CALISTOGA -- The route to Vincent Arroyo Winery wasn't nearly as convoluted as it might sound: over a wood-slat bridge that clattered beneath our tires, through the parking lot of the Home Plate Cafe, alongside a golf course, across a one-lane stone bridge built in 1904, and down a dirt lane flanked by leafy green grape vines.
Now this was an ideal way to experience the Napa Valley wine country -- on a bicycle.
"Before, we did it the way everybody else does, in a car," fellow bike-tour patron Dario Santana said later. "But I think it gives you a much better sense of the place. We felt we were connecting much more by being on bikes. We even stopped and talked to some workers who were trimming the vines."
Much of the
In fact, as we motored into the valley on these jostling roads, we began to second-guess our decision to book in advance the Calistoga Cool Wine Tour, a self-guided bicycle excursion offered by the Calistoga Bike Shop. Since we're not regular riders at home, we were further anxious about how we'd fare on any uphill stretches in the midday
But our concerns were quickly allayed by Zac Fleckner as he checked us in at the bike shop. Calistoga has a web of quiet, well-shaded streets and a few dedicated bike paths, he said. On the town outskirts are sleepy little farm roads, and that's where a number of small wineries are located. On this ride, you can map out a route that will never put you on precarious Highway 29, and spend only a few minutes each on some lightly traveled stretches of the Silverado Trail and Highway 128.
The bike shop's wine tour is well-conceived and appealing for independent travelers. Riders go out on their own -- there is no pack, no leader, no schedule. You're free to pedal along at your own pace, stop to rest or take pictures, linger a little longer at a particular winery, and have lunch whenever and wherever you please.
The cost -- $79 per person -- not only includes the rental of a comfort-oriented hybrid bike, but tasting fees at six wineries. They routinely charge $10 per person to sample their wines, so the fee waivers nearly cover the cost of the whole tour. Tally up the savings in gasoline, and you're way ahead. Further,
Fleckner handed us a detailed map and suggested potential routes. The tour is 18 miles, if you hit all six wineries. We set off with a loose plan, and figured we'd adjust as we went.
Napa's heavyweight wineries -- Cakebread, Robert Mondavi, Joseph Phelps, Stag's Leap -- are farther down the valley, closer to the cooling breezes of San Pablo Bay. Up here in the northern reaches, the wineries are smaller and less well-known. The tasting room people seem genuinely pleased when someone walks in the door.
Vincent Arroyo, our first stop,
Hostess Laura Jannings poured a few samples from bottles, but the real fun began when she conducted us into the barrel room. She dipped a long, glass syringe -- called a wine thief -- into the oak casks themselves and extracted barrel samples, trickling the wine into glasses for tasting. If something is particularly appealing, you can purchase futures for when these wines are ultimately bottled.
Though this was our first stop, it also proved to be our favorite. Hardy, thicker-skinned grapes fare best in this region of abundant sun and nights that don't cool down much. That means petite sirah is king at Vincent Arroyo, and when we commented favorably on the 2006 Petite Sirah Rattlesnake Acres, Jannings pointed to the vineyard on a slope to the east. "There are actually a lot of rattlesnakes up there," she said with a chuckle.
A 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Winemaker's Reserve was another favorite.
Wine tasting while biking might raise an eyebrow or two. Tippling on a 90-degree day and then wobbling down the road on two wheels, dodging farm trucks? Might be a recipe for mayhem. But we were moderate in our intake, declining some of the offerings at the wineries and confining our stops to five of them. We also found that the mild exertion of the ride seemed to metabolize the alcohol -- certainly to a greater extent than you'd encounter riding around in a car. Regardless, the Calistoga Bike Shop urges riders to "Spit 'n' Cycle," rather than risk overdoing it.
Bicyclists haven't always been welcomed warmly by the vintners of the Napa Valley. That goes back to the days when the wineries didn't charge for tastings, and bike riders, without a car trunk for storage, weren't in position to buy anything.
"When they started the tour, we thought, 'Eh' (skeptical)," said Aaron Inman of August Briggs, a winery on the Calistoga Cool Wine Tour. "There might have been the feeling that bikers don't buy wine, they're just out for a scenic ride. But they've done a good job with the way they've structured it: If you buy anything, they'll come and pick it up. I think that has curbed resistance to it."
Inman added that for small wineries such as August Briggs, the tour is a welcome way to introduce people to an operation they might not have been aware of.
It was a sentiment echoed by Keith Hargrove of Bennett Lane, another stop on the tour. "We're off the beaten path. We want people coming to the winery," he said. "It's nice exposure for us. Once we've got them here, it's up to us to turn them on to the wines. ... If they come here and don't buy something, maybe they go home and see it on a wine list or on a shelf at a wine shop. It's not just about whether they left the tasting room with a couple of bottles."
Bennett Lane was one of the small, friendly wineries we appreciated on the tour. Unbidden, the tasting room hostess took us around back to let us observe the mechanized bottling operation that was going on that day. The winery patio also proved to be a nice spot for a picnic lunch. (Vincent Arroyo's picnic grounds were similarly inviting, with shade trees and rose bushes.)
Since the ride is self-guided, there's nothing to stop riders from doing a little customization of their tour. For us, this meant a stop at reputable Clos Pegase, whose grounds are a showcase for world-class sculpture. Such a deviation means you have to fork up the tasting fee separately, but the quality of this winery's bottlings made it well worth it. A bonus was finding local artist Jim Stallings painting an oil stiffcq life in the barrel room.
It was at Clos Pegase that we encountered some of the stuffy tasting-room attitude for which the Napa Valley has become infamous. Maybe the Calistoga Bike Shop has the right idea all along -- directing riders to the lesser-known establishments that are more welcoming.
Throughout the day, we encountered other people on bikes, some part of the Cool Wine Tour, others riding independently.
As we prepared to pedal away from August Briggs, a woman from Minnesota, touring the area with her boyfriend, drank in the beauty of the Vaca Mountains in the distance and said, "I'm riding a bike, I'm drinking wine, I'm on vacation, it's just the two of us. What could be better?"
IF YOU GO
BIKE TOUR: The Calistoga Cool Wine Tour is offered by the Calistoga Bike Shop, 1318 Lincoln Ave. Cost of $79 per person includes hybrid bike rental, helmet, insulated picnic bag, map, tasting fees at six wineries, roadside assistance and late-afternoon wine pickup by the shop van. The wineries participating in the tour are August Briggs, Bennett Lane, Dutch Henry, Envy, Twomey and Vincent Arroyo. Others in the area that could be readily added to the ride include Atalon, Cuvaison, Chateau Montelena, Clos Pegase, Graeser, Larkmead, OnThEdge, Silver Rose, Sterling, Summers and Zahtila. www.calistogabikeshop.com; (866) 942-2453, (707) 942-9687.
OTHER TOUR OPTIONS: Guided bike tours offered by other companies in the Napa Valley include: Getaway Adventures, www.getawayadventures.com, (800) 499-2453; LifeCycle Adventures, www.lifecycleadventures.com; (888) 669-2453; and Napa Valley Bike Tours, www.napavalleybiketours.com, (800) 707-2453.
LODGING: The Cottage Grove Inn in Calistoga is a pleasant lodging option, with an emphasis on privacy. It is an enclave of 16 free-standing cottages in a shady grove of 126-year-old Siberian elm trees. The cottages are less than 10 years old, and each has a two-person Jacuzzi tub and a wood-burning fireplace. The inn is just a few blocks from the downtown core, so you can walk to the bike shop or to dinner. Room rates from $295 in the summer high season, from $250 in the winter. Includes full breakfast and afternoon wine and cheese. 1711 Lincoln Ave., www.cottagegrove.com, (800) 799-2284, (707) 942-8400.
DINING: On the way to the Calistoga Bike Shop for your wine country tour, stop by the Palisades Deli Cafe, a few doors up the street, to pick up lunch to go. It offers a nice array of cold sandwiches, wraps and deli salads. The bikes are outfitted with picnic bags, and most of the wineries have picnic areas -- it's hard to beat lunch overlooking the vines. 1458 Lincoln Ave., (707) 942-0145. For dinner, a good choice is Bar Vino, primarily because of its extensive selection of wines from the immediate region -- many of which aren't distributed in Southern California. Two dozen selections are offered by the glass. The pastas, seafood and steaks on the menu are both artfully prepared and reasonably priced. 1457 Lincoln Ave., www.bar-vino.com, (707) 942-9900. Espresso and other coffee drinks can be found at the Calistoga Roastery, a friendly, popular morning hangout. 1426 Lincoln Ave., (707) 942-5757.
INFORMATION:The Calistoga Chamber of Commerce maintains a comprehensive Web site at www.calistogavisitors.com. Phone: (866) 306-5588 or (707) 942-6333. Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau: www.napavalley.org, (707) 226-7459.
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