Savor Napa Valley Like a Master Sommelier

Acclaimed wine expert Andrea Robinson dishes about some of her favorite places to eat, shop, and taste wine in her adopted home.

Savor Napa Valley Like a Master Sommelier

Vines hang heavy with grapes in Napa Valley.

Photo by JJ Madden/Shutterstock

When Andrea Robinson moved to her current Napa Valley home, one of the first things she noticed was the figs.

“We have three or four different varieties right on our land,” says the award-winning master sommelier, writer, TV host, and longtime consultant for such major brands as Delta Air Lines, Macy’s, and Marriott. “The abundance makes me feel guilty sometimes. I’ll literally call people during the harvest season and say, ‘Come over and gorge on our figs!’”

Robinson got her start in New York, where she scrapped an investment banking career for several roles in the wine industry, including a coveted dean position at the French Culinary Institute. But she has lived in Northern California since 2004 and doesn’t see herself leaving anytime soon—especially not when she feels that Napa Valley strikes such a perfect balance between high-class hospitality and a tight-knit community that keeps everything grounded in history and a love of the land itself.

“We enjoy living in a place that many people treat as a vacation paradise,” says Robinson. “It’s work and play for us.”

Robinson shared the places she loves best in her adopted home, from revelatory tasting rooms to one of the Golden State’s most pristine parks.

Where to eat

“There’s a high standard of ingredients, hospitality, and service here, but the dining scene is super chill. You don’t have to feel like you’re in food church and need to behave yourself. You can just relax and enjoy it. It feels really personal and authentic—more like you’re visiting friends than a business.”

At Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, enjoy a world-class meal in a setting that overlooks the valley.

At Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, enjoy a world-class meal in a setting that overlooks the valley.

Courtesy of Auberge du Soleil

“Our go-to for special occasions is the bistro at Auberge du Soleil because it’s not special occasion pricing, but it has an incredible view, service, food, and wine. My husband proposed to me there. It’s been in the Valley for over 30 years, so it’s such a standard-bearer. They have one of the best burgers, for sure. You can pick one of several different kinds of cheese, but otherwise, it’s real simple. And there’s one of those classic frite cones alongside it—perfectly cut, to the exact chiseled measurement of the ones in France. They also do thin-crust, wood-fired flatbreads that are incredible—like a classic margherita and one with wild mushrooms—and have this local, ruffly spinach I’ve never seen anywhere else. It’s just a side of spinach, but it’s the best spinach in the world.

“One of the newer kids on the block is Farmstead, which is right in downtown St. Helena. I know it’s kind of cliché, but they epitomize truly farm-to-table food; the garden’s right there, and they have a huge olive grove right down the road. It’s got this incredibly convivial atmosphere—always lively and busy and delicious. I love this unbelievable meatball they do as a kind of side. Then they have a great kale salad and a really good chicken cooked under a brick so the skin gets extra crispy. It’s pretty awesome. Farmstead has an incredible wine list, too, mostly focused on California. It’s interesting because they are owned by the Hall family, who also run the vineyards at Long Meadow Ranch. One of my favorites of theirs is a sauvignon blanc. And then they have a new property in the Anderson Valley making pinot noir, etc. [Co-owner] Chris Hall features their stuff, but spotlights all the neighbors too, which is nice.

“Another newer spot is the restaurant at Brasswood. It’s a really great location on Route 29. They do a fresh housemade mozzarella, and great soft-shell crab when it’s in season—stuff you don’t typically see on a lot of menus. They’ve also got an incredible duck bolognese that we often split with three or four people.”

The Restaurant at Meadowood is one of Napa Valley’s three-starred Michelin restaurants.

The Restaurant at Meadowood is one of Napa Valley’s three-starred Michelin restaurants.

Photo by Rachel Weill/AFAR Media

“One of the jewels in our crown, right up there with the The Restaurant at Meadowood and The French Laundry, is La Toque in downtown Napa. Ken Frank is the only chef I’ve ever met who sits down with his sommelier and wine staff and goes through the pairings for their tasting menu as a team. The other thing all of us adore him for is he’s a truffle addict. He does a festival during the doldrums of the rainy season every year, bringing in truffles from classic regions but also supporting other sources like Tennessee and Oregon. He’s also made the long-term commitment to try and make truffles work in Napa Valley. He actually got the right trees planted and seeded with spores, so who knows? Maybe one day we’ll have Napa Valley truffles, too.”

Where to drink

“Wine bars aren’t that big of a thing here because tasting rooms offer a similar experience. You’ve got multiple different wines you can try, very often library selections that they’ll dispense from a preservation system so you can get a really rare wine in a tasting portion. And they almost always have pairing opportunities with different types of food.

Trefethen Family is traditional—they just celebrated their 50th anniversary—but always at the top of their game in terms of innovation and hospitality. To me, it’s a must-stop because they have a wide array of wine styles. One of Napa Valley’s few rieslings, for example—which goes really well with Dungeness crab when it’s in season—along with classics like cabernet and chardonnay. History is a huge part of its appeal, too, because it’s the oldest gravity flow winery in the valley—pre-Prohibition, built in the 1880s.”

“Newer on the block but still harkening back to Napa Valley’s history is Frank Family Vineyards. Their tasting room is one of those legendary kick-back-and-chill experiences. And they just did a massive renovation of the facilities, which are some of the most beautiful and interesting in Napa Valley because it’s the original Kornell Champagne Cellars. They’ve kept the tradition of making sparkling wine alive, as well as tried-and-true Napa Valley styles. They’ve got an extraordinary pinot noir, a chardonnay, a reserve cab, but they also have one of our favorites that you don’t see anywhere: a sangiovese, which is the red grape used in the Tuscany region of Italy. That is so fun and delicious. It’s Napa Valley in a nutshell, really, in the sense that it’s very upscale with a really modern feel, but they also have a clapboard yellow building with a big porch like a farmhouse. And half the time, the owners are walking around and greeting people. It’s neat.

Matthiasson has gotten a lot of attention lately for being far more subtle. Their wine is really different than the opulent, luxurious styles of Napa Valley, generally speaking—great balance and expressiveness with more restraint when it comes to alcohol levels and the oak.”

Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa offers plenty of local products that showcase the area’s bounty.

Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa offers plenty of local products that showcase the area’s bounty.

Photo by Rachel Weill/AFAR Media

Where to shop

“My daughter and I like to shop on Main Street in St. Helena. We don’t do it that often because it’s very upscale, but there’s a couple of nice women’s boutiques, like Allison [in wine country] and PEARL. They’re fashion-forward, but more on the sporty side. Fun and a little bit youthful, with good quality fabrics.

The Model Bakery is an old legacy bakery owned by the Mitchell Family. We buy their sourdough batard and spelt bread, which I love. And then of course they have pastries if you got up early and did your exercising. They are to die for.”

“There’s also the Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant down in the Oxbow Public Market. They have a spice vendor, a bitters vendor, lots of places to eat, wine bars, and a Hog Island Oyster Co. outlet. It’s a great place to pick up Napa Valley stuff if you want to bring gifts back for people.

“As far as local cheeses to look out for, teleme is very creamy, and a little mushroomy. It’s mild but expressive, so it goes with a bunch of different wines without taking them over. It’s cheese with soul. I’m also a big fan of Vella’s dry jack. It’s from Sonoma, but both of those shops regularly stock it. It’s really good with Napa Valley cabernet because it’s a hard, nutty, mild cheese that has a lot of expression and flavor.”

Robert Mondavi, a trailblazer in Napa Valley winemaking, established his vineyard in 1966.

Robert Mondavi, a trailblazer in Napa Valley winemaking, established his vineyard in 1966.

Photo by Meandering Trail Media/Shutterstock

What to do

“When our kids were younger, we used to take our bikes and go on quieter roads and country lanes in Calistoga. It’s a great ride, and if you’re a committed cyclist, a lot of people come here to ride the mountains because it’s a heck of a workout. You’ll see these Tour de France–type people chugging up Spring or Howell Mountain and it’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to taste wine. Good on you!’

Bothe–Napa Valley State Park has a beautiful redwood hike. Not many places grow or have redwood trees anymore, so that’s pretty special. And it’s not hard to get to; it’s a really nice, manageable thing. If you do the entire hike, it’s maybe an hour and a half, and sort of like being in the Ewok scene of Star Wars—just really beautiful and verdant.

“For history [buffs], I would make sure to see either Robert Mondavi Winery or Beringer. They’re so iconic and the wines are great. Beringer was the first public tasting room post-Prohibition, and Robert Mondavi really set the modern course for quality wine in Napa Valley. To be able to see the classic architecture that’s been restored, whether it’s Victorian or French or Tudor, that’s Napa Valley in a nutshell. You’re really seeing what makes it matter: It’s focused on doing great things, but also standing the test of time.”

>>Next: How to Drink Wine in Napa Valley Without Driving

Andrew Parks is a content strategist for Explore Minnesota and sometime writer for such publications and brands as Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, New York Magazine, Bandcamp, Apple, Red Bull and Bon Appétit.
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