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A New Meadowood

An exciting wine program and relaunched restaurant are bringing fresh appeal to one of Napa Valley's most exquisite luxury resorts.


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Courtesy of Meadowood Napa Valley

When you enter Meadowood, trees envelop you. Oaks, pines, madrones, and dogwoods seem to close behind you and transport you to a cool and private enchanted world. Once you’re within, white roses and oleander punctuate green lawns, small birds abound, and couples share the swinging bench on the veranda at the reception lodge.

Since Meadowood opened to the public in the early 1980s, it has enjoyed a fine reputation for its sylvan setting, unique among resorts in the valley. But in recent years, its fine dining restaurant has been through many ups and downs—it was even closed entirely for a period of time. A year ago, that changed with the arrival of up-and-coming San Francisco chef Joseph Humphrey, who relaunched the restaurant with a contemporary, light menu for multicourse dining. At the same time, the resort wooed Gilles de Chambure, a master sommelier—meaning he has intensively studied wine and passed a series of rigorous international exams on the subject—from the Robert Mondavi Winery to be its new director of wine education. The two men have brought tremendous enthusiasm and knowledge of food and wine to Meadowood, making a vacation at the resort a celebration of the best culinary offerings of the region.

Divine Dinners
Chef Humphrey lives for his work. You can tell this as his amuse-bouches and light, lyrical first courses dance before your eyes and on your palate: buttery brioche toast topped with eggplant caviar and a ribbon of lightly pickled summer squash from the Meadowood garden; or a silky white gazpacho made with young garlic, topped with sliced radishes, roasted red grapes, and spiced almonds, and finished with a drizzle of bright orange smoked paprika oil.

Humphrey, who hails from Hollywood, Florida, and had his first serious training in New Orleans under Dickie Brennan (of Commander’s Palace fame), never attended culinary school. Instead, after he moved to the Bay Area in 1994, he learned from top chefs, including Michael Mina and George Morrone (whom he helped to open Fifth Floor). The Restaurant at Meadowood is Humphrey’s first post as top chef, and the work clearly energizes him. He starts most days around 10 a.m. and ends after midnight.

“I live in St. Helena, but sometimes I’ll drive up to Calistoga and back down just to have a bit more decompression time. Otherwise, when I get home after a shift, I’ll still be all jumpy; I’ll be cleaning stuff, trying to fix things. I can’t relax.”

His adrenaline does good things in the kitchen with delicate wild Alaskan halibut roasted in fig leaves, and a dish of darkly toasted farro “risotto” served with black trumpet and nameko mushrooms and a sumptuous chestnut velouté. Humphrey also serves as pastry chef, and we were enthralled by his warm, moist Meyer lemon pudding cake paired with a summer berry ice cream float. And we couldn’t help but polish off the hauntingly beautiful plum soufflé, which Humphrey makes with fruit from his own backyard tree, and pairs with a refreshing kaffir lime “soft serve” ice cream.

Rom Toulon, the restaurant’s sommelier, can pair each course with special wines. Toulon hails from France but knows Napa wines inside and out. He could just as easily pull out a Napa Valley Dominus as a Krug Grand Cuvée or a 1961 Chateau Caillou Sauternes. The chef’s tasting menu is $120; the wine pairing is an additional $90.

Wine Time
Napa Valley’s biggest draw is, of course, its wineries, but for many Bay Area dwellers, the ever-growing crowds and tasting room fees have grown tiresome. That’s where de Chambure comes in. With an encyclopedic knowledge of wine and a light accent that reflects his French-born, British-educated origin, de Chambure comes across as the soul of erudition, yet he also has a breezy, happy air that puts the groups he guides at ease.

“You don’t need to know anything to enjoy wine,” says de Chambure. “You just need to have an opinion. Embracing diversity is the most important thing about wine.”

De Chambure organizes private tours for Meadowood guests and often arranges stops at wineries not open to the public, such as the new and sophisticated Gargiulo Vineyards or Quixote, the wild, Gaudí-esque winery of Stags’ Leap founder Carl Doumani. The wine education program includes an array of offerings, from a one-hour introduction to wine on the restaurant terrace ($120 per person) to half- and full-day wine excursions in the Napa Valley ($600 and $900, respectively).

At the Resort
Meadowood offers golf and tennis, with pros in residence, as well as a full fitness center, but if you’re looking for activities that you can experience with a slight wine buzz, croquet and spa visits are the way to go.

Croquet master Jerry Stark, a tall, red-bearded man who might have been a Viking in a past life, will teach you and your group how to play, and then guide you through your first match. You’ll feel as if you stepped out of the pages of The Great Gatsby when you don your croquet whites and flat-soled shoes. Lessons cost $45 per person and are open only to resort guests or members of the club.

The spa at Meadowood is next to the pool area, but, thanks to an enclosed porch where guests can relax in brown wicker chairs before or after a treatment, it’s a quiet experience. Massage and facial treatments include soothing touches such as neck and knee supports and lavender-scented eye pillows. The therapists use only the most delicious-smelling natural botanical products, many of which are for sale in the reception area. A 60-minute massage or facial is $125.

Lodging
The accommodations at Meadowood have an understated elegance, with taupe, brick, and cream decor, and skylights through which you can see the trees above. Several of the rooms were recently refurbished with spacious sofas and new beds that are abundant nests of down and pillows, all made up with silky-soft, white, Jacquard-style linens. Most rooms are also appointed with a terrace, fireplace, and flat-screen TV.

Accommodations range from $525 per night for a single room to $5,175 per night for a four-bedroom private lodge on the estate. Many of the one-bedroom suites range from $700 to $1,000 per night, depending on the season.

Meadowood Napa Valley, 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena, (707) 963-3646, www.meadowood.com.

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