California's Napa Valley, located 65 miles northeast of San Francisco, seduces with bustling wineries, ostentatious chateaux, great restaurants and hostelries so refined you never want to go home.
When we tacked a visit to wine country to a San Francisco business meeting several years ago, the place seemed like a convenient weekend getaway. To our delight, it was more than that. The valley, contained by the Mayacamas and Vaca mountain ranges, was compact and manageable. Roads were uncrowded. Tasting rooms and restaurants welcomed guests. Misty mornings turned into warm days perfect for exploring.
The Napa Valley is acknowledged as one of the finest wine-producing areas in the world -- and one of the trendiest places to linger.
We recently returned there, and stayed at Meadowood Resort, a 256-acre, park-like estate two miles from St. Helena.
Featuring a gracious lodge with fine dining facilities, the enclave of 84 gray- and white-shingled cottage-style lodgings is a great place for privacy and pampering. You can enjoy the resort's nine-hole executive golf course, two English croquet lawns, hiking trails, a health and fitness spa, seven tennis courts and two outdoor pools.
The narrow road past the security gate and huge wooden wine cask announcing "Meadowood" is shaded by oaks and conifers, and lined with zinnias, hydrangeas, dahlias and daisies.
The reception area, with its country antiques, glistening Steinway piano, baskets of orchids, down-filled sofas and raised-hearth stone fireplace, creates a homey welcome. Our lodge was situated in the Hillside group near the head of the hiking trail, about five minutes from the main lodge. The cottage, with wrap-around porches laced with flowers, was charmingly secluded.
Inside, there were lofty beams and wainscoted walls. A tall, four-poster bed sported a headboard carved with vineyards and cypress trees.
The stone fireplace was laid with logs; built-in shelves and drawers hid the refrigerator and bar. A coffee pot and breakfast supplies were set for service. An enormous bathroom was outfitted with thick terry-cloth robes, among other amenities.
We unpacked and hurried to the newly opened spa. Over herbed iced teas, we discussed the schedule of exercise routines designed around state-of-the-art equipment, not to mention reflexology, mud treatments and aromatherapies. I scheduled luscious chardonnay wraps and facials.
The outdoor spa area offers a whirlpool, recreational pools and a TC heated lap pool. Aromatic herbs spill from clay pots around a terrace where snacks and refreshments are served all day.
Later that evening, we had a splendid meal accompanied by interesting choices from Meadowood's 500 selections of wines. At the next table, a party given by director Francis Ford Coppola was under way.
During the next few mornings, we had coffee on our porch, then enjoyed breakfast in the casual Grill Room overlooking the first tee. Because the day-trippers crowded the valley on the weekend, we saw the sights during the week, bicycling the flat roads, picnicking and poking around St. Helena, Napa, Yountville and Calistoga.
There are hundreds of touring and tasting options. We learned that many vineyards are open to the public every day; others require appointments. There are formal and self-guided tours, and almost all the wineries charge a small fee for tastings.
A handful of vineyards have restaurants in lovely settings. Domaine Carneros, a partner of the Taittinger Champagne house of Reims, and Domaine Chandon, owned by Moet Hennessey and Louis Vuitton, are wonderful places to learn about and taste sparkling wines.
The Hess Collection Winery, built in 1903 as Mount La Salle, headquarters of Northern California Christian Brothers, features one of the best slide presentations on the grape-growing cycle, an outstanding museum of contemporary paintings, and tastings current chardonnays and cabernet sauvignon.
Merryvale Vineyard welcomes guests daily; its Saturday seminars are so popular they require advance reservations. Merryvale's tasting room is also the place to shop for Napa Valley gifts and mementos. At Rutherford Hill Winery, visitors tour caves similar to those in France; and Sequoia Grove Winery, boasting gold and platinum medals for excellence, also offers a friendly welcome.
Tastings are an integral part of the Napa Valley experience, and so is fine dining.
One day, after a tour, we lunched at the edge of the terrace at Domaine Chandon. We sipped Chandon Reserve, then switched Newlan Pinot Noir 1989 to accompany foie gras on toast points, delicate sweetbreads, smoked trout with quail salad and lamb tongue and potato salad.
During subsequent feasts at Auberge du Soleil and Mustard's, the fare continued to be exquisite.
We skipped breakfast the day we lunched at Tra Vigne, the spectacular Italianate-inspired villa, which was once a Mondavi grape crushing facility. It was Thursday, but by noon, lines curled out the door. Behind hanging curing hams, strings of garlic, brilliant peppers and drying herbs, individual-sized pizzas cooked in the open, wood-burning oven.
NB Chef Michael Chiarello, who described his cooking as "robust,"
obliged our request for a "tasting lunch." We began with walnut ** bread, extra-extra virgin olive oil puddled in the dipping saucer and iced Sauvignon Blanc. Delicious appetizer-sized selections included: house-cured prosciutto and local figs on a bed of arugula; just-picked striped green tiger and golden tomatoes in olive oil, calamari sauteed with mushrooms on roasted polenta, boneless rabbit with fresh Parmesan cheese on curly pasta, and pan-fried tuna.
Mr. Chiarello smiled at our obvious appreciation. "Here we see tourists and visitors who are planning on being enchanted," he said. "Everyone in the valley -- from wine makers and hoteliers to chefs -- takes that charge very seriously."
IF YOU GO . . .
* Meadowood Resort, 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena, Calif. 94574; (800) 458-8080, (707) 963-3646.
For tasting information:
Napa Valley Vintner's Association, P.O. Box 141, St. Helena, Calif. 94574; (707) 963-0148.
* Auberge du Soleil, 180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford, Calif. 94573; (800) 348-5406, (707) 963-1211.
* Domaine Chandon, California Drive, Yountville, Calif. 94599; (707) 944-2280.
* Tra Vigne, 1050 Charter Oak, St. Helena, Calif. 94574; (707) 963-4444.