Napa Valley: a Disneyland for Wine-lovers

By: Cary Ordway

If you love fine wine, it would be hard to find a more enjoyable vacation experience than the Napa Valley.

A visit to Napa is not just a chance to see where wine is made, or to explore the upscale shops and stores that now have found their way into the tiniest of Napa Valley communities. Rather, a trip to the valley is an almost spiritual journey that presents you at once with the beauty of 63,000 acres of vineyards and the industry that has brought a European elegance to the Valley lifestyle.

It was once quite sleepy, but the town of Napa has been changed forever by its wine industry. With 75,000 residents, Napa has become a city in its own right ' albeit with the feel of a small town. There are several major new shopping complexes and you'll also see that Napa Valley is keeping up with one of the latest trends: downtown wine bars that enable you to do your tastings without even venturing into the countryside.

Up the 30-mile-long valley are much smaller towns such as Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga ' each an easy and scenic drive from Napa and all of them offering their own unique versions of what a Napa Valley wine town should be all about. Taken together, the towns of the Napa Valley offer a Disneyland for wine-lovers whose E-ticket rides will include some of the most famous labels in the world. But even if you are only mildly curious about wine, the chateaus, the gorgeous vistas, the educational tours that show you every step of the wine-making process ' all of these things will make a Napa Valley visit worthwhile.

It's impossible to see any more than a small sample of wineries on your weekend or daytrip, and we're told that people from the Bay area just drive up to Napa week after week checking off a few more wineries from their list each time. Most of the wineries charge for wine tastings ' although we did come across one that didn't ' and either your pocketbook or your alcohol tolerance will probably limit the number of wineries you can visit on any given day.

That free tasting was at V. Sattui Winery, where on a Sunday afternoon the gift shop and deli were buzzing with people, and lines were forming along the wine bar to taste the latest offerings. Located in St. Helena, this winery is a popular stop for visitors who want to buy a bottle of wine and then picnic on the beautifully landscaped grounds. The winery even sets up a buffet line out on the grounds, offering barbecue for those who didn't bring their brown bags. Interestingly, V. Sattui does not sell its wine anyplace other than the winery, by mail order, or from the company web site.

While V. Sattui is typical of a relatively small family-run winery, the other end of the scale is Domaine Chandon, which we found in Yountville. With spectacular park grounds and a four-star gourmet restaurant just footsteps from where the wine is made, Domaine Chandon is an example of a winery owned by a large conglomerate that distributes its product world-wide. We decided to take the 45-minute tour of this massive facility and found it well worth the time. Small groups are shown how wine is made, all the way from grape-growing to final production. The tour helped explain to us many of the process behind wine-making.

Most people visiting Napa Valley focus, of course, on the wine and the many fine restaurants that have chosen to locate in the Valley. Shopping also is a big part of any Napa holiday. But the other place where the Napa Valley shines is in the impressive array of accommodations up and down the valley, from historic bed-and-breakfast inns to exquisite boutique-style resorts. Most are obsessive about providing the most and the best amenities and service. They know that some of the world's most discerning travelers spend time in the Napa Valley, and these innkeepers want the accommodations to be in the same league as Napa's world-renowned wines.

We found that certainly to be the case at Meadowood, an impressive resort tucked along one edge of the Valley near downtown St. Helena. You can imagine yourself going to a country estate -- here you go through a security gate and enter a lush world of green lawns, meandering trails and thick forests. Strategically positioned here and there are attractive resort buildings that seem to add to the area's ambiance rather than detract from it.

If this were the 1920's, it's easy to imagine that Jay Gatsby would have loved Meadowood. It's very fancy, but every-day working people will enjoy it as well. Whether it was lounging by one of the inviting pools or enjoying breakfast in Meadowood's elegant cafe, we encountered many families and couples who just seemed to be enjoying the chance to luxuriate at one of the best resorts in the Valley.

We especially enjoyed our Meadowood suite, one of the newer accommodations at the resort, and situated on one of the forested hillsides. It gave us the feeling of being in a luxurious vacation home in the woods ' cozy, yet spacious with its high ceilings and open floor plan. A full living room included a fireplace, an attractive wall case, a couch and extra easy chairs for guests. The bedroom was especially decorative, featuring a window seat and bay windows. Thick white robes, down comforters, state-of-the-art home entertainment ' these and many other upscale amenities were all there.

A short walk from our suite was the recreation area ' with its 25-yard lap pool, family pool and expansive lawn -- and the Health Spa, where guests can enjoy skincare, body treatments and massage therapies. Fitness trainers and private yoga instructors are waiting for your call. Fitness is never far from your mind at Meadowood, where you'll also find saunas, steam rooms, seven tennis courts, hiking/biking trails and two championship croquet lawns.

You can find both fine and casual dining at Meadowood. The Restaurant at Meadowood features California cuisine, while the Grill offers light meals overlooking the golf course. We felt that the most relaxing experience would be simply to dine-in and enjoy our luxurious suite.

Even if this was not the Napa Valley, Meadowood would stand on its own as a premiere destination resort. But the fact that this was the Napa Valley meant that we couldn't just hole up and relax the entire weekend ' there was far too much to see and do.

The shopping and wineries were great, but we also just enjoyed driving this scenic valley. From Napa to Calistoga, we found communities that were each just a little different and each with its own selection of panoramic views. We enjoyed stopping alongside the road and taking close-up pictures of the grapevines, or angling for the best view of the Valley and its vines.

Interestingly, the feeling you get from so much natural beauty is kind of like the satisfaction you get from the perfect glass of wine. It's all part of the amazing power of the grapevine.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: The Napa Valley is about 45 miles northeast of San Francisco or about 60 miles southwest of Sacramento.

WHAT: The Napa Valley has become famous because of the grapes grown in this location. Grapes grown in different climates, soils and locations have different characteristics and Napa Valley grapes are judged to be some of the best in the world for making several varieties of fine wine. Accordingly, more than 300 wineries now have located in the Valley. Fine restaurants, lodging and shopping have also come to the Valley.

WHEN: Any time of year. A special bonus comes in August and September during the annual grape harvest. You can sometimes see first-hand how the grapes are crushed. Hint: Most of them don't do it like Lucy Ricardo did.

WHY: The Valley has an almost mystical ambiance that is hard to describe, but easy to discern.

HOW: You can find out more information about the Napa Valley by going to www.napavintners.com or www.napachamber.org. To learn more about Meadowood, call (800) 458-8080 or go to www.meadowood.com.

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