Top wineries, restaurants, and spas in the northern Napa Valley.
Nothing could be finer than to be in Calistoga for the weekend. A town of 5,500 or so people at the northern tip of the Napa Valley, it contains famous wineries like the Castello di Amorosa, Sterling Vineyards, and Chateau Montelena, along with the swish Solage and Calistoga Ranch resorts, to be joined in late 2020 by the Four Seasons Resort Napa Valley. This mellow town’s real delights, though, lie in its smaller wineries, inns, spas, and restaurants. Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga’s Old West–style main street, is also worth a stroll during your stay.
Known for its mud baths and geothermal waters, Calistoga caught the attention of pioneer-entrepreneur Sam Brannan, who made his original fortune during the Gold Rush era—he was reportedly California’s first millionaire. The town’s name derives from Brannan’s 1860s declaration that he intended to turn the area into the “Calistoga of Sarafornia” when he meant to say the Saratoga of California, referring to Saratoga Springs, the then and still popular New York State spa destination.
Brannan kickstarted the process of developing Calistoga but lost his fortune along the way. Time, though, has proved he had the right idea. With options that range from lavish to workaday, this remains a top Wine Country choice for spa relaxation.
Below are my suggestions for a weekend getaway to this northern Napa Valley gem.
Pre-trip to-do list:
1) Book your lodging (suggestions below).
2) For the safety of guests in the Covid-19 era, all wineries require reservations. In some cases you may be able to make them same-day, though because wineries are restricting traffic to ensure proper distancing and sanitation it’s best to book a day or more ahead if possible.
3) Make dinner reservations at Evangeline for Friday night and Solbar for Saturday night. Ditto for Sunday brunch at Lovina if you’ll be dining there. Most of the restaurants mentioned below will provide meals to go if you prefer.
From 3 pm
Settle in: Check into your lodging and get settled. If your choice has an early-evening wine-and-cheese event, attend that. Otherwise, begin your exploration of Calistoga wines at one of downtown’s Lincoln Avenue tasting rooms. Romeo Vineyards & Cellars and Picayune Cellars are good ones, open until 6:30 pm and 6 pm respectively on Friday. If a cocktail’s more to your liking, head over to the happy hour at Sam’s Social Club, but be aware it ends at 5:30.
As of July 2020 the Visit Calistoga Welcome Center, a few doors east of Lincoln Avenue at 1133 Washington Street, is open 10–3 on Fridays. If you arrive in Calistoga early, you can pick up brochures and discount coupons and learn about the town.
Dinner: Dine downtown at Evangeline, a California take on a New Orleans bistro. If the weather’s nice, dine on the outdoor patio.
Breakfast: If breakfast isn’t included in your room rate, get the day going at Café Sarafornia, a cheery diner locals love as much as the tourists do. The cooks here whip up eggs 18 different ways, plus blintzes, French toast, and many other items.
9:30 am (or a hair later)
Tasting: Start the morning with a tasting at Chateau Montelena, where you’ll learn a little Calistoga and Wine Country history. Founded in 1882, the winery is renowned these days for its Chardonnay’s first-place finish at the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting and a star turn in Bottle Shock, the 2008 film about that event. The Chateau Montelena, which opens at 9:30, early for these parts, also makes a good Riesling, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon, among other varietals. Be sure to stroll the landscaped grounds and shore of the property’s lake (lead photo, above) before heading off to your next stop.
Alternative: Casual Bennett Lane Winery, which specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux-style reds but also makes sparkling wine and Chardonnay, opens at 10 am. It touts its tasting room as one of the Napa Valley’s friendliest…and it’s true.
Tasting and tour: Having made a reservation at either Theorem Vineyards or Davis Estates, both of which offer engaging experiences, head to your choice.
Theorem Vineyards: All guests at this hillside winery tour the high-tech, light-filled winery, whose tank and barrel rooms have Mount St. Helena views, before tasting Cabernets and other wines overseen by Thomas Rivers Brown, a renowned consultant. Some tastings involve wines excellently paired with cuisine by Napa Valley Heritage Catering, whose chef, Josh Mitchell, worked in several high-profile valley restaurants before striking out on his own.
Davis Estates: Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style red blends headline at Davis Estates, but several other types of wines, either from estate grown grapes or ones from top producers, are also made here. Gargantuan porch swings with views west across the Napa Valley overlook the front vineyard. The Terrace Wine & Food Pairing includes current releases and small bites.
Alternatives: Both of these tastings are on the expensive side, with Theorem’s in particular geared to serious wine buyers. For a more casual experience, visit Tedeschi Family Winery, a fun stop with affordable well-made wines, or T-Vine Winery, known for fruit-forward reds, many from grapes grown on old vines.
Lunch: Swing over to Sam’s Social Club at Indian Springs Calistoga resort for a light lunch. You’ll shortly be having a spa treatment and will feel more comfortable if your stomach’s not too full. If the weather’s good, you can enjoy your meal on the fieldstone patio.
Spa treatment: Find out what the big deal is with Calistoga mud or, in some cases, clay from well beyond town. Depending on the spa, you can combine a mud session with a soak in a mineral tub, time in the steam room, or sometimes both, and extend your relaxation with a short or long massage. Below are a few favorites:
Indian Springs Calistoga is the top choice for a traditional mud bath in its thick brew of geothermal water and volcanic ash, all from the property. As of July 2020, the resort’s spa is open only for massages for hotel customers, as is the Olympic-size mineral water pool, which dates to 1913.
Solage takes a subtler approach at its chic spa. The signature “Mudslide” treatment here begins with patrons spending time in a steam room slathered with French clay and concludes with a session in a vibrating sound chair. Check with the property for the current offerings.
Moonacre Spa, at the Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa, made a mark for itself with perky treatments like the Cake and Bake. For this one, patrons apply mud and then bask in the sun. As of July 2020, the spa has modified some treatments to accommodate social-distancing and other requirements, and all patrons must be hotel guests or spa members.
Baths at Roman Spa mixes volcanic ash with peat for a less gloppy feeling. The prices at this more workaday spa are slightly lower than the above facilities. You may not feel as pampered as elsewhere, but you’ll surely emerge relaxed.
Hang out: After your treatment, hang out at your spa or back at your lodging.
Dinner: Two choices here, depending on your mood and culinary preferences. Making a reservation is a good idea at both, especially during summer and early fall.
Solbar, the Solage resort’s restaurant, is the night’s splurge. Its menu is divided into lighter spa cuisine and heartier fare.
Lovina is a second option if you won’t be brunching here on Sunday morning (see below). The chefs at this downtown bungalow craft homey yet accomplished American dishes.
Sushi Mambo, popular for its wiggy concoctions like the eel-laced Batman Roll and reasonable (for sushi) prices, is another good choice; owner and chef Jose Cazares is also adept at traditional preparations.
Breakfast: If you aren’t having breakfast at your lodging, consider having brunch at smallish Lovina. The house mimosa gets its kick from seasonal fruit sorbet and Lillet blanc aperitif. Menu choices range from French toast and egg dishes to salads and the Croque Lovina, made from roasted heritage pork. Sam’s Social Club serves all the breakfast regulars.
Tasting: Kirk Venge (pronounced ven-ghee) ranks among the Napa Valley’s most sought-after winemaking consultants. Find out why at Venge Vineyards, his Calistoga estate and winery. You can taste Cabernets from grapes grown on-site and elsewhere in the Napa Valley, along with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel or other wines. Venge only receives 20 visitors a day, so book ahead as far as possible. You must have an appointment to visit.
Alternative: If you can’t get an appointment at Venge, family-owned Brian Arden Wines and Tamber Bey are two good options, Tedeschi Family Winery or Romeo Vineyards & Cellars if you didn’t visit them earlier in the weekend.
Tasting: Your 48 hours are almost up, and we’re thinking that, post-brunch, you’re not quite ready to eat, so slip over to Vincent Arroyo Winery. With its plywood walls and concrete floor, the place couldn’t be more downscale, but the wines are as polished as the vibe is relaxed. If you’ve been splurging too much, here’s your chance to rein yourself in a little: the tasting fee is $20. Vincent Arroyo is known for Zinfandel and Petite Sirah but also makes Tempranillo and Bordeaux-style red blends. The winery, run these days by Vince’s daughter and son-in-law (though you’ll still see Vincent around), has a significant fan base for its Petite Sirah Port.
Alternative: If you’re dying to play the tourist, ride the aerial tram to Sterling Vineyards or visit the 107-room medieval style Castello di Amorosa. For some guests the experiences outshine the wines, though if you choose the Platinum Experience at Sterling or the Guided Tour and Reserve Tasting at the Castello you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.
Lunch: Backtrack into town to Buster’s Southern Barbecue & Bakery and order lunch to go. The tri-tip and pulled-pork sandwiches are among the highlights here. Tip: The three-item combo plate, which comes with garlic toast and two sides, can easily feed two. If you’re not all that hungry, the two-item combo might be enough.
Alternative: Napa Valley Heritage Catering‘s Josh Mitchell (see Theorem Vineyards, above) focuses on winery and other events but also operates a take-out counter from Thursday through Monday at the Riverlea Plaza (2450 Foothill Blvd., Suite G) shopping strip a little north of town. It’s worth calling 707-942-5432 to see what’s on the brief menu, which is sometimes posted on Facebook.
Tasting or geyser: You’re supposed to be heading home now, but on your way out of town picnic either at one last winery or Calistoga’s geyser attraction.
Von Strasser Family of Wines is the umbrella name for the two wineries, Von Strasser Winery and Lava Vine Wines, that operate out of a facility just outside town. Von Strasser is known for Diamond Mountain and other Cabernets; Lava Vine for an eclectic lineup that includes Verdelho, an Italian white, and Grenache, Petite Sirah, and other reds.
Old Faithful Geyser of California recalls roadside attractions of yore, both in its signage and array of side attractions, which include a well-stocked gift shop, plenty of picnic areas, and a small farm with goats and sheep the kiddies can feed. At $15 for guests age 12 and up, some travelers find it a tad pricey, but the picnic areas are well laid out, you can bring your own wine and food, and selfies at the geyser are pretty much guaranteed to earn social-media likes, all the more so if your image includes a rainbow.
Alternative: From Buster’s, walk three blocks north on Lincoln Avenue to the August Briggs Winery tasting room, whose picnic area overlooks the Napa River. Among the wines August Briggs produces are a Charbono red from old-vine grapes. Recognizing that most of the Napa Valley’s Charbono crop is grown in the valley’s far north, the winery bills Charbono as “Calistoga’s cult grape.”
Dining and Lodging
Calistoga Shuttle provides on-demand door-to-door service you can order up on your smartphone (or by calling, if that’s your thing).
Calistoga Wine Growers has info about member wineries, which include most of the ones mentioned in this itinerary.
Visit Calistoga is the town’s official tourism website. It has an office, a few doors south of Brannan’s at 1133 Washington Street, where you can pick up brochures, discount tasting room passes. If you’re visiting between December and the first weekend in February, ask about the Calistoga Winter in the Wineries Passport. Purchase one, and you’ll receive tastings at no further charge at more than a dozen wineries, including some on this itinerary.
More Napa Valley Itineraries
This story first appeared online in 2018; it was fact-checked and updated in mid-2020.