Calistoga: Water into Wine
When I go to parties, and people ask me what I do, and I tell them what I do, they inevitably ask me, “How did you get into ‘it’?” I tell them, “it” got into me first. Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay area and working in restaurants, bars and clubs plus going to a college run by The Christian Brothers, an order of clergy that operated the historic Greystone Winery in the Napa Valley, wine happened to me, not me, to “it.”
So early on in my visits to Greystone Winery (now The Culinary Institute of America (CIA)) I drove a few miles north on HWY 29 to the town of Calistoga to witness California’s Old Faithful geyser and watched it blow boiling water and steam out of the earth and into the sky to heights no less than 60 feet. Old Faithful is one of three geothermal geysers in the world that predictably erupt approximately every 40 minutes as if set on clocks, and all of them are named Old Faithful. (The other two are located in Yellowstone National Park, MT, USA, and Rotorua, New Zealand).
Back then, I hadn’t explored this part of the Napa Valley and was struck by how different the landscape was from the Napa Valley Floor. I soon learned the reason for this noticeable difference. Calistoga is built on and around an abundance of natural mineral water hot springs and stream fields that are fed by a geothermal aquifer that runs beneath the northernmost part of the valley. It has veins of volcanic ash zigzagging just below its topsoils. The combination of underground pure natural springs and ashy soils combined with Howell Mountain to the east, Diamond Mountain to the west, and Mount Saint Helena north make Calistoga ripe for premium wine grape cultivation.
Fun Fact: The aquifer below Calistoga is so plentiful that it generates 725 megawatts of electricity around the clock. To put this into perspective, that’s enough energy to power seven million two hundred and fifty thousand, 100 watt light bulbs 24 hours a day.
Top Wineries To Visit in Calistoga
Calistoga is now one of the ultimate destinations for oenophiles seeking fine wine and luxury and is filled with resorts, spas, and restaurants. There is truly something for #Winetravelers to do on all levels.
To start your visit, I recommend going where it all began at Chateau Montelena. Its name is a contraction of nearby Mount Saint Helena. Chateau Montelena was started in 1882 and has a rich history. Its vineyards were first planted in 1882 by Alfred L. Tubbs, where he built a winery and a home that he deemed his “Chateau.” Years later, Yort and Jeanie Frank acquired the property and excavated a lake and landscaped the grounds creating a peaceful sanctuary. Then it was purchased by a group of investors that included James Barrett that returned the property to a fully-functional winery. Still, it wasn’t until 1976 when Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay beat out France’s best White Burgundy wines in The Judgement of Paris that Chateau Montelena, Calistoga the Napa Valley became known on the world stage.
Today the winery produces Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Syrah, and Zinfandel. Several tours and tastings are offered, including a seasonal vineyard tour, an estate tour, and a sit-down Private Library Tasting. I highly recommend this last option as you get to taste and evaluate older vintages.
Winetraveler Tip: For a primer, before you visit Calistoga, watch the 2008 film Bottle Shock or read George M. Taber’s book Judgment of Paris California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.
After Chateau Montelena check out Larkmead Vineyards, where winemaker Dan Petroski claims it is “the most famous winery you’ve never heard of.” The winery has recently been renovated and has a state-of-the-art winemaking facility whose tanks and fermenters resemble larger than life industrial sculptures. It also incorporates a seated tasting area designed by famed architect Howard Backen. Here you can take in both the old and new eras of Napa Valley winemaking while tasting on the indoor-outdoor patio and in the adjacent cellar that’s filled with their classic red wines and Larkmead’s memorabilia dating back to 1895.
Castello di Amorosa
The next stop is Castello di Amorosa. Some think it’s a masterpiece and others a farce, but no matter what you believe, you gotta see this! Built with a vision and drive akin to William Randolph Hearst’s Castle in San Simeon, Dario Sattui has created an “authentic medieval 13th-century Tuscan castle” complete with a moat, tower, dungeon, torture chamber with a rack, but the kind for riddling Champagne, and beneath it all a 2-acre labyrinth of wine caves.
There are also 30 acres of vineyards planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Merlot, Primitivo, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Castello di Amorosa is also a working winery that produces no less than 30 different wines from various vineyard sites outside of the estate. To get a sense of the history, magnitude, scope, and taste the wines, you really must take one or two of 5 guided tours. Especially since there are no other wine tours in Napa Valley, or anywhere for that matter quite like these tours and tastings.
Tamber Bey Vineyards
After visiting Napa Valley’s version of Game of Thrones, go to Tamber Bey Vineyards for a Game of Horseshoes. Owned and operated by Jennifer and Barry Waitte and located at Sundance Ranch, this winery is in a class of its own. Although Tamber Bey’s chief business is winemaking, it’s also home to a world-class equestrian center that can board over forty horses and is home to Napa County’s largest horse rescue organization.
The best way to experience the Waitte’s passion for wine and horses is by scheduling a 90-minute Winery and Ranch Tour. Combine this tour with their “Vineyard” or “Signature” Series wine tastings and double-down by including Tamber Bey’s custom-made Savory Cookie Pairing. With cookies like Lemon Loop, Cherry Pepper Popper, French Stallion, Black Bacon, Cardamom Crunch, and Triple Threat, your palate will thank you.
Tamber Bey makes Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Sauvignon-driven red wines sourced from their estate vineyards, Deux Chevaux in Yountville and their Oakville vineyard. They also make wines from outside the Napa Valley; these wines are a testament to winemaker Andy Jones and consulting winemaker Thomas Brown’s sure-footed winemaking ability for handling different berries from various locations and vineyards.
Last but not least, you can also pre-order one of their boxed picnic lunches and enjoy a glass or bottle of their excellent wines in the courtyard that’s in the middle of a 16-stall barn that has views of Mount St. Helena and the Palisades.
Currently, there are more than 50 wineries in and around downtown Calistoga, along with spas, mineral pools, mud baths, resorts, restaurants, and shopping. You can spend your entire Napa Valley trip immersed in this one town. One particularly unique activity I suggest you partake in is called “Take the Waters.” Long before Calistoga was known as a wine destination, people came here and stayed for the medicinal benefits of the natural springs and volcanic clay.
Recommended Hotels, Resorts & Spa’s in Calistoga
Where To Eat in Calistoga
How To Get To Calistoga
It’s a 90-minute drive from San Francisco and Sacramento, and 25 minutes from Santa Rosa. Calistoga is centrally located between Napa and Sonoma counties. Take a look at flight deals as they arise into San Francisco or Sacramento here. The nearest airport is Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport.
Winetraveler Tip: If you fly Alaska Air, you can check one case of wine at No Charge! Buy our top recommended wine suitcase here.
Calistoga is 30 minutes from Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport
Get on to 101 S towards the Santa Rosa
Exit River Rd toward Calistoga
Continue on to Mark West Springs Rd
Turn Left onto Petrified Forest Rd
Turn Right onto Foothill Blvd
Turn Right on to Lincoln Ave.
From San Francisco
Get on to 101 N towards the Golden Gate Bridge (Toll).
Take 101 N past Santa Rosa and take the Mark West Springs East to Calistoga
Follow Mark West Springs as it turns into Porter Creek Rd
Turn Left on Petrified Forest Rd
Turn Right on Foothill Blvd
From the East Bay
Get onto 880 to 80E towards Sacramento and cross the Carquinez Straights Bridge (Toll)
Take CA-37W toward Napa
Take exit 19 for CA-29/Sonoma Blvd toward Napa
Follow CA-29N all the way into Calistoga.
Get onto I-80 W
Get onto CA-12 W/Jameson Canyon Rd toward Napa
Turn right CA-29 N
Follow CA-29N all the way into Calistoga.
From the North Coast
Get onto US-101 S/Redwood Hwy
Take exit River Road exit just before you hit Santa Rosa
Turn left. River Road becomes Mark West Springs Rd after you cross 101
Continue onto Porter Creek Rd
Turn left onto Petrified Forest Rd
Turn right onto Foothill Blvd
Turn left onto Lincoln Ave