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Napa Valley's top secrets

By Josh Sens
Napa's 400 wineries produce only 4 percent of the state's wine. The focus here is quality, not quantity.
Napa's 400 wineries produce only 4 percent of the state's wine. The focus here is quality, not quantity.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In the town of Napa, 18 tasting rooms stand within easy walking distance
  • In Napa, there's no such thing as a dress code, even in the poshest places
  • The Oxbow Public Market features 23 artisanal food vendors

(Budget Travel) -- You don't need us to tell you that Napa Valley is a nice place to visit. What you do need is a way to lose the masses.

1. There aren't that many vineyards

Although it has casually been dubbed California's wine country, Napa Valley is hardly the state's largest wine-producing region (that honor goes to San Joaquin Valley, 80 miles southeast). Napa's 400 wineries produce only 4 percent of the state's wine. The focus here is quality, not quantity.

2. A kitchen shop with character

Shackford's Kitchen Store in downtown Napa has a seemingly endless selection of gleaming gizmos: cupcake molds, paella pans, cappuccino makers. But the most compelling item in the place is John Shackford himself, a true Napa legend who runs the shop with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. At 80, Shackford works in the store six days a week, just as he has for the past 34 years, punching an antique cash register, hand-printing receipts, and calling his customers by first name. 1350 Main St., Napa, 707/226-2132.

Budget Travel gallery: See Napa's secret places

3. A wine tour using legs, not limos

In the town of Napa, 18 tasting rooms stand within easy walking distance of one another, and a $20 Taste Napa Downtown card gets you a pour at 13 of them. Officially, each winery is supposed to charge you 10 cents to do the tasting, but most won't take your dime. napadowntown.com.

4. The Preiser Key tells all

Consider Monty and Sara Preiser your all-knowing wine country guides. They're the couple who in March 2007 launched The Preiser Key to Napa Valley, a free booklet that comes as close as possible to listing every Napa wine label (over 800) and restaurant (170) -- but no chains! The Key also includes detailed maps of the region. They put out a new issue three times a year and distribute it all throughout the valley. preiserkey.com.

5. It's all casual, all the time

In Napa, there's no such thing as a dress code, even in the poshest places. So that bearded guy in weathered blue jeans sitting at the next table? He's just the billionaire from next door.

6. Fainting goats. Yes, fainting goats

In Calistoga, a town near the top of the valley known for its hot springs, there's a regularly erupting geyser called -- you guessed it -- Old Faithful. You'll want to tread lightly; the area near the geyser is also home to a herd of Tennessee fainting goats, a quirky breed with a nervous-system disorder that causes them to keel over (harmlessly and temporarily) when startled. 1299 Tubbs Ln., Calistoga, 707/942-6463, oldfaithfulgeyser.com, $10 adults, $3 kids 6-12.

7. Real sleeper cars

At the recently refurbished Napa Valley Railway Inn, seven suites, fashioned from 100-year-old train cars, lie on the dormant tracks of the Napa Valley Railroad, which went out of passenger service in 1929. Black-and-white photos of the old Yountville train station adorn the walls, and the cupolas, once used as lookout posts by railway employees, serve as skylights. An eighth car, a quaint red caboose, was converted into a coffeehouse this summer. 6523 Washington St., Yountville, 707/944-2000, napavalleyrailwayinn.com, from $125.

8. The road less traveled

When the traffic bottlenecks on Highway 29, Napa's central thoroughfare, find salvation on the 35-mile Silverado Trail, a pastoral road along the valley's eastern edge that's lined with world-class, often small-batch wineries whose labels you're unlikely to find at your local grocery store. silveradotrail.com.

9. The two-wheel option

Founded 22 years ago, Napa Valley Bike Tours is an area fixture. Among the staff's favorite routes to lead you on is the Rutherford Loop, a 16-mile spin that meanders through the Rutherford and Oakville appellations, known for their cabernets, before depositing you back at the shop. If you'd rather go solo, you can pick up a map with other suggested routes. 6795 Washington St., Bldg. B, Yountville, 800/707-2453, napavalleybiketours.com, tours from $134, rentals $35 per day.

10. There's a respectable oil industry

Forget grapes -- olives are another treasured Napa crop. Round Pond Estate, one of the valley's top olive oil producers, offers guided tours that lead you from harvest to mill and culminate in tastings paired with cheese and freshly baked bread. 886 Rutherford Rd., Rutherford, 888/302-2575, roundpond.com, tours $25, by appointment.

11. Wineries double as art galleries

A heart-shaped sculpture by pop artist Jim Dine greets visitors at Cliff Lede Vineyards, one of several wineries that put prized private collections on free display (1473 Yountville Cross Rd., Yountville, 800/428-2259, cliffledevineyards.com, tastings from $20). At Artesa Vineyards & Winery, a waterfall-flanked stairway leads to a tasting room that could pass for a museum. Credit artist-in-residence Gordon Huether, who mounts dramatic glass, metal, and canvas installations that change throughout the year (1345 Henry Rd., Napa, 707/224-1668, artesawinery.com, tastings from $10).

12. A vineyard tour with a third-generation owner

The best Napa Valley wine tours go beyond the tasting room. At Gamble Family Vineyards, owner Tom Gamble takes you on a hay-bale ride through his organic and sustainable vineyards, on land his grandfather first farmed almost a century ago. This is no cookie-cutter tour; it's a chance to hear wine-making tales from a third-generation Napa native -- and taste an old-vine Syrah and a robust cabernet. 707/944-2999, gamblefamilyvineyards.com, by appointment, free with suggested purchase of two to four bottles of wine, bottles from $25.

13. A supersize mineral bath

The nearly Olympic-size pool at Indian Springs Resort and Spa, fed by geysers and infused with minerals, is naturally warm -- typically 102 degrees in winter and 92 in summer -- and preternaturally relaxing. A single spa treatment, like a vitamin C facial or a volcanic-ash mud bath, comes with an all-day pass to the pool. Rooms and cottages in the Spanish-style resort, many with private patios, are pictures of casual comfort. 1712 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, 707/942-4913, indianspringscalistoga.com, treatments from $65, rooms from $185.

14. The valley's most awesome view

The subtle drama of Napa is never more obvious than when you're sitting on a veranda on a hill overlooking the vineyards. Auberge du Soleil, a high-end resort on the eastern side of the valley, has one of the region's best spots for taking in the view. Forget booking a $575 (or more) room; a shaded terrace out back opens up onto the valley below, and everyone is welcome for sparkling wine at sunset or cappuccinos in the morning -- the perfect time to take in hot-air balloons rising through the mist. 180 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford, 707/963-1211, aubergedusoleil.com, sparkling wine from $13.

15. Even the malls are gourmet

Founded by Steve Carlin (who helped start San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace), the Oxbow Public Market feels like it belongs in an epicurean fantasy. In a concrete building that calls to mind an industrial barn, 23 artisanal vendors sell everything from strawberry-balsamic ice cream (from Three Twins) to soothing oolong (Tillerman Tea) to peanut-butter-and-chocolate cupcakes (Kara's Cupcakes). 610 and 644 1st St., Napa, oxbowpublicmarket.com.

16. And even the beans are better here

Rebosero. Flageolet. Black and white runners. In a world overrun with plain-tasting and industrially processed pinto beans, Steve Sando is committed to preserving heirloom legumes. His love for the earthy flavors of distinct organic strains has given rise to Rancho Gordo, a bean-centric specialty store whose coveted products can be found at top California markets and at restaurants across the country. 1924 Yahome St., Napa, 707/259-1935, ranchogordo.com, beans from $5 per pound.

17. A taco to remember

No reservations required at La Luna Market & Taqueria, a home-style Mexican takeout counter. Get there before noon, at which point locals have already started to line up. Adventurous eaters swear allegiance to the smoldering tacos al pastor (spicy, marinated pork). 1153 Rutherford Rd., Rutherford, 707/963-3211, lalunamarket.com, tacos from $1.75.

18. Anything's possible

House-made granola. Lavender-dusted almonds. Yoga gear. These are just a few of the things you can get at Ubuntu Annex, a tasting room and variety store that opened in June two doors down from its eclectic sister spot, chef Jeremy Fox's acclaimed vegetable restaurant (please, not "vegetarian") and yoga studio Ubuntu. 1130 Main St., Napa, 707/251-5656, ubuntunapa.com, almonds $8.

19. 150-foot-tall redwood trees

The footpaths in Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, a peaceful swatch of green just down the road from the Beringer winery, provide a perfect way to work off food-and-wine-related excess. The six-plus-mile hike that connects the Ritchey Canyon Trail and the Redwood Trail runs past Douglas firs and the easternmost stands of redwoods in California. 3801 St. Helena Hwy. N., Calistoga, 707/942-4575, parks.ca.gov.

20. A local dive bar with class

Pancha's of Yountville is just the kind of place where the guy slumped on the bar stool next to you might start giving you tasting notes on his margarita. This is where Napa's winemakers come to unwind (and unwind and unwind). Expect to eavesdrop on gossip about rivalries and romances that seem sprung from Falcon Crest. 6764 Washington St., Yountville, 707/944-2125.

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