The Best of the California Wine Country

photo_beringervineyards.jpg California’s Wine Country is the closest thing to Tuscany outside Italy. True, there are no Etruscan ruins in Napa or Sonoma, but you will find plenty of sunshine, warm temperatures, out-of-this-world cuisine, and lots of wine. How much wine? Well, more than 400 wineries dot the landscape here, which means you could visit a different winery every day for a year and you’d still be checking them off your list. But if you don’t have that much time, here’s a quick-hits tour of our favorite spots.

Start your trip with a nerve-calming drive into Napa Valley along sun-dappled Route 12. Take Route 29 north into historic St. Helena for lunch. The crispy striped bass at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone is a showstopper, but all the restaurants in town are excellent, so it doesn’t really matter where you park your car. After lunch, break out the drinking shoes because you’re going wine tasting.

Beringer Vineyards
First stop on the hit parade is Beringer Vineyards (photo top right), in operation since 1883. Beringer produces lots of superior wine, but when tippling here we prefer the cabernet. Tastings take place in the splendid baronial Rhine House Mansion, amid Belgian art nouveau furnishings and stained-glass windows.

photo_niebaumcoppola.jpgThe mood is lighter at the Niebaum-Coppola Estate, (photo right) owned and operated by sometime movie-mogul Francis Ford Coppola. In addition to robust reds and a storybook setting—shouldn’t all wineries have an ivy-covered chateau?—there’s a splendid little museum containing memorabilia from Mr. Coppola’s movies.

Did someone say champagne? There’s plenty of it at Mumm Napa Valley, along the Silverado Trail, off Route 128. Sample the fizziest liquid delicacies of the region in an elegant glass-enclosed tasting salon. Then, with bubbly in hand, stroll through the photo gallery, where special exhibits by contemporary photographers share wall space with images by Ansel Adams.

If bitten by the art bug, head to the Hess Collection Winery and Vineyard, which sits in regal splendor at the top of long and winding Redwood Road, off Route 29. The handsome limestone digs, built in 1903, houses the personal art collection of Swiss entrepreneur Donald Hess, whose daubs include works by, among others, Francis Bacon, George Baselitz, Robert Motherwell, Gerhard Richter, and Frank Stella. If 20th-century art isn’t your thing, Hess’s cabernets are the equal of the paintings.

Get some shut-eye before dinner in your ultra comfy quarters at La Résidence. Later, if the weather is right, step onto your private balcony for a pre-dinner nip. If there’s a chill in the air, park yourself in front of the fireplace with a campari and soda.

california_wine_country_French_Laundry.jpgFor dinner, you have your pick of top-flight cuisine. If you reserved months in advance, French Laundry (photo, right) is the place to go for gastronomic ecstasy—think Medallion of Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Saddle, whatever that is—but you’ll do just as well at Tra Vigne. The Mediterranean fare here is exquisitely prepared, the dining room lovely, and the prices lower than French Laundry (but still pricey). If the hour is late, try Bouchon, a French Laundry spin-off that serves bistro fare well past the bewitching hour.

Taking the Waters
Next morning, rise late, have a leisurely breakfast in your room, and then head west to the posh Fairmount Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, at Boyes Hot Springs. The grounds of this beautifully landscaped estate are a sight for sore eyes, and the warm mineral waters are the perfect antidote for sore muscles.

After your soak, make a beeline to the Sonoma Cheese Factory and Deli (2 Spain Street, Sonoma Plaza), where you’ll find all the makings for the perfect picnic. Devour your booty in the sylvan setting of Jack London State Historic Park, 7 miles northwest of Sonoma, off Route 12, near the town of Glen Ellen. Jack lived in Sonoma Valley for years, and many of his personal effects are on display here at the unusually named House of Happy Walls Museum.

If the spirit grabs you, drive into Glen Ellen and raise a glass to the author of The Call of the Wild at the delightfully rustic Jack London Saloon (13740 Arnold Drive) in Jack London Village.

No doubt that belt has you primed for more of the grape. Satisfy the urge at nearby Arrowood Vineyards and Winery, off Route 12. Chardonnays and syrahs are the strong suits at this newcomer, where harmonious architecture overlooking the valley provides a perfect setting for wine tasting.

A mere hop, skip, and jump along Route 12 brings you to the Benziger Family Winery. This isn’t your typical sip and run winery. One could easily spend an entire day here. Make sure to take the tour ($10) of the vineyards, which includes some illuminating chatter on the art of winemaking as well as a swing through the winery’s underground caves. Tours end in the Glen Ellen tasting room, where you can savor the family elixir for yourself. Tip: do check out the wine shop, where you can find all sorts of wine gear, from books and gifts to stemware and corkscrews.

photo_aubergedusoleil.jpgIt’s late afternoon now and the slowly sinking sun is casting long, warm shadows over the tranquil valley. Prolong the serenity and take the scenic route back to Napa along curvaceous Trinity Road, off Route 12.

By the time Trinity Road reaches Route 29 in Napa Valley you’ll be feeling your first pangs of hunger. Proceed north up Route 29 and then take 128 east. Near the junction of 128 and Silverado Trail is one of the jewels of the Wine Country, Auberge du Soleil (photo right). The auberge is a four-star hotel, but it’s also one of the best restaurants in the Napa Valley, the kitchen turning out some of the most creative Mediterranean cuisine this side of the Mississippi River. If the weather is right, you can dine on the balcony overlooking the olive tree-studded slopes of the Napa Valley.

When it’s all over and you’ve drained the port glass, head back to La Résidence, sink into your pillow, and dream about your next trip to California’s Wine Country.

Chris Culwell