Taste the changes in Napa vineyard golf

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

NAPA VALLEY, Calif. -- Golfers who visit the Napa Valley for wine tasting know that the area would make a vintage setting for golf: sunny skies seven or eight months a year, rolling hills with lots of opportunities for interesting layouts, tons of tourists who might want to chase balls as well as sips of Chardonnay.

The problem is that they're squeezing more gold out of those grapes than they could out of golf balls.

"For what property sells for around here," says Tricia Ellison, marketing director for Chardonnay Golf Club in the valley, "it's much more profitable to sell the land for vineyards than for golf courses."

Despite all that, there are three top golf clubs in the valley and all are making or have made some improvements in the past few years to lure new players. In fact, by mid-2004 there will even be a new course - Eagle Vines.

In hopes of helping golfers decide whether they want to pack their clubs when they go wine tasting, here's a rundown on Napa Valley's 18-hole opportunities, plus suggestions for lodging and wine-tasting.

Chardonnay Golf Club

If you want to tee off among the vines themselves, stop at the semi-private Chardonnay Golf Club. Currently, two top-ranked, scenic 18-hole courses are located here: the Vineyards and Shakespeare courses. Both have hosted important tournaments including the Northern California Open Championship and the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament.

For a long time, the Shakespeare was open only to club members, but now, says John Bills, director of golf, the public can tee off at the Shakespeare as well.

The spread here includes 350 acres of golf and 150 acres of Chardonnay and Merlot vineyards. Several areas are wildlife preserves, so in the early morning or late evening hours, you might spot a fox or a coyote.

But big changes are under way. Nine holes of the two Chardonnay courses have been sold to a new company - American Koyu - and will be combined with nine new holes to create the 18-hole, Eagle Vines, expected to open in mid-2004, according to Tricia Ellison.

After construction, Eagle Vines and the 27-hole Chardonnay Golf Club will both be managed by CCM, the firm that owns Chardonnay. The CEO of Chardonnay, Jack Barry, is designing the new course along with PGA star Johnny Miller. The two also paired up on the current Chardonnay courses.

All the changes mean more holes to play, but also higher prices. "It will cost $145 a round at Eagle Vines," says John Bills.

April through November, green fees at the Vineyards are now $70 on weekdays and $90 on weekends with twilight starting a 1:30 p.m. with rates of $55 and $45. A round costs $130 everyday at the Shakespeare.

These are not pushover courses. Currently, the Vineyards Course plays 6,816 yards from the back tees with a rating of 73.8 and a slope of 129, and the Shakespeare is 7,001 yards for the back tees with a rating of 74.5 and a slope of 137.

Chardonnay is located 2555 Jamieson Canyon Road, south and east of the town of Napa. Call (800) 788-0136 or (707) 257-1900 for tee times. Web site: chardonnaygolfclub.com.

Silverado Resort

An excellent way to enjoy the east side of the Napa Valley and premium golf at the same time is to play the two 18-hole courses at the Silverado Resort.

Robert Trent Jones Jr. laid out these courses - the North and the South - as his first design jobs on his own without his famous father. The courses opened way back in 1967, and now the owners of Silverado are just about finished with a $4 million renovation. "We've improved the greenside bunkers and leveled all the tees and resodded them and installed an automated irrigation system," says Jeff Goodwin, Silverado's director of golf. "The courses are in the best shape ever."

You may remember Silverado from TV coverage of the Anheiser Busch PGA tournament back in the '70s and '80s and from the Senior Tour event played here from 1989 to 2002. When the regular PGA players were competing here, they played one round on the South, one on the North and then both final rounds on the North, the longer of the two courses.

"I enjoy both courses," says Goodwin. "Each has its own personality. The back tees on the North actually play dramatically differently from the some of the more forward tees, so it's like having three different courses out there. The North does not have as much undulation as the South."

The South is about 6,500 yards from the tips and offers many water crossings and sidehill lies. Despite its extra length, the North is a little more forgiving. From March 1 to the end of November, in-house guests pay $150 for a round at either course.

Besides offering excellent golf, this luxury resort has an 1870s-era white-pillared mansion that serves as the center of resort operations -- housing the lobby, two restaurants and several meeting rooms. In addition, the resort has the largest tennis complex in Northern California with 17 plexipaved courts. There are also eight swimming pools and a new $7 million spa.

The Silverado Resort is located at 1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa Valley, California 94558, and can be reached by phone at (707) 257-0200. Web site: silveradoresort.com.

To drive to the resort, take 29 north to Trancas Street and turn right and head east. Follow the signs to Lake Berryessa-Highway 121. Turn left on Atlas Peak Road, then right at the traffic light and drive right up to the mansion.

Napa Golf Course

About two years ago the city of Napa hired CourseCo to manage the Napa Golf Course, the only public course in the valley, located in the John F. Kennedy Memorial Park near the Napa River. The city then provided the managers with more than $2 million to make improvements at the course - changes that have made substantial differences in play here. It was always a fun course, but now it's a championship 18-hole facility that will challenge your game under great conditions at better prices than you'll find at courses in Napa or nearby Sonoma and Marin counties.

Fairways here meander over many rolling terrain, and many are lined with mature trees. The mid-round holes run on the plain along the river. Water comes into play on 16 holes over the 6,704-yard, par-72 layout.

"We rebuilt the tee complexes on eight of the 18 holes," says Monty Cook, director of golf at Napa. "We added seven new bunkers and renovated eight others. We now have a total of 30 on the course. Cart paths were paved. We now overseed annually so that turf quality was improved."

Managers also had to cope with a disease that has been killing Monterey pines throughout Northern California. Some 170 mostly dead pines were removed from the course and the fairways were replanted with 400 redwoods and valley oaks. Money was also put into remodeling the clubhouse and improving the restaurant.

Designed in 1968 by Bob Baldock and by Jack Fleck, a noted architect who also laid out the Olympic Club Lake Course that has hosted four U.S. Open Championships, the course has been used to host qualifying for the U.S. Open. Four sets of tees are available. The rating/slope is 72.7/131 from the back tees. From the front tees the course plays at 5,690 yards with a rating/slope of 72.8/126.

Green fees are $31 on weekdays and $41 during the weekend or on holidays with twilight and super twilight rates also available. Napa residents get discounts. Call the pro shop at (707) 255-4333 for tee times. The course is located at the south end of Napa at 2295 Streblow Drive. Take route 221 to Streblow Drive; Kennedy Park and the course are about a half mile on the left. Web site: playnapa.com.

Where to stay in the Napa Valley

Silverado Resort - Accommodations here are in condos and suites clustered around courtyards and swimming pools as well as lining fairways on the two golf courses. Standard and junior suites are available in addition to one-, two- or three-bedroom condos. Rates start at $225 a night. Call (707) 257-0200.

Blue Violet Mansion - Stay at a luxury bed and breakfast with 17 rooms in a Victorian with all the amenities including dinner if you like. The Blue Violet has won the Gold Award for the Best B&B in North America. All rooms have private baths; 14 have whirlpool spa tubs for two and 15 have fireplaces. Reservations should be made four to six weeks in advance by calling (707) 253-2583. Expect rates to be at least $200 a night from April through October. The property is in Old Town Napa at 443 Brown St.

Trubody Ranch - Enjoy the vineyards and gardens at this ranch built in 1872 by early pioneers. The Welltower room is a four-story-high suite with vineyard views; Clara's Cottage is an elegant cottage with its own private garden. Both rooms are furnished with antiques and have private baths, fireplaces, and two-person tubs. Rates range from $165 to $275 a night; call (707) 255-5907.

Wine Valley Lodge - This new 53-room motel at 200 S. Coombs St. in Napa has a stay-and-play package with a round of golf for two and one night for $148. Call (800) 696-7911 or (707) 224-7911.

Hawthorn Inn & Suites - This hotel, at 314 Soscol Ave. in Napa, has 60 rooms and is just minutes from many of the best wineries in Napa Valley, golf, world-class dining, tennis, and hot-air ballooning. Rates start at $99 a night; call (800) 527-1133 or (707) 226-1878.

Napa Valley Lodge - This hotel has Tuscan style architecture and offers 55 luxurious guest rooms with terraces that overlook vineyards. Amenities include a pool, spa, fitness center and champagne breakfast buffet. Rates start at $230 per night; call (707) 944-2468 or (800) 368-2468. The hotel is at 6488 Washington St. in Yountville.

Wineries in the Napa Valley

Gone are the days when you could drive up to the back porch of a winemaker's house in the Napa Valley and buy a few bottles. Wine is big business here now and hundreds of wineries have sprung up in this world-class growing region. Unfortunately, most wineries also now charge for tasting, but they' re usually worth the fee. Some are old and many are new, but most can be found on or near the two main routes that run up and down the valley, Highway 29, and the Silverado Trail. Here is a brief sample:

Beringer Vineyards - This is the oldest continuously operating winery in the Napa Valley and is worth a stop to enjoy the history. It's located in St. Helena at 2000 Main St. Call (707) 963-4812.

Robert Mondavi Winery - Consistently voted as having the best tour in Napa Valley, this winery is world famous for its excellent wines. Mondavi is at 7801 St. Helena Highway, Oakville; call (707) 226-1335.

Domaine Carneros by Taittinger - This sparkling wine maker is actually located in the Carneros region a bit west of Napa Valley. But seeing the view from the chateau here at the top of the hill is worth the trip. The chateau offers excellent champagne to top, or pop, it off. Complimentary tours are conducted daily but take time to sit at on the deck and survey the Carneros Valley while sipping the wine. The chateau is at 1240 Duhig Road in Napa, just off 12/121; call (707) 257-0101.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellar - Located off the Silverado Trail, this winery is set in a valley flanked by oak-studded hills to the north and west and rocky palisades to the east. This 240-acre spread produces fabulous wine; tours are by appointment. Stag's Leap is at 5766 Silverado Trail; call (707) 261-8611.

Niebaum - Coppola Estate Winery - Francis Ford Coppola, director/producer of the "Godfather" trilogy, bought the historic Inglenook Estate in 1975 and began producing wine here. For more than a century, this property has produced some of California's greatest vintages. The winery is in Rutherford at 1991 St. Helena Highway; call (707) 968-1100 or (800) RUBICON.

Rutherford Hill Winery - Take a tour of this winery located at 200 Rutherford Hill Road in Rutherford and walk through some spectacular wine-aging caves. Call (800) 637-5681 or (707) 963-1871.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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