Fine Vintage

Wine country vacation won’t leave you with sour grapes

To get an idea of how important wine is in the fabric of American society, there are about 350 wineries in Napa Valley.

That doesn’t include Sonoma County and other fertile grounds of California that account for much of the wine consumed in this country. That’s just Napa Valley.

A tour of the wine country of California is more than the multitude of vineyards that dot the country side. It is a host of upscale spas, mud and mineral baths, wine caves, COPIA and even the Old Faithful Geyser of California in Calistoga.

That’s right, the geyser is one of three Old Faithfuls in the world, erupting about every 40 minutes. It’s being studied by scientists to determine if there is a correlation between its eruptions and earthquake activity.

Probably the best way to experience the Wine Country is to travel by car along State Highway 29 from Napa to Calistoga. It’s a leisurely 26-mile drive that passes a host of well-known wineries – Robert Mondavi, Opus One, Charles Krug, Louis Martini, Beringer Vineyard and Sutter Home are just a sample of those among the main route.

Wineries maintain regular business hours and offer daily tours. But it isn’t the way it was 20 years ago before the days of liability and litigation – visitors now pay for wine tasting with few exceptions.

If you’re inclined to let someone else do the driving, take the Napa Valley Wine Train. Theme packages offer everything from jazz concerts to mystery theaters. There are wine tasting cars and a restored 1917 Pullman Dining Car. One can opt for a gourmet dinner or a Champagne Vista Dome car lunch on the Wine Train.

Other transportation methods include a trolley, Stretch H2 Hummer, limousine, limousine bus and river boat. If you’re into physical activity, there are bike tours, hiking/walking tours and canoe/kayak tours and hot air balloon rides.

If you opt to drive, you’ll have no difficulty finding your favorite wineries. Roads are well marked. Tourist centers are stocked with maps and other pertinent information as well as with knowledgeable staff members who can answer the most difficult questions (according to one in the Napa Visitor Center, there are more than 39,000 acres of vineyards).

COPIA, the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in downtown Napa, is a major cultural facility that offers unique exhibitions, demonstrations, classes and performances that integrate the arts with the pleasure of food and wine.

In downtown Napa, be sure to sample the dozen or so wine tasting shops. The downtown association offers a $20 card good for sampling the wine at 10 different locations. Patrons pay an extra 10 cents per location which brings the entire tab to $21.

Another attraction is a Friday’s Chef Market, which includes a farmer’s market, cooking demonstrations, entertainment and booths with wines for sale. Be certain to see the Napa Valley Opera House and Jarvis Conservatory, a stone winery converted to a theater.

Also on the must-do list are visits to the historic towns north and west of Napa.

Yountville includes the Napa Valley Museum, which explores the unique cultural, artistic and environmental history of Napa Valley. St. Helena has the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and Lincoln Theater. Calistoga, which has soothing hot springs and mud baths, offers the Safari West Wildlife Preserve and Resort, a trout farm and hatchery and the Calistoga Art Guild.

The California Wine Country is a special treat for visitors and connoisseurs alike.

WHAT: Napa Valley

WHERE: North of San Francisco

WHY: Has some of the most renowned wineries in the United States.

WHEN: Open year-round. Among special events scheduled in fall is the Wine and Crafts Faire on September 8.

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