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Though the Napa Valley is barely a two-hour drive from my San Francisco home, I succumbed to its charms only recently, after several years of avoidance. I’m a city girl who loves Thai takeout, and I usually buy my wine from the corner deli. I just couldn’t see myself bellying up to a tasting bar among moneyed wine connoisseurs or spending months on speed dial to get a table at the famous French Laundry restaurant in Yountville (and spending $500 once I got in).
But after hearing gay friends rave about nearby Calistoga’s mud baths and small-town charms, I had to experience Napa. And besides, autumn, with its smells of wood smoke and crushed grapes in the air, is the best time to revel in the hedonistic pleasures for which the area is known—spa treatments, rich food, and, of course, wine, especially big-bodied cabernet sauvignons.
As I drove Napa’s main artery, Highway 29, I passed farm stands selling pumpkins and cider as well as some of the most celebrated restaurants and wineries in the world. I pondered the delicious irony of it all—for all the money and sophistication, Napa still felt, well, rustic.
My destination was Château de Vie, a four-room, gay-owned bed-and-breakfast just outside Calistoga. Phillip Barragan and his partner of 11 years, Peter Weatherman, bought the place six years ago and have created a haven for themselves, their dog, Jake (dogs are allowed), and their guests. Phillip greeted me and showed me my room—a tastefully decorated junior suite on the top floor with views of their two acres of vineyards, growing with Bordeaux grapes. (This fall Château de Vie releases its first vintage of the September 2001 harvest—a full-bodied cabernet.) I was encouraged to take advantage of the hot tub on the property, which I was told was a perfect venue for stargazing before bed.
Phillip proved also to be the perfect resource for how to enjoy the area as a gay traveler. “I’m looking forward to more ‘gay Napa,’” he says. But right now there are a couple of inns and Brannan’s Grill, an excellent gay-owned restaurant in Calistoga. And last summer, the Napa Valley Opera House reopened in the town of Napa and became an immediate locus for gay men. “I’m trying to raise awareness in the area about how to target the gay audience, and I’m making breakthroughs,” Phillip says. (The couple bought the rights to the domain www.gaynapavalley.com and hope to expand its membership base steadily.) Still, when Phillip and Peter relocated here from San Francisco, they were embraced by the community and became involved themselves: Philip does AIDS outreach and is on the board of the Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau.
Not all guests realize their hosts are gay until they arrive, and it’s made for some amusing but never too uncomfortable moments. “We have guests from Middle America who have never encountered a gay male couple in their natural habitat,” says Phillip. “We’ve been asked very politely if we’re brothers. I told them sisters is more like it.” But Phillip admits to enjoying a mix of guests, gay, straight, hip, and square: “It feels more balanced that way.”
One of the highlights of the weekend was my two-hour bath and massage treatment at the nearby Lavender Hill Spa. The vibes at Lavender Hill, which bills itself as a couples retreat, are both serene and uplifting. The requisite soft New-Agey music and the scent of Bulgarian rose face mist floated through the air. The private, two-room couples’ cottage—tucked away in a terraced garden with Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the breeze—was divine (even alone); two deep, padded tubs lie side by side with the sun streaming in. For my bath, I chose the seaweed treatment (other choices include the volcanic ash mud or a variety of mineral salts). A doting attendant checked in every 10 minutes to apply a cold compress to my forehead while I sat steeping in hot, sudsy water. Later she rubbed my feet before gently guiding me into a massage room for another hour of Swedish massage.
Back at the inn, formless and jelly-like, I slowly came back to life sipping a glass of wine on the deck and nibbling from one of Phillip’s cheese plates while chatting with other guests. When my appetite returned at 10 p.m. (after a luscious nap on my comfy bed), I was lucky to find Market, a new bar and restaurant on St. Helena’s main drag, especially since restaurants close early in the Napa Valley. Market has a welcome casual feel and a late-night bar menu that hit the spot—the petite portobello and caramelized onion sandwich was perfect. After my snack, I peeked in next door at 1351, St. Helena’s hippest lounge bar. A New Orleans–esque red glow suffused the place and a long banquette lined the back wall. It was quiet that night (Sunday), but it’s as close to San Francisco as a bar in Napa can get.
The next morning, after Phillip’s lemon-currant scones and an omelet of artichoke hearts, red pepper, and feta, I felt galvanized for some serious winery touring. With map in hand I set off, a little daunted by the number of choices (about 250 wineries in Napa) but determined to find the most offbeat and interesting of them. After a complimentary sparkling wine tasting at the friendly Frank Family Vineyards (look for the fat black cat lounging about) and some good-natured advice from one of the employees about the finer points of tasting (“After two sips, you’re not tasting wine, you’re drinking wine”), I headed for the Silverado Trail, Napa’s scenic back road, along which numerous vineyards can be found.
My favorite stop was Casa Nuestra’s “funky farmhouse” tasting room, adorned with old music posters, original basket presses, and a tail-wagging dog named Harley. You too can bring your dog and picnic on the grounds after tasting the award-winning Chenin Blanc, Riesling, or a blend called Meritage. The welcoming Kirkham family and their staff produce about 1,500 cases of handcrafted wines annually.
At the other end of the Silverado Trail is Luna, one of the newest and prettiest wineries in the area—a slice of Tuscany in California. Be sure to climb to the top of the Bella Vista Tower to savor the view of 44 acres of vines or sit back on the porch and watch cellar operations. Intimate and unpretentious tasting rooms like those at Frank Family and Casa Nuestra provided a nice contrast to the bigger operations like Plumpjack Wineries and Niebaum-Coppola in Rutherford, the latter owned by director Francis Ford Coppola. The Coppola compound includes an authentic 19th-century château and lovely, straight-out-of-France grounds, plus a museum devoted to Francis Ford Coppola’s movies. You can see the car from Tucker or Don Corleone’s desk from The Godfather or catch your reflection in a couple of actual Oscars.
Cuvée Napa has an inviting patio where for $8 you can taste three of its sparkling wines and enjoy a vineyard view. After that, you can stroll through its art gallery. Several wineries have impressive galleries, including Artesa Winery, which has both a gallery space (complete with an artist-in-residence) and an imposing outdoor sculpture garden. Some wineries, such as Mondavi and Field Stone, allow picnicking. I picked up my al fresco supplies at the Oakville Grocery right off 29 in Oakville, a mecca of gourmet goodies packed into an 1889 general store.
Then it was back to Calistoga for a peek into some of the resorts—Lincoln Avenue, the town’s main drag, has dozens of places to stay and soak in the famous volcanic hot springs that bubble up from underground. Mount View Spa and Resort and Meadowood are among the poshest operations in town. Dr. Wilkinson’s and Nance’s are more basic. Indian Springs is another good choice with its pretty cluster of bungalows surrounding a mineral pool. I wanted to take the waters, so I headed to the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, where 16 bucks gets you a towel and all-day access to four mineral pools, ranging from 80 (cooler than it sounds) to 104 (steamy hot). There’s a family-friendly vibe here (there’s even a baby pool), and I had a great time lolling in the healing waters with all the old Russian women.
After dinner and a short stroll through the crisp Calistoga night, I was happy to head to Château de Vie, where I was already feeling at home.
Of the larger resorts that blanket the Napa Valley, the most pampering is the Meadowood Inn. Built in the early 1960s as a small club for the local wine community and transformed later into a country resort, the very gay-friendly Meadowood offers cottages, suites, and lodges nestled in a private wooded setting. Play tennis, golf, or croquet, indulge in a spa treatment, attend a wine tasting, or even go bird-watching. For information and reservations, call 800-458-8080 or go to www.meadowood.com.
Chateau de Vie 3250 Hwy. 128, Calistoga, CA 94515; tel. 877-558-2513; fax 707-942-6456; firstname.lastname@example.org. Doubles from $189.
All Seasons Café (1400 Lincoln Ave., 707-942-9111). Brannan’s Grill (1374 Lincoln Ave., 707-942-2233). Wappo Bistro (1226B Washington St., 707-942-4712)
Market (1347 Main St., 707-963-3799). 1351 (1351 Main St., 707-963-1969)
Brix (7331 St. Helena Hwy. (Hwy. 29), 707-944-2749)
Lavender Hill Spa (1015 Foothill Blvd., 707-942-4495)
Calistoga Spa Hot Springs (1006 Washington St., 707-942-6269)
A complete list of Napa Valley wineries can be obtained by consulting www.napavalleyguide.com or calling 800-651-8953.