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Napa Valley 101: Basics for a wine country trip

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NAPA, Calif. Blessed with lavish scenery and luscious wines, the Napa Valley is the kind of place you could spend days exploring. But it's compact enough

that even if you only have an afternoon, you still can get a taste of wine country.

Located about an hour's drive northeast of San Francisco, the valley starts south of Napa and stretches about 30 miles north to Calistoga.

Two main routes cut through the valley. Highway 29 is a straight shot from Napa to Calistoga and hits all the big names, such as Opus One and Francis Ford Coppola's Rubicon Estate. It can, however, get awfully crowded in summer.

The other route is the Silverado Trail, which avoids the towns, is quieter and has breathtaking views.

Wineries along this long and winding road include Stags' Leap Winery - the winery that made the red that beat the French at the famous Paris tasting of 1976 - and Darioush, notable for its striking architecture, which incorporates references to Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia.

Lunch options along the trail include picking up a sandwich at the Soda Canyon Store.

The valley is just a few miles wide, so you can easily get back to Highway 29 by using cross roads.

Taking the Highway 29 route, your journey begins in Napa, which used to be a place you blew through on the way to quainter spots but these days it is a destination in itself, with a refurbished riverfront and a bustling downtown. A few miles north, the town of Yountville is a mecca for the dining set, serving as home to one restaurant with three Michelin stars, the French Laundry, and three one-star restaurants, Redd, Bouchon and, at the Domaine Chandon winery, Etoile.

After that come the communities of Oakville, where you can stop at the Oakville Grocery for picnic supplies, and Rutherford, home to Beaulieu Vineyard and the reasonably priced (and often packed) Rutherford Grill.

Prepare to slow down when you hit St. Helena; there Highway 29 turns into the boutique-lined main street of this small city. A point of interest is the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone, housed in a castlelike building that once was the Christian Brothers winery. You can dine here at the Wine Spectator restaurant.

Also in St. Helena is Newton Vineyard, which features a formal English garden set on a rooftop. (Visits to this winery are by appointment only.) Zinfandel Lane connects St. Helena to the Silverado Trail, and one of the wineries along the lane is Raymond Vineyards. This property is undergoing major renovations under the hand of new owner Jean-Charles Boisset; check out the Crystal Cellar, an extravaganza of lights, art and Baccarat crystal.

The valley ends in Calistoga, a 19th-century hot-springs resort that is home to a number of wineries, including Schramsberg, a sparkling-wine house with atmospheric caves dug by Chinese workers in the 1870s.

Of course, there's much more to explore in the Napa Valley, from hilltop wineries with breathtaking views to wineries featuring displays of art treasures.

Not to worry; you can check those out the next time you have a free afternoon.

If You Go...

OPUS ONE: 7900 St. Helena Highway, Oakville; www.opusonewinery.com or 707/944-9442. Tours and tastings by appointment.

RUBICON ESTATE: 1991 St. Helena Highway, Rutherford; www.rubiconestate.com or 707/968-1100. Various tastings, tours, events.

STAGS' LEAP WINERY: 6150 Silverado Trail, Napa; http://stagsleap.com or 800/395-2441. Call for tasting tour reservation two weeks ahead of time.

DARIOUSH WINERY: 4240 Silverado Trail, Napa; www.darioush.com or 707/257-2345. Tastings daily, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours by appointment.

SODA CANYON STORE: 4006 Silverado Trail, Napa; www.sodacanyonstore.com or 707/252-0285.

DOMAINE CHANDON: 1 California Drive, Yountville; www.chandon.com or 888/242-6366. Tasting lounge, visitor center, Etoile restaurant.

BEAULIEU VINEYARD: 1960 St. Helena Highway, Rutherford; www.bvwines.com or 800/264-6918. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., tastings start at $15.

NEWTON VINEYARD: 2555 Madrona Ave., St. Helena; www.newtonvineyard.com/ or 707/963-9000. Tours and tastings available by appointment Tuesday through Saturday.

RAYMOND VINEYARDS: 849 Zinfandel Lane, St. Helena; www.raymondvineyards.com or 707/963-3141. Tasting room, open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tasting fees start at $15.

SCHRAMSBERG VINEYARDS: 1400 Schramsberg Road, Calistoga, www.schramsberg.com or 707/942-4558. Tours and tastings by appointment only, reservations required.

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