Sticker shock greeted us on our third and most recent visit to the Napa Valley. We remember when tasting rooms were economical places to discover wine. These days they can quickly become a budget buster, with tastings running about $20 a pop for a few thin pours. Now it’s often cheaper to bypass the samplings altogether and just buy a bottle instead.
The good news is that California wine country isn’t exclusively about the wine. Many vineyards are also competing for tourist attention by building lavish grounds and offering other attractions that are often completely gratis.
A Painting with your Pour?
A surprisingly large number of wineries serve up artwork along with their vintages and allow visitors to have a look for free. The Hess Collection has a superb museum displaying owner Donald Hess’ personal collection, which ranges from photographs and paintings to mass-media installations and unusual items like a vintage typewriter set aflame. We’re longtime fans of Hess’ wines but were every bit as impressed with his contemporary art collection, which easily rivals many of the country’s small art museums.
At Clos Pegase, a sculpture garden offers the traditional (a statue of the Greek wine god Bacchus) to the offbeat (a giant thumb protruding from the ground). Additional art and wine-related artifacts are displayed inside the Visitor’s Center, where brochures for a self-guided tour of the collection are on hand. If you’re in the market for art, St. Supery is more akin to an art gallery, showcasing works for sale.
In the nearby Sonoma Valley, Cline Cellars is home to the California Missions Museum, where detailed models of the state’s twenty-one historic missions are on view. Originally built for a 1939 World’s Fair, the diminutive replicas were purchased by the Cline family in 1988 to spare them from being sold off individually.
For an in-depth art experience, the di Rosa offers guided tours ($15) of its 2,000-piece collection of works by Northern California artists. Along with several gallery buildings, the 200-acre Napa Valley property includes a sculpture-filled meadow.
Admiring the buildings that house the tasting rooms doesn’t cost a dime. Spend a day driving through the Napa Valley and you’ll see an array of architecture, including the Persian-influenced Darioush with a columned entryway and Castello di Amorosa, a castle based on twelfth-century Tuscan design. Domaine Carneros was inspired by a historic chateau in France’s Champagne region and has a veranda for drinking and dining, while the Robert Mondavi Winery (which hosts a summer concert series) was constructed in the Mission style.
The most imaginative architecture is at Quixote Winery, named for sixteenth-century novelist Miguel Cervantes’ chivalry-obsessed knight errant. The quirky structure looks like a storybook realm come to life, designed by an architect whose vision teemed with turrets and bold colors and who didn’t believe in using straight lines.
A Walk in the Park
A stroll through the city of Sonoma is like walking through a living history museum. Among its Spanish Colonial buildings is the Mission San Francisco Solano, the last and most northernmost of the religious outposts established along the El Camino Real (Royal Road) by Franciscan padres in the 1800s. The town sprung up around the mission, which is also credited with launching the California winemaking tradition when a thirsty father planted several thousand vines.
Sales from The Call of the Wild and other novels helped finance Jack London’s purchase of Sonoma Valley land. “I write a book for no other reason than to add … to my magnificent estate,” declared the author. Today his slice of paradise, Beauty Ranch, is part of Jack London State Historic Park. Walking trails lead to a museum and other sites, including the moss-covered stone ruins of Wolf House, a 15,000-square-foot home London commissioned. Just days before its completion in 1916, the abode went up in flames and was never rebuilt.
Included with admission to Jack London State Historic Park ($10 per car) is a coupon for a buy-one-get-one-free tasting at Kenwood Vineyards next door. After all, this is wine country.