5 Upscale Napa Valley Winery and Restaurant Experiences

Exclusive wine tastings, resort restaurant lunches, a wine and culinary event.

The Napa Valley’s casual elegance, accomplished wines, and culinary finesse were on full display during 2022 winery and resort visits.

Elusa Winery

June 2022:  After sipping a seductive Elusa Winery Cabernet Franc at a Calistoga Wine Growers event, I appreciated the chance to experience a full tasting with winemaker Jonathan Walden and GM Jocelyn Hoar. Elusa is located at the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Napa Valley, the valley’s only resort with an on-site winery.

Jonathan Walden makes the wines at Elusa with consulting winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown.

The property’s 4.7 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted from 2018 to 2020. A goal of Elusa’s consulting winemaker, Thomas Rivers Brown, says Walden, has been to honor and elevate Calistoga as an appellation. Established in 2010 as an American Viticultural Area, this northern Napa region of distinct volcanic soils isn’t as well understood as more famous counterparts like Oakville and Rutherford.

The indoor tasting areas at Elusa are understatedly elegant.

Most of The Evolution of Elusa tasting, which commenced with a 2019 Sauvignon Blanc and a golf-cart vineyard tour, took place in a space that, save for its ceiling art created by blasting a cannonball through thin copper sheets, comes off as understatedly elegant. Unusual for a winery that debuted less than a year ago, Elusa pours library wines dating back a decade. Our tasting included 2012–2014 Cabernet Sauvignons; estate grapes from before the 2018 replanting went into the first two wines. The 2013’s body and smooth, soft tannins impressed.

The barnlike winery and attached hospitality center evoke Calistoga’s agricultural past.

We sampled the 2018 Kenefick Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, from the vineyard immediately north of the Four Seasons, before visiting the pristine production facility for a few barrel tastes. Walden, previously of Melka Estates, O’Shaughnessy, and Tuck Beckstoffer, started in 2021. I’m looking forward to a future visit to see how his first wines turned out.

Bear Restaurant, Stanly Ranch

June 2022:  Two artisanal cocktails provided substantial relief on a warm late-May afternoon at Bear, the lead restaurant at Stanly Ranch, Auberge Resorts Collection in southern Napa Valley. The property, which debuted in April 2022, has much going for it. So does Bear.

Lavender Fields, left, and Praying Mantis artisanal cocktails.

With 7,000 lavender plants on-site, there’s no chance the bartenders will run out of the Lavender Fields cocktail’s namesake ingredient. A frothy variation on a sloe gin fizz, it’s made of lavender-infused gin, Fino sherry, Lillet Blanc, Bruto Americano, lemon, and egg. Even more aromatic was the Praying Mantis: lime–infused Reyka vodka, coconut-washed yellow Chartreuse (sometimes green is used), lime, and lemongrass.

Patio dining area at Bear.

Although the main dining room’s angles and airiness have a definite appeal, on sunny days the patio beckons, the better to catch the Carneros breeze. As with the cocktails, the dishes, starting with thick cucumber slices and Shinko pear chunks pepped up and rendered savory by fermented black beans and gochugaru (Korean chile) dressing, were cleverly conceived and well-executed. In the salmon crudo that followed, each ingredient (farm yogurt, spicy yuzu kosho, crisp green apple perfectly sliced, trout roe, and dill) pleased individually, and the ensemble totaled up to something even more satisfying than the parts suggested.

Well-conceived salmon crudo dish at Bear.

Chioggia beets and rich wild shrimp made the Grange Salad (well, heritage bacon, Point Reyes blue cheese, and that farm egg, too). Three personal favorites made the by-the-glass wine list; the bottle selection is equally astute. I checked out Auberge’s Stanly Ranch resort twice last month. Liked the vibe and food both times.

Gordon Huether’s “Infinity” sculpture sits atop a Stanly Ranch hill.

Sullivan Rutherford Estate

June 2022:  Greetings from 26-acre Sullivan Rutherford Estate, one of the Napa Valley’s most photogenic spots – for its pond, landscaped gardens (lead photo), vineyard, and California Arts and Crafts–style home by architect John Marsh Davis. James O’Neil Sullivan established his namesake winery in 1972; the house he commissioned was one of several noteworthy Napa Valley projects by Davis, also responsible for what’s now the main tasting space at Joseph Phelps.

California Arts and Crafts–style home at Sullivan Rutherford Estate.

Juan Pablo Torres Padilla purchased Sullivan Rutherford Estate in 2018. Born in Mexico City, he fell in love with Bordeaux wines during the decade and a half he studied and worked in France. Torres Padilla has made many changes since his arrival, but he retained winemaker Jeff Cole, who took a break from final pre-bottling adjustments to 2020 wines for a quick chat. “We went for it,” said Cole of making wines from a vintage many wineries shunned because of wildfires. “We’re pretty excited about them.”

Winemaker Jeff Cole started at Sullivan Rutherford Estate in 2013.

Asked what distinguishes the estate reds poured at a Founder’s Tasting, Cole mentioned the “very distinctive dark-fruit, savory, bitter/dark-chocolate, and dried-herbal characteristics” the Rutherford appellation is known for. The mellifluous 2014 James O’Neil Merlot (with 11% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cab Franc) and the 2016 James O’Neil Cabernet Sauvignon (with 5% Petit Verdot) certainly bore this out, as did the 2018 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the bonus pour, the 2018 Estate Cabernet Franc.

Shout-out to the hospitality team, which graciously dealt with a scheduling hiccup. The personable and informative Aileen Ruiz, who’s been at Sullivan for nearly a decade, hosted us in a cabana-like breezeway under the house that framed the garden perfectly.

A cabana-like tasting area at Sullivan Rutherford Estate frames pond and garden views.

TRUSS Restaurant + Bar, Four Seasons Napa Valley

March 2022:  After a Cabernet-heavy Calistoga Winegrowers event (see below) at Four Seasons Napa Valley, many participants repaired to the resort’s TRUSS Restaurant + Bar for palate-cleansing cocktails like A Drink with a View. Among the bar’s most popular craft cocktails, the drink has a fitting name given the fetching scenery inside and out. The ingredients: grapefruit-infused ABSOLUT ELYX vodka, passionfruit, rosé, thyme, egg white, and habanero bitters.

A Drink with a View craft cocktail.

Our other libation, The Jekyll & Hyde—brown butter–infused The Burning Chair Bourbon (from Dave Phinney, creator of The Prisoner and other iconoclastic wines), brown sugar, St. George Pear Liqueur—emerged smokin’ good from a glass chamber.

Pool and Calistoga Palisades view from the terrace.

On the advice of our server, we paired the drinks with two pizzas, one with grilled maitake, the other black truffle and arugula, both per the menu with “cracker-thin Chicago-style crust.” A splendid way to wind down a sunny Calistoga afternoon.

The Jekyll and Hyde cocktail emerges from a smoky chamber.

Calistoga Winegrowers Wine & Culinary Experience

March 2022:  I always appreciate the chance to, as the tag goes, #TastefromtheTop of the Napa Valley, especially when the wines being poured date back 20 years or more.

Plenty of Calistoga Cabs at Calistoga Winegrowers 2022 Wine & Culinary Experience.

The food was quite good, especially the caviar on a pancake from Evangeline, sashimi from TRUSS Restaurant + Bar (the Four Seasons restaurant), and lobster mac-and-cheese from Calistoga Inn.

Lobster mac-and-cheese.

Heidi Barrett drew praise for her 2018 La Sirena Cabernet Sauvignon and the recent stand she’d taken regarding smoke taint. Barrett walked away from a consulting gig rather than make 2020 wines she felt she couldn’t (because of the wildfires that ravaged the Napa Valley) vouch for. Tom Eddy poured an, as always, delicious 2015 Tom Eddy Winery Cab. Laurie Poggi, whose 2017 Diamond Mountain Cab was sooo good, held a board of a Napa Valley Life Magazine piece about her “unapologetically small” label, Poggi Wines. Chris Kenefick represented his family’s Kenefick Ranch Vineyard. Next door to the Four Seasons, the ranch supplied the grapes for the 2015 Kenefick Founder’s Reserve red blend and the 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon from Elusa, the Four Seasons’ on-site winery (see above).

Clockwise from top left: vintners Heidi Barrett, Tom Eddy, Laurie Poggi, and Chris Kenefick.

Updated and lightly edited, the posts here originally appeared on my Facebook page.

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