Though the Napa Valley is barely a two-hour drive from my San Francisco home, I succumbed to its charms only recently, after several years of avoidance. I'm a city girl who loves Thai takeout, and I usually buy my wine from the corner deli. I just couldn't see myself bellying up to a tasting moneyed wine connoisseurs or spending months on speed dial to get a table at the famous French Laundry restaurant in Yountville (and spending $500 once I get in).
But after hearing gay friends rave about nearby Calistoga's mud baths and small-town charms, I had to experience Napa. And besides, autumn, with its smells of wood smoke and crushed grapes in the air, is the best time to revel in the hedonistic pleasures for which the area is known--spa treatment, rich food, and, of course, wine, especially big-bodied cabernet sauvignons.
As I drove Napa's main artery, Highway 29, I passed farm stands selling pumpkins and cider as well as some of the most celebrated restaurants and wineries in the world. I pondered the delicious bony of it all--for all the money and sophistication, Napa still felt, well, rustic.
My destination was Chateau de Vie, a four-room, gay-owned bed-and-breakfast just outside Calistoga. Phillip Barragan and his partner of 11 years, Peter Weatherman, bought the place six years ago and have created a haven for themselves, their dog, Jake (dogs are allowed), and their guests. Phillip greeted me and showed me my room--a tastefully decorated junior suite on the top floor with views of their two acres of vineyards, growing with Bordeaux grapes. (This fall Chateau de Vie releases its first vintage of the September 2001 harvest--a full-bodied cabernet.) I was encouraged to take advantage of the hot tub on the property, which I was told was a perfect venue for stargazing before bed.
Phillip proved also to be the perfect resource for how to enjoy the area as a gay traveler. "I'm looking forward to more 'gay Napa,'" he says. But right now there are a couple of inns and Brannan's Grill, an excellent gay-owned restaurant in Calistoga. And last summer, the Napa Valley Opera House reopened in the town of Napa and became an immediate locus for gay men. "I'm trying to raise awareness in the area about how to target the gay audience, and I'm making breakthroughs," Phillip says. (The couple bought the rights to the domain www.gaynapavalley.com and hope to expand its membership base steadily.) Still, when Phillip and Peter relocated here from San Francisco, they were embraced by the community and became involved themselves: Philip does AIDS outreach and is on the board of the Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau.
Not all guests realize their hosts are gay until they arrive, and it's made for some amusing but never too uncomfortable moments. "We have guests from Middle America who have never encountered a gay male couple in their natural habitat," says Phillip. "We've been asked very politely if we're brothers. I told them sisters is more like it." But Phillip admits to enjoying a mix of guests, gay, straight, hip, and square: "It feels more balanced that way."
One of the highlights of the weekend was my two-hour bath and massage treatment at the nearby Lavender Hill Spa. The vibes at Lavender Hill, which bills itself as a couples retreat, are both serene and uplifting. The requisite soft New-Agey music and the scent of Bulgarian rose face mist floated through the air. The private, two-room couples' cottage--tucked away in a terraced garden with Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the breeze--was divine (even alone); two deep, padded tubs lie side by side with the sun streaming in. For my bath, I chose the seaweed treatment (other choices include the volcanic ash mud or a variety of mineral salts). A doting attendant checked in every 10 minutes to apply a cold compress to my forehead while I sat steeping in hot, sudsy water. Later she rubbed my feet before gently guiding me into a massage room for another hour of Swedish massage. …