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Wine Country: Calistoga Retains Country Charms

If you keep driving north from charming St. Helena, the town of Calistoga still lives the rural wine country tradition that first captured my heart.
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If you think northern California's wine country has gotten too fancy for your taste, head straight to Calistoga. (You're welcome).

Regardless of what the weather might still be dumping onto other parts of the country, spring has most certainly arrived in northern California. And that means it's time to head to wine country. My new favorite spot is the quiet, rural town of Calistoga in Napa.

Particularly when I was living in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, highlights of weekend getaways to Napa and Sonoma were always that I got to dress casually and spend time outdoors. These days, downtown Napa is bustling with boutiques, international hot spots such as Morimoto and my favorite market, Oxbow. Last year, I noticed that I'd started to feel compelled to pack a little differently, adding some "nicer" clothes to my suitcase.

But as it turns out, if you keep driving north from charming St. Helena, the town of Calistoga still lives the rural wine country tradition that first captured my heart.

Calistoga is most famous for its hot springs (interesting spa treatments abound), but its overall charm and peacefulness is what sets it apart from its neighbors. I stayed at the Cottage Grove Inn, where every "room" is its own detached bungalow with a fireplace, patio with reading chairs and windows that actually open to let in the fresh countryside air. It was a two-minute walk into town, or you can choose to take one of the property's bikes, pack a picnic (backpack with plate ware provided) and head to the wineries.

If you'd rather hitch a ride, that's easy to do, too. The Chamber offers shuttle service (brilliant) for free to anyone staying in a Calistoga hotel. And even if you're not, but you'd like to hop a ride between some of the town's wineries and hot spots, the charge is only $1.

The Castello di Amarossa, which looms over Highway 29, is the town's most well known spot. The castle is a sight to see, from the basement's torture chamber and wine caves, to the elaborate Great Hall and outdoor plaza. The Castello concentrates on Italian wines, and has a food/wine pairing tour that isn't to be missed: Tour the property, and then relax in an upstairs apartment while the great Mary Davidek serves cheeses and homemade treats, paired with delicious wines. I've now been to the castle a few times, and the food/wine tour was definitely something special.

Jericho Canyon (be sure to book ahead) offers an optional Polaris tour of the hilly 90-acre property, the first of its kind that I've ever experienced. The owners raised three kids (who worked in the fields when not in school) on the gorgeous estate, which yields big Cabernet Sauvignons.

I also got a kick out of Tamber Bey (reservations also required), which is unique in my wine country experience for two reasons: First, instead of a food or cheese pairing, they offer one with cookies. Yes, each cookie is baked to bring out certain flavors in the different wines, just as any other food pairing would work. Also, the winery is a working stable, called Sundance Ranch. The horses are gorgeous, and like I said, the quiet pace of rural life is what charmed me about disappearing to Calistoga to begin with. My tour guide was Douglas Eisele, who kept us rolling with hilarious stories of being a musician in Texas. Tamber Bay serves a variety of wines, from a particularly refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, plus Chardonnay, Rose, Pinot Noir, Merlot and a few Cabernet Sauvignons.

The town center is absolutely walk-able and boasts some great shops, a neat little wine shop called Enoteca and, of course, some cozy, delicious restaurants. Soak up the wine you enjoyed at Bosko's, a neighborhood trattoria with tasty pizzas, pastas and salads. My romantic dinner recommendations include Calistoga Inn, which houses its own brewery and has a gorgeous patio, and the brand-new 1226 Washington, owned by the an adorable husband-wife team (led by the wife). Or head down the Silverado Trail a bit to the famous Solage resort. Its Solbar restaurant is open to non-guests and offers tasty fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Doesn't it sound like it's time to head to Calistoga for a little wine?