Napa Valley has long been an easy day trip from San Francisco, but its upper reaches, such as Calistoga and St. Helena, often make for better weekend outings. These towns are also bursting at the steams with hotel and dining destinations, which makes them more appealing for a weekend stay.
In St. Helena, there’s the Wydown Hotel in downtown; the Harvest Inn is a short drive from Main Street; and Goose & Gander is one of the best places to eat in the charming and walkable downtown. The octopus salad is divine. Try it in the sunny garden with a cocktail curated by none other than Scott Beattie, perhaps the Bay Area’s best mixologist. (He was also behind the cocktail program at the now-shuttered Cyrus in Healdsburg.)
As a former educator at Copia — when the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Diploma Course was taught there a decade ago — I realize wine country guests are looking for guidance. I always asked visitors if they were interested primarily in a wine tasting experience, stunning architecture or an informative wine program.
Some of my favorite destinations have long been Domaine Carneros for its great sparkling wine tour and beautiful sun-drenched terrace; Robert Mondavi for a chance to try grape varietals right from the vineyards; Corison for the low-key private tasting experience; and Signorello for the greatest view from the deck.
Few destinations offer more than a handful of breadsticks or chocolates to sample with the wines, as most are not able to get restaurant licenses. However, the newly minted Cairdean Estate has changed that. New winemakers and restaurant owners Edwin and Stacia Williams were smart enough to buy a mix of winery and commercial property in 2010 that allowed them to serve food.
Cairdean, which opened piece by piece over the spring and summer last year, is located just north of St. Helena on state Highway 29. An art gallery and retail store are also slated to open in the coming months, joining the winery, restaurant and bakery.
Stacia Williams said the inspiration for Cairdean was born out of her experience feeling rushed to taste wine and grab a bite en route during trips to Napa. The multifaceted complex aims to fill those needs in one place. It even serves superb, smoked-gin cocktails at The Farmer & The Fox restaurant, and slightly more classic offerings at Butterscots bakery.
The restaurant serves other wines, such as a bright and food-friendly white made from kerner from Italy’s Abbazia di Novacella; and Boisset’s divine bubbles can be sipped on the bakery’s patio next to the fire at brunch.
Live music is slated to be part of the experience by summer.
As for the winery, Cairdean focuses on Bordeaux blends, which were Stacia’s passion when she studied winemaking at Fresno State. They include cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc (which was my favorite, despite its nontraditional taste with the unusual addition of malbec).
The couple are also passionate about their Scottish and Welsh heritage. Fabrics from the two areas cover the banquets in the restaurant and dishes such as Scotch Eggs and Rabbit Wellington Royale are featured prominently on the menu.
Unfortunately, price points for the wine and food are somewhat inflated for a new producer in Napa Valley. The least expensive wine comes in at $22, and the cabernet sauvignon tops out at $98. The restaurant’s entrees are close to $30 (or more), and the portion size does not warrant the cost.
Diners can make a meal of the tartare and salads; the squid and cauliflower salads are great, and served in the bakery as well as restaurant. Meanwhile, the sun-drenched patio by the bakery is divine. And when it’s cold, a roaring fire will be appreciated.
Cairdean is well worth a visit – but patrons may want to keep their food choices simple at this early stage in the estate’s development.
Cairdean Estate, 3111 St. Helena Highway N., St. Helena, (707) 968-5434, www.cairdeanestate.com
Liza B. Zimmerman has been writing, educating and consulting about wine, cocktails and food for two decades. She has also worked almost every angle of the wine and food business: from server and consultant to positions in distribution, education and sales.