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Weekend Escape: Napa Valley

Touches of Tuscany

Vine-covered hills, a hidden villa: It feels like old Italy

January 04, 1998|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER, Shaw is media critic for The Times

ST. HELENA, Calif. — The best part of our glorious Italian vacation early last summer was a 10-day stay in a rented farmhouse high atop a secluded Tuscan hilltop. So when an acquaintance recommended another "Tuscan farmhouse"--this one a small hotel in the Napa Valley--for a weekend escape, we were immediately intrigued.

There was only one problem: Except for this one casual acquaintance, no one I know had ever heard of the Villa St. Helena. Nor was it listed in any of my Napa Valley guidebooks or brochures.

The place sounded tempting, though: a 10-bedroom private estate, designed by an internationally known architect and built into a 20-acre hillside site, and later converted to a six-room hotel with commanding views of the valley below.

Lucy and I flew from Burbank to Oakland, jumped in our rental car and sped north. We raced past the towns of Yountville, Oakville and Rutherford, surrounded by the vineyards of many of the best wineries in the valley. Then, eight miles north of Napa, we turned left and drove 1 1/2 miles along a small tree-lined street, where vineyards alternated with vine-covered suburban homes. We turned left at the end of the road ("Private Road--No Thru Traffic"), drove between two brick pillars and--200 yards later--came to a white gate blocking the road. We slid back the large aluminum deadbolt, then (as instructed in detailed directions sent by villa management) relocked the gate.

This was getting exciting.

We wound our way three-quarters of a mile up a narrow, serpentine road that reminded us of the approach to our house in Tuscany. And there it was, sort of. We could see the red tile roof and brick construction, but the villa was largely screened from view by big oak, bay and madrono trees. We parked in one of the three arched car stalls and walked inside and up the Mexican tile staircase--and found that we really were in a villa, all 12,000 square feet of it.

*

We were shown first to the wood-paneled library and the beamed-ceiling living room filled with period furniture, a large, blue Delft tile fireplace, throw rugs on the terra cotta tile floor and tapestries on the walls. A few scenes for the TV show "Falcon Crest" were filmed in the living room, we were told, but what captured our attention was outside, visible through the large rectangular window: a grassy courtyard, a stone fireplace, beautiful bougainvillea and large swimming pool.

We checked in, unpacked and went for a swim.

Our appetites suitably aroused, we headed for dinner at Pinot Blanc, just a few blocks up California 29 from where we turned off. Pinot Blanc is part of the growing empire created by chef Joachim Splichal and his wife/partner Christine, who run Patina restaurant in Hollywood and the variously named Pinot bistros there and in Pasadena, Studio City and downtown Los Angeles. Lucy and I have liked most of the hearty, imaginative dishes we'd had at the Splichal outposts, and Pinot Blanc was no exception.

The next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel, where the staff had set up three tables--two in the breakfast room, looking out on the swimming pool and courtyard, and one in a corner of the living room. We were all alone (though there were three other couples in the hotel that weekend), and while the serve-yourself meal was not elaborate, it was eminently satisfactory: big platters of fresh fruit, pitchers of a fresh strawberry/banana drink, several kinds of breakfast rolls and pastries and, of course, coffee and tea.

After breakfast, we wandered around the property, taking special note of what the staff called "the point": a spit of land that juts into midair, a ledge of sorts, at the edge of the property, affording spectacular views of the valley and hills beyond.

The villa was originally a private home, built in 1941 from a design by Robert Carrere, who also designed several churches in Italy, hence the horizontal, Tuscan farmhouse feel, even though the villa is actually three stories high. It was purchased 14 years ago by Ralph Cotton, a San Francisco CPA, and his wife, Carolyn, a consultant in the health care industry.

The Cottons generally rent out only three of the 10 bedrooms ($185 to $245 nightly) at a time. Four others are used to house the staff, and the remaining three are usually kept for friends, family and business clients. (In January and February, rates drop about $40.) Like the public rooms, all the bedrooms have what Lucy called "a few too many tchotchkes."

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