How green is your Napa (Black Card)

It’s the finale of this afternoon’s ‘welcome to your hotel’ performance and time to tip. The stage is one of the most sumptuous suites in North America, and it’s been a slick ballet of a check-in, so the bellman has definitely earned it. But before he goes, he points out a radical in-room feature: ‘There’s a ceramic jug with filtered water by the bed,’ he says. ‘We endeavour to be green.’ Applause, applause, applause, and yet… there are several rows of imported Italian San Pellegrino and Norwegian Voss in a vast adjacent fridge, representing a clown shoe-sized carbon footprint. These are the uneasy dynamics of green luxury in the Napa Valley, America’s most photogenic agricultural playground.

Napa is an hour’s drive from the San Francisco Bay Area and the ultimate weekend getaway for the left-leaning middle classes of Fog City. It’s groomed and beautified to the point of being Stepford sinister; a Disneyland for gourmets, gourmands, and wine snobs where Thomas Keller is king, and Opus One flows at 50th birthday banquets. The Napa Valley has been strongly influenced in recent years by the aggressive and revolutionary greening policies of north Californian government. While the rest of the world whipped itself into hysteria about the parlous state of the economy, and supermarkets saw customers deserting the pricy organic aisles, Napa has seen ribbons being cut in front of ultra-eco resort projects that broke ground in more optimistic times.

Wen-I Chang might just be the most committed eco-hotelier in business today. He wants to open a chain of resorts that aim for Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, just like his Gaia Napa Valley Hotel. His hotel has 31 eco-initiatives in operation and uses close to half the water a similar sized property would. Unfortunately, Gaia looks like a prison in the Australian Outback and has been erected in the only part of Napa that looks like a Detroit strip mall. The Bardessono, on the other hand, is a different beast. Aimed at guests sans budgets, it opened earlier this year in the middle of ravishing, floral Yountville, a five-minute stroll from French Laundry. While other hotels in Napa play the rustic card as their trump, the Bardessono is new wave: 100% modernist wine country style; sharp, Zen geometry, sleek typography and reclaimed wood. They admit that a lot of guests ‘couldn’t care less’ about their green credentials, and merely rock up for in-room spa treatments and the fabulously reviewed restaurant that’s muscling in on Keller’s monopoly, but those credentials are still there: from the geothermal wells that provide heating, to the Toto Japanese bidet toilets that do away with the Charmin.

The vocabulary of greening can be as inscrutable as a tone language and as redundant as teenage patois. Certified organic may be one thing, ‘natural’ is another. ‘We sell a bunch of junk,’ Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey said recently, and although he hastily explained Whole Foods’ championing of so-called ‘natural foods’ is educating the public to eat healthily, a stroll through any branch reveals at ingredient level that many an item that looks like Mother Nature’s elixir is nothing more than sugar-sodden muck.

‘Sustainability’ is less of a fraud, but similarly ambiguous. Auberge Resorts own the most luxurious properties in Napa: Auberge du Soleil and the Calistoga Ranch. The infinity hot tub which overlooks the Valley at the former has become travel magazine shorthand for loved-up champagne-fluted five star romance in wine country, while the individual lodges at Calistoga, with outdoor living rooms, are the very definition of wow factor. The group recently pledged itself to ‘sustainable spa practices’ through the Green Spa Network. ‘Sustainable’ has myriad definitions, and there’s unlikely to be consensus and certification before 2012, but fundamentally it means that you reduce non-renewable resources and you don’t use products containing polluting synthetics. Basically, it means ‘well, we try.’ Auberge are trying more than most, primarily because they’re a small family-run business focusing on quality and ecology as much as the bottom line. ‘My mother was lying down in front of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park in protest at them being allowed in last year,’ says Mark Harmon, CEO of the Auberge properties. ‘With hotels the whole thing about not washing towels is minor; it’s all about good design and changes in technology have allowed for better design. With our new Napa property, Solage, we’ve used geothermal wells for heating the pool and we’ve installed solar panels. I grew up in Napa: we have a higher consciousness about greening and the environment and the best wines are grown organically.’

Wining and dining is, of course, Napa’s raison d’etre; three meals a day, each executed with such ceremony and foof that after a few days you feel suffocated by the waiting staff’s soft purrs of ‘bavarois’; ‘consommé; ‘mousseline’, as if menaced by a parliament of velvet owls. The dining table is where Napa excels in greening as well as the theatre of luxury. Given that food in the States travels an average of 1300 miles from farm to plate, the traceability of product in Napa is nothing short of wondrous – at the Kelleher family’s Brix, lunch tables face the garden where you can see gardeners tending the same zucchini blossoms that sit next to your herb roast chicken. The Kellehers even produce – in minute quantities – their own Cabernet Sauvignon. Brix aside, biodynamic wines, which go beyond mere ‘organics’ with a holistic approach to the soil and vines, feature heavily on many a wine list and tasting room itinerary.

The Michelin-starred Meadowood and the vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu both focus on dishes fashioned from their own gardens. The extra quality can’t be overestimated: It might seem difficult to get over excited by a bit of orange root veg, but a simple dish of carrot gnocchi at Meadowood tastes sweet, vibrant and alive. If Meadowood is your chic great Aunt with a rambling estate, fine china and a penchant for rich, nine-course tasting menus, then Ubuntu is your edgy, leftfield niece (it’s based in a yoga centre in ‘downtown’ Napa). Staff at Ubuntu are encouraged to walk or cycle to work, and although it might seem silly to show off the three varieties of heirloom potato that are about to be crushed for you with shiso salt, when they bring out the ‘carta da musica with virtually the entire summer garden’, abounding with just-picked leaves, encircled by truffled pecorino and scattered with edible flowers, you wonder if you might, after all, be able to turn herbivore. But you know you don’t have the time, the garden or the weather.

If Auberge invented the Napa luxury resort by which all else must be measured, then Thomas Keller invented its luxury restaurant. ‘I hate, hate, hate French Laundry; I don’t know why you like it there so much, it’s so much better here,’ drawls a permed and pearl-necklaced southern belle across the table to her husband at Bouchon, best known as the Thomas Keller restaurant that isn’t the most famous one. Bouchon is classic French bistro redux, all gleam and opulence with couples splitting jars of foie gras terrine over a bottle of something sparkling. Like its grander sibling, much of its veg comes from the French Laundry garden, designed and managed by Tucker Taylor, a shy, bearded fellow with an aggressive passion for agriculture. ‘I go through the garden at the start of each week and create an inventory of what we have and in what quantities,’ says Tucker. ‘Then I pass it to the chefs at the restaurants. It makes perfect sense to grow here because the soil and weather are so perfect – our heirloom tomatoes benefit from the lack of rainfall; the flavour doesn’t wash away.’ The garden can’t, of course, satisfy all of the needs for three busy restaurants (Ad Hoc, the third, is the most casual in Keller’s empire), and Tucker admits that green concerns can’t dictate everything: ‘The sod we use for the garden isn’t the most ecologically sound because it uses a lot of water, but it’s much more attractive. And visitors to French Laundry really like to come to the garden… it does have a marketing value.’ No chutzpah maybe, but certainly another illustration of the uneasy dynamic of green luxury – we might want to save the planet, but we want it to look nice as well as taste good while we’re doing it. And let’s face it, if we’re paying all that, yes, we do want those fresh towels.

Waxing, waning and wining, Napa’s biodynamic vineyards

‘Biodynamic’ has superseded ‘organic’ as the buzz word around Napa’s vines. While its newer-age finer points may raise eyebrows (burying manure in a horn at a certain point of the lunar cycle and talk of the zodiac), the consensus amongst previously sceptical members of the world’s wine press is that it creates knock-out wines. Formulised by Rudolf Steiner in 1924, and organised by Maria Thun’s Sowing and Planting Calendar, the fundamental principal is that vines have root days (when the moon wanes) and fruit days (when the moon waxes) and all plants (and any resulting wines) behave differently on each. You should fertilise and press grapes on a root day, prune and taste on a fruit day. Biodynamic agriculture is inherently ‘organic’ and dictates that a farm is an organism in itself, so manures etc. should be produced on site, without artificial fertilizers or pesticides. Grgich Hills, Frogs Leap and Robert Sinskey all practice biodynamic wine making in the Napa Valley. Try Sinskey’s top end 2005 Mercien (a Merlot, Cab Sauv and Cab Franc blend) for biodynamic wine at its best – lush, soft, with plum and olive tones.

Gavin Newsom, Green Avenger

San Francisco’s youngest mayor in a century is the poster boy for green politics in northern California. In June 2007 he called for the use of bottled water in local government to be phased out, then had plastic bags and Styrofoam banned throughout the city. He recently called on green IT entrepreneurs to view his city as ‘a laboratory for innovation’: he has had over 25,000 trees planted around San Francisco since 2005 and has commissioned studies into the feasibility of an underwater wind farm beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Newsom has overseen the most prolific recycling programme in the States and wants San Francisco to be carbon neutral by 2020. Tellingly, he supports health care reform – unlike Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.

Mark C.O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Air France who fly from London to San Francisco, via Paris from £392 return (economy) and £2,667 (business). Air France has an active CO2 emission reduction programme, and offer passengers the opportunity to offset the CO2 emissions from their journey.

Hertz have a large fleet of hybrid cars at San Francisco airport, bookable through



One Response to “How green is your Napa (Black Card)”

  1. […] is the original:  How green is your Napa (Black Card) « MARK C.O'FLAHERTY […]

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