Visiting Napa Valley is one of California’s ultimate wine experiences, and it’s right out our back door. Unfortunately, it’s often fraught with bad traffic, large tasting crowds and astronomical prices for sampling. Many folks don’t realize that there is another nearby area in east Napa County that boasts lakes, wooded hills, secluded wineries and serene little valleys. This gem is the Pope and Chiles Valley region and basically lies up in the hills to the east of Silverado Trail. It is a beautiful drive, and there rarely is any traffic.
One can actually make a horseshoe-shaped trip starting on the corner of Silverado Trail and State Route 128 going east around Lake Hennessey, up and through the Pope and Chiles valleys and then returning over Howell Mountain to the Silverado Trail.
It’s best to call ahead to make appoint–ments at the wineries in this region, although a few do accommodate walk-in customers. As you get about two-thirds the way around Lake Hennessey, there will be a boat launch on the left. The road to the right leads to the Pritchard Hill region, where you will find some very highly regarded wineries such as Chappellet, Del Dotto Vineyards, Bryant Family Vineyard, Versant Vineyards and Melancon. David Mondavi, Robert’s grandson, is starting a place there, too. A little further up the road, you will encounter a split and will need to detour to the right to visit Pat Kuleto’s fantastic mountaintop estate and winery, Kuleto Estate Winery. Kuleto occasionally holds one of the greatest outdoor dining experiences ever for his wine club, where members can feast on specialties from his three wood-fired pizza ovens and savor some roast pork from one of the two pig pits.
As you head up the picturesque road toward Pope Valley, there will be a right-hand turn off to Chiles Valley where you will find some really neat little wineries: RustRidge Winery, Nichelini and Volker Eisele Family Estate. Nichelini is a very historic place, having been there more than a hundred years. RustRidge is a beautiful 600-acre ranch with a charming bed and breakfast inn, a working thoroughbred ranch, some great wines and numerous winery dogs and cats. (It’s one of my favorite spots, partly because my wife, Kathy, and I are partners with Jim Fresquez and Susan Meyer in the operation, but also because of the total serenity of the place.) If you happen to spend the night, there is a charming Italian restaurant about 20 minutes away on the shore of Lake Berryessa called Cucina Italia. It’s very reasonable and authentic, as the chef mostly speaks Italian; fortunately his wife will take your order. Closer to RustRidge there is a little bar called the Turtle Rock Bar & Cafe with good beer and world-famous egg rolls.
As you head up into Pope Valley (which, by the way, is a great bicycling spot), there will be several little wineries, including Cosentino Winery, Eagle & Rose Estate and Pope Valley Winery. Sort of at the end is Aetna Springs Golf Course. If you were to continue north, it’s a great way to get to Lake County, but exploring that area is probably another day’s trip.
To return back down to the Napa Valley proper, it’s best to take the Howell Mountain road through Angwin. If you’re adventuresome, stop at the auto garage on the corner of Pope Valley Road and Howell Mountain Road and ask to see the bathtub full of rattlesnakes. There also are a goodly number of fine wineries in the region, including Ladera Vineyards, Livingston Moffett Winery, Dunn Vineyards and Bravante Vineyards (which is dog-friendly).
For all the mountain-biking crowd, Napa Valley Adventure Tours (napavalleyadventuretours.com/public/) recently started offering mountain bike tours ending at RustRidge with a barbecue and wine tasting, another fine way to explore this lesser-known region.