Napa Town

As you travel up the Napa Valley, you drive through several small towns, including YountvilleSt. Helena and Calistoga.  They are charming, but they are generally one main street, four or five blocks long, that feature restaurants, tasting rooms and galleries.  They are not small cities.  But at the bottom of the valley there is the town of Napa.  With a population of nearly 80,000 people, Napa is a small city with all the plusses and minuses the term implies.

The view from the Napa River.  Photo courtesy of

Napa has a distinct downtown of about thirty square blocks.  Unlike the other towns mentioned, there is a definite urban feel to Napa.  At one time, not so long ago, there wasn’t much to interest the visitor.  Those days are long past.  Today there is a vibrancy there that owes a lot to wine tourism, of course, but also to some civic decisions to make the town more attractive to visitors.  Alas, this has resulted in nearly impossible parking near places you might want to go, although valets and large parking lots have eased the situation.

In 2015, we wrote about wine tasting at Napa’s in-town tasting rooms.  The overall tone was, well, less than exultant.  There weren’t many places to go and the quality was spotty.  At last count, there are now about thirty places in downtown Napa where you can have a tasting.  We haven’t visited all of them by any means, but we can say that there are some fine wines to be tried there.  Some of the better known labels are Alpha Omega, Buena Vista and Mayacamas.

The Oxbow Public Market.  Photo courtesy of Candlelight Inn.

We have written before about the Oxbow Public Market.  It falls somewhere between a tourist attraction and a local food and wine resource.  A bit away from the downtown area (or maybe now an extension of it), the market is certainly worth visiting, both for wine tasting and dining or both together.  And the views of the city are superb.

Napa is the seat for the county.  Therefore, there are all the public services there such as the county government, police and fire departments.    In that same vein, it’s where you will find doctors, dentists and barbers.  It is unlikely you will need them and they aren’t among the reasons for which you would visit Napa, but it’s good to know where they are, just in case.

Much of the renaissance of Napa Town has been led by the restaurants, of which there are many.  We have long had our standbys, including The Bounty Hunter and Cole’s Chop House.  We also like to experiment with new places, and as with all experiments sometimes we have been happy and sometimes not.  As with much of California, there is a large Mexican population in Napa, so there are now several Mexican restaurants.  In fact, as you drive into town along Soscol Avenue, you will see truck after truck selling Mexican fare.

If you are touring Napa Valley, you ought to include some time in Napa Town.  As we have previously counseled, it is often a good idea to avoid Route 29 on weekends and spend time doing in-town tastings.  For that, Napa should definitely be on your list.


Oakville Grocery

We have a weakness for old grocery stores that have metamorphosed into gourmet shops serving the wine tasters who have flocked to Wine Country.  There’s Lombardi’s Love Lane Market in Long Island’s North Fork.  We can remember when the Dry Creek General Store was a place to buy work clothes, tins of nails and sandwiches (served only on sliced white or whole wheat).  We still mourn the demise of the Jimtown Store.  The grandaddy of them all is the Oakville Grocery on Route 29 and the Oakville Crossroad in Napa Valley.

Photo courtesy of Destination Wineries.

There’s an Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg and it’s a fine shop.  We go there when we’re in Sonoma County.  But the real deal is located, of course, in Oakville.  According to their website ( there’s been a store at that spot since some time in the 1870’s.  At various times it specialized in dry goods and farming supplies; then it was called Oakville Mercantile.  Since wine lovers (re)discovered Napa Valley in the 1970s, it has supplied excellent lunches to visitors and locals alike.

Oakville Grocery’s story has intersected with the wine trade over the decades.  Prohibition almost put them out of business; only nearby bootlegging saved the store.  It hosted a Great Chefs cooking lessons program run by Margit Mondavi, the wife of Robert Mondavi.  For many years, beginning in the 1970s through 2003, Oakville Grocery was owned by Joseph Phelps, who also owned one of Napa Valley’s great vineyards.  It t is now owned by a Frenchman, Jean-Charles Boisset, whose roots are in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or.

Photo courtesy of Oakville Grocery.

Today – and for as long as we can remember Oakville Grocery – it specializes in upscale fare.  There’s an espresso bar where you can get freshly ground coffee.  There’s a selection of imported and local cheeses, with California’s products standing up quite well against the French and Italian imports.  Freshly made salads are available, as are hand-made pizzas fired where the hardware was once stored.  This being Napa Valley, they also have  a great wine selection.

But the main attraction is the deli counter which occupies almost the entirety of the middle of the store.  Yes, you can get a ham and cheese, but why bother?  You can do that at home.  There’s a California-fied Muffaletta, the glory of New Orleans reinterpreted for the wine folks.  How about a hot Chicken and Gruyere or Rocky’s Reuben?  A word to the wise: The sandwiches are enormous, enough for sharing.  It’s important to put food in your stomach if you’re going to continue wine tasting in the afternoon, but there are limits.

There is a (mostly) shaded area next to the store where you can eat and drink your purchases.  They try to style it as a picnic area, but there is neither grass nor trees to be seen.  Make sure to get a table in the shade – midday in Napa Valley gets quite hot – but don’t plan on lingering.

We know places in New York and Paris that are as rich in history as in cuisine.  The Oakville Grocery is one of these too, but it is a great deal more rustic than those places, as it should be.  This is a deli in Wine Country, after all.  But if you’d like a great meal in a place your great-great-grandparents might have frequented, then the Oakville Grocery is for you.

The Silverado Trail

Route 29 is the main drag of Napa Valley’s portion of Wine Country.  Parallel to it and a few miles to the northeast is the “other” road, the Silverado Trail.  There are plenty of wineries to visit along the Silverado Trail, many of which are counted among the best in the valley and some among the best in the world.  But there are no restaurants nor any place even to buy a sandwich.  There’s no train track carrying diners nor is there as much traffic, although it gets a little busier at what passes for rush hour in Napa Valley.

Photo courtesy of Great Runs.

The Silverado Trail begins in the town of Napa, where it is mostly residential and becomes of interest to wine tasters only when it crosses over Trancas Street.  At that point, for about four miles, the Oak Knoll AVA is on your left, while the wineries on the right exist in a sort of limbo, identified only as Napa.  Since several of the wineries on that side are quite renowned, such as Darioush and Signorello (still rebuilding after the 2017 fire), it doesn’t seem quite fair.

The Trail then passes through the famed Stags Leap AVA (on both sides of the street), where it would be easy to spend a day or two just going from winery to winery.  You had better like Cabernet Sauvignon there, because that’s what this area produces in great quantity.  Because of the proximity of the wineries and the generally flat lay of the land, there are quite a few visitors who bicycle this part of the Silverado Trail for their tasting experiences.

The Yountville AVA hosts the Silverado Trail for just a short distance with only one winery of note, before the road enters Oakville.  There are several wineries there, but they are well separated from each other.  The same may be said for the stretch in the Rutherford AVA.

The Silverado Trail is more extended in the St. Helena AVA, where the distance to Route 29 narrows.  The AVA with the longest section of the Trail is Calistoga, where the road finally peters out.

Photo courtesy of Destination 360.

This abbreviated tour belies the attraction of the Silverado Trail.  It runs along the foot of the Vaca mountains and has far fewer wineries to visit than Route 29 or the cross roads between the two.  As a result, the wide expanses of greenery, sometimes vineyards and other times just mountainsides, make it a pleasure to drive along (or to bike, so they tell us).  There are few stop lights from one end to the other.  The absence of significant traffic enables you to just motor along and enjoy it all without stopping and starting all the time.  And you can even make a left turn if you have to.

If we are going somewhere on Route 29, we generally use the Silverado Trail to drive north-south and then cross over when we near our destination.  It is both easier on the eyes and on the nerves.

Gott’s Roadside, St. Helena

Power Tasting is not in the business of restaurant reviews, so this is not a restaurant review.  Yes, Gott’s Roadside is a restaurant but in its way it’s a great deal more.  It is definitely a place to visit if you are going wine tasting in the northern end of Napa Valley.  Gott’s is an institution.  Now, an institution might seem a bit stuffy, but this one definitely is not.

As you drive along Route 29 into St. Helena, you can’t miss it there on your left.  It’s a big white building with lots of parking and seating all around it.  There’s quite a history to go with it.  Originally, it was known as Taylor’s Refresher, established in 1949 by Lloyd Taylor.  At that time, Napa Valley was mostly planted with fruit trees not grape vines, and the clientele must have been largely farmhands and truckers.  It was an unapologetic burger joint that, as we remember it, was a place to get a quick meal but not a destination.

In 1999, Mr. Taylor’s heirs sold the restaurant to the brothers Duncan and Joel Gott.  Together, they were entrepreneurs; Joel was an is a winemaker as well as a restauranteur.  (Duncan has since passed away.)  They kept the name, Taylor’s Refresher, until 2010 when they changed it to the current name.  They also significantly expanded the place.  The Taylor family was a bit upset that their name was being lost, so it seems that the settlement was to change the name but keep the old sign.

Gott’s is still a burger joint, but in keeping with “Napa Style”, it’s somewhat fancier than that.  The beef is Niman Ranch.  There are salads, tacos and sandwiches as well; we have no idea how they taste because we’ve only ever ordered hamburgers.  And what kind of burger joint has a wine list?  For some legal reasons, Joel Gott’s wines aren’t served there anymore.

Part of the reason for eating at Gott’s Roadside is to be able to say you’ve eaten at Gott’s.  It’s the same reason people have their pictures taken in front of the Eiffel Tower – to prove they’ve been there.  There are some excellent restaurants just up the road in St. Helena, but none of them have the retro cachet of Gott’s.  You’ll be able to say “yes” when friends ask, “Did you have lunch at that famous burger place?  What’s it called again?”

Another reason, a better one in addition to the food, is to partake in a tradition with all the other folks dining there.  Part of the seating area is under canopies next to the parking lot and there is also a grassy picnic area where families gather; kids run around; and there’s a general sense of fun.  Just eating there makes you feel like you’re a part of Napa Valley, not just visiting it.

There are now Gott’s establishments in other locations.  Don’t be fooled.  They’re just restaurants, not pieces of Napa Valley history.



Champagne is the world capital of sparkling wine and Épernay is, in wine terms, the capital of Champagne.  Épernay has been destroyed in various European wars, particularly the Hundred Years War, and then it was badly damaged in both World Wars of the 20th century. The city as it is today exists because of sparkling wine.  It was only in the early part of the 18th century that the makers of what is now the world’s most famous sparkling wine started settling in attractive city mansions there.

The Avenue de Champagne in Épernay

For the visitor today, there are a few attractions worth seeing, but the reason to be in Épernay is to sample some of the products of many of the most famous Champagne houses…as well quite a few others that are not as well known.  And the best place to get to know them is along the Avenue de Champagne.  Along this one kilometer street that runs from the Place de la République to the Mercier winery with its impressive tower, you can stroll along, tasting as you go.  Beneath your feet are 150 kilometers of caves, carved into the chalk that makes the wines of this region so distinctive, full of bottles of Champagne.

Among the best know names on the Avenue de Champagne are Moët et Chandon, Perrier Jouet and Pol Roger.  As mentioned, there is also Mercier, which definitely ought to be a stop for any visitor to Épernay.  Not familiar to many Americans, Mercier is the most popular Champagne in France.  It certainly offers the best tour in town, with a train ride through the caves.  Its popularity probably stems from its price point; their flagship Blanc de Noirs costs only €33 ($36.50 at current rates).


Some of the architecture along the Avenue de Champagne

As you stroll down the avenue, pay attention to the architecture.  Some buildings, such as the two top names mentioned, are just factories.  But many are grand Belle Epoque mansions, a testament to the wealth that Champagne wines brought to Épernay.



In the center of the Southern Rhône winemaking region lies a rather sleepy little Provençal village called Vacqueyras (pronounced VA-kay-rass).  [Yes, in Provence they often pronounce the final “s”.  One might think it’s just to confuse the Anglophones.]  It wouldn’t exist, at least as it is in our times, if it were not for wine.  The Gauls made wine there; so did the Romans; winemaking was documented in the 15th century; and the wines of Vacqueyras were recognized as an AOC in 1990.

The village of Vacqueyras.  Photo courtesy of Vaucluse-Visites-Virtuel.

So why visit a sleepy little village?  There are a number of reasons.  For one, nearly all the little villages in this Côte du Rhône region are rather somnolent.  You need to go to the nearby cities of Avignon or Orange to get a little action.  But you don’t come to this sector of France for action; the attraction is the good life: blue skies, sunshine, gorgeous scenery, friendly people, superb food and, oh yes, wine.  What Vacqueyras lacks in liveliness it makes up in charm.

There are a little more than 1,000 people living in Vacqueyras, while there are 100 wineries, and heaven only knows how many small vineyards that supply their grapes to the four cooperatives within the village’s borders.  That’s a very high vines-to-people ratio.  Considering that some of those folks staff the inns and cafés, there are even fewer to tend the grapes.

Those cafés are another reason to visit Vacqueyras.  There just aren’t that many other places to go for a meal in the area.  We’ve found only one restaurant and a snack bar in nearby Gigondas.  There are more in Beaumes de Venise down the road and maybe one or two in Seguret.  Appetite will take you to Vacqueyras.  And you will be well rewarded with local fare, including fish and seafood, lamb, fresh vegetables and fruits, and if you like an omelette aux truffes (truffle omelet).

“Downtown” Vacqueyras.  Photo courtesy of Horizon Provence.

The streets are lined with homes made from local beige stone, under shady trees.  In good weather you can sit at a café with some wine that may have been made within walking distance and just take in the views.  Those views include the Dentelles de Montmirail to the east, the alpine foothills that seem to Vacqueyrasiens like lace.  In the other direction are the seemingly endless high plains of the Terraces des Garrigues.  Garrigues are the wild hillside herbs that abound in southern France and which add a distinctive, if hard to describe, character to the wines made there.

And that wine you might be sipping is most likely to be a powerful red, with Grenache and Syrah as the dominant grapes, with Mourvèdre and Cinsault used for blending.  (See the accompanying article in this issue on one of our favorite Vacqueyras wineries.)  Yes there are whites and rosés, but the name “Vacqueyras” inspires thoughts of deep red velvet.  Unfairly, some of the other Côte du Rhône villages have grander reputations than does Vacqueyras, which enables you to buy desirable wines at lower prices than, say, Châteauneuf du Pape.

If you are wine tasting in the Southern Rhône – and at some point, you ought to – make sure that Vacqueyras is a stop on your route.



Did you ever have a Minervoix wine?  If you did but it was long ago, you probably haven’t tried them again because what you had was rough and acidic.  We urge you to give another try to these wines from the southwest of France; they have been remarkably improved since that time.

And should you ever find yourself in the French southwest, you would value a trip to the tiny village of Minerve.  To appreciate it you need to know a little history.

The village is named after the Roman goddess Minerva, whose cult rivaled Christianity in Imperial Rome.  In the Middle Ages, there arose in the southwest a new religion, Catharism, that was opposed to the Catholic Church.  This led to war with the Pope and the King of France, which resulted in the extermination of the Cathars.  140 of them in Minerve were burnt at the stake rather than repent their religion.  Today, the principal street in Minerve is the Rue des Martyrs.

The gruesome events of the year 1210 left Minerve frozen in time. While we have no reason to doubt that the people of the village practice Catholicism today, a great deal of their livelihoods come from tourists who are aware of their association with the Cathars.  In the gift shops, of which there are many, they sell books and ornaments associated with their long-dead Cathar ancestors.

Minerve was carved out of a rock face of a hill overlooking a small river, the Briant.  The houses and buildings are made from local stone, with Spanish-style roof tiles.  (The entire area was considered a part of Spain until the end of the Thirty Years War in 1649.  Spanish cultural influence is still felt strongly throughout the region.)  Everything has been cleaned up for the benefit of the tourists.  But it is not hard to imagine the medieval lifestyle that must have prevailed there for a very long time.

It is a bit difficult to reach Minerve, but the views as you approach the village are worth the drive.  You enter Minerve over a high stone bridge that was built in the early 20th century.  How the world got to Minerve, or how the villagers got out, before the bridge was built is hard to imagine.  Once across, you have to park just outside Minerve and walk into it.  One of the first sights you’ll see is the remains of a tower that was built for defense in the religious war.  The little church dates back to the 11th century.  Might it have been taken over by the Cathars for their use?  Probably.  At the bottom of the Rue des Martyrs, you can see the grounds where the brave Cathars lost their lives.

Make sure to leave time for a meal when you visit Minerve.  You’ll find genuine French country cooking in the restaurants and cafes there.  Most of them are situated with incredible views from the rocky promontory where Minerve sits.  We only know what it’s like there in warm weather, so we can say that the local white wines go a long way towards managing the heat.

Local Shops

The whole idea of a vacation is to get away from your everyday life for a while.  If you’re from a city or suburbs, then Wine Country is a pretty big change, and if you live amidst the vineyards, it’s not really a vacation to go wine tasting.  Still, there are times, even when you want to get away from it all, that a certain amount of reality intrudes.  It makes sense to gain a little familiarity with the shops in the region you’re visiting for just those occasions.

Photo courtesy of Burdge and Associates.

If you’re tasting in Napa Valley or Sonoma County, this isn’t a big deal.  There are towns and main shopping routes where you can find everything you need; it’s not the Sahara Desert after all.  Of course there are shops in the town of Napa, Yountville and Healdsburg but many of them, if not most, are for tourist items, not necessities.  But Trancas Street in Napa and Route 101 in Santa Rosa are long stretches of shopping malls and big box stores.

So if you need Band-Aids, orange juice or some batteries, there are plenty of shops where you can make these purchases.  (A hint for wine tasters on a romantic getaway: There’s plenty of California sparkling wine to be found everywhere, but if you want some real Champagne, you can find it at one of those huge drug stores or in many grocery stores.  It’s not so easy in nearby wine shops, which tend to feature the local products.)

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Europe, it’s not quite as easy to find the basic necessities.  However, almost every village except the tiniest has a pharmacy, usually indicated by a green neon sign in the shape of a cross.  In the larger towns (and cities, of course) one of these pharmacies will be open all night.  For many of the other items you might need, look for a tabac in France or a tabacchi in Italy.  As might be expected, these little shops sell tobacco products.  But it’s also where you’ll find post cards, stamps, bus tickets, maps, an espresso to start the day and a grappa to end it.

It is also wise to prepare for emergencies.  You’re not going to go travelling in Wine Country armed with information about nearby hospitals or a doctor or dentist who will see you posthaste.  So make sure you know someone who does know or at least the emergency phone number.  Of course, it’s 9-1-1 in the United States but it’s 1-1-2 in France, 1-1-8 in Italy, and 0-0-0 in Australia.

It’s a good idea to have the number of your host (the hotel front desk or the friends you’re staying with) for some oddball needs.  For example, we once had a flat tire while we were tasting in Oakville.  Nobody at the winery we were at knew where we could get a new tire quickly, but the hotel concierge was able to help.

It’s always helpful to know where to get a wine stain out of a sports jacket or to find a deli for a picnic or the late night munchies.  Or a pizzeria, some therapeutic Häagen-Dazs, a bathing suit or an essential whatchamacallit.  So be prepared.

Old Town San Diego

The Temecula Valley is a “forgotten” corner of California’s Wine Country.  Much that is written about it (including in a previous issue of Power Tasting) starts with, “If you happen to be in San Diego…”.  This time, we’ll take it the other way: If you happen to be wine tasting in Temecula, San Diego isn’t far away.  And if you happen to be in San Diego, Old Town is a definite place to visit.

Let us be honest and begin by saying that Old Town is a bit touristy.  Maybe more than a bit.  If the shops and the souvenirs were the only attraction, we would neither go there nor recommend it.  But there is a great deal more, starting with history.

This is where California was born.  In 1769, Father Junipero Serra established a mission next to a fort called the Presidio in exactly the spot where Old Town is today.  Other missions followed up and down what is now California.  It is said that he wasn’t very kind to the people who were already there, so there is no reason to celebrate his life, but there is a thrill to stand in the very place he created a lasting achievement.

Casa de Estudillo.  Photo courtesy of IS Architecture.

Old Town is a celebration of the Mexican heritage in San Diego and California more generally.  The site is split between a commercial area with shops and restaurants and the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.  The latter is in effect an outdoor museum with many of the older buildings restored and retained.  There are a number of historic homes, including the Casa de Estudillo, which was built in 1829 and is made of adobe, one of the oldest such mansions in California.  Others of these restored homes are the Casa de Machado y Silvas from the 1840’s: the Casa de Machado y Stewart, a soldier’s home from 1835 and the Little Adobe Chapel, which was destroyed and then rebuilt in the 1930’s, with many of the interior contents restored.  There are also museums, trolley car rides, a working blacksmith shop and the oldest brick structure in San Diego, the Whaley House, built in 1865 and, so they say, haunted today.

But enough of all this culture.  Let’s have some fun!

Casa de Reyes restaurant.  Photo courtesy of the City of San Diego.

There are lots of restaurants in and around Old Town.  Most of them serve Mexican food, California style.  We’re not quite sure what Cal-Mex is, but it’s different than the Tex-Mex we taste in the rest of the US.  The ownership and names change frequently over the years, but we have gravitated to what is now called the Casa de Reyes.  There’s a large outdoor courtyard, which San Diegan weather enables most of year.  The bar features a large selection of tequilas and you can quaff margheritas the size of bird baths (in somewhat cloudy memory, at least).  Mariachis entertain regularly and there is a nice, non-rowdy party atmosphere at all times.  It’s the kind of place where families get together.

Daytimes are the time to visit the cultural attractions, but we recommend you dine in Old Town in the evening.  You’ll feel like you dropped onto the set of Romancing the Stone.



It isn’t necessary for us to mention it, but we will anyway: We love Wine Country.  The sectors we spend the most time in are in the United States, but we have also gone wine tasting in Europe, Africa and Australia (sadly, not yet in South America).  We find the scenery to be beautiful, the food delicious, the people friendly and, of course, there’s the wine.

Meadowood Resort in St. Helena.  Photo courtesy of Five Star Alliance.

We have seen a worrisome trend in recent years, beginning in Napa Valley but spreading elsewhere as well.  What was once an area dedicated to a very particular kind of agriculture, with a few nice hotels, is being transformed into upscale resorts with wine tasting as a sideline.  Now, we have nothing against attractive hotels and try to stay in them as often as we can when travelling.  And there’s nothing wrong with golf, tennis, spas and top-flight dining rooms.  But when they start crowding out reasonably priced hotels and inns, so that Wine Country becomes the preserve of only those who can afford to stay there, then we have a problem.

Perhaps an even greater issue, as we see it, is that the vibe of Wine Country becomes different.  Perhaps 75 years ago, the reason to visit Napa Valley or Sonoma County was to be in the country, buy fresh fruit and maybe do some horseback riding.  But for at least forty of the intervening years, roaming through vineyards and tasting wine that have been the attractions there.  Even in some of the sleepier parts of Europe or Australia, wine tasting as a weekend or vacation activity has taken off.

Hotel de Pavie in Saint-Emilion.  Photo courtesy of All Wine Tours.

By changing the emphasis from wine tasting to spa living or golf, the tasting rooms will attract a different clientele.  Instead of couples taking in three or four wineries in a day, there will be visitors who only schedule one tasting a day, scheduled around their tee times or massage appointments.  Diners may have glasses of wine at suppertime, instead of a bottle and they may not be as particular about what’s in that bottle.  In fact, they may be more inclined to dine at the resort than in the local restaurants.  We have already experienced a bit of this in Napa Valley and are fearful it will creep in elsewhere.

Wine tasting has not been an inexpensive avocation ever since wineries discovered that charging for small pours of fine wine was a more profitable proposition than giving it away.  But tasting was a pleasure that could be enjoyed by casual tourists as well as connoisseurs with deep pockets.  Altering the focus to those who can afford Wine Country resorts will change the way that wineries approach their market.

There is nothing that can be done about this trend.  Those who want to open resorts will do so, and those more interested in golf or workouts are free to indulge those pastimes.  But those of us who are wine tasting devotees can go about doing what we have been doing.  We can, and will, visit, sip, dine, sip some more and maybe stay for dinner.  Let’s hope the wineries continue to cater to us.