Take the whine out of wine country

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NAPA, Calif. -- It's easy to see why adults might enjoy a trip to California wine country -- a chance to taste dozens of wines, what's not to like? -- but children might be less excited by the prospect.

Think back to when you were a child: Would you really want to stand around while your parents discussed the hints of grapefruit in a sauvignon blanc? For a kid, that's dullsville.

But it turns out there are plenty of child-friendly activities in California's wine country. With a little effort, it's possible to plan a balanced vacation to satisfy all family members.

Our first stop, Napa's Trefethen Vineyards, was definitely not the right place for kids. Signs near the winery's otherwise inviting patio tables warned visitors: "Thank you for not picnicking." No place to feed the kids a snack here. By contrast, many other wineries encourage family picnics, including V. Sattui in St. Helena, with 2 1/2 acres of shaded picnic space for guests to enjoy selections from its winery, marketplace or deli. V. Sattui also puts on weekend barbecues and offers one of the lower-priced tastings: $5 for a flight of six wines.

If you go: Napa/Sonoma

Wine tasting

Other activities

Vacationing families may benefit from the free magazine Wine Country This Week (WineCountryThisWeek.com), found near the front door of most wineries. It lists a dozen pages of wineries with notations that include "children/pets OK." But one of the most kid-friendly wineries we found did not garner such a notation.

St. Supery in Rutherford -- between Napa and St. Helena on Highway 29 -- has bocce ball courts and a kid-friendly, self-guided winery tour. The tour includes a "smell-o-vision" display that allows guests to acquaint themselves with assorted aromas, including dried wild flowers, black pepper and new mown hay. Signs explain that "the taste of a wine should confirm its smell."

Our server in the tasting room (four tastings for $15) said children are sometimes allowed to pick grapes at St. Supery, which has an upscale, classy feel without the stuffy vibe that might suggest children are unwelcome.

Ann Johnson of Palo Alto visited St. Supery with her husband and 5-year-old twins for a kid-friendly reason: "We knew it had a big lawn that's fun for the kids to run around on."

Some wineries exude more kid appeal than others. Castello di Amorosa (aka the Castle Winery) is a 107-room, eight-level behemoth complete with a drawbridge, moat, dungeon, torture chamber and 900 feet of caves.

But that kind of entertainment comes with a price: A castle tour and tasting costs $32 per person, $22 for children ages 5-20, which includes a juice.

Get training

Many children love trains, many parents love wine. Put them together, and you've got the Napa Valley Wine Train, an excursion railroad that departs from downtown Napa for lunch and dinner rides up Napa Valley to St. Helena and back.

But be warned: Wine is not included in the wine train gourmet dinner ticket price ($99 per person) but is available for purchase for $7-$20 per glass. (Wine is included with the Vista Dome dinner package, $129 per person.)

On a recent ride, dinner consisted of hors d'oeuvres, a baby lettuce salad with candied walnuts and goat cheese, sorbet, a choice of entrees (the beef tenderloin was melt-in-your-mouth delicious) and a dessert. The meal makes this attraction ideal for pregnant women, too, since wine is more of an accompaniment rather than the excursion's raison d'etre.

But for those looking to drink, the Wine Train does serve as a tasting room on rails, with one car of the train devoted to wine tastings ($10 for four tastes). That's where Wine Train employee Larry Dougherty, a Wheeling, W.Va., native, was pouring.

Sonal and Abhijit Atambe of Saratoga, Calif., celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary on the Wine Train and brought their sons, ages 8 and 14, with them. The Atambes may have had the best idea for entertaining a child during a wine country visit: They gave their youngest a Nintendo DSi XL handheld video game system. The Atambes were onto something: Several other children in the Wine Train waiting room happily and quietly absorbed themselves with handheld video games or cell phones.

For a less costly, more child-sized train excursion, visit Sonoma's TrainTown, which features seven amusement park rides, including the centerpiece, a quarter-scale railroad that runs along four miles of track.

A 20-minute train ride, which includes a stop at a petting zoo, costs $4.75 per person, but admission to the park is free.

Downtown Napa and Sonoma

Downtown Sonoma has always been an appealing destination with its quaint town square, a central plaza surrounded by shops, restaurants and tasting rooms that make it easy to plan a picnic lunch.

Just pick up bread from the Basque Boulangerie Cafe and cheese and sausage from The Sonoma Cheese Factory, which also sells sandwiches and picnic lunches, and head for a table on the grass-covered plaza, which also boasts at least two sets of swings and play equipment.

You can even bring wine to enjoy: The City of Sonoma allows consumption of beer and wine in its parks, including the plaza, from 11:30 a.m. until dusk.

Until a recent trip, I'd never ventured to historic downtown Napa, a 25-minute drive from Sonoma. It offers a mix of historic, Victorian buildings and new development, including a visitor's center near Third and Main streets, just a few blocks from the Historic Napa Mill (circa 1884), which has been rehabbed into a collection of restaurants and shops. (The A.M. Bunz -- croissant dough rolled in sugar and cinnamon -- at Sweetie Pies bakery are worth the visit.)

Bike rentals are available throughout wine country, including at Napa River Velo ($10 an hour for hybrid bikes or $35 per day).

A short walk down First Street over the Napa River brings you to Oxbow Market, home to one of several Gott's Roadside Tray Gourmet locations (formerly Taylor's Automatic Refresher). Younger picky eaters may delight in the McDonald's-like menu (burgers, chicken sandwiches, fries, shakes) while foodie parents will admire the quality of the Niman Ranch patties, if not the prices (burgers start at $7.99; shakes are a steep $5.99). Gott's received a 2006 James Beard Award designating it one of "America's Classics"; the local chain also has locations in St. Helena (the original, which opened in 1949) and at the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

In the summer on Tuesdays and Saturdays, 7:30 a.m.-noon, in the Oxbow parking lot, the Napa Farmers Market sets up shop, complete with story time for kids at 10 a.m. both days.

"Story time! Story time!" shouted Ivan, a farm market volunteer, as he rang a bell calling all children to a small tent where a volunteer reader prepared to tell a story.

Inside the Oxbow, which opened in 2007, vendors include a Pica Pica Maize Kitchen, specializing in Venezuelan food; Ritual Coffee, a hand drip coffee bar where a cup starts at $2.25; and Three Twins Ice Cream, which features the "World's Most Expensive Ice Cream Sundae."

Priced at $3,333.33, the sundae features a banana split made with syrups from three rare dessert wines (a 1960s vintage port, a Chateau D'Yquem and a German Trockenbeerenauslese), served with an ice cream scoop from the 1850s. One-third of the purchase price is donated to a local land trust ("Order a day ahead and we'll have a cellist perform," according to a posted sign). Not surprisingly, a clerk reported the shop hasn't sold one yet.

For kids of all ages

No matter how many Nintendo games are brought along to keep children occupied, parents may have to break down and forgo wine tasting for at least one day of kid-centered adventure.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in nearby Vallejo boasts marine life and wildlife attractions and rides for all ages.

For children who are really into animals, Safari West, eight miles outside Calistoga, might be ideal. At the Napa visitor's center, we were told you can wander parts of Safari West without taking a three-hour, $68 safari tour ($30 for children 3-12) and there is no obvious signage at the park restricting access, but we eventually got shooed out. It's also possible to dine at the park and even spend the night.

But the best deal in the area might be the free, 40-minute Jelly Belly Factory walking tour in Fairfield, Calif., about 30 minutes east of Napa. Visitors see a working candy factory in operation (on weekdays) and learn how jelly beans are made. The tour ends with every visitor getting a free sample bag of Jelly Belly treats.

Tours begin most days at 9 a.m., and lines can get lengthy during the summer travel season -- a 30-minute wait during our visit. In addition to the tour, a large shop sells Jelly Belly merchandise and candy, including Bellyflops, a 2-pound bag of misshapen (but still delicious) jelly beans.

Perhaps the most appealing attraction for jelly bean connoisseurs is the free Sample Bar where visitors can sample from dozens of choices, ranging from the mundane (buttered popcorn) to the odd (booger). So if you're curious about the taste of a barf-flavored jelly bean but don't want to buy a whole package of BeanBoozled candy, you can satisfy your curiosity. (For the record: A barf bean tasted "vaguely bitter," according to a visitor who sampled one, and, "a little barfy").

Janet and Kenny Lee of Thousand Oaks, Calif., were returning from vacation in Oregon with their three children, ages 8-15, and drove out of their way to visit Jelly Belly.

"It was better than I expected," Mr. Lee added. "They really go into all the details of how they make jelly beans on the tour."

And that may be the key to a successful trip with children in the California wine country: Find a few activities that turn out better than expected for all involved.

Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.


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