A basic understanding of Napa Valleys layout will make a trip to the Wine Country more productive and enjoyable, whether you're coming for a day or a week. We'll take a quick look at the communities in Napa County, get oriented, and find out where the vineyards and other treats of the valley are located. In the Suggested Tours guide, we'll give you a winning tour of the wineries.
Even if you're a teetotaler, however, Napa Valley can be a real delight, and for some of the very reasons grapes like it so much: its sunny without being hot or arid, and the gentle valley landscape makes a perfect tableau for a summer afternoon. Theres no better place for a picnic, a long bike ride, or a hot air balloon ride. Its easy to see why so much wealth has migrated to the area.
The city of Napa largest in the county, yet its possibly the community least connected to the refined, vinicultural image the world has of the Napa Valley. While there are quite a few mansions and large estates back against the hill, Napa tends to be a down-to-earth, blue-collar city. Its a city of average Joes in pickups and hardworking Mexican immigrants living in bungalow homes on Tejas and Trabajo streets. That being said, however, the Carneros area on Napas south side is prized by aficionados for its pinot noirs and chardonnays. Artesa is a noted Carneros winemaker.
Napa is the areas mercantile center. While its town center, filled with stolid, granite banks and three-floor office buildings, is rekindling a downtown renaissance interrupted by the 2000 earthquake (whose epicenter was nearby), most of the retail traffic flows through the Napa Outlet Stores on Highway 29. Wide, strip-like streets such as Soscol, Trancas, and Lincoln fill the countys less glamorous needs, like automotive service and air-conditioning.
Farther up Highway 29, Yountville hews far closer to the popular, Falconcrest image of Napa Valley. Less populous and more gentrified than the city of Napa, there are also a lot of grapes growing here. (You may see the vineyards first, strangely enough, as a bright, metallic twinkling: growers use reflective foil to scare away grape-eating birds.) Whats really put Yountville on the map, though, are its restaurants. Bistro Jeanty, Bouchon, Brix Restaurant, Domaine Chandon, The French Laundry, and Mustards Grill are some of the more noteworthy. Nationally famed, these establishments are happily embraced by San Francisco as an integral part of the S. F. Bay Area restaurant culture, but clearly, they stand on their own. (And standing is indeed what you will do if you don't make a reservation several weeks in advance.)
By this point, one has entered the real heart of Napa Valley wine production. Robert Mondavi, one of the titans of California wine, is headquartered in Oakville. Other, smaller wineries can be seen on both sides of the valley, though the premium cellars seem to be on the west side. While tiny Oakville has a post office, its really an unincorporated part of Napa County. Its best known for the Oakville Grocery, a legendary roadside delicatessen stocked with a mind-boggling array of gourmet delights from France, Italy, and their own kitchens. As with other spots throughout the valley, one is likely to be greeted in early spring by a waving sea of yellow under sparse vineyards: growers often plant mustard underneath grapevines.
Microscopic Rutherford, population 525, is home to Beaulieu (BV) Winery, Rutherford Grove, Rutherford Hill, St. Supéry Vineyards & Winery, Mumm Napa Valley (of champagne fame) and Francis Ford Coppolas Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery, which features memorabilia from his directorial career, including the Tucker automobile from the film of the same name. Its also a fine place to eat: Auberge de Soleil, La Toque, and the Rutherford Grill stand with the best of Yountvilles superb French restaurants.
Worth a stop independent of wine, St. Helena is a town that strives to look as it did 90 years ago. To a commendable extent, it succeeds. The vintage facades on Highway 29, St. Helenas main street, are striking. Catering to the demographic of the average tourist here, St. Helena features surprisingly upscale shopping. For instance, you'll roll into town past a satellite of exclusive San Francisco clothier Wilkes Bashford. The Silverado Museum here hosts an exhibit of Robert Louis Stevenson ephemera. Fans of ghost story writer and misanthrope Ambrose Bierce will want to see the display and perhaps even stay at the Ambrose Bierce House, now a bed and breakfast. St. Helena is also home to the Berenger winery, a popular tasting destination; and the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. The CIA, as its called (accurately if confusingly), is a masters level training center for working, certified chefs. Its situated in the former home of the Christian Brothers winery, an imposing three-story 101-year-old building that housed generations of winemaking friars. To get a sense of the places considerable history, take a look at some of the exhibits inside. Don't miss Brother Timothys 1800-piece corkscrew collection.
The CIA gives weekend cooking demonstrations in their fully equipped teaching theater. Food enthusiasts may want to pay the $3 to look at the 15,000 square feet of state-of-the-art kitchen space rendered after a recent, $15,000,000 renovation. At $1,000 a square foot, thats a fully stocked kitchen.
The one Napa destination which would continue to thrive, wine or no, Calistoga is famous for its. . .mud. Mud baths, along with mineral baths, saunas, hot steam treatments, whirlpools, and herbal body wraps, have all been an attraction of the area ever since San Francisco entrepreneur Sam Brannan first promoted the benefits of the areas hot springs in the mid-19th century. Dr. Wilkinsons Hot Springs Resort, Nances Hot Springs, and the Lavender Hill Spa are good spots to get hot and muddy.
To get a feeling for the thermal springs without getting in one, go two miles out of town on Tubbs Lane and catch Old Faithful geyser. It spouts boiling water 60 feet into the air every half-hour or so.
Calistoga is an engaging little town, bustling, health-conscious, and a bit less precious than St. Helena. Cafe Sarafornia, the Calistoga Inn, and Checkers Pizza are all great places to replenish yourself after the ardors of a rub, steam, or scalding soak. The Petrified Forest, just outside of town on Petrified Forest Road, features six million-year-old trees turned, by a volcano, into rock. Some of the specimens are more than 100 feet tall.
History of NapaThe Wappo Indians, original residents of this fertile valley, called it Napa: "Land of Plenty." While from todays perspective, thinking of the acres and acres of robust grapes, that seems a perfect name for it, the Wappos were really referring to the salmon, elk, and waterfowl on the Napa River. Small grapes grew wild even then, which the Wappos simply enjoyed as a readily available snack.
WIth the arrival of the Spanish, the Napa Valley became the Napa Rancho, a virtually unpopulated tract in the vast ranchland of Alta California. The Wappo way of life was quickly subsumed and rendered extinct by mission culture. Mexico, eager to sell off Spanish holdings in Alta California after the 1821 revolution, deeded part of the valley, Caymus Rancho, to American homesteader George Yount in 1836.
Yount was a pioneer in many ways. The first American to be sold an Alta California land grant, he was also the first American settler, the first resident of what would become (you guessed it) Yountville, and the first man to cultivate grapes in Napa Valley.
Yount was quickly followed by other homesteaders. The valleys soil was fertile, its wide hills perfect for ranching, and the river made it easy to ship cargo to San Francisco. When the Gold Rush opened the floodgates to California and ended Spanish rule, the city of Napa became an important port and a commercial center. Cattle, lumber, wheat, and quicksilver, mined, grown, and raised in Napa County, were floated down the river into San Francisco Bay to feed a growing state. Viable communities sprouted, as well, in Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga.
Sam Brannan established a resort community in Calistoga in 1860. The man who almost single-handedly sparked the Gold Rush, by brandishing a bottle of American River gold dust in San Franciscos Portsmouth Square, tried to share his vision of an enlightened, health-centered community upon breaking ground for the project. The excited Brannan tried to invoke a respected Adirondack resort by mentioning the "Saratoga of California." His resulting slip of the tongue became the towns name.
Other settlers followed Younts example by planting wine. Charles Krug established the first commercial winery in Napa Valley in 1861, and by 1889 there were 140 wineries in the area. The quick growth of the new wine industry was its undoing, however. In the 1890s, a surplus sank prices, and phylloxera arrived on American shores. This root louse, from which, ironically, Napa vines had saved the French wine industry some years before, now struck at Napa vineyards.
So it was hardly cheering, then, when in 1920 the National Prohibition Act became law. The vineyards lay fallow. Though a few wines could be made for sacrament, growers and vineyard workers had, by and large, to find other work. Throughout the Roaring Twenties, Napa was in the doldrums.
It took the Depression to get it out. The 21st Amendment, which passed in 1932, overturned Prohibition and was for the Wine Country a message heaven-sent. Though the economic revival it sparked has had fits and starts, and a tourism learning curve, signs are that the Napas wine boom is not going to be over with soon.
Balancing Napas economy, so dependent on wine and tourism, are steel production, leather goods, insurance, Napa State University, and Napa State Hospital. Napa State Hospital (for those who did not grow up with the threat of being sent there) is one of the states main mental hospitals. It has a wing for the criminally insane.
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