Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

TRAVEL GUIDE: Napa Valley

I’VE found the perfect accompaniment to wine

Red, white or rose, it doesn’t really matter.

Every last sip will be enjoyed and savoured in the enchanting and romantic surroundings of Meadowood — an ultra luxurious country club resort situated on the fringes of St Helena in Napa Valley, California.

You may have to travel halfway across the globe for the privilege but, trust me, it will be worth it.

Continental, with a quick stop-over in Newark, has made travelling to San Francisco from Belfast not only possible but an enjoyable and comfortable experience. Even in economy class which has decent leg room, each seat has their own personal entertainment system to keep you occupied for the duration of the flight — 6 hours to Newark and then a further 6 hours to the west coast of America.

And once you reach San Francisco, hire a car from Hertz and then it is only a pleasant two hour drive into wine country and the 250 acre Meadowood estate — where time is suddenly of no consequence.

Forested hillsides around the valley cocoon you from the outside world as all stresses and strains are instantly forgotten and you are immersed in a world of sheer fantasy and indulgence.

For two or three days you’ll taste some of the finest wine in the world, eat the most delicious cuisine and enjoy the magnificent five-star facilities and amentities on offer.

The exquisite service starts on arrival as you are whisked to your cottage by golf cart and the rustic charm from your new ‘home from home’ embraces you straight away allowing you to feel immediately attached.

Spacious and incredibly cosy with a sumptuous queen size bed, the cottage’s living room area even has its own roaring wooden fire which allows you to enjoy a glass of wine at night in style during the cool months of late autumn and winter. It truly is elegant and sophisticated.

But in the height of summer there is little need for a fire as during the day, with St Helena being inland, temperatures can reach over 38 degrees celsius.

Thus, perfect weather to enjoy a signature cocktail as you sunbathe beside the pool with two to choose from.

For more recreational activity, Meadowood has immaculately kept tennis courts, a croquet lawn and maps are available so you may hike in the surrounding hills — but beware of the mountain lions! A gym, spa and a gentle nine hole golf course are on site where you can be transported back in time to play hickory golf — going old school, as they might say.

While it may be difficult to tear yourself away from the delights of everything the country club of Meadowood has to offer in terms of luxury, it’s essential you experience the multitude of vineyards that are only minutes away.

But with most of the renowned wineries in the area private or appointment only, it’s vital you reserve the services of the man with the golden ticket.

Super savvy Gilles de Chambure is the Director of Wine Education at Meadowood and he can not only teach you everything there is to know about the wonderful grape produced beverage but also unlock the doors to all the major wineries in Napa Valley and beyond.

Full of exuberance and passion for his craft, Gilles’ knowledge and understanding of wine will have you transfixed.

From the unconverted wine drinker to the connoisseur, Gilles will educate and astound — just be prepared to learn quickly!

A half day private tour does not come cheap (£300) but when you see the access that he can provide, it’s a small price to pay.

Start the morning with a glass of sparkling wine from the Schramsberg winery while Gilles gives you a brief history about Napa Valley. Then hand over your car keys and allow him to transport you to all the famous wineries in the area.

View the vineyards, taste the grapes, see the wine come to life and finally, after taking a look at how the wine is stored, enjoy the taste of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc along with blends.

If there is just one winery to visit in the area then Francis Ford Coppola, the famous Godfather movie director, has a stunning place — the Rubicon Estate — which he has restored to all its glory.

After all that wine tasting, you are likely to be famished so for lunch head for Gotti’s Roadside Diner in St Helena, just five minutes from Meadowood.

The small town of St Helena, close to Calistoga which is renowned for its mud wraps and Geyser, is quaint and beautiful in a way that it seems untouched by today’s highly commercialised world.

You’ll never see a KFC, Burger King or McDonalds in Napa Valley, the locals would say it would be a stain on the region’s character. But there is one highly successful burger joint in the area.

It’s been around for generations, there always seems to be a queue and the burgers, with a wide range including Ahi Tuna and wasabi, are simply delicious. Sweet potato fries are the locals favourite, washed down with a creamy and delightful shake!

While Gotti’s Roadside diner or indeed the popular Napa Valley wine train may be suitable for lunch, in the evening, for a special occasion , Meadowood’s intimate restaurant is a culinary experience that must be sampled.

Chef Christopher Kostow, a multi-Michelin Star winner and TV celebrity, serves up only the finest mouthwatering dishes in his seven course tasting menu.

The menu can be changed daily or weekly, as you’ll find out in your daily newsletter delivered to your cottage, but each concoction served before you is a work of art and you can enjoy it in the main restaurant or out on the terrace.

Each dish is wonderfully paired with the perfect glass of wine and the service from the waiting staff is nearly as outstanding as the dishes themselves.

Keeping a close eye from the kitchen door, chef Kostow watches each dish enjoyed by diners as though he is leaving his children off for their first day at school.

For more informal surroundings and dining reserve a table at Meadowood’s Grill, which is also the place for a fine and hearty breakfast.

Overlooking the golf course, you can enjoy favourites such as steak and whipped potatoes, roasted monkfish or fish and chips. Wine is naturally the drink of choice here so why not try wine flights (four classes of different wines) rather than a bottle.

And once you are ready to retire for the evening call reception and ask for the golf cart back to your cottage.

Celebrities, heads of states and even former American owners of Premier League football clubs all regard Meadowood as their secret haven.

Well, it has been unearthed.

Now, all you have to decide is whether you’ll start with red, white or rose once you get there...

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