Northwest

Grape Expectations – Northern California’s Wine Country

Northern California’s Wine Country Celebrates Fruit of the Vine, Beauty of the Land.

With miles of rolling vineyards and tasting rooms both homespun and elegant, Northern California’s wine country is a sprawling visual feast. But take time to sample life here beyond the bottles of Chadonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir and you’ll find an eclectic blend of artistry and outdoor attractions to satisfy even the most adventuresome palates.

Rolling through Northern California’s Napa Valley, you may find yourself wondering if there is even one inch of soil where someone hasn’t planted a grapevine – tidy vineyards splay out as far as the eye can see, bringing a steady stream of visitors eager to sample the lush fruits of the land.

Highway 29 is the central artery that brings the lifeblood of tourism into this famed viticulture region — a bustling thoroughfare cut through sprawling farmland that boasts more than 130 vineyards, cellars, estates and tasting rooms, making it an easy one-shot destination for motorists and RVers eager to taste the wine country experience.

California RV vineyardIf you’re short on time with only a few hours to spare, Napa Valley is a good start. You’ll find a sumptuous concentration of tasting rooms, huge, upscale wineries, smaller family-run vineyards, and top-rate restaurants, including world-famous culinary institutes.

But if this is your only impression of California wine country, you’re just getting part of the picture.

California’s wine country stretches far beyond the narrow borders of Napa Valley, and offers much more than delectable spirits. In fact, getting off the beaten path in your RV exploration can yield many rewards — less traffic congestion, less crowds, more natural wonders and some terrific — and unexpected — camping options.

We’ll start by dividing the area into broad regions, each with its own personality and merits. So join us as we lift a glass to the bigger picture, taking you to Napa Valley and beyond, and celebrating California’s “other wine country,” following the wine trail into laid-back Sonoma County, along the redwood-fringed Russian River and into the quiet corners of Lake County — great places to set up camp, sit around a crackling fire and enjoy a fine bottle of the region’s best wines.

Napa Valley: The Heart of It

Although the wine industry flourishes throughout Northern California, a trip to Napa Valley is a visit to Mecca for wine enthusiasts, and justly so. Napa Valley may be only 30 miles long, and just five miles across, but the region is overflowing with grapes.

Vineyards cover more than 45,000 acres of prime agricultural real estate here, thriving in volcanic soil said to be ideal for growing the same varieties of grapes that can be found in Europe’s famed wine-making regions. In fact, grapes are California’s second leading farm crop; wine alone represents a $45 billion industry.

Here, the land you see literally competes with France’s Loire Valley and Italy’s Tuscany region in grape production.

On weekends, visitors pour into Napa Valley in search of the next great bottle of wine, fabulous food and soothing spa experiences. And with those visitors, comes traffic. That said, a weekday visit can offer a calmer introduction to the California wine culture — you won’t get stuck in turn lanes, have to wait in line at the tasting rooms, or wish you’d arrived early enough to snag a coveted picnic table.

If you do drop by on a weekday, be sure to call ahead or check online to see when wineries are open; hours typically run from 10 a.m. to around 5 p.m. Some close on Tuesdays or keep shorter Sunday hours. Most established wineries include parking lots large enough to accommodate trailers and motorhomes, though a few pose restrictions. Look for signs directing you to bus parking to be on the safe side.

While many first-time visitors choose to sign up for a wine-tasting tour — that’s always an option — you should do just fine in the freedom of an RV. You can pull off to explore an intriguing view, enjoy an impromptu lunch when the mood strikes, and store wine purchases quickly and safely.

Because Napa Valley offers so many wineries, save time by narrowing your search. Prefer chardonnays? Hand-crafted reds? Sparkling wines? Ports and brandies?

Do you like the safety of a familiar label or the adventure of a smaller, less-known vintner? Give it some thought in advance. Napa Valley seems to offer something for everyone. For guidance, check out www.wineinstitute.org or www.napavalley.com.

A World of Wine

“There’s just so much more going on here than we even knew to expect,” said Christine Simone, of Arizona, who was visiting Napa Valley at summer’s end in her travel trailer.

“You really have to make some choices early on about what you want to see,” she added, “because there’s just no way that you’re going to take it all in.”

Technically, the valley begins in downtown Napa and winds toward Calistoga, a tiny town famous for its historic hot springs. Most visitors simply start crawling north along California Highway 29, peeling off to check out wineries that line the roadway as impulse strikes.

Many wineries offer tours, which are fun and informative, especially during harvest season or “the crush.” But it’s the tasting rooms that bring you up close and personal to the wines of your choosing.

Tastings typically cost $5 to $10, but may run $30 or beyond at upscale wine houses. A handful is still free. Be smart and ask before you make your way to the tasting table. Also take the time to grab a bite between tastings to slow the absorption of alcohol — designating a driver isn’t a bad idea, depending on how long you’re out. Besides, the region is famous for its restaurants; many helped sculpt the growth of New California Cuisine.

Foodies won’t want to miss a visit to COPIA, the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, which sits on the banks of the Napa River and offers a gathering space to celebrate America’s contributions to food and wine. The 80,000-square-foot facility features an auditorium, cafe, teaching kitchens and exhibitions.

And yes, there is RV parking. After paying homage to all things cuisine, continue north through Yountville, St. Helena (pronounced “he-lee-nah), and on to Calistoga, with its famed mud and mineral baths and historic spas.

Along the way, you’ll pass signs for such familiar vintners as Beringer, Cakebread, Charles Krug, Domaine Chandon, Frog’s Leap, Mumm, Robert Mondavi, Stag’s Leap, and Sutter Home, to name just a few.

Make no mistake; Napa Valley is all about wine. But if you get your fill of vineyards, consider taking a hot air balloon ride over the Napa Valley, grab your golf clubs, rent a bike, enjoy a fabulous meal, sign up for a mineral mud bath, or check out the unique shopping districts.

Camping in Wine Country

Your best bet for Napa Valley camping may well lie on the northern end. Most of the land is privately owned and grapes are too valuable to the region to compete with large RV parks or camping resorts.

The good news is there are options. You just have to know where to look. Sue Mauro of the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce, suggests the Napa County Fairgrounds, located just north of downtown. Skeptics will be surprised. Though it’s hardly an RV resort, visitors will find a full hook-up RV park sprung to life in the fairgrounds parking lot, with bath houses and a fine view of Mount St. Helena. It’s also adjacent to the Mount St. Helena golf course and is open year-round, except the first week of July.

California wine country bridgeThe park features paved roads with gravel pads. Over 40 sites have water and electricity; 25 sites offer water, electric and sewer hook-ups. It’s also an easy walk or bike ride into downtown Calistoga, with quaint shops and four-star restaurants. For more information, call (707) 942-5111.

Mel and Bettilee Eurich, of California, who came to Calistoga for sprint car races, say the park suits them fine. The couple has been trekking here to see events at the Calistoga Speedway for years.

“When we first started coming here, there were very few wineries and weren’t nearly the people,” Mel Eurich recalled.

“Now, you’ll find a slew of them. We’ve seen a lot of growth from Yountville on north.”

The Eurichs pulled their 32-foot motorhome into the Napa Valley fairgrounds after a six-week trip following the racing circuit. For Calistoga race weekends, they make their reservations well in advance.

Though the novelty of vineyards has worn thin, the Eurichs say they appreciate Calistoga for its fine dining, eclectic shops, great climate and easy pace.

Visitors may also want to check out the Bothe-Napa State Park and Historic Bale Grist Mill. The setting is natural and rustic and features some of the region’s best hiking, camping and an adjoining working historical site. Campers up to 31 feet long and trailers up to 24 feet long are permitted. For camping reservations call (800) 444-7275.

Around Napa, check out the Skyline Wilderness Park, an 850-acre wilderness area with over 25 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. The park offers 39 RV spaces, 19 with full hook-ups and 20 spaces with water and electricity. For information, call (707) 252-0481.

On the south end of Napa Valley, the Petaluma KOA is a good base for forays into Napa and Sonoma wine regions. The KOA won raves from visitors we spoke with for a clean, family-friendly atmosphere. The 60-acre facility offers paved, grass-lined RV sites with water, 20/30/50-amp electric and sewer hook-ups, pull-throughs, cable TV, free WIFI and modem hook-ups.

They can also accommodate a 60-foot big rig. You’ll find a free dump station and RV water supply. For information, call (707) 763-1492; for reservations, call (800) 992-2267.

To the east, Lake Berryessa also offers several campgrounds and resorts. But it’s a bit of a drive.

Sonoma County Serenity

For a slightly more serene experience, head north to Sonoma County. You’ll find plenty of first-rate vineyards and tasting rooms, plus great biking, a magnificent lake, much more choices regarding campsites, and a generally softer, unhurried pace.

Sonoma County is considered the birthplace of wine production in Northern California, dating back to 1825. Today, the region boasts some terrific wine appellations, including Alexander Valley, Russian River, Dry Creek Valley, and Sonoma or Carneros Valley and hundreds of wineries that welcome visitors for tastings.

Maybe it was our imagination, but on a recent visit, it felt as if Sonoma County simply tried a little harder.

Get your bearings with a visit to the California Welcome Center in Santa Rosa. Head east out of Santa Rosa along Highway 12 and you’re in Sonoma Valley.

Wind toward the town of Sonoma and you’ll encounter such famous vintners as Kenwood, Ravenswood, Sebastiani, Chateau St. Jean, and St. Francis.

With its historic plaza, shaded by more than 200 trees, the town of Sonoma is worth a stop in itself.

It’s also a convenient hub from which to explore the Jack London State Historic Park, the Sonoma State Historic Park, which boasts the last of California’s 21 missions, and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, where camping is most enjoyed in the spring and the fall.

This 2,700-acre park features 50 campsites. Though somewhat primitive — no hook-ups or showers, just toilets and drinking water — it can accommodate campers and trailers up to 24 feet long. For reservations, call (800) 444-7275.

California vineyardIf you backtrack to Santa Rosa, be sure to take time to visit the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, former home of the famed horticulturalist, located at the corners of Sonoma and Santa Rosa Avenues.

From Santa Rosa, head either west or north for spectacular vineyard views. The low, rolling hills lined with tidy rows of grapevines, with European-looking estates and tasting rooms, may make you feel as if you’ve wandered into the Tuscan countryside.

If you continue north on U.S. Highway 101, you’ll pass Windsor Wine Country RV Park, just off the highway and an excellent springboard for adventure.

You’re half an hour from the ocean, adjacent to a family water park and a within easy reach of 120 wineries. As a bonus, the Kendall Jackson Wine Center is located just two exits south of the park. There, you can sample wines, learn about grape growing in a demonstration vineyard, or enjoy a picnic on beautiful grounds.

Windsor Wine Country RV Park has 27 back-in and 34 pull-through sites, all on gravel pads, with 30- to 50-amp service, along with water and sewer hook-ups. An additional 33 sites offer electricity and water. Also check out Windsorland RV Park, located on Old Redwood Highway, just west of U.S. 101.

All facilities make a good home base for day trips, and here’s a one to try:

From Windsor, head south to pick up River Road, which leads west toward Guerneville. It’s a beautiful drive, with access to Martinelli vineyards, the Korbel Champagne Cellars, and oodles of recreational pursuits long the magnificent Russian River, as it ambles to meet the Pacific Ocean.

Russian River Reverie

For an entirely different wine country experience, linger along the Russian River, a smooth ribbon of jade-green water hugged by tall throated pines and towering coastal redwoods.

One minute you’re enjoying the old-world charm of Korbel cellars, the next you’re kayaking.

“With the visitors we see, it’s about half and half,” said Kelly Cox of Riverbend RV Resort, located right off River Road near Forestville. “Half are really excited to be in wine country, the other half just like being out here with the woods and the water.”

Despite the natural setting, Cox said there are at least 25 wineries within an easy drive just in the immediate area. Riverbend offers 98 full hook-up sites. It’s not unusual for some visitors to come and stay a month, she added.

“There’s so much to do,” she explained. “Hiking, floating the river, the Northwood Golf Course, jazz and blues festivals, street fairs — even a Gravenstein apple festival.”

Jerry Vaughan, who stayed at Riverbend Resort in a 20-foot travel trailer, likes the campgrounds central location. “We were just up in Mendocino for a couple of days — we love the ocean — so this has been great for us,” said the full-time RVer.

For a change of pace, leave the wine behind for awhile and hike among nature’s giants at the Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, where coastal redwoods cover the hillside as thick as wildflowers.

You’ll find adjacent camping facilities at the Austin Creek State Recreation Area; however, park access involves a steep, narrow, winding mountain road. For safety reasons, no towed vehicles or motorhomes over 20 feet long are allowed. For more information, call (707) 869-2015.

There are plenty of other camping options along the Russian River. At Forestville, try Burke’s and Mirabel Trailer Park and Campground. Around Guerneville, look for the Schoolhouse Canyon campground, and Redwood Grove RV Park. By the way, those sandy beaches that hug the Russian River all belong to the public, so enjoy.

While in Guerneville, stock up on supplies at the grocery store, with plenty of parking for trailers and motorhomes. On the way out of town, take time to grab lunch at the Garden Grill, where the sandwiches are great from prime rib to veggie burgers.

Jewel of the Russian River

For a true camping treat, keep heading west to rustic Duncan’s Mills and hang a left, following the signs to Casini Ranch Family Campground, an absolute gem of a facility located right on the Russian River.  The former working family ranch — cattle, sheep and pigs — now provides excellent river access for fishing, canoeing and kayaking in a lovely setting that brings visitors back time and again.

“My husband and I have been coming here for at least 12 years,” said Millie Thompson of California, who drove in pulling a fifth-wheel.“He goes salmon fishing on the coast, I go into town and spend money,” she chuckled.

Don't Forget

Nearby, Dan and Alice Millier, also of California, can beat that record. “We’ve been coming here for 40 years,” Dan Millier said, laughing. “Usually, twice a year. And every time we’re here, it’s gorgeous. That’s what keeps us coming back.”

The couple made the 100-mile trek pulling a 27-foot travel trailer. And though they estimate they’ve probably been to all the area wineries, it’s the other attractions that now hold their interest: walks on the beach near Bodego Bay, playing nine holes at nearby Northwood Golf Course, finding a great bakery in Cazadero.

“For us, it really has everything,” Alice said.

Casini Ranch offers dry sites, electric and water sites, as well as full hook-ups. For reservations and information call (800) 451-8400.

Those who’d rather stick to the wine trail should head north on U.S. 101 to catch two fine wine-producing regions to the east, Alexander Valley, to the west, Dry Creek Valley.

Roadways permit you to catch them both in a large, lazy loop — routes also popular with cyclists. You’ll find a rich assortment of wineries and bucolic scenery, featuring such recognizable vintners as Chalk Hill, Clos du Bois, Francis Copolla Rabbit Ridge, Rodney Strong and Toad Hollow.

Convenient camping is available at the Cloverdale Wine Country KOA, nestled just off U.S. 101 amid 100-year-old oak trees, with sweeping views of the Alexander Valley.

Or consider a drive to Lake Sonoma, a sprawling body of water offering 50 miles of shoreline and ample recreational opportunities. Sonoma Lake is located off Dry Creek Road in the coastal foothills. Liberty Glenn Campground has 97 sites for RVs and tent campers, but no electrical or water hookups and are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Wine Country’s Best-kept Secret

Locals refer to Lake County as California’s “undiscovered” wine country. In truth, it’s a region that does radiate a lovely, unspoiled quality.

Located two hours north of San Francisco and southeast of Ukiah, the region touches the southern foot of the Mendocino National Forest and is anchored by Clear Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in the state, where camping and water recreation abound.

The county isn’t new to the wine scene. Settlers began planting vineyards here in the 1850s, which flourished in soil rich in volcanic ash and cooled by breezes off of massive Clear Lake.

By 1919, Lake County had 33 bonded wineries and more than 7,000 acres devoted to vineyards. Prohibition put a cork in that growth; today, the industry has rebounded, with a dozen area wineries, tasting rooms, and more vineyard acreage than at the turn of the century.

Grape plantings have tripled since 1994 and influential growers from Napa and Sonoma counties are investing, planting grapes in this high valley with affordable land prices. Kendall-Jackson, which started in Lake County, still has holdings here and Beringer also retains vineyards.

Area wineries with tasting rooms include Guenoc and Langry Estate Vineyards and Winery, Ployez Winery, Steele Wines, and Wildhurst Vineyards. Wine critics have praised the region for its potential in producing stellar red wines, including Cabernets and Bordeauxs. It’s a nice way to get a taste of wine country without the crowds and traffic, while enjoying a recreational experience at Clear Lake State Park, national forests and an assortment of other public lands.

At Clear Lake, known as “the Bass Capital of the West,” anglers will find largemouth bass, crappie, catfish, bluegill and rainbow trout. The park is also a noted nesting spot for an array of water birds. The Clear Lake Queen, a three-story replica of a paddlewheel steamboat, also plies the waters. Visitors can enjoy sightseeing tours and dinner cruises.

Clear Lake campgrounds feature 147 sites and can accommodate trailers up to 35 feet long; showers dump stations and restrooms are available. For more information, call (707) 279-4293.

Edgewater Resort and RV Park will also bring campers to the water’s edge. Located on Clear Lake’s Soda Bay, the resort offers 61 RV and camping sites with full hook-ups, water, electric (20/30/50-amp), sewer and cable TV. For reservations, call (800) 396-6224.

From Napa and Sonoma counties, the easiest way to reach Lake County is taking U.S. 101 north to Hopland; take Highway 175 about 19 miles to Lakeport. For more information, check www.lakecounty.com.

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