Who says you can’t mix business with pleasure? This summer while filming another episode of Bar Rescue in Sonoma County, every free moment I had, I explored this beautiful area. I loved this region so much that I extended my stay, deciding to take a road trip through St. Helena and stay in Napa for a few nights.

I picked up a car in Santa Rosa; the drive from there was only about an hour with limited traffic and beautiful scenery.

My first stop was Alma Mater in the Culinary Institute of America. I’ve been hearing about the Greystone location since my days in Hyde Park. The Greystone campus is absolutely breathtaking – it’s situated across from a vineyard in what was once a wine cellar built in 1889.

The hallways of CIA Greystone actually look very similar to Roth Hall in Hudson Valley.  I thoroughly enjoyed the CIA quality pastries and a coffee in the café while reminiscing about my days in Hyde Park. Unfortunately, the restaurants on campus were closed because it was a Sunday, but next time I look forward to visiting again and checking them out.

After checking into my hotel in Napa, my first stop for a late lunch was Michael Chiarello’s Bottega. The level of excellence of the charcuterie and Italian cheeses were similar to what I’ve experienced in Italy. The indoor décor of the restaurant was a little dark so I recommend sitting outside on a nice day out on the patio. Because of all the exceptional local wineries, you can also find a selection of really good, reasonably priced Napa wines by the glass.

My first dinner in Napa was at Bouchon. Thomas Keller has been an inspiration to me since I first started my path to becoming a chef in the mid 90’s. I sampled many of the classics on the menu, but some of the most enjoyable were the country pate and famous Thomas Keller roasted chicken, along with the signature TK wine blend that is offered by the glass. The glasses were pretty pricey, but they were something unique that you won’t find anywhere else.

I filled my days with visiting different wineries and exploring the area. When driving through Napa, it was a great feeling to turn off the navigation and drive wherever the next road would take you, one road being more beautiful than the last. It was a a very memorable, Zen like experience.

The stand out experience was a private tour of the Opus One vineyard and production facility. I was already a fan and familiar with many of the Opus One vintages, but a new experience here was a wine that I didn’t know they produced; it’s made from the left over blends of Opus One called Overture. Everything at this winery is of the highest level, from the manicuring of the vineyard and the architecture of the building, to the world-class wine – highly recommended.

Right across the street is the Ingle Nook winery where the Francis Coppola wine is produced. The outdoor patio here is an amazing spot to enjoy one of Coppola’s signature cigars, a great glass of wine and beautiful views of the vineyard.

For my last night in Napa, I had a couple different reservations for places I wanted to visit. I got a last minute call about a table available at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc for their infamous fried chicken night. Each night they only offer a prix fixe menu; I totally lucked out because they only serve fried chicken twice a month, this being one of the nights. Although this is one of the more gluttonous meals of the trip, it was also one of the most enjoyable. The meal consisted of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, soft shell crabs, an array of side dishes and a bottle of rose. At that moment, there was no other meal I would have wanted to have, including the French Laundry, which is 100 yards away. Sometimes your crave of comfort food is unmatched by anything.

That afternoon I got to walk through the garden of the French Laundry, reminding me of the first fine dining cookbook I ever purchased by Thomas Keller. Next time back in Napa, I will plan ahead to make my reservation at the French Laundry.