With Northern California’s breathtakingly beautiful Wine Country less the an hour’s drive away from our doorsteps, Lou and I — on a spur-of-the-moment whim — once again pointed the car north to go explore the town that some consider the very heart of Napa Valley: St. Helena. Located 65 miles from San Francisco, Napa County is a tourist magnet with its abundance of vineyards and tasting rooms that draw wine enthusiasts from all over the world like bees to nectar.
If vineyard hopping’s your thing, and you don’t plan to join an organized tour, it’s probably best to do a little advance recon. There’s such a long list of vineyards to choose from, whether it be a small family-owned one like the Clif Family Winery, or a corporate mega-sized establishment like Beringer or Rutherford Ranch, you want to make sure you choose wisely!
…V. Sattui has an outdoor barbeque, wood-fired pizzas… as well as an awesome two-acre picnic area.
You’ll definitely want to narrow down your must-see list to make the most of your visit. Check out NapaVintners.com for a listing of wineries in this area. Many wineries are open for tastings by appointment only, so advance planning is really a must to make sure you get in to the place you want to visit.
Two of the most popular St. Helena based vineyards are V. Sattui and Beringer, and we’d recommend visiting both, as they are each quite spectacular and, good news, no appointment is necessary. Beringer offers three one-hour tours daily, and V. Sattui has an outdoor barbeque, wood-fired pizzas and mozzarella bar available on Saturdays and Sundays (weather permitting) as well as an awesome two-acre picnic area.
Lou said, her voice filled with empathy (not), “You’re going to get yourself a new top….”
Somehow, even with a heavy tourist presence, St. Helena has managed to keep its small-town flavor and charm. As we drove into town, we couldn’t help but ooh and ahh over the historic buildings lining Main Street. We serendipitously timed our visit to coincide with a big sidewalk sale going on at all the shops downtown (yep, we bitches have our antennas pointed to SALE at all times!) — and luckily we scored a shady parking spot just a couple of blocks off the main drag. As soon as we got out of the car, Lou looked at me, pointed and said: “What’s that dripping down the front of your shirt?” I looked down, and apparently I’d just gotten splatter-bombed by a low-flying bird … ewwwww. I had a bottle of water with me and blotted off as much as I could, but my shirt still looked suspiciously icky. Bird-poop couture’s not really the style we’re going for when we’re out and about representing our BRB brand, so Lou said, her voice filled with empathy (not), “You’re going to get yourself a new top ASAP!!” Okay, Lou, gotcha!
… I strolled around taking photos while Lou went inside and chatted up the bartender.
Figuring out where to eat lunch is always a priority for us, and frankly, eating at a wonderful lunch place is the cornerstone of our BRB trips! Lou had done some sleuthing online, picking out Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen (1327 Railroad Ave.) for us to target for an upscale, blog-worthy lunch. Judging by the crowds we’d spotted strolling along the sidewalks, we figured it best to stop in early and make a reservation. It was about 10:15, and the restaurant was the epitome of the calm before the storm — perfect timing to swoop down and put our name in the rez book. Large swaths of vibrant spring flowers lined the cafe’s perimeter, so I strolled around taking photos while Lou went inside and chatted up the bartender. Lou must’ve divulged our identity because when I came into the bar, he said: “You must be the other bitch!” — which really cracked me up! We love it when people get a kick out of our BackRoad Bitches moniker — rather than looking shocked and appalled at the b-word, which sometimes happens. More on our awesome lunch experience later!
…if we were arranging for a special event…this is where we’d go to make it all happen.
Our first discovery was a great shop called Centerpiece Floral and Home (1422 Main St.). There was a bunch of remodeling going on that sort of masked the front of the store, and we were delighted to step through the construction zone and see the cuteness that lay inside. It’s a combination floral design and gift shop – think farmhouse chic meets European elegance meets super creative staging, and you get the picture. Honestly, if we were arranging for a special event (like a BRB publicity soiree for our loyal fans!), this is where we’d go to make it all happen. I found a couple of cute decorative bunny rabbits that I picked up for a friend’s birthday, and we each bought bars of hand-crafted, made in California, Blithe and Bonny goat’s milk soap. We love that company, whose products are made with eco-friendly ingredients — cue bitch-slap high-five!
…she didn’t even have bird poop as an excuse!
My mission to find a new shirt was accomplished when we headed into Daisy Clothing Boutique (1332 Main St.). We spent quite a bit of time looking through their totally awesome selection of clothes and accessories. I found a soft navy print top from Cut Loose, a San Francisco clothing manufacturer. Besides the incredible feel of the fabric, it’s inspiring to know that the Cut Loose manufacturing methods are green, using non-toxic dyes and recycled packaging materials (we sense another bitch-slap coming on). Lou bought a super cute turquoise top — and she didn’t even have bird poop as an excuse! I also spotted a great looking natural fiber market bag, but somehow restrained myself from swooping down on it and claiming it as my own.
…12,000 square feet of exhibit space housed in an awesome turn-of-the-century building.
We don’t typically frequent high-end art galleries, but got curious when we walked by the Caldwell Snyder Gallery (1328 Main St.) and ended up popping in and checking out the modern art on display there. The gallery space itself is super cool – 12,000 square feet of exhibit space housed in an awesome turn-of-the-century building with natural stone walls and a hip, non-intimidating vibe. They’ve been in business for 31 years, with their original gallery located in San Francisco near Union Square.
If it weren’t for the fact that I don’t have a fine art budget, I’d buy one of his paintings immediately!!
The art collection on exhibit changes regularly and the day we visited, I especially loved the colorful pop-art palm tree paintings by local artist Matt Rogers. If it weren’t for the fact that I don’t have a fine art budget, I’d buy one of his paintings immediately!! Ah, well, we had fun just walking through the gallery and feasting our eyes! Gallery hours: Mon.-Sat. 10:00-6:00, Sun. 11:00-5:00.
…it’s just fun to look through all of the pet paraphernalia …
We came across another Fideaux store (1312 Main St.) – after having first discovered their second location on our recent Healdsburg trip. Of course, Lou and I had to go in and check it out because it’s just fun to look through all of the pet paraphernalia they’ve got in stock. Whether it’s leashes, collars, treats, squeaky toys or pooch clothes, you’ll find all kinds of pet doodads here. And, I’m glad we stopped in because they had the cutest painted dog and cat mural that I snapped a picture of. Since we didn’t find another wall mural that day — and you know how I love to find those — yep, this painting would fit the bill purr-fectly!
…a refreshing alternative to the more expensive clothing boutiques you see on Main Street …
Lolo’s Consignment shop (1120 Main St.) was an interesting find and it was bustling with customers during our visit – always a good sign. The shop’s got racks and racks of gently used clothes, plus shelves of accessories as well as furniture, tableware and decorative items for the home. It has kind of an easy, comfortable, down-home feel that we liked. The store is a refreshing alternative to the more expensive clothing boutiques you see on Main Street that can, frankly, give you sticker shock. Lou rifled through a few racks of clothes looking for a cute bargain, while I checked out their knickknacks and tableware. We didn’t find anything we couldn’t live without that day, but we both agreed that it’s a place worth stopping into whenever we find ourselves in St. Helena.
… made-to-order smoothies, organic juices and wheat grass shots.
A nearby health food store called Nature Select Foods (1080 Main St.) caught our eye next, so, being the health-conscious gals that we are (or think we are), we investigated. As we walked in, we couldn’t help but notice their fresh juice bar, which offers made-to-order smoothies, organic juices and wheat grass shots. We didn’t order anything because lunch was coming soon – otherwise we would have been tempted.
The store is all about wellness and carries an impressive inventory, including a large selection of Dr. Hauschka natural skincare products, which I’m particularly fond of. The store also sells organic groceries, vitamins, natural remedies, earth-friendly products for the home, and health/wellness books. It’s a family-run business that’s been around for 18 years – kudos to the owners on their impressive success story! I must confess that I bought a little packet of “Gin-Gins” – a chewy ginger candy – on my way out. They don’t exactly meet the definition of a super-healthy snack with cane sugar being the #1 ingredient, but they’re only 20 calories, gluten-free and made with organic ginger. I offered one to Lou, but she snubbed it. Okay, no prob — that means more of these zippy little treats for moi!
Have you noticed how un-faux fake flowers look these days?
Earlier, I mentioned that there was a sidewalk sale going on in town, and Lou and I spotted a big white canvas tent set up adjacent to Napa Valley Vintage Home (1201 Main St.), a top-of-the-line home decor shop that we totally fell in love with. Under the tent were lots of high quality sale items, and we couldn’t help gushing over all their colorful pillows, decorative accessories, and baskets of colorful faux flowers. Have you noticed how un-faux fake flowers look these days?
We must have spent a good 15-20 minutes just thumbing through them all.
When we circled around and found the front door of Napa Valley Vintage Home we entered into a huge space that showcased what we’d both agree is just about the best of Northern California style furnishings that we’ve seen. Store owner Laura Rombauer has taken her talent as an interior designer to new heights by creating this stunning gem of a store. It’s always fun for us to, just for a short while, daydream of living in a perfectly designed living space — super-hip, stylish and free of pet fur and dust bunnies. After scoping out the treasures, we somehow found our way to the back and discovered a flight of creaky old wooden stairs leading up to a second floor loft. There we saw another cool stash of eye-catching artwork and furniture pieces, and — lo and behold — a huge table of neatly stacked cookbooks. We must have spent a good 15-20 minutes just thumbing through them all. And, believe it or not, we somehow managed to escape without buying one — but we both were uber-tempted! I think we’ve come to the realization that we like looking at lovely photos of food much more than actually cooking!
…literally every table was taken - Lou, you scored a slam-dunk on this one!
By this time, we’d exhausted ourselves cruising around town and our appetites were calling, so off we went to have lunch at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. Thank goodness we’d made a reservation earlier because literally every table was taken – Lou, you scored a slam-dunk on this one! The restaurant’s bright and airy inside, and a lot bigger than it looks from the outside with two dining areas and bar on the first floor, a small brick patio for al fresco dining (with a 100-year old fig tree), plus a private dining room upstairs called “The Gallery.” The menu is definitely upscale and super gourmet, but we were totally prepared to pamper ourselves with a pricier than usual lunch. You just gotta splurge sometimes, right?
The owner is culinary pioneer Cindy Pawlcyn. Her other popular Wine Country restaurant is Mustards Grill in Yountville. We had to study the menu for a chunk of time, as we tried to decide what to order because everything looked good. As an appetizer, we ordered Oysters Bingo: broiled oysters slathered with melted Parmesan cheese, garlic and spinach, and served piping hot! For entrees, Lou took up the bartender’s advice and ordered the rabbit tostada (yep, she had a big old serving of Bugs Bunny!), and I got the wild mushroom and sweet potato enchiladas. As a side, we ordered a plate of the best-ever grilled asparagus. Even the sourdough bread served with the meal was to die for. Few words were spoken as we devoured our meals and sank into a state of complete gustatory euphoria. I knew we were in trouble when Lou spotted a dessert being served at the next table and she talked me into ordering one to split. It’s called a Campfire Pie – or what I’d call a rich bitch’s s’more – a buttery Oreo cookie crust, then a layer of oozy, rich dark chocolate, topped with a mile-high pillow of toasted marshmallow fluff. Light and airy and gone in five minutes — super-mega-yum!!! The lunch was a devil-may-care splurge for sure, but totally worth every calorie – oh yeah, and the huge dent in our wallets as well!
I’ve always had a yearning to live on a farm…
Feeling energized and refueled, we launched our afternoon explorations. Our first stop was Acres Home and Garden (1219 Main St.). The store features all kinds of artsy and elegant decorative pieces for the home, as well as gardening tools and books, plus a huge display of very real-looking faux flowers that completely dazzle the senses. I totally fell in love with their natural canvas pillows, which were hand-painted, some with colorful fish, others with olive branches. The entire store had that Northern California-chic feel and was super-fun to walk through. I found a quirky book that I ended up buying called: “Farm Anatomy: The Curious Parts & Pieces of Country Life” by Julia Rothman. The book’s a totally cute guide to rural living. It’s a quick read with colorful illustrations and quirky details on such topics as farm tools and machinery, planting tips, cheese-making and canning how-to steps, as well as country recipes. I’ve always had a yearning to live on a farm, and this book gives a virtual window into that world. To sum up the Acres experience — for me, it’s exactly the kind of retail shop I’d want to own if I had the resources – and I will definitely revisit this gem the next time I find myself in St. Helena.
I really thought I’d just be window shopping until I set eyes on a pair of silver dangle earrings…
Next we discovered a fabulous Native American art and jewelry store, Kokopelli Gallery (1309A Main St.). Being a lover of Native American arts, I just had to go in and check it out, and both Lou and I were captivated with the store’s many jewlery displays: showcases of authentic, exquisitely designed sterling silver earrings, bracelets, necklaces and pendants. We were both amazed by the incredibly intricate craftsmanship of each piece. I really thought I’d just be window shopping until I set eyes on a pair of silver dangle earrings inlaid with spiny oyster shell – uh-oh, I had to have them. Happily, I found out that they were offering a discount that day thanks to the sidewalk sale going on outside! Yay! We were both impressed with the salesman who helped us and was super-friendly. The gallery’s been in business for 8 years, and you can check out their website to get a sampling of some of the gallery’s beautiful treasures.
…the dollars you spend here are going towards making others’ lives better.
Have you noticed that we’ve come across fair trade stores more and more on our BRB excursions? Well, we found another one in St. Helena – Baksheesh Fair Trade (1327 Main St.). The store has a colorful assortment of decorative items for the home, blank journals, cute accessories, jewelry, and children’s toys. The goal of these types of fair trade stores is to assist artisans all over the world in earning a sustainable living, so, it’s important to remember that when you shop here – the dollars you spend here are going towards making others’ lives better. If you want to learn more about the Fair Trade philosophy, take a look at the Fair Trade Federation’s website.
…incredibly beautiful preserved insects… sealed in air-tight box frames.
I think the most interesting place we visited was Pennyweight gift shop (1337 Main St.).The name comes from the traditional unit of measurement for weighing gold. And this store truly has a treasure trove of unusual art and gift items. One of the first artifacts we noticed were these incredibly beautiful preserved insects that were sealed in air-tight box frames. I know it sounds weird, but each one was totally amazing — one in particular that turned our heads was an Amazonian walking stick, a vibrant green colored bug that seriously looked like something from another planet! We also saw an amazing pottery display from the owner of Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, Cindy Pawlcyn. The whole store is a showcase of top-of-the-line gifts and jewelry.
…every single delectably delicious chocolate concoction is uber-fresh.
OK, no shocker here, we just had to get our chocolate fix for the day at Woodhouse Chocolate (1367 Main St.), a family-run business that’s been around for 10 years. All of the high-end chocolates sold here are made in their own commercial kitchen in back of the store, so every single delectably delicious chocolate concoction is uber-fresh. I snatched up some dark chocolate toffee and a bar of 75% dark chocolate — all in the name of research, of course!
…olive oils, dipping oils, mustards, tapenades, pasta sauces and marinades.
Napa Valley is not just totally wine-focused, it’s also a major gourmet food mecca of the modern world! And, if you love everything olive-related, as Lou and I do, then you’ll want to visit Olivier Napa Valley (1375 Main St.). The company started in 1995 and has a full line of its own private label gourmet olive oils, dipping oils, mustards, tapenades, pasta sauces and marinades. This retail store is big and rustic with a European ambiance and stocks shelves of their signature food lines, as well as high-end tableware from Provence. Not sure how we escaped without buying something – but I think it must be because we’d already pretty much exhausted our mad money for the day!
I did raise a couple of parakeets many moons ago and taught them a few words…
Our last stop in town was Main Street Books, a small locally owned indie bookstore that sells both new and used books (1315 Main St.). We did a fairly quick walk-thru of the small store, browsing around to see if anything caught our attention. I tuned in to a book titled: “The Thing with Feathers” by Noah Strycker. Loved the title and the pretty cover, but it was this quote on the back cover that sealed the deal for me: “An entertaining and profound look at the lives of birds, illuminating their surprising world and their deep connection with humanity.” When I paid for the book, the clerk asked if I was a birder….hmmm – I wouldn’t call myself that, but I did raise a couple of parakeets many moons ago and taught them a few words…does that count? I pointed out a book to Lou I’d heard about called “H is for Hawk”, an autobiography by Helen McDonald about how she turned to falconry to learn how to deal with her father’s sudden and untimely death. Lou is the techie-type, so instead of buying the bound version, she purchased it through iTunes and thoroughly enjoyed it. And even though Lou prefers to go the digital route, I continue to encourage people to shop locally for books to keep these indie booksellers in biz, which creates jobs, keeps their profits reinvested in the community, and ensures they don’t go the way of the dinosaurs.
Just about every kind of gourmet food you can imagine is sold here…
On our way driving back from St. Helena, we decided to stop in to Dean & Deluca (607 S. St. Helena Hwy.), a huge wine and fine food emporium that’s a national chain. Just about every kind of gourmet food you can imagine is sold here, as well as a massive wine selection. Not only do they stock local California made items, they also have selections of international delicacies. After a full day of shopping, our energy and our wallets were pretty much sapped, so we only did a quick perimeter search of the store, but we both agree it’s definitely worth stopping in just to experience this “Grand Central Station” of fine foods.
The center even has a concierge service that can help you make the most of your visit.
Going to Napa Valley, you have numerous options to choose from – what towns to visit, what wineries to visit, where to stay and where to eat — so, a little advance planning is definitely the best way to go. For the latest info on Napa Valley, check out the Visit Napa Valley website. And when visiting the town of St. Helena, you may want stop by the St. Helena Welcome Center at 657 Main Street and pick up walking and winery maps, and discount coupons to tasting rooms. The center even has a concierge service that can help you make the most of your visit. Hours: Mon-Fri 9-5, Sat. 10-4, closed Sundays.
Stay tuned for our next exciting excursions, where we’ll explore some totally cool backroads outside of California — our first out-of-state BRB adventures! Get ready to be surprised where the roads (and sky-lanes) lead us!
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