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Napa Day 1: Welcome to the Napa Valley

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on Napa. When the opportunity arose to tack on a few nights in Napa during a trip out to Monterey, CA for my graduation from grad school, I jumped at the chance. Napa's three part mini-series will take you along with us over the course of a weekend as we explore a little slice of this famous valley.

The traffic snaking northward from Monterey up to the Napa Valley slowly chugs along. We anxiously anticipate our arrival, but it is clear that it will be delayed a bit by the bumper to bumper congestion in which we are currently ensnarled. On the bright side, the scenery could be worse. I gaze out the passenger window meditatively at the mountainous landscape on either side of me. The green dot of trees across the hills and periodic pops of color from wild flowers are mesmerizing. I can see why simply traversing the state's roads has become a pass time of tourists--the traffic notwithstanding. However, I am not surprised by the number of wildfires this state is currently battling. The tall, dry brush carpeting the highway's hillsides resembles a tinderbox waiting to ignite. Luckily, all of our destinations on this trip have escaped mishap thus far.

As we pull into our Napa resort several hour later, like most visitors to this city, we are looking to decompress. Upon check-in at the Napa Valley Marriott Resort & Spa, I am handed a list of activities intended to meet just that request. Included in the hotel's daily $20 resort fee are: a yoga class at 7:30 each morning, morning access to the hotel's spa facilities (including a sauna and whirlpool), coffee and tea at the coffee bar, an evening rotating wine tasting with local vintners in the lobby, a late afternoon garden tour with sparkling wine, and for those of of us who can't let go--Wi-Fi. Since I am Starwood Gold, we are also given 2 drink passes for either a complementary house wine or craft beer at the bar during our visit.

After getting settled into our hotel, we venture out to our first Napa wine tasting. It is about 4:30pm, but I made a 5pm reservation prior to our arrival for Domaine Carneros. Many places in the valley are done with tastings by 5pm, but Domaine Carneros takes appointments until 5:30pm. So, it makes a good choice for our first day anticipated late arrival.

Domaine Carneros is dramatically perched atop a hill in the Carneros (southern-most) section of the valley [see cover photo]. The French chateau style of the winery may be a little out of place in Napa, but it is still quite beautiful. The parking area is situated down below the winery, so you enter the tasting room via a dramatic double staircase sweeping up the hillside in front of the chateau. There is a large outdoor terrace fronting the building, as well as a shaded side patio with a fountain. We choose to sit outdoors on the terrace to take advantage of the beautiful, sunny weather. Napa is well known for its enviable weather, and today is no exception. It is 78 degrees and sunny. We are comfortably seated at a table just outside the main door in the shade cast by the chateau's late afternoon shadow.

My husband and I look over the variety of tasting options. Domaine Carneros has three wine flights to choose from--a red, a white, and a sparkling. Additionally, the winery offers cheese and charcuterie add-on options. We decide to share a red tasting flight and one of the cheese plates along with it. Soon, we are comfortably situated with our first Napa wine tasting and a tasty snack consisting of three different local cheeses, some crackers, and nuts. The four red wines we try are all more than drinkable, and we contentedly relax with our wine and cheese, taking in the views of the valley below.

Our first wine tasting of the trip complete, we head for downtown Napa for dinner. We are early for our reservation, so we decide to explore. The city of Napa has dramatically changed since I was last here ten years ago. Downtown was not somewhere to linger before or after dinner. Now, the place is hopping. There are bars, fancy restaurants, and live music playing from every direction.

We wander down 1st Street, crossing the bridge over Napa Creek and meandering through the Oxbow Public Market. The Oxbow Public Market is an indoor marketplace with fresh produce, an eclectic collection of food stalls, and a brewery. Napa may be most well known for wine, but recently, several new breweries have popped up in the valley. My husband picks out a craft brew from the menu, and we perch on stools lining the marketplace wall.

Oxbow has a large variety of culinary options if you don't want a fancy meal. The food stall choices include everything from fresh oysters to tacos to coal-fired pizzas. The pizzas look particularly enticing, but we have dinner reservations shortly. My husband finishes his beer, and we walk back over the bridge toward the center of town.

Napa has become a culinary destination in its own right with countless fine dining options lining the valley, including several well known Michelin star restaurants. We have not chosen to dine in the highest price range restaurants on this trip--some topping $400 a plate--but we have selected well rated, more affordable "splurges." Dinner tonight is at Ristorante Allegria. Ristorante Allegria features Northern Italian cuisine and is situated in a building designated a historic landmark (a bank built in 1916). The restaurant has been around for a number of years--we ate here on our last trip to Napa, and I'd been hoping to return. There are several things on the menu I would like to try, but I settle on the fresh pappardelle with jumbo prawns and wild mushrooms finished with a roasted shrimp bisque. My husband orders the veal piccata over a bed of sautéed spinach and garlic mashed potatoes finished with a lemon capers white wine sauce, and we agree to start with the beef satay appetizer.

When our appetizer comes, the beef is tender and cooked perfectly. It has an Asian inspired flavor which is a bit counter to our Italian entree choices, but still pairs nicely. When our entrees come, they do not disappoint, either. The flavors in my dish are wonderful, and my husband's veal is quite tender. We both do a good job of finishing the majority of the food on our plates. So, we decide to pass on dessert when offered it. We don't have any room! Instead, we head back to the hotel to call it an early night. It's been a long day, and we still haven't quite adjusted to the time difference in California. Tomorrow, we have a wonderful day planned of good food and good wine... but first, we need a good night of sleep!

Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins

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