5 Free Things to Do in California's Napa Valley

Article excerpt

NAPA, Calif. - Love the lush and lovely Napa Valley but hate how expensive it can be? You're not the first. In the late 19th century, writer Robert Louis Stevenson moved his honeymoon to the rustic but free setting of an abandoned mining camp when the $10-a- week going rate for Calistoga hotels proved too much for his slender purse.

You're not likely to find free lodging today, even if it is in a beat-up cabin. But there are a number of things you can enjoy in California's premiere wine region at no charge.

Scenery

There are two main ways to see the Napa Valley by car.

Highway 29 is a straight shot from the south end of the valley - marked by the famous Grape Crusher Statue - through Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga. Along the way are dozens of restaurants and wineries, including the Robert Mondavi Winery and Inglenook, the winery restored by director Francis Ford Coppola. Be aware traffic gets heavy at rush hour and slows to a crawl when there's a big event going on, such as the annual wine auction held the first weekend in June.

To reach the Grape Crusher Statue from Highway 29 (heading north from the San Francisco Bay area), turn left onto Soscol Ferry Road, continue on Vista Point Drive, then continue onto Napa Valley Corporate Drive and then right at the statue.

The other driving option is the Silverado Trail, which is most easily picked up by taking the Trancas Street exit from Highway 29 in Napa and then turning left when you see the sign for the Silverado Trail. The trail more or less runs parallel to Highway 29 but is quieter, winding through green vistas of vineyards and rolling hills. Wineries along this route include Mumm Napa Valley.

Wineries

The days when winery owners routinely poured their wares for free are no more, though several wineries offer two-for-one tasting coupons (check online before you visit), and others will waive tasting fees if you buy a bottle to take home. But there is still at least one winery offering tariff-free tasting. That would be Sutter Home Family Vineyards - the people who introduced America to white zinfandel in the 1970s - in St. Helena.

Stop by the charming tasting room on Highway 29 in St. Helena (277 St. Helena Highway) and taste up to four wines free from the eight-wine tasting menu, which includes a zinfandel port. …