Visit USA Media Awards:
Travel Trade Press Feature winner
The 2019 winner of this particular competitive category is Ella Buchan, a prolific US writer and also a previous Visit USA Travel Writer of the year. Her award-winning story for Aspire magazine took readers to the Napa Valley region of California and looks at why visitors should not only come off-season but also support the destination as they recover from the October 2017 wildfires. Wine, fine food, hot air balloons and hot tubs are just some of treats in store in this piece.
You can read more of Ella’s work on her website
, and track her as she travels on twitter
Head to California’s Napa Valley during the winter season and you could have it pretty much all to yourself, finds Ella Buchan
It’s winter in the Napa Valley, though there’s no snow dusting the vines, and no bite in the air. At most, I feel an occasional, delicate nibble on the otherwise mild, sunny days.
Grapevines are brightly clothed in pink, maroon and gold leaves, which will soon fall away to leave them bare, lending a stark beauty to the landscape. Rather than a blanket of snow, a vivid-yellow carpet gets rolled out from January to March, as mustard flowers bloom between rows of chardonnay grapes.
No, this isn’t exactly winter; this is ‘Cabernet Season’, the period between November and April when wine-tasting crowds disperse. For locals, it’s an excuse to break out the big, robust red wines and pair them with sumptuous hearty meals. For canny tourists, coming outside of peak summer season means driving down roads without bumper-to-bumper traffic and visiting tasting rooms without elbow-to-elbow crowds.
After the devastating wildfires of October 2017, which killed more than 40 people and destroyed thousands of homes across Napa, Sonoma, Yuba and Mendocino, tourism authorities have been spreading the message that wine country is open for business. Encouraging people to visit in
low season is a big part of that. While most of the damage was in residential areas, a side-effect was the slowdown in tourism; fewer people were spending money in the area just when it was needed most.
During my visit, the message is unanimous: come back, see for yourself, and drink more wine. Enticed yet?
On a tour of boutique wineries with Platypus
, fellow guests admit they had considered cancelling their visits after the fires.
“The news made it seem like the whole place had burned down, and just look at it,” one says, gesturing at rows of coral and ochre vines.
We visit Hans Fahden Vineyards, tucked high in the Mayacamas Mountains. Winery manager Eric Mogensen appears under an archway of autumn leaves, brandishing a bottle of sauvignon blanc.
Only a few charred patches on the hillside interrupt the idyllic scene. This place was nearly destroyed by the fires; Eric and two other members of staff spent days battling the flames with hoses and water from the winery’s ponds.
At Benessere Vineyards in St Helena, host Barbara hands out generous pourings of sangiovese on the sun-dappled patio. “We’re trying to get the message out it is safe,” she says.
“People are cancelling, and they need to come back.”
There are purely selfish reasons to book a trip in off-season. Even the busiest wineries like grand Buena Vista, with its labyrinthine cellars and exclusive, sparkly-white wine bar, are relatively quiet when I visit.
Then there’s the food. Farm-to-table restaurant The French Laundry in Yountville, with its three Michelin stars and waiting staff trained in ballet, is on many people’s foodie bucket lists. Though clients will still need to book, they’ll will find it far easier to nab a table early in the year.
Many chefs create special ‘Cabernet Season’ food pairings, from bowls of pasta with autumnal squash to rashers of crispy bacon. And in January, Restaurant Month means three-course menus can be had for a fraction of the usual cost.
For clients looking for something unique, suggest St Helena’s Little Book of Big Experiences. Valued at around $1,000 and sold for $100, it provides access to reserve barrel tastings, food and wine pairings, behind-the- scenes tours and samples at top restaurants. Further north, Calistoga has a similar deal with its Winter in the Wineries Passport, with tasting tickets for 15 vineyards.
And, while there’s unlikely to be a snowflake falling in the valley, visitors to Yountville enjoy a dose of Christmas spirit during November and December, with twinkly lights, parades, food-and-wine walking tours and ‘ugly sweater’ parties.
In summer, clients may be more interested in visiting wineries than spending time at their hotels. But the chillier months provide a great chance to check out luxury properties, especially those with cockle-warming touches such as fireplaces, deep bathtubs and spas. Most drop to low-season rates from November, meaning you can spend more on those bold wines or indulgences of a healthier variety at the spa.
Suggest Downtown’s elegant Napa River Inn, with spa treatments using crushed grape seeds and mud enriched with wine. The Calistoga area is famous for its natural hot springs. Old motel Calistoga Motor Lodge & Spa, which relaunched in 2017 as a hip property with camper-themed rooms, has pools fed by geothermal waters and an on-site spa, MoonAcre, with volcanic mud treatments and mineral soaks.
In neighbouring Sonoma County, The Farmhouse Inn is all about understated luxury. At check-in, the receptionist hands me a glass of local, salmon-pink fizz and gestures towards shelves with bottles of rose-scented bubble bath and blocks of handmade soaps infused with lavender, lemon and honey. “Help yourself to anything,” she says.
I slice off a few slivers and take them back to my room, which has a huge bath and a four- poster so high and plush it has a step. The bed faces a double-sided gas fireplace that heats the room and its wood-decked terrace.
A pool dominates the grounds, surrounded by woodland and dotted with dusky-pink roses. I do a few laps before sinking into the outdoor hot tub, which I have all to myself.
It’s still dark as I drive to Yountville, where Napa Valley Aloft launches sunrise hot-air balloons. The yellow, red and blue vessels rise in tandem with the sun, illuminating a cloudless, cornflower blue sky. These daily floats are one of Napa’s most glorious experiences. Passengers can expect views of vineyards, cute towns and, on clear days, the San Francisco skyline and Golden Gate Bridge. “People think this is all gone,” says Captain Pete, as he steers us over a patchwork of autumnal vines.
I peer over the edge of the basket as we float. The balloon casts a teardrop-shaped shadow, moving over pine forest and mountains as we float above the Napa River. It’s empty apart from a few ducks and a lone paddleboarder, slicing through the water and, I imagine, enjoying the solitude. Surely there’s no better time to return to Napa.
BOOK IT: Abercrombie & Kent
offers a 10-night Gourmet California itinerary from £8,550 per person. The tailor-made itinerary includes visits to San Francisco, Sonoma and Yountville.
What’s new in Napa Valley
Napa Valley Bike Tours
: Cycling in the Vineyards takes visitors off-road to ride in among the vines through private wineries, with stops for tipples and photos.
Culinary Institute of America at Copia: For foodies, suggest the Culinary Institute of America at Copia. The CIA (not that one) has introduced cooking classes and dining events with top chefs, focusing on cuisines from BBQ to sushi.
Bouchaine vineyards: A new Falconry Vineyard Tour combines wine with a talk by an expert falconer about the birds’ role in vineyard management.
The Francis House
: This new luxury property in Calistoga features five sensitively restored suites in a 19th-century home.
: Downtown Napa has seen a surge of development in the past few years. The new Archer Hotel recently unveiled a huge rooftop space with a restaurant, cocktail bar, fire pits and cabanas dotted around a pool. It overlooks First Street Napa, a new block of boutiques, galleries, designer stores and nightlife.