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Aerial photo of a house nestled in a middle of a vineyard in Napa Valley

USATourist News Magazine

August 2012 - California Wine Country

In this issue:

Meet Bob Ecker!

Photo of Bob Ecker

Bob Ecker

We would like to welcome Bob Ecker to the USATourist.com Team! Starting with this month's issue, Bob will be the new travel writer of our USATourist News Magazine. Beth Blair has decided to pursue other opportunities. And while we are sad to see her go and wish her the best of luck, we are thrilled to have Bob with his talents contribute to USATourist.com.

Bob Ecker is a well-known Napa, California based travel writer/photographer producing compelling destination travel, culinary, wine, sport and feature content. His magazine articles have appeared in countless publications including: Decanter, Enroute, Morning Calm, Wine Enthusiast, The Walrus Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine and Business Jet Traveler among others. His newspaper credits include the San Francisco Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, Toronto Globe & Mail, Jerusalem Post, Sydney Morning Herald and South China Morning Post.

Welcome to the August issue of USATourist News Magazine. This month we’re visiting California Wine Country. This area lies near San Francisco and epitomizes what "wine country living" is all about - beautiful scenery, stunning wineries, great wines, fine dining and luxury living plus major wine auctions, art and music festivals and elaborate culinary events. What’s not to like?

Vineyard under a Blue Sky

Clear blue skies over rows of grape vines are a typical view in the summer time in wine country.
© Bob Ecker

What Is Wine Country?

Northern California Wine Country is where most of California’s wineries began and thrived. Located north and northwest of the San Francisco Bay Area, European settlers discovered that Northern California lands were perfect for grapevine cultivation. This region enjoys a perfect combination of rugged volcanic soils, long hot summers, cooling breezes at night, and virtually no precipitation during the growing season. Though there are still a few wineries with roots stretching back to the Nineteenth Century, most of the wineries date from the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s. Famed vintners like Robert Mondavi constructed modern wineries that were not simply wine production facilities, but architectural marvels where tourists could touch, see, taste and experience the wine country lifestyle. California wines from Napa Valley and Sonoma, the main wine producing regions, began receiving worldwide critical acclaim. Establishments featuring gastronomic delights and hospitality dedicated to discerning clientele soon followed. Wine Country bound visitors will have no trouble discovering many wonderful wines and wineries, great food, elegant spas and preeminent hotels.

Which Airport?

Northern California Wine Country is easy to find, roughly equidistant from the airports of San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK) and Sacramento (SMF). It takes between an hour and an hour and a half to get to wine country from each airport. The largest, most heavily trafficked airport is San Francisco but Sacramento is actually the easiest wine country option, with many connecting flights, a new billion dollar terminal and an effortless drive to Napa or Sonoma. There is also a smaller, commercial airport located in Wine Country itself. The Charles M. Schulz - Sonoma County Airport (STS) operates a few Alaska Airlines flights between Sonoma and Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland and Seattle.

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Napa Valley

Divided into 16 sub regions or American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s), Napa Valley is the most famous wine region in America. This narrow valley is dotted with over 450 wineries on the valley floor, and in the hills and mountains on the east and west sides of the valley. At roughly 30 miles long, Napa Valley has a small number of cities and towns. The City of Napa lies at the southern end and has emerged as a place to visit, with new hotels, stellar restaurants like Morimoto, Oenotri and Fish Story, and serious wine tasting rooms and salons such as The Bounty Hunter, Back Room Wines and the Vintners Collective. The city also boasts two fantastic music venues: The Uptown Theater and the Napa Valley Opera House. In addition, the Napa’s Oxbow Market is a combo farmer’s market-restaurant hub worth visiting.

Bistro Jeanty

The California Wine Country has become a magnet for some of the countries best chefs. Bistro Jeanty is just one of the many high end restaurants that can be found in the valleys.
© Bob Ecker

Further north the tiny but swanky Napa Valley community of Yountville is a true culinary capital containing more Michelin Stars per capita than any place on earth. Superb, world class restaurants like The French Laundry, Press, Bouchon, Bistro Jeanty, Redd and Bottega can all be found in Yountville. The small hamlets of Oakville and Rutherford come next and contain dining spots like the Oakville Grocery and Rutherford Grill that are worth examining. Further north, visitors will discover the small city of St. Helena, an American gem. Quaint shops, restaurants, cafes and trendy shoe stores sit side by side with an old fashioned movie theater on Main Street. Calistoga at the northern end still thrives on its thermal waters – for drinking, healing and for the functioning Geyser erupting on schedule. This town features many wineries, wine tasting rooms and a variety of dining choices, plus the Calistoga Inn, an excellent brewpub.


Sonoma County is a large county stretching from Napa County on the east all the way to the Pacific Ocean on the west. Sonoma County which now includes 15 AVA’s, contains miles of bucolic vineyards with a few cities and towns in between. Known for producing exceptional wines, Sonoma also abounds with produce markets, cooking schools, and serious culinary attractions. The city of Sonoma, site of the Bear Flag Revolt - which led to the creation of the State of California - features a large town square surrounded by shops, restaurants, tasting rooms and Mission Solano, the last of California’s Missions. Buena Vista Winery, one of the very first in California, still runs a tasting room at the edge of Sonoma. The charming small Sonoma County towns of Glenn Ellen and Kenwood straddle many vineyards and wineries mid county. Other intriguing Sonoma towns like Bodega Bay, Sebastopol, Geyserville, Windsor and Cloverdale are fun to see. Even Santa Rosa, the county seat has a thriving downtown scene. And what once was a dusty farming village called Healdsburg is today the chi chi Sonoma hot spot full of wine tasting rooms, opulent hotels like H2, The Healdsburg Hotel and Hotel Les Mars and acclaimed restaurants such as: Cyrus, Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar, Farmhouse Inn, Madrona Manor, Zin Restaurant and Dry Creek Kitchen.

Spa Day

California Wine Country is chock-a-block with spas for women (and men) who choose to relax, get exotic wraps, facials, massages and other soothing skin treatments. Napa Valley, in fact has a long history of spas using natural “healing waters” from Calistoga in the northern part of the county. Calistoga’s Indian Springs Resort and Spa, founded in 1861 is California’s oldest continuously operating pool and spa facility. Other refined spas include: Milliken Creek, an intimate hotel/spa right along the Napa River; the urbane Villagio Inn & Spa and the exclusive Calistoga Ranch. The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn is one of the oldest spas in Sonoma County with an exemplary series of treatment rooms and outdoor pools. The Kenwood Inn & Spa offers guests an intimate Spa experience tucked away in the middle of Sonoma Wine Country.

Places to stay

Wine Country is full of delightful places to stay, relax and get pampered but be prepared, some hotels and resorts and spas can be very expensive. However, in Napa Valley, the Meritage Resort and Spa which recently underwent a $40 million expansion is a very good, reasonably priced resort that will suit visitors’ needs. (Meritage even has an underground spa and new bowling alley!) The EuroSpa and Inn is a wonderful boutique hotel in Calistoga. In Sonoma, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn is a fine place to stay and enjoy wine country. More intimate and luxurious hotel options include the Villagio, Auberge du Soleil, Carneros Inn, Poetry Inn and the Kenwood Inn. Downtown Napa offers the Hyatt Avia Hotel, Westin Verasa, and Milliken Creek Inn.

Quixote Winery

Stunning architecture creates a festive atmospher at the Quixote Winery in Napa Valley.
© Bob Ecker

Wine, wine and more wine

Learning about wine, wine touring and tasting is a major activity in California Wine Country. There are literally hundreds of wineries to visit so it’s best to try and determine what is important – to you. Do you want to sample award winning wines or visit less expensive family owned wineries? See modern architectural wonders or venerable, older sites? Visit known famous places or taste wines quietly? Stop in wineries with incredible vistas or do you prefer to meet the winemaker around the tasting bar? Having an idea of what interests you can lead to a more rewarding experience. Below are some first-rate wineries worth visiting - for one reason or another. In Napa Valley - Castello di Amorosa, Groth, Paraduxx, Robert Mondavi Winery, Opus One, Frog's Leap Winery, Grgich Hills, Silver Oak, Aoenair, Quixote, Azur, Hess Collection, Shafer, Silverado and Jarvis. On the Sonoma side, wineries including: Jordan, Hop Kiln, Hafner, Willams Selyem, Sheldon Wines, D’Argenzio Winery, Pedroncelli, Ridge, Carol Shelton Wines, J Winery, Kunde and Benizger are all worthy spots.

Theme Parks

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is a major theme park located in Vallejo, just south of Napa Valley. Discovery Kingdom is a world class amusement park with many fun rides and thrilling coasters (such as the new 15 story Superman Ultimate Flight roller coaster) and also features an assortment of animal shows and exhibits. The Dolphin Discovery is a program where guests can actually swim with the dolphins. www.sixflags.com/discoverykingdom Another attraction for the entire family is Safari West Wildlife Preserve & African Tent Camp, a unique place where visitors can see many wild animals roaming freely - right in the heart of Sonoma Wine Country. www.safariwest.com

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Written by: Bob Ecker

Top Photo Credit: © Bob Ecker

Photo Description: An aerial view of a home nestled within a vineyard in Napa Valley

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