Just an hour north of San Francisco, there lies a 35-mile-long respite from the real world, better known as the relatively relaxed, comparatively rural and definitively grape-oriented region of Napa Valley. Although wine production has been a staple of Napa's economy since the 1800s, only in the last half century has Napa become a destination for international wine enthusiasts. In spite of an economic history pocked by failed mining operations, widespread grape vine disease and the 1920s prohibition era, the Napa wine industry has made an extraordinary comeback (thanks in large-part to Robert Mondavi's efforts in burgeoning the region's wine production in the 1960s). Napa is now responsible for 25% of California's wine economy, and this is generally attributed to the area's transformation into the epitome American wine country, drawing some 4-5 million annual visitors from around the globe.
Napa promises a leisurely detour for a weekend following, for example, the Competitive Landscape Seminar Series: Oncology in nearby San Francisco. Despite the time of year, the area still features spectacular scenery, quaint shopping and dining locales, mild weather and arguably some of the best wine in America, with the off-season perk of avoiding throngs of summer tourists. While you'll never be able to explore all of the county's 300-plus wineries, it is possible to get more than a taste of the culture (and viticulture) of this small but welcoming bit of Northern California in only the span of a day.
Artesa Vineyards & Winery
Starting from the city, cross the Golden Gate Bridge and take I-80 for a little over 50 miles; Artesa should be one of the first stops on any Napa Valley wine excursion. A long winding driveway meanders up the hill to the winery, passing sculptures, fountains and one of the best 360° views of the countryside around. An ultra-modern tasting room showcases the hilly panorama, where you can enjoy a four-wine tasting experience starting at $10, or jump for a cheese- or chocolate-pairing package for $45 and up. Estate tours are also available by appointment.
Although a multitude of vineyards branch off of Highway 29, you shouldn't bypass the charming Far Niente Winery less than 20 miles north of Artesa. Far Niente is a refurbished pre-prohibition estate that showcases a southern-style winery and 13 acres of azalea-laden gardens, complemented by attentive and expert staff for the quintessential winery experience. Tours are by appointment only, but within that you are guided through the grounds and winery, including the classic car collection and historic wine aging caves. Be sure to try their signature dessert wine Dolce, a late-harvest blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes so delightful it's earned the nickname Liquid Gold of Napa Valley.
Following the course on Highway 29 will take you straight through the town of St. Helena or Napa Valley's Main Street. Quaint and hospitable, St. Helena doesn't offer an excuse to let your wine palette breathe with lunch in one of the many home-grown restaurants determined to celebrate the region's core industry. Peruse the area's locally owned stores for unique shopping options that include art galleries, artisan bakeries and boutiques.
Sterling resides farthest north in Napa's Calistoga region but is still a must-visit winery on your trip. Access for visitors is only granted via an aerial tram, providing breathtaking views of the vineyards and surrounding mountain ranges. As visitors rise into view of the winery, it's evident that the estate's architecture does not shy away from Mediterranean influence, with stark white stucco walls and arched bell towers that house the historic bells of a 10th century London church. A $25 general admission includes a self-guided tour of the winery, assisted by interactive, motion-sensitive televisions that lead you through the history of the vineyard, an overview of the wine making process and a tasting of five Sterling wines.
Capping off a relaxing day of scenic drives, food and of course wine can include any number of restaurant or night-life locations in and around the valley, but especially in the town proper. A number of resorts are located nearby Sterling Vineyards that feature the famous Calistoga natural hot springs, if you'd prefer a spa break. Or, if you've experienced your fill of wine and leisure, make the all-too short trip back to the city and reality.
So, if you are joining us in nearby San Francisco on March 8th for the Competitive Landscape Seminar Series: Oncology, why not extend your stay and sample some of the best wine in America.