NEGOTIATING NAPA VALLEY


WHEN TO VISIT
From January through April, the vines are dormant, but the hotels and restaurants are sparsely filled (some restaurants even close the first two weeks of the year), so it's a good, quiet time.

February through March is Napa Valley Mustard Festival time, when the vineyards are carpeted with beautiful yellow mustard plants.

May to June, things begin to warm up, with the Napa Valley Wine Auction, the biggest and glitziest wine auction in the country.

In July and August, the vines begin to bloom and, of course, the valley begins to swell with tourists.

September through October is the hottest time of year, but it's also the "crush," or harvest season, which can be the most interesting time of the growing season.

In November and December, things begin to settle down, the vintners take vacations, and the foliage much resembles the northeast.


WHERE TO STAY
Rustridge Ranch (707-965-9353; $165). High up in the hills, is a western-style ranch with thoroughbred horses and little-known but equally thoroughbred wines.

Scarlett's Country Inn (707-942-6669; $135-$205). Midway between Calistoga and St. Helena, is a hidden little b&b featuring a hot tub, pool, and one of the most congenial hosts around. The Inn at Southbridge (800-520-6800; $290), in St. Helena, was recently opened by the folks who brought you the Meadowood Resort.

Villagio Inn & Spa (800-351-1133; $250) is one of the valley's newest luxury hotels, complete with spa and faux-roman ruins.


NIGHTLIFE
The 1351 Lounge (707-963-1969) is the hippest nightspot in the entire valley. Also, no other place stays open as late - until 2 a.m.


GETTING AROUND
There are many ways, other than by car, to explore the Napa Valley. Bicycle rentals (St. Helena Cyclery, 707-963-7736) are plentiful. There are also a handful of hot air balloon companies; Adventures Aloft (800-944-4408) and Napa Valley Balloons (800-253-2224) are two of the oldest. Horseback riding is available through Napa Valley Trail Rides (707-996-8566). Sail up the Napa River with Five Star Yacht Charters (415-332-7187), or take a train ride on the Napa Valley Wine Train (800-427-4124), featuring vintage cars and a wine tasting bar.

For more information visit www.napavalley.com or call (707) 226-7459.