Also inventive with classics is the team at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. One of the most comfortably elegant restaurants in Napa, Cindy’s feels like a supper club on an unassuming street. Open since 2003, it’s a long-stand- ing favorite for foodies who dine on elevated American fare made from scratch—and with a lot of love! Some bartenders have served here since the restaurant’s debut, concocting cocktails that truly reflect the heart and soul of the restaurant’s vision. While bloody Marys and margaritas are crowd pleasers, a stand-out drink is Don’t Call Me Phil…Collins, a fun take on the classic Collins cocktail. It features apple vodka, Dimmi liquor, fresh lemon juice, and grapefruit bitters.
For more than 20 years, Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry has been able to rely on fine wines for its exquisite tasting menus. The masterful meals here are considered among the best in the world (at one point, The French Laundry was lauded as the best restaurant in America), so naturally the selection of fine wines is a part of the journey and forever remained the exclusive liquor for tastings. In 2013, Keller proved spirits were just as important when he launched the restaurant’s first-ever spirits program. Now, diners are pleased to find an array of excellent spirits (predominantly rare, vintage, and incredibly highbrow finds), many of which date back more than a century with a pour that can range from $60 to four digits. Among the 51 spirits offered, bourbon and scotch are the main attractions, with labels like Macallan and Pappy Van Winkle that are best left unmixed (the spirits are so fancy, cocktails are rarely poured). Fine diners with good taste will delight in the various cognacs and chartreuses, the latter offering such incredible complexity with just enough sweetness it makes a terrific nightcap. Attention to detail is also important. The ices used are three-inch spheres from four-inch ice cubes that naturally fit perfectly in Baccarat crystal glassware.
For a great stay and a lovely cocktail, Andaz Napa in downtown Napa Valley helped spearhead the cocktail movement when it opened in 2012. The hip hotel’s Mercantile Social is one of the first hotel bars to serve up craft cocktails in the wine region. The bar truly celebrates the craft in craft cocktail: they use fresh local ingredients, make their own tinctures and bitters in house, and use only small batch or local spirits for their drinks. The head bartender, Caitlin Laman, hails from San Francisco, one of the top craft cocktail cities in America, and brought her experience to the Andaz Napa, where guests enjoy some of the best libations in the valley.
Napa Valley’s younger sister, Sonoma County, is experiencing a major renaissance in general. In the past few years alone, almost a dozen new restaurants have opened, and, unlike Napa, there’s a strong nightlife scene, especially in Healdsburg. Sonoma has cultivated itself as a dynamic lifestyle destination (in and out of harvest season) with a small-town culture you’ll be hard pressed to find elsewhere in the region.
Sonoma has become such an “it” destination that celebrities have been coming in droves (like Tyra Banks and James Franco), but the most notable aspect is the county’s drive to be far from a cliché wine destination. Visitors can find sprawling nature parks, hipster hotels, and plenty of modern boutiques run by creative and young designers. There’s even a safari, Safari West, that’s home to more than 850 bird species and animals like giraffes and zebra in a sprawling, 400-acre wildlife preserve. Thanks to its young, hip, and creative residents, with a swell of artsy visitors who don’t always want wine with their nights out, the craft-cocktail scene here is booming.
Lending to Sonoma’s contemporary movement, H2Hotel opened in 2010, the first hotel to offer modern comforts for young travelers. The hotel’s claimto-fame is Spoonbar, a vibrant place that gets packed with locals and visitors alike thanks to the cocktail list that initiated the craft-cocktail movement in Sonoma. Their cocktails have an outside-the-box aim with inventive concoctions that utilize fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs. “The cocktails here were a natural progression following the farm-to-table movement,” says Bar Man- ager Alec Vlastnik. “Both valleys have great new distilleries popping up all over, endless supplies of fresh produce, an interested customer base, and a lot of like-minded bartenders all trying to make the next great drink.”
Among the two-dozen cocktails featured on the menu, Cali Collins is quite popular. It features a gin and an aqua vit from Venus Distilleries, as well as celery bitters, cucumber shrub and lemongrass. It’s a unique spin on the classic Tom Collins.
Over at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, visitors can knock back a cocktail in several different places, including at the outdoor pool open during the summer and fall. The main bar, Rustic, features cocktails inspired by Francis’ experiences around the world, and many are made blended with his wines like the Clarita and Rosso & Peaches. Additionally, most of the cocktails use ingredients grown organically right on the property. “With the influx of young professionals moving form the Bay Area, the dining culture in Sonoma is changing, as is the popularity of craft cocktails,” says Rustic’s lead bartender Tom Adair. “Visitors and locals have come to expect the same artisan style of cocktails to match the quality of dining options.”
There is nothing in Sonoma quite like Gallery Bar, an extension of Healdsburg’s most romantic restaurant, Barndiva. Opened last year, Gallery Bar is an art gallery, restaurant, lounge, and bar all-in-one. With vaulted ceilings, the oversized, barn-like venue is visually commanding (with a romantic outdoor lawn). Modern paintings adorn the walls, art pieces hang from the ceiling, and the eclectic artwork, antiques, and rustic furnishings truly make it as original as they come. The bar has a laid-back, scoot-up-a-chair, make-yourself-at-home, hipster vibe, with a unique and harmonious blend of swank style meets authentic dive bar. While the décor is a mishmash, the cocktail list is highly curated with a selection of artisanal spirits. The owners source smallbatch spirits made by passionate distillers, and they put imaginative spins to classic cocktails including the margarita and Manhattan. The bar’s most prized cocktail, the Silver Hammer includes citrus-infused tequila, kiss of calvados, Fuji apples, lemon, alligator pepper, and aged citrus bitters.
Right on Healdsburg Square, Chalkboard Healdsburg has become the preferred watering hole for locals and visitors alike. The street-front, 20-seat bar (part of the elegant Hotel Les Mars, a Relais & Chateaux property) is quite often packed any night of the week, which lends to the lively atmosphere. Executive Chef Shane McAnelly’s small New American plates are tantalizing and the main attraction, though the cocktails here are equally impressive. The Cheery Old Fashioned included cherry-fused bourbon, house gomme, and bitters, and the Spiced Classic Daiquiri is a fun take on the original with rum, four-spiced syrup, lime, and bitters. The Happy Hour scene is where it’s at; cocktails are priced at $6.