St. Helena is Napa Valley’s quaint, thirst-quenching heart.
Certain locales have a way of wrapping themselves up, showing themselves off, and shining under balmy skies as perfect examples of what the old song calls “California dreamin’.”
Different spots flaunt different assets to become different versions of those dreams: Big Sur needn’t pretend to be Palm Springs.
And St. Helena needn’t pretend to be anything but the Wine Country’s cute, quaint, thirst-quenching heart. About an hour’s drive northwest of Oakland, this historic swatch of soothingly straight, flat, oak- and pine-shaded streets studded with boutique wineries, luxury lodgings, spectacular spas, cutting-edge restaurants, and consciously eclectic shops likes to call itself “Napa Valley’s main street.”
Formerly known by its indigenous name, Annakotanoma (meaning “bull-snake village”), St. Helena was founded in 1876 after settlers took up local promoter Henry Still’s offer of free land to prospective business owners. By 1857, the outpost already sported a shoemaker’s shop, blacksmithery, saddlery, and hotel. In 1861, pioneering Prussian-born winemaker Charles Krug set up shop there on acreage that comprised his wife’s dowry.
Others followed suit, and amid this sprawling citrine-and-serpentine landscape, business literally bloomed. Today, nearly 7,000 acres of vineyards — occupying the narrowest stretch between the Mayacamas and lesser-known Vaca mountain ranges — form the fruitful St. Helena American Vinicultural Area.
Given the lure of nearly 200 wineries — including Trinchero, Beringer, Brasswood, Burgess, Rombauer, Duckhorn, Provenance, Titus, Chappellet, Lokoya, Vineyard 29, and many more —within a 10-mile radius, visitors here have their Cabernet cut out for them.
Winery tastings and tours are excellent excuses for exploring some of the Golden State’s grandest gardens, villas, and cellars — with special extras and themes at each winery, from fine art at Markham to an on-site bed-and-breakfast at Salvestrin to lilac gardens at Young Inglewood to weekend barbecues at V. Sattui to a soaring, stained-glassy German-style mansion at Beringer to breathtaking valley views at Fantesca, whose aging-cave, carved directly out of Spring Mountain, was once a silver mine. From the local visitors bureau, vinophiles can buy the Little Book of Big Experiences, affording insider access to curated activities at some 15 area wineries.
On St. Helena’s own Main Street — the main street of Napa Valley’s main street, as it were —triple-lobed streetlamps originally used at 1915’s Panama Pacific Exposition overlook archaic flat-façaded red-brick storefronts whose graceful arched windows frame all forms of charm: from designer fashions to wine to dizzyingly pretty Woodhouse chocolates to the Model Bakery’s fluffy English muffins, praised famously by Oprah Winfrey.
Still hungry? The regally rustic Meadowood resort’s Restaurant at Meadowood has three Michelin stars; getting reservations here is like winning the lottery. Serving neo-Californiana such as Vietnamese sticky pig ears and duckfat sopes with candycap-mushroom mole, Goose & Gander evokes many ambiences under one roof, including an alfresco dining area atop a lively basement bar dispensing re-imagined retro cocktails. Engagingly accessible, the 20-year-old original Gott’s Roadside — whose Walnut Creek location East Bayites already know and love — offers hearty helpings of cleverly rebooted classic burger-joint fare.
You might wonder how dozens of cutting-edge eat-and-drinkeries thrive in one quiet population-6,000 rural town — until you realize that St. Helena is home to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, whose 19th-century main campus building — a biscuit-beige half-castle, half-palm-fronted fortress — is on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can take cooking classes, attend demonstrations, sip glasses of Greystone Cellars wine, be fed by future celebrity chefs at its student-run restaurant, and/or tour the magnificent stone building’s historic halls and lush grounds.
When You Go
Salvestrin Winery: 397 Main St., St. Helena, 707-963-5105, SalvestrinWinery.com
Model Bakery: 1357 Main St., St. Helena, 707-963-8192, TheModelBakery.com
The Restaurant at Meadowood: 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena, 707-967-1205, TheRestaurantAtMeadowood.com
Goose & Gander: 1245 Spring St., 707-967-8779, GooseGander.com
Culinary Institute of America at Greystone: 2555 Main St., St. Helena, 707-967-1100, CIAChef.edu