Napa Valley Italian-Style

We may not have the centuries of history or the crumbling hill towns, but it could be argued that the Napa Valley is California’s answer to Tuscany. Both have rolling, vineyard-covered hillsides. Both produce world-renowned wines. Both are home to remarkable, farm-to-table gastronomy. And both are excellent places to spend a day or a month savoring the best things in life – nature, family, good friends, great food and wine.

It’s no surprise that California’s wine county has a lot of Italian in its blood and its history. One can only imagine the pleasure with which Italian-Americans first discovered this region in the mid-nineteenth century, such familiar territory to the one they’d left behind. It was Genoese banker Andrea Sbaboro – founder of the Italian American Bank – who first formed the Italian Swiss Agricultural Colony, just over the hill in Sonoma. It wasn’t long before the Napa Valley was attracting Italian families from San Francisco, and even today some of the most noted wine labels still bear such names as Mondavi, Martini, Nichelini, Sattui, and Coppola.

 You could spend a week or more just experiencing Napa Valley’s Italian side. And if you did, it might look something like this:

Wines. There are a number of local wineries that specialize in small-production or little-known Italian varietals, or continue a long tradition of Italian winemaking. Try Benessere (Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, Moscato di Canelli, Sagrantino, and Aglianico), Matthiassen Wines (Refosco, Ribolla gialla, Tocai friulano and Schioppettino), Larkmead (Tocai Fruilano), Nichelini Family Winery (one of the pioneers of Napa winemaking, where you can still see the original house and original Roman wine press), and Antica (owned by the legendary Tuscan Antinori winemaking family).

Olive oils. Great wine regions are often great sources of olive oil, and the Napa Valley is no exception. Here are a few spots that offer tastings and related products: Round Pond Estate, Olivier, St. Helena Olive Oil Company, Napa Valley Olive Oil Company, Long Meadow Ranch.

Antipasto. If you’re looking for a great old-style Italian deli to get some antipasto for an al fresco picnic, head straight to Genova Delicatessen in Napa or Giugni’s Deli or V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena.

Mangia! The list of good Italian restaurants in the valley is too long to mention here in full. But some of our favorites include Oenetri, Ca Momi, and Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa; Bottega in Yountville; and Cucina Rosa (at Charles Krug Winery) in St. Helena. If you want a truly authentic Italian family food experience, get the take-out malfatti and ravioli from Lawler’s Liquors in Napa.

Experience. For true Italophiles, there’s no more spectacular experience than touring the Castello di Amorosa – an exquisitely reproduced Renaissance-era castle in Calistoga; Del Dotto Vineyards in St. Helena is another visual reminder of Italy, with its over-the-top neo-classical architecture featuring Carrera marble, Murano-glass chandeliers, and 130-year-old wine cave. Finally, check out the lively bocce ball games held in Yountville and St. Helena, every night except Saturday May through August.

Photo credit:
Castello di Amorosa
Ca’Momi
V. Sattui

Kirsten Mickelwait is a St. Helena-based writer who has lived and raised her family in the Napa Valley for nearly 20 years.

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