Napa and Sonoma: Places to Explore



These days Yountville is something like Disneyland for food lovers. It all started with Thomas Keller's French Laundry, one of the best restaurants in the United States. Now Keller is also behind two more casual restaurants a few blocks from his mother ship—and that's only the tip of the iceberg. You could stay here for a week and not exhaust all the options in this tiny town with a big culinary reputation.

Yountville is full of small inns and luxurious hotels catering to those who prefer to be able to stagger a short distance home after a decadent dinner. But it's also well located for excursions to big-name Napa wineries. Near Yountville, along the Silverado Trail, the Stags Leap District helped put Napa on the wine-making map with its big, bold Cabernet Sauvignons. Volcanic soil predominates on the eastern slopes of Stags Leap, apparent from the towering volcanic palisades and crags hovering over the vineyards.

On the other side of Highway 29 rises the Mayacamas Range. Unlike on the valley floor, where wineries stand cheek-by-jowl along Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, the vineyards here are fewer and farther between, hidden among stands of oaks, madrones, and redwoods. Even though the Mt. Veeder AVA gets more rain than the Napa Valley (as witnessed by those redwoods), the soils are poor and rocky and the water runs off quickly, forcing grapevines to grow deep roots. Vines thus stressed produce grapes that are smaller, with a higher ratio of grape surface to liquid volume, resulting in intensely flavored wines. This comes at a price: the vines on the steep slopes of the 2,677-foot volcanic peak of Mt. Veeder must be laboriously picked by hand. Merlot and Syrah thrive in these conditions, but the big winner is Cabernet.

Though many visitors use Yountville as a home base, touring wineries by day and returning to town for dinner, you could easily while away a few hours in town, picking up picnic fixings at a bakery or deli.

Elsewhere in Napa Valley