Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, Calistoga – a small city in Northern California – was more orchards and dairy farms than wineries and tasting rooms. Randy Lynn knows as he spent many a summer in the area as a child exploring and water skiing with his family. But it was clear the area was special, even back then.
That’s why years later, when his own family was seeking out a vacation home in the early 2000’s, he piled them in the car to visit Calistoga, today a rustic-yet-charming city in the heart of Napa County.
“By then, we were avid wine lovers, thanks to our travels to Italy,” says Lynch. “We found a lovely house on the valley floor – which included 12 acres of grapes right on the estate.”
So, the Lynches, who already found great success in the business and marketing worlds in their own right, set out to re-model the home and grow their first harvest. “Unfortunately, we weren’t alone in our grape-growing pursuits,” says Lynch. “The market at that time was so saturated that we couldn’t sell our fruit.”
The only option was to find someone who would be willing to do a custom crush of their grapes, and then bottle it themselves as gifts for friends, family and employees. Thankfully, just a mile down the road, they found a charming winery. Well, a formerly working winery. The family connected with the winemaker on-site, who gave them a lovely tour and offered to help. But then, as the Lynches said their goodbyes and started up the car, the winemaker noted in passing that the winery was currently for sale.
Right then and there, the Lynches bought the winery just a mile from their home, feeling it was meant to be. By 2003, they opened their winery. Nearly 20 years later, their estate and nearby vineyard combine to make up Bennett Lane Winery, home to nearly forty 90-point wines that have been recognized by Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
I tell that story both to showcase the winery itself as well as to give an example the amazing people behind every single bottle and dish in Calistoga, a region full of rich history and amazing stories around every corner. So, let’s dig in…
Set to open by year’s end, and now accepting reservations (including mine!), this show-stopping resort will be Napa Valley’s first and only resort set within a working winery. On site, Elusa Winery and its 4.7-acre vineyard are protected by the Palisades Mountains and oak-covered hills. The hand-farmed vineyard is operated by acclaimed Napa Valley winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown. With the warmest microclimate in Napa Valley, Calistoga is ideal for cabernet sauvignon grapes, and as such, Brown and his team of viticulture experts designed and replanted the on-site vineyard to accentuate the flavor of those grapes.
The resort’s accommodations are meant to be dreamlike sanctuaries, with each of its 85 spacious rooms, suites and villas boasting breath-taking views, fireplaces, private terraces, and design by one of the world’s most celebrated interior designers, Napa-based Erin Martin. There is even a villa on property clocking in at nearly 3,400 square feet at the edge of the on-site vineyard with indoor-outdoor living and dining, a private garden and its own pool.
Will the food be good, you ask? All signs point to yes as the culinary program is being led by Michelin-starred Executive Chef Erik Anderson. The primary eatery, TRUSS Restaurant + Bar, promises to be a modern fine dining experience with a farm-fresh a la carte menu, genuine hospitality, an elevated yet laidback indoor-outdoor environment and sweeping views of the Calistoga vineyards and Palisades Mountains. The restaurant is brimming with star talent who are working closely alongside Chef Anderson to bring the distinctive vision for TRUSS to life, including Chef de Cuisine Craig Wilmer, Pastry Chef Josh Gaulin and Sommelier Morgan Gray.
Speaking of culinary prowess, the Restaurant at Auberge de Soleil boasts a similarly impressive team as well as views that rival even those anywhere in the world. There is greenery and vineyards as far as the eye can see as well as glorious mountain ranges in the distance. The only thing as memorable as watching a sunset from the restaurant is indulging in a meal onsite. Auberge offers both a standard, ever-changing menu as well as a chef’s tasting option where you will go on a culinary adventure across the Western United States with thoughtful ingredients, interesting flavor profiles and absolutely sinful desserts.
And while the wine pairings at each venue are exquisite, given Calistoga boasts from of the most acclaimed vineyards and wineries in the world, don’t miss the chance to experience them first hand.
Any trip should start with Schramsberg. Not only was Schramsberg among the first wineries in the region, it was the very first to dig into Napa’s hillside to create wine caves. Yes, caves. The vineyard offers tours of the caves, which culminate in a candlelit wine tasting underground, seven days a week and limits each tour to just 12 guests.
Similar in that it also features a cave experience, yet unique in its own way, is nearby Clos Pegase Winery. The ultimate way to experience Clos Pegase, given its sheer size and seemingly limitless tasting options, is via an all-inclusive tour and tasting. These allow guests to learn about the winery’s history, visit the production area and conclude in the seductive and romantic cave theatre for an intimate tasting experience.
Chateau Montelena is another must. Most will know the name as it famously profiled in the 2008 movie “Bottle Shock” starring Bill Pullman, Chris Pine and Alan Rickman. The show-stopping Chateau is even cooler than the film portrays. Draped in bright green ivy, it resembles an English Gothic castle, and its tasting room is perched on the top floor to allow for a true elevated tasting in more ways than one.
From there, the next stop will get you even higher, but not because of California’s recreational marijuana laws. Internationally beloved Sterling offers guests a sky-high winery experience – literally. Perched atop a hillside, guests take an aerial tram to the winery. From the moment visitors depart the tram, they are greeted with wine. Elevated walkways, on-site art galleries and motion-activated flat screens that provide detailed information of all the vineyard has to offer abound. (Please note amid the recent fires and amid COVID-19, this attraction is in the process of re-build and re-opening.)
Finally, no weekend in Calistoga would be complete without a visit to Frank Family Vineyards, especially if a Disney fan. It happens to be owned by Rich Frank (who is often there and always open to enjoying a glass of wine with guests). Frank was first president of Paramount Television Group in the 1980’s before becoming president of Disney Studios from 1985 to 1994. His vineyard estate, warm and fun like an adult Disneyland, was born of his desire to find a way to get away for a vacation without leaving California.
For more information, visit www.visitcalistoga.com.