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
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.
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
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
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.
Chardonnay Golf Club
2555 Jameson Canyon Road
Napa, CA 94558
Fountaingrove Resort and Country Club
1525 Fountaingrove Parkway
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Napa Municipal Golf Course
2295 Streblow Drive
Napa, CA 94558
Silverado Country Club and Resort
1600 Atlas Peak Road
Napa, CA 94558
Silverado Golf Club
Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa
18140 Sonoma Highway
Sonoma, CA 95476
Sonoma Mission Inn Golf and Country Club
17700 Arnold Drive
Sonoma, CA 95476
Yountville Golf Course
7901 Solano Avenue
Yountville, CA 94559
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