The Healing Powers of Napa: Food, Wine, Water, Mud

By Emma Krasov. Photography by Yuri Krasov

No matter how many times you visit the blessed expanses of Napa Valley in California wine country, there’s always something new, or something old but good, or something renovated, remodeled, and redesigned to awe and inspire you, and to make you feel like you’re partaking of the fountain of eternal youth.

Quickly shedding the remnants of the COVID-induced isolation and inactivity, the land of vineyards, mineral springs, and agricultural bounty is all geared up to greet the upcoming throngs of domestic and international travelers.

Let’s start with some exceptional eateries, where a weary traveler can find warm hospitality and soul-warming food, prepared with love and dedication indicative of this hard-working and deservedly popular region of the Golden State. 

Fleetwood at Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa is an incredible gem of wood-fired fine foods, prepared by the very talented Chef Drew Glassell and his trusty kitchen team.

At Fleetwood, the Chef’s creativity, honed at some of the very best restaurants (like San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel, Jardiniere, and Gary Danko) is combined with fresh seasonal produce. His Mediterranean-style menu shines with seemingly simple dishes exhibiting a high degree of culinary sophistication.     

The Fleetwood beverage program, implemented by the restaurant manager Neil Robinson, includes some colorful and delicious cocktails, like Areo Di Carta (bourbon, aperol, amaro, lemon), Tuscarita (blanco tequila, luxardo, lemon, lime, simple syrup) and Mertillo (gin, huckleberry, honey, lime, tonic).  As a little personal touch, in Tuscarita cocktail Robinson uses Meyer lemons from his own 40-year-old tree!

Perfectly paired with the cocktails are fantastic starters, like seasonal, available only for a short period of time, sweet Grilled Nardello Peppers in lively hues of red and green; Grilled Prawn Cocktail with Calabrian chili, watermelon radish pickles, and lemon, and Wood Oven Roasted Meatballs in tomato sauce with nutmeg, topped with a Parmesan crisp.   

The pastas and mains are equally wonderful, like house-made Rigatoni with grilled chicken, roasted peppers, capers, and arugula; Speck Ham Pizza with truffle tremor, caramelized onions, and grilled broccoli rabe, and Oak Grilled Salmon with artichokes, arugula, and cherry tomatoes.

When indulging in the multiple finger-licking offerings of Fleetwood, don’t forget that the restaurant also serves great desserts, like a highly satisfying Polenta Cake with oak roasted strawberries, zabaglione, and amaretti crumbs, and the most crispy and airy Cannoli with orange blossom mascarpone, amarena cherries, and pistachios.

Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa’s general manager, Jenny Toomer, says that the approachable, communal concept of the restaurant with a relaxed indoor/outdoor setting is a great addition to the remarkable hotel, gathering awards in multiple categories, like Best Hotel Renovation & Restoration, Best Spa & Wellness, the Visual Identity of the Year Award, and AHEAD America’s Hotel of the Year Award.

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Wouldn’t you like to have a meal at an iconic restaurant in Napa Valley, where winemakers and chefs come to dine?

The place is called Mustards Grill, and dubs itself as a “Deluxe Truckstop.”  

For more than 30 years, Chef Cindy Pawlcyn, a TV celebrity and a cookbook author, attracts wine country visitors and local regulars to her outstanding restaurant located alongside St. Helena Highway in Napa.

The latest addition to the famed restaurant’s dining room is a covered outdoor terrace, spacious and cheerful, overlooking a lavish kitchen garden with scatterings of yellow and purple flowers and blossoming bushes, frequented by hummingbirds.  

For starters, don’t miss Ahi Tuna Crackers with wasabi cream and san bai su sauce, and pair it with the restaurant’s “very own” Meyer Mezcalita cocktail for added bliss.  

A big proponent of locally sourced sustainable ingredients since long before it became a marker of excellence, Chef Pawlcyn is known for her popular staples, like Famous Mongolian Pork Chop with sweet and sour red cabbage and housemade mustard, and for her daily specials, like a sunny-bright cream of corn soup and The Ever-Popular Seafood Tostada.

When trying to peruse the long and mouth-watering menu, skip to the very last line on it that reads, “Sorry, everything is delicious since 1983.” Rest assured, it’s true.

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Did you know that the original location of the fast-growing and exceedingly popular Gott’s Roadside is located on Main Street in St. Helena, “serving the California roadside since 1999”?

Could the never-ending line of Gott’s’ fans waiting by the door be attributed to this very fact? Are they here to pay their respects, like coffee lovers do by the original location of Starbucks in Seattle?

Maybe so, or maybe it’s just the internationally influenced choice of Niman Ranch beef burgers, rich salads, whimsical fries, creative tacos, and amazing sandwiches (like Ahi Burger with rare seared fish, ginger wasabi mayo, Asian slaw and cilantro on a toasted egg bun) that make people come here time and again.

With the impeccable modern preparation of American classics and California favorites, Gott’s satisfies every craving, and delights its guests with short-term seasonal dishes, like the succulent Lobster Roll with diced celery and house-made lemon mayo on a butter-toasted bun with crisp romaine spears, green onion, and lemon—a true star of its June-July menu.

Freshly squeezed House-Made Organic Lemonade is just one of the popular beverages here that include wines and draft beer, organic shakes, fountain soda, fruit juices and kombucha.

Straus organic soft serve ice cream is proudly served here and at all other locations in Napa, Marin, San Francisco Ferry Building, Walnut Creek, and Palo Alto.   

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Of the many legendary wineries in Napa Valley, Darioush stands out first of all due to its building, inspired by the ancient Apadana erected in Persepolis in the 6th century BC by the ancient kings Darius I and his son, Xerxes I.
The characteristic limestone columns and reliefs that replicate the “Persian Palace,” are surrounded by well-camped gardens, palm trees and water features studded with lotus flowers. The very location of the winery in the southern part of Napa Valley with its cooler weather patterns is quite unusual, and the Bordeaux-style wines produced here are all remarkably good. 
Founded in 1997 by Darioush Khaledi, who grew up in a wine-growing region of Shiraz, Iran, and immigrated to the United States in 1976, the owner’s namesake winery produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay and Viognier harvested from the Darioush estate vineyards located on the 120 acres of Mount Veeder and Oak Knoll AVA’s.

Behind the fascinating neo-archeological Darioush façade, there’s a lavishly decorated tasting room with multiple historical references and artifacts of Persian art, books dedicated to intricate matters like traditional textiles of the ancient empire, and a collection of Darius II magnum wine bottles of the estate Cabernet Sauvignon, grown on the western slope of the winery.

At the lower level of the building, there’s a private tasting room, reserved for staff events and gatherings of guests invited by the owner (who resides on the premises with his family). This room contains a large collection of Khaledi’s favorite wines from many wine-producing regions of the world and from vastly different years.   

For daily tasting experiences, besides the spacious bar area inside, there is a wonderful garden alley under the estate’s pistachio trees, with individual tables separated by live green walls. Personalized 60 minutes tastings for small groups should be reserved in advance, and are available between 10:30 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.

These tastings are conducted by dedicated knowledgeable hosts who will guide you through a flight of signature wines and give plenty of information on the winemaking philosophy of Darioush. Wine tasting is usually paired with roasted pistachios from the winery kitchen.

The wines on offer change with new releases, and depending on availability, but they are always unique, interesting and intriguing. The most recent tasting experiences included of 2018 Signature Chardonnay, 2018 Signature Pinot Noir, 2017 Signature Shiraz, and 2018 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon.

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The embarrassment of riches of Napa Valley doesn’t stop at food and wine. Geothermal springs and the healing hot mud comprised of volcanic ash are long-time draws for visitors from near and far to the area’s world-famous resorts. 

The iconic Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Spring in Calistoga, founded in 1952 by the pioneering wellness advocate “Doc” John Wilkinson, and fully renovated just last fall, offers invigorating mud baths and mineral water swimming pools on top of spa treatments and a new restaurant with an emphasis on health and wellness.

Chartres Lodging Group, based in San Francisco, acquired the California’s early resort from the original owners’ son and daughter, Mark Wilkinson and Carolynne Wilkinson Clair with an intent to preserve the nostalgic charm of the hotel while fully renovating it to meet the contemporary standards of convenience and hospitality.

“The historic bath house accentuates the benefits of hot mineral springs and volcanic mud treatments,” says Mark Wilkinson. “Our parents, the late Dr. John and Edy Wilkinson, played a major role in the development of Calistoga’s unique geography into a globally recognized resort area. This truly is an historic and one-of-a-kind property.”

Some well-known features, like the funky neon sign, and the Doc’s mint-colored 1952 Buick parked on a sidewalk, serve as reminders of the historic property’s glorious past. The comprehensive update to the entire facility, performed with participation of SB Architects, EDG Design, and Contino Studio, propels it into the future.

At the last month’s opening event, the ribbon-cutting ceremony was conducted by Chris Canning, the Mayor of Calistoga, along with the Chamber of Commerce, city officials, and the Dr. Wilkinson’s new co-proprietors from Chartres Lodging Group—Maki Nakamura Bara, President, and Robert Kline, CEO.

To celebrate the occasion, Jose Ortega, General Manager of Dr. Wilkinson’s, and his team members offered the attendees a tour of the property to observe three mineral water swimming pools, mud bath facilities, and cozy guest rooms, decorated in the midcentury modern style, while Napa Valley Cruisers’ old car fleet was parked along the entire block adding to the period glamour.

The resort’s new restaurant, House of the Better, provided New Mexican cuisine treats from Chef Trevor Logan, paired with local wines, including an exemplary Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Faust winey in St. Helena.   

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