Winter is quiet time in wine country. Which makes it a very good time for a visit.
With harvest over and future bottles of wine resting peacefully in barrels and tanks, your chances of chatting with a winemaker when you visit a winery is higher. And as temperatures drop, so do crowds and prices, making a getaway less stressful on your psyche and wallet.
Cooler weather - temperatures can be in the 40s and 50s in January, warming up to the 60s in February and March - transforms the valley from exuberant summer splendor to a moodier hue. Winter rains turn hillsides deep green; in the vineyards dormant vines lift spindly arms to misty skies.
It all makes for some good eating weather. Now's the time to feast on the hearty braises and roasts that go best with Napa's robust red wines.
Grab a table near the fireplace at Bistro Don Giovanni, just north of Napa on Highway 29, and get ready to tuck into some seasonal fare, maybe fresh wild boar cooked slow and served with a red wine sauce. "When you have a great cab or syrah with that, I just think it's perfect," says Chef Donna Scala, who's noticed that people tend to linger at table in winter. "They enjoy eating more and they'll sit for hours."
For some exterior heat, jump into a mud bath in Calistoga, a small and charming town at the top of the valley known for its hot springs. Slipping into a vat of volcanic mud is the hard-core way to go, although you can opt for a soak in a mineral pool followed by various wraps and massages.
In late January, the valley gets a shot of color when the mustard planted as a cover crop for vines erupts in a burst of yellow. From Jan. 30-March 27, the humble plant is celebrated in a festival that includes music, art, dining and, of course, wine.
Wine tasting is a year-round pastime. Call ahead to make sure tasting rooms are open - many are by appointment only.
If you're staying in the city of Napa, a shortcut is to buy a $20 "Taste Napa Downtown" card from the Napa Valley Visitor Information Center. With that you can taste wine for a dime at 14 different tasting rooms in downtown Napa. The card also comes with other discounts.
For a wine-tasting with a difference, try Castello di Amorosa, a 121,000-square-foot replica of a 13th-century Tuscan castle off Highway 29 near Calistoga. The castle is a working winery with caves and tasting room, but also boasts such flourishes as a Great Hall, 72 feet long and 22 feet high, decorated with huge frescoes. Reservations recommended. Be sure to check out the dungeon and torture chamber.
If the weather outside should turn frightful - winter storms can give the region a drenching - it may be time to head underground. The weather's always good in a wine cave.
For a dose of history, visit Schramsberg Vineyards (by appointment only) at the top of the valley with its hand-hewn caves dug by Chinese workers in the 19th century. One visitor who was quite smitten was Robert Louis Stevenson, whose experiences in the Napa Valley of 1880 are included in "The Silverado Squatters."
Far Niente, also by appointment only, is another historic winery, founded in 1885. But its caves are surprisingly modern, started in 1980. Today, the winery has 40,000 square feet of caves that include an octagonal wine library and a number of 45-degree tunnels. The Stag's Leap Winery caves, meanwhile, feature a round room in the center with a Foucault pendulum suspended above the floor.
And then there's Jarvis, by appointment only, where the entire winery is underground, tucked into 45,000 square feet of caves tunneled into the Vacas Mountains.
After a long day of tasting, it's time to curl up by the fire - or sink into the hot tub - at your hotel. Places to stay in Napa Valley tend to range from quite expensive to very expensive, but there are off-season discounts available. The Napa Valley Destination Council lists some specials at http://www.legendarynapavalley.com .
Not everything in wine country comes with a price.
Terry Hall, spokesman for the Napa Valley Vintners likes walking around at this time of year, getting a whiff of wood fires burning and savoring the relaxed atmosphere. "It's just so romantic," he says. "It feels nice to be here at this time of year."