Napa bargains uncorked: taste your way through premium wine country on a bread-and-water budget – Value Vacation
Napa is the valley of indulgence. Here, north of San Francisco in the land of grapevines and mansions, is where you’ll find the country’s finest wines and fanciest meals.
It’s so lovely here–and so predictably posh–you could easily drop a paycheck or two on a single luxurious weekend of soaking it in. But my friend Kate and I recently took on a challenge: we wanted a three-day trip savoring the valley’s riches, but we wanted to do it for less than $400.
Tricky? Yes. But after three days we departed, sated and just under budget. Our strategies: We went midweek during the winter, when savings on lodging were substantial. We indulged in one fine lunch, but had simpler fare for dinner. And we sought out wineries offering free tastings.
Day One: At the foodie temple
Wednesday afternoon we checked into El Bonita Motel on the outskirts of St. Helena, the valley’s sleekest town. The rooms are Napa Valley’s version of a motel–meaning that it has a lot more style than a typical roadside lodge. Ours cost $89 a night (midweek prices go up to $115 on March 13); with 12 percent tax, the two-night total came to $199.36.
During our stay, we discovered more bargain accommodations. Among the grapevines behind Milat Vineyards’ tasting room in St. Helena are simple cottages (from $105 a night; 866/270-5669). And the Mount View Hotel, in Calistoga, has small but nice rooms (from $125 a night; 800/816-6877).
Kate was dying to go to the valley’s temple of cooking delight, so we cruised out to the venerable Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, the famous cooking school housed in a 19th-century stone building. At the CIA, some of the country’s best chefs perfect their techniques for bearnaise sauce and pain au chocolat. We even learned a little something ourselves at the school’s daily demonstration classes ($10 each), watching a white-capped student-chef prepare an apple crisp with brandy crime anglaise. And we got the recipe and a tasty sample at the end of the hour-long class.
After browsing downtown St. Helena, we stopped at Olivier Napa Valley cookware shop and the grape-themed boutique On the Vine. Then we sampled a wealth of olive oils and sauces–all for free–down the road at the St. Helena Olive Oil Company.
It seemed almost criminal to stop at a burger stand after rubbing elbows with so much gourmet food. But Taylor’s Automatic Refresher is no ordinary burger shack. Serving fish tacos, ahi burgers, and outstanding milkshakes, Taylor’s cuisine suited us just fine. Kate ordered a cheeseburger, I had veggie tacos, and we each had a soda, patting ourselves on the back for dining in St. Helena for $17, including tax and tip.
Day Two: Hiking and wine tasting
After breakfast, we headed out to Bothe-Napa Valley State Park ($4 parking fee) and walked to nearby Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park ($3 each). Built in 1846, the mill processed flour and cornmeal back in the valley’s early days. We had come full circle–from the pinnacle of food preparation at the CIA to this 36-foot wheat-grinding waterwheel.
Our biggest indulgence of the weekend was lunch at Martini House in St. Helena. We’d read the buzz about this Pat Kuleto restaurant, and the place was just as gorgeous as we’d imagined, with a garden patio, woodsy Craftsman interior, and a massive driftwood chandelier. We sat downstairs, next to the bar, and ordered wine, soups, and a cheese plate to share. It was a leisurely decadent meal for $52.26–a pretty penny to be sure, but a lot less than dinner here would have cost.
Our palates whetted, we headed out for an afternoon of free wine tasting. We started with white Zinfandel at Sutter Home Winery, and admired the garden as well. Then we joined a group of tourists to sample Chardonnay at V. Sattui Winery. Finally, we savored a deliciously rich Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon at Raymond Vineyard 8~ Cellar, a small winery using a coupon for a free tasting from the complimentary Wine Country This Week.
Three sets of tastings wore us out. We wanted a nap, but we continued south to the city of Napa for dinner at Zuzu Tapas & Wine Bar. The year-old eatery has drawn raves for its tasty menu and lively ambience–justified praise, we found Out, for a dinner costing only $42.64. After dinner, we hopped on the Downtown Trolley for a free narrated tour of Napa.
Day Three: Old Faithful and Copia
We started Friday with a hearty breakfast at Gordon’s Cafe and Wine Bar in Yountville. The restaurant has rustic farm tables to share and makes fantastic omelets. Kate and I split an egg plate and a pastry for $13.35.
After filling up, we strolled the posh, quiet town, walking past the old railroad depot, a gorgeous brick shopping center, and a more than 400-year-old oak tree. We even walked past one of the fanciest restaurants in the world, the French Laundry–but it’s not the place to dine on a budget trip.
Our budget wouldn’t permit mud baths in Calistoga, either, which cost upward of $50, so we stopped at another area classic–the Old Faithful Geyser of California. Admission was $7 each (with coupons from the geyser website). We were ushered into a yard with a big mud puddle. Kate raised her eyebrows–I could see she was thinking that we could have spent this money on wine. But soon, the puddle hissed and spit, and suddenly a shot of water burst up, spraying higher and higher. You could call it reliably amazing.
There was one more foodie temple on Kate’s list, Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts. The 1 1/2-year-old cultural center–part museum, part dining room, part wine and food center-is in an airy modern building, with a lovely organic garden out front.
After paying $12.50 admission each, we toured the gallery of food-inspired art objects. At the sniffing station, I couldn’t tell the difference between barbecue sauce and the aroma of baking bread, but Kate could. Then we attended a seminar on pairing wine with cheese, nibbling on the samples.
The capper for our three-day trip was a different kind of wine: sake. We’d gotten a coupon on the Web for free tastings at Hakusan Sake Gardens, so we tried a half-dozen rice wines, warm and cold. Outside, we followed the sake production line and walked around the Zen garden of sand, rocks, and cypress.
It was a soothing way to conclude our bargain foray into the world of luxury Heading home, Kate and I felt pampered–and prudent. What a combo.
RELATED ARTICLE: DAY ONE
$400 IN POCKET
Two nights at El Bonita, a stylish motel:
Cooking classes, demonstrations, and a sample at CIA:
Browsing the shops in St. Helena:
Tasting samples at the St. Helena Olive Oil Company:
Dinner at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher:
Complimentary continental breakfast at the motel:
Hiking under Douglas firs and black oaks on the History Trail to learn how an old grist mill operated in 1846:
Indulgent lunch and a glass of wine in the bar at Martini House:
Tastings at three wineries, including the ivy-covered stone and timber building of V. Sattui:
Tapas dinner, including mussels, a Spanish tortilla, anchovies, and ceviche, plus sangria, at Zuzu:
Trolley ride through Napa:
Breakfast at Gordon’s in Yountville’s old market building:
Walking tour of Yountville:
Seeing Calistoga’s Old Faithful Geyser erupt:
Copia for wine and food tasting:
Sake tasting at Hakusan Sake Gardens:
REMAINING CHANGE $7
TOTAL SPENT $393
Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park. 10-5; $3, $1 ages 6-17. Located 3 miles north of St. Helena on State 29; (707) 942-4575.
Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. Dawn-dusk; $4 per car. 3801 State 29, Smiles north of St. Helena; (707) 942-4575.
Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts. Closed Tue; $12.50. 500 First St., Napa; (707) 259-1600.
Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Demo reservations advised. 2555 Main St., St. Helena; (707) 967-2320.
Hakusan Sake Gardens. 10-5; 1 Executive Way, where State 12 intersects State 29, Napa; (707) 258-6160.
Old Faithful Geyser of California. 9-5; $8, $7 with Web coupon. 1299 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga; www.oldfaithfulgeyser.com or (707) 942-6463.
Raymond Vineyard & Cellar. 10-4. 849 Zinfandel Lane, St. Helena; (800) 525-2659.
St. Helena Olive Oil Company. 10-5. 8576 State 29, Rutherford; (707) 967-1003.
Sutter Home Winery. 10-5. 277 State 29, St. Helena; (707) 963-3104.
V. Sattui Winery. 9-6. 1111 White Lane, St. Helena; (707) 963-7774.
Gordon’s Cafe and Wine Bar. Closed Mon. 6770 Washington St., Yountville; (707) 944-8246.
Martini House. 1245 Spring St., St. Helena; (707) 963-2233.
Taylor’s Automatic Refresher. 933 Main, St. Helena; (707) 963-3486.
Zuzu Tapas & Wine Bar. 829 Main St., Napa; (707) 224-8555.
El Bonita Motel. From $89 weekdays, $112 weekends (through Mar 13). 195 Main, St. Helena; (800) 541-3284.
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