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Vintage Greens: Golf in California's Wine Country
by Karen Misuraca

Living in Sonoma, birthplace of the California wine industry, makes my husband and me the envy of our friends. We can walk out our front door and stroll to some of the best wineries in the state. Literally hundreds more are within a short drive throughout Sonoma and Napa Counties — the densest concentration of wineries in North America.

When friends arrive at our house for the weekend, they want not only a wine tasting tour, they want to play golf. And, there is nothing we enjoy more than showing off "our" golf courses in the Wine Country. Within the Sonoma and Napa Valleys are six top notch golf clubs.

Right on the outskirts of Sonoma, in an idyllic, forested area called the Valley of the Moon, the Sonoma Mission Inn Golf and Country Club was recently upgraded to the tune of $8.5 million, transforming the 1928 Sam Whiting design into one of the most demanding and beautiful in the state. Unlike many of the courses we've played where the fairways are lined with houses, this layout is surrounded by vineyards and meadows, with no residential development. Rambling over hill and dale in the shadow of the Mayacamas Mountains, the 7,087-yard course meanders among mature valley oaks, redwoods and eucalyptus, and is enlivened by eighty sand bunkers, three lakes and a rushing creek, with water on eight holes. Two of the par fives are well over five hundred yards and two are nearly six hundred yards.

We try to save our strength for the finishing holes. The short, par three 17th has no fairway, just tees and a two-level green fronted by four deep, greedy bunkers. Hitting beyond the green here, and on most of the holes at Sonoma, is asking for trouble.

A dogleg with a fiendishly placed fairway bunker, the 18th has huge trees along the right side, and a creek and three sand traps guarding the green. Fortunately the terrace café and bar is within staggering distance.

Catering to glamorous guests from the Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa, the golf club maintains pristine greens and one of the prettiest driving ranges a golfer will ever see; we often hit a few practice balls here on Sunday mornings, then have brunch in the restaurant.

A five minute drive away from the golf course, the Sonoma Mission Inn looks like a triple-layer pink cake with white icing trim, a 1920's era extravaganza of a building graced with tall palms and gardens. Originally a hot springs resort, the inn underwent a $20 million renovation and expansion in 2000, which included the elaborate Roman-style spa — named "Best Resort Spa" by Gourmet magazine — and comfy, fireplace rooms. Pure, hot mineral waters bubble out of the ground into two swimming pools, and into tubs in some of the rooms. We like to end a hard day on the links with a "Revitalizer" in the spa, a two-hour treatment incorporating an Ayurvedic herbal body scrub, a detoxifying aromatherapy massage, and hot linen wrap — aaaahhh.

A few minutes from the Inn are world-famous wineries, including Chateau St. Jean; one of their Cabernet Sauvignons was listed this year by the Wine Spectator magazine as one of the best wines in the world. Nearby in Glen Ellen, Benziger Family Winery is the only one in either the Sonoma or Napa Valleys where you can take an open-air tram ride through the vineyards, browse in an art gallery and picnic in an oak grove.

A short stroll from the historic plaza in Sonoma, Ravenswood Winery is tucked into a piney hillside. Hearty Zinfandels, Merlots and Cabernets are the award-winners in the tasting room; their motto is "No Wimpy Wines". One of our favorite walks, of about an hour, starts at the winery and rambles up the quiet road under mossy oaks, past creeks, canyons and rolling vineyards — a dazzling sight in March and April when waves of golden, wild mustard, two and three feet high, blanket the ground beneath the grape vines.

Another Sonoma winery, Buena Vista is one of the oldest in the state, a lovely, vine-covered stone manor surrounded by ancient oaks where picnickers linger over bottles of medal-winning Cabernets, Pinots and Chardonnays. And, a few miles south of Sonoma, Viansa Winery is a tile-roofed, terra-cotta-colored Tuscan villa overlooking a vast wetlands where thousands of migrating birds and ducks can be seen. Sangiovese, Vernaccia, and Trebbiano are some of the unusual grapes blended into the Viansa wines, besides the traditional Cabernet and Chardonnay.

A fifteen-minute drive from here is another golf course that received a recent facelift, Fountaingrove Resort and Country Club, a 1985 Ted Robinson design on a steep hillside overlooking the Santa Rosa Valley. On a clear day you can see the Pacific from the wraparound deck of the clubhouse, spiffed up with a $3 million renovation. Robinson was called in again in 1998 to work his magic. He added a fourth set of tees for playability, a set of cascading waterfalls on the 9th and 18th, and rebuilt the bent grass greens with deceptive undulations. Fast-growing redwoods were planted to enhance the beautiful oak forest.

Along with some of my high-handicapper friends, I have a struggle with the sidehill lies, the boulders, the reedy marshes and the ravines, although the new tees do help. After the demands of Fountaingrove, we usually head for Paradise Ridge Winery, just up the road, and station ourselves on the shady deck with a bottle of lemony, cool Sauvignon Blanc.

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We always take our visitors to the Napa Valley, undeniably ground zero for California wines, and for golf, too. A narrow, winding, river valley, aflame with red and gold vineyards during the harvest season, it reminds many people of European wine regions. There are 72 holes of championship golf here, and a very pretty 9-holer.

Each year in October, more than fifty thousand golf lovers come out to watch the Transamerica PGA Senior Golf Championship at the Silverado Country Club and Resort in the Napa Valley. In 1999, senior tour rookies Tom Watson, Tom Kite and Lanny Wadkins battled it out with Bruce Fleisher, who won the lion's share of the $1.1 million purse.

Dozens of century-old, overhanging trees line the fairways of the two 18-hole, Robert Trent Jones, Jr. courses at Silverado. The 6,896-yard North layout is known for deceiving sidehill lies and more than thirteen crossings of Milliken Creek. The South course has creeks and ponds on eleven holes and elevated, tiered greens, the designer's trademark. A 500-yard, par-five dogleg obstructed by tall pines, the 18th hole ends in a picturesque garden setting below the verandah of the mansion, on a green guarded by yawning, Sahara-like bunkers. Arnold Palmer thrilled Transamerica crowds in 1993 when he eagled the 18th on the first and final rounds. At the 1999 tournament, David Duval nearly gave his father, Bob Duval, heart failure when he appeared, as a surprise, as his dad's caddy on the first tee.

Anchoring the 1,200-acre grounds at Silverado is a circa-1870, white-pillared, ante-bellum-style mansion built on an original Spanish land grant. The gracious gardens are shaded by towering eucalyptus, palms, oaks, and magnolias with creamy white, dinner-plate-sized blooms, seductively fragrant in the spring and summer. When we want to impress a business associate — or somebody's mother-in-law — we bring them here.

Scattered about Silverado's lush gardens and courtyards are condominium and cottage accommodations, nine swimming pools, a brand new beauty and fitness spa, restaurants and the largest tennis complex in Northern California. When I am entertaining non-golfing women, I send them to the spa for the "Golf Widow", a three-hour binge of massage, a facial, manicure and pedicure. Men seem to like the hydro-massage with a hundred air and water jets, and the old-fashioned Swedish massage.

A Silverado Country Club member and valley resident, PGA and Senior PGA star, Johnny Miller, said of these courses: "They are so popular because they are traditional, natural designs, not tricked up with railroad ties and funny bunkers, and the place is run like a gracious, old-style resort."

Miller also likes the Chardonnay Golf Club, at the south end of the Napa Valley. He said of the two courses here, "They are real championship courses, they're difficult, and definitely windier."

Chardonnay Golf Club is an anomaly, a links course surrounded not by the ocean but by a sea of vineyards. In the Fall, the air smells like ripening wine grapes, and the leafy vines, heavy with fruit, hide the golf balls that lie out-of-bounds. Draped over low hills where the Napa Valley broadens and sweeps toward the top of San Francisco Bay, Chardonnay's two courses are dependably breezy and cooled by fog from the Golden Gate. Club member, Daniel "Scotty" Scott, said, "A true links course has few trees, a lot of sand dunes, gentle, rolling hills and, of course, the ocean. Chardonnay comes close to this. Just imagine the sea running alongside and you have a perfect links course."

Born and raised in St. Andrews, Scotland, home of the most famous golf course of all — the 500-year-old Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews — Scott said, "As a laddie of 7 and 8, I caddied on the Old Course and found she wore many gowns, according to the time of year and the weather. You never know what you're going to encounter at St. Andrews, and that's true of Chardonnay."

A rugged layout with deep gullies and cliff-top tees, the public Vineyards course at Chardonnay recently underwent major changes which included flipping the front to the back nine, softening some mounds and rocky outcroppings, and extending playable, grassy primary rough into previously wild and woolly, ball-grabbing gorse. I learned to play on this course, and now look back on my frustrations, realizing that the Vineyards was a stiff challenge for a beginner. The sleek, 7,000-yard Club Shakespeare Course at Chardonnay, with a demanding 74.4 rating, is open to members of other private clubs, and a new public course, Eagle Vines, will open here in early 2001.

Nearby Chardonnay, and unknown to most visitors to the Wine Country, the city-owned Napa Municipal Golf Course is one of the best maintained and most challenging munis in the state. The long, tough stretch on rolling terrain along a tributary of the Napa River has water on fourteen holes and hundreds of large pine, Sequoia and oak trees. Recent additions of paved cart paths, improved drainage and a new clubhouse brought this course up to speed with the other valley courses. Although a very busy club with reasonable green frees, it is possible to "walk on" as a single, as my husband often does.

Hidden in an enchanted forest glen "upvalley" off the Silverado Trail, an upscale resort, Meadowood Napa Valley, has a short, tight, fun to play nine-hole executive course on a 256-acre estate, along with tournament English croquet courts and tennis courts. You can play here if you are a guest at the resort, or on a reciprocal basis from another private club.

You tee off below a posh country lodge reminiscent of the 1920's. The 2001-yard, par 31 course is a cozy Shangri-La of spreading oaks, madrones, and spring-flowering dogwoods. The major challenge comes on the second hole, a 180-yard, par three over two ponds, with tall pines hovering above. One of the Relais and Chateau collection of luxurious country inns, Meadowood boasts a fine restaurant presided over by Steven Tevere, formerly of the restaurant Boulevard in San Francisco, which was been touted as one of the country's best.

Chilled Dungeness crab with three caviars may show up on Tevere's menu in the winter, while country-style rack of lamb with fennel, arugula, olives and garlic is a springtime favorite. Home of the annual Napa Valley Wine Auction, a four-day, $5 million event attended by deep-pocket bidders and wine lovers from all over the world, Meadowood pampers guests with signature spa treatments, like the grapeseed mud wrap; separate swimming pools for adults and children, wine education seminars, and even a Director of Cultural Affairs!

Five minutes from Meadowood, on Highway 29 in the heart of the Napa Valley is a walkable, nine-hole layout in a spectacular vineyard setting at the foot of Mount Veeder. Quite new, the Yountville Golf Course fairways are lined with giant redwoods and dotted with young trees, with a small creek and ponds. We find it calming to watch the great blue herons and snowy egrets stalk silently in the lily ponds as we dodge the willow branches and practice our short game, usually getting around in a couple of hours, leaving plenty of time for wine-tasting.

The café terrace at the golf club here overlooks the vineyards of Domaine Chandon, a French-owned, sparkling wine cellar where visitors wander under the oaks, tour the winery and sip Blanc de Noirs, a blossomy-pink bubbly. Also within walking distance of the golf course is the Napa Valley Museum, and art galleries, shops and restaurants in the tiny village of Yountville. When we can get a reservation, which is not often, we go with friends to the French Laundry in Yountville, a vine-covered temple of country French and California cuisine, so revered and desired it has no sign out front. The Los Angeles Times Magazine said of Chef Joseph Keller, "(he) just might be the best chef in California."

We direct our most dedicated wine buff friends to the demonstration vineyards and exhibits about grape-growing and winemaking at St. Supery Winery and Discovery Center in Rutherford, a tiny hamlet in mid- valley.

If after a day of golf we have time to visit only one winery, it is invariably Coppola Estate Winery, owned by the movie-maker, Francis Ford Coppola, who had his Hollywood set designers transform a 19th century stone chateau into spectacular winery, gift store, museum and Victorian-style park. We like to stop in at the elegant Mammarella Café here — a cozy wine and cigar bar — then stroll through the cool, stone cellars into the retail room to check out home accessories, art and books, and tip a glass of Black Label Claret, redolent of dark fruits, blackberry and cherry. Coppola's movie Oscars are on display in his personal museum, here, including the boat from "Apocalypse Now" and costumes from "Bram Stoker's Dracula".

For the ultimate finale to a weekend of golfing and wine tasting, we head for Calistoga, the little tree-shaded Victorian spa town at the north end of the Napa Valley. Just as visitors a hundred years ago came in their horse-drawn carriages to "take the waters", we and our golfing buddies sink into soothing, warm mud baths and float in hot mineral springs pools, and try to lift our weary arms for a last sip of wine.

Article Resources

Chardonnay Golf Club
2555 Jameson Canyon Road
Napa, CA 94558
800-788-0136, 707-257-1900
http://www.chardonnaygolfclub.com

Fountaingrove Resort and Country Club
1525 Fountaingrove Parkway
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
707-579-GOLF

Napa Municipal Golf Course
2295 Streblow Drive
Napa, CA 94558
707-255-4333
http://www.playnapa.com

Silverado Country Club and Resort
1600 Atlas Peak Road
Napa, CA 94558
800-532-0500, 707-257-0200
Silverado Golf Club
707-257-5460
http://www.silveradoresort.com

Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa
18140 Sonoma Highway
Sonoma, CA 95476
800-862-4945, 707-938-9000
http://www.sonomamissioninn.com

Sonoma Mission Inn Golf and Country Club
17700 Arnold Drive
Sonoma, CA 95476
707-996-0300

Yountville Golf Course
7901 Solano Avenue
Yountville, CA 94559
707-944-1992
http://www.YountvilleGC.com

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