As fall’s chilly gusts begin to settle into the Northeast, the heat is rising in California. September and October are typically the driest, warmest months in the fabled Wine Country, ideal for basking in sunbaked vineyards.
Autumn is also harvest season — a serious matter in a state defined by agriculture, and where acres of grapevines come to fruition to make America’s most famous wines, some of them kosher. It’s also the season for film festivals, celebrating another very Californian passion.
While crowds choke California Highway 29, those in the know head north from San Francisco via the Silverado Trail, one of the most picturesque country roads in a state that’s full of them. The Silverado winds north through Napa Valley parallel to 29, through hillsides covered in grapevines that turn from green to gold and russet as the summer wanes.
Along the Silverado, a popular stop is Hagafen Winery, considered the area’s pioneer in kosher wine — and a consistent favorite of oenophiles. The tasting room entices with views of enchanting, Mediterranean-style gardens and samples of cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc and syrah.
Hagafen is among several attractions in Napa, the Valley’s eponymous main commercial town. Long considered a prosaic gateway to the more exclusive precincts of Yountville and St. Helena, the town is starting to reclaim some of its Gold Rush heritage — including the Napa Valley Opera House, a pink Art Nouveau building from 1880 that was recently restored and re-opened this year with an upstairs theater for plays, film and concerts, as well as a branch of the Blue Note jazz club.
The Opera House is a venue for the annual Napa Valley Film Festival in early November, which draws on the abundant local talent — legions of industry folk vacation here — to screen 120 films of many genres in Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga. Wine from 150 wineries flows throughout the five-day event, where audience members can mingle with filmmakers and feast on seasonal cuisine.
Venue-hoppers will note that the landscape softens as you drive north and west; the hills become greener, lusher, more evocative of Tuscany, at least to my eyes. At the far edge of Napa, Calistoga lives up to its wagon-evocative name as a quintessential Western frontier town. Set amid forested mountains, the downtown boasts a well-preserved stretch of vintage façades, with a sprinkling of galleries to browse.
Winery tours are the most popular activity in Calistoga, but nearly everyone who visits the Sharpsteen Museum leaves raving about it. A loving homage to Calistoga and its vivid, varied culture, the museum was created by the Sharpsteen family, including Ben Sharpsteen, an Academy Award-winning Disney animator whose old Hollywood memorabilia, including one of his Oscars, is on display.
In a series of lacy white buildings — one of which belonged to a Jewish pioneer family, another was part of the original 1860s resort that put Calistoga on the map — the history of this Western spa town comes alive in fascinating dioramas, antique photographs, and other artifacts depicting Napa through the decades. Each season brings a quirky new exhibit; the current one is “Treasures from the Button Box,” featuring 300 years’ worth of collectible buttons from the Sonoma County Button Club.
West of Napa, bordering the Pacific, Sonoma is a valley full of wineries, weekend farmers’ markets and old-fashioned country towns — as well as several festivals worth checking out. The Wine Country Film Festival, in tiny, woodsy Kenwood, is celebrating its 30th year with an eclectic lineup from Sept. 22-25. And the Sonoma Jewish Film Festival, a popular series in October and November at the Sonoma JCC, unites the community for movies from Israel, Hungary, France and the Netherlands.
At any time of year, the film-obsessed can spend an afternoon at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, on Sonoma’s northern fringe. There’s something for everyone at the movie-set-perfect villa: guided tours of movie memorabilia for “Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” fans; a fancy restaurant and free wine tastings for the gourmet set; and from April through October, a big, beautiful swimming pool with lounge chairs and cabanas, surrounded by lovely gardens and filled with happy families.
The next town south is Healdsburg, whose quaint charm makes it a favorite among Wine Country connoisseurs. Another draw: the Oakville Grocery, a light-filled, rustic market that has fed Westerners since the 1880s. The original Napa Valley location is actually California’s oldest continuously operating grocery store, but both are shrines to the kind of local, artisanal fare that put this region on the foodie map.
None of this fare comes cheap — at Oakville Grocery, or elsewhere — but the resulting picnic provisions ensure some tasty memories.