You don’t have to be a wine snob to fall for St Helena in Napa Valley. You just need to be the sort of person who finds joy in a whole town of people infatuated with food and drink. Fetishising what we eat and quaff may be all the rage nowadays but phrases such as “farm-to-table” feel a lot more genuine when you are actually surrounded by farms.
Here, amid the natural bounty of northern California, is where it all started. Many credit Chez Panisse in Berkeley as the first overtly “farm-to-table” restaurant; it opened in 1971 and was revolutionary for a philosophy that centred on ingredients over technique. But the movement arguably started even earlier than that with the Sixties hippies of San Francisco, whose alternative lifestyle choices included growing their own produce and foraging for ingredients.
The shift once you motor over the Golden Gate Bridge and cross into Napa — about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco — is exhilarating. I watch the freeway narrow into quaint country lanes, the immaculately plotted green landscape gorgeous against bold, blue sky. There is a gentility to the surroundings; it doesn’t knock you over the head with violent, jagged mountains, or boggling enormity, but offers a more refined version of America: subtle, simple, soothing.
St Helena calls itself “Napa Valley’s main street”, and is in many ways a conveniently compact microcosm of the county — swanky restaurants, wineries, resorts and boutiques, all within minutes of each other. At the Harvest Inn by Charlie Palmer (Palmer is an American celeb chef), my room overlooks rows of vines, a blanket of yellow mustard blossoming at the foot of the grape trunks. Planting mustard in vineyards is common practice in California, said to repel vine-munching worms and removing the temptation to use pesticides.
At the hotel’s restaurant, dinner is locally sourced, straightforward and delicious. A plate of chicken in a saucy risotto spiked with fall squash and truffle butter is sensational. The restaurant calls itself “honest and refined”, and that describes St Helena: pricey but fuss-free, more concerned with letting natural flavours shine than faffing about with methodology.
That theory comes to the fore the next day, when a saunter along Main Street brings us to the Clif Family Winery’s tasting room and food truck. The truck doesn’t do anything too fancy — just bruschetta and salads, made with ingredients from the Clif Family Farm and other local producers — but everything tastes amazing. We take a seat on the tasting room patio and clink the wines paired with our bruschette (my flatbread has flecks of Long and Bailey Farms pig, garden herbs, red onion and parmesan; my wife’s is topped with Clif Farm broccoli, a cheese sauce and smoked bacon), allowing the ease of such a lovely afternoon to wash over us.
This is pretty much what there is to do in St Helena — eat, drink, repeat — but it feels like this is a gradual unfolding of a relationship with the land around you, paying minute attention to every element of what is on your plate or in your glass. And when you cannot eat any more food, you can shop for it. Main Street is full of farm shops selling locals’ rosemary-infused caramel sauce or tamarind lime chilli bitters — I constantly overhear shoppers mentioning “oh, this is Mark’s Sriracha” or what have you. Even the soap in the bathrooms is made with Napa Valley grapeseed oil.
Sure, it’s easy to be cynical about the so-called locavore ethos but when it is done right it is a powerful rebuke to the industrial takeover of our dinner plates that outraged those hippies back in the day. Come back to where it all began. You could call it food for thought.
Doubles at Harvest Inn by Charlie Palmer from $376 (£293), B&B. Norwegian flies from Gatwick to Oakland-San Francisco from £350 (norwegian.com).