Calistoga – time to revisit Napa Valley’s newest official appellation

Downtown Calistoga
Downtown Calistoga

 It is said that in 1867, founder Samuel Brannan was to proclaim that the town previously called Hot Springs or Agua Caliente would be known as the “Saratoga of California” for its mineral rich hot springs.  But under the influence of medicinal waters, he reportedly burst out instead the infamous words, “Calistoga of Sarafornia,” which in some ways characterizes the colorfulness of Calistoga today.  Calistoga is so unlike the Napa Valley that the world thinks of – it does not have the big city feel of Napa, the sophistication of Yountville, or the family-orientation of Saint Helena – which is a reason in itself to visit it.  It is a town with large wineries and now exclusive Auberge resorts, but with a foot firmly planted in its small town and historic roots.

The long-awaited granting of official American Viticultural Areastatus to Calistoga announced on December 3rd and effective January 7, 2010 makes it an appropriate time to re-visit Calistoga especially given the notable openings of distinctive restaurants and resorts in the area.  Currently, Calistoga producers make Napa Valley-labelled wines and/or district wines from AVA’s other than Calistoga.  Official AVA status will give greater identity to the wines made from Calistoga fruit and to their  producers.  

Wineries in Calistoga range from small independent producers to the largest icons.  Upon approaching the small Zahtila property at the intersection of Silverado and Lincoln, one is greeted by a friendly dog and several cats.  Laura Zahtila makes small lot zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon blends of which the 2005 Vineyard George III in Rutherford is a fine example.  Dutch Henry Winery is 100% solar powered winery with certified organic estate vineyards.  Their well water comes up at 153 degrees so must be moved to a cement vat before it can be used.  Their Mount Veeder pinot noir gets its freshness from cool, high elevation vineyards.  Among the largest wineries in Calistoga are the art-driven Clos Pegaseand Sterling Vineyards with its incredible views.  The relatively new Castello di Amorosa pays homage to Italian varietals with fruit-driven sangiovese and northern Italian style pinot grigio and gewürztraminer.  The castello is filled with merchandise, making it a good place to shop for sourvenirs.  One cannot visit Calistoga without visiting its most historic winery Schramsberg or Chateau Montelena, whose winning chardonnay wines in the 1976 Paris Tasting helped further the quality reputation of the Napa Valley.

Accomodations range from historic bed & breakfasts to boutique hotels to large resorts.  The Brannan Cottage Inn is the only surviving cottage on its original site of Samuel Brannan’s original resort, the Calistoga Hot Springs, and is on the National Register.  Boutique inns include the eco-friendly Mount View Hotel & Spa in the center of town.  Calistoga made its name in the 19th century as a health retreat because of its natural hot springs and it remains a spa destination with a dozen resorts in the area including the luxury Calistoga Ranch and Solage Calistoga.

There are good choices to dine in Calistoga ranging from the classic diner to Michelin star restaurants.  Café Sarafornia is the place to have breakfast, served all day until close at 3:00pm.  JoLe, owned by Sonjia and Matt Spector of the well-regarded Matyson in Philadelphia, is a new casual farm-to-table restaurant open only for dinner.  Solbarat Solage Calistoga recently received a Michelin star for its innovative menu which is divided into lighter and hearty selections.  The classic Brannan’s Grill is an elegant but casual restaurant with no bad tables and signature flatiron steak.

 In the 19thcentury, the Geysers and the Petrified Forest were already tourist attractions, but today, there are a variety of other interesting things to do such as taking a tour of the Napa Valley Brewing Company micro-brewery at Calistoga Inn or taking a wine sensory class at W.H. Smith’s new tasting room, both on Lincoln.  One can take a hike on Oat Hill Mine Trail which is over 8 miles long, with the trailhead at the intersection of Silverado Trail and Lincoln.  And of course since Calistoga was always known as a health retreat for mind and body, one can relax, soak in the curative hot springs and participate in the many wellness activities at the resorts and spas.

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