October 22, 2008

Mindful Travel: Napa Valley [Photo Slideshow: Biodynamic Organic Wine, Spas, Slow Food…and Love]

via Willow King, from the Holiday 2008 issue.

When I moved to Napa Valley, I was looking forward to a year spent learning about wine. One week and several bottles of Cabernet later I discovered I was pregnant…and there went the notion of “studying” copious glasses of oak-aged delight. I discovered, however, another side of the Valley. Yes, it is famous for its Carneros bubbly…but Napa has much to offer in the way of health, relaxation and amazing food that merit a trip even if you’re a teetotaler.


Just one hour north of San Francisco, Napa’s hills, vineyards and handcrafted goods evoke a timeless charm. Neat rows of grapes roll up and down the landscape, embodying terroir, French for “soil”—the earthy characteristics of a particular place that give various wines their unique character. So cross the Golden Gate and come for the day, the weekend—get seduced by Dionysus…and by meditation, mud baths and sunrise yoga.

Start in Calistoga, where the hot mud comes right out from the volcano that formed this valley, and left it fertile and protected by mountain ranges. More than 500 years ago, the Wappo Indians discovered that its geothermal hot springs and natural mineral pools eased sore muscles and stiff joints. Relax with a mud bath or massage at Indian Springs Spa or the newly opened Solage—which boasts eco architecture, water-saving devices on the tubs and solar powered showers, organic food from local farms, and composts (still rare for restaurants) and recycles (who doesn’t?). Sleep in Calistoga, as St. Helena is overpriced and there aren’t many nice places to stay in Napa. Spend the night at Indian Springs—it’s a bit less expensive and offers 1950s Hollywood charm. If you want to see the area by bike, Calistoga Bikeshop has a fleet of rental bicycles you can reserve. Their Calistoga Cool Wine Tour offers a self-guided bike tour of the local wineries, tailored to your desires—the momma in me says, “Wear a helmet!”

Fifteen minutes south of Calistoga is the quaint little grove of St. Helena. Stock up on local hand-pressed extra virgin olive oil at Olivier, grab some lunch at the classic Model Bakery, where the organic breads (baked in a brick oven built by Italian masons in the ‘20s), pastries and soup are almost as hot as the locals. Their coffee comes courtesy of Bonavita, a local roaster, and they offer sandwiches and lunches to-go—great for a picnic at a nearby winery or park. After lunch, swing by family-owned Woodhouse Chocolate to indulge in some outrageous handmade yum. My favorites? Fresh mint, Thai ginger and praline noisette (hazelnut butter) truffles. Each Friday, the St. Helena Farmers’ Market features handmade jams, clay oven pizzas, local music and a traveling knife sharpener who tells a joke for every knife he works on.

Organic wineries: There are some innovators in the valley well worth visiting—both to taste the goods and see their sustainable operations in action. Adastra is a 20-acre C.C.O.F. [Cali Certified Organic Farmer] vineyard in the Carneros region. The tasting room is at the corner of Highway 29 and Oakville Crossroad, in the heart of the Napa Valley. Adastra isn’t poured every day—call ahead to ensure you’ll get to sip the good stuff.

The lovely Robert Sinskey Winery’s poetic philosophy could serve as advice for amorous suitors (just substitute the word “love” for “wine.”)

1. Emphasize timing to work with nature’s rhythms.
2. Farm conscientiously and make wine with minimal manipulation to create cuisine-oriented wines of balance, elegance and finesse.
3. Let the vineyards drive the winemaking.
4. Encourage natural farming and winemaking practices by employing sustainable organic techniques influenced by biodynamic methods.
5. Create wines that have a sense of place and are elegant, have finesse, with a great mouth-feel and a bright (natural acidity) mouthwatering finish.
6. Exercise total control, from the fields to bottle.
7. Finally, Wine is not an athletic event—emphasize elegance over power.

Ain’t it true!

No visit to the valley is complete without a nod to the industrious Godfather himself, Francis Ford Coppola. Visit Rubicon Estate, where for a small fee you can taste five organic wines, check out the chateau, wine library and museum, speak in a faux Italian accent and make ga-ga eyes at your date over the rim of a Coppola sized glass. This is the man who produced Koyaanisqatsi (rent it): homage (and cabernet) is in order.

Finish off your tour in old town Napa at Ubuntu Restaurant and Yoga Studio. The airy lofted studio offers 40 classes a week in yoga styles including Anusara, Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Yin. After class, head downstairs for some classy vegetarian cuisine. Try the wickedly delicious nettle pizza and the marinated beet salad. It’s the bee’s knees. Most of the produce is grown in owner Sandy Lawrence’s biodynamic garden in the hills above town. Gardener Jeff Dawson is a hardcore Steiner (as in Rudolph, Mr. Biodynamic) devotee and goes whole hog: from burying the cow horn to sprinkling the spring greens with crystal water. Even skeptics will agree, the veggies sing in your mouth, and there’s no waste to cloud your karma.


Napa Valley is a haven for culinary pleasures, golden afternoon light and the basic goodness of living close to the earth. It has something to offer to both quiet birdwatchers and marauding oenophiles. The air is fresh, the corks recycled…and love is in the air.

Willow King is a yoga teacher, freelance writer and biodynamic convert.

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