Yes, Napa is open for business, y’all!
It’s been more than six weeks since wild fires wrecked havoc in Northern California. More than 8,000 structures and countless families are facing a massive rebuild in the heart of American wine country. Yet, with Napa Valley escaping the wildfires’ fury virtually unscathed, and it being too soon to tell if this year’s harvest was affected by smoke taint, there’s more than enough reasons to fan the flames of this verdant economy.
Driving down St. Helena’s Main Street, I could barely see the black ash up in the mountains or smell the lingering stench. It is the earthy aroma of fir, oak and grapes mixed amongst Karl’s foggy mornings that now fills my memories. (Karl is the name locals bestowed upon the coastal fog that rolls into the valley.) In fact, the air was perfumed with notes of hope and grandeur as crush commenced in celebration of yet another harvest.
My Napa experience began with a glass of rosé and a visit with Ryan MacDonnell, matriarch of Round Pond Estate in nearby Rutherford. Round Pond got its name from her father’s childhood memories of Lake Frederick in West Point, New York. Respecting and honoring these memories through sustainable practices, Ryan and her family ensures her father’s legacy will endure.
The crisp fall air revealed by a morning rain prompted me to cozy up by the fire on the balcony where I savored my first bite—smoked salmon lollipops with goat cheese dressed in Meyer lemon olive oil and chives snipped fresh from the garden.
Wine Maker Jaime “JJ” Dowell started at Round Pond this past summer. “I believe the wine really shows when the team is excited to be a team,” beamed JJ, “We hope to harbor the next generation of wine maker professionals to come.” Nearing the end of crush, they had just pressed off four different lots that day. So, there was plenty of pumice ready to compost and land right back from where it came, creating wine-soaked seed pathways.
JJ invited me into her lab. Along a stainless steel table, there sat glass beakers, wine thieves (devices that draw samples) and various bottles of single varietals. “Anybody can ferment stuff. When you sit down at the blend table, that is when the winery’s personality starts to show.” Her philosophy is to blend it four million times before it hits the bottle. You can bet there was plenty of swirling, slurping and spitting before we landed on a cabernet-heavy blend. We were in Napa, after all, where cab is king.
And, while I’d like to say my blend could make it to all of your cellars… I chose to leave it to the professionals. Instead, I slipped into a long, hot bath at my Las Alcobas Napa Valley home away from home.
Built in 1907, the St. Gothard Inn opened as the first inn in Napa Valley. It’s been a lot of things over the years, including a military hospital and—most recently–the Grandview Apartments, before coming full circle by reopening in early 2017 as Las Alcobas Napa Valley. Situated along the upper end of St. Helena, the 68 rooms and suites are nestled amongst the vineyards of Beringer Estate, California’s oldest continuing operating winery. Whether your slice of heaven boasts vineyard or creek views, indulge in a bit of self-care with a sunset swim in the vineyards at the year-round heated pool, pampering in the old farmhouse turned spa, Altrio, or peddling around Napa on complimentary bikes. Still, you can’t miss out on dining at Acacia House where Chef Chris Cosentino delights guests with modern twists on highly seasonal cuisine.
The next morning I toured Round Pond Estate in a 1941 red truck. There’s 360 acres in all, including a few spots beyond the vines. My first stop was at the vinegar acetaia where estate grapes are aged for more than a decade in a series of wood barrels producing balsamic vinegar in the Orleans style. Just around the corner, Round Pond is home to one of only two Napa Valley olive mills. It’s where Master Miller Emilio Alvarez leads the processing of estate-grown olives into extra virgin olive oil.
These oils and vinegars shared the stage at a very special wine lunch, where Chef Jamie Prouten merely coaxed the bounty of farm fresh ingredients tantalizing my palate. Afterwards, Sommelier Scott Lewis led me through an aromatherapy session like no other I’ve had. He explained why aroma is essential to the experience of wine tasting. “The most important thing to remember is that wine is tasted in your brain…that’s what’s magical about it.” He offered whiffs of bay, tobacco, peppercorns and sage, all elements in the Rutherford terroir. Even now, I can remember those notes by a few facial self-massage techniques he shared.
While it’s recommended to “hold off to show off” young Napa wines, there’s no need to hold off on your next visit to the valley. Want to enjoy one of the experiences for yourself? Please give my new friends a holler, and make sure to tell them that I said, “Hi!”
Cover photo by Melissa Corbin, a Nashville-based freelance journalist and the producer of Corbin In The Dell, a travel podcast about folks in food, farming and drink with a local music influence.