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Secrets of the Napa Valley

While the Napa Valley region of California is a very popular wine destination, you don’t necessarily have to do what the natives do, so to speak. There are some off-the-beaten-path things that are available in Napa which are every bit as enjoyable as the usual things. Here’s a sampling:

There aren’t that many vineyards in the Napa Valley

Although it has casually been dubbed California’s wine country, Napa Valley is hardly the state’s largest wine-producing region (that honor goes to San Joaquin Valley, 80 miles southeast). Napa’s 400 wineries produce only 4 percent of the state’s wine. The focus here is quality, not quantity. But I suppose that is old news, especially if you frequent the area on a regular basis.

A kitchen shop with character

Shackford’s Kitchen Store in downtown Napa has a seemingly endless selection of gleaming gizmos: cupcake molds, paella pans, cappuccino makers. But the most compelling item in the place is John Shackford himself, a true Napa legend who runs the shop with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. At 80, Shackford works in the store six days a week, just as he has for the past 34 years, punching an antique cash register, hand-printing receipts, and calling his customers by first name. 1350 Main St., Napa, 707/226-2132.

A wine tour using legs, not limos

In the town of Napa, 18 tasting rooms stand within easy walking distance of one another, and a $20 Taste Napa Downtown card gets you a pour at 13 of them. Officially, each winery is supposed to charge you 10¢ to do the tasting, but most won’t take your dime.

The Preiser Key tells all

Consider Monty and Sara Preiser your all-knowing wine country guides. They’re the couple who in March 2007 launched The Preiser Key to Napa Valley, a free booklet that comes as close as possible to listing every Napa wine label (over 800) and restaurant (170) — but no chains! The Key also includes detailed maps of the region. They put out a new issue three times a year and distribute it all throughout the valley. Visit:

It’s all casual, all the time

In Napa, there’s no such thing as a dress code, even in the poshest places. So that bearded guy in weathered blue jeans sitting at the next table? He’s probably just the billionaire from next door.

Fainting goats. Yes, fainting goats!

In Calistoga, a town near the top of the valley known for its hot springs, there’s a regularly erupting geyser called — you guessed it — Old Faithful. You’ll want to tread lightly; the area near the geyser is also home to a herd of Tennessee fainting goats, a quirky breed with a nervous-system disorder that causes them to keel over (harmlessly and temporarily) when startled. 1299 Tubbs Ln., Calistoga, 707/942-6463; $10 adults, $3 kids 6–12.

The road less traveled

When the traffic bottlenecks on Highway 29, Napa’s central thoroughfare, find salvation on the 35-mile Silverado Trail, a pastoral road along the valley’s eastern edge that’s lined with world-class, often small-batch wineries whose labels you’re unlikely to find at your local grocery store. Visit:

The two-wheel option

Founded 22 years ago, Napa Valley Bike Tours is an area fixture. Among the staff’s favorite routes to lead you on is the Rutherford Loop, a 16-mile spin that meanders through the Rutherford and Oakville appellations, known for their cabernets, before depositing you back at the shop. If you’d rather go solo, you can pick up a map with other suggested routes. 6795 Washington St., Bldg. B, Yountville, 800/707-2453; tours from $134, rentals $35 per day.

There’s a respectable oil industry – olive, that is

Forget grapes — olives are another treasured Napa crop. Round Pond Estate, one of the valley’s top olive oil producers, offers guided tours that lead you from harvest to mill and culminate in tastings paired with cheese and freshly baked bread. 886 Rutherford Rd., Rutherford, 888/302-2575, tours $25, by appointment.

There are lots of great deals to be had in this wine nirvana!

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