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Wintertime discovery: the Napa Valley.

The vineyards are at rest, with early mustard blooming between the rows and a few crimson leaves remaining on the vines before January's pruning. The main roads are lightly trafficked as are tables at popular restaurants. B & Bs and small, choice inns are easy to book. It's winter in the Napa Valley. Situated just 75 miles northeast of San Francisco, the Napa wine country suffers in the summer, when it's loved to death. Its 195 wineries (three times as many as in 1978) draw an estimated 3 million visitors every year. December and January bring the fewest visitors. The valley is best seen on a two- to three-day visit. If you come in winter, you may miss the beauty of the ripening vines, but you'll also miss the high-season crowds. Shoppers can find some holiday specialties-from vine wreaths to artwork (shown in two dozen galleries) by some of the 150 artists estimated to live here. This month's usually clear air and sunny days (recent Decembers averaged only 3 inches of rainfall) make an outdoor excursion attractive. Consider signing up for a hot-air balloon ride, taking a hike up a peak for an over-valley view, or stopping for a refreshing soak in a pool fed by hot springs. Note that some restaurants and inns close after Thanksgiving till the end of the year; at the others, reservations are easy to get. Unless otherwise noted, area code is 707. Cork-popping at the sparkling wineries A holiday trip to the Napa Valley wouldn't be complete without a stop at a sparkling winery (some 25 percent of sparkling wine is sold for the holiday season). We list five where you can tour or taste (charge is by the glass). Domaine Carneros, just opened, has tours at 11, 1, and 3, as well as a video and tasting ($3.50), in a grand 18th-century-style hillside chateau. It's at 1240 Duhig Road, Napa (257-0101); hours are 10:30 to 4:30 daily. Domaine Chandon, one of the largest (480,000 cases annually), is lavishly decorated for the holidays; it offers tastings ($3 to $4), tours, a gift shop, and an elegant restaurant. It's at I California Drive, Yountville (944-2280); hours are 11 to 6 Wednesdays through Sundays. Mumm Napa Valley, also new, has displays on the methode champenoise, tasting ($3.50), and tours. Address is 8445 Silverado Trail, Napa (963-3330); it's open 11 to 6 daily. Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars, at the east end of Larkmead Lane in St. Helena (963-2334), is the area's oldest sparkling wine producer; it offers tours and free tastings. Hours are 10 to 4:30 daily. Schramsberg, open by appointment only (no tasting), is in St. Helena (942-4558). For a free wineries map showing all the wineries you can visit, call 963-0148. Cabernet wreaths and winery picnics Look for interesting roadside wares: Napa Valley Grapevine Wreath Company, on State 29 just north of Rutherford, sells handmade wreaths of Cabernet Sauvignon prunings ($6 to $60). You might cut your own Christmas tree, or buy kiwi fruits, persimmons, or walnuts. For a free map, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Napa Farming Trails, 4075 Solano Ave., Napa 94558. Along St. Helena's six-block Main Street, browse in antiques stores and great hardware and cookware stores. Model Bakery (open 7 to 5 Tuesdays through Saturdays) sells hearth-baked breads stollen, panettone, persimmon), yule logs, and displays a 3-foot-high gingerbread house. In Yountville, check the Washington Street art galleries, as well as Vintage 1870 shopping center, where costumed singers and musicians perform each December weekend; call 944-2451 for a schedule. In Napa, stroll along Main Street between First and Fifth streets, for antiques and galleries. The chamber of commerce, 1556 First Street (9 to 5 weekdays, I I to 2 weekends), has a free brochure for a walk in the Victorian area. Picnic fare is easy to find, with two spots especially popular-the Oakville Grocery (call 944-8802 to order lunches) and the Yountville Grocery. For pretty winery picnicking, try the tiny garden at Cuvaison, 4550 Silverado Trail in Calistoga; Rutherford Hill, on Souverain Road in Rutherford, has great views. Special holiday festivities In Calistoga from 9 to 6 on December 1, a Christmas bazaar sells wreaths, jams, and ornaments; it's at the fairgrounds, 1435 Oak Street. Also in Calistoga, an old-fashioned Christmas on December 8 and 9 features lighting on Lincoln Avenue and free candlelight tour of inns; for details, call 942-5333. Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park, 3 miles north of St. Helena on State 29, hosts Pioneer Christmas from 10 to 5 on December 8 ($2, $1 ages 6 through 17). You can learn to make 1860s decorations, sip hot cider, and watch the grist mill grind flour for holiday cookies. Domaine Chandon offers a Victorian Christmas benefit, with singers, at 9 Pm. on December 8 ($10, minimum age 21). At various wineries, David Auerbach performs on dulcimer, bowed psaltery, and other early instruments; call 963-9630 for times and tickets ($20). Don't-miss decorations include the banners and swags at St. Helena's Christian Brothers-Greystone Cellars (2555 Main Street) and the Victorian ornaments at Beringer, next door. Get above it all From aloft, you can look down on a patchwork of russet vineyards and parrot green grass. Vistas are free of summer's marine haze (moisture-laden air limiting visibility), though you may get fog or wind. Call before taking a glider or hot-air balloon. Glider rides. Calistoga Gliderport (9425000) 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 $59 per person, $95 for two. Hours are 9 to dusk daily; reserve for weekends. Rain cancels. Hot-air balloons. One of the valley's oldest operators is Napa Valley Balloons (2532224), with a dozen craft. Also try Above the West (800/627-2759), Adventures Aloft (255-8688), American Balloon Adventures (800/333-4366), Balloon Aviation (800/ 367-6254), Balloons Above the Valley (800/464-6824), Bonaventura (944-2822), Napa Valley Balloon Safaris (800/2550125), or Once in a Lifetime Balloon Company (800/722-6665). All are required to use licensed pilots and FAA-inspected craft. Costs range from $95 to $160, and trips last 3 to 5 hours (an hour in the air, then 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. A peak experience. Mount St. Helena in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, 6 miles north of Calistoga, offers unsurpassed views for those willing to tackle the 10-mil trip. The park is undeveloped (entry but you can hike a mile to the Stevenson monument, then continue to a fire road that climbs 4 miles to the top (4,343 feet). On a clear day, you'll gaze across vineyards, The Geysers, and Mount Shasta. The park is open daylight hours. From State 29, look for the park sign; park in an unmarked gravel lot just beyond. Or get into hot water Calistoga, at the north end of the valley, is famous for pampering the citified at its low-key resorts. Choose an outdoor hot-springs pool ($7; water from 82' to 1040) and relax as warm mist swirls around you. Or try a whirlpool and hot blanket wrap ($ 1 0 to $20). Or ease into a 105" volcanic mud bath ($55, including massage). For a spa list, call the chamber (see below). Reserve early, and check with your doctor on conditions heat may worsen. Lodging, dining lists The valley harbors some 90 hotels, motels, and inns. Many offer winter discounts, and some drop their normal two-night minimum. For lodging and dining listings, call these chambers of commerce: Calistoga (942-6333), Napa (226-7455), St. Helena (800/767-8528), Yountville (944-0904). For events, call 963-1112.
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Date:Dec 1, 1990
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