certified) hotel and spa.
After the massage coma has worn off, it's time for some music. Napa plays host to the annual Think Green World Music Festival, which features globally inspired musical acts performing on a solar-powered stage, along with organic food vendors, workshops on sustainable living and a green businesses fair.
Nearby in Santa Rosa, the Harmony Festival rocks out for its 31st year with world-famous musical acts (e.g. India.Arie, Cake) and presentations from leaders of the environmental movement (e.g. Julia Butterfly Hill, Starhawk).
MNN homepage photo: star5112/Flickr