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Napa, the grand tour: Sunset's guide to the very best of California's ultimate wine country.

PRESS THE SWITCH to open the curtains in your valley-view room at the Poetry Inn, and you're suspended with the primary-striped hot-air balloons of postcard fame. Pedal up the Silverado Trail to the Miner Family villa, climb the steps, look west over your shoulder, and a world-class view is yours too. The first might be a decade's splurge; the second, just a weekend getaway. There are many ways to enjoy this wine country.

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I came to it recently a little reluctantly. Several decades ago, the Napa Valley that I knew well--a jewel of a strip roughly 35 miles long and up to 4 miles wide between the Vaca and the Mayacamas mountain ranges--was dotted with sedately grand wineries inherited by the offspring of Northern California's early wine pioneers, along with a few humbler wineries scrabbled together by passionate new talents.

Deep pockets followed, hardscaping the valley with jaw-dropping showplaces--and with them, tales of instructions to check with the concierge for permission to picnic outside. I found excuses to explore newer, wilder wine country.

But you can't stay away from Napa forever if you love good wine. To get my bearings, I dropped back into Grgich Hills' still-rustic tasting room. The crowd, not more than 33 years old on average, was happily swapping opinions with the equally young staff about Mike Grgich's legendary Chardonnay. No pretension there.

So I ventured farther, to Clos Pegase, a Greek temple as interpreted by architect Michael Graves; to the Persian palace known as Darioush; and to Quixote Winery, the valley's newest spectacle, a Hundertwasser design that Gaudi might have come up with after a few too many tastings.

Sure, more wines in this valley cost $100 than should. But comparing those phenomenal Cabernets--and Cab is king here--is open to all. Can you taste the proverbial Rutherford dust in wines from that area? The iron fist in the velvet glove attributed to Stags Leap District Cabs?

Given all the options, though, what's a visitor to do? Choose wineries according to your interests, and assume you'll be back. I went back to Napa's roots at Rubicon Estate. The tour--rich in valley history--ended in the caves with a barrel tasting of, in the words of our guide, Rubicon's "pure Cabernet." Behind me a woman, on her way from 70 to 80, remarked rather loudly, "I don't think I've ever tasted Cabernet without the Sauvignon part."

Here's to Napa Cab and to the young and old who come in search of it.

Where to taste

All Napa wineries have tasting fees, most starting at $10 or $15 for a basic lineup. Some wineries offer reserve tastings for an additional fee, plus tours and/or food-and-wine pairings for a premium; Napa being Napa, fees are on the high side. Consider concentrating on just a few wineries in a day.

1 Chateau Montelena Winery One of the most serene spots in the valley. Wander around spring-fed Jade Lake and taste lauded Chardonnays in the ivy-draped 1880s stone castle. 1429 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga; www.montelena.com or 707/942-5105.

2 Clos Pegase The striking "temple to wine and art," designed by architect Michael Graves, houses an art collection but is itself the real work of art worth stopping for. The Mitsuko's Vineyard wines are special. 1060 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga; www.clospegase.com or 707/942-4981.

3 Schramsberg Vineyards Jack and Jamie Davies pioneered sparkling-winemaking in the valley. The tour here gives you a look at a mind-boggling 2 million bottles of bubbles in 2 miles of underground caves that were dug out in 1862. 1400 Schramsberg Rd., Calistoga; www.schramsberg.com or 707/942-2414 (call for appointment).

4 Beringer Vineyards The oldest continually operating winery in the valley, and a St. Helena landmark, Beringer offers a whole menu of tours; its Rhine House and wine caves are synonymous with Napa history. 2000 Main St., St. Helena; www.beringer.com or 707/963-7115.

5 Louis M. Martini Winery Though the terra-cotta-tiled monolith is owned by the Gallo family now, the legacy launched by Louis Martini in 1933 lives on in the remodeled tasting room. 254 S. St. Helena Hwy., St. Helena; www.louismartini.com or 707/968-3361.

6 Corison Winery Cathy Corison makes elegantly lean, almost Old World-style Cabs in her graceful barn of a winery. 987 St. Helena Hwy., St. Helena; www.corison.com or 707/963-0826 (call for appointment).

7 Franciscan One of the all-around-good tasting rooms on State 29--sleek and warm, with knowledgeable comments offered by the staff. Mount Veeder Winery (which has the same parent company) pours here too; it's worth the extra fee to taste the reserves. 1178 Galleron Rd., St. Helena; www.franciscan.com or 800/529-9463.

8 Quintessa There's only one wine here, and it's expensive--but worth an appointment for a sit-down wine-and-cheese tasting and a tour of the stone-and-concrete gravity-flow winery. 1601 Silverado Trail, Rutherford; www.quintessa.com or 707/967-1601 (call for appointment).

9 Frog's Leap The new hospitality center at the earth-friendly winery was built with highly renewable, low-impact materials; it hasn't lost its rustic farm feel. Closed Sun; 8815 Conn Creek Rd., Rutherford; www.frogsleap.com or 800/959-4704 (call for appointment).

10 Beaulieu Vineyard The hospitable hexagonal tasting room is modest, though the history of Napa wine masters who've worked in the historic stone building next door--including the legendary Russian-born Andre Tchelistcheff--is not. 1960 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford; www.bvwines.com or 800/373-5896.

11 Grgich Hills Estate No wine-gadget folderol in the redwood tasting room--just wine and a young crowd talking about it. Mike Grgich made the Chardonnay that beat out the white Burgundies in the landmark 1976 Paris tasting. 1829 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford; www.grgich.com or 800/532-3057.

12 Rubicon Estate A must-visit if you're looking for Napa's roots. The chateau, built by sea captain turned wine pioneer Gustave Niebaum, has watched over the valley since 1880. Movie director Francis Ford Coppola bought the estate in 1975 and reunited all the original vineyards. The $25 entrance fee is steep, but the tour, tasting, and mini museum of winemaking are rich. 1991 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford; www.rubiconestate.com or 800/782-4266.

13 St. Supery Vineyards & Winery The large, airy visitor center offers as wide a range of experiences as any in the valley, from self-guided tours across the winery's catwalks to cheese pairings and grape stomps. The Sauvignon Blanc is one of our perennial favorites, but also try the red ("Elu") and white ("Virtu") meritage blends. 8440 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford; www.stsupery.com or 800/942-0809.

14 Opus One The busloads across the road at Robert Mondavi Winery might be getting a good wine education, but at this winery founded by Robert Mondavi and the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, you can taste Napa's version of a grand cru. 7900 St. Helena Hwy., Oakville; www.opusonewinery.com or 707/944-9442 (call for appointment).

15 PlumpJack Winery Billionaire Gordon Getty and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom are behind the Jack Falstaff fun here (the winery is named for Shakespeare's stout funny man). The signature Cab was the first high-end red to go to market under screw caps. 620 Oakville Cross Rd., Oakville; www.plumpjackwinery.com or 707/945-1220.

16 Rudd Vineyards & Winery Leslie Rudd is a relative newcomer among Oakville Cross Road's royalty, but he's already producing first-class wines. Tasting here is an event for those who want a serious look: Take a full tour, which ends with food-and-wine pairings in the cave, or arrange to taste just the wines. Closed Sun-Mon; 500 Oakville Cross Rd., Oakville; www.ruddwines.com or 707/944-8577 (call for appointment).

17 Miner Family Vineyards Panoramic views from the terraces, as well as extensive caves, which you can make an appointment to tour. A wide range of top-notch wines is crafted here, from Viognier to a lovely dry rose; the classic Oakville Cabernet is a standout. 7850 Silverado Trail, Oakville; www.minerwines.com or 800/366-9463.

18 Robert Sinskey Vineyards A tall redwood nave rising from low stone walls creates an earthly cathedral of sorts. Within, nibbles in hand, taste beautifully crafted biodynamic Pinot Noirs. 6320 Silverado Trail, Napa; www.robertsinskey.com or 800/869-2030.

19 Cliff Lede Vineyards The deceptively simple Craftsman tasting room gives way to a beautiful little art gallery and a courtyard that keeps its serenity in the busiest Napa seasons. 1473 Yountville Cross Rd., Yountville; www.cliffledevineyards.com or 800/428-2259.

20 Quixote Winery Napa's newest, Quixote is the 20-year project of Carl Doumani. Designed by Viennese iconoclast Friedensreich Hundertwasser; wild splashes of tile, gold-leafed domes, and no straight lines or square angles. Closed Sun; 6126 Silverado Trail, Napa; www.quixotewinery.com or 707/944-2659 (call for appointment).

21 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars No bells and whistles but serious pedigree. In the tasting room, which hugs the fermenting tanks, you can usually try "Cask 23" and "S.L.V." sourced from the vineyard that produced the Cab that bested Bordeaux in the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting. 5766 Silverado Trail, Napa; www.cask23.com or 866/422-7523.

22 Domaine Chandon A beautiful introduction to the valley and to sparkling-winemaking. Take a look at riddling and blending techniques before you order appetizers in the salon. 1 California Dr., Yountville; www.chandon.com or 707/944-2280.

23 Signorello Vineyards Maybe the only winery perch in the valley that looks out over an infinity pool, Signorello has become a stop for food mavens. And with no new oak in it, the Chardonnay here is food-friendly too. 4500 Silverado Trail, Napa; www.signorellovineyards.com or 800/982-4229 (call for appointment).

24 Darioush "Stunning" is usually an exaggeration; not here. You can spend quite a bit for cheese-and-wine "experiences" and tours, or share the hefty fee for a standard tasting and feel like royalty for an hour. 4240 Silverado Trail, Napa; www.darioush.com or 707/257-2345.

25 Hess Collection Winery "Collection" refers to the dramatic art pieces in the multilevel gallery that holds the winery. The wines here have been getting better and better--the best being from the Mt. Veeder vineyards just outside. 4411 Redwood Rd., Napa; www.hesscollection.com or 707/255-1144.

26 Domaine Carneros by Taittinger A replica of the French Taittinger family's 17th-century stone chateau in Champagne, Domaine Carneros has a grand terrace for sipping the good bubbly it makes. Splurge on a bottle of "Le Reve." 1240 Duhig Rd., Napa; www.domaine.com or 707/257-0101.

Sunset

Driving guide to the Napa Valley

In the 1800s, Calistoga became the valley's answer to the grand hot-springs resorts of the East Coast. (Its name unites "California" with "Saratoga," as in famed Saratoga Springs, New York.) Warm water and bubbling mud still soothe here. Spa resorts like Dr. Wilkinson's are rustic and reasonable; for greater coddling, try posh newcomers like Calistoga Ranch.

If your interests run toward food and cooking, don't miss the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone--the Napa Valley campus of the famed New York cooking school. Once the largest stone winery in the world, the grand Romanesque building draws aspiring chefs and sommeliers. You can shop in the Spice Islands Marketplace, explore the edible gardens, and eat in the Wine Spectator Greystone restaurant.

In the Carneros region, di Rosa proves that Napa inspires more than great wine--it nurtures great art too. The preserve has a collection of 2,300 works by 900 Northern California artists, some displayed in the Gatehouse Gallery, others arrayed across the 217-acre property.

For some of Napa's most sought-after Cabs, head down Oakville Cross Road, then Yountville Cross Road, and along the Silverado Trail through the Stags Leap District. The French might have their grand crus, but we have Opus One, PlumpJack, Rudd, Cliff Lede, Miner Family, and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, whose Cabernet defeated all the Bordeaux in the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting.

Getting there

There are three airports within 60 miles of the Napa Valley: San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento. From San Francisco, follow U.S. 101 north across the Golden Gate Bridge, then head east on State 37 to State 29 north. From Oakland, follow I-80 east across the Carquinez Bridge, then take State 37 west to State 29 north. From Sacramento, take I-80 west to State 12/Jameson Canyon Rd., then go north on State 29/12.

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Find out more about Napa from the Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau (www.napavalley.com or 707/226-7459).

Where to stay

Auberge du Soleil The Rutherford resort has large rooms, stunning views, and a notable restaurant ($$$$). Its sister property, Solage Calistoga (89 rooms from $325; www.solagehotels.com or 866/942-7442), is set to open in July and is designed for a younger crowd with shallower pockets. 50 rooms from $600; www.aubergedusoleil.com or 800/348-5406.

The Carneros Inn The board-and-batten cottages hark back to Napa's agrarian past but offer contemporary luxury. 86 cottages from $480; www.thecarnerosinn.com or 888/400-9000.

The Cottages of Napa Valley These newly renovated Provencalstyle cottages near Yountville are affordable, as far as Napa prices go, providing the sort of privacy and personal touches you can't find at larger resorts. 8 cottages from $325; www.napacottages.com or 707/252-7810.

El Bonita Motel For years St. Helena's motel with the neon sign and the retro road-trip vibe was a cherished Napa Valley secret. Now the word is out, which means you'll need to book in advance. 42 rooms from $135; www.elbonita.com or 707/963-3216.

Poetry Inn Comfort, style, and world-class views (and wine cellar) in the Stags Leap District. 3 rooms from $590; www.poetryinn.com or 707/944-0646.

Where to eat

Ad Hoc Thomas Keller had other plans for the space when he started serving a $45 four-course menu in the simple dining room. The ad hoc menu is now permanent. $$$$; 6476 Washington St., Yountville; 707/944-2487.

Bounty Hunter Rare Wine & Provisions True West for wine lovers: beer-can chicken, ribs, and tangy pulled-pork sandwiches served under pounded-tin ceilings. $$; 975 First St., Napa; www.bountyhunterwine.com or 707/226-3976.

Go Fish Cindy Pawlcyn has filled the longtime Napa Valley need for a good seafood restaurant. $$$; 641 Main St., St. Helena; www.gofishrestaurant.net or 707/963-0700.

Martini House From chef Todd Humphries and designer Pat Kuleto comes the best sort of wine-country restaurant, favoring foraged and organic ingredients. $$$$; 1245 Spring St., St. Helena; www.martinihouse.com or 707/963-2233.

Press The finest ingredients to be had are cooked simply at the warm, stylish steakhouse. New York strip and rib-eye are standouts, and potato cake is always in season. $$$$; closed Tue; 587 St. Helena Hwy. S., St. Helena; www.presssthelena.com or 707/967-0550.

Redd With his history as chef at Auberge du Soleil, Richard Reddington brings an air of Napa Valley royalty to his namesake restaurant. Four- to nine-course tasting menus. $$$$; 6480 Washington St., Yountville; www.reddnapavalley.com or 707/944-2222.

Taylor's Automatic Refresher Come all the way to Napa Valley for a burger and a shake? Yes, when it's the Wisconsin sourdough burger and black-and-white shake at the valley institution. $; 933 Main St., St. Helena; www.taylorsrefresher.com or 707/963-3486.

Terra In an old stone building a block off Main Street, Hiro Sone--one of the pioneers of Asian fusion--combines California cuisine with Japanese ingredients. $$$$; closed Tue; 1345 Railroad Ave., St. Helena; www.terrarestaurant.com or 707/963-8931.

What to do

Ballooning Float over Napa with Balloons Above the Valley ($234; www.balloonrides.com or 800/464-6824) or Napa Valley Balloons ($230; www.napavalleyballoons.com or 800/253-2224).

The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone See map. 2555 Main St., St. Helena; www.ciachef.edu, 707/967-1010 (restaurantreservations), or 707/967-2320 (cooking-demoreservations).

Di Rosa Preserve: Art & Nature See map. 5200 Carneros Hwy., Napa; www.dirosapreserve.org or 707/226-5991.

Napa Valley Bike Tours Napa Valley's backroads are ideal for cycling: quiet, mostly flat, and beautiful, albeit often clogged with traffic. Rentals (from $20) and guided tours (from $99). 6488 Washington St., Yountville; www.napavalleybiketours.com or 800/707-2453.--PETER FISH, RACHEL LEVIN, AND SARA SCHNEIDER

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Title Annotation:Weekend
Author:Schneider, Sara
Publication:Sunset
Date:Jun 1, 2007
Words:2680
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