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Hang a Left in California Wine Country

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Story and photos by Clint Williams

In the rush to reach the well-known wineries of Yountville, Rutherford and St. Helena, most visitors to the wine country of California’s Napa Valley blow right by splendid spots to while away the day.

California State Route 29 is the asphalt backbone of Napa Valley, the main highway linking Interstate 80 to the valley. Scores of wineries—maybe too many to explore in a lifetime—are found north of the town of Napa along Route 29 and the parallel Silverado Trail. This is where everyone goes and you won’t go wrong following the crowd.

But, trust me, slow down. Take a left. Leave the traffic behind and spend your first day in Napa Valley enjoying the Carneros region.

Napa Valley—home to about 300 wineries—is comprised of 16 regions, or appellations, where soil, location and slight variations in weather create distinctive growing conditions. The combinations of fog and afternoon sun, nighttime temperatures and soil bring various characteristics to the grapes. Each appellation is particularly suited to growing vines that produce a specific type of wine.

Howell Mountain, with little fog and rocky soil, is where robust cabernet sauvignon and merlot is grown. The Carneros Appellation lays up against the cold waters of San Pablo Bay and the lingering, cooling fog makes it ideal for growing chardonnay and pinot noir, the wine made popular by the movie Sideways. Located at the south end of the valley, just a few miles southwest of the town of Napa, all you have to do is turn left to head west on California State Route 12 and you’re there.

If you can visit just one of the tasting rooms open to the public, make it Artesa.

The gardens of Domaine Carneros.The gardens of Domaine Carneros.

The pyramid-like visitors’ center is insulated with dirt and native grasses and blends into the highest hill of the 350-acre estate. Stunning is over-used to describe views – but not this time. Most days the view includes fog hanging over the bay and, on clear days, a view of the San Francisco skyline to the southwest. Fountains and sculptures decorate the grounds and more art is found inside the gallery and tasting rooms. But enjoy your wine on the south deck. Sipping inside would be a sin.

The fun in visiting wine country is the chance to try wines not available at the local grocery store and to expand your palette. Such is certainly the fun at Artesa, which specializes in varietals from Spain, the founder’s home country. A limited release Albarino, with a lively mix of lime and pear, started the $10 tasting. A wonderful personal surprise. I had to leave with a bottle, making the first bottle of white wine I’ve purchased in, well, ever.

It is easy, maybe even essential, to stretch a tasting flight over an hour or two, sitting in the mild sunshine, drinking in the wine and views of rolling hills of golden grass and green oaks. From the south deck of Artesa, it’s easy to spot the two-tone château of Domaine Carneros, but don’t plan on rushing there.

On the terrace admiring the view at Carneros Domaine.On the terrace admiring the view at Carneros Domaine.

As you head downhill from Artesa, ease right into the parking lot of Folio Winemakers’ Studio where the wines of several vintners are on display. A deep back porch overlooks vineyards and the tasting flight offers a choice of six wines.

Leave Folio and make three right turns and a left and you’re at Domaine Carneros where the focus is on sparkling wines. This is one of the few wineries where you can relax and enjoy table service instead of bellying up to the bar. Views from the terrace are only slightly less elevated than those at Artesa. Wines may be tasted in flights, of course, but you can also enjoy bubbly by the glass or by the bottle. Platters of cheese, nuts and dried fruit can turn a tasting into a long, lingering lunch.

There you go: three stops within about two miles and one delightful afternoon in the memory bank.

If You Go

Slightly southwest of Sonoma and a bit northwest of Napa, Carneros Appellation is just north of the San Pablo Bay and can offer breathtaking views of the surrounding wine country and even San Francisco on a clear day.

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Artesa Vineyards & Winery
1345 Henry Road
Napa, CA 94559
Tel: 707.224.1668

Domaine Carneros
1240 Duhig Road
Napa, CA 94559
Tel: 800 716-BRUT (2788)

Folio Winemaker’s Studio
1285 Dealy Lane
Napa, CA 94559
Tel: 707.256.2757

Top photo: art and vineyards at Artesa Winery.

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