36 Hours In: Napa Valley, California

Article excerpt

The valley is undulating hills, crisscrossed by vines and awash in wildflowers -- a stunningly beautiful landscape studded with small towns.

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In the three decades since the Napa Valley began its steep ascent to international wine stardom, California's best known appellation seems at times to have become a cliche, with its increasingly opulent wineries, as-seen-on-TV chefs and spectacular restaurants.

At worst, it's a boozy adult Disneyland, complete with rides (the Wine Train) and lines (Highway 29 traffic). At best, the valley is undulating hills, crisscrossed by vines and awash in wildflowers -- a stunningly beautiful landscape studded with small towns.

Excellent wine is everywhere, including downtown Napa, where 20 wine bars and tasting rooms have opened in a decade. The proliferation of new places to taste wine has reversed what was once the norm in Napa: the inevitable hustle to get into a handful of respected wineries. Now there is more time to indulge in other sensory pleasures.

Friday 4 p.m.

Every day is market day For an immersion in Napa's decadent food culture, start at the huge Oxbow Public Market: 610 and 644 First Street, Napa; 1-707-226-6529; oxbowpublicmarket.com. Try the Sweetwater oysters on the half shell (from $15 for six) at Hog Island Oyster Bar: 1-707-251-8113, hogislandoysters.com. Then order a scoop of the organic cardamom or lemon cookie ice cream at Three Twins -- 1-707-257-8946, threetwinsicecream.com -- or pick up one of Kara's Cupcakes in flavors like sweet s'mores and peanut butter milk- chocolate ganache: 1-707-258-2253, karascupcakes.com. Then follow First Street over the bridge into downtown, where shops are buzzing.

6 p.m.

Buon appetito Drive north to Yountville, a tiny town where you can sit beside a wood-burning fireplace on the terrazzo at Bottega Ristorante, which the chef Michael Chiarello opened in 2008: 6525 Washington Street, Yountville; 1-707-945-1050; botteganapavalley.com. Try the Polenta Under Glass, with caramelized mushrooms and balsamic game sauce ($12), and the Lamb & Egg: lamb sausage, peperonata, crispy soft-boiled egg, red endive and smoked olive-oil-poached mushrooms ($15). Another option is the remodeled Restaurant at Meadowood, which may have California's priciest tasting menu, from $500 with wine: 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena; 1- 707-967-1205; therestaurantatmeadowood.com. Besides the French Laundry, it's the only restaurant in the Bay Area with three Michelin stars.

9 p.m.

Seize the night When the tasting rooms close, tourists and young Valley dwellers compete for tables at Carpe Diem Wine Bar: 1001 Second Street, Napa; 1-707-224-0800; carpediemwinebar.com. Housed in the former Alexandria Hotel, the bar serves more than 40 wines by the glass, from small production wines to the $85-a-bottle Krug Grand Cuvee Champagne. Reserve a seat at the Uptown Theater, an Art Deco movie palace with acts like Ani DiFranco and Ladysmith Black Mambazo: 1350 Third Street, Napa; 1-707-259-0123; uptowntheatrenapa.com.

Saturday 9 a.m.

Breakfast picnic For exceptional oversize English muffins, start your Saturday at Model Bakery, a 100-year-old Napa Valley institution: 644 First Street, Building B, Napa; 1-707-259-1128; themodelbakery.com. Pick up a batard of bacon bread or a Northern California-style sourdough, and head next door to the Fatted Calf charcuterie, where you can buy salumis -- from the herbaceous air- dried salami Petit Sec aux Herbes to Spanish-style chorizo, pates and confits for picnicking among the vines and mustard blossoms: 644 C First Street, Napa; 1-707-256-3684; fattedcalf.com.

10 a.m.

Art house Drive into the Carneros hills to di Rosa, the former estate of Rene di Rosa, the founder of Winery Lake vineyards and an eccentric collector who devoted himself to the work of Northern California's emerging artists. …