A Foodie's Guide to Napa Valley's Surprise Spring

NAPA VALLEY, Calif. ( MainStreet) -- Spring arrived early in Napa Valley this season, catching many restaurateurs off guard. Restaurants such as Ubuntu are closed for creative sabbaticals, while The Restaurant at Meadowood (a three-star Michelin restaurant) timed an ambitious renovation for a winter season that is usually one of the slower times on the calendar -- just not this year.

There's plenty else here, though. Come the weekend, San Franciscans, spa revelers and destination tourists descend on the region in search of its acclaimed wineries and boutique hotels. And then there's the food, a virtual universe of its own that includes culinary superstars such as Thomas Keller as well as less-known but equally brilliant names such as Michael Chiarello and Richard Reddington.
For visitors to Napa who like the grandest room and restaurant in the valley, it's best to check in at Auberge du Soleil.

For those who like the grandest room in the valley, it's best to check in at Auberge du Soleil, which has the prerequisite world-class spa, on-site Michelin one-star eatery by chef Robert Curry and fireside bar that's just about as chic a lounge as the Napa Valley possesses. Weekend room prices can frighten the frugal, but it has an earthy modern decor and integrated outdoor spaces that overlook planted olive groves and Napa Valley hillside that are truly second to none, even after a quarter-century in the hotel business.

For those looking for the newest kid in the valley, there's North Block Hotel in the former Hotel Luca in Yountville. In area remarkably lacking in cool and trendy design hotels that aren't faux-Euro in theme or painfully modern, North Block (named for its location at the northern tip of Yountville) employs an industrial and somewhat retro decor with modern furnishings and a hipster-glam aesthetic. Local designer Erin Martin was in charge of the renovation, including all 20 guest rooms.

The hotel is also home to new Redd Wood by Reddington, who also does the nearby one-star Michelin-winning Redd. It offers a gastro-Italian eatery with daily rotating menu of charcuterie and cheese plates as well as wood-fired pizza specialties ranging from traditional tomato and basil pies to hefty homemade sausage, pork jowl or prosciutto cotto toppings. The casual interiors use unfinished stone, walls of glass and industrial steel among wrap-around tufted banquettes and bentwood bistro chairs -- refreshingly casual given the area's numerous fancy gourmands.

Stay at either hotel and it's likely your days will be spent exploring the various wineries, from Carneros to Calistoga, including Plumpjack Winery with its top-notch cabernet, Grgich Hills Estate with its infamous chardonnay and Clos Pegase Winery, which made the eco twist-off cap seem downright classy. Those looking for a full-on winery experience can always indulge in a visit to Francis Ford Coppola Winery with legions of wide-eyed star seekers savoring every tasting glass while a fancier sort tucks into leisurely lunches at Rustic, with its menu of Francis' very favorite Italian dishes.

A bit farther from the central valley in St. Helena is Long Meadow Ranch, which offers an organic farmstead with winery and a farm-to-table dining experience that captures the true essence of modern-day Napa cuisine. Its nursery barn is now Farmstead, a 110-seat eatery by chef Stephen Barber, whose ingredient-driven American menu wows on a daily basis with such dishes as carpaccio of Long Meadow Ranch beef topped with almonds and arugula, chili-roasted local crab and a signature beef cut of the day with heaping sides. Many diners rave these are the best meals in the Napa Valley.

As for local springtime events, this year will offer the second installment of Napa Valley Arts in April, celebrating the gallery and collecting scene in the valley through a calendar of special exhibitions, art events, curated tours and theme tastings. The four-week event highlights a different region of the valley every week, with behind-the-scene glimpses of winery art collections in the valley that include works by Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet, George Rickey and Richard Serra -- the hottest arts event of an increasingly warm season.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.

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