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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Napa Inn and the Napa Valley Vineyards

I went for the music. I stayed for the grape.
I flew into Sacramento with friends to first watch my son appear in a musical at the new Mondavi Center. Later, we spent a few nights in the quaint and charming Napa Inn, spending our days in Napa Valley's vineyards soaking up the scenery and sipping the wine.
The Mondavi Center, a new 1800 seat performance hall set at the entrance to the University of California at Davis, is part of Robert Mondavi's recent philanthropic efforts. In a prior column I wrote about his largess and guidance in creating the Copia, the new American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts (707-259-1600) located in downtown Napa. The new Mondavi Center (866-UCD-ARTS) has already hosted venues as diverse as lectures by physicist Stephen Hawkings to Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta "HMS Pinafore" with professional leads and a chorus including my son, Mischa (a marvelous talent).
I enjoy staying in bed-and-breakfasts. There's the joy of meeting fellow travellers each morning around the breakfast table and having hosts that endeavor to make you feel at home in what is often their home. And B & B's are almost always in old homes.
Old homes seem to me rooted in a Buddhist philosophy. They often have several re-incarnations and their own special "karma." Homes can be haunted, charming, romantic, or, shall I say it, simply homey. And so, I found the Napa Inn, with its own "romantic and homey" karma and several incarnations.
The Napa Inn (800-435-1144) was originally called the Johnston home. Built as a wedding gift from the groom's parents in 1899, the Johnstons spent their entired married life, fifty years, in the Queen Anne Victorian home. When they died, the house was gifted to the City of Napa and over the next half century it had several more incarnations - as municipal office space and even as the Napa Police Department. In 1981, it became what it is today, a romantic and charming bed-and-breakfast.
The Napa Inn was bought and remodeled in 1998 by Brooke and Jim Boyer, a former special ed teacher and graphic artist.
"If you talk to guests that stay at a B & B's," Brooke relates, "many will say that they thought that owning one would be a nice life style. That's what we thought. Jim and I would go to a B & B for our anniversary every year. Five or six years ago we went to one up in the mountains, a nice little farm house. The couple that owned it were retired and they pretty much worked when they wanted to, and we thought 'this is a great idea; we can do this when we retire.'"
A few years ago they decided not to wait until they retired. They decided to "do it now." So, they bought the Napa Inn, an existing six room bed and breakfast.
But with only six rooms, and with Napa and its wine trail becoming ever more popular, they soon discovered they had to turn many people away. So, they expanded their new venture and bought the Buford House just behind the main house which has an additional eight rooms. Both houses are Victorians but not the same style. The main house is a Queen Anne. The Buford House, built in 1877, is considered an Italianate Victorian and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Simon Buford, a wealthy Berryessa rancher, built the house in 1877 as his "town" home. It too has passed through many incarnations. From 1920 to 1955, it was a county "detention home" for wayward boys. From 1955-74 it was a University of California annex. And in 1981 it began its life as a bed-and-breakfast inn.
While there certainly must be some lure to being an innkeeper and earning a livelihood by hosting an everchanging collection of interesting people in your own home - as attested to by the Boyers and their success - there must also be financial and personal stresses to the task. So before you leap at the idea of owning a bed and breakfast, witness the fact that the Napa Inn has had five different owners since it first became a B & B in 1981. Running a B & B can be a 24 hour a day job.
The main building, the Napa Inn, has fewer rooms because it also has a large entry, a parlor, the dining room, and the kitchen. The Buford House just has guest rooms and the owner's quarters. Rates vary with least expensive winter rates at $120 on weekdays to $250 on weekends. The same room in the summer varies from $140 to $295.
A large breakfast is served every morning with seven different menus rotating weekly. There's an entrée, usually an egg souffle, a hot fruit dish, a potato dish, a bread dish, fresh fruit salad, granola, and two kinds of juice and coffee every morning. Quite a variety and their apricot shortbread is fantastic.
In the afternoon, there's cheese and crackers. There are desserts, cakes and chocolates after three. The kitchen is always open for hot drinks and sodas. And port and sherry is set out for any time.
While the Inn is not as close to Napa's wineries as other bed and breakfast venues that are set in the midst of country vineyards, it is still well located. It's a five minute walk to town center. Just a few blocks past that is the Opera House, the Copia, and the Wine Train. The Inn is three blocks from Highway 129, the main route to the wineries.
The rooms are spacious and comfortable but bathrooms are somewhat cramped. Some of the décor is a little shoddy and needs upgrading. The parlor however is charmingly period with comfortable couches and wing chairs set about a fireplace and library. The dining room with hand painted ceilings is beautifully decorated for breakfast with lace table cloths and fine china. It's a romantic destination with a little bit of fantasy in each room.
What made this trip to wine country extra special were the intimate tours we received from several small boutique wine owners. My friend, Jerold Gold, arranged for several of these tours. He's much more the wine afficiando than I and has been straining for years to wean me from the white zinfindels, the Coca-Cola of wines, to the wonders of the reds. Perhaps my palate is maturing. I've suddenly become able to taste those subtle undercurrents in the reds that make certain wines so very special - the grapefruit, the apple, the peppers. But I'll never beat Jerry. While I'm tasting a hint of apple, he can find the cigar tobacco or oak taste deep in the bottle.
While Jerry did a wonderful job arranging our tours, a major lesson learned from this trip is that I don't use my innkeeper enough. The Boyers and other innkeepers are so very familiar with the Napa Valley community, they can do wonders in setting up winery tours and making reservations for great dining. You'll need to make appointments for personal tours of small privately owned vineyards. We didn't use our innkeepers for the task. You should.
We began our sojourn to the glorious grounds of several big wineries. First, Neibaum-Coppola with its magnificent Italian portico, gardens, and fountains. Inside the grand old stone façade of the Inglenook Chateau, there are elegant tasting rooms, a gift shop, and a spectacular hand-carved grand staircse that leads to a second story exhibit of the winery owner's, Francis Ford Coppola's, movie memorabilia. There was lunch at V. Sattui winery with its great deli and picnic grounds. But most memorable were the intimate tours and discussions of wine making and politics at several boutique wineries - Guilliams vineyards (707-963-9059), Smith-Madrone (707-963-2283), Keenan, and Cakebread. While Robert Mondavi is producing wine by the boatload, these "mom and pop" ventures, with sometimes just a dozen or so acres under cultivation, produce just a few thousand cases. Walking through the vines with Shawn Guilliams or up to a hilltop overlook with Mr. Smith, I learned about local politics and the travails of growing the grape. Even if you have the land, one owner grumbled, city hall regulates how many acres of vines you can plant and on what slope you can plant them. There are worries over insects encroaching from nearby forests, decisions to be made as to how far apart to plant each vine, when to harvest, how long to leave it in the cask, what casks to use, how to market, how to price, how to compete.
Make the trip North, enjoy Mondavi's cultural generosity - the Mondavi Center and the Copia. Discover the warmth of a bed and breakfast. And while tasting the fruit of the vine, get a little up close and personal with the fascinating daily of lives of the entrepreneurs of the grape.