Wine Country Upgrade

If you’ve done Napa Valley, it’s time to kick it up a notch.

  • Photo by Sebastien Burel
    Napa’s secret backroads and hidden wineries.
  • Photo Courtesy of Solage Calistoga
    Even the locals love the menu at Solbar.
  • Photo Courtesy of Solage Calistoga
    The Solage spa has its own bar, thermal pool, and outdoor shower.
  • Photo Courtesy of Solage Calistoga
    Modern interiors meet old California charm at Solage resort’s guest villa.

After a trip or two to Napa, you’ve done wine country. You’ve sipped cabernet from the source and tasted grapes hand-picked off the vine. You’ve dined at one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants, burgered at Gott’s, and shopped at Michael Chiarello’s NapaStyle. As charming as all that is, the traffic along the main artery of Highway 29 now seems a bit clogged, the wineries too crowded. Gasp! Have you become a snob? Not at all. It happens.

You’re a veteran, and like a connoisseur in search of that next bottle, you crave something more exotic, perhaps more understated, earthier. It’s time to head to Calistoga. A few miles past Napa’s biggest hot spots—Yountville, Rutherford, and St. Helena—you’ll find a breath of fresh wine country air. The views open up with large stretches of mountain-meets-vineyard scenic bliss, and the vintage small town welcomes you. Napa takes a break here. The vibe is relaxed. The cafes, galleries, shops, and spas—lots of spas—are smaller.

Since the 1700s, people have visited this region for the natural volcanic hot springs. One geyser, dubbed the Old Faithful of California, shoots thousands of gallons of water skyward every 30 minutes. You can smell earthy minerals in the air, taste them in the wines, and feel their healing benefits when you plunge into a deep, thick, neck-to-toes mud bath.

Mud baths have been offered commercially in Calistoga since the days of the Gold Rush, and my longtime favorite place to indulge in this cleansing ritual is Indian Springs Resort & Spa, where you are assisted into a large tub of volcanic ash mud heated naturally by mineral water from a nearby geyser. You sip cold cucumber water as the hot mud seeps into every pore. Afterward you take a dip in an Olympic-sized 100-degree mineral pool, California’s oldest operating one.

Around the corner, Solage resort offers another kind of spa experience. With white cottages, palm trees, and a backdrop of mountains and oak groves, it looks like a postcard from old California. Modern interruptions include sleek fireplaces and a heavenly spa that offers a “mudslide” in which couples slather on oil-infused volcanic ash and California mud from a mud bar and lie in a hot, tiled chamber until a knock at the door suggests it’s time to rinse off in the outdoor shower. Next is a long soak in an oversized warm tub that’s heated by geothermal spring water, followed by a robed-up, duvet-topped “power nap” in a reclining vibration chair. Deliriously happy guests are usually found later celebrating their newly found state of relaxation and smooth skin with a poolside tonic or jalapeño margarita.

All of Calistoga seems to congregate at the resort’s Solbar. Locals come by in heaps, either because they can’t stop eating the SolFries tossed with picante spice and served with lime aioli or because they want to see what chef Brandon Sharp, who was previously the sous-chef at San Francisco’s Gary Danko, has up his sleeve. On my visit, the knockout dish was housemade agnolotti with nettle, artichokes, olives, and pistachio pesto, paired with a glass of “stone’s throw” red, meaning something from a winery literally just down the road. My husband and I sat sipping our wine by a warm fire under palm trees and stars—it was a dream.

Mornings in Calistoga are often a mix of fog, sun, and invigorating mineral air. After a grapefruit mimosa and goat cheese omelet, it’s time to hit the wineries. We ditched our car on day one and stuck to the beach cruisers parked outside our Solage suite. Armed with a map and a backpack, we set out to a few local favorites.

You can still find unassuming family wineries here. Don’t let the rough gravel driveway or the Labradors lounging by the door deter you from Vincent Arroyo. This winery cranks out a killer petite sirah. Nearby, Frank Family Vineyards has one of the friendliest tastings around. Ask for Dennis, a local legend who will happily teach you everything you need to know. At Sterling, the grapes nearly take a back seat to the view after a tram takes you up to the tasting room high on a hill. Then there’s the iconic castle that is Chateau Montelena, which boasts famously big reds—and a steep tasting fee. The cab alone is worth it.

Calistoga may be understated, but it’s no stranger to luxury. Celebrities seek refuge at Calistoga Ranch, perched above the Silverado Trail with 157 acres of private property and trails. Lady Gaga recently hiked her way around, Mary J. Blige was heard singing daily from her outdoor bathtub, and Morgan Freeman greeted every guest with warm hellos.

While hot hotels emerge and spa treatments evolve, Calistoga holds tight to its low-key delights. On a local tip, we wrapped a wine-by-bike day at the tiny Lava Vine Winery. The tunes were loud. The tasting bar was tiny. As the aroma from the barrels of grapes in the next room wafted in, we sampled housemade olive oil and tasted crisp whites and rustic reds. And we toasted to no traffic, no crowds, and good wine, with plenty of those earthy, rich notes we’d come to love.

Getting There

Napa is about an hour north of San Francisco. Tack on an extra 20 minutes of driving to get to Calistoga.

Where To Stay

Solage is tucked just in front of Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga’s main drag, and the end of the Silverado Trail. Private suites open up to views of historic oak groves. Beach cruisers are parked by the front doors for whenever you want to hit the trail, or you can borrow one of the resort’s Mercedes-Benz cars. Rooms start at $430. 707-226-0800,

For the ultimate rustic-luxe lodging experience, head to Calistoga Ranch. The very serene and private property has 157 acres for hiking, spa-ing, and lounging in one of the freestanding cedar guest lodges, complete with outdoor showers, baths, and fireplaces. Don’t miss the gardens and henhouse, which has its own chandelier. Rooms start at $720. 707-531-4790,

The new Sunburst Calistoga inn right in town is a recently renovated boutique hotel that has retro-modern rooms, a mineral pool, and prices that likely won’t stay this low for long. Rooms start at $180. 707-942-0991,

Where To Eat

Guests and locals alike flock to Solbar at Solage. The restaurant serves seasonal, healthy fare, and the bar menu has great small bites such as SolFries and fish tacos. Check out the local wines on tap (actually from an eco-friendly tap system) or order off the curated cocktail list if you’re all wined out.

If you’re biking or picnicking, fuel up beforehand at Calistoga Roastery in the middle of town, a hot local spot with great coffee and lattes. 707-942-5757,