One of my fondest experiences while growing up in Iran was watching my grandmother and aunts sitting around the kitchen table mixing basmati rice, raisins, barberries, dates, herbs and meat and then spending hours stuffing and rolling them into grape leaves while they chit-chatted about life. These layered flavors of my Persian family’s sweet-and-sour dolmeh were savored — slowly — and always with the people you loved.
After immigrating to Los Angeles and settling into the Mid-City neighborhood in the 1980s, my mom started growing grapes in our backyard. Despite the small size of her mini vineyard, there was beauty and a trace of home in each vine. Driving around Napa Valley on a recent family trip brought back a lot of these old memories.
There is something enchanting about grapevines, whether in a perfectly manicured vineyard spanning acres of rolling hills or along a wooden fence on the side of the yard of a family yearning to hold onto its traditions. Maybe it’s because these vines have a story to tell, too.
During my family’s Napa visit, I overheard a sommelier explain how the best wines typically are made from grapes that flourish in the toughest conditions. I’ve always been drawn to narratives of resiliency, of finding beauty in the storm. So being in Napa Valley in January, when all the vines are resting for the winter months, was magical for me. There are no leaves or clusters of grapes, but there is so much elegance and strength in these woody vines.
The Grand Reserve at the Meritage was our vineyard home for a few days as we explored this beautiful region that’s just a short flight from L.A. All guests are welcomed with a complimentary glass of bubbly upon arrival, and my family and I were especially enthralled by the “resident” cats that have found a home under the shady trees just outside of the resort’s entrance. We loved driving by just to see them lounging on a luggage rack or simply relaxing along the walkway.
The Meritage Resort and Spa and the Grand Reserve at the Meritage are sister properties, offering expansive walking trails through the hillside vineyard, restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, an adorable village grocery store, a full-service spa, pools, fitness center and classes, plus seasonal activities onsite. A morning walk through the hillside vineyard surrounding the resort is a great way to start the day. Make sure to stop at the vegetable garden and the adorable chicken coop, Sunny Side Up Ranch, and hike up to the iconic The Grape Crusher statue.
During our stay, we experienced all the festivities of Merry Meritage, complete with a giant Christmas tree donned in twinkling lights, a holiday village, outdoor ice skating in the middle of the resort and fire pits with our very own s’mores kit. The luxurious suites are perfect for families, offering a full kitchen, large living room and balcony, allowing ample space to read, play board games or watch movies together.
The resort boasts several dining options. The Village Bistro is French inspired with a wine country twist. Parisian gnocchi with delicata squash and baby turnips, pan-seared organic salmon with stewed lentils and roasted cauliflower are just a few items on the menu. Crush Lounge is a six-lane bowling alley on the property that also serves up spiked milkshakes, nachos, wings, fish tacos, salads and other bites to share. Olive & Hay offers a farm-to-table Italian-inspired seasonal menu that included fall specials such as a cranberry burrata and panzanella salad with heirloom apples, focaccia croutons, farm-picked greens, Humboldt fog walnuts and apple-cider vinaigrette.
You can also grab a quick bite, coffee or create a picnic basket from Fivetown Grocery on the resort property. There is house-made pasta, sandwiches and salads and freshly baked bread.
Relaxing at Spa Terra
The resort is home to one of the most unique spas I have experienced. Spa Terra is built inside the 22,000-square-foot underground Estate Cave. The sprawling nine acres of hillside vineyards sit right above the spa.
Upon arrival, my daughters and I were greeted with a glass of sparkling wine and a tour of the facilities. Offerings include hot stone and aroma wellness massages and facials featuring organic herbs and botanicals. After our relaxation massages, we headed to the sauna and whirlpool bath and then read in a cozy stone room. It was the perfect respite from work and school.
The towns and the food
Napa Valley is a celebration of nature’s bounty and splendor. A feast for all your senses with spectacular vistas, charming towns, farm-to-table food and, of course, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
On our first night, we headed to Grace’s Table in downtown Napa for dinner. The recognized Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant serves comfort food from around the globe. On a cold, rainy night, the Model Bakery baguettes with sweet butter were a warm and comforting starter to our meal. You can also visit Model Bakery, which has three locations in Napa. We picked up a few of the bakery’s famous English muffins one afternoon for a cozy snack.
We continued our lovefest with artisan breads and pastries as we headed to Yountville, about 20 minutes from the resort, for breakfast at Bouchon Bakery. This charming spot was opened by renowned Chef Thomas Keller in 2003, next door to his Bouchon Bistro and just down the road from his famous, three Michelin Stars French Laundry.
After our coffee, almond and chocolate croissants, we wandered around the quaint town, stopping at Kollar Chocolates to sample some uniquely created confections designed like miniature art pieces. Just before heading back, we made the very wise decision to pick up a baguette from Bouchon for the road. No regrets.
We spent the next afternoon exploring more of downtown Napa — its cute boutiques, wine-tasting rooms, restaurants, galleries and coffee shops. We continued our chocolate tasting at Annette’s Chocolates on First Street, browsed Copperfield’s Bookstore (a local favorite for 40 years), stopped in Wine Girl simply to admire the pink holiday décor and then worked our way to Oxbow Public Market for lunch. This is a great spot to sample local flavors. The 40,000-square foot marketplace has lots of outdoor seating, including a deck along the Napa River. We opted for Gott’s Roadside, recognized as a James Beard America’s Classic. The chicken schnitzel with turmeric-spiced mayo and fries hit the spot before we headed to our afternoon of wine tasting.
Later that evening, we enjoyed a great dinner at Mustards Grill in St. Helena, where two acres of the chef’s garden in the back provide seasonal inspiration for this popular spot. Another wonderful oasis where you can stroll through vegetable and fruit gardens is the Culinary Institute of America at Copia, located next to the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa. Inside, you can visit the Chuck Williams Culinary Arts Museum, a unique space devoted to the history of culinary tools and appliances. You can grab sandwiches and salads from the Lunch Box at Copia or dine under the olive trees at The Grove at Copia.
Napa is home to more than 400 vineyards, with many family-friendly options, as well as adult-only choices. You can bike through vineyards, take a bus or train tour or explore on your own. Most places do require reservations, so I recommend figuring out how many and which wineries you want to visit ahead of time. We chose Domaine Carneros and Castello di Amorosa. In addition to tasting great wines, we wanted grand vistas and European castle vibes.
Domaine Carneros is known for its sparkling and estate Pinot Noir, and guests can sample these varieties in the chateau overlooking 138 acres of rolling hills. The four of us sat in the salon at our own table, sipping each of our wines in front of a cozy fireplace and magnificent views. Even though the weather was too chilly to sit on the terrace, we did go out a few times to enjoy the views and the sunset.
Castello di Amorosa is a 14th century style Tuscan castle winery. The medieval architecture was designed to be an authentic replica of a bygone era with ancient bricks shipped from Europe, hand-painted Italian frescoes, 500-year-old Umbrian fireplace, Roman cross-vaulted brick ceilings and a magnificent courtyard with Tuscan-style breezeways and loggias.
The seasons and transportation
While fall is harvesting season and the busiest time to visit, there is beauty here throughout the year. During our winter visit, the vines were dormant — resting for the season ahead when spring brings buds and green leaves and the summer heat sweetens the clusters of grapes. We loved the cooler weather and the cozy holiday decorations and lights.
There are several options to reach Napa from L.A. We opted to fly into Oakland, a 50-minute flight from LAX, rented a car and drove one hour to the Meritage Resort and Spa. You can also fly into San Francisco or Sacramento. The drive from San Francisco to Napa is about two hours and about one hour from Sacramento. Napa is about a seven-hour drive from the L.A. area. Whichever route you choose, I recommend having a car while visiting this region. Each of the towns has its own unique charm with scenic roads connecting them.
It’s all about nature’s beauty and bounty here. You’ll marvel at the spectacular landscape of vineyards surrounding you in every direction. You’ll enjoy artisan breads, perfectly grilled meats and seasonal vegetables and fruits.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a “foodie,” farm-to-table is at its best here, and your taste buds will rejoice with every bite. And whether you’re just starting to learn about different types of wines or you’re a seasoned connoisseur, you’ll discover the perfect bottle here with its own story to tell.
Elena Epstein is Creative Director of L.A. Parent.