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The Savvy Traveler

Cocktail Tales

Where to go in wine country when you're ready for a libation other than vino

If you’re anything like me, you spend much of your life in search of wine. Come noon on any given day I’m usually pondering what I’m going to scrounge up for lunch to pair with whatever fab bottle I’ve currently got open (note that it’s not the other way around – wine comes first in my life, even before sustenance).

A little later on, around 6:30, I’m usually vacillating between ordering take-out and venturing out on the town for dinner. The decision is ultimately made based on whether or not I have a really wonderful bottle of wine at home, in which case I’ll opt for said take-out. On the other hand, if there’s a new wine bar I’m dying to try – with its lengthy list of newbies just begging to be sampled – I’ll head out into the night to fulfill my vinous inclinations.

And don’t even get me started on the weekends. Suffice it to say that whenever it is, I’m probably thinking about what’s in my next glass.

Too much of a good thing
Folks who travel to wine country are cut from a similar mold. In fact, many of them are so very highly motivated by wine that they’ve traveled – sometimes great distances at that – just be closer to the good stuff. The most serious aficionados may even think of wine country as ground zero. Their chosen land, if you will.

But sometimes – and I know I may be going out on a limb here – when in wine country you can actually, well, get tired of the good stuff. One too many tasting rooms, a few spit buckets missed and you may just find yourself hankering for – gasp! – something other than wine. If you find yourself in this situation, keep in mind the following spots where those in the know swill the best non-wine libations in wine country. And don’t worry: the tasting rooms will still welcome you back the next day.

This stylish Napa newcomer boasts the distinction of being the only glam lounge in all of Napa Valley. NV (short for Napa Valley or “envy” – you decide), serves dinner seven nights a week, but the real action is in the spot’s sleek lounge, where modernish urban accents including a polished concrete bar harmonize with warm earth tones and a slick fireplace crafted out of river rocks. Bar bites are served nightly as long as the lounge is open (until 2AM on weekends, a rarity in wine country) alongside an impressive roster of inspired seasonal cocktails.

Chef/owner Peter Halikas deftly matches up rare ingredients such as hibiscus water with more traditional cocktail suspects in drinks like the Agua de Jamaica, a departure from the traditional cosmo made with local Charbay pomegranate vodka, Cointreau, crème de framboise, lime juice and, you guessed it, hibiscus water. Menu subject to change. (1106 First Street, Napa (707) 265-6400)

Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen
This St. Helena gem from James Beard award-winning cookbook author Cindy Pawlcyn (yes, of Mustard’s fame) may be as well known for its cocktails as it is for its home cooking-inspired cuisine. Settle in at the warm zinc bar or into the cozy banquettes and sample some of the spot’s libations, a pleasing mix of classics and innovations. The Thai-Gin-Tini is one of the better “new age” cocktails on the menu and features Sarticious Gin, fresh squeezed lime juice and a cayenne rim, while the Caramel Apple Martini, made with Southern Comfort and Appelfest Liqueur, is decidedly comfort-food inspired. Match it up with Cindy’s to-die-for Warm Pineapple Upside Down Cake for what may just be the perfect antidote to wine overload. Cindy’s also offers a good selection of imported and local beer, including four brews from Mendocino’s North Coast Brewing Co. (1327 Railroad Avenue, St. Helena (707) 963-1200

Tra Vigne
If you’re looking for a little old world charm alongside your libations then head over to St. Helena’s Tra Vigne, where the affable bar staff serves lunch and dinner at the elegant bar under 25-foot ceilings. Most Napa Valley visitors know Tra Vigne as a stylish white tablecloth-type dining spot, but what many folks don’t know is that the bar experience is also a reason to go, particularly when it comes to sampling the spot’s delicious Italian-inspired cocktails. Sate your cocktail urge with La Luna Viola (the purple moon), made with Mezzaluna vodka, Sambuca, cranberry juice and lime, or try the adventurous Lambretta Rossa, made from Ginger vodka, pineapple, bitters, simple syrup and lime. Looking for something even more off the beaten path? Then ask for some Stillwater Grappa, which is made – how cool! – from Gewurztraminer grapes grown in the nearby Alexander Valley. An impressive lineup of Port is also available. (1050 Charter Oak Avenue, St. Helena (707) 963-4444

Calistoga Inn, Restaurant & Brewery
Ok, admit it: sometimes you just want to drink a beer. This can happen whether you’re tuckered out from wine tasting or just hankering for a cold one. If you find yourself entertaining this urge in wine country, head over to the pub at the historic Calistoga Inn, Restaurant & Brewery, the first spot to brew beer commercially in Napa County after prohibition. The spot, which features its very own Pilsner, Red Ale, Porter and award-winning Wheat beer on tap, is the kind of place where you’ll hear locals telling “the way things were…” stories and kibbitzing about harvest. A little bit sports bar (games are invariably blaring on the spot’s two TVs), a little bit English tavern and a whole lot of local lore, this is wine country’s ultimate brew pub. Dart board included. (1250 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga (707) 942-4101