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Navigating Napa Wine Country

May 16th 2015

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The Napa Valley, about an hour's drive north of San Francisco, is well known as one of the world's foremost wine producing regions. Less known, however, are its many unexpected attractions which include an authentic 13th. century Tuscan castle-winery, a vintage train, thermal springs, Michelin-rated restaurants, museums and art galleries galore as well as biking trails, golf courses and even bocce ball. All this plus more than 400, mostly family-owned, wineries can be found in a narrow, 30-mile valley with a welcoming climate year-‘round.

On our recent visit, we made downtown Napa our headquarters. We had a wide choice of hotels and settled into the elegant Napa River Inn, located in the 1884 Historic Napa Mill complex right on the bank of the Napa River on Main Street. This allowed us to explore this charming and pristine town on foot, to "window shop" some of its stylish stores and to admire nearby residential areas with their neat Victorian-era homes and flower-filled gardens.

As we set out on our exploration of the Napa Valley driving North on Route 29, we were literally taken aback by the exquisite beauty of the rolling hills with row upon neat row of vines. We had previously visited Tuscany, the Rhine and Moselle Valleys, Burgundy and Marlborough in New Zealand, but Napa outshone them all!

We made our first stop in Yountville, a pretty little town which can boast that it has more Michelin stars per capita than any place in America. It being a Sunday, we were also impressed by seeing so many families, in their “Sunday best” strolling along the virtually traffic-free local lanes. As we drove northwards we passed through Oakville and Rutherford and would keep our eyes out for signs of the wineries whose names we knew and whose wines we love. Virtually all the wineries encourage you to visit for a taste of their wine. Those wishing to taste many different wines should consider taking the three hour trip on the Wine Train instead of driving. Next came St. Helena which is the Western home to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. (Their East Coast location is in Hyde Park, N.Y.) St. Helena and vicinity also has a number of restaurants graced by Michelin stars.

Our northward trek ended at Calistoga. As we first spotted the Castello di Amorosa, we could hardly believe our eyes. Here in America was an actual 13th. Century Italian castle, complete with a drawbridge over a water-filled moat (in drought-stricken California, no less), farm animals and authentic heraldic standards fluttering above the guard towers.  Surrounding the castle were 30 acres of vineyards planted with Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon which produce Italian style wines including Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco. Inside the castle are 107 unique rooms, a completely hand-painted Great Hall, a dungeon, torture chamber and a consecrated chapel.  Dario Sattui, an American millionaire of Italian descent, began his Castello di Amorosa (the Castle of Love) project in 1993.

From Calistoga we turned south for our return trip via the Silverado Trail. On the way we stopped for a memorable brunch at the Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford. From its terrace, the Michelin-starred restaurant of this world-class resort offers breathtaking, panoramic views of the Napa Valley along with cuisine and service to rival anything one can find on the Cote d’Azur – and at prices substantially below those in France. In addition to the restaurant, the Auberge du Soleil also offers a variety of luxury accommodations, a spa and pool for its guests.

Due to its agreeable climate, the Napa Valley offers special events such as concerts, theater and dance festivals, a harvest festival and a film festival the year-‘round.

Info: www.VisitNapaValley.com 

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