Flying Standby with Mark Vanek: Napa Valley

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 7, 2011

To many of us, autumn means hot cider, crisp apples and dusting off the pigskin for a father- son game of catch. Countless others will set off on their annual pilgrimage to witness the Northeast’s dazzling fall foliage.
This time of year I would generally be dispensing advice on discovering New England’s most intimate bed and breakfasts. However, with the torrential rainfall from Hurricane Irene this past August, forecasters anticipate New England’s fall foliage will not be as vibrant as usual — the damage, unfortunately, has been done.
To the chagrin of all the leaf-peepers, gazers and admirers of fall colors at their peak, I am going to be a little unconventional in Vanek’s Amazing Fall Getaway selection for this season, and suggest you head West! That’s right — to the Napa Valley.
Napa Valley means wine
The Napa Valley is world-renowned and considered by many as the heart of America’s Wine Country.
Autumn announces the annual harvesting of grapes with several counties in California sponsoring wine festivals. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to find the larger award-winning estates coupled with smaller boutique wineries for a wine enthusiast’s dream.
Go online, do some research and who knows? With any luck you may be able to stumble on a celebration commemorating the art of making a masterful wine.
Getting There from San Francisco
The Napa Valley is a stone’s throw from San Francisco, as well as conveniently located a 90-minute drive from either the Sacramento or Oakland international airports.
On Highway 101, the San Francisco skyline will become hidden in your rearview mirror by the imposing Golden Gate Bridge. As you pass the Muir Woods exit, you will soon realize that you are set for an amazing and one of a kind adventure.
Or Take the Wine Train
For a fun and romantic day trip from San Francisco, embark on a Bay cruise bound for Vallejo where an awaiting shuttle will deliver you directly to the Napa Valley Wine Train.
Children in tow? Then be sure to book your train’s passage on one of the family nights. The kids will be entertained in a separate car, as you enjoy an evening of romance and fine dining.
Staying There
If you are naturally planning on spending a few days in Napa Valley, then I recommend waiting until all the weekend warriors have cleared out.
Friday and Saturdays are extremely congested. Being sandwiched in with the crowd on a winery tour does not necessarily complement the whole wine-tasting experience. Not to mention, lodging rates and availability will drop considerably during the first part of the week.
To find a last-minute hotel deal, consider picking up a coupon book in San Francisco at Fisherman’s Wharf. On many of the street corners, you will find complimentary hotel coupon books offering generous walk- in rates, equaling and often surpassing online discounts. When traveling, sometimes the most simple solutions can be the most effective.
Your accommodation may only be 10 miles from the vineyards, but after several wine tastings and bouncing from one winery to the next, intoxication may get the better of you.
Take a bus tour, taxi, the wine train or limousine. Secure transportation services to ensure that the ever-present California Highway Patrol does not spoil or ruin your Napa Valley experience.
Disneyland for adults
You may want to consider leaving the children behind on this romantic getaway. After all, how many fragile gift shop items and priceless bottles of wine do you really want the kids cavorting around? Remember the sad reality is, if they break it, you bought it!
Granted, some wineries dedicate small areas for the younger ones to play. However, you need to ask yourself how exciting can it be for them, as they impatiently waitwhile you discover the many nuances of tasting a superb wine?
Wine is like Art
Every wine maker has his or her own formula in crafting each style of wine.
No two batches of wine are ever the same. Wine characteristics can recall apples, apricots, bananas, berries and even asparagus. Aroma, balance and body will all differ to some degree depending on any number of variables.
Remember, it’s not enough just to make a bee-line to the tasting room; be certain to take a guided tour of the winery!
For an awesome photographic opportunity, I highly recommend touring the impressive Robert Mondavi Winery. You will be ushered through underground caverns, come upon mighty wine presses and pass countless oak casks as you discover all that goes into creating a world class wine! The tour guides are knowledgeable and informative, as well as insightful.
Keep in mind, the Napa Valley is over 35 miles long and home to almost 300 wineries, so don’t get solely focused on the largest estates. You can find that special off-the-beaten path vineyard like the Cuvaison Winery, which crafts an unbelievably fine Chardonnay. Their tasting bar is a pleasant respite.
Life is Better
After two glasses of wine they say life is seemingly always better. Tribulations turn to trivialities, worries gradually melt away and the smile returns to your face.
According to several creditable publications, in moderation, a glass or two of red wine daily can also produce amazing health benefits. That is why I encourage you to live longer, and enjoy a better quality of life — by visiting the Napa Valley!
Mark Vanek is a seasoned world traveler. Each month he heads to Charlotte Douglas-International Airport where he flies standby to a destination in the U.S. or abroad. To read more, go to