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Napa Valley Spotlight

A visit to the Napa Valley is all about enjoying the finer things in life

By Jordan Simon

October 10th, 2006

Just 30 years ago, Napa Valley wines got no respect. But 1976 was, as they say, a vintage year: Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay bested some of France's legendary names in a prestigious blind tasting that shocked the wine world. Since then, this sublimely scenic destination has grown to become one of the world's most popular destinations for oenophiles, not only for the excellent quality of the wines, but for the touring experience, which the businesses of the Napa Valley have down pat – the area welcomes more than 5 million visitors annually.

The very qualities that make Napa a premium winegrowing region also make it a fabulous vacation spot. The lifestyle here is at once casual and sophisticated, dedicated to savoring all aspects of the good life, with a glorious countryside ideal for hiking and biking, superb dining, spas, golf, shopping, and a clutch of cultural options in the way of music, museums, and more. The Valley's cup overflows with an abundance of activities: You can take a cooking class alongside future celebrity chefs, learn about organic gardening, soar above the green-and-gold checkerboard of vineyards in a hot-air balloon, and listen to renowned musical acts al fresco while eating a gourmet picnic.

Too often in the thirsty rush to sample as much Napa nectar as possible, visitors end up bypassing the region's many other glories – after all, the Napa Valley possesses artistry in abundance outside the bottle. The city of Napa is splashed with marvelous murals; the Valley contains remarkable architecture from neo-Romanesque Victorian mansions to Craftsman bungalows to postmodern tasting rooms; notable artists maintain local studios, some open only by appointment; and many wineries feature prominent art collections and exhibits.

Given the wealth of recreational activities – day and night, every season – where should you stay and play? If you have three days we recommend sticking to the main routes and bigger wineries that can accommodate more traffic. With five days, venture out onto twisting back roads, discovering smaller boutique wineries and visiting the many fine art galleries and museums. Seven days permits leisurely exploration, including hiking or biking the panoramic trails, hitting the tees for golf, and comparing various spa treatments. Given that additional time, you can bookend your trip with a stay in San Francisco (an hour's drive), or venture west into adjacent Sonoma County for still more wine touring.

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