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Laidback Luxury Lodgings In Napa And Sonoma

New Wave California wine? Neil Sowerby heard it on the grapevine

Written by . Published on February 17th 2014.

Laidback Luxury Lodgings In Napa And Sonoma

EXCUSE me while I pour myself a large glass and try to reassemble my view of Californian wine. If not quite a Road to Damascus moment, certainly the Road to Healdsburg has challenged my preconceptions and, now cradling a vibrant, cherryish Pinot Noir in the faux-Parisien surrounds of the town’s glorious Les Mars hotel, it’s time to take stock.

'The undulating russet rows of vines make up one of the world’s great landscapes – best appreciated from a porch with a glass of wine in hand'

In the 15 years since I’ve been here this northern hub of the Sonoma Valley wine region has changed quite a bit. There are so many more tasting salons and chichi boutiques than I recall... so much choice, so much “of the moment”. It’s quite disorienting.

Napa Vineyards

Not so when you are out at one of the vineyards, concentrating on the parade of samples set before you for serious consideration. As a wine writer, I had the benefit of introductions – a kind of heard it through the grapevine.

Jon BonneThen there was the just published The New California Wine by Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle, which led me down whole new trails – literally. I was lucky to have such inside info, but really you can’t go wrong if your interest is merely casual. As a holidaymaker in one of the world’s loveliest “wine countries”, it would be much easier just to ramble round Healdsburg Town Plaza for a sip or more in each wine salon – or stop off at random at any Valley winery advertising sampling. Some charge, some don’t; most would expect a purchase. Think the movie, Sideways, and you’ve got it. Oh, and you’re driving, so remember to spit.

The fun doing some advance research of your own is you can avoid the big names, especially those that dominate the Napa Valley. Too Disney. Much more interesting to search out smaller-scale passionate folk producing wines a world away from the exorbitantly priced, over-ripe, over-extracted, over-alcoholic reds associated with California, the Golden State.

We stayed in both Sonoma and Napa Valley regions, where there are more than 700 wineries, and sought out organic, biodynamic producers, checking out in particular, cooler climate Pinot Noir (a list of recommended wineries is at the end of the article) – rarely exported to the UK.


Balloon Trips Are A Big Dea In The Napa ValleyBalloon trips are a glorious way to get an overview of the Napa Valley

We also did other things apart from taste wine! So can you...


Michael KostowTake a balloon ride, perhaps board the sedater Napa Valley Train, picnic on bread and artisanal cheeses or dine more formally in some of the world’s best restaurants, including Michelin 3 stars such as Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and Christopher Kostow’s The Restaurant at Meadowood.  In the Napa Valley, we actually stayed at the Meadowood resort and were tempted by the prospect of philosophy graduate Kostow’s full tasting menu with matching wines, but that would have set us back upward of $1,000, so we kept to the casual option of The Grill, overlooking the croquet lawn.

Croquet? Yes, and guests seemed to abide by the proper drill of white sports clothing and knowing the rules, which I’ve never mastered. If this all sounds a bit snooty, forget it. Meadowood proved one of the most harmonious places we have ever stayed in.

Our %26#34%3BCottage%26#34%3B At MeadowoodOur cottage in the forested Meadowood estate

A clapboard cottage with every luxury and an astonishing mattress, fine outdoor pool and spa, tennis coaching, personable young staff and a complimentary early evening wine tasting in front of the main lodge’s massive log fire all gave a Californian twist to the Relais & Chateaux pomp of the place.

I could even forgive them the 9-hole golf course, which doesn’t dominate the hikeable 250 acres of what was originally, in 1964, set up as a private members’ country club. St Helena, with a wealth of restaurants and shopping opportunities is a mere 10 minute drive away.

Early Morning At MeadowoodEarly morning over the croquet lawns; below, readying the golf green

Bedtime At MeadowoodBedtime At Meadowood; below, the glorious living room area

Interiors Are Glorious At Meadowood

Our next (also Relais & Chateaux) stopover was very different but equally impressive. Les Mars drips antiques and a studied French charm. Even the lime trees outside our first floor window could have been magicked in from Aix en-Provence. There are marble bathrooms and canopied beds, fresh flowers and complimentary chardonnay (the delicious local Dry Creek – it’s a family tie-in) and continental breakfast delivered to your room on a  silver platter. There’s a pool here, too, but we were too busy wine tasting to discover it until it was too late and expert, informative concierge service.

Les Mars %26#8211%3B A Vision Of France In Downtown HealdsburgLes Mars – vision of France in downtown Healdsburg; even down to the tapestries

Les Mars Foyer With Tapestry

Our Bedroom At Les Mars


 Dappled Bedroom Window At Les Mars

Wine Tasting In The LibraryOne of the wineries we had made contact with, Capture,even brought their tasting (right) to us in the walnut-panelled library – that’s service.

We also made the most of the hotel’s own complimentary early evening wine sessios in the same library with fellow guests before dining out a restaurant Les Mars recommended, the rustic Italian Scopa, perhaps the best bet in a well-stocked town.

Oakville Grocery CompanyOakville Grocery Company – great to stay or to go

For lunch on our arrival we took in the appropriately named Ravenous just along North Street from our hotel. Next to the Raven Theater, hence it’s name, it’s a homely spot with understated, eclectic food. Or you can eat in deli-style at Oakville Grocery on the Plaza or, early in the day, snaffle po boy sandwiches and Cajun treats at New Orleans outpost, The Parish.

Bear Republic, HealdsburgBear Republic, Healdsburg; below, a beer list to salivate over

Beer Dudes In The Bear Republic TapAfter all the wine imbibing, we found the perfect palate freshers at the award-winning  Bear Republic’s brewery tap just off the main drag, Healdsburg Avenue. They produce a range of outstanding craft beers, including cult brew Racer 5, probably the best IPA we tasted in California, which has made a speciality of this beer type. We liked the unaffected clientele, house chilli and gaudy murals, too. Suddenly, we started noticing the hardware stores and simpler liquor stores of an older Healdsburg; the apple orchards and ranches that dot the Somona hinterland – a world away from the polished wine palaces and their millionaire owners in Napa. Wherever, though, the rows of vines at harvest make up one of the world’s great landscapes. Best appreciated from a porch with a glass of wine in hand.

Barrel Store At Frog's LeapExploring the barrel store at Frog's Leap

Where to find distinctive, terroir-driven wines...

My recommended wineries from our trip follow (sadly, only a few of the wines are widely available in the UK, notably from the first three). Qualifications? Cool climate terroir, minimal intervention, purity of fruity, often an organic/biodynamic approach, producing restrained, complex wines. Cheers! 

Saintsbury: Winemaker/co-owner Dick Ward led us through various parcels of complex Pinot Noir and talked terroir in this corner of Carneros benefiting from the microclimate off the Pacific.
1500 Los Carneros Avenue, Napa CA 94559. www.sainsbury.com 

Cuvaison (Carneros): Biggish operation, but a concentration on, well, concentration and quality here and in their other Californian holdings. I like the elegant Chardonnay, in particular. 

1221 Duhig Road, Napa CA 94559. www.cuvaison.com 


Our Tour Guide At Frog's LeapOur vivacious tour guide at Frog's Leap

Frog’s Leap: Organic pioneer, farming responsibly in the heart of the Napa since the ‘80s. We loved the jolly public tour of their historic, rustic Red Barn site.
Red Barn, 8815 Conn Creek Road, Rutherford, Napa CA 94573. www.frogsleap.com 


Ehler’s Estate: If Frog’s Leap were organic pioneers in Napa, Ehler’s is a current beacon of the organic/biodynamic approach. It is owned by a Swiss-run non-profit foundation supporting cardio-vascular research. The Cabernets are heart-warming, too.
3222 Ehlers Lane, St Helena CA 94574. http://www.ehlersestate.com 


Vineyard From Ehler's Tasting RoomVineyard from Ehler's tasting room

Red Car: Funkiest tasting room around and immaculate (branding and flavours) reds and whites.
8400 Graton Road, Sebastopol, Sonoma CA 95742. www.redcarwine.com 



Red Car Winery Has The Coolest Tasting RoomRed Car Winery tastng room is so rock 'n' roll

La Follette: Greg La Follette’s cutting edge take on cool climate Pinot and Chardonnay is obvious in this cheery corner of a complex promoting fine California products.
Tasting room at The Barlow, 180 Morris Street, Sebastopol, Sonoma CA 95472. www.lafollettewines.com

Drew Family Cellars: Jason and Molly Drew’s ranch holdings are on a vertiginous, cool climate site above the ocean, but their  accessible tasting room is just south of Philo on the 128. The real thing, in particular, the Pinot Noir.

9000 Highway 128, Philo, Anderson Valley CA 95466. www.drewwines.com

And, in particular we adored...

A Convivial Tasting At CopainCopain: Wells Guthrie worked for Chapoutier in the Rhone Valley, hence his leaning to those styles. His Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays aspire to an equal elegance. Lovely winery setting, too, in the Russian River Valley.

We joined two couples from Kansas for an excellent tutored tasting across the range, accompanied by lovey local cheeses.
7800 East Side Road, Healdsburg CA 95448. www.copainwines.com


Vineyard View At CopainVineyard panorama at Copain

John Wilson Shows Us The Littorai WineryLittorai: Burgundy trained Ted Lemon is a biodynamic guru producing magnificent, restrained  Pinot Noirs from the most sustainable vineyards imaginable. Ted’s assistant.

John Wilson (right) led us exhaustively thoroughly through the organic system they employ and the extremes they go to create sustainability. Compost was never so compelling!
788 Gold Ridge Road, Sebastopol CA 95472. www.littorai.com

Bee-Friendly, Helping Pollination In The VineyardsBee-friendly Littorai, encouraging pollination; below Copain's stark beauty

Copain Terroir

Note that Napa City and Sonoma are administrative townships in their own right – I have been discussing the counties that bear same name.

Many thanks for winery recommendations to George Bergier, wine buyer from Manchester’s Chop Houses, and Nicole Kosta, savvy Aussie sommelier at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco.

If you enjoyed this article then read Ten Great Tips For San Francisco, Houseboat Heaven In Sausalito’s Dock Of The Bay, Coastal Chill-out In Mendocino, California and Bohemian Highway – Californian Road Trip Detour

Fact file

Getting there
Virgin from Manchester
Virgin Atlantic flies daily from Manchester to San Francisco, via Heathrow, and is offering return Economy fares from £689.74 per person. For further information contact www.virginatlantic.com or call 0844 2092 770. This fare is available for selected departures during 2013 and 2014. Prices given are correct as of today and are subject to change.

Car hire is really essential for touring Wine Country.

Tourism information

Sonoma County http://www.sonomacounty.com 

Napa http://www.visitnapavalley.com

Staying there
900 Meadowood La., St. Helena, CA 94574
Tel: 707/963–3646; 800/458–8080, http://www.meadowood.com. 85 rooms suites and cottages. Lowest season funtil mid April, prices starting at $600 Sun-Thurs and $675 at weekends.

Les Mars
27 North Street, Healdsburg, California 95448. Tel: 707 433 4211, http://hotellesmars.com. 16 spacious, elegant guestrooms. Prices starts at $625 a night.

Both hotels are among 520 Relais & Châteaux properties, recognising the finest hotels and restaurateurs worldwide. For reservations call Relais & Châteaux: 00 800 2000 00 02 (toll free) or visit www.relaischateaux.com. Alternatively, visit the Maison des Relais & Châteaux at 10 Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, London SW3 1NQ, where the English-speaking Relais & Châteaux team will be delighted assist with your holiday plans.
The concept grew from the vacationing traditions of well-heeled French society, who traveled to a variety of "relais" (lodges) and "châteaux" (castles) which, while different in architecture, scenery and cuisine, presented consistently high standards. The current worldwide operation offers a concept called Relais & Chateaux Routes du Bonheur, custom-made itineraries featuring several R&C properties. The California version is curated by legendary Napa-based chef Thomas Keller and features both Les Mars and Meadowood.

Manchester Airport parking

Neil Sowerby left his car park in T3 Long Stay.

Here are all the options:

VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.
Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.

Multi-storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.

Long stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.

Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.

JetParks –  low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day. Visit this link

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