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Weekend Whims: Escape to Napa Valley for food, wine, relaxation

By Phyllis Pfeiffer

Staff Writer

If you’re planning a quick weekend getaway, the Napa Valley should be considered.

While no passport or money exchange will be required, it is possible to feel as if you are a whole world away while in Napa. Dreamy fantasies of the Tuscan sun or Provence’s lavender hills provide only limited pleasure. If you want a reality-based trip, why not make a quick jaunt up to the terraced hillside vineyards and the dense oak groves just north of San Francisco. An easy hour-and-a-half drive from SFO or Oakland Airport (we prefer Oakland which has better weather and thus fewer delays) will transport you to an experience of being in France or Italy without the hassle of a European journey.

Napa Valley is home to almost 500 wineries and some of the best restaurants in California. This area has truly been transformed from the strictly agricultural zone it was until 30 years ago into the unparalleled foodie heaven it is today.

To celebrate my daughter Elise’s 24th birthday, we planned a mother-daughter weekend in wine (and food) country. The Harvest Inn in St. Helena immersed in luscious gardens and easy access to shopping in downtown St Helena was a terrific headquarters for the trip. August through October is the high season — grapes are crushed in the early Fall and the Valley is festive and packed with hordes of tourists. Booking a room and snagging a table at the best restaurants is easier after the fall rush.

On Friday night we headed off to Redd, the sleek Yountville first venture for acclaimed Nor Cal chef Richard Reddington, formerly of Masa’s and Jardiniere in San Francisco. Elise had the heirloom tomato soup with burrata Panini and I had the crisp duck confit, lentils, foie gras meatballs with crispy spaetzle. Both dishes were superb and Redd is one of the hottest dining spots in the Bay Area.

We indulged in a bountiful buffet breakfast of quiche, pastries, fruits and cereals served at the hotel before continuing our homage to the food and wine of Napa Valley with a cooking class at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St Helena. The CIA Samplings weekend program offers two-hour classes in the professional kitchen that includes instruction from the master chef and hands-on preparation of the recipes selected for the day. We signed up for the Tastes of Napa Valley class. After the toil of food prep (sans clean-up thanks to the wash station staff at CIA), we enjoyed sitting down at the big farmhouse table to share the various dishes prepared by the six, two-person teams in the class. Needless to say, lunch was paired with an obligatory glass of fine wine.

Next we headed off to several wineries for tastings. We made a reservation for a private tour ($25 a person) at Grgich Hills in Rutherford. Miljenko “Mike” Grgich first gained international recognition at the celebrated “Paris Tasting” of 1976. Then, in a now-historic blind tasting, a panel of eminent French judges chose Mike’s 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay as the finest white wine in the world. The results stunned the international wine establishment and immediately earned Mike a reputation as one of the greatest winemakers in the world. After a private tour of the vineyard and winemaking facilities, we were treated to tasting in the Club Salon, a more elegant and relaxed setting than the bustle of the public tasting rooms.

Frog’s Leap Winery is a real gem, hidden without signage on Conn Creek Road in Rutherford. The spectacular gardens offer a lovely bucolic setting, away from the somewhat frenetic crowds and the busloads of bachelorette parties not uncommon in the public tasting rooms. We arrived too late for the standard hour of tastings but we were graciously ushered into the living room of the “Vineyard House” where staff brought trays of wines for us to sip in front of the roaring fire. Divine.

Our dinner reservation was at Ad Hoc in Yountville, Thomas Keller’s (French Laundry and Per Se in Manhattan fame) newest restaurant. Ad Hoc offers a four-course tasting menu which changes daily for the fixed price of $49. When we arrived we weren’t crazy about the menu choice that day, so we sauntered down the street to Bouchon, the Thomas Keller bistro also in Yountville, where the menu was much more to our liking. We enjoyed every morsel we ate that night.

Sunday was our day to relax and detoxify from all the food and wine. We headed off to the new spa at the Villagio Inn and Spa in Yountville. The Villagio is one of our long-time favorites because of its great proximity to some of the best restaurants in the Napa Valley: French Laundry, Bouchon, Bistro Jeanty, Redd and Ad Hoc.

The new spa knocked our socks off, it is absolutely magnificent. Built of old timbers and stone, our private spa-suite for the morning was so well appointed and luxurious it exceeded our wildest expectations. Our adjoining rooms, The Loft and Maycamas, featured an indoor-outdoor fireplace, private terrace, sunken jetted soaking tub, two steam showers, flat screen TV’s that showed famous works of art and refreshments provided on a continuous basis. Watermelon-mint infused water, the fresh fruit kabobs, mini muffins and chocolate truffles were at the top of our “favorites” list.

When we were massaged and scrubbed into a sublime state, a special spa luncheon was served consisting of grilled salmon Caesar salad in front of the fireplace, along with the customary bottle of Sauvignon blanc.

The Villagio Spa offers a new “Scrub Bar” where guests choose from three sets of ingredients for a custom blend. The exfoliant choices are French Sea Salts, Himalayan Salts and Dead Sea Salts, a moisture base of wild honey, grape seed or olive oil; and a customized scent of Neroli, lavender, sandalwood, rose, lemon eucalyptus peppermint or jasmine.

No trip to Napa Valley is complete without a final stop at the Napa Premium Outlets on the way back to the airport. In addition to a Barneys New York, they have a TSE Cashmere, Calvin Klein and Brooks Brothers clothing outlets.