Food, wine and water toys? Yes, please! St. Helena is located within Napa County and known for its combination of small-town charm, big, bold wines and epicurean experiences. The small city is home to more than 400 wineries and dozens of award-winning restaurants, as well as copious outdoor activities, notably kayaking, biking and horseback riding. Here is a look at the “musts” to hit up during a quick trip to this Northern California gem.
Within St. Helena, there are two spots that – for me – take lodging to another level.
The first is Harvest Inn (pictured at top of page). Spread over eight lush acres in St. Helena, the Harvest Inn oozes romance. Though it is just off the main drag in the region, once you enter the property, you are transported into another realm. The secluded resort is hidden between massive redwoods, botanical gardens, art installations and fountains that make one feel as if they stepped into a fairy tale. Given it is wine country; there are of course vineyards as far as the eye can see as well. There are even rooms set directly in the vineyards themselves just steps from Whitehall Lane Leonardini Family Vineyards. Several rooms on the dog-friendly property boast fireplaces or hot tubs, and the suites have so much living space that one is tempted to order in some wine and plan one or more nights in versus heading anywhere. Of particular note – beyond the rooms, of course – is Harvest Table, one of the most lauded restaurants in Northern California. The ingredients are heavily sourced from Northern California to ensure freshness, and the dishes are second to none.
And then the other, which was devastated by fire in recent years but has roared back better than ever, is the iconic Meadowood. It is spread across 250 lush acres, complete with serene swan-filled ponds, giant trees and one of the best spas that you will ever visit. Until Four Seasons Napa opened in 2021, it was for a long time the only Napa Valley resort with a full-time wine expert onsite. This is the spot to splurge on a special room, as there are many from which to choose onsite. I always go between the between the 1,745-sq.-ft. Hill House, which is situated on a hillside next to the Meadowood Spa, away from our other guest rooms and with a killer porch, and the Treeline Suite, which is smaller but ever-so-chic farmhouse white throughout with its own deck overlooking what feels like 100 miles of vines, trees and mountains.
When visiting, Meadowood Spa is an obvious must, but do not miss the three new pools that the property added in early 2020 including an adults-only option with four VIP cabanas, or the Terrace Café, which offers al fresco dining with ultra-fresh options tailored to the season.
Beyond the culinary adventure at Meadowood, when it comes to dining, those in the know book a reservation at PRESS while in St. Helena. A true expression of the region, the contemporary farmhouse-style restaurant is tucked between rolling, vine-covered hills and has grand views of the Mayacamas Mountains and is home to the largest collection of Napa Valley wines in the world. The all-Napa Valley wine list celebrates current vintages as well as older wines going back over 50 years, as a result, wine is very much at the core of PRESS. With over 1,200 selections, the restaurant has become the ideal place to taste one’s way through the rich history of the Napa Valley and deeply explore the fabled wine-growing region.
And then there is the food. Oh, the food! Under the direction of chef Philip Tessier, PRESS is a celebration of flavor. With these freshest of ingredients, he develops his menu as an epicurean tour California cuisine at its best. The best advice I can offer here: order everything. If not enough people in your group, do not under any circumstances miss the brown butter lobster risotto, smoked sea scallop with shinko pear, the Brentwood corn, the ricotta gnudi (little balls of love in jamón consommé that you will dream about later) or – and this is most important – the beef fat potato with preserved lemon and garlic aioli. To paint a picture, imagine if the crispiest hash browns of all time married both the most perfectly creamy mashed potatoes and crispy, salty potato chips…and then they had a baby. THAT is what the beef fat potatoes taste like. Bonus: The outdoor garden is one of the most romantic places to dine in Napa.
Now, let’s get down to business and why you are likely reading this: wine tasting recommendations. In St. Helena, you can’t really go wrong anywhere, but there are spots I always send friends and family as well as visit myself annually. So, here we go…
Prisoner Wine Company: If a fan of red blends, you know this name well. Given red blends and jammy zinfandels are my favorite, I pray at the altar of all things Prisoner, so you could say I am a fan. Given the brand’s insane popularity, it feels like they have been around forever. But, Prisoner actually began releasing wine in 2000 and just opened this spectacular St. Helena tasting room in 2018! I was lucky enough to visit that year, indulging in a pre-COVID-19 experience called The Makery. During it, we visited the property’s gardens, its art space and its vineyards before sitting down in a dining lounge with metal skeletons and an open kitchen for a five-course pairing lunch that left me speechless. At one point, we got up and got to pick the piece of Wagyu that we wanted the chef to cook for us. It was insane. Now, things are a touch different now, but thanks to a recent visit, I can confirm that they are just as special. The Makery experience seems to have evolved into a food and wine pairing featuring a trip of savory bites paired with the best in Prisoner’s wine. There is also this really cool family-style lunch option, which is perfect for a small group, that include three courses plus a glass of wine for each guest then a full bottle of one varietal for the table to share. If not so hungry, there is also a perfect seated tasting flight that gives you a chance to sample four of the vineyard’s favorite of the moment.
Trinchero: I actually first fell in love with this brand in Arizona after I was seated at a wine dinner next to one of the owners by chance. After what felt like 20 samples of their varietals, I was in love! It wasn’t until last year, however, that I actually made it to the vineyard for an experience, and it did not disappoint. The Signature Experience onsite is the way to go. It includes use of a cozy firepit and the opportunity to sample four vintages of its flagship Signature Cabernet, each paired with scrumptious cheeses. If chilly, beyond the fire pit, they also offer fleece blankets that you will never want to give back.
Louis M. Martini Winery: This gem was first build in 1933 in anticipation of Prohibition coming to and end in the United States. Its founder, Louis M. Martini, is not just the namesake of the award-winning vineyard and renowned wine; he is actually a founder of the Napa Valley Vintners Association, which helped create the Napa we know today. A visit to this historic and important winery is a must. When visiting, consider reserving the Heritage Lounge Tasting beyond just a glass or bottle. Why? Martini happens to employ the one-and-only chef Jeffery Russell, who delights in dreaming up mouthwatering culinary pairings – think foie gras mousse with local jam and beet macarons –to highlight their most exclusive and sought-after small-lot sips.
Charles Krug Winery: In addition to Martini, Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena teems with historical significance in addition to its having an enchanting property and extraordinary wine selection. First founded in 1861, Charles Krug, the visionary father of Napa Valley winemaking, established the estate. In 1943, the Mondavi Family – perhaps the best-known name in all American wine – purchased iconic estate to develop wines that epitomize and honor the region. There are several viticulture and historic adventures to be had at Krug, but in true California fashion, they are anything but stuffy. Case in point: its Cabana Experience, which features one’s own outdoor, private cabana for six and the option for sips and bites, notably freshly made pizza from an outdoor brick oven.
Joseph Phelps Vineyard: The 600 acres of oak-studded hills and golden valleys where this vineyard sits today was a cattle ranch once upon a time until Joe Phelps planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Riesling and Gewurztraminer on the property in the 1970s. The result, as one might guess, was legendary. In the decades since, the Phelps family owns and farms nine estate vineyards in St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville, Stags Leap District, Oak Knoll District, South Napa and Carneros. But this continues to be home, and one of the best vineyard experiences in the region. From terrace tastings to wine blending to culinary experiences, the Phelps family continues to bring honor to its name and provide a little piece of heaven in every glass and dish.
Long Meadow Ranch and Farmstead: Long Meadow Ranch is one of the coolest farms in the world. Actually, today there are several Long Meadow Ranch Farms, but St. Helena is the granddaddy of them all. The family-owned, biodynamic, solar-powered farm boasts wines, extra virgin olive oils, grass-fed beef, eggs and heirloom fruits and vegetables–and that is just to start. At the heart of the St. Helena property is Farmstead, a farmhouse restaurant that also features an outdoor café, general store and farmer’s market, each with its own vibe, tastings and tours depending on where your taste buds want to take you.
If seeking a break from all the wining and dining, head to the Napa River. Thanks to an urban renewal project in the 1970s, it is bigger and better than ever. Today, the 55-mile river travels through most of the Napa Valley region and notably rises in northwestern Napa County just south of the summit of Mt. St. Helena in the Mayacamas Mountains of the California Coast Ranges. Through Napa Valley Paddle, visitors can sign up for several kayaking and paddle board adventures, each of which starts with formal instruction to ensure safety. Many tours glide through a local nature preserve, and there is also rental pricing for those who prefer to go it alone. Knowing not all outdoor enthusiasts like to get a little wet, Napa Valley Paddle also offers hiking and biking tours, each exploring lesser-visited areas of the region.