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, Calistoga contains famous wineries like the Castello di Amorosa, Sterling Vineyards and Chateau Montelena, along with the swish Solage and Calistoga Ranch resorts. As flashy as these establishments are, this mellow town’s real delights lie in its smaller wineries, inns, spas and restaurants. Lincoln Avenue, the Old West–style main street, is also worth a stroll.
Known for its mud baths and geothermal waters, what’s now downtown Calistoga caught the attention of Sam Brannan, a mid-19th-century California entrepreneur. In the 1860s, Brannan, who made his fortune during the Gold Rush era, declared his intention to create the “Calistoga of Sarafornia.” Brannan meant to say the Saratoga of California, referring to Saratoga Springs, the then and still popular New York State spa destination. Mangled phrasing aside, Brannan jumpstarted the process but lost his fortune along the way. Time has proven, though, that he had the right idea. Visitors have a few dozen spas to choose from and, according to locals, more massage therapists toil here per capita than in all of California, including Beverly Hills.
With options that range from lavish to workaday, Calistoga remains a top Wine Country choice for spa relaxation, with the bonuses these days the dozens of wine-tasting opportunities. As with the rest of the Napa Valley, Cabernet is king in this region known for its high heat and volcanic soils, but Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and many other varietals thrive here, too.
Below are our suggestions for a weekend getaway to this northern Napa Valley gem.
1) Book your lodging.
2) Book tours at smaller wineries that require appointments.
3) Make dinner reservations at Evangeline for Friday night and Solbar for Saturday night. Ditto for Lovina if you’ll be Sunday brunching there.
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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. Vermeil Wines, founded by broadcast analyst and former NFL Coach Dick Vermeil (he was born and raised in Calistoga), and Picayune Cellars are open until 8 pm and 6 pm respectively on Friday.
Until 6 pm on Friday (5 pm the rest of the week), you can drop by the Calistoga Welcome Center, the town’s tourism office, a few doors east of Brannan’s at 1133 Washington Street, and pick up brochures, learn about the town, charge your phone, and even print boarding passes.
Dinner: Dine downtown at Evangeline, a California take on a New Orleans bistro. If the weather’s nice, take your meal on the outdoor patio.
Nightcap: Have a Sazerac at Evangeline or head over to Susie’s Bar, the fun dive around the corner.
Breakfast: If your room rate doesn’t include breakfast, get the day going at Café Sarafornia, a cheery diner locals love as much as the tourists do. The cooks whip up eggs 18 different ways, plus blintzes, French toast and many other items.
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 of French and California wines and a star turn in Bottle Shock, the 2008 film about that pivotal event. Chateau Montelena, which opens at 9:30, early for these parts, also makes Riesling, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and a few other wines. Stroll the landscaped grounds and the shore of the manmade lake before heading off to your next stop.
Alternative: Casual Bennett Lane Winery, which makes Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux-style reds but also 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. Be sure to check out the soil samples in the tasting room and the views of the Calistoga Palisades from the patio.
Davis: Gargantuan porch swings overlook the vineyard at Davis Estates. You can taste current releases either on the porch or indoors, but to learn more about the property, book the History Tour and visit the cave, which has sculptures in niches above the barrels. The fermenting tanks look like artworks themselves. For this experience the wines are paired with small bites from the talented executive chef. Cabernet and Bordeaux-style red blends headline at Davis, but several other types of wines, either from estate grown grapes or ones from top producers, are also made.
Jericho: All guests here tour the vineyard and cave before tasting Calistoga Cabernets made from grapes grown on steep hillsides. To find out just how steep they are, book the tour that includes a spin through the grapevines in the winery’s Polaris ATV.
Alternatives: Both of these tastings are on the expensive side. If you’re on a budget, visit family-owned Tedeschi Family Winery, a fun stop with well-made, affordable wines, or T-Vine Winery, known for fruit-forward wines, many from grapes grown on old vines. You’ll need a reservation at Tedeschi (same-day ones are usually possible but call ahead) but not at T-Vine.
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 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:
Baths at Roman Spa mixes volcanic ash with peat for a less gloppy feeling. The prices at this workaday spa are slightly lower than at its peers. You may not feel as pampered as elsewhere, but you’ll emerge relaxed.
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. After your massage, you can spend time in the Olympic-size mineral water pool, which dates to 1913.
Moonacre Spa, at the Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa, has perky treatments like the (weather permitting) Cake and Bake. For this one, patrons apply mud and then bask in the sun. For the Perfectly Muddled treatment, an indoor variation on the theme, the action takes place in the commodious steam room. You can hang at the pools and whirlpool after your session.
Solage takes a more subtle approach at its chic spa. The signature “Mudslide” treatment begins with patrons spending time in a steam room slathered with French clay, concluding with a session in a vibrating sound chair.
Hang out: After your treatment, continue relaxing 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 all of them, especially during summer and early fall.
Lovina is a good option if you won’t be brunching here on Sunday morning (see below). The chefs craft homey yet accomplished American dishes.
Solbar, the Solage resort’s restaurant, is the splurge. The chefs prepare both lighter spa cuisine and heartier fare, and the wine list covers the globe.
After dinner: If you’re not ready to call it a night, hang out for a while at Solbar.
Breakfast: If you aren’t eating at your lodging, consider brunching at 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.
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. Venge also makes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel and other wines. The winery receives only 20 visitors a day, so book ahead as far as possible. You must have an appointment to visit.
Alternatives: If you can’t get an appointment at Venge, Brian Arden Wines and Barlow Vineyards, both family owned, are worthy alternatives. Brian Arden doesn’t require reservations, but you’ll need one to visit Barlow.
Tasting: Your 48 hours are almost up, but post-brunch you’re probably not ready to eat again. Hold off on lunch and, having made a reservation, visit Vincent Arroyo Winery. With its plywood walls and concrete floor, the place couldn’t come off more downscale, but the wines are as polished as the vibe is relaxed. If you’ve been overspending, here’s your chance to rein in yourself. The winery, known for Zinfandel and Petite Sirah—there’s also a crowd-pleasing Petite Sirah port—charges a mere $10 for a tasting.
Alternatives: 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 Sterling’s Platinum Experience or the Castello’s Guided Tour and Reserve Tasting, at which higher-tier wines are poured, 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. 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, perhaps with an order of the moist and flavorful cornbread muffins.
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 close to downtown. Winemaker Rudy von Strasser built his reputation on Diamond Mountain and other Napa Valley Cabernets. For Lava Vine, which he purchased a few years back, von Strasser makes several whites and reds, among them Verdelho, an Italian white, and Grenache, Petite Sirah and other reds. Order a glass and enjoy a picnic outside, then do a tasting afterward (or vice versa).
Old Faithful Geyser of California recalls roadside attractions of yore, both in its signage and supporting cast: picnic areas, a well-stocked gift shop and a small farm with goats and sheep the kiddies can feed. Some travelers find the $15 admission fee a tad pricey, but the picnic areas are nicely laid out. You can also 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 a rainbow graces your image.
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. August Briggs wines include Charbono red from old-vine grapes. The winery bills Charbono, rare in California, as “Calistoga’s cult grape” because much of the Napa Valley’s crop is grown here.
Visit Calistoga, a few doors south of Brannan’s at 1133 Washington Street, is the town’s official tourism website. You can pick up brochures and discount tasting room passes here. If 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 (no further charge) at many area wineries, among them some on this itinerary.
Calistoga Wine Growers has info about member wineries, which include most of the ones mentioned in this itinerary.
Calistoga Shuttle provides on-demand door-to-door service you can order up on your smartphone or also by calling.