Despite being one of America’s best-known tourist (and wine drinking) destinations, Napa Valley still offers plenty of discoveries and surprises for travelers. These surprises are everywhere you go and pop up when you least expect it, like finding a Pokemon Go character you did not anticipate seeing.
Here are seven hidden treasures of Napa Valley, which you may wish to seek out the next time you go there:
- The Benny Bufano statues at Robert Mondavi Winery
This being the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of this landmark Oakville winery, tourist buses and limos descend upon it daily. It’s hardly an undiscovered place. But there is a small, sheltered, out of the way spot that many tourists miss; it’s a gallery toward the back of the magnificent Cliff May-designed building and it’s devoted to the art of Benny Bufano. Bufano was a fine California sculptor of his time and the Mondavi has a world-class collection of his work, with pieces all around the winery (including the St. Francis statue you see as you drive in) but especially here. His sculptures of a penguin, bear and a cat with a Garfield-like expression are a delight; it’s like you’ve wandered into a little bronze and marble zoo.
While you’re there: Try a glass of the Mondavi fumé blanc. It’s a light and flavorful summer white wine and the idea for it originated from Robert Mondavi himself, who wanted to create a California and American answer to the French Sauvignon Blanc.
- The well inside Oakville Grocery
- Abraham Lincoln’s head
- Oxbow Commons
- André Tchelistcheff’s living memorial
- The Codorníu posters at Artesa
- Martha Van De Leur’s roses
Just down the road from the Mondavi is the Oakville Grocery, another long-time valley institution of note, although it dates back to pioneer days when Highway 29 was a dirt road and the vehicles traveling back and forth on it were farm wagons pulled by horses. The grocery began in the 1880s, around the same time they hand-dug a water well on the property. But nobody in modern times knew about the well until two years ago, when workmen discovered it during a renovation. It’s located a step or two from the deli counter, its walls are made of brick, and there’s a clear glass covering over it so you can see it but not fall down into it.
While you’re there: Grab lunch. Or at least an espresso and pastry. You’re going to need ballast if you’re planning to wet your sails with wine during the day. Two more good gourmet food shops are Dean & DeLuca in St. Helena and the wonderfully old and authentic Napa Valley Olive Oil Company on Charter Avenue, also in St. Helena.
Napa Valley has lots of outdoor sculptures and art—some of it quite good—but only one giant bust of our nation’s sixteenth president. It can be found in a business section of south Napa where tourists typically do not tread; you’ll probably have to make a special trip to see it. The Lincoln bust is a grandly heroic rendering, fitting for the man, and it is placed on a pedestal next to the busts of two other grandly heroic figures: Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce warrior, and Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved the lives of hundreds of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust. The pieces are by the sculptor Mario Chiodo, and they are outside his studio on Enterprise Way.
While you’re there: The busts are in the same neighborhood as the Meritage Resort and the Grape Crusher Statue, the gateway monument for travelers entering the northeastern side of the valley. Both are worthy stops. Also worth checking out: the tiny nearby 300 SL Museum that has Mercedes Benz 300SL Gullwing sports cars on display.
The Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa is another well-known spot frequented by both tourists and locals. Not as well known, though, is the Oxbow Commons area behind the market. It’s a nature spot where you can get good glimpses of the easy-flowing Napa River (easy-flowing in summer, that is; it is historically known to flood during big winter storms) and stroll alongside it. A section of the walkway is temporarily closed, due to repairs, but it’s still a nice place to spend a leisurely few minutes away from the commercial hubbub of the market.
While you’re there: There are many places to eat, drink and shop at Oxbow, including the recently expanded Napa Bookmine bookstore. Stop at the Hog Island Oyster Bar and belly up to a plate of oysters or the rustic seafood stew ($20). Hog Island farms oysters on Tomales Bay on the California coast, and the oysters they serve taste like they’ve been pulled out of the water that morning, which, mostly, they have.
André Tchelistcheff was one of the grand historical figures of Napa Valley; Wine Spectator called him “California’s most influential winemaker” of the past century. While helping to raise the quality and winemaking standards of Napa Valley wines in general, he worked for decades making fine wines for Beaulieu Vineyards, which is the site of this poignant living memorial. It’s a leafy green tree that was planted in his memory, and it grows on a pathway leading to a BV tasting room and behind the parking lot of the Rutherford Grill in Rutherford. The tree spreads its protective branches over a plaque whose inscription honors the Russian-born émigré as a “pioneer, mentor [and] friend.”
While you’re there: Perhaps step into that tasting room and see what the modern winemaking heirs of Tchelistcheff are up to (he died in 1994, at age 92); BV’s Maestro Collection of wines is named after him. Also, the Rutherford Grill is a choice spot for a meal; the barbecue pork ribs with Texas Hill Country BBQ sauce makes you feel only pity for vegetarians who never engage in such pleasures.
Perched atop a hill in the Carneros region in southern Napa Valley, Artesa Vineyards and Winery is celebrated, justly, for its grand and gorgeous views of San Francisco Bay and when it is not swallowed up in fog, the Golden Gate Bridge. Its outdoor fountains, sculptures and architecture are also showpieces. Indoors there is contemporary abstract art and a charming collection of Art Noveau posters created by 19th century Spanish artists for a winery-sponsored competition. The posters provide a nostalgic counterpoint to the abstracts and depict women and men from the 1800s doing what men and women still love to do today: raising bottles of wine and champagne in celebration.
While you’re there: Artesa makes wines with a Spanish flair. Two worth trying are the Albarino, a light, citrus-y white like a Pinot Grigio, and a dark cherry-flavored red Tempranillo. Artesa sources the grapes for the wines from the luscious surrounding Carneros vineyards and Sonoma County. It also makes sparkling wine, or cava in Spanish.
It is well known that Yountville is a top shelf restaurant town, featuring three Thomas Keller eateries—Ad Hoc, 1-star Michelin Bouchon, 3-star Michelin The French Laundry—Richard Reddington’s Redd, Michael Chiarello’s Bottega, and other stellar establishments. It’s also a terrific little walking town. You can easily walk—and eat and drink—from one end of Washington Street to the other and never break a sweat (unless, of course, the weather is boiling hot, which it sometimes is in summer.)
As you’re strolling Washington you’ll pass by a little park that like so many hidden treasures, is easy to overlook. It’s named after Martha Van De Leur, who was a beloved elementary schoolteacher and principal in Yountville long before Thomas Keller came to town and made it a mandatory stop for foodies. Besides teaching, Van De Leur loved gardening, and some of the pink climbing roses she planted decades ago are still visible along the fence in the park. There’s a boulder and plaque that points out where the roses are. In the center of the park is a fountain dedicated to Yountville’s firefighters who, in the first century of the town’s existence, were all volunteers.
While you’re there: Be sure to stop at the French Laundry garden just down from the park. It’s across the street from the restaurant and this is where they grow many of the fruits and vegetables they serve there. There’s a greenhouse, and you can walk down colorful rows of tomatoes, pumpkins, corn and flowers. There are chairs and a bench under shade trees, and it’s a pleasant place to rest up before you start out again in search of more hidden treasures.
Kevin Nelson writes for The Preiser Key wine guide of Napa Valley and Sonoma and his latest book, Foodie Snob, will be published in 2017 by Lyons Press.