Golf in the heart of California wine country
Napa Valley is more than the sum of its wineries. Visitors come here to relax, stay at a bed-and-breakfast inn or five-star hotel and enjoy a spa. Primarily, though, they come for fine dining and to sample wine at some of the hundreds of vineyards in the area.
For the enthusiast who wouldn't think of taking a trip without a bag of clubs, the Napa Valley has courses to satisfy his or her craving for the game. But golf here is a mainly an adjunct to wine tasting and dining.
The Napa Valley wasn't always "wine country." Back in the mid-19th century the major cash crop was wheat. Wealth created by the great Gold Rush gave rise to the demand for wine, and by 1890 hundreds of vineyards had sprung up in the valley.
But it wasn't until the 1970s that California wines began to compete with European vintages on the world stage. That's when vineyard tours and tastings began pulling in tourists. Today the valley attracts 5 million visitors annually.
An hour's drive north of San Francisco (in non-rush-hour traffic, that is), Napa Valley is about 30 miles long and one to five miles wide and includes the towns of Napa, Calistoga, Yountville and St. Helena.
Each has its own character and flavor. Calistoga is the place for spas, and Yountville is a walking town with plenty of shops and restaurants to enjoy. St. Helena is chockablock with boutiques, and Napa is the county seat with a downtown.
Because there's no scheduled service to Napa Valley Airport, most visitors arrive by car. From San Francisco, the route is across the Golden Gate Bridge on Highway 101 almost to Novato, then the Napa Highway (Highway 37) to Highway 121/12. Signs point the way to Napa.
Where to play golf
The original Silverado Country Club golf course in Napa was begun in 1953 under the direction of Ben Harmon. Around it sprouted a luxury hotel and athletic complex with 17 tennis courts, 10 swimming pools and a fitness facility. The golf course was redesigned in 1967 by Robert Trent Jones Jr. into two 18-hole courses. Today, this 1,200-acre retreat is famous around the world.
Both courses feature lush vegetation, lakes and many mature trees along the fairways. The narrower South Course has many side-hill lies and water crossings. The North Course has wider fairways and, while longer, is more forgiving. A recent $8 million renovation brought improvements to greenside bunkers and tees, and there's new grass on all the fairways and greens. A new drainage system brought immediate dividends: "A big New Year's flood drained in six hours and people were playing golf later that day," said Josh Costella, an apprentice professional.
The North Course was the site of the Anheuser Busch PGA tournament of the 1970s and '80s, while the South Course hosted the Transamerica Senior Tour event for many years until 2002. Winners of these tournaments included Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Watson. Green fees are $155 per player after April 14. Package golf deals for resort guests are available.
The Chardonnay Golf Club in Napa is a semi-private facility with three nine-hold courses - Lakes, Meadows and Vineyards - meandering through 130 acres of Chardonnay and Merlot vineyards and offer sweeping views of the area. Several pro tournaments have been staged here, including the Toyota Team Challenge and a PGA qualifier in 1997.
Lakes and Meadows are links-style courses, while Vineyards is "more wide open," said Assistant Professional Mack Green. He characterizes the club overall as a moderate play, not too difficult. The courses are rotated every few days to give each of them a rest. The club is continually being renovated. Repaving work on the parking lot was recently completed and improvements on tee boxes and cart paths are scheduled for 2006. Greens fees are $55 on weekdays, $80 on weekends, with discounts if you tee off in the afternoon. Chardonnay specializes in wedding parties combining golf with a bridal ceremony.
Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park is a par-72 track set on the banks of the Napa River amid stands of oak and redwood. It's the only public course in the area. About four years ago the city of Napa invested more than $2 million for improvements, and it's made a substantial difference in the play here. This was always a fun course; now it's a championship 18-hole facility that will challenge your game under great conditions, and at a very affordable price. "It's the best value in the valley," said Bob Becker, an apprentice professional at the course.
Designed in 1968 by Bob Baldock and Jack Fleck, the course has been used to host U.S. Open qualifying rounds. From the front of the four sets of tees the distance is 5,690 yards. The river estuary plays an integral part in the design.
Becker said the course is "a tough one" that plays longer than it looks. There's plenty of trouble for those who don't keep their drives in the fairway. "It's like a wetlands," he said, "with a lot of oaks and pines." Greens fees are just $31 on weekdays and $41 on weekends. Becker advises golfers to book two weeks in advance. Jack's Bar and Grill, a full-service restaurant, is the concessionaire.
One of the Napa Valley's great strengths is its restaurants. The dining scene is so strong that even San Franciscans make the trek here to try the latest hot kitchen.
The French Laundry won Restaurant Magazine's honors as the world's best restaurant in 2003 and '04, and owner/chef Thomas Keller was designated "America's best chef" by Time in 2001. Quality of that magnitude carries a hefty price tag: Dinner here is a fixed $210 per person for seven courses, service included. Such is the French Laundry's renown that restaurants have to be made as much as two months in advance.
Like many Napa Valley restaurants, Gail's on Main is located in a historic building, a rustic two-story stone house. The food is contemporary American with French influences. Lamb osso bucco is a house specialty, but the menu also features pasta, fresh fish and rib-eye steak with Jack Daniel's sauce.
A rustic pub with a microbrewery, the Calistoga Inn seats 110 indoors and 250 on an outdoor patio. Cooking is done over a wood-fired grill. Meat, fish and vegetarian dishes all number among the specialties, and lunch and brunch are served.
Housed in a sandstone house built in the late 1800s, Bosko's Trattoria is a casual Italian restaurant serving pastas, gnocchi and wood-fired pizza along with rib eyes, pork chops and fish.
A tavern overlooking the Napa River and serving pub fare, Downtown Joe's offers fish and chips, Reuben sandwiches, Buffalo wings, grilled salmon and low-priced children's platters.
An atmospheric restaurant looking out at the Napa hills, Brix has its own vegetable and herb garden and specializes in healthful American cuisine. Steaks, pan-seared sole, roasted snapper, scallops, steaks and chops are features. Dinner entrée prices hover in the $25 to $35 range. Like most Napa Valley restaurants, Brix has an extensive wine list.
Stay and play
Silverado Resort's accommodations are condos and suites clustered around courtyards and swimming pools or lining the fairways on the two golf courses. Standard and junior suites are available in addition to one-, two- or three-bedroom condos. Golf packages start at $330 a night, including golf for two.
Blue Violet Mansion is an award-winning luxury B&B with 17 rooms in a Victorian with all the amenities, including dinner if you like. 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. Expect to pay at least $200 a night from April through October.
The new 53-room Wine Valley Lodge in Napa has a stay-and-play package, one night and a round for two $148.
The "budget" Hawthorn Inn & Suites has 60 rooms and is just minutes from many of the best wineries in Napa Valley as well as golf, world-class dining, tennis, and hot-air ballooning. Rates start at $129 a night.
Napa Valley Lodge has Tuscan-style architecture and 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.
Gone are the days when you could drive up to the back porch of a winemaker's house 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 also now charge for tasting, but it's usually worth the fee. Most can be found on or near the two main routes that run up and down the valley, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail.
Beringer is oldest continuously operating winery in the Napa Valley and is worth a stop to enjoy the history.
The wine tour at world-famous Robert Mondavi Winery is consistently voted the valley's best.
Sparkling-win maker Domaine Carneros by Taittinger is actually located in the Carneros region a bit west of Napa Valley, just off Highway 12/121, but the view from the hilltop chateau here is worth the trip. Complimentary tours are conducted daily, but take time to sit at on the deck and survey the Carneros Valley while sipping the wine.
Stag's Leap Wine Cellar, located off the Silverado Trail, 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.
Francis Ford Coppola, director/producer of the Godfather trilogy, bought the historic Inglenook Estate in 1975 and remade it as the Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery. For more than a century this property has produced some of California's greatest vintages.
Take a tour of Rutherford Hill Winery and walk through some spectacular wine-aging caves.
1364 Lincoln Ave.
7377 St. Helena Highway
1250 Lincoln Ave.
902 Main St.
6640 Washington St.
Gail's on Main
1347 Main St.
St. Helena, CA
Blue Violet Mansion
443 Brown St.
Hawthorn Inn & Suites
314 Soscol Ave.
800-527-1133 or 707-226-1878
Napa Valley Lodge
6488 Washington St.
800-368-2468 or 707-944-2468
Silverado Country Club & Resort
1600 Atlas Peak Road
Wine Valley Lodge
200 S. Coombs St.
800-696-7911 or 707-224-7911
2000 Main St.
St. Helena, CA
Domaine Carneros by Taittinger
1240 Duhig Road
Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery
1991 St. Helena Highway
800-RUBICON or 707-968-1100
Robert Mondavi Winery
7801 St. Helena Highway
Rutherford Hill Winery
200 Rutherford Hill Road
800-637-5681 or 707-963-1871
Stag's Leap Wine Cellar
5766 Silverado Trail
February 22, 2006