Wine Lover's Guide to St. Helena

Posted by Blane Bachelor on August 20, 2014 at 3:00:00 PM EDT | Post a Comment

About a 90-minute drive from San Francisco, the charming town of St. Helena is an ideal weekend getaway for wine lovers, with easily accessible wineries, friendly locals, and a relaxed, California vibe that keeps visitors coming back. It's also slightly more wallet-friendly than some other Napa destinations: Tasting fees usually top out at around $15 (and sometimes include nibbles), plus you can find excellent meals that won't blow the budget. Here are our picks for the best spots to wine, dine, and unwind. 

Wydown Hotel

Bed down in sophisticated style at the Wydown Hotel, a 12-room boutique property smack in the center of town that beckons with beautifully curated interiors, from a massive wooden mirror and frameless leather chairs in the lobby, to high ceilings and nature-inspired photography in guest rooms. Splurge on a luxury corner room, which average 377 square feet and include leather sleeper sofas (although light sleepers should opt for rooms on the back side of the hotel to avoid traffic noise from Main Street). Rates (from $329) also include complimentary WiFi, passes to the swanky Health Spa Napa Valley, and tastings at the adjoining tasting room of Materra/Cunat Family Vineyard.

La Condesa

Serving up modern Mexican cuisine with a California twist, La Condesa is an excellent spot for a casual lunch or dinner. The menu features creative dishes full of Mexican flavors and local ingredients, such as steak tacos with arbol chile salsa and housemade guacamole with shrimp pastor, all at refreshingly affordable prices (the most expensive dinner entrée tops out at $22). The atmosphere is bright and inviting, with splashy artwork, aquamarine walls, and a giant bull's head presiding over a staggering array of tequilas and mezcals at the bar—a great spot to pull up a chair and mingle with locals.

The Conservatory at Greystone

Treat your taste buds (without busting your budget French-Laundry style) over a multi-course, fine-dining experience at the Conservatory at Greystone, located in the castle-like environs of the Culinary Institute of America's St. Helena campus. This "crop-up restaurant," created by CIA graduate and renowned chef Larry Forgione, is one of the most coveted reservations in town, showcasing a true farm-to-table concept with a constantly changing tasting menu developed, prepared, and served by culinary students. Priced at just $75 ($115 with drink pairings; reservations required), the experience offers exceptional value and quality, and the chance to see the next generation of chefs in action. After a summer break, the restaurant reopens on Sept. 12.

Velo Vino

Since its opening in 2011 by the folks behind Clif Bars, the organic energy bars with a cult following among athletes, Velo Vino has become a popular gathering spot for cycling enthusiasts. Whether you're on two wheels or not, be sure to stop in at the cleverly designed tasting room, which is packed with cycling memorabilia and inspired by the lodge-like refugios of the Swiss Alps, where riders rejuvenate and refuel. Flights of wine are accompanied by nibbles of nuts and sweet treats also produced by the family; as the sun sets, grab your vino and vittles and head for the back patio, where cyclists and sippers gather on comfy couches around the fire pit.

V. Sattui

As one of Napa's most popular wineries, V. Sattui gets packed on weekends. But savvy visitors should stop by anyway—not just for the wine, but to learn about its fascinating history. The establishment traces its roots back to the late 19th century, when Italian immigrant and founder Vittorio Sattui and his wife ran a thriving winery in San Francisco that was later shuttered during Prohibition. Nearly 100 years later, Vittorio's great-grandson Dario resurrected the business as part of a lifelong dream, and now V. Sattui boasts a reputation as one of the area's most visited, yet least pretentious, wineries. Stock up on cheese, olive oil, and other gourmet goodies in the deli, but skip the overcrowded general tasting room and head for the estate tasting area, which offers a more intimate experience. Grab a bottle or two (you can only buy wines on property), enjoy a picnic lunch on the scenic grounds, and keep your eyes open for local celebrities: actor and San Francisco resident Danny Glover has been known to pop in for the popular weekend barbeque.

Oakville Grocery

The oldest continually operating grocery store in California, this perennial favorite has been serving hungry customers since 1881. The recently renovated store specializes in custom-made sandwiches, charcuterie, cheese, and other culinary delights (the overstuffed Oakville Muffellata is the perfect antidote to a morning of tasting). For the perfect souvenir for a foodie friend, pick up one of the market's private label products, such as Meyer Lemon Wasabi Mustard or Summer Garden Tapenade. You don't have to be a local to take advantage of a new offering this summer, the "Locals' Sunset Celebration," featuring local beers, wines, and nibbles from 5-8 p.m. every Thursday and Friday.

Goose & Gander

St. Helena's nightlife scene, like that of many wine country towns, is limited, but nocturnal types will find an ideal gathering spot for a nightcap in this superb bar/restaurant tucked just off Main Street. Billing itself as a public house, Goose & Gander boasts a handsome main dining room upstairs, complete with scarlet red walls and duck decoys galore, plus a quaint outdoor patio with live music on Sundays. The star of the show is the speakeasy-esque basement bar, with low ceilings, chocolate leather booths, and a fireplace. Bartenders are masters of old-school cocktails like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned, and the dinner menu is available until midnight on weekends.

St. Helena Farmers' Market

Get a firsthand taste of the abundant local bounty at this small but diverse farmers' market, where you can pick up everything from sea salts to handmade pastas to a head-spinning array of fruits and veggies. Families traveling with children should take note of the playground and small skate park nearby, and the market also offers free, kid-friendly programming. Located in Crane Park, the market runs every Friday from 7:30 a.m.-12 p.m. through October.

Verve Napa Valley

Want to leave the driving and logistics to someone else while exploring St. Helena? Consider a customized tour by Verve Napa Valley, which specializes in itineraries suited to guests' tastes and athletic abilities. Founder T Beller starts off each tour on a festive note by sabering a bottle of bubbles. 

Photo Credit: Frankie Frankny (Wydown Hotel Living Room); Jody Horton (La Condesa); Bill Stanley/Flickr (Culinary Institute of America); Courtesy of V. Sattui Winery; Courtesy of Oakville Grocery Company

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