The Westin Verasa Napa
Surrounded by rolling verdant hills laden with grapevines, quaint architecture and celebrity chef restaurants, the 75,000 residents living in Napa’s city limits are accustomed to hearing, “I didn’t know there was a City of Napa.”
A citywide revitalization program has made Napa a thriving locale for groups who want to relish Napa Valley’s renowned riches without joining the stream of traffic winding past 400 wineries along the Silverado Trail and Hwy 29.
The city’s downtown core is an artistic playground inviting participation. Gone is the image of a sleepy town that rolls up the streets by 5 pm. Instead, there are 65 boutique restaurants including several with Michelin stars, 22 tasting rooms serving hundreds of labels and 3,000+ guestrooms. Roughly an hour’s drive from three airports—San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento—Napa offers a wealth of unique group experiences without having to hail a cab.
The first thing I noticed when my group registered into the The Westin Verasa Napa was the rack of empty wine bottles stretched across the back wall and the lobby’s Craftsman-style bungalow design. Natural slate spills across walkways and columns. Lobby desks are covered in cork from local trees. Oak in a widening circle centers a tree trunk coffee table. Viewed from above, the cork resembles the end of a wine barrel. Five Frank Lloyd Wright-ish chandeliers yield a softened glow.
“Our hotel very much expresses the natural and organic Napa Valley feel,” says GM Don Shindle. That’s also readily apparent in the airy guestrooms, which feature full kitchens, balconies and original local art.
In the lobby, BANK Bar & Café offers seating both indoors or on the patio facing Napa River. It is the casual sister to chef Ken Frank’s La Toque, a Michelin-rated Napa landmark where we dined on a customized menu that included chickpea ricotta ravioli basking in a parmesan cheese broth and seared quail medallions accompanied by a lemon ricotta gnocchi that made my mouth sing. Like the appetizers created for each night’s complimentary wine tastings in the lobby, Frank first selects the wines and then creates the menu around them.
Although the Westin has three boardrooms, a ballroom for 230 seated, and a saltwater pool and spa that appeals to environmentally-concerned groups, “We don’t want our guests to stay onsite,” says Heidi Miersemann, CMP, director of sales/marketing. “We want people to leave healthier than they came. Walk, shop and enjoy Napa.”
DAYS OF WINE & RISOTTO
It goes without saying that many venues offer wine education and wine blending teambuilding events in places like the bustling Oxbow Market. Our group partnered into pairs for a blending session at District 4, a wine bar and tasting room representing four wineries. Jars of merlot and three styles of cabernet, a beaker, stirrer and notepads sat on each table in the blending room (12 max). We had three tries to finalize our blend before facing a blind tasting by each team’s representative. Afterward, each participant brought home a bottle of the winning blend adorned with a customized label. District 4’s GM, James DeLuca, pronounced my blend the “overwhelming favorite!ining in Napa is a celebration of the senses, and it can be argued that this area was the spark of the mainstream locavore movement. Even at breakfast. Each morning’s meal was a standout for the homemade breads and pastries, overall creativity and the easygoing friendliness of everyone we met.
“Over 80% of Napa’s visitors come for the wine,” says Craig Smith, executive director for Downtown Napa Association. “Those same people tend to enjoy our amazing cuisine.”
For example, the Napa General Store is a retro ode to crammed shelves of gourmet food, objects d’art and wine accessories. Although their Chinese chicken salad and cornmeal pancakes are signature favorites, I munched happily on the goat cheese, spinach and bacon Napa Scramble. It’s also one of the few restaurants with riverside outdoor seating for 200.
One of the city’s treasures hidden to most outsiders is Alexis Baking Company. You don’t want to miss out on their Huevos Rancheros. Also try the charred Breakfast Burger topped with a poached egg and applewood smoked bacon. We also loved chef Mauro Pando’s scrambled eggs with tortillas and Tasso ham, but he says the dinners he caters with accents of Latin, French and Italian flavors are his signature forte (60 max).
Another highlight for our trip was a chocolate tasting at Anette’s Chocolates, where Anette laid out her diverse confections and explained their origins and usages. We watched candy individually designed and rolled through a machine that produced Chili Lime Tequila Brittle!
Chilly evenings are made toasty in most venues with blazing fire pits surrounded by natural stone and wood décor. Dine al fresco at Oenotri, a contemporary Italian restaurant whose roasted beet salad with citrus was our group’s fave.
At the urban-chic, 140-seat Eiko’s, enjoy the visually stimulating tableside preparation of a nitrogen mojito-of-the-future while supping on modern Japanese cuisine.
And cap off the evening at Silo’s, a jazz and comedy club, or 1313 Main, a sophisticated wine bar outfitted with six vignette conversation areas that flow gently past a wall of more than 1,300 wine possibilities. Hosts 175 for receptions.
I checked off a bucket list item when we boarded the historic Napa Valley Wine Train for a 3-hour journey past wineries and grapevine fields. We sipped Ahnfeldt and Carducci wines and dined on white linen cloths in the main club car, one of the first steel-bodied cars built by Pullman in 1915. For the best views, groups up to 52 pax can buy out the Vista Dome railcar with extra large windows, built in 1952.
Possible group activities abound, from the guided art walk of outdoor sculptures to the 1937 Uptown Theatre, recently returned to its stunning Art Deco glory with hand-carved wooden ornaments adorning the walls in the gilded lobby. There’s a large concert stage and plush seating for 857.
The recently-renovated 1879 Napa Opera House seats 490 upstairs and 200 downstairs for private events. Check out their original second-story curved balcony. Groups up to 35 can arrange a personalized Napa Culinary Crawl that can include food, wine and the opera house.
THE MERITAGE RESORT
Ten minutes from Napa City and Napa County Airport, The Meritage Resort & Spa offers a full slate of amenities designed to cater to all of a group’s needs without having to leave the property. A recent $40 million dollar expansion added more than 12,000 sf to the Mediterranean-style resort’s event space. The 322-room Meritage has the two largest ballrooms north of San Francisco and west of Sacramento, now totaling 50,000 sf.
The Meritage relies heavily on its ambiance, a complex mixture of sophisticated elegance and casual charm. Dark wood beams, deep-hued carpets and leather chairs stretch across the rectangular lobby. Just off the lobby, the newly Blend Coffee Café and Crush Ultra Lounge were designed specifically with teambuilding and group gatherings in mind. The Lounge offers various sports-oriented amusements, such as pool tables and six luxury bowling lanes complemented with a full service bar.
F&B experiences at The Meritage range from the resort’s signature restaurant Siena, whose delicacies include an unparalleled lemon panacotta with amaretto sauce, to private dining events inside their famous Wine Estate Cave.
The Cave is a polished stone cavern that includes the country’s only full-service underground spa and Trinitas Tasting Room. Groups up to 240 often begin an evening reception with cocktails and wine samplings of the resort’s handcrafted wines before venturing to the arched hall further into the cave. Diners are then greeted with white linen cloths and lit candles for dishes such as tempura dungeness crab nuggets with mango peach chutney.