Wine connoisseurs and neophytes alike flock to Northern California’s beautiful Napa Valley to swirl, sniff and sip. But after a long day of wine tasting, the palate begs for something different. Cocktails, anyone?
In sleepy St. Helena and Calistoga, two of the northernmost appellations of Napa Valley, there’s a vibrant community of bartenders who serve up fabulous craft cocktails. Their drinks are made with quality ingredients and are picture pretty, thanks to the wonderful garnishes that make garden-to-glass mixology the standard here. And it doesn’t hurt that these bars also serve up the best bites in the area, perfect for soaking up some fine spirits.
Goose & Gander
For years this St. Helena address was home to famed Napa Valley landmark the Martini House, so it seems appropriate that Goose & Gander is now renowned for its excellent cocktails. The rustic yet elegant downstairs bar remains and continues to be the hub of the bar program, but visitors can also choose to sit outside in the lush garden to sip their cocktails of choice. Bar manager Rafa left the G&G kitchen to run the drinks program, which changes with the seasons and incorporates fun theme nights, like Tiki Thursdays. Aside from the Scarlet Gander (Buddha’s Hand Citron Vodka, ginger, shiso, galangal, rhubarb, lemon, and ginger beer), the Cucumber Collins is the most popular with guests, who frequently pair it with the famously juicy G&G Burger. This Collins features Square One Cucumber Vodka, yuzu, lemon, fresh and pickled cucumber, huckleberries, and seltzer. If you prefer your drinks after dark, G&G stays open after other bars have closed.
Traveling north up-valley via Highway 29, the next stop is a cozy spot called Cook Tavern, which serves up craft cocktails and small plates in the dining area and at the small bar. Like Goose & Gander, Cook Tavern is a popular gathering place for locals. At the bar, you’re likely to be sitting next to wine industry folks or even people from other nearby restaurants. The Cougar Juice cocktail can help ease your transition from wine to spirits, made as it is with Grey Goose, St. Germain, peach shrub, lemon juice—and wine. But the New York Sour beckoned to me. A chef-made claret gastrique, Jack Daniels, lemon, and egg white, along with Juan’s artistry, made this the perfect artisanal accompaniment to my snack of the best poutine I’ve had outside of Canada. The crispy french fries come topped with a beef cheeks and demi-glace gravy and aged cheddar. Look for it on the menu, but even if it’s not there you’re sure to find something else to satisfy your hunger.
Location: 1304 Main Street, St. Helena, CA 94574
Hours: Sunday 10am – 11pm. Monday – Thursday 11:30am – 11pm. Friday 11am – midnight. Saturday 10am – midnight.
Price Range: $$
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Crossing into the equally charming town of Calistoga, you’ll come across JoLē, one of the newer restaurants on the main street. Here, bartender Stephen, formerly of La Condesa, imbues his creations with homemade artisanal shrubs, cordials, and bitters. When you watch Stephen work, you’ll realize he takes his craft very seriously. The dozen or more specialty cocktails will satisfy your spirit animal, whether you desire tequila, whiskey, or gin. I ordered The Hemingway: Clement Canne Bleue Agricole Rhum, Green Chartreuse, pink grapefruit, fresh lime, and Pamplemousse Rose. It’s a beautiful drink that would be right at home in Key West. Although I came during a brief lull, it had been packed just half an hour before and friends weren’t able to get a bar seat. Apparently the good luck wishbone adorning the bar wall has done its job. When JoLē first opened, so the story goes, business was a little slow. Owners Matt and Sonjia Spector added the wishbone to the decor, and business has been booming ever since.
Sam’s Social Club
The newest up-valley restaurant and bar is Sam’s Social Club, located at the recently expanded Indian Springs resort and named after Samuel Brannan, the Gold Rush’s first millionaire. This barn-inspired building houses one of the most beautiful and inviting lounges I’ve seen in wine country—or anywhere—with a colorful mural painted by Bay Area artist Lauren McIntosh. SSC’s cocktail classics and hand-crafted proprietary drinks are equally pleasing to the eye and often feature house-made infusions. The Summer Sangria serves up a twist with grape-infused vodka and Martin Ray wine. Director of Food and Beverage Kyrsta Scully created the vodka with grapes she picked from the resort’s vines. Made to order with fresh watermelon juice (I substituted blackberries), the sangria may look more like an iced tea, but it packs a punch that will have you happily lingering with a bar bite in the lounge or by the firepit on the gorgeous patio. The Agua Caliente, named for Calistoga’s famous hot springs, will suit guests who prefer some heat. Fruity, made with a passion fruit puree, it is tempered with house-infused habañero vodka and demerara sugar.
Perhaps the most well-known up-valley bar, Solbar lives up to its sunny reputation for an incredible setting and finely crafted drinks. Tucked away within the Solage resort on the Silverado Trail, Solbar’s simple exterior belies the elegance of the bar and lounge. Signature drinks feature spirits by San Francisco Bay Area distillers with gins from No. 209 and St. George Spirits. The Solbar Bramble, one of the many gin-based cocktails, incorporates Bombay Dry Gin, lemon, and housemade blackberry compote into a summery refresher. The popular Sex in the Valley showcases Napa’s own Charbay Distillery’s Green Tea Vodka, thyme, mint, cucumber, and housemade lemonade. Whether you stay indoors or relax at one of the outside lounge tables, be sure to indulge in a bite from the equally famous and Michelin-star rated restaurant menu. The Munchies list offers small plates, including Asian-inspired pork and ginger gyoza dumplings and roasted pork belly steamed buns.