Wine aficionados know that St. Helena is the heart of the Napa Valley. It was here in the mid-1800s that winemaking throughout the area got its start, when a 27-year-old Prussian immigrant named Charles Krug established his winery just north of town. Today, more than 150 years later, St. Helena continues to be the face of one of the world's foremost wine-growing regions.
We've been to St. Helena before, but we've never experienced it quite like we had this time around, with a home base at the Wydown Hotel on Main Street. And do we mean home. Yes, you read it right: The hotel is named after Clayton's own Wydown Boulevard, a tribute to owner and operator Mark Hoffmeister's favorite St. Louis neighborhood.
Hoffmeister is a St. Louis University High School grad who has a background in investment banking. He had always been interested in design and fascinated by the idea of hotels, dating back to childhood family vacations. When you enter the Wydown, you'll immediately sense Hoffmeister's welcoming touch and his passion for detail. For instance, the lobby is more like a living room, adorned with extraordinary, large-scale photographs (that were taken by his brother-in-law), as well as modern-luxe furnishings that entice guests to sit and stay awhile. The rooms are just as inviting, with contemporary touches in that laid-back, California kind of way.
The Wydown's location is ideal: It's within walking distance of everything on Main Street. There's the world-famous Model Bakery across the street, a wonderful place for an early-morning coffee and croissant run; there's the Cameo Cinema a few steps down, an intimate, small-town movie theater that's as charming as it sounds; and boutiques and gourmet food stores too many to mention.
Of course, no trip to St. Helena would be complete without sampling the wine. It is, after all, California Wine Country's 'Main Street.' But even if you planned to stay for several days, it would be overwhelming to try to experience each and every winery. Instead, opt for no more than a handful of stops, and sit back and enjoy each visit.
Our first destination was a jaw-dropping showstopper: the Castello di Amorosa winery. Meticulously designed as a 13th-century Tuscan castle, this 'Castle of Love' is a sight to behold. Beginning in 1994, it took 14 years for its owner, fourth-generation winemaker Dario Sattui, to build. The attention to detail is mind-blowingly impressive: The 121,000-square-foot behemoth has 107 rooms, eight levels (four above ground, four below), 900 linear feet of caves, and more than 8,000 tons of hand-lain stone. Also in place are a great hall, a dungeon and torture chamber, several courtyards, and a drawbridge (of course!).
What about the wine, you ask? Try the Il Barone, a 100-percent cabernet sauvignon that scored 94 points from Robert Parker. La Castellana, a Super-Tuscan blend, also got our attention.
Sattui, who is in his 70s, also owns the nearby V. Sattui Winery, which he established in the 1970s. V. Sattui and Castello share a winemaking team, which boasts a pedigree dating back to Sattui's great-grandfather, Vittorio, who started making wine in San Francisco in the 1880s.
V. Sattui Winery is as relaxed as the Castello is imposing. There's an Italian marketplace on-site--an obvious stop if you want to enjoy a picnic on the winery's 2 acres of expansive lawns and gardens. As expected, the wines are high-caliber here, too. In fact, V. Sattui has earned Winery of the Year honors from Winemaker Challenge for three straight years.
If you're looking to indulge in culinary fashion, look no further than Goose & Gander. With just one step inside this establishment, you can sense that it's a local favorite for an upscale, laid-back dinner and (a few) drinks. Did we mention the drinks? They are as satisfying and satiating as they can get. These truly are handcrafted delights, with the freshest of flavors, emphasis on fresh--from the rhubarb in the signature Scarlet Gander, which also includes citron, vodka, lemon, ginger, shiso and galangal; to the huckleberries in the Cucumber Collins, along with vodka, yuzu, lemon, fresh and pickled cucumbers and seltzer--you can taste the hand-picked flavorful goodness.
And speaking of flavors, the menu contains a plethora of choices for whatever strikes your fancy. We feasted on Grilled Spanish Octopus, Watermelon and Rock Shrimp Salad, and Manila Clam Fettuccine. Tucked away just off Main Street, Goose & Gander is our top recommendation for dining in St. Helena.
Another fine spot is La Condesa, located just steps away from the Wydown. Dinner here is an adventure, from the cocktail menu to the salsa, guacamole and taco flights--there really is an opportunity to sample a little bit of everything! To heat things up a bit, we started with the Spicy Paloma, a refreshing blend of premium tequila and ginger liqueur, grapefruit and ginger juices and a splash of soda. Olé!
But perhaps the icing on the top of the cake during this particular Napa Valley trip was taking to the skies in a hot-air balloon. There are no words to describe the spectacular view that awaited us as our ride went up, up and away to encounter the sunrise over the Mayacamas Mountains, which towers over the valley's boundless grapevine fields. Our balloon, piloted by none other than ballooning pioneer Jay Kimball of Napa Valley Aloft, offers an exhilarating experience 3,000 feet above the valley floor. We were still on cloud nine following Kimball's flawless landing, but a little celebratory Champagne, along with the post-ride brunch, helped us get our bearings back on solid ground.
St. Helena is an adventure in more ways than one. Be it at a high-class hotel that reminds you of home, at an imposing Old World castle, or from high atop the clouds, there are endless possibilities to get a taste of California's premier wine country destination.