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By Gary Susman
Tourists have been visiting northern California’s Napa Valley for nearly 200 years to enjoy the region’s mineral spas, clean air, and natural splendor, but if you’re reading this blog, you’re coming for the wine. And the fine dining, since great wine seeks a pairing with great food. There are hundreds of vintners operating in America’s best-known wine country, and they typically offer tours and tastings, drawing some five million viticulture-loving visitors a year.
WHERE TO WINE
The crush of tourists, especially in the summer and during fall harvest, may make you feel like a stomped grape, but there are still some vineyards that are hidden gems. One of the better-kept secrets is Van Der Heyden Vineyards, an undertrafficked, family-owned winery known for such offbeat but acclaimed varietals as a late-harvest cabernet. Enjoy the mountain vistas at Luna Vineyards and taste their Freakout Reserve (a blend of whites so named for the enthusiastic response it gets from wine aficionados). Artesa is as known for its stunning views (you can see all the way to San Francisco) as for its chardonnay and pinot noir. Castello di Amorosa offers tastings in a medieval Italian-style castle, complete with torture chamber and iron maiden. The food-friendly wines of Robert Sinskey are served up in the tasting room with nibbles like olives and crackers. Fans of sparkling wines will want to visit the caves of Schramsberg Vineyards. And if you love film as much as wine, Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate, which contains a museum of movie artifacts, sounds like an offer you can’t refuse.
Want to see a whole bunch of grape-growers at once? View them from the sky, via hot air balloon. Or from the rails, via the Napa Valley Wine Train, which offers three-hour tours and gourmet lunches and dinners.
WHERE TO DINE
Thomas Keller’s French Laundry (in Yountville) remains legendary; if you can’t get a table (and unless you make reservations a couple months in advance, you probably can’t), you can try Keller’s nearby bistro Bouchon and his gourmet comfort food spot, Ad Hoc. Discover the next Keller for yourself at Greystone (in St. Helena), the student-run restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America. Also in St. Helena, diners rave about the sake-marinated Alaskan black cod and other East-West fusion dishes at Terra.
WHERE TO RECLINE
The Milliken Creek Inn is a boutique hotel that takes advantage of its location in Foodie Central; the breakfast pastries delivered to your room (whenever you want breakfast) come from Bouchon, while the daily wine and cheese reception brings local vintners in to mingle with guests. The Carneros Inn is a gated luxury retreat dotted with private cottages, each with fireplaces, outdoor showers, and giant bathrooms with heated tile floors. (It also has a spa and a 24-hour pool.) The romantic Auberge du Soleil, where the rooms all have private outdoor terraces, espresso machines, and sweeping views, is where Christina Aguilera and Jordan Bratman spent their wedding night. And the exclusive woodland hideaway Calistoga Ranch, which has its own vineyard and spa, is a favorite of such privacy-seeking stars as Mick Jagger and Will Smith.
WHERE TO UNWIND
Calistoga, at the north end of the valley, is celebrated for its array of hot-spring spas. You can bathe in dense volcanic ash mud at Indian Springs, or peaty ash at Dr. Wilkinson’s, or the mulchy mud at the Roman Spa, or the buoyant mud in the couple’s baths at Golden Haven. At some mineral baths, like Spa Terra in the town of Napa, you’ll be fed chocolates and champagne. At last, you can combine the valley’s two passions: sipping and dipping.