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Getting Away To The Napa Valley
The Napa Valley, about an hour and a half drive north of San Francisco, is a delightful destination, whether for a visit of a few hours or a more leisurely stay of a week or two.
Two main roads, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, run the length of the Valley's 30 miles from the city of Napa in the south to Calistoga in the north, making it easy to get around and difficult to get lost. At frequent intervals, there are roads that cross between Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. The width of the Valley ranges from one to five miles.
Highway 29 is the busier, more commercial road through the Valley. The Silverado Trail is quieter and more scenic. There are numerous wineries along both roads, as well as on the crossroads and up into the mountains that flank either side of the valley.
What do I do on a visit? Taste a little wine, dine well, shop in unique boutiques, take a hot air balloon ride in the early morning, and just relax.
My favorite place to stay is in Yountville at the Vintage Inn. The Inn has comfortable fireplace rooms, a lap pool, tennis courts, and rental bicycles. An elaborate buffet breakfast is included with the price of a room. Well-behaved dogs are welcome ($30 surcharge for the entire stay). Interesting small shops and excellent restaurants are within walking distance.
Many wineries offer free tours; most offer tastings. If there is a charge to taste, the winery will usually subtract it from the price of any wines that you purchase. As an orientation to wine tasting, I always take first-time visitors to St. Supery Vineyards & Winery for their educational self-guided tour. Maps exhibit the Valley's wine regions, there is a demonstration vineyard, and visitors can sniff the scents that are used to describe wine. I like the gardens and Japanese tea houses at Chateau Montelena, the art collection at the Hess Collection, the excellent champagne making tour at Mumm Napa Valley, and the Michael Graves architecture at Clos Pegase.
Grgich (pronounced GUR-gitch) Hills Cellar, one of the "old-timers" in the Valley, conducts two tours daily. There is no charge for the tour and the private tasting that follows, but you must reserve a place in advance. Niebaum-Coppola, owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola, is a relative newcomer to the Valley. The property originally belonged to Gustave Niebaum, the founder of Inglenook Vineyards. Coppola's Tucker automobile is on display in the tasting room. It is hard to miss V. Sattui because its lawn is always filled with picnickers. V. Sattui sells its wines only at the winery and has a full deli and food shop with everything one needs for the perfect picnic.
For special meals, where I make reservations in advance, I go to Tra Vigne in St. Helena, Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa, and Wappo Bistro in Calistoga. Tra Vigne is known for its creative California/Italian cuisine. Bistro Don Giovanni has something for all tastes and appetites. Whether you want a good hamburger, double-cut pork chops, a grilled Portobello mushroom or the freshest of fish, they are all here. Wappo Bistro has a delightful outdoor patio and a global menu.
Restaurants where I just drop in include: The Napa Valley Grille, The Diner and Compadres in Yountville, Pometta's in Oakville, and All Season's Cafe in Calistoga. Both the Napa Valley Grille and The Diner feature American dishes. During the day, The Diner serves the breakfasts, sandwiches, and salads one would expect at the '50s-style diner that it is. In the evening it offers a whole array of Mexican dishes as well as fresh fish, chicken, and other more-substantial fare. Pometta's is known for its barbecued chicken. The food at Spring Street is the closest you will come to "home cooking" in the Valley, but it is home cooking with a bit more...wonderful salads, freshly-baked bread, and creative renditions of the dishes Mother used to make. I like to eat lunch at All Season's Cafe where I usually order their upscale version of a BLT or the warm spinach salad with chicken. All Season's has one of the most extensive and fairly-priced wine lists in the Valley.
My two favorite towns for shopping and strolling are St. Helena and Calistoga. Both have shop-lined main streets and historic buildings. I can easily spend half a day in each town.
At the Artful Eye in Calistoga I am always tempted by the wearable (clothes and jewelry) and visual (sculpture, paintings, and objects) art. I like to wander through the boutiques in the six antique railroad cars at the Calistoga Depot Shops.
In St. Helena I stock up on olive oil and other Italian delicacies at the Napa Valley Olive Oil Mfg. Co. I then go to Mosswood to admire their usual things for the garden, many with an Asian influence. Then, its on to On The Vine which features wine-theme jewelry and clothing and to Tantau and Vanderbilt and Company for an array of unique items for the home. At St. Helena Wine Merchants I rely on the staff to introduce me to more new Napa Valley wine discoveries.
Bargain hunters must stop at both the Village Outlets of Napa Valley and the Napa Factory Stores. Coach and Brooks Brothers are among those at the Village Outlets, a small shopping center. At the expansive Napa Factory Stores look for Max Studio, Dansk, Liz Claiborne, and Ann Taylor Loft.
Looking for the perfect souvenir of your visit? I recommend a jar of homemade jam from Katz & Company in Yountville or, perhaps, one of the many locally-made mustards and flavored oils that they feature. Also in Yountville is Vintage 1870, an old stone winery that has been converted to two stories of boutiques. Washington Square Gallery shows the works of Guy Buffet including his popular portrayals of chefs.
Balloon Rides and Mud Baths
If time permits, take a balloon ride over the Valley. There are many ballooning companies, all offering the same basic adventure. The balloons go up at daybreak and drift over the Valley for about an hour. At the end of the ride, there is a champagne breakfast on terra firma. My own ballooning experience has been with Adventures Aloft, one of the first companies to balloon in the Napa Valley.
Another fun thing to do is to take a mud bath and enjoy the hot springs in Calistoga. Golden Haven Spa & Resort is a popular spot for this sort of indulgence.