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On a Roll Through Napa's Sleepy Wine Country

November 22, 1987|CHRISTOPHER P. BAKER | Baker is a free-lance writer living in Oakland

CALISTOGA, Calif. — It's early December and a piquant aroma sweetens the warm afternoon air of the passing fall.

You savor the heady bouquet. Pheasants stir as you wheel along the Silverado Trail past tiny, chateau-style wineries sprinkled upon the hills.

Winter is approaching and the vines are emblazoned across the valley in a final fanfare of yellows, crimson and chrome.

"How enchanting! I wouldn't have done this any other way." You coast to a stop, close your eyes and breath in the musty perfume.

You're on a weekend bicycle tour of California's Napa Valley, sampling its exquisite attractions and fine wines with a close look that an automobile tour could never uncork.

Between 2 1/2 and 3 million people visit the Napa and adjacent Sonoma and Alexander valley wineries each year. Most arrive by car and in summer, when the narrow roads are a torment of traffic and the vales are steeped in cloying heat. But that's not the way to do it.

Visit in winter when the crowds are gone and the vales are back in sparkling clarity. The "crush" of autumn is over, the wines look after themselves and winery owners have time to chat.

A Bucolic Calm

A sleepy, closer feeling seeps into the valleys, granting a return to the bucolic calm of not too long ago, before the recent American passion for wine turned Napa into a much-visited destination.

It's a scenario made for the lazy pace of cycling, as 26 of us discovered on a two-day tour arranged by Backroads Bicycle Touring of San Leandro, Calif.

We were a mixed bag of elderly and young couples and singles from across the United States. One man flew in from Florida for the relaxing weekend.

"I can't imagine a more delightful--and delicious--way to increase my knowledge of wines," he said at our introductory dinner, where we savored such sumptuous entrees as sauteed scallops and roast Muscovy duck amid the Art Deco surroundings of Calistoga's historic landmark Mount View Hotel.

Our first day was a gentle roll along Silverado Trail past carpets of vines--Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir--resplendent in the low-lying sun.

The winding, well-paved road is set on the slopes of Napa's eastern flank so that cyclists enjoy panoramic views of the scene set out below as they pedal at their own pace.

It was once a stagecoach route leading to the forest-covered slopes of Mt. St. Helena, which dominates the Napa skyline to the north. Miners, too, once plied the trail, carrying cinnabar by mule from the Silverado mine.

When the mine closed in 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson, the peripatetic writer, honeymooned in one of the abandoned bunkhouses. He is immortalized at the Silverado Museum in the nearby picture-post card town of St. Helena, 10 miles south of Calistoga.

We pedaled in seclusion past glades of blue oak and cottonwood, box elder and the occasional California black walnut. Squirrels and chipmunks played beside the road, gathering acorns and the bright red Christmas season berries of toyon and manzanita.

By late February the deep pink flowers of the Western redbud and the brilliant orange of the California poppy will border the fields of vines, announcing the arrival of spring.

Shadows played across the road, hawks and turkey vultures riding the weakened winter thermals in search of hidden prey. Packs of valley quail emerged from the grassy verge in seeming curiosity at our approach, then turned to scurry off on tiptoe as we zipped by.

Reflected Sunlight

A soft sun lingered on our backs.

Across the valley to our right we could see flashes of reflected sunlight as cars turned into the wineries off California 29. (Napa's more "established" wineries are strung along 29--which parallels the Silverado trail--north and south of St. Helena.)

We wheeled right off Silverado and pedaled between the rows of vines until we merged with the traffic. On our left the Charles Krug winery, shaded by valley oaks, made a siren call.

"When Krug, a pioneering newspaper editor, planted his first vines and built his chateau-winery in 1861, he became the valley's first commercial vintner," our tour guide explained as she led us through the chilly storage vaults, where huge redwood vats laced the air with a raisiny aroma.

Our 40-minute tour completed, we gathered in the tasting rooms to learn the finer points of wine tasting.

"Better go steady," said fellow cyclist Mike Caulcasi of San Jose as he finished off a Chardonnay and progressed to a robust Pinot Noir. "Otherwise we'll be wobbling all the way back to Calistoga."

Our route-guides (supplied by Backroads and attached to the handlebars in see-through plastic) listed six other wineries as possible stops for the day.

As we turned south together onto California 29, entering the arch of towering elms leading south from Krug to cycle that short distance into St. Helena, I became acutely aware of how much I'd missed from the confines of my car. Cycling was putting me in touch with part of my own backyard.

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