ST. HELENA, Calif. — Two years ago, after visiting my son in Klamath Falls, Ore., I decided to stop at a motel in Napa Valley on my way back to Los Angeles.
What better therapy after a long drive, I figured, than a bubbling hot spa?
While relaxing tired muscles a short while later, I was surrounded by four attractive couples in their early 30s who were comparing favorable buys of wine they had made that day. Their average rare findings ranged from $600 to $800 a case, and the words "vintage," "varietal," and "Spatlese" were liberally sprinkled throughout the conversation.
Being merely a knowledgeable student of bulk wines ($4 to $5 per half gallon), I must admit I left that bubble bath somewhat depressed, due not only to my naivete with the grape, but also to my Depression-tinged childhood that made even contemplation of a $60 bottle of wine a sin.
Visitors to Napa Valley, for all its charm, are burdened by a seemingly endless series of announcements of yet another sampling tour and a last call for balloon rides. The hype is so constant in this popular tourist region that I left the area the next morning with some reservations about ever returning.
A few weeks ago I had a different experience. I spent two glorious days and nights at Meadowood, two miles from St. Helena and 65 miles from San Francisco.
For 23 years Meadowood was a private club for local gentry. It reopened as a motel in 1985, and now sports fine architecture and tasteful interiors. There are 53 rooms or suites (43 of them with fireplaces) clustered around a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts and a pool. The style is reminiscent of turn-of-the-century New England, and each accommodation has a generous porch, which is wonderful for reading.
In its pine-bordered valley, Meadowood is truly idyllic.
There are all sorts of activities available, including tennis, golf, swimming and hiking. And more: A fine complement of masseurs will be glad to help put your muscles back in shape.
Someone once said that a well-managed hotel is one where you're hardly aware of all the services and amenities. The expertise of Meadowood's general manager, Maurice Nayrolles, formerly of the Plaza Athenee in New York, is evident throughout the establishment.
Best of Nouvelle Cuisine
The Starmont restaurant, ably run by Hale Lake, who used to be with the famous Lion d'Or restaurant in Geneva, Switzerland, serves the best of nouvelle cuisine to go with the premium wines.
The food, beautifully prepared and colorfully served, is expensive. My mother's comments on nouvelle cuisine are quite succinct: "If I want a good meal I go to a restaurant. If I want a pretty picture I go to a museum." That's my mother.
Meadowood also offers a wine school for its guests. The resident wine teacher is John Thoreen, an affable ex-humanities professor. I took an hour-long class and found it quite illuminating.
Despite its fame, I learned that Napa County produces only 4% of California's wines, though most of those are of premium quality. Properly inspired, the next day I visited Beringer, Sterling and Schramsberg, whose cellars are full of thousands of bottles of champagne carefully turned an eighth of a revolution each month for six years before reaching consumers' tables.
With the Sonoma Mission Inn, Auberge du Soleil, Silverado and now Meadowood, the Napa Valley offers first-class accommodations. The tastefully executed Meadowood is the crown jewel of the bunch.
Prices range from a studio at $135 a night, double occupancy, to $230 for a one-bedroom suite, double occupancy (prices in effect until Nov. 23).
I was quite content that last morning. I had made peace with myself about my amateur wine status, played a set of tennis and was even up for a croquet lesson by Damon Bidencope, the resident pro. He was most affable, but I had neglected to pack a pair of white pants, so I was not allowed onto the course.
I have since bought a book on the sport, which seems to be about one-third golf, one-third billiards and one-third chess. I shall not be bested on another visit to Meadowood. Sorry, old chap. It never came up in my schooling.
For more information, write Meadowood Resort Hotel, 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena, Calif. 94574 or phone (707) 963-3646.