How to have grape fun in Napa Valley vines without crushing your budget

By Michelle Locke, AP
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Five vine values in the Napa Valley

NAPA, Calif. — No doubt about it, the Napa Valley can be expensive. Hundred- dollar bottle of wine? They’ve got it. Thousand-a-night hotel suite? Right this way. But there are vine values to be found if you know where to look.

Want to glide up a mountain by gondola? See avant-garde art in a garden setting? Sip sparkling wine on a verandah with a view? You can — and all for about what you’d pay for an appetizer at a temple of haute cuisine.

Here are five things to do in wine country that cost $25 or less each.

—ART AU NATUREL: The di Rosa art preserve features groundbreaking artworks from the San Francisco Bay area set in 217 acres of vineyard, gardens, and natural landscape at the southern end of the Napa Valley. It was created by collectors Rene and Veronica di Rosa and works are housed in their former home as well as in the grounds. Pieces currently on display include the stunning Angel-Go-Round by David Ireland, featuring a stone statue of an angel solemnly revolving above a pile of toppled statues. Other exhibits range from the wildly decorated cars by David Best to a chapel by Paul Kos with a video stained glass window. Your visit can be as simple as a free jaunt through the Gatehouse Gallery, at the entrance, to guided tours of the grounds and the di Rosas’ former home, ranging from $10 to $15.

The di Rosa art preserve is located at 5200 Sonoma Highway, Napa, Calif., 707-226-5991, Open Wednesday-Friday, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m., and Saturday by appointment. Reservations for tours recommended.

—CROSS THE RUBICON … OF WINE: Love movies? Love wine? Then a tour of Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate may be an offer you can’t refuse. Inglenook was founded in 1880 by fur trader Gustave Niebaum, who proceeded to make premium wines. But by the 1970s, the winery had fallen on hard times, which is when director Coppola and wife Eleanor, at the time primarily interested in a summer home, came across it. They were smitten and began a 25-year journey of restoring the chateau and winery and buying back the original vineyards, along the way producing a high-end wine, Rubicon, which consistently wins praise from critics.

The wine’s name harks back to Julius Caesar’s famous crossing of the Rubicon river, now a symbol for taking an action that can’t be undone. A neat touch — new releases of Rubicon go out on the Ides of March, a day that’s proved luckier for Coppola than Caesar. Tours and tastings start at $15. Attractions include a grand staircase that took four master craftsmen a year to create. Most of the movie memorabilia that had been on display at Rubicon is being moved to Coppola’s new property in nearby Sonoma County. But you can still see the automobile from the movie “Tucker,” as well as awards given to Eleanor Coppola, a documentarian; daughter Sofia Coppola, a director and Oscar-winning screenwriter, and Coppola’s father, Carmine, a film composer. The Mammarella wine bar offers wine by the glass as well as coffee drinks and has wooden sailboats for children to sail in the nearby fountain.

Coppola’s Rubicon Estate is at 1991 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford, Calif., 800-782-4266, Chateau open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

—THAR SHE BLOWS: It’s all about water, not wine, but the Old Faithful geyser in Calistoga at the top of the valley, is a perennial attraction. This isn’t the biggest geyser in the world, but it is regular, spouting off every 40 minutes or so. The water, about 350 degrees, shoots as high as 60 feet. The vibe here is relaxed — this is one place in Napa Valley where children are welcome. You come, you sit, you look at the pool of bubbling, steaming water and wait until a plume bursts into the air. Shaded picnic tables offer a good place to anticipate the show.

Napa’s very own Old Faithful geyser is at 1299 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga, Calif., 707-942-6463, Adults, $10, seniors, $7, children, 6-12, $3, under 6, free. Open daily.

—UP, UP IN THE AIR: There’s no skiing in the Napa Valley. But you can still take a gondola ride. The tram at Sterling Vineyards will whisk you up a hillside to the beautiful, white stucco winery inspired by buildings on the Greek island of Mykonos. Adult guests are greeted with a glass of wine — wouldn’t that be an improvement to public transit everywhere? — and then sent on a self-guided tour that offers a glimpse of winemaking operations and barrel storage before emerging on to a sunny rooftop patio with a breathtaking view of the valley. This can get very toasty on hot afternoons, so dress accordingly.

Tastings are set up in five stages along the tour; the pinot gris was a standout on a recent visit. Tour and tasting starts at $25, but you can print out a $5 discount coupon at the winery’s website. Admission for those under 21 is $10 and children 3 and under are free. Check for special events, such as the summer movie screenings. Upgrades are available for reserve tastings. Sterling’s Reserve Chardonnay consistently wins high awards, and there are discounts for wine club members.

Sterling Vineyards’ location is 1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga, Calif., 800-726-6136, Closes at 5 p.m.

—FROM THE TERRACE: Finish up your day in the Napa Valley by heading south to Domaine Carneros across the street from the di Rosa art preserve. This is a sparkling wine property built in the style of a French chateau and presided over by winemaker Eileen Crane. It’s also one of the few wineries where you can get table service. Stop here in the afternoon to sit on the terrace overlooking a rolling green sweep of vineyard and order a glass of bubbly, starting at $6.75, accompanied by a plate of cheese and crackers, $15. Relax, breathe, repeat.

Domaine Carneros is located at 1240 Duhig Rd., Napa, Calif., 800-716-2788, Table service from 10 a.m. until 5:45 p.m.

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