Story and photos by Jordan R. Young
Luther Burbank Gardens
Wine is the life's blood of Napa and Sonoma, but what else does the area have to offer? I had reason to wonder when I heard about the Wine Country Explorer Card, a fixed-price, two-day pass available from Boston-based Smart Destinations that offers prepaid admission to more than a dozen area attractions. I was inspired at once to plan a trip around the card.
I hadn't been to the celebrated Northern California region in nearly 25 years; my friend Harris had never visited. As we planned our recent visit, we sought out alternate activities for folks like us whose consumption of the fruit of the vine has diminished over the years. As it turns out, there's plenty to do, especially for lovers of art and good food.
Choosing Well in Napa
Even forgetting about Friday evening rush hour traffic, downtown Napa was only a 90-minute drive north from Oakland Airport. Napa River Inn, recommended to us by the helpful Downtown Napa Association, turned out to be the perfect choice. This historic riverfront complex — a former grain-and-feed business — houses a boutique hotel, a bakery, a jazz club and two restaurants. When we couldn't decide between the French country cuisine of Angèle and the gourmet comfort food of Celadon, we combined them for a memorable progressive dinner.
If your Wine Country excursion is part of a trip to San Francisco, the admissions covered by the Explorer Pass are also included in Smart Destinations' Go San Francisco Card - along with dozens of the city's top attractions. For information, call (617) 671-1001.
We enjoyed an appetizer of salmon tartar, and an Asian pear and apple salad in Angèle's low-lit dining room, where the classy ambience nearly outshone the food.
Next, we walked around the corner to the cozy Celadon, where we proceeded to eat what may have been one of the best dinners of our lives. I hadn't planned on another appetizer, but the flash-fried calamari, accented by a mildly spicy chipotle glaze, was a winner. Our waiter, Manny, made the Moroccan-inspired lamb shank and cous cous sound so good I couldn't pass it up; the dish delivered on all promises and then some. For good measure, I also sampled Harris' yummy seared sea scallops and dark chocolate mousse, though the dessert was too rich for my blood. After dinner, we sat by the fireplace in the hotel's elegant lobby, then checked into our rose-colored rooms and called it a night.
I had wanted to visit Copia, Napa's $55 million homage to wine, food and the arts, since it opened late in 2001. We got there Saturday just in time for the 10:15 a.m. orientation tour, a good introduction to the abundance of activities and options available. Winetasting 101, a morning class, was already in progress as our guide led us around the spacious, handsome facility overlooking the river; afterwards, while Harris explored the appropriately named shop, Cornucopia, I wandered over to the complimentary Tasting Table, where I sampled a flavorful Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir produced by Heron Wines, a San Francisco-based firm.
The long-term second-floor exhibit, Forks in the Road, engaged us both with its fascinating mix of ingredients: a '60s promo film featuring stylishly dressed women waltzing through model kitchens, demonstrating microwaves and other new-fangled gadgets; culinary oral histories from people of such varied ethnic backgrounds as Irish-Italian; and a number of interactive displays, not to mention antique eggbeaters, toasters and other kitchen aids of the past.
The Back Road
If SR 29 — the main drag through Napa Valley — gets a bit too congested for your liking, there's an alternate route. The Silverado Trail, about one mile east, parallels SR 29 all the way from Trancas Street, just north of downtown Napa, to Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga.
Before leaving Napa we indulged in a bit of window-shopping on the city's Main Street, where the Glass Gallery proved a feast for the eye. Harris, an aficionado of contemporary glass art, needed little persuasion to step inside, where we were bowled over by the craftsmanship of the sculpture and jewelry on display — including one-of-a-kind pieces that were not for sale.
Our next stop, the Silverado Museum — 17 miles north of Napa, just off picturesque SR 29 in St. Helena — was a shrine to one of my favorite authors, Robert Louis Stevenson. Among the items on display were the writer's inkwell and gold pocket watch, the desk at which he wrote Treasure Island, original letters and manuscripts in his tiny handwriting (including pages from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), first editions, photographs, paintings and sculptures. I also discovered a local connection I was unaware of — Stevenson had honeymooned in Napa Valley in 1880.
The Art of Calistoga
Of the many wineries included on the Wine Country Explorer Card, one stood out. Clos Pegase — envisioned as "a temple to wine and art" by publisher-turned-winemaker Jan Shrem — is named for Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology. The 47-acre vineyard just south of Calistoga is home to the owner's private museum-quality art collection of sculpture, paintings and wine-related art and antiques.
In the manner of a museum docent, Harry, our guide, deftly described the history and architectural design of the establishment. The outdoor sculpture garden and the dramatically lit aging caves — the staging ground for concerts, banquets, lectures on Bacchus, and other events — were of special interest.
The high point of our trip, Harris and I later agreed, came Saturday evening in Calistoga, where we visited the Ca'toga Galleria D'Arte — a shop filled with the imaginative creations of Venetian-born artist Carlo Marchiori — and then toured his home, Villa Ca'toga.
Marchiori's stunning Renaissance and Baroque-inspired murals and drawings cover virtually every surface of both his gallery and his mansion, fooling the eyes and dazzling the senses as we turned corners and opened doors. The artist himself proudly showed us around the grounds of his estate, pointing out faux Greco-Roman ruins and whimsical commedia dell'arte sculptures.
Carlo then accompanied us to dinner at the stylish Brannan's Grill, where we'd made reservations. By coincidence, he'd painted a mural in the restaurant. Harris happily dined on yellowfin tuna; our charming newfound friend opted for the sea bass, which I contemplated but passed up in favor of the braised rabbit and risotto, a palette-pleaser I savored to the last bite.
Checking into our rooms late at the Chelsea Garden Inn in Calistoga, we didn't pay much attention to the place. But in the morning, as we enjoyed a scrumptious gourmet breakfast in the wonderfully cheery and inviting social room — complete with fireplace reading nook — we were so comfortable, we could've stayed all morning.
It's hard to leave Calistoga without experiencing what it's best known for, though, and with that in mind Harris and I had made appointments at Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort. Compared to the "get away from it all" retreat where we bed-and-breakfasted, the spa was pretty ordinary looking. But the spartan appearance of the facility proved deceptive; the massage I received was as therapeutic and invigorating as any I've ever had.
Santa Rosa Diversions
Leaving bucolic Napa Valley for rival Sonoma Valley, we drove into suburban Santa Rosa. Late autumn was not the best time of year to visit the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens — the bloom was off the proverbial rose and the Greek Revival house was closed — but a self-guided tour of the well-maintained and landscaped grounds (now a memorial park) was a treat. The life and work of the famed horticulturalist, who turned plant breeding into a modern science, was well illustrated by the "outdoor laboratory" made up of roses, cacti, fruit trees, demonstration beds and drought-resistant plants.
Peanuts © UFS, Inc.
Charles M. Schulz Museum
Our afternoon destination was a monument to Santa Rosa's biggest celebrity, the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center. The legacy of the "Peanuts" creator is alive and well in this state-of-the-art building, where I indulged my inner child by immersing myself in original cartoon art. A re-creation of Schulz's studio, and a video of the artist drawing and talking about Charlie Brown and his pals, were among the highlights.
There's a lot to entertain and amuse kids here, including the Snoopy Labyrinth — a one-sixth-of-a-mile path in the shape of the comic beagle's head with a two-ton granite boulder taking the place of his nose. There's also a kite-eating tree and a birdbath with holograms outside, and an auditorium with a changing program.
Thoroughly tooned in, we headed north to our digs in the nearby village of Healdsburg. If any place to stay in the Wine Country has the right to call itself a resort, the Honor Mansion certainly qualifies. This Italianate Victorian-style inn, built in 1883 and recently restored, may be the most opulent accommodation I've ever had; it's a splurge and then some, but sometimes you have to treat yourself.
Tennis, anyone? Croquet? Bocce ball? All these and more were available on the premises; after a long day, we settled for a walk through the gardens, and a visit to the koi pond. For sustenance, we drove a short distance to Zin Restaurant & Wine Bar. The dining room's post-modern industrial look, complete with cement walls and exposed beams, could not have been more disparate with our lodgings. But the food, from the abundant appetizer of beer-battered green beans to the juicy, grilled pork chops, was first rate.
I resisted the temptation to try one of the dozens of Zinfandels on the menu, but the next morning, I put on my tasting shoes and ambled over to the historic Simi Winery. While Harris perused the clothing boutiques, galleries and other shops lining the park-like Healdsburg Plaza downtown, I wandered about the winery's manicured gardens and century-old buildings. I also sampled two vibrant Chardonnays, a Petite Syrah and a Shiraz from diverse appellations (different areas of the region) while digesting an earful of informative wine talk.
Flocking to Bodega Bay
Harris could have spent all day shopping in the Spanish-style town plaza, but the final stop on our itinerary beckoned. It had been almost 30 years since I'd visited Bodega Bay, the setting for Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film "The Birds", and I'd always wanted to return. A drive along the scenic River Road, through the wine-soaked Russian River Valley, took us to the main artery of the Sonoma Coast, storied Highway 1.
Bodega Bay-Tides Wharf
A lunch stop at the Tides Wharf, where the film's cafe, gas station and boat dock scenes were shot, seemed almost mandatory. Lobby cards and autographed pictures of leading lady Tippi Hedren — who often returns to the scene of the crime for personal appearances — decorated the walls, and the gift shop was well stocked with souvenir T-shirts. The restaurant had been completely remodeled since my last visit and bore little resemblance to the one seen in the film. But we had a table with a terrific view of the water — and a great many of our fine feathered friends.
We then headed over the old Bodega Schoolhouse, about seven miles away in the town of Bodega. Once a bed and breakfast, it's now a private residence and one of the last remaining structures used in the film. Appropriately, tourists flock to the location like birds; it's probably one of the most photographed schoolhouses in America. It was the wrong day for a tour, but I did get the obligatory snapshot.
The sky was growing dark as we arrived at Bodega Bay Lodge & Spa, and checked into our digs. We passed up the ubiquitous wine tasting in the lobby and walked over to the hotel's classy Duck Club Restaurant. Here we dined contentedly on roasted duck and marinated chicken, in a locale more famous for its long-ago association with a horror film than its food or wine. Better yet, having reserved a window table, we enjoyed a near-perfect sunset, a flawless end to our Wine Country exploration.
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