Not having spent time in Calistoga for years, I recently stayed a few days to discover some wines and enjoy the vibrant, emerging local restaurant scene. What follows is a small taste of what we enjoyed …

Breakfast options include Sarafornia, an old-style cafe with classic comfort food, or Bella Bakery for those seeking coffee and an artisan pastry. My favorite for atmosphere and menu was Sam’s Social Club, east of town, where I enjoyed an omelette of cultivated wild mushrooms, Gruyere cheese, black truffle oil and scallions.

We had the opportunity to taste two local sauvignon blanc releases; both impressive, but very different. The 2015 Petit Coquerel Sauvignon Blanc ($20) had shades of grapefruit on the nose and during the long finish with a dry crispness in the middle.

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From the producers of fine Calistoga cabernet sauvignon, the Grade Sauvignon Blanc “Sea Fog” 2015 ($28), barrel-fermented in all neutral oak, delivers a pleasant acidity with degrees of citrus and stone fruit flavors and a soft wet stone finish.

Formerly Calistoga Kitchen, Lovina is a new restaurant in the old building at the corner of Cedar Street and Lincoln Avenue. The new creative ownership team identifies with being a uniquely suited, diverse group of friends. The menu is also diverse, with vegetarian friendly and gluten-free options available. Uniquely good was the grilled cheese with chestnut and celery root soup and the warm duck confit spinach salad, which we shared along with a special chicken and dumpling soup.

Lovina is open Thursday through Monday for lunch/brunch and dinner. Their wine list features a variety of North Coast selections, and they celebrate “No Corkage Thursdays.”

The historic Chateau Montelena Estate. (Courtesy photo)

Visiting the historic Chateau Montelena Estate always reminds me of their 1973 chardonnay release that led to an Independence Day for California wines after winning the famed 1976 Paris Tasting. The 2014 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay ($58), is aged 10 months sur lee in oak with no malolactic fermentation. I found complex aromas, crispness and a rich finish of stone fruit and spice flavors, all welcomed by my palate. The earthy 2014 Chateau Montelena Zinfandel ($39) also stood out with coffee bean and chocolate on the nose and jammy, ripened fruit flavors throughout.

We first discovered Brannan’s by accident, seeking a place to have lunch in town, and were delightfully surprised by their imaginative small plate dishes. I joined co-owner Ron Goldin at a recent event while chef Colin Curtis prepared farmhand (vegetarian-based), briny (seafood) and chow (the meats), small plate dishes that included curried crab tacos, moroccan lamb chops, salt-and-pepper scallops and wild mushroom risotto. Appetizers like smashed avocado toast and ahi poke spoons added to the feast. In an older building on Lincoln Avenue, Brannan’s has a large, historic bar, full array of cocktails and an ever-changing menu.

More than 30 years ago, when Rich and Carolyn Czapleski purchased the land for their Canard Winery, they got a call from Robert Mondavi, urging them to retain some of the oldest zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley, dating back 100 years. Today, the dry-farmed vineyard continues to produce the 2013 Canard Zinfandel ($45), a balance of strength and elegance. Smokey flavors of raspberry and spice lead to a rich mouthfeel through the finish.

Brannan’s historic bar. (Courtesy photo)

I tasted the Fairwinds 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve ($110) deep inside the extensive cave system at Fairwinds Estate Winery. It originates from the volcanic soils of the local Kenefick Ranch Vineyard that sources Bordeaux grapes to many top producers. The fruit flavors are intense and opulent, but nicely balanced with the complex spice elements that dawdle on the finish.

For another special dining experience, I recommend the highly reviewed Solbar, located at the Solage Spa, east of downtown. Fresh dishes classically prepared by chef Massimo Falsini like Tomales Bay mussels, petrale sole tacos and steak frites appear on Solbar’s lunch menu. Seasonal cheeses and seared Hudson Valley foie gras begin the ever-changing entrees like sauteed wild steelhead with foraged mushrooms and crispy liberty duck with abalone-prosciutto ragu.

Aside from health and recreation, the Calistoga experience offers an array of fine wines and prodigious culinary choices at all levels. For a getaway, it has it all.

Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at or email him at

Lyle W. Norton
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Lyle W. Norton

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