NAPA, Calif. - Blending urban cool with authentic small town charm, Napa is set amid tree-lined neighborhoods of restored Victorians, many of which are now bed-and-breakfast inns. The city is on the move with a new riverwalk, the Oxbow Market, and a vibrant walkable downtown filled with restaurants, specialty shops and wine-tasting rooms. There are 21 tasting rooms around the downtown.
With this renaissance, Napa has become a culinary and wine-tasting destination. Local historian George Webber (in period costume) gave us an excellent walking tour of the city and all the historical landmarks.
Situated about 50 miles north of San Francisco, Napa is the gateway to Napa Valley. American winemaking's greatest and most famous names are all found in this narrow 35-mile valley bordered by two mountain ranges. More than wineries rest along Highway 29. Since 1858, the sunny days, cool nights and long growing season have caught the eye of winemakers.
Napa, Calif., has become a culinary and wine-tasting destination. The city is on the move with a new riverwalk, the Oxbow Market, and a vibrant and walkable downtown filled with restaurants, specialty shops and wine-tasting rooms.
Photos by Frederica Dunn
Robert Mondavi, known as the ''Father'' of wine in Napa, produced superb cabernet sauvignons that could stand up to the greats of France.
The little gem, Schramsberg, with excellent sparkling wines and tours of hand-dug caves is also not to be overlooked.
We stayed at the historical Napa River Inn, which was converted from an old mill and sits on the banks of the Napa River. Downtown Napa is just steps away.
Breakfast was taken next door at Sweetie Pie's Bakery with heavenly homemade breads, rolls, pastries and served with piping hot coffee. Also, in-room breakfast is served from the bakery at no extra charge.
For a more intimate stay, Churchill Manor is certainly one of Napa's most beautiful and largest bed and breakfasts. This mansion was built in 1889 by Edward Seward Churchill.
The story goes that Edward met a nasty death - trying to recover from the flu in 1903 he reached for his medicine - he mistakenly took a bottle of carbolic acid. Once the mistake had been realized, it was too late. He died from heart failure. His Churchill Manor was the first residence in Napa to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is gorgeous both inside and outside.
Napa Mayor Jill Techel is the most avid spokesperson for the city and has been instrumental in Napa's billion dollar development. She spoke at an informal breakfast hosted by Downtown Joe's restaurant overlooking the river. Mayor Techel assured us that all hotels and restaurants work together with the city creating innovative and delectable cuisine.
A spot not to be missed is the new Oxbow Public Market. Here you can enjoy a glass of wine while sitting on the patio overlooking the Napa River's oxbow bend, browse specialty shops, pick up fresh produce or grab a delicious bite to eat.
The market (named after the shape of the Napa River) is home to a number of vendors, gourmet grocer and small eateries. Oxbow Public Market is an ideal place for a quick coffee and is frequented by tourists and locals alike. Stop by the Model Bakery or Three Twins Ice Cream for dessert.
Other highlights of Oxbow include the Kitchen Door for gourmet foods at reasonable prices and the Gotts Roadside for a hamburger along with the best wine list anywhere for miles. If you like seafood, the Hog Island Oyster Co. is great for steaming shell in clam chowder.
THE WINE TASTING SCENE
In the early 1960s the Napa Valley was experiencing a renaissance. A fresh wave of pioneers came to the valley, due to the vision of Robert Mondavi that Napa could produce wines rivaling Europe's best. That vision was borne out in 1976.
That year, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' 1973 S.L.V. triumphed over some of France's greatest wines in a blind tasting among French wine experts in Paris. The stunning victory at what is now known as the ''Judgment of Paris'' established the Napa Valley as one of the world's premiere wine regions.
One does not need a car to wine taste in Napa. With 21 tasting rooms within walkable distance of each other, you can pick up a Napa Taste Card that entitles you to go to 12 tasting rooms for only 10 cents per taste. A few recommended stops are:
Carpe Diem: This wine bar has the feel of an urban hangout, with tech metal lights and handsome wood and tile accents. There are about 80 bottles on the wine list with a strong focus on California, and markups are modest. The menu of small plates is impressive, ranging from cheeses and flatbreads to the addictive short rib sliders.
Ceja: This is the first Latino family run winery in California. The Ceja family migrated from Mexico in the 1960s and put their stamp on Napa Valley's winemaking history. A mural inside their tasting room proudly displays - ''Vinum, Cantus, Amor'' - meaning ''Wine, Song and Love!'' They are all about good wines at reasonable prices.
Backroom Wines: This is one of the oldest wine shops in downtown Napa. They offer a tasting bar that features local wines that you probably won't find outside of Napa Valley. Backroom features their own label - Corsair - with a very limited production of wine made for the store and only available here.
Toolbox Wine: ''Serious wines, playful marketing'' is their tagline. You can taste their wines just opposite the Oxbow Public Market.
THE WINE TRAIN
Hop aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train which runs from Napa to St. Helena, past 27 vineyards. The historical track was laid out in the 1860s and much of the journey parallels the main road (Highway 29). Enjoy the scenery along with fine dining aboard restored 1915-era Pullman cars.
This antique train has two engines, three kitchens, and a collection of early 20th-century rail cars that are pure Americana. Choose a gourmet lunch or dinner pared with excellent local wines for a three-hour, 36 mile culinary journey.
Vincent De Domenico, inventor of Rice-A-Roni, started the Napa Valley Wine Train in 1989 and it remains a family run operation to this day.
In 2001, it became the first company in the nation to convert a locomotive to compressed natural gas. The gas remains clear, odorless and smokeless, is non-corrosive and is an efficient fuel source. This brand new engine still pulling historic cars is a clean air vehicle.
No trip to Napa is complete without visiting the wineries. Our first stop was the Dominari Winery owned by Jurgen and Marie Schutz who chose the name a decade ago. The word ''dominari'' stems from the Latin verb ''dominates,'' which means to practice superiority which is exactly what Marie wanted to do as a winemaker.
Over the past 10 years, Dominari wines have consistently won top medals and high praise in many competitions. The luscious 2005 Dominari Cabernet Sauvignon earned a silver medal at the New World International Wine Competition, and the 2006 Dominari Chardonnay won a silver medal at the National Women's Winemaker Challenge.
The Rombauer Family Winery, founded in 1980, is located on a secluded tree-covered knoll overlooking the Napa Valley. This was a perfect setting on a sunny day for a picnic and the winery has strategically placed wooden tables throughout the grounds giving scenic views of the valley.
The winemaker at this family owned winery gave us an account of the wine making process from the vineyard to the bottle. First, for whites, they bring in the white grapes - Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. The grapes are put into the press and are gently pressed as whole clusters like making Champagne. The juice then goes into a stainless steel fermenter. During fermentation, yeast converts the natural grape sugars to alcohol, thereby making wine. For whites, the fermentation process takes about 30 days.
Generally, the red grapes are de-stemmed, sorted and then placed into open top fermenters. The weight of the grapes creates juice and the cellar team pumps the juice over the grape skin cap. Finally, fermentation begins. In reds, this fermentation usually takes about 14 days. When fermentation is done, the wine is put in barrels for aging.
Winemaking is an art requiring hard work. During harvest (called ''crush''), the winemaking team works long hours every day, with 10- to 16-hour shifts.
The Napa Art Walk is a collection of public pieces that are placed in select locations in downtown Napa. Created by internationally recognized Gordon Huether, a man on a mission both artistically and politically, he has been commissioned worldwide to create large public works of art. His working studio is about 10 minutes from downtown Napa and is open to the public. He is also a member of the Napa Planning Commission helping contribute his ''eye for aesthetics'' and design to Napa's redevelopment.
The works are on display for a year and are open to public voting with a prize given to the winner.
So, pour yourself a glass of wine, make some finger food and drift off to the vineyards and wineries in your mind. Dream of a trip to Napa.
WHERE TO STAY
Napa River Inn: A National Registered Landmark built in 1884 as a mill and situated along the Napa River Walk. Sixty-six rooms of refined elegance of the early 1800s. Steps away from downtown Napa surrounded by restaurants, cafes, art galleries, shopping and nightlife. 500 Main St., 877-251-8500.
Churchill Manor Bed and Breakfast: Ten beautiful guestrooms in a southern style mansion full of antiques. Walk to downtown and enjoy a gourmet breakfast and a nightly wine and appetizer reception. Tandem bicycles are provided. 485 Brown St., 800-799-7733.
WHERE TO EAT
Cuvee Napa: Cuvee's culinary focus is on ''farm to table'' with a creative and organic approach. Plans are in place to change the surrounding landscaping to mostly edible vegetation. Wine is major here. Cuvee received the ''Award of Excellence'' by Wine Spectator Magazine and feature more than 150 wines.
Eiko's: This restaurant specializes in authentic Japanese cuisine from seasonal dishes to fresh fish. A specialty is their liquid nitrogen hand crafted cocktails - created and served at the table. We had the best mojito outside Cuba and the best Capiranhas outside of Brazil.
Oenotri: The focus here is on Italian and fusion cuisine that changes daily (up to 40 percent of the menu changes every couple of days). The wine list is more than 25 pages and features both Napa and Italian wines. The desserts are scrumptious. The highlight of our visit was the Ricotta Panna Cotta with Mandarins and Napa Honeycomb.