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Weekend Escape: Napa Valley

Inn With Mustard : It's not smear tactics, but wine isn't the only attraction in this vine valley

March 09, 1997|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Turan is the Times' film critic

NAPA, Calif. — Spanish mustard seeds, or so the story goes, were first brought to this narrow valley by Franciscan Father Junipero Serra, who sowed them as he walked so he'd be able to find his way back to Baja California. I don't know if they worked for the padre, but flowering mustard certainly showed the way for my wife and me.

Going wine tasting in the Napa and Sonoma valleys--trying to make sense of the 200-plus wineries that are so thick that overwhelmed residents have started putting up "No Winery This Lane" signs--had never attracted me. I'd already been to a winery, thank you very much, the one owned by Manischewitz in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the owner had played me a tape of an astronaut saying, "Man, oh Manischewitz" as he stepped on the moon. Let Domaine Chandon try to top that.

But I heard that Napa's Blue Violet Mansion had been named the No. 1 bed and breakfast in the U.S. by travel agents voting in a Reed Hotel Directories Group poll. Maybe I could figure out why. When I discovered that the mansion was giving discounts ranging from 10% to 30% from January through March, that clinched it. When the mansion reservations person mentioned that I'd be in time to see the mustard, I wasn't sure what he meant, but it sounded promising.

After flying into Oakland and before crossing over into Napa, my wife and I decided to take a pilgrimage to the patron saint of all things that grow, Luther Burbank, whose home and gardens are now a memorial park in Santa Rosa in neighboring Sonoma County.

A kind of Dr. Frankenstein with a green thumb, Burbank was a plant wizard whose experiments led to 800 new varieties. His home and gardens, which occupy 1.6 acres near the city's downtown, has been turned into a pleasant urban park.

*

No sooner did we cross the border into Napa than we came across the program for the Fourth annual Napa Valley Mustard Festival, which heralded the event in glowing terms: "From baptismal waters, ample sunshine, and rich soils, [Napa's] seas of wild mustard spring forth each year, passionately submersing dormant vineyards and barren hills in waves of golden froth." This was a bigger deal than I expected.

The mustard fest originated as a public relations ploy on the part of local towns tired of having to refer to the winter months as the off season. We were too early for most of the events, but we could enjoy the mustard plants and their spectacular yellow flowers, unruly interlopers that frolicked between rows of vines that were as rigid and unbending as soldiers at attention. Fated to be plowed under as a source of nitrogen essential to turning vine leaves green, mustard's willingness to die that others might live was, well, inspirational.

We decided on the spur of the moment to have lunch at Mustards Grill, a Yountville institution for at least a decade. It proved to be a cozy upscale roadhouse.

Mustards, which displayed a motto insisting "Napa Valley . . . Way Too Many Wines," also had a pleasantly jaded attitude toward the grape, going so far as reserving a parking space for "Wine Adjective of the Month Winner." We decided to take the "ABC (Anything But Cabernet) Challenge," splitting three half-glasses of less weighty red wines for a reasonable $9.

Knowing we wouldn't be needing a massive dinner, we headed a mile or so down the road to the Oakville Grocery to buy provisions for a do-it-yourself one.

This ultimate gourmet "shoppe" stocked anything and everything, but I found myself drawn to the mustards. Here were Creole, mango honey, roasted balsamic and onion mustards as well as something called Habanero, "Beyond Hot, the Mustard from Hell."

Next stop was the Blue Violet, which turned out to be a huge 1886 Queen Anne home located on a residential street in Napa. It had been a rundown tenement when owners Bob and Kathy Morris began renovations more than six years ago, and some of their outside additions, including a swimming pool and a separate restaurant, are not quite finished.

Inside, the Blue Violet resembled an "Upstairs-Downstairs" kind of mansion crossed with a friendly version of the Addams Family house. Its cluttered Victorian aesthetic was not exactly to our taste, but the public rooms did look beautiful in the right kind of light. The breakfast, which was served promptly at 9 a.m., was good-tasting and satisfying.

Clearly a place couples go to for peak experiences, the Blue Violet's specialties--pricey rooms and candlelight champagne dinners for two served in your room--were well beyond our budget. And the room we had selected, the Garden Bower, turned out to be a miscalculation. Though the brochure notes that "our graceful redwoods are viewed from this comfortable room," it is more accurate to say that those enormous trees blocked out almost all light. We did appreciate the gas fireplace and Jacuzzi tub for two, complete with candles at the ready.

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