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
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
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
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
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
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.