If you haven't yet visited the Napa or Sonoma Valley, you might assume the area was covered with clusters of red and white grapes lazily stretching out over meandering hills, with twisting wine trains and designated-driver-helmed minivans loping along in two-lane traffic jams aiming for the next winery. And the next one. And the next one.
Well, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. At first glance.
Take one small wine-free step north or west to find hot springs, cooking classes, medieval castles, Spanish missions and even zebras. While the summer overflows with tourists, the fall and winter can be the best time to visit wine country, especially if you want to snuggle into a hot mud bath or tour the torture chamber of a medieval castle.
First, to get as relaxed as your wine-drinking counterparts (while retaining full rights to operate heavy machinery), head to Calistoga. The Old West-ish town sits on top of a goldmine of mineral-rich hot springs, and folks have been visiting to 'take the waters' since the Gold Rush.
Travel writers don't say these sorts of things lightly, so pay heed: one of my favorite places on Earth is the Olympic-size hot springs-fed pool at Indian Springs. A few years back, a paddling of rubber duckies invaded the pool and was eventually assimilated. Beachy cottages and a croquet set surround the famed mineral water-fed pool and spa, where one can hear the 'oohs' and 'aahs' of stress floating away in volcanic mud baths and deep-tissue massages.
Castello di Amorosa is not your everyday 121,000-square-foot authentic recreation of an Italian medieval castle. But not everyone grew up playing between the barrels of their Italian great-grandfather's pre-Prohibition San Francisco winery. Developing a healthy obsession with medieval Italian architecture, owner Dario Sattui and fourth-generation vintner spent a good chunk of the 60s and 70s roaming Italy in a VW van or motorcycle to snap photos of medieval castles and monasteries. A la William Randolph Hearst, Sattui poured every cent and ounce of passion he had into this project, which, to his luck, has been an incredible success.
Seventeen workmen worked 11 years to individually carve each stone (in addition to the 8,000 tons of bricks imported from Europe), and Sattui used his encyclopedic knowledge of Italian medieval architecture to personally buy a medieval wishing well, confessional and honest-to-torturous-goodness iron maiden. Hour and a half tours do end in wine tastings, but non-drinkers are welcome to either skip that part or request the castle's non-alcoholic grape juice, made from their Moscato grapes.
Nope, sorry. Not that one.
Not surprisingly, the Culinary Institute of America decided to base their West Coast campus (the main campus is in upstate New York) in the heart of Napa Valley. Located near the border between St. Helena and Calistoga, the stone castle wouldn't be out of place at Oxford (or as a stand-in for Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry). Most folks come here for the student-run dinner (with an excellent accompanying wine list) but lesser-known are the weekend classes. Every Saturday and Sunday, the students run one-hour demonstration classes for $20 a pop – where you might learn how to make deviled eggs, pumpkin bisque or homemade egg nog – and day-long baking and cooking courses (around $250).
When you think of California wine country, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Water buffaloes? Cheetahs? Well, surely zebras.
Past St. Helena towards Santa Rosa is Safari West, a miniature replica of an African safari, complete with wide-open spaces with roaming animals. They call themselves the Sonoma Serengeti and, with over 400 African mammals and birds, it's a fitting moniker. On a three hour tour, you might find yourself feeding bananas to giraffes, perched atop an open-topped safari tour past rhinos, gazelle, and flamingoes, or walking through an aviary filled with dozens of exotic birds. The preserve is over 4000 acres, so the animals have some serious space to stretch their legs. Hint: Book a safari lunch before or after your tour. You can also spend the night in luxury tents (bring ear plugs).
Although its official name is the Mission San Francisco Solano, what's known as the Sonoma Mission holds the distinction of being California's northernmost and final Spanish Mission. Completed in 1823, the Franciscan mission is now a small museum anchoring the town square of downtown Sonoma. Thick adobe walls, a mission garden, military barracks and artifacts from California's mission period grace the walls.
Try Market in St. Helena for a Napa Valley take on American comfort foods. Or, if you'd prefer beer rather than wine with your meal, check out the Silverado Brewing Company. Known for casual sustainable and organic meals, the 115-year-old building also houses a working brewery.