Mild, sunny and easily accessible from Portland, California's Napa Valley is a popular spring getaway for wine-and-food lovers fed up with the local drizzle. Unfortunately, approximately 4.7 million tourists have the same idea each year, making the number of cars on Napa Valley roads out of proportion with the infrastructure in place for a 30-mile-long community of 135,000 full-time residents.
But strategize your trip carefully and you'll find a vibrant rural community of sustainable winegrowing, farm-to-table dining and family-friendly opportunities for exploration. Even -- I swear -- over spring break. With the kids in tow.
For example, turn up South Whitehall Lane off busy Highway 29, pass a llama farm and enter an alternate world of gnarled old vines and waist-high yellow mustard blossoms. Tres Sabores (1620 S. Whitehall Lane, St. Helena; 707-967-8027) is open by appointment only, but proprietor Julie Johnson, who co-founded the famous Frog's Leap (approximately four miles due east) is such a charming and easygoing hostess that the atmosphere always feels like an impromptu cocktail party.
A $25 fee gets you not just tastes of whatever's open -- a charbono, for example -- but also a chance to inspect the property's 60-plus pomegranate trees, duck pond and an intimate barrel cellar, carved into a steep hillside. As sheep, guinea hens, ducks and golden retrievers wander in and out of view, Johnson regales her audience with stories. Be sure to ask her about the time a bear broke into her Prius to eat her precious cover-crop seeds.
Johnson nearly lost it all in a famous 2005 Vallejo wine-warehouse fire that destroyed her entire 2002 vintage and wine library plus half of her 2003 production; the insurance policy she had didn't cover the circumstances. But if a visitor's experience isn't as grand as it might have been, all the better. Bring sandwiches and sit at a picnic table in the shade of olive trees, or, if it's cold out, huddle in the Provencal-flavored tasting room, which doubles as overnight accommodations for guests. Which is why that thing that looks like a bed is a bed.
The wines show remarkable balance and restraint. A smooth Sonoma Mountain chardonnay ($25) is citrusy and minerally, with just a hint of nutmeg from a touch (5 percent) of neutral oak. The Por Qué No Napa Valley Red ($25) is an earthy, savory blend of zinfandel, petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon and petite verdot. The estate zinfandel ($35), surprisingly bright and refined, will have you rethinking the grape. Juicy and spicy, it's made from Johnson's old, organically and dry-farmed vines, which are in the Rutherford sub-appellation of the Napa Valley. Careful canopy management and a multi-stage harvest keeps the fruit fresh and exuberant without reaching overripeness.
Time for dinner. In Yountville, the newly opened Lucy Restaurant & Bar (6526 Yount St., Yountville; 707-204-6000) emits a lounge-y, youthful vibe at Bardessono, a LEED platinum-certified eco-resort. Explore the on-site garden before it gets dark, then sit by one of two reflecting pools or in the enclosed outdoor courtyard to enjoy an alfresco dinner showcasing the hyper-local produce.
In St. Helena, the friendly, homey cooking of Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen (1327 Railroad Ave., St. Helena; 707-963-1200) is a staple for the local winemaking community. But a new outpost from the same owner, called Brassica (641 Main St., St. Helena; 707-963-0700), offers modern Mediterranean fare (think eggplant fries, nettle pizza and Tunisian halibut with preserved lemons, olives and capers) plus a wine list that offers 2-ounce tastes and 500-ml carafes in addition to the typical glass-or-bottle choices. Extra credit: The first part of the list is dedicated to the "Brassica 12," a dozen local labels too small to have their own tasting rooms.
Brassica also offers a kids menu, a reminder that the valley is increasingly a child-friendly place to vacation. Just across the road, Farmstead (738 Main St., with entrance at Charter Oak Avenue, St. Helena; 707-963-9181), also boasts a kids menu as well as "family night" on Mondays. Under high-beamed barn ceilings, long tables and communal seating promote camaraderie at this bustling outpost of farm-to-table fare.
This is the culinary connection to the 650-acre Long Meadow Ranch in the Mayacamas Mountains, where the grass-fed beef, eggs, heirloom produce and olive oil are all organically farmed. Some of it by Haflinger horses, I kid you not. (Only open to visitors by appointment, Long Meadow offers an all-day "ranch adventure" for $150 per person.) Down in St. Helena, the ranch's bounty shows up on the restaurant's menu, as do, of course, Long Meadow Ranch wines; there's also a tasting room in a white farmhouse on the same property as the restaurant. In case you didn't catch the theme, rusty antique farm equipment serves as decor in the restaurant and its inviting outdoor wine-sipping spots.
In the morning, deliciously greasy English muffins from The Model Bakery (1357 Main St., St. Helena; also in Napa; 707-963-8192) might just be worth the long wait; or, pop into the bakery later to purchase thick, toothsome sandwiches on fresh-baked bread. Then, work off that breakfast at Robert Louis Stevenson State Park (nine miles north on CA-29/Lake County Highway from downtown Calistoga; 707-942-4575), named for the famous author. If you're feeling frisky, you can hike five miles to one of the peaks of Mount Saint Helena.
Hop back in the car for a trip to cowboy country: The Red Hills Lake County winegrowing appellation, where wild pigs root around the dirt by the roadside, and daffodils planted by original homesteaders a century ago poke out of meadows. The "public park" in the hamlet of Middletown is actually a rodeo arena, and at the Cowpoke Cafe on the main drag (21118 Calistoga Road; 707-987-0661), folks in cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats might be playing a hand of poker to decide who's going to pay for lunch.
Be sure you've called ahead to make an appointment at Hawk and Horse Vineyards (13048 Highway 29, Lower Lake; 707-942-4600), 19 miles north of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, and spring for the ranch and vineyard tour ($45 per person), especially if you've got kids in tow. The ranch's proprietors, Mitch and Tracey Hawkins, are horse people -- Tracey and her daughters compete in barrel racing, pole bending and goat tying at local rodeos -- and they're happy to show off their gorgeous thoroughbreds and pony.
Also on the ranch: a fishing pond, Highland cattle, wild turkeys, red-tailed hawks and the occasional bear. At 1,800 to 2,200 feet elevation, the Hawk and Horse vineyards are on steep, windblown and sun-baked mountainside slopes glittering with diamonds. Actually, they're "Lake County diamonds," or fingertip-sized, sparkling-clear quartz crystals that twinkle in the volcanic red earth. The grapes that grow on this spectacular site are small, thick-skinned and packed with flavor.
The Hawkinses farm biodynamically, or in a holistic, beyond-organic manner, and the property includes a preserve for the delicate manzanita plant plus the requisite compost piles, courtesy of those Highland cattle. In the vineyard, French prune trees at the end of the vine rows attract beneficial insects, and various bird boxes and perches attract hawks, owls and bluebirds. In the surrounding woods, indigenous grape varieties climb up trees, proof that this is a wine-worthy locale.
And, speaking of the wine, the high-elevation reds from this site show the promise of this burgeoning region. Fragrant and perfumed, the Hawk and Horse cabernet sauvignon asks for six or more years of age to truly express itself. While the 2007 and 2008 vintages ($65) are approachable enough, they're still hard-edged, while the 2006 Red Hills Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) offers enticing notes of red earth, red fruit, subtle spice, floral notes and a coffee-tinged finish. A 2006 Port-style wine called Latigo ($45 for 375 ml) is fortified with Germain-Robin oak-aged brandy; it's wild, woodsy and nuanced.
The prices are steep by Oregon standards; the wine is made at the renowned Smith-Madrone winery in St. Helena, with Richard Peterson of Beaulieu Vineyard, Atlas Peak and Screaming Eagle fame acting as consulting winemaker. But this isn't a wine with Napa Valley pretensions. Borne of the back roads, it stakes out its own territory. Just like you will, on your next off-the-beaten-path tour of the Napa Valley and beyond.