What They’re Drinking in St. Helena

Boozy slushies, beer made by wine people and cabs as far as the eye can see.
By Virginie Boone
Philippe and Cherie Melka, courtesy of Melka Estates

June 12, 2023

For many, when they think of Napa Valley, they think of St. Helena. A northern-lying enclave that sits nearly in the center of the Napa Valley along Highway 29, St. Helena has become one of Northern California’s more prosperous small towns, ready to charm visitors with a movie-set-ready Main Street and mountains on both sides. But St. Helena isn’t just a postcard destination—most of its beautiful Victorian houses are home to the town’s residents, many of whom make, sell and distribute the region’s world-famous wine for a living. 

St. Helena doesn’t lack for polish. The community is surrounded by vineyards whose grapes turn into world-class wines—Corison, Spottswoode and Melka Estates among them. Within the town’s confines lies the gorgeous Meadowood Napa Valley, whose restaurant held a coveted three-star Michelin rating until it burned down in the Glass Fire of 2020 (it’s eventually going to be rebuilt). Forum at Meadowood is the complex’s more casual restaurant, which serves as a gathering place for well-heeled visitors and top-tier local winemakers.

But it’s not all five-star luxury. St. Helena’s most famous dining destination might be Gott’s Roadside, a much-beloved hamburger joint that’s a bit easier to manage from a logistics and budget perspective, but no less satisfying than its upscale peers. 

Karen Williams, proprietor

Acme Fine Wines

Boutique fine wine shop that specializes in undiscovered local wines as well as coveted imports

  • The best wine drinking in St. Helena is at dinner parties. That’s where you get to try some of the older Cabs that locals have stashed away to share. At a good dinner party here, anything goes.
  • When I dine out and see Cabernet on a table, I know it’s either visitors or wine industry locals. When locals come into ACME, they rarely buy Cabernet. Many of them are in the industry and make their own, or get plenty of Cab from friends in the industry. But people are always curious about new local projects they might not have heard about yet.
  • People love to bring their own wine around here. When I was a somm at Tra Vigne, I’d routinely have winemakers and vintners who brought their own wines.
  • What people do buy are lots of imports. Burgundy and Champagne are our biggest sellers.
  • Winery personnel know their own wines very well, but might not know obscure wines from around the globe, so we specifically started a wine club just for them called Pulse, but then decided to open it to consumers because people wanted to drink what the winemakers were drinking. All our Napa customers find it interesting to learn about trends and wines from far away regions.

Erin Di Costanzo, Proprietor

Di Costanzo Wines

Locally revered producer of single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (and Chardonnay, and Pinot…)

  • On sunny days, we’ll mix up a spritz with Ortolan, a really chic aperitif we add to sparkling wine or bubbly water on the rocks. We also drink loads of G’s Ginger Beer, which is made by an Aussie-born St. Helena local.
  • Gary’s is the go-to for wine shopping in town, they’ve got a great mix of charming imports alongside both niche and established California producers.
  • I was at a school auction recently, and our table had bottles from wineries where we all work: Opus One 2019, Di Costanzo 2019 Farella Cabernet, Faust 2021 Sauvignon Blanc. Everyone also brought along some drinking wines: our DI CO Cabernet, Ceritas Chardonnay, Zeitgeist Chenin Blanc, and some generous friends brought a few trophies like a 2013 Vosne Romanée Domaine D’Eugenie.
  • Everyone in this town has a good stash of Cabernet on hand, but the Chardonnay disappears most quickly from our cellars.

Dan Petroski, Proprietor/Winemaker

Massican Wines

Winery known for its thoughtful, Italian-inspired wines made from California grapes

  • The Margarita at Acacia House—that’s what everyone is drinking.
  • If you want to drink some Rhône from the great natural producer, Matthieu Barrett, go to Farmstead. They have all of his cuvées in rotation throughout the year. It’s my go-to wine with their burger or the brick chicken.
  • If you know how to navigate the list, Nick Glissen’s Hanabi Lager is at Farmstead for basically retail price.
  • PRESS Restaurant has historically been the place for all things Napa. But the kitchen has evolved, and so has the wine list. So they now give you incredible access to everything from Grand Cru Chablis to legendary Barolo. 
  • Charter Oak, for all its grandeur, remains a neighborhood restaurant and bar, with more cocktails, beer and burgers consumed than most of the other dishes and drinks.

Jillian Riley, Wine Director

Meadowood Napa Valley

Sprawling, ultra-luxury resort, private club, and community gathering place with an award-winning restaurant

  • We get people who really want to try something off the beaten path, and others who want tried-and-true classics. Many people want to drink California wines during their stay here—they’re intrigued by what’s on our list that they don’t see in their markets.
  • We serve a lot of Napa Cabernet, but trailing in popularity by just a hair are White Burgundy and Champagne.
  • Tastes in Champagne are evolving and gravitating toward smaller producers. It’s not just the Grandes Marques exclusively anymore.
  • As far as Champagne goes, Pierre Péters is ever-popular. I’ve also been very surprised to see Ulysse Collin really flying in the Grower Champagne category. The wine is obviously beautiful, but it seems the notoriety has really grown, too. Cédric Bouchard Champagne is also very well received. I can’t keep it in stock with how tight allocations have gotten, and I’m not going to mark it up 10 times the way some programs have done. 
  • PYCM [Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey] is very popular in the White Burgundy category here; I suppose it always is. 
  • Surprisingly, we’re not a go-to for Bond, The Mascot and Harlan [wine brands owned by Meadowood owner Bill Harlan]. There are other classics that do well for us, such as Chappellet and Abreu, but we get a lot of interest in newer projects in the region, like Adamus. 
  • We sell a good deal of sipping tequila, like Clase Azul. It’s actually more popular than whiskey and scotch for us. 
  • We’re trying to broaden interest in dessert wine, which I think is currently a tough category generally. If guests wish to continue imbibing after dinner, they’re actually more inclined to have a spirit-forward cocktail, like an Old Fashioned.

Virginie Boone, Senior Editor, The New Wine Review

Our Very Own Virginie Boone!

Extremely friendly individual who’s also a world expert on the Napa Valley

  • PRESS has one of the best wine lists in California. Their California library wines go way, way back.
  • In the summer months, I’m a sucker for the Space Age Frosé they serve out of a slushie machine by the bar at Charter Oak. I also love the happy hour there; you can get a bourbon shot with a beer for $10.
  • My favorite place to taste with winemakers is Forum at Meadowood. They’re open all day, they have exceptional service, and they often don’t charge corkage fees.
  • Joel Gott’s Station is, in fact, a gas station, but one with absolutely killer coffee drinks. It’s perfect for a meeting on the benches outside. But it closes at 2:30 p.m.  
  • St. Helena is such a wine town that Mad Fritz, the best local beer, is made by two winemakers! Nile Zacherle and Whitney Fisher (a husband-and-wife team) run a brewery in town—it’s a lot of fun to visit.
  • St. Helena is the cultural hub of Napa Valley. The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone brings a lot of fascinating, serious-minded food and wine people to town. If you visit CIA, go see the Vintners Hall of Fame and their crazy corkscrew collection.
  • I know of a lot of winemakers who make wine all day and then after work, they go out and pretty much only order tequila.
  • Bothe-Napa State Park is just out of town and a great place for a hike or picnic. It even runs a swimming pool in summer and has historic cabins and yurts to rent. While you’re up there, go taste at Stony Hill Vineyard nearby. 
  • Ana’s Cantina is where the young crowd goes after hours. It’s an old school bar with pool tables where you’ll meet a lot of people who are just starting out in their wine or service careers. Thursdays there’s karaoke.
  • Cameo Cinema is this great, throwback single-screen movie theater. It’s more of a locals thing, but they serve good wines and Mad Fritz beer on tap.