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Sample the wine country's off-season pleasures.

In the Napa Valley, Southern California, and the Northwest, wineries invite visitors to enjoy their quiet months and share their holiday spirit

A waiting winter pruning, the vineyards are at rest, with early mustard blooming between the rows and a few crimson leaves remaining on the vines. The main roads are lightly trafficked--as are popular restaurants. B & Bs and inns are easy to book. It's the quiet season in the wine country.

After the fall crush--a word that suits the tourist traffic as well as the first stage of winemaking--the pace relaxes. So do the tour guides. They're glad for the chance to chat with small groups, answer questions, maybe pour a barrel sample of a wine in progress.

Come Thanksgiving and Christmas, wineries welcome the holidays in various ways. You'll find special bottlings and gift packs prepared with the season in mind. Grapevine wreaths lend their festive touches to cellar doorways and tasting room bars.

The agricultural valleys have other seasonal treats in store. You're likely to come across a Christmas tree farm where the kids can seek out the perfect evergreen. Make a stop or two at country stores, where local specialties and regional crafts give you new inspirations for gifts. And, depending on the area, make plans for a scenic ride: by bike or balloon, by train or sleigh.

Here we focus on the particular pleasures of three wine regions--the Napa Valley, Southern California, and the Northwest. For more details about wineries in California, see Sunset's Wine Country book ($11.95). Another good resource, updated annually, is The Wine Spectator's Wine Country Guide to California ($4.95). For a guide to wineries in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, we recommend Northwest Wine Country, by Ronald and Glenda Holden ($15.95). You'll find these guides in many bookstores and wine shops.

The Napa Valley

For many people, wine country is synonymous with Northern California's Napa Valley. No wonder, given the concentration of more than 250 wineries here, within a 2-hour drive of San Francisco.

After summer's highway-clogging crowds, winter brings a particularly welcome change of pace. But be prepared to take the weather as you find it: clear, fog-free days for outdoor outings, or drenching squalls ideally ridden out in the wine cellars and country inns.

The valley is best seen on a two- to three-day visit. You have a wide choice of accommodations and restaurants, many of them charming, memorable, and--prepare yourself--expensive. Top-rated inns with upscale comforts and vineyard settings commonly charge between $100 and $200 (and in some cases more) for a night's lodging. You'll find the widest selection of less expensive motels and eateries, including fast-food chains, in the town of Napa.

Many lodgings offer winter discounts, and some drop their normal two-night minimum. Some restaurants and inns, however, close from Thanksgiving to the end of the year. For lodging and dining choices, call these chambers of commerce (area code is 707): Calistoga, 942-6333; Napa, 226-7455; St. Helena, (800) 767-8528; Yountville, 944-0904.

Most wineries are clustered along two highways--State 29 and 121--that run the length of the valley. For a free map showing all the wineries you can visit, call 963-0148.

Some 25 percent of sparkling wine is sold for the holidays. You can get in the spirit with a tour or tasting at any of these champagne houses (tasting charge is by the glass):

Domaine Carneros (257-0101); 1240 Duhig Road in Napa. Open 10:30 to 4:30 daily; tours on the hour from 11 to 4, tasting ($4).

Domaine Chandon (944-2280); California Drive in Yountville. Open 11 to 6 Wednesdays through Sundays; tours, tasting ($3 to $5), gift shop, restaurant.

Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars (963-2334); east end of Larkmead Lane in St. Helena. Open 10 to 4:30 daily; tours, tasting (free).

Mumm Napa Valley (942-3434); 8445 Silverado Trail in Napa. Open 11 to 6 daily; tours, tasting ($3.50 to $5).

Schramsberg (942-4558); in St. Helena. Tours by appointment only; no tasting.

Country shopping

Many wineries have well-stocked gift shops that feature local products and wine paraphernalia. For other holiday gift ideas, one of the best places to browse is St. Helena's six-block Main Street, where an eclectic mix of shops--from country hardware to gourmet cookware to antiques--serves the needs of locals and tourists.

In Yountville, check the Washington Street art galleries, as well as Vintage 1870, a collection of shops stocked with gifts, collectibles, and clothes. In Napa, stroll along Main Street between First and Fifth streets for antiques and art galleries.

As you drive through the valley, look for interesting roadside wares. Napa Valley Grapevine Wreath Company, on State 29 just north of Rutherford, sells handmade wreaths of Cabernet Sauvignon prunings. At other growers, you can cut your own Christmas tree, or buy kiwi fruit, persimmons, or walnuts. For a free map of farms that sell to the public, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Napa Farming Trails, 4075 Solano Ave., Napa 94558.

Touring by air or rail

Glider rides. Calistoga Gliderport (942-5000) offers 20-minute flights that cover about a 5-mile radius; you catch thermals over ridges edging the valley's narrow north end. Cost is $79 per person, $99 for two. Hours are 9 to dusk daily; reserve for weekends. Rain cancels flights.

Hot-air balloons. Nearly a dozen companies offer balloon rides above the vineyards. Costs range from $95 to $175, and trips last 3 to 5 hours (an hour in the air, followed by brunch or champagne). Dress warmly and in layers. Reconfirm the morning of your flight. If weather cancels your Napa flight, you may be offered a Central Valley trip; we suggest you reschedule for Napa. For names of balloon companies, call the Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau at (707) 226-7459.

Napa Valley Wine Train. Combine a leisurely scenic ride with lunch, brunch, or dinner aboard. The 3-hour, 36-mile trip starts in Napa and parallels State 29 to St. Helena (no stops en route). You ride in restored 1915 Pullman cars traveling slowly past the vineyards. Round-trip train fare is $29 per person, but drops to $14.50 each for parties of two or more. Meals range from a la carte breakfast items or lunchtime sandwiches to a full lunch or brunch ($22 to $25) or four-course dinner ($45) aboard. In a lounge car, you can taste four wines for $5. For details, call (800) 522-4142.

Soaking up the atmosphere

Calistoga, at the north end of the valley, is famous for its low-key spas. Your choices range from a dip in an outdoor hot-springs pool to a 105|degrees~ volcanic mud bath (check with your doctor on conditions that heat may worsen). For a spa list, call the chamber at (707) 942-6333; reserve early.

Southern California

Leafless vines may announce the season, but shirtsleeve weather lingers into early winter in Southern California's wine country.

For a day trip or an overnight outing, the following areas offer the richest concentration of wineries. We list some of the most notable holiday attractions.

In addition, a large number of wineries hold December open houses. Many are decorated for the holidays and sell crafts, foods, and wine-related gifts.

San Luis Obispo County

Near Paso Robles, new producers have joined a handful of old-timers in the valleys and hills off U.S. 101. Among special winery events here, the wine-tasting dinners at Eberle Winery are always sellouts; call (805) 238-9607 to reserve for next year.

South of San Luis Obispo, several wineries have sprung up in Edna Valley in the last two decades. Among them is this region's only champagne house: Maison Deutz, at 453 Deutz Drive, open 11 to 5 daily except Tuesdays for tours by appointment and tasting ($4 to $5); call (805) 481-1763. At Ross Keller Winery, 985 Orchard Avenue in Nipomo, you can cut your own Monterey pine Christmas tree, as well as stop in for a self-guided tour 11 to 4 daily; call 929-3627.

San Luis Obispo County detours include Hearst Castle at San Simeon, Mission San Luis Obispo, and Avila and Pismo beaches. For help with lodging, call the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce at 543-1323.

Santa Barbara County

Wineries nestle in the valleys both east and west of U.S. 101 between Santa Maria and Buellton. Two offer special December dinners: Rancho Sisquoc Winery, (805) 934-4332, books a year ahead; Zaca Mesa Winery, 688-3310, requires reservations well in advance.

One nearby attraction is the town of Solvang, with its Danish charm and numerous tourist accommodations. For details, call the visitor center at (800) 468-6765 or (805) 688-6144.

Riverside County

Wineries here cluster east of Interstate 15 near Temecula, about midway between Riverside and San Diego. Most of them are along--or just off--Rancho California Road.

Two wineries offer special holiday meals. John Culbertson Winery has an English Christmas tea; call (714) 699-4403. Mount Palomar Winery offers "gourmet grazing"; call 676-5047.

At Cilurzo Vineyard and Winery, 41220 Calle Contento, balloon operators use its hilltop for morning takeoffs and return passengers for brunch ($120 to $170 per person); call Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce, 676-5090, for operators and lodging options.

The Northwest

Thanksgiving weekend kicks off the wineries' holiday season. Even so, they're likely to be uncrowded, giving vintners leisure to chat with visitors.

Christmas shopping in these fertile agricultural valleys is unpressured and fun. Look for regional specialty foods--nuts, fruit preserves and syrups, vinegars, mustards, honeys--and take the opportunity to cut a Christmas tree at one of many roadside farms.

Western Oregon's wine country

In general, Oregon's wineries cluster along river valleys west of the Cascades. Most are in the north, within day-trip range from Portland. Weather can be cold and clear in December, but drizzle and fog are more typical. On the coldest days, beware of black ice on country roads.

State 99W is the main artery through this region; blue signs point the way to wineries and other attractions. To plan a tour, call (503) 228-8403 in Oregon, (800) 242-2363 elsewhere, and ask for the free brochure Discover Oregon Wines (or pick up a copy at any of the wineries).

In Yamhill County, more than 20 wineries will take part in the Wine Country Thanksgiving, three days of open-house festivities beginning the Friday after Thanksgiving. Hours are 11 to 5. For a brochure listing every winery, B & B, and restaurant in the county, call (503) 538-2014.

On December 5 and 6, Tualatin Vineyards, in Washington County, offers holiday dinners with the winemaker ($35); call (503) 357-5005. November 27, 28, and 29, Hinman Vineyards, in Lane County, holds a country holiday fair (free).

Washington's Yakima Valley

Most days, a brilliant winter sun beams across rolling, snow-dusted vineyards. But be prepared for lingering fog and icy roads. Daytime temperatures are in the 20s and 30s.

Yakima Valley wineries celebrate Thanksgiving with a weekend of tastings, hors d'oeuvres, and music; hours are 10 to 5.

As an alternative to Interstate 82, take Yakima Valley Highway (from exit 40), later signed as Wine Country Road. Inviting stops along the way feature the area's products. For a winery guide with listings of lodgings, restaurants, and shops, call Yakima Valley Visitors Bureau at (509) 575-1300.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue: Best of the Holidays; Napa Valley, southern California and the Northwest
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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