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Northern California’s wine country is to the U.S. what Provence is to France and Tuscany is to Italy. It represents the good life, with its charming small towns, luxury hotels and inns, architecturally stunning wineries and some of the country’s best restaurants. In the late 1800s, the region’s Mediterranean climate and bucolic scenery drew farmers and ranchers and, today, those ranches and farms have given way to acres of vineyards — luring millions of pleasure-seekers each year who want a taste of that good life.
World-Renowned NapaThe “wine country” is actually a vast swath of Northern California, stretching from Mendocino in the north to Paso Robles (see sidebar) in the south, but it is often defined by one small part — the 35-mile-long Napa Valley.
Along two main arteries, Highway 29 and the less-traveled Silverado Trail, are some of North America’s oldest names in the wine business: Domaine Chandon, known for sparkling wines and landscaped gardens; Robert Mondavi, a symbol of Napa Valley for its late charismatic founder; the historic grand Rubicon Estate; Beaulieu Vineyards, home of the first cult Cabernet; and Beringer, founded in 1876, featuring wine-storage caves carved long ago by Chinese laborers.
Tours at each winery provide the basics of California wine history and opportunities to sample the varietals. At Beringer, for example, you’ll walk in a demonstration vineyard, visit the original winery building and caves and taste four wines. The fee is $30 per person and, as is the case at all wineries, participants must be 21 years or older.
Napa Valley may be synonymous with wine, but dining has also become a big draw in recent years. The town of Yountville boasts the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, including the renowned The French Laundry and Etoile at Domaine Chandon. Nearby is the Harvest Inn, a 74-room property made up of handsome brick and wood buildings set amid vineyards and landscaped gardens. Most rooms have fireplaces and vineyard views.
The town of St. Helena, lined with restaurants and chic shops, is the home of the West Coast branch of the Culinary Institute of America, set in the former Christian Brothers winery, which was founded in 1889. The grand building — once the largest stone winery in the world — houses a student-run restaurant, a demonstration kitchen and a culinary gift shop.
At the north end of the valley is the historic spa town of Calistoga where mineral water from natural springs is fed into swimming pools and used in spa treatments. One of the newest and most luxurious hotels is Solage Calistoga, a 91-room property operated by Auberge Resorts.
In the last five years, the town of Napa has undergone a renaissance thanks to a flood-control project that tamed the Napa River — bringing in $700 million in private and public funding. This investment led to the development of riverfront areas that now include restaurants by chefs Masaharu Morimoto and Tyler Florence.
The Napa Valley Opera House and refurbished Uptown Theater draw hundreds to Napa for weekend getaways centered around shows by big-name performers. Local tasting rooms and wine bars encourage visitors to leave their cars behind and stroll downtown to sample wines at 12 spots using the Taste Napa Downtown card, sold for $25 per person. Included among the notable tasting rooms are Ceja and GustavoThrace.
A few blocks to the west of the river is the 141-room Avia, an upscale boutique hotel that opened in July 2009 and which has recently become part of the Hyatt brand. Avia’s rooms include 58 suites with in-room soaking tubs for two and dual-sided gas fireplaces are a feature in 42 of the rooms. Other recent hotel additions are the elegant 106-room River Terrace Inn and the Westin Verasa, a resort property with a swimming pool and condo-style accommodations. Among many Victorian-era bed-and-breakfast inns is the 10-room Churchill Manor, with stunning redwood-paneled rooms and a wraparound plantation-style porch.
Downtown is also the southern terminus of the Napa Valley Wine Train, which takes visitors on three-hour roundtrip journeys to St. Helena on restored Pullman railcars serving multi-course meals paired with local wines.
Adjacent to the train station is the Oxbow Public Market, a foodie mecca. A local company, Gourmet Walks, offers Napa walking tours that include visits with chefs and Oxbow artisan food producers.
Dozens of tour operators compete for business in the wine country. For a bird’s-eye view of Napa, companies float hot-air balloons high over the valley each morning, ending the adventure with a champagne toast once back on the ground. Napa Valley Balloons can combine the flight with wine-tasting tours by private limousine or bicycle later in the morning.
Down-to-Earth SonomaSonoma County is Napa’s larger, more diverse and more laidback neighbor to the west. The county stretches to the Pacific Ocean at the fishing town of Bodega Bay and encompasses a major city, Santa Rosa, which has an airport named after Charles Schultz, creator of the “Peanuts” cartoons, who lived nearby.
The quaint towns of Healdsburg, Sebastopol and Geyersville offer tasting rooms, boutiques and restaurants with menus based on local ingredients. Just north of Healdsburg are the famous wine areas of Alexander Valley and Dry Creek. Well-known wineries, such as Ferrari-Carano, Geyser Peak and Clos Du Bois, are among those with tasting rooms in the area.
One of the newest wineries in the Alexander Valley is Francis Ford Coppola which, this summer, opened an expansive swimming pool with a cafe and private cabanas for rent. At the facility’s Movie Gallery, the Academy Award-winning director displays memorabilia from “The Godfather” as well as his other films.
Healdsburg’s shady, old-fashioned town square is lined on one side by the Hotel Healdsburg, whose restaurant, Dry Creek Kitchen, is owned by celebrity chef Charlie Palmer. Several tasting rooms in the area pour local wine, including the comfortable Seghesio, which traces its roots back to the Italian family that first planted zinfandel vines here in 1895.
On the eastern side of Sonoma County lies Sonoma Valley, also known as the Valley of the Moon. At the plaza in the heart of the town of Sonoma, visitors see a slice of California history: The state flag was raised here for the first time near what is now Sonoma State Historic Park — consisting of the northernmost California mission and military barracks, parts of which were built of adobe and brick in 1841.
Two wineries within a short drive of the plaza are among California’s most significant — Buena Vista Winery, a historic landmark where grapes were first planted in 1851, and Sebastiani, the oldest continuously operated family winery in the state. Both offer wine samples and tours that focus on the history of California winemaking.
Sonoma Valley accommodations include resorts, such as the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and the Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance, which both have large spas, and a smattering of inns and bed-and-breakfasts, such as Bungalows 313, a stylish hideaway half a block from the plaza.
For less traffic and more attentive service at tasting rooms, plan visits during weekdays or anytime during winter and spring off-seasons. However, there are many reasons to visit in peak season, particularly in the middle of September when the crush is in full swing and the leaves on the vines change from green to bright red and yellow.
Regardless of whether your clients want the classic wine country experience of Napa or they prefer the more down-to-earth, quintessential California vibe of Sonoma, a trip to Northern California is not complete without sampling what is one of the world’s great gourmet destinations. For travelers who can’t make it to Provence or Tuscany this year, Napa and Sonoma are more than adequate stand-ins.
Central Coast Wine CountryNapa and Sonoma are the best known of California’s many wine regions, but visitors are heading farther south these days and stopping in Monterey and Paso Robles as well.
In Monterey County, lovely Carmel Valley — just a few minutes’ drive from the Pacific Ocean and the seaside city of Monterey — has a warmer climate that makes for an ideal wine-growing area, particularly for pinot noirs. The valley is home to several noteworthy wineries, Chateau Julien and Heller Estate among them, and resorts, including the Carmel Valley Ranch, owned by John Pritzker, formerly of Hyatt hotels and now operator of San Francisco-based Joie di Vivre Hospitality. Bernardus Lodge is a high-end resort known for its luxury accommodations and Marinus, its restaurant, features local produce, seafood and wines.
One local tour operator, Ag Venture Tours, specializes in wine-tasting and agricultural excursions, covering Carmel Valley and nearby Salinas, where much of the lettuce consumed in the U.S. is grown.
Paso Robles, a farming town about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, has become the fastest-growing wine region in California with 180 wineries producing zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and varietals from Spain, Italy, Bordeaux and the Rhone. A milestone in recognition of Paso Robles as a wine region came in 2000 when Isosceles, a vintage by the area’s Justin Vineyards, was named one of the top 10 wines in the world by Wine Spectator magazine.
Downtown Paso Robles has retained a simple charm — locals proudly boast that it is not as glamorous as Napa Valley — centered around a picturesque main square and a smattering of tasting rooms, including Anglim, Arroyo Robles, Clayhouse, D’Anbino, Edward Sellers, The Midlife Crisis, Ortman Family, Pianetta and Vihuela. Standing out from the few high-end accommodations available is La Bella Sera Hotel & Suites, a 60-room Mediterranean-style hotel with a spa and fireplace suites.
Outside of town is the acclaimed Justin’s Vineyards, whose winery complex features accommodations in the plush Just Inn and fine dining at Deborah’s Room. Other notable wineries with tasting rooms worth a visit outside of town are J. Lohr, Robert Hall, Vina Robles, Niner, Eagle Castle, Firestone and the caves at Eberle Winery.
Carmel Valley Ranchwww.carmelvalleyranch.com
Fairmont Sonoma Mission Innwww.fairmont.com/sonoma
Just Inn Bed and Breakfastwww.justinwine.com
La Bella Sera Hotel and Suiteswww.labellasera.com
The Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort and Spawww.thelodgeatsonoma.com
River Terrace Innwww.riverterraceinn.com
The Westin Verasa Napawww.westin.com/verasanapa