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By Lee Foster

When I think of the California passion for creating good Cabernet wine, it almost equals the earlier California effort to find gold.

Though many adventurers were drawn to California in search of gold nuggets during the 1848 Gold Rush, some discovered that the true gold lay in agriculture.

No agricultural product has been pursued with more passion than the growing of grapes and making of wine, especially Cabernet wine in the Napa Valley.

Three wineries in the Napa Valley can be celebrated for their historic contribution to the development of California wine, their architectural significance, and their vital place in wine production today.

While there are 240 wineries in the Napa Valley, making the choice of where to tour and taste a challenge, these three well-aged gems are sure to delight a traveler.

The wineries are Niebaum-Coppola in Rutherford, Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena, and Robert Mondavi in Oakville.

Niebaum-Coppola was the creation of Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum, who arrived in 1876 and built a classic structure known as the Inglenook Chateau. The handsome brown stone building, covered with ivy, is an architectural treasure in the Napa Valley. Niebaum’s wine goal was the production of rich Bordeaux-style Cabernets. In recent years the movie director Francis Ford Coppola and his family purchased the winery, restored its wine-making reputation with the Coppola Diamond Series and Rubicon labels, and established a Parisian-style park and fountains in front of the winery for the enjoyment of the public. Inside, you can see memorabilia from the Niebaum era and from Coppola movie-making. There are two tasting rooms, one casual and one more formal. A store and café sell Coppola wine and food, mainly pasta and sauces. An elaborate tour and tasting is available at Niebaum-Coppola for a fee.

The great German Riesling wine-making traditions of the Rhine and Mosel river valleys contributed several pioneers to the Napa Valley. Foremost among these were the Beringer Brothers, who arrived in 1876 and built their palatial Rhine House and winery. The Rhine House is another outstanding architectural treasure of the Napa region. As in the old country, the Beringers dug caves deep into the limestone hills to provide a year-round climate-controlled, cool environment for their wines. Wine stored in barrels in caves, which are high in humidity, also did not lose much liquid through evaporation. A cave visit is part of the tour at Beringer. The lawns, oak trees, and stately house at Beringer Vineyards make the scene inviting. Basic tour and tasting are complimentary. Additional tasting of select wines is for a fee. Beringer puts emphasis on the white wine varietal of choice for the modern drinker, Chardonnay, but still also makes a Riesling.

The name Robert Mondavi is legendary in the modern era of the Napa Valley, that period since the 1960s when Americans once again learned to enjoy wine. The Valley flourished with wine-making before Prohibition, but was decimated when the Volstead Act of 1919 made wine-making illegal. The Great Experiment, as some called Prohibition, lasted 1919-1933. Sons from a generation of wine families went into other businesses. However, a few families persisted, among them the Mondavis, holding their acreage together. There were 140 wineries in the Napa Valley in 1890, but only 25 in 1965. Robert Mondavi has been a tireless spokesman for the joy of moderate wine drinking as an element in the good life. His Cliff May-designed winery, with echoes of California Mission architecture, is in Rutherford. Basic tour and tasting is complimentary. A fee is charged for tasting the Reserve wines. Mondavi is respected for its big-flavored Cabernets.

For a pleasing outing, drive north on Highway 29 and stop at the three wineries. Then turn east and drive south along the eastern side of the valley on the scenic Silverado Trail, where the rustic pleasure of the vineyard landscape greets you.

To get these, drive north from San Francisco on either the west side of the Bay on Highway 101 or the east side on Interstate 80. Depart from the major road to pick up Highway 29 and drive north through the Napa Valley.

Be sure to see each of these wineries. All are on the left side of the road. The first of the three wineries you’ll encounter is the Robert Mondavi Winery, 7801 St. Helena Highway (Highway 29), Oakville, 707/259-9463, www.robertmondavi.com. Next comes the Niebaum-Coppola Winery, 1991 St. Helena Highway, Rutherford, 707/968-1100, www.niebaum-coppola.com. Finally, you’ll see Beringer Vineyards, St. Helena Highway, St. Helena, 707/963-7115, www.beringer.com. North of Beringer, turn east on any side road, then drive south on the Silverado Trail to savor vineyards, far from the traffic and development along Highway 29. Napa Valley wineries are open roughly 10 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week, with hours sometimes longer in summer, shorter in winter.

Any time of the year is good, but the autumn months of September-October are especially pleasing. Then the bustle of the grape harvest is under way and the vine leaves are changing from shades of green to flaming reds and yellows. Autumn is almost as popular as summer, the peak travel time, so travelers desiring the quietest period visit here during the Mustard Festival, February-April, when the fields are colorful with wild mustard and many musical and art events are scheduled.

When thinking of lodging, know that the city of Napa enjoyed a bucolic Victorian gentility at the turn of the century. Some of the great houses built at that time have become B&Bs today. One example is the Beazley House, with its half-acre of lawns and tranquil gardens. The Beazley House is at 1910 First Street, Napa, CA 94559, 800/559-1649, www.beazleyhouse.com.

For dining, try the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant in the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, 2555 Main Street, St. Helena, 707/967-1010. The restaurant is located in a massive stone structure from 1889 known as Greystone, one of the largest stone buildings in the world. Originally envisioned as a cooperative winery by its creator, William Bourn, Greystone flourished 1950-1989 as a winery for the Christian Brothers. Try the Chef’s Tastings plate as an appetizer, perhaps followed by the Grilled Pacific Tuna.

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CALIFORNIA’S NAPA VALLEY: IF YOU GO

For Further Information: Contact the Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau (1310 Napa Town Center, Napa, CA 94559, 707/226-7459, www.napavalley.com).

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