Auberge du Soleil pretty much established Napa Valley as a weekend destination for food-and-wine snobs when it opened a handful of elegant guest suites next to its already-famous restaurant on Rutherford Hill in 1985. Twenty years later, challenged by newcomers (sister property Calistoga Ranch and the Carneros Inn), Auberge is unveiling a major room renovation this month that has it poised once again to be the best place to stay in the valley. It will also have a new chef, a decadent new spa suite, and a small but impressive satellite of the upscale I. Wok gallery in nearby St. Helena.
First it was Merlot. Then Syrah. But this year, Napa’s “It” grape is—no, not Pinot Noir—Malbec. The aromatic red has been big in Chile and Argentina for decades, but Napa vintners are now planting small test crops. You won’t be drinking California Malbec for at least a few years, so in the meantime, toast the warm weather with a glass of rosé: Robert Sinksey’s Vin Gris and Etude’s Rosé currently top the summer wine lists of most oenophiles, from the pros at Bounty Hunter wine shop to the sommelier at Auberge du Soleil.
Food is the second compelling reason most people visit Napa. For those who’ve already indulged in the famous slow-smoked barbecued-pork sandwich at Mustards Grill and the tasting menu at French Laundry, try the miso-crusted foie gras at the sleek, Asian-inspired Budo, or the polenta-stuffed poblano chile at the cool organic restaurant Pilar. Locals are psyched for the June opening of El Dorado Kitchen, by former French Laundry sous-chef Ryan Fancher, and for the scheduled September launch of Redd, by Richard Reddington (head chef at Auberge du Soleil during its eighties heyday and now at San Francisco’s Masa).
Obsessive attention to detail is Cliff Lede Vineyards’ standard operating procedure: The first Cabernet Sauvignon from its top-tier Poetry line, released last fall, brought in $100 a bottle and sold out in one month. Imagine what that same mind-set will do when applied to the fledgling winery’s new Poetry Inn, opening at the end of this month. With a rare hillside location, the five-room inn offers mesmerizing views of the vineyards stretching west toward Yountville and the verdant mountains beyond. Plush suites are done in a cozy craftsman vernacular—leather, wood, earth tones, fireplaces (from $575; 707-944-0646).
Having already won a reputation for producing big, powerful Cabernets that age well, Howell Mountain is the new hot spot for trendsetting wine producers like Cakebread, which recently planted two vineyards there. This move into the hills marks the valley’s most noticeable shift: As lowlands become scarce, new vineyards are crawling up the mountains—giving the golden-hued landscape an even closer resemblance to Tuscany.
Over the past couple of years, St. Helena’s Main Street has attracted some delightful boutiques that don’t even sell corkscrews, much less cases of Cab. At Jaunt, you’ll find cool travel novelties and designer sneakers; try Pearl for flirty separates and accessories, Footcandy for irresistible Choos, Louboutins, and Hollywoulds, and 26 for sporty-hip lines like Paul Frank.
Oh, and then there’s the tastings. This summer, seek out the new (Bennett Lane Winery, a visual stunner in Calistoga), the exclusive (Far Niente Winery, now open for tours for the first time in 25 years), and the up-and-coming (Frank Family Vineyards, earning fans for its anti-snob approach—no fee, big pours).