A journey through the Napa Valley.

SOME SAY that California’s Napa Valley is the closest thing to European countryside that we have in the United States. Furthermore, it’s known to be uniquely inspirational.

After watching the purple mist hover over the fir-studded mountains of the Napa Valley and perhaps after sampling more than a little nectar of the gods, Robert Louis Stevenson compared vine planting to mining for precious metals: “Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire…. The wine is bottled poetry.”

And so the valley is today. It’s easy to forget that such beautiful hillsides exist and that such quiet remains. A vacation in Northern California spent touring vineyards, tasting vintage and -who knows – writing a little poetry, may be just right for a city-tired spirit.

If you decide to make such a trip, we suggest you not stun your system by winding down and kicking back too rapidly. Begin with at least one night in fast-lane San Francisco. This sophisticated city is an easy drive from the valley and abounds with luxury hotels. Two of the best (both five-star) are the venerable Stanford Court, with its Nob Hill address and Old-World charm, and the Four Seasons Clift Hotel, which is two blocks from Union Square and is close to shops, theaters and art galleries. Both hotels offer elegant repasts for tea, but save room for dinner in the Carnelian Room atop the Bank of America Center. There you can begin to relax and enjoy what must be the area’s most beautiful view of San Francisco and the Bay.

Next morning, drive across the Golden Gate Bridge on Highway 101 to Marin County. Just off the highway is Sausalito, the small, woodsy town that reminds many travelers of Naples, Italy. The older families of Sausalito are indeed Italian – the phone book is crowded with heavily accented names ending in “i.” Many are descendents of winemakers who settled the area in the late-1800s.

These days, though, Sausalito is filled with young, well-to-do professionals who leave their boats anchored in the bay and return to hillside homes complete with redwood Jacuzzis. Tourist shops and bars are plentiful in Sausalito, but the high cost of living has driven away most of the struggling artists who gave the town its fame.

When you’ve seen enough, get back on Highway 101 for a few miles and exit to Tiburon. You’re approaching the Tiburon Peninsula, three miles of Marin County’s most expensive real estate, sprinkled with several stylish boutiques and some interesting restaurants. Tiburon is just a ferry ride from San Francisco.

After side trips to Sausalito and Tiburon, proceed on Highway 101 to the Napa Valley, home of some 120 wineries. Take Highway 37 near Ignacio to Highway 29. The sleepy little towns you’ll pass through -Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga- are all the homes of wineries and friendly communities where doors are rarely locked.

Following is a list of wineries, restaurants and other fun stops to visit while in the wine country.

Mayacamas Vineyards, 1155 Lokoya Road, up Mt. Veeder in Napa. Many of the wineries of northern California boast steel storage tanks and the best of the German grape crushers. However, this is not the case at Mayacamas. The rugged grounds of the vineyard have been carved out of the wilderness and are often frequented by deer, grizzlies and rattlesnakes. Once you’ve traveled the steep backroads to arrive at Mayacamas, you can purchase the 1979 Chardonnay or the 1978 Cabernet. Both are deemed excellent by wine writers. No tastings are available, but tours are conducted by appointment Monday and Wednesday at 10 a.m. and Friday at 2 p.m.

Domaine Chandon, just off Highway 29 on California Drive in Yountville. This ultramodern winery produces 250,000 cases of non-vintage Napa Brut and Napa Blanc de Noirs each year. Tours and tastings are offered hourly on weekdays, Wednesday through Sunday and every half hour on weekends. The winery has its own haute cuisine restaurant open daily tor lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday, and sparkling wines are available by the glass or by the bottle.

Robert Mondavi, 7801 St. Helena Highway in Oakville. This winery is much more than the usual grapevine tour. Visitors are not only treated to tours and tastings offered daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., but they can also browse through an art gallery of realistic and abstract works by local and nationally known artists. This year, Mondavi’s 13th annual summer jazz festival was held; the winery hosted performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Woody Herman, Sonny Rollins and Steve Allen with Adam Makowicz.

That isn’t all that goes on beneath the winery’s Spanish mission-style arches. Twice a year Mondavi joins his Swiss wife and his winemaker sons, Tim and Michael, in sponsoring a gourmet cooking course. Julia Child, Alain Chapel and Georges Blanc have conducted the courses in the past. Tuition includes lodging and ranges from $1,180 to $2,850. Even with all this, the Mondavi’s operation is considered only a medium-sized winery. His red and white table wines are among the best of the jug wine buys available in the United States.

Cakebread Cellars, 8300 St. Helena Highway, about a half mile from the Robert Mondavi winery and across the road in Rutherford. The entrance of this small winery is unmarked, but the driveway leading to the modest winery is lined with spectacular flowers. The Cakebreads’ son, Bruce, is the winemaker in residence; he produces about 19,000 bottles of four California varietals a year. The Cakebread label has received rave notices in the Sacramento Union, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The New York Times. Tours of the winery are by appointment only.

Stags Leap Wine Cellars, 5766 Silverado Trail, Napa. French wine experts toasted the 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon made here as the cream of the Bordeaux Reds in 1976 bicentennial tastings. This small winery is at the base of a hill and is surrounded by great, ancient trees. No tastings are offered, and tours are by appointment only.

Trefethen Vineyards, 1160 Oak Knoll Avenue, Napa. Another winery in more rugged surroundings, Trefethen was built of redwood in 1886 and was first named Eschol for the brook mentioned in the Bible’s book of Numbers. First Lady Nancy Reagan has a bottle of Trefethen Char-donnay 1975 placed in her suite each time she stays at the Waldorf Towers in New York, and Orson Welles drinks a Trefethen Chardonnay when he dines at Ma Maison in Los Angeles. Tours of the winery are by appointment only.

Spring Mountain Vineyards, 2805 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena. The winery where the television show Falcon Crest is filmed doesn’t have a sign at the entrance, but do look for a pair of gates covered with flaking white paint. Take a detour around a low stone wall and you can go on up to the Victorian mansion. The winery produces Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir wines. There are no tastings, and tours are by appointment.

Schramsberg, St. Helena Highway, Cal-istoga. This very unusual winery is the birthplace of the champagne that the last four American presidents have taken abroad to toast heads of state. Bottles are rotated in the winery by hand. Only about 50,000 cases of the five French-style champagnes are produced yearly -a Reserve Brut, a Blanc de Blancs, the Blanc de Noirs, a Cuvee de Pinot and a dessert wine, Cremant. Schramsberg is building a new winery, but the old Victorian mansion that originally belonged to a San Francisco barber turned winemaker is worth seeing. Tours are by appointment.

Rutherford Hill Winery, Rutherford Hill Road at Silverado Trail, St. Helena. This winery is a reproduction of an old Californian barn. You can taste wine, purchase one or several bottles and view local art at Rutherford Hill, but we suggest you also try something a little different -you haven’t really been to California until you’ve dined alfresco and had a picnic or two. Rutherford Hill is one of the state’s most scenic spots -a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc goes down well with some gourmet delicacies from the nearby Oakville Grocery (Highway 29 in Oakville). There you can choose a lunch of fresh fruit, sourdough French bread, croissants and imported cheeses and patés. Oakville Grocers will even pack your picnic for you. Call to reserve a picnic table at Rutherford Hill. Tastings are available 11:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday with tours at 11 a.m.

Auberge du Soliel, one block north of the Highway 128 intersection off Silverado Trail on Rutherford Hill Road. Here you’ll dine on the finest of classic French haute cuisine. Gourmet magazine calls Auberge du Soliel “the most exciting new restaurant in the wine country.” There’s a breathtaking view of a nearby olive grove, the Napa Valley and the majestic Maya-camas Mountains. Most appetizers and entrees are works of art -the paté de poisson (a salmon, scallop and shrimp pate) is presented as tiny pink flowers. A four-course meal is $30 prix fixe, excluding wine. Closed Wednesdays. Reservations are required.

Rose et LeFavour Restaurant Francois, 1420 Main Street, St. Helena. This small, elegant restaurant is one of the newest in the wine country and is decorated in country French. The extensive wine list contains some rare European vintages at reasonable prices. Dinners are $40 prix fixe. Open for one seating only Wednesday through Sunday 6:30 until 8:30 and Sunday lunch 1 until 4. No credit cards.

The French Laundry, 6640 Washington, Yountville. This is a popular eatery for natives, but the menu has only one entree each evening. The turn-of-the-century fieldstone building was once a laundry, but the dining room here is now more like a family kitchen -open and airy, with lots of baskets and plants and a herb garden just outside. Occasionally, owners Sally and Don Schmitt serve a marvelous melon-seed pasta available in packages at the Oakville Grocery.

Miramonte, 1327 Railroad Avenue, St. Helena. This nouvelle cuisine restaurant has rooms available for overnight guests, and the food can be extraordinarily good; however, portions are small and service borders on haughty.

Mama Nina’s, 6772 Washington Street, Yountville. Mama is here for the Italian-food lovers. Order northern Italian-styled homemade pasta or tagliarini, egg noodles with a fresh basil sauce.

The Mount View Hotel, 1457 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga. Save Mount View for Sunday -it serves the best brunch in the valley. The $8.50 brunch includes brioche, banana nut and zucchini breads, any style eggs with ham, bacon and sausage, as well as quiche. And skip that boring Sunday-morning Bloody Mary -have some Calistoga Sunshine (Napa Valley champagne and freshly squeezed orange juice).

Of course, with all this wine sampling and culinary indulgence, you’ll need a place to stay. Everything from bed and breakfasts to the poshest hotels is available.

The Burgundy and Bordeaux Houses, office, 6711 Washington, Yountville. These are charming bed-and-breakfast cottages, located only a few feet apart. Rates range from $72 to $115 for two people.

The Silverado Country Club, 1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa. The place we were imagining when we said posh, this resort hotel has more than 200 studios and suites complete with private courtyards and patios. Silverado also offers its guests their choice of some 20 tennis courts, two swimming pools and a vintage restaurant, the more informal Royal Oak, and The Silverado Bar and Grill. Joanne du Puy, director of Silverado’s wine activities, offers customized tours of the Napa Valley. Accommodations range from $105 for a studio during the fall and winter to $280 for a three-bedroom suite for six people during the peak spring and summer seasons.

Napa Valley Lodge, Highway 29 and Madison, Yountville. This Best Western property has moderately priced rooms, proximity to the wineries and a beautiful view of some vineyards.

All this touring and tasting is more than a trifle exhausting, so you might one day consider another alternative: Napa’s Great Balloon Escape or Balloon Aviation of Napa Valley. Sip champagne as you float over the vineyards for about $95 per person.

Our last energy-restoring suggestion is a dip in Calistoga’s famed mudbaths and hot mineral waters. Then maybe you’ll want to take a spin through the Petrified Forest (4100 Petrified Forest Road, admission $2) or continue tasting the bubbly in the Sonoma County wineries – some younger vineyards fast catching up with their neighbors in the Napa Valley.


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