CHILES VALLEY, Calif. — My husband, Paul, appreciates fine wines. He also appreciates fine horses, and is content to admire them from afar. Which is why he gladly joined me recently for a weekend excursion to Rust-Ridge, a unique B&B, winery and thoroughbred racehorse ranch nine miles east of the Silverado Trail, in the hilly eastern outskirts of Napa Valley. I appreciate fine wines too. But when it comes to horses, Paul and I differ. The minute I laid eyes on the 20 perfect specimens of horse flesh grazing in the pastures bordering RustRidge's vineyards, I felt an overwhelming desire to mount up and gallop away.
When we checked in, I recounted all this to Jim Fresquez, who, with his wife, Susan Meyer, runs the 442-acre spread. My hope, of course, was that he would allow me to go horseback riding. A Los Angeles native who once trained racehorses at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, Jim looked at me with twinkling eyes from beneath the brim of his tattered straw hat: "Have you ever ridden a thoroughbred?" he asked. I had to admit that I had not. "Well, let me warn you," he said. "Thoroughbreds are easy to get going, but very hard to stop." So much for my fantasy.
Susan explained how, in 1990, rather than sell what had long been her family's home, she and Jim moved into a smaller house across the street and converted the main house into a five-room B&B. (Rooms are $105 to $210 plus tax, with a two-night minimum on weekends; there's a 20% discount Monday through Thursday.)
Three guest rooms line one arm of the L-shaped ranch house, reached by a hallway lined with winners-circle photographs of horses that Jim trained. Our room was at the other end of the "L," near the swimming pool and tennis court. Though not the largest of the guest accommodations, the "Poolside" room was very comfortable, with modern western decor, hardwood floors, private tiled-and-skylighted bathroom, separate entrance and cozy bed. (The secret, I realized, was a feather-filled mattress cover.) Just steps outside our door was a lavender-bordered vegetable garden and grape arbor where several of Jim and Susan's 16 cats and one of the couple's two yellow Labrador retrievers snoozed in the shade.
In the center of the B&B is the living room, which adjoins the spacious country kitchen, where guests and hosts gathered at 5 p.m. for wine and cheese. Not surprisingly, the wines Susan and Jim poured were RustRidge's own: a mellow 1994 chardonnay, a spicy '92 zinfandel and a medium-bodied '92 cabernet sauvignon with a hint of oak. Sitting around the kitchen's butcher-block island with everyone, I felt as if Paul and I were visiting relatives at their house in the country--without all the hassles that usually ensue when visiting relatives.
For dinner, Paul and I ventured into Rutherford, the closest town, a 15-minute drive away. At the noisy Rutherford Grill, we encountered our first taste of the tourist scene that overruns California's premier wine-producing region on weekends. We were happy to retreat later to the solitude of RustRidge. The only sound we heard during the night was an occasional horse's whinny.
Saturday morning, we awoke to find a silvery fog blanketing Chiles Valley (the proper name for this section of eastern Napa). Paul and I ate breakfast--huevos rancheros with salsa made from Susan's home-grown tomatillos--out on the B&B deck, which is trellised with grapevines. As in all the vineyards we saw during this early-September weekend, the grapes hung heavily on the vine, begging to be picked.
After breakfast, Paul and I set off for a hike. Paul led the way as we tramped through dry leaves frosting the ground, up an oak-shaded trail, past the ranch's two water reservoirs, into the Napa Valley foothills. The climb was worth it. From the hilltop, we enjoyed a panoramic view of the ranch's 55 acres of vineyards and horse pastures.
At midday, Paul and I drove back into the heart of Napa to buy take-out food so that we could dine serenely that evening at RustRidge. As Susan had warned, the Oakville Grocery Store, a mecca for foodies, was a good place to taste samples of gourmet mustards and cheeses, but not to shop. Prices are high, and there were so many people, we had to queue up to get through the front door. In fact, California 29, the main north-south road through Napa Valley, was bumper-to-bumper traffic between Oakville and St. Helena. We pulled off at V. Sattui, a winery known more for its gourmet deli than its wines. We bought a loaf of crusty bread and various goodies-to-go, and joined the hundreds of tourists having picnic lunches on the lawn. Saving the best of the take-out--grilled game hens, roasted garlic and tortellini salad--for dinner, we high-tailed it back to RustRidge.