An October 2003 trip
to California by travelwisdom
Quote: With over 600 wineries in a four-county area, how many wineries can we visit over 10 days?
As it turned out there were many memorable moments such as our first day on the wine trail.
At home, 10 a.m. might be a bit early for popping a cork. Here it’s the natural thing to do. There are two main arteries through Napa Valley, the Silverado Trail and Highway 29. Our plan calls for meandering along both over the next three days.
Although we have a couple of stops pre-planned, we stop at several wineries that have "curb-side" appeal. Some impulsive stops turn out to be our favorites. From our research, we know that tasting and tours vary greatly from one winery to another. Some tasting rooms require reservations. Most wineries charge a nominal tasting fee, usually from .00 to .00 applied to purchase if you buy wine. After several stops, we discover quickly we have to pace ourselves. Three tastings seems to be the limit before a break.
Our favorite stop today is V. Sattui Winery. Their wines here are sold only at the winery. The grounds are beautifully landscaped. It’s the perfect place for a picnic. We select our picnic items at the gourmet deli and cheese shop and seek out a shady spot to enjoy our feast. This is one of our travel "MOMENTS." (See our journal entry Top Ten Favorite Wineries for our top-rated recommendations.)
I suggest beginning your research at with gateway sites that include sample itineraries, maps, overviews of wineries and vineyards, restaurants and accommodations. Start a list of visits that appeal to you and research each winery, bed & breakfast, and restaurant separately. Many websites offer specials and two-for-one coupons for tastings and tours. Don't over schedule! Rather than dashing madly from one winery to another, linger and indulge your senses in the diverse settings and pleasures. Do leave room in your schedule for spontaneous stops. Some of our favorite wineries turned out to be impulsive visits.
Here are several of our favorite websites for discovering the charms of the valleys:
www.winezone.com and www.wineroad.comCheers!Check out our Top Ten Favorites for additional resources.
Meeting our driver in downtown Napa, we spent the next five hours touring six wineries and lingering over a gourmet picnic under shady oaks at Rutherford Hill Winery. (See Top Ten Freeform Entry!)
The cost for five hours including our picnic lunch was about .00. A bit of a splurge, but divided between three couples it was not totally out of our budget.
In addition to no stress behind the wheel, we felt like celebrities as our limo was as much of an attraction as the vines and vino to other visitors at wineries along the way.
For more information: Call Antique Tours at 707-226-9227 or view them online at www.antiquetours.net
Right away, we realize this is really different than checking into a local Holiday Inn. There appears to be no one home. There is a big dog sleeping placidly on the front steps. There appears to be a note taped to the door. Dilemma. Is the guard dog trained to attack? We cautiously approach the house. The dog is definitely not a guard dog. He welcomes us like old friends. The note of the door also welcomes us and tells us to make ourselves at home on the top floor of the three-story tower. Apparently, our hosts, the owners, Bill and Diane Bylund are at work.
The ground floor of the separate three-story tower houses a large living room and kitchen that opens to a courtyard with a hot tub, lap pool and sauna. The second floor is a guest bed and bath suite, and the top floor is another guest suite. Climbing the stairs to our "room at the top" we are greeted with a breathtaking view in three directions of hills, valleys, and lush natural landscaping of the estate. There is not another house in sight.
Our bedroom is light, airy and serene. There’s a poster feather bed piled high with a down comfort and pillows facing two large windows looking across the valley. Amenities are abundant. There are spa robes, slippers, fresh flowers, aromatherapy candles, a bottle of port wine and chocolates for a nightcap.
In the parlor, we discover a cozy wood-burning fireplace flanked by a chaise lounge and rocking chairs. The kitchen is well equipped. The refrigerator is stocked with fresh fruit, juices, wine and bottled water. A stereo plays soft music and the coffee table is loaded with local guides and intriguing guidebooks.
Late afternoon, our hosts arrive home and invite us to join them by the pool for wine and cheese. What a delightful couple. Bill Bylund is an architect and, of course, designed Bylund House. Diane is an attorney. They prove to be a wealth of information about the area with recommendations for restaurants and some off-the-beaten-path wineries.
After a heavenly night, nestled in that feather bed with millions of stars glittering in the black velvet sky outside our windows, we awake to the smell of coffee and breakfast. Downstairs in the parlor, we are greeted by a crackling fire in the fireplace and a bountiful continental breakfast with fresh squeezed juice waiting at the table. We could get used to living like this!
Each night of our stay, we spend an hour or so around the open-air fire pit with Bill and Diane or lounging in the hot tub under a starlit sky with coyotes providing an outdoor serenade.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 8, 2004
Bylund House- A Romantic Retreat
2000 Howell Mountain Road
St. Helena, California 94574
Hotel | "Grape Leaf Inn - A Dream of a B&B!"
There are twelve Queen Anne style bedrooms with private baths. Ten rooms have king-sized beds and spa tubs for two. Five rooms have fireplaces. Most upper floor room have skylights over the bed. With names like the Pinot Noir, Gamay Rose, Sangiovese, and Chardonnay Suite it was difficult to choose the "best" room. All rooms here are best! Room rates range from $210 to $325 per night.
View the rooms, amenities and specials at www.grapeleafinn.com.
We chose the Merlot room on the top floor. The king-size bed nestles under gable crowned with a magnificent stained glass window. Skylights over each side of the bed look straight up into the endless night sky. A huge bathroom has a spa tub for two with skylights over the tub. To top it all off, many special touches such as fresh flowers, Aveda bath products, and hand-pressed linens add to the charm and ambiance. If there were not so much to see and do, we might not leave this room for the next two days.
Owner and host, Richard Rosenberg, holds late afternoon wine tastings bringing in wine experts from local wineries for lively discussions. We notice several fellow travelers entering notes in wine journals along with labels from their favorite vineyard tours of the day. We learn that all the wineries have baskets of complimentary beautiful labels for their wines. Wow! Why didn’t we think of that? Tomorrow we will buy a wine journal. Wish we had collected labels at our favorite wineries in Napa! One of the best parts of travel is what you learn along the way.
About midnight, we are awakened by a brief thunderstorm. It is worth waking to watch the lightening play across the sky and listen to a symphony of thunder and rain as we lie beneath the skylight. Another breathless travel moment.
The next morning we are amazed at the spread before us. Grand Marnier Croissant French Toast and Fresh Asparagus, Parmesan Cheese Soufflé, and Champagne Mimosas. Gotta have the recipes. Richard graciously shares them. Then, it’s off to the tastings. (See Top Ten Wine Country Favorites) Late afternoon, finds us back at the Grape Leaf Inn for another wine and cheese tasting and lesson from a local vintner.
After another superb breakfast of melt-in-your-mouth White Chocolate Pancakes and a variety of side dishes, we regretfully leave the Grape Leaf Inn and continue north toward Mendocino and the coast. Be sure to check out our next entry…the Little River Inn.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on September 8, 2004
Grape Leaf Inn
539 Johnson Street
Healdsburg, California 95448
Hotel | "Savor a Pacific Sunset at Little River Inn"
It is day seven of our driving trip through California Wine Country. We are driving through the towering redwood forest headed toward Little River Inn on the Pacific coastline near Mendocino. We stop frequently to savor the fresh pine scent and walk through the forests. At times the forest is so dense that there is little daylight and we have to drive with the headlights on. The road is winding and driving difficult. No wine tasting today, but what an experience. As we approach the coast, the scenery changes around each bend. We leave the dense forest and hug the coastline hundreds of feet above the Pacific Ocean.
Our reservations for the next two days are at the Little River Inn. We arrive late afternoon. Our reservation is for a cozy cabin across the highway from the ocean. We ask about the cottages on the coast side. They are the "honeymoon cottages." The hostess suggests we take a key and look at one to see if we want to upgrade.
As we open the door, we are breathless. Sliding glass doors across the entire back of the cottage frame a dramatic view straight out into the Pacific Ocean. There is a large private deck with a hot tub. There’s a king-sized bed in the combination living/bedroom and the fireplace is stacked with firewood for a cozy evening. We’re sold!
After check-in, we enjoy a bottle of champagne on our deck as we watch the sunset paint a masterpiece across the ocean before heading across the road to the "main house" for dinner. Chef Silver Canul and his team make the most of the bountiful fresh Pacific seafood. A roasted garlic brie and tender flash-fried calamari are just a start, followed by Dungeness crab linguine and topped off by crème caramel. Who cares about the calories when food is this good!
At 5am, Hank wakes me to share another travel moment. There is a full moon and the ocean is lit as bright as day. The bells on the buoys are ringing. The sea lions are barking. Forget sleep, we take coffee out of the deck to savor the moment and watch morning light creep slowly over the water.
We have booked rooms on the Internet many times that did not quite live up to their claims. On this trip, this was not the case. Each of our three accommodations seemed to be better than the last and have found a permanent home on our repeat trip resource list.
Read about the lively history of Little River Inn and Mendocino at www.littleriverinn.com
Little River Inn : Lodging Restaurant & Day Spa
7751 N Highway 1
Mendocino, California 95456
Attraction | "Riding the Rails on the Wine Train"
After breakfast, we head for Napa for a trip on the Wine Train. Rumbling along past 26 wineries through lush vineyards for 36 miles from Napa to St Helena, the Wine Train has been making several three-hour journeys most days since 1989. Visitors relax in nine restored Pullman cars, such as a Champagne Vista Dome Car, Lounge Car, open air Silverado Trail car, and two dining cars.
There are brunch, lunch and dinner excursions. Family Fun Nights, allow parents to enjoy a gourmet four-course dinner, while their children are entertained by games, movies and food under the supervision of professional care providers. A Murder Mystery Theatre Dinner features a gourmet dinner and encourages the guests to become involved in the action.
With eighteen choices ranging in price from $65.00 to $140.00, deciding which excursion to book isn’t easy. We chose a lunch trip with second seating and began our journey in the lounge car enjoying champagne and light appetizers. Fellow travelers are friendly and interesting conversations flow. Our next three courses were served in the dining car. Tables are laden with white linens, fine china, gleaming silver, crystal glassware, and fresh flowers. What a delightful way to dine, savoring our salad, entrée, dessert and several glasses of champagne, and all the while watching a panorama of wine country scenery unfold right outside our window.
After lunch, there was plenty of time to check out other cars. The décor in the cars is elegant 20th century classic with rich mahogany paneling, brass fixtures, chandeliers, and etched glass partitions. Guests have open access to the entire train and it’s fun to wander from car to car. Be sure not to miss the glass-walled kitchen car. All meals are prepared onboard and it’s quite a show to see the chefs in action.
The Silverado Railcar is completely different from the other cars. It is decorated with a frontier theme and houses a historical photographic collection of Great Western Movie Stars. Slide-open windows allow guests to enjoy a fresh air ride with grilled ranch-style cuisine. The Champagne Vista Dome Car features high-backed velvet chairs and elevated seating for making the most of the scenic trip.
The Wine Train Depot is located at 1275 McKinstry Street in Napa. Reservations can be made by calling (800) 427-4124 or online at www.winetrain.com. The website is loaded with information about the history of the train, the myriad of dining options, rates, and special events. Whatever your choice, book in advance. Popular excursions fill quickly. Special event seating fills even quicker.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 8, 2004
Napa Valley Wine Train
1275 McKinstry St.
Napa, California 94559
After much debate, we chose these as our Top Ten Wine Country Favorites. In addition to making superb wines, these Top Ten have other memorable traits unique to each winery.
1. High in the hills of Napa Valley, Rutherford Hill Winery (200 Rutherford hill Rd. in Rutherford) offers a panoramic view of rolling vineyards in the valley below. The grounds are a popular picnic spot, shaded by giant oaks and olive trees. In addition to the picnic grove, there are two highlights at Rutherford Hill. The first is the guided tour of the wine caves. Carved into the cliffs behind the winery, there are nearly a mile of tunnels and galleries that provide a perfect aging environment for the wines. Bring a light sweater or jacket. Temperatures in the caves are 59 degrees and humidity of 90% make for a chilly stroll. Tours are three times a day and cost $10.00 per person ($15.00 pp for reserve tasting). Reservations are important. Call ahead!
The second highlight at Rutherford Hill is the "Blend Your Own Merlot" program. Although the winery makes over 15 wines, it is most acclaimed for its Merlot. In fact, the founders of Rutherford Hills pioneered this premier varietal. "Blend Your Own Merlot" is an interactive winemaking session available to groups of two to ten people. It must be booked through the winery’s VIP Events Department. Contact Rutherford Hill at (707) 963-1871 or www.rutherfordhill.com.
2. Beringer Vineyards is home of the world’s largest wine bottle and it’s not just for show. Maximus is 4.5 feet tall and 4.5 feet around. It is filled with 130 liters of Beringer’s 2001 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Plan your trip for November and bid on it. Proceeds will go to fighting world hunger. Beyond Maximus, Beringer Vineyards offers a variety of intriguing tours and tastings. Daily tours are about 30 minutes and usher guests through the old-winery and caves, ending with tasting two wines in the old tasting room. (Price $5.00) Longer tours focus on the entire estate and end with a three wine tasting. ($18.00-$30.00) Contact Beringer at (707) 963-8989 or www.beringer.com.
3. At 1183 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga, take the Aerial Tram to the top of a hill for a self-guided tour and tasting at Sterling Vineyards. The tour is well-organized along a path with signposts describing what you are seeing and the winemaking process. On warm days, you can enjoy lunch at a table on the terrace overlooking the valley or if it’s a bit chilly you can linger over tasting in front of a cozy fireplace. There’s an art gallery and large gift shop. Cost for the visitor center is $15.00.Wines included in the tasting are a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and cabernet Sauvignon. (Hint: get a two for one coupon at www.sterlingvineyards.com )
4. If I could only visit one winery, it would be Schramsberg Vineyards. Dating back to 1862, German immigrants Jacob and Annie Schram, planted the vineyards and tunneled network of underground caves into the volcanic rock of the hillside. Tours of the Schramsberg caves are informative, impressive and intriguing. Just the sight of two million bottles of bubbly aging in the caves is worth the trip. Seeing riddlers in action pounding and turning the bottles (up to 25,000 daily) is an art and a science. Of all the tours we’ve taken over the years, Schramsberg was the most detailed. And…I saved the best for last. The champagne tasting takes place in an intimate wood-paneled, candlelit room in the cave. Talk about ambiance, combined with world-renown champagne. The tour and tasting, by appointment only, are $20.00 and worth every cent. Following the tasting, guests are encouraged to explore the wooded pathways through the Schramsberg gardens often accompanied by Sam, the winery cat, or Pico the winery pug. Located at 1400 Schramsberg Road in Calistoga, signage for the winery is easily missed. The road leading up to the winery is narrow and winding. Slow down and watch for on-coming cars, bikes, and walkers.
5. V. Sattui Winery encourages lingering. Beautifully landscaped picnic grounds, a well-stocked gourmet deli, and award-winning wines make a stop here an extended one. V Sattui wines are sold exclusively at the winery. At the time of our visit, there was no charge for the wine tasting and tours were self-guided. Come early for the best shady spot! V. Sattui is located at 1111 White Lane in St. Helena. (707) 963-7774 (www.vsattui.com)
6. Ledson Winery, located in Sonoma Valley, is a must-see…and their wine is ultra-premium. This was a winery we "stumbled onto" while driving Highway 12 north of Sonoma. At first glance, it looks like a gothic castle (all 16,000 square feet) complete with turrets, balconies, and multiple fireplaces. You might not believe it is the home of royalty rather than a winery. Talk about curb-side appeal! With three lavish tasting bars and the best gourmet marketplace we encountered, it was our "find" for the trip. While the winery is a showplace, there are also lush gardens and shady outdoor patios perfect for a picnic. This was a tasting, touring, and photography paradise. Treat yourself. Call ahead for a gourmet wine picnic (707) 537-3813. Another repeat for future trips!
7. Enjoy "drinking the stars" at Domaine Carneros –Tattinger winery. Rivaling Ledson in visual appeal, this maginificent French chateau is located off Highway 12/121 (which connects the main highways of Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley) on 1240 Duhig Road. Make a grand entrance via the grand staircase and sample Domaine Carneros wines in the elegant parlor or on the terrace overlooking the vineyards. Sparkling wines are sold by the glass and tours are complimentary. (A bit of trivia: When Father Dom Perignon accidentally discovered champagne by adding sugar to local wine, he declared "My God, I am drinking stars." Exactly how I feel! (www.domaine-carneros.com)
8. Ferrari-Carano is not about cars! Located at 8761 Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg, Ferrari-Carano wine estate includes 400 acres of vineyards surrounding yet another stunning villa and meticulously manicured gardens. Complimentary tours are available that include a visit to the newly constructed caves and underground cellar. The wine tasting fee is only $3.00 and is refundable with a wine purchase. Did I mention the awesome gift shop? Book your tour at 800-831-0381 or www.ferrari-carano.com.
9. Buena Vista Winery is a historic landmark. Long tunnels dug into the hillside for wine aging, provided the rock used to build the main two winery buildings. Tasting fee is $5.00 for five of their top wines. (Plan ahead and print a two-for-one coupon for the tasting fee.) You can meander at your leisure with a self-guided tour or for $15.00 get an in-depth look back in time and behind the scenes. Buena Vista is one of the largest wineries in the U.S., supplying wine to all 50 states and 35 countries. Allow extra time here to enjoy their collection of artwork and wine memorabilia. (707- 938-1266)
10. Make a toast to Preston Vineyards. Our bed and breakfast host suggested we visit Preston Vineyards for a different slant on winemaking. He was right. As soon as you get our of your car, among the olive trees, flower and vegetable gardens, the aroma of baking bread leads you forward to the winery and bakery. The Preston family is dedicated to a "minimalist" approach to winemaking and organic, chemical-free farming. You can taste unusual wines, enjoy a hunk of bread right from the oven, wander around the grounds and gardens, and even play a game of Bocce if the mood strikes. Located at 9282 West Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg, don’t miss this off-the-beaten-path adventure. (www.prestonofdrycreek.com)
Mary Esther, Florida