The Inn Thing

A quartet of lodgings makes for a fantastic first impression of California Wine Country
By Gary Peterson

I was showing off, telling my wife how the putt would break. Of course, I missed. Didn’t matter, though. She knows I stink at golf, and that I’m a whole lot better at picking a trip.


Above: Lovely 1801 First offers wine tastings and hors d’oeuvres to guests staying at the inn. Beautiful rooms, lush landscaping and laid-back luxury make an overnight here a great choice. 1801 First photo

Middle: A view from Shannon Ridge’s namesake peak showcases the vineyard and Mount Konocti. Shannon Ridge photo

Below: The Tallman Hotel in Upper Lake traces its history to Lake County’s founding in 1856. Tallman Hotel

West Baden

Case in point: My bad putting lesson didn’t take place on a putting green in the backyard of a hotel. That hotel–Honor Mansion–continued the theme of our California Wine Country getaway, which saw lodging after lodging vie to be our longest-lasting memory.

All four lodgings still tug at our recollection whenever we share out photos. In total, they helped create an experience so memorable that we convinced my brother-in-law and sister-in-law to detour from a San Francisco vacation into wine country.

Their reaction was the same as ours: We should’ve stayed longer.

North to Napa

Our wine country escape began as soon as we got away from Interstate 80 north of San Francisco, and when we reached downtown Napa, we knew we were someplace different. The stroll there from our inn was a pleasant exploration of a city center remaking itself. Capitalizing on the historical buildings that crowd the riverfront, the small-town-like square welcomes diners like us.

Our inn, 1801 First, was equally appealing with its lush landscaping and laid-back luxury. Plus, hors d’oeuvres and wine tastings warmed an evening that ended in a romantically lit room.

Walking a neighborhood gave way to country estate living the next day at Wine Country Inn in St. Helena farther north. The sprawling resort has rooms ranging from cottages to more modest accommodations, but all of them are surrounded by grapevine heaven.

Wine Country Inn takes complete advantage of its setting, rolling out its Wine Inn-cursion tour for guests. The outing visits area wineries and includes lunch, all with shuttle service. Guests can sample all the wine they want with the luxury of a designated driver–a driver who also knows the best places to find the best taste and hospitality Napa has to offer.

For us, it was the funky Casa Nuestra. It had a psychedelic feel, culminating with its Two Goats label (named for the pair roaming the adjacent pasture). The tasting was peppered with funny anecdotes, especially ones related to the Elvis photo on the wall. Yet, what stuck with me most was the owner’s philosophy that wine is “liquid art.”

Lazing in Lake County

The trip became even more rustic when we reached Lake County. Where Napa is neat and happening, Lake County is a little more ramshackle and mellow. It’s also higher and drier than Napa, and it used to be California’s leading grape grower. Prohibition killed production, since resuscitated in the 1970s.

We checked out its progress at our most natural choice, Shannon Ridge. When leaving the Clearlake Oaks’ winery’s small tasting room, we found the ridge was immediately apparent, and the view from atop was adjective-worthy. In addition to the meticulous rows of grapes populating a repurposed walnut and almond grove, there also was the enviable look at Clear Lake, the county’s signature feature.

If we had to name a signature lodging, we would be hard-pressed to beat the Tallman Hotel in Upper Lake, off the lake’s northwest side. Formerly a spot of some renown, the building had long since deteriorated. Resurrected by Lynne and Bernie Butcher in a self-professed labor of love, Tallman epitomizes Lake County–unassumingly beautiful, eagerly hospitable and definitely deserving more attention.

The Butchers picked the Tallman site for their work because they wanted something of substance to re-create rather than build something new. The project took on its own life, leading to cottages and a re-creation of the Blue Wing, the next-door saloon. Sitting in the side yard between the two, immersed in good conversation and good food, was a perfect way to bid farewell to a summer day.

Saluting Sanoma

We crossed the Costal Range the next morning as we headed southwest on our final day in Wine Country. The curving mountain road left my wife woozy but rewarded us with scenery that forced us to stop the car. We made a brief layover to explore a rock formation and tranquil creek just steps from the busy highway.

We finally tore ourselves away and made it to Healdsburg, where we were to spend the night at Honor Mansion. Graceful from the street, the AAA four Diamond-rated inn really turns on the charm. Rooms are immaculate and the grounds are country-club quality. Even so, they were bested by owners Steve and Cathi Fowler. Intent on ensuring we took in the splendor of thte county, they drew up an itinerary as we stood just outside the kitchen.

They couldn’t have been more right in their suggestion to visit Passalacqua Winery and the Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve. We had lunch overlooking the vineyards at the winery, basking in an atmosphere that welcomes first-timers and repeaters alike. It was intimate, like hanging out on a friend’s very nice deck.

Afterward, we touched ancient California at Armstrong Woods–a stand of redwoods spared from logging a century ago. We hiked the park, pausing to put into perspective what we were seeing and touching. Some of the trees had stood for a millennium; our moment there was but a blink in time.
But what a time it was.

Gary Peterson is editor of Home & Away magazine in Omaha, Neb.

Nov/Dec 2009 Issue


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