Napa Snapshots in Coffee, Wine & Dining

In my many jaunts to Wine Country, I never suffer for options. Even after a decade, I am ever experiencing new delights. In addition to recent weekends (Calistoga to family-run wineries), here’s a few more bite-sized fall delights that will be equally pleasing this winter.

Coffee goodness

Napa Valley Roaster’s vintage Probat roaster

Inside the welcoming St. Helena cafe














Napa Valley Roasters is a family-run affair with the original shop in downtown Napa and a larger cafe in St. Helena. Nancy Haynes is president, carrying on the legacy begun by husband who started the business many years back, while son Charlie Sange is the roastmaster. Using a vintage Probat roaster, he rotates batches of beans each shift, personally adjusting roasting times and techniques for each style. They supply coffee for numerous high profile restaurants all over Wine Country.

I’ve spent time in both cafes, and though I am inclined towards the character of the historic Napa space with high ceilings and creaky wood floors, I value the welcoming vibe of the St. Helena location. Locals chatted me up as I wrote over espresso and coffee, alongside the well-loved, red Probat machine. At home, I savored their robust French roast beans, each cup a reminder of a family who clearly cares about coffee and their community.

Gourmet spread, with a view

Enchanting night view from Ram’s Gate Winery

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Bounty in Ram’s Gate kitchen

Ram’s Gate Winery is one of the more exciting winery openings I’ve seen in Wine Country. Having visited a couple of times (including the pre-opening party in September), I’m mesmerized each visit by the winery setting atop a small hill surrounded by wide valley vistas.

The building itself is an architectural delight. An array of room feature high ceilings, comfortably chic chairs, fireplaces, massive, open air spaces and patios flowing into one another, all taking in that view. Rustic with weathered woods, the structure is likewise visionary and modern.

Sleek indoor fireside winery seating

Yes, there is wine, from Pinot to Syrah (I am partial to their Sparkling Brut), but a highlight of Ram’s Gate is Executive Chef Jason Rose, who’s resume includes a stint as Culinary Project Manager at the Delfina Restaurant Group. His cooking is worth going out of your way for alone. Small plates represent (naturally) the best of local bounty and are as refined (and damn tasty) as the better restaurants nearby.

Though the address is Sonoma, one of the key factors Ram’s Gate has going for it is a location right off the 121, en route to  Napa and Sonoma counties, barely over 30 minutes drive from SF. It’s now a key stop for a snack, a sip, or a full meal.

Daytime view from Ram’s Gate’s back patio

Chef Jason Rose’s sumptuous pork belly

Old world Napa

A photo is a meager reflection of the stunning valley & mountain range view from the Smith Madrone property

Way up winding roads from St. Helena, Smith Madrone is run by brothers Stu and Charles (Stu founded the winery in 1971). At first meet, Charles is mild-mannered and polite, while Stu is a straight-shooter, peppering his talk with more than a few swear words. Stu took me on a ride around the winery grounds, tucked into the slopes of Spring Mountain.

Fermenting grapes next to aging vintages in French oak barrels

Being harvest time, grapes rested in open air vats in the small, barn-like winery, giving off a fragrant, sweetly boozy aroma, surrounded by past vintages aging in French oak.

Far off the beaten path, this sleepy (though hard-working) vineyard evokes a Napa of decades ago. It seemed a glimpse of what Napa was like before 1976’s Judgement of Paris, before Mondavi elevated Napa on the global wine map. Here there is a sense of place, history and family that feels very much Napa. It made me grateful to see it preserved in this peaceful hideaway.

A short walk from the winery is an unexpected, breathtaking view (above). Standing on the edge of Spring Mountain, the slopes cut down to the valley with the Eastern ridge visible across the valley. Sipping a glass of their dry Riesling (bright with floral summer fruit) with this view before me, I had a moment. Taking in the silence of pine ridges and mountains, hills and valleys, vineyards and sun, I was reminded of how sweet it is to be alive.

Stu Smith interacts with grapes during harvest

Fine dining in a Westin hotel

Dreamy dish of Maine lobster with butternut squash in fall spiced creme fraiche and toasted pumpkin seeds

La Toque seems an unlikely fine dining destination for hardcore foodies inside the Westin Verasa Napa hotel. But a tasting menu here (four courses $74, five for $90, chef’s table menu $135) leads with impeccable waitstaff and service, surprises with inventive dishes, and an international wine list. The decor, while refined, felt a bit stiff, but service is so warm, one forgets the surroundings, particularly when a dish like Maine lobster creamy with butternut squash comes out, illumining another direction for lobster – one vividly fall-like.

Garden-fresh creativity

Ubuntu’s usual work of art in garden-fresh dishes: chilled cantaloupe and sage gazpacho is infused with roasted corn husks imbuing slightly smoky notes accented by spicy charred lime peanuts, pickled watermelon rind, Mexican sour gherkins and shiso oil

Ubuntu is one of Napa County’s best restaurants – and I am decidedly not a vegetarian. This “soup” may look as spare as bird food. I’ll admit, portions on some dishes do run small. But sharing four plates each visit I somehow leave full, and in what is a rarity for me anymore, there’s always a few dishes unlike any I’ve had before. A complex, pleasing range of flavors is commonplace at Ubuntu.