By CARY ORDWAY
The grapevine has an amazing power to transform reasonably attractive countryside into an oasis of culture and beauty that speaks to all of one's senses - and no place is that better manifested than in the famed Napa Valley.
A visit to Napa is not just a chance to see where wine is made, or to explore the upscale shops and stores that now have found their way into the tiniest of Napa Valley communities. Rather, a trip to the valley is an almost spiritual journey that presents you at once with the beauty of 63,000 acres of vineyards and the industry that has brought a European elegance to the Valley lifestyle.
The town of Napa itself is no longer the sleepy berg it was before its name became synonymous with world-class wine. With 75,000 residents, Napa has become a small city in its own right and a name synonymous with California wineries. Major new shopping complexes such as the Napa Premium Outlets have sprung up and, in keeping with one of the latest trends, Napa now has 10 wine bars that allow you to taste to your heart's content without ever setting foot in a winery.
Up the 30-mile-long valley are much smaller towns such as Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga - each an easy and scenic drive from Napa and all of them offering their own unique versions of what a Napa Valley wine town should be all about. Taken together, the towns of the Napa Valley offer a Disneyland for wine-lovers whose E-ticket rides will include some of the most famous labels in the world. But even if you are only mildly curious about wine, the chãteaus, the gorgeous vistas, the educational tours that show you every step of the wine-making process - all of these things will make a Napa Valley visit worthwhile.
It's impossible to see any more than a small sample of wineries on your weekend or daytrip, and we're told that people from the Bay area just drive up to Napa Valley week after week checking off a few more wineries from their list each time. Most of the wineries charge for wine tastings—although we did come across one that didn't—and either your pocketbook or your alcohol tolerance will probably limit the number of wineries you can visit on any given day.
The free tasting we mentioned was at V. Sattui Winery, where on a Sunday afternoon the gift shop and deli were buzzing with people, and lines were forming along the wine bar to taste the latest offerings. Located in St. Helena, this winery is a popular stop for visitors who want to buy a bottle of wine and then picnic on the beautifully landscaped grounds. The winery even sets up a buffet line out on the grounds, offering barbecue for those who didn't bring their brown bags. Interestingly, unlike most California wineries, V. Sattui does not sell its wine anyplace other than the winery, by mail order, or from the company web site.
While V. Sattui is typical of a relatively small family-run winery, the other end of the scale is Domaine Chandon, which we found in Yountville. With spectacular park grounds and a four-star gourmet restaurant just footsteps from where the wine is made, Domaine Chandon is an example of a winery owned by a large conglomerate that distributes its product world-wide. We decided to take the 45-minute tour of this massive facility and found it well worth the time. Small groups are taken step-by-step through the process of wine-making all the way from growing the grapes to bottling the product. While we previously had a basic knowledge of the process, the tour was illuminating.
Most people visiting Napa Valley focus, of course, on the wine and the many fine restaurants that have chosen to locate in the Valley. Shopping also is a big part of any Napa holiday. But the other place where the Napa Valley shines is in the impressive array of accommodations up and down the valley, from historic bed-and-breakfast inns to exquisite boutique-style resorts. Most are obsessive about providing the most and the best amenities and service. They know that some of the world's most discerning travelers spend time in the Napa Valley, and these innkeepers want the accommodations to be in the same league as Napa's world-renowned wines.
We found that certainly to be the case at Meadowood, an impressive resort tucked along one edge of the Valley near downtown St. Helena. It's like a country estate where, once you go through the security gate, you enter a lush world of green lawns, rolling hillsides, meandering trails and forests so thick they might as well be in the Sierras. Strategically positioned here and there are attractive resort buildings that seem to add to the area's ambiance rather than detract from it.
If this were the 1920s, it's easy to imagine that Jay Gatsby would have loved Meadowood. Yet the opulence here is one that every-day working people can enjoy. Whether it was lounging by one of the inviting pools or enjoying breakfast in Meadowood's elegant café, we encountered many families and couples who just seemed to be enjoying the chance to luxuriate at one of the best spa resorts in the Valley.
We especially enjoyed our Meadowood suite, one of the newer accommodations at the resort, and situated on one of the forested hillsides. It gave us the feeling of being in a luxurious vacation home in the woods - cozy, yet spacious with its high ceilings and open floor plan. A full living room included a fireplace, an attractive wall case, a couch and extra easy chairs for guests. The bedroom was especially decorative, featuring a window seat and bay windows. Thick white robes, down comforters, state-of-the-art home entertainment - these and many other upscale amenities were all there.
A short walk from our suite was the recreation area - with its 25-yard lap pool, family pool and expansive lawn — and the Health Spa, where guests can enjoy skincare, body treatments and massage therapies. Fitness trainers and private yoga instructors are waiting for your call. Fitness is never far from your mind at Meadowood, where you'll also find saunas, steam rooms, seven tennis courts, hiking/biking trails and two championship croquet lawns. Meadowood, quite simply, offers one of the best spa vacations anywhere.
You can find both fine and casual dining at Meadowood. The Restaurant at Meadowood features California cuisine, while the Grill offers light meals overlooking the golf course. We felt that the most relaxing experience would be simply to dine-in and enjoy our luxurious suite.
Even if this was not the Napa Valley, Meadowood would stand on its own as a premiere destination resort. But the fact that this was the Napa Valley meant that we couldn't just hole up and relax the entire weekend - there was far too much to see and do.
While we spent plenty of time shopping and visiting local wineries, one of the most enjoyable parts of our visit was to simply drive the Valley. From Napa to Calistoga, we found communities that were each just a little different and each with its own selection of panoramic views. We enjoyed stopping alongside the road and taking close-up pictures of the grapevines, or angling for the best view of the Valley and its vines.
Interestingly, the feeling you get from so much natural beauty is kind of like the satisfaction you get from the perfect glass of wine. It's all part of the amazing power of the grapevine.