A Visit to Northern California's Napa

The lobby of the Hotel Villagio in Yountville, Napa.
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Anytime I have the opportunity to get up to California wine country, I look forward to doing so. This spring, after a business trip to Sacramento, I took the weekend to make the drive to Napa and visit a friend in Novato.

It had been quite a while since I had visited Yountville. On previous trips, I stayed in the town of Napa or in Sonoma. For foodies, the small community of Yountville is certainly a lovely respite. After all, downtown Yountville is just a few blocks long, and this is, after all, Thomas Keller territory. Yountville is home to French Laundry and the fabulous Bouchon bakery. There's also Bouchon Bistro and the recently opened La Calenda, Keller's new Mexican restaurant that's quite the rage up here. Overseeing the kitchen is Kaelin Ulrich Trilling, whose cuisine is inpired by his Oaxacan roots.

The largest "park" along the main street is actually Thomas Keller's garden, where herbs and vegetables are carefully tended to year-round. Given my small vegetable garden at home as comparison, I was jealous taking stock ot the spread of edible nature before me on my morning walk.

Of course, there's more here than Thomas Keller-ville. Michael Chiareelo's Michelin-rated Bottega is a solid choice, too, and there's no better way to enhance the fine food here than with Chiarello's wine. (I could easily just make a meal of having a glass of his rich-tasting Cab.) Recommended dish: the charcoal-infused pasta and short ribs.

Since last year there are also two new hotels in town, both of which are under the Estate branding: the smaller Vintage House and the 135-room Hotel Villagio next door. One reason for my visit to Yountville was to check out these hotels. I stayed at Hotel Villagio, whose decor I preferred after seeing both. The Vintage House is perhaps more romantic and somewhat less congested. Hotel Villagio is well done, with a lovely water feature down the main outdoor corridor between its buildings, and the room decor is more contemporary. Rooms in both are quite spacious and feature fireplaces, large TVs, large bathrooms with double sinks, stand alone tubs, and separate walk-in showers. While the two-level building may appear to be cramped and motel-like on the outside, once inside there's a lot of space to enjoy, including balconies or patios. Complimentary buffet breakfast serves up lots of choices. There's also a five-bedroom villa at Hotel Villagio, which is quite the splash, with its own rather large private pool and tasteful contemporary decor.

The Espa Spa offers high-end service and treatments Espa is known for. Some of the treatment rooms feature a stone wall, which I liked the most. The property also includes its own winery, and a grass patch in its center is used in season for yoga classes, weddings, and the like. The vines are tended to by Hill Family Estate, located just across the street, with a lovely tasting room. Hill is also one of the very few (maybe the only?) producer of Albarino wine in Napa valley.

Another unique and fun experience are the hot air balloon rides, which take off early morning from the hotel's parking lot.

One of the nice touches in Yountville are the public sculptures by local artists on display along its main street. Finally, for art lovers, I always promote di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, just in Carneros (located in lower Napa), which is a fabulous by-appointment house and museum promoting northern California artists, and well worth the visit and a good excursion in between wine tastings. 

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Dan Ilves