Trip Coach: February 12, 2008

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Jennifer Paull, editor of "Compass American Guides: California Wine Country, 5th edition," answered your questions on California wine country.

Jennifer Paull: Hello everyone,
I'm Jennifer Paull, here to field your questions on the California Wine Country, from the up-and-coming regions of the Central Coast to the big guns of Napa and Sonoma. Lots of questions have been pouring in (couldn't help the pun) and I'll do my best to get to them all in the next hour. If you have special preferences about the experiences you're looking for, do let me know so that I can best tailor my suggestions. Now let's uncork the questions¿

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Bellevue, WA: I am heading to Sonoma (get there about every three years). Once again, I am waitlisted on the famous French Laundry. Hit the wonderful Cyrus last time, but wonder if there is another lesser know gem to dine at—and also a lesser known winery that needs to be discovered (my friends are sending us to Flowers, which I had not tried, and last time we found Bella, which was lovely!) Thanks, Tammy

Jennifer Paull: Hello Tammy—what a mouthwatering question! Sounds like cost is no object in your hunt for a special restaurant, so I won't hesitate to recommend the Farmhouse Inn. Although this place has been in business for several years, it's off the beaten track in Forestville, so it's not jammed with daytrippers. The menu is contemporary with a French slant and they source plenty of ingredients locally, like the goat cheeses from down the road. Another option is Healdsburg's Dry Creek Kitchen, led by star chef Charlie Palmer—very sophisticated, modern cooking.

And speaking of things Dry Creek, have you explored the wineries in the Dry Creek Valley? Places like Preston Vineyards and David Coffaro Estate are laid-back, small-production spots with memorable wines, and Michel-Schlumberger has some terrific cabernet sauvignons to try. Have a great trip!

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Northfield, Vt.: I will be in Sonoma 3/19-3/20. What are the "must visit" vineyards in Sonoma for a 2 day trip? The best 2-3 restaurant choices for dinner in the town of Sonoma? Thanks.

Jennifer Paull: Let's see, are you looking for a good place for an introduction to winemaking and wine tasting—or would you prefer to skip tours etc. and find a quiet, family-run spot? Benziger, near Glen Ellen in the Sonoma Valley, has a particularly good tour, during which the guides describe the various microclimates, show you an aging cave, and so on. The tours are first come, first served, so be sure to get here before noon.

If you'd rather stop into smaller places along a scenic route, head for the Westside Road, which follows the Russian River southwest of Healdsburg. Several of the wineries here, like Gary Farrell, make wonderful pinot noir.

As for restaurants in the town of Sonoma, the Harvest Moon is a reliable stop for homey, delicious cooking. Santé, in the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, may be the town's swankiest place to eat. If you'd like to branch out, try LaSalette's Portuguese-inflected dishes. (LaSalette's also a good place for breakfast.)

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Henderson, Nev.: What do you think about the wines from Livermore, CA?

Jennifer Paull: I haven't tried very many wines from Livermore (they're not easy to find here in NYC!) but I was impressed by a Rhone-style red blend from Thomas Coyne. Livermore's definitely an up-and-coming appellation, and it's getting more and more daytrippers from the Bay Area.

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Dallas, Tex.: I am making my first trip to Napa Valley April 2-5. I am traveling alone. I plan to tour some wineries. Do you recommend a group tour with strangers or getting my own car and driver? I am okay with either, but I want to use a good service with knowledgeable guides. Any recommendations? Also, what are good spas in the area? I am staying in Napa. Thanks!

Jennifer Paull: Your decision not to drive yourself is a good one—you won't have to worry about getting behind the wheel after sipping. But with just a few days in the area, it might be best to maximize your opportunity and do just what you like, when you like, with a personal tour / driver.

Beau Wine Tours can chauffeur you around in a sedan or limo; you can either put together your own list of places to visit, or pick one of their pre-set tours. They specialize in Napa, so they really know whereof they speak. The Napa Wine Tours company has several prearranged options and group tours, including a bike tour.

For spas, a big splurge would be the Spa at Villagio, which just underwent a revamp. The Health Spa Napa Valley is a good choice if you'd like to incorporate yoga or a workout. Hitting the mud baths in Calistoga is a neat way to tap into Napa's history (although sometimes the peaty smell takes some getting used to). Places like Indian Springs have been here for over a century. A new resort, Solage, just opened a sleek spa complete with a "mud bar."

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San Clemente, Calif.: The Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County, just west of the town of Healdsburg, seems to be an up-and-coming wine country region. Can you tell us what some of your favorite Dry Creek Valley tasting rooms might be?

Jennifer Paull: Dry Creek Valley is definitely getting more and more attention these days—especially by zinfandel fans. See my note to the reader from Bellevue for a few winery suggestions. Another popular stop is Quivira.

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New York, N.Y.: What wineries can I visit in Napa/Sonoma that focus on sustainable or organic winemaking?

Jennifer Paull: Sustainable and organic viticulture and winemaking are really taking off. More and more wineries are making special green efforts, and you can get into some complex, fascinating conversations about the merits and definitions of different methods. One great place to start is Frog's Leap in Rutherford. This was the first Napa Valley winery to be certified organic, and the staff can talk at length about everything from cover crops to the use of beneficial insects. And the wines are delicious, too.

De Loach Vineyards, in Sonoma's Russian River Valley, illustrates the principles of biodynamic farming. This method reaches beyond the standard organic techniques, taking a holistic approach. If you've been hearing stories about burying cow horns filled with cow manure in the vineyards and are curious to know what's going on, De Loach is the place to go.

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Eufaula, Ala.: I'm going to be in Sonoma for a long Valentine's Day weekend. Any recommendations for something romantic, other than a nice dinner?

Jennifer Paull: How about a balloon ride over the vineyards? The soft dawn light and the silence as you glide above the landscape are pretty incredible. (Just don't watch or read "Enduring Love" before you go.) There are a handful of companies that offer flights in both Napa and Sonoma, including Balloons Above the Valley and Napa Valley Balloons. When you touch down you'll be poured a glass of bubbly.

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Arlington, Tex.: We will be staying in St Helena in mid April. We want to taste and eat. We have 2 days, how can we optimize this brief time? Kendall

Jennifer Paull: Hi Kendall—Two names you'll undoubtedly hear paired with St. Helena are Stony Hill Vineyard and the restaurant Terra. They're both outstanding experiences. Stony Hill is synonymous with chardonnay. The family-run winery has been around for over 50 years and its wines have been revered by literally generations of wine drinkers and critics. Be sure to call ahead for a tasting and tour of the beautiful property.

Terra's dining room oozes old-school romance-by-candlelight, but its menu has some fresh, Asian-inspired twists. But if you're looking for something casual and popular with locals, hit Taylor's Automatic Refresher, an outdoor burger stand. The look is 1950s but the menu has things like an ahi tuna burger.

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Orlando, Fla.: We are thinking about taking our honeymoon in California in October of this year. Ideally, we would like to have an itinerary that takes us from San Francisco through the wine country and up to the Pacific Northwest. What would you recommend for our northern California wine country stops? Thank you!

Jennifer Paull: What a perfect time of year to take this trip—you'll be there during "crush," when the grapes are being harvested. This is also an extremely busy time, so be sure to make your reservations well in advance! I'm not sure what sorts of wines or experiences you're looking for (are you familiar with tasting rooms, or new to wine tasting?) so here are a few different suggestions.

Starting block: a short, fun winetasting class at the Copia center in Napa.

For some bubbly: Schramsberg, one of Napa's oldest wineries, where you can see literally millions of bottles in 19th century caves. Besides, can't have a honeymoon without bubbly!

Old-school Napa: Stony Hill, for legendary chardonnay.

For a laid-back vibe and to learn about organic viticulture: Frog's Leap.

To pair wine and horsepower: Far Niente, where you can tour a historic winery, sip some great cabernet, and ogle a collection of classic cars. An expensive tour but worth it.

Congrats on your wedding and have a wonderful trip!

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New York, N.Y: A couple of girlfriends and I are planning a getaway weekend to Napa/Sonoma. Are there any special spas you'd recommend?

Jennifer Paull: Time for pampering! If you're ready to splurge, check the offerings at the Spa at Villagio and the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. Look for special Wine Country treatments, like grape-seed scrubs, that you might not easily find at home. To fully embrace the grape, hit the Kenwood Inn & Spa, which uses the Caudal?e line of products, all based on grape-seed extracts. Kenwood also has a particularly lovely setting; if you sign up for one of the "wine barrel baths" you can soak while gazing at vineyards.

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Louisville, Ky.: My husband and I will be spending a few days in the Bay Area wine country and while we're looking forward to the wineries, we don't want to spend every day, all day in the tasting rooms. What other things are there to do besides drinking and eating?

Jennifer Paull: For a real departure you could hit the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma—trade the sipping and swishing for the roar of the dragstrip. On most Wednesday nights in summer and fall they have amateur races on the dragstrip, so you could even get in on the action.

For something tamer, check out the di Rosa Preserve, a neat 20th-century art collection and one of the Wine Country's best-kept secrets. Or stretch your legs and go for a hike up Mount St. Helena, near Calistoga. Another good hiking trail winds through Jack London State Historic Park near Glen Ellen—pack a picnic and a copy of "The Call of the Wild." If you'd like to get on the water, sign up for a canoe trip on the Russian River. You'll work up an appetite for more of that eating and drinking!

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Charlotte, N.C.: My husband and I, along with another couple (ages 37-40) will be enjoying all that Sonoma and Napa Valley have to offer. We will be traveling in mid June and have petty much decided on what we like to do, with one acception. We'd like to dine at a fabulous Sonoma or Napa Valley restaurant. Other than French Laundry, what restaurants would you suggest for a deliciously memorable meal?

Jennifer Paull: Sounds like an enviable trip! One restaurant that leaps to mind is Cyrus, in Healdsburg. Talk about luxury: the chef seems to try to fit in truffles and foie gras wherever possible. The dining room is quite formal but you can construct your multicourse tasting menu in any number of ways. And this is one place where you should have a cocktail, not just wine—the list is amazing.

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Oceanside, N.Y.: My wife and I have three days to spend in the Paso Robles wine region in April. We like fine dining. What restaurants do you recommend? Are there inns that have restaurants and that offer fine accommodations?

Jennifer Paull: The restaurant Artisan, which is relatively new, has been getting strong reviews for its homey yet sophisticated cooking. It's the kind of place that serves homemade ketchup with its fries. The space is quite polished, a more urban look that you'll usually find in Paso Robles.

Your best bet for lodging may be the Hotel Cheval. While it doesn't have a special restaurant under the same roof, it is just a short walk from Paso's main square and many of its best places to eat.

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Colville, Wash.: I'm planning a visit to Paso Robles in the spring. I'm looking for suggestions for accommodations, preferably in town, and also for recommended wineries to visit during a 2 day stay.

Jennifer Paull: The Hotel Cheval, mentioned in the reply to Oceanside, is both handy and atmospheric. It's central, so you can stroll around Paso's downtown, and each room has a picture of a namesake racehorse. On Friday and Saturday nights, you can even get a free ride to a local restaurant in the inn's carriage drawn by a Belgian draft horse.

One of the best bargains in town is the family-run Adelaide Inn. Although it's near a busy intersection, the rooms are quiet and well-equipped (coffeemakers, irons, hair dryers) for a very reasonable price.

There's a definite east side / west side split to the local vineyards. To the east of the Salinas River are wide open spaces with more extreme temperatures; this area is known for chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Meridian Vineyards is a popular stop, especially since you can try and buy their reserve wines exclusively at the tasting room.

Mountains rise up to the west, where you'll find some great red wines, especially zinfandel and syrah. Don't miss Tablas Creek, known for their Rhone varietal blends. On the tours, you can even graft a grapevine. This side also has a cult favorite: Justin Vineyards & Winery, which also has an on-site B&B. Sip the rich, complex red blends and you'll know what all the fuss is about.

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Baltimore, Md.: My husband and I are traveling to wine country in April and plan to stay for approximately 5 days. There is so much to see in so little time. What are some places and features that can't be missed? Thank you

Jennifer Paull: Hello—would you mind clarifying which area you'll be visiting? If you'll be in the Napa / Sonoma area, take a peek at the ideas posted for the honeymooning reader from Orlando.

Travelers who are new to winetasting usually get a lot out of the tour at the Robert Mondavi winery in Oakville (Napa). Their operation is a very well-oiled machine. The other two big-name attractions nearby are Opus One (for bragging rights) and the small, historic Oakville Grocery, a perfect place to pick up a picnic lunch.

If you'll be further south, check out my notes to the readers from Colville and Oceanside, just above, for a few possibilities.

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Little Falls, N.J.: My husband and I are planning our first trip to Napa/Yountville in May. We will spend two and a half days there. Which wineries would you recommend that we visit on our first trip to Napa?

Jennifer Paull: Yountville is a swell home base in Napa—you could eat at one of Thomas Keller's restaurants for practically every meal! Among the wineries, a trip to Stag's Leap Wine Cellars would be a good pick. This is the place that put the CA wine industry on the global map when its cabernet sauvignon won the Paris tasting competition of 1976. The winery is no-frills but you'll be tasting history.

Drive up to Stony Hill Vineyard for another taste of history (chardonnay). If you're a fan of cabernet sauvignon, make a beeline for the Rutherford area, a short drive north from Yountville. The wineries here, like Beaulieu, focus on this particular varietal with outstanding results. You also can't escape the massive Francis Ford Coppola enterprise, now called Rubicon Estate. The tour of the property is quite a production, but the flagship blend is notably good.

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Morristown, N.J.: Do you have a favorite wine country destination from which we could explore some vineyards and galleries? We've heard good things about St. Helena—are there any boutique hotels/b&bs you'd recommend? How about restaurants? Thanks you very much.

Jennifer Paull: St. Helena is a neat place to stay (see my reply to the reader from Arlington, above) and its posh resort, Meadowood, is a wonderful getaway. But you mght also want to consider Healdsburg, in Sonoma. A handful of new restaurants, like the stellar Cyrus, hotels, and shops have made this a buzzing new hotspot. It's easy to reach lesser-known but excellent wineries in the Dry Creek and Alexander valleys from Healdsburg. Hotel Les Mars is the most opulent boutique hotel here—some would say over the top. The Honor Mansion is an especially welcoming spot; it's in a 19th century home and the staff is known for its warmth and attention.

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Findlay, Ohio: My wife and I will be visiting the San Franciso area the very last week of May. I would like to spend a day or night visiting some wineries in the area. We do not anticipate spending a lot of money as we usually do not spend more than $10.00 for a bottle of wine. Do you have some suggestions for must visit wineries in the area?

Jennifer Paull: I'm really glad you asked this—the overall impression is that the Wine Country is terribly expensive, but exploring the area on a budget can be done! Here are some tips:

—Your hotel might distribute coupons for free or discounted tastings at nearby wineries, so don't forget to ask.
—If you take the Winetasting 101 intro class at Copia in Napa, the fee is offset by a discount "passport" you'll get for local wineries.
—The wineries in the Carneros region (closest to SF) sometimes have less-expensive fees than the tasting rooms of the big players up in Napa Valley.
—There are still free tastings out there! A few include Frog's Leap and Kenwood Vineyards.
—Hit the amazing local farmers' markets or casual bakeries / grocery stores for picnic fixings. Many wineries have beautiful outdoor picnic areas where you can have lunch. (Although etiquette means you should buy a bottle of wine from them.)

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Redmond, Wash.: Hi, My husband, sister and her husband will be visiting the wine country of California on leap day weekend. We are staying in the town of Healdsburg and are interested in some advice on wineries to vist in the area that are unusual and fun. We've visited many of the well-known wineries in Napa Valley previously, so are interested in exploring some areas that are a little bit off the beaten track. Also would appreciate advice on restaurants and interesting sites. My brother-in-law is a fabulous amateur photographer so we are always on the look out for beautiful or unusual photo ops. Thanks!

Jennifer Paull: Hi Redmond, have you ever been up to the Anderson Valley? Talk about an out-of-the-way place—it was so isolated that its main town, Boonville, once had a special lingo called Boontling! The towns you'll drive through are barely wide spots in the road, but you'll also find impressive wineries like Roederer Estate (for sparkling wines) and Navarro Vineyards, with a wide range of choices including gewurztraminer and pinot noir.

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Yorktown Heights, N.Y.: We're planning to visit Sonoma/Napa from April 21-27--is that too long? Which B&B's would you recommend our staying at?

Jennifer Paull: Well, that sounds heavenly to me—but I'm hardly objective! With a solid week, you can really explore the back roads, the farmers' markets, the local cheese shops, spend a few hours blissing out at a spa or picnicking, maybe catch a movie at the historic Sebastiani Theatre and then kick back with a Glariffee at the Swiss Hotel... whoops, I'm daydreaming.

Besides the main drags down Napa and Sonoma valleys, take a couple of afternoons to drive along the Russian River or into the Alexander or Anderson valleys. You could split your time between Sonoma and Napa counties for the overnights. Besides the hotels and B&Bs I've recommended in other postings, check out the Gaige House Inn in Glen Ellen. This is an understated yet very elegant, relaxing B&B.

But it's understandable that even wine buffs might not want to sip all the time. Take a look at my reply to the reader from Louisville for some other activity ideas. You could sign up with Napa Valley Bike Tours to pedal from vineyard to vineyard, or watch a cooking demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena. Also, check the schedule of the Napa Valley Opera House in case there's a good show during your stay.

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Jennifer Paull: Thanks very much for your questions, everyone. I hope you all have a fantastic time on your trips—have an extra sip for me! And keep an eye out for our upcoming pocket-sized guide, In Focus California Wine Country, 1st edition, which will be in bookstores in April.

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