Napa Vineyards Blend Perfectly With Tahoe Ski Resorts

Richard Weir, The Boston Herald, April 15, 2013

It was to be our first vacation in over a year, and I wanted to do some big-mountain skiing. My wife wanted to go vineyard hopping. We had one trip, and two distinct agendas. So we booked a flight to San Francisco.

Beautiful Napa Valley and snow-capped Lake Tahoe - separated by a three-hour drive - proved to be a perfect pairing for the passionate skier and the wine enthusiast.

Wine country

After leaving the airport in our rented Jeep, we headed to the Villagio Hotel in the historic town of Yountville, located 45 miles northeast of San Francisco.

Named for George C. Yount, an early pioneer credited with establishing Napa Valley's first vineyard, Yountville is situated in the heart of the Napa wine region.

Though small, the town has become a magnet to foodies drawn to its famed eateries, including four Michelin-starred restaurants. Most famous among them is the wallet-busting French Laundry, described by Anthony Bourdain as "the best restaurant in the world, period."

We mapped out an itinerary of wineries with a view. After all, it was cold and snowy back home and we wanted to soak up sunny Napa. Though the grapevines themselves were a barren winter brown, the mustard flowers carpeting the soil were in full bloom, turning the fields into a postcard-perfect sea of radiant yellow.

At Joseph Phelps, William Hill and Cardinale, wineries situated on remote hilltops, we sat outside on patios overlooking the vineyards as we tasted Napa's renowned cabs and chardonnays. At Frog's Leap, we sat on the tasting room's back porch, taking in the distant Mayacamas Mountains rising from the valley floor.

We visited two vineyards, Del Dotto and Pride Mountain, that required spending time indoors, but it was a small sacrifice since they offered unique barrel tastings in their caves.

Our wine trail ended with a stop at the V Wine Cellars, located in the V Marketplace in Yountville, where I tried my hand at "sabering" a bottle of champagne by slicing off the cork and neck of the bottle with a saber - a very decadent way to imbibe some bubbly.

After several days of tasting wines and eating well, we headed to the mountains to give our legs, instead of our palates, a workout.

Snow country

The Lake Tahoe region, which averages annually 450 inches of snow and 300 days of sunshine, is home to 14 downhill ski areas - considered the largest concentration of ski resorts in North America. We hit six of them in six days, using South Lake Tahoe as a base for Heavenly, Kirkwood and Sierra-at-Tahoe and then Squaw Valley for the northern resorts, including Alpine Meadows and Northstar.

Heavenly: The go-go dancers are the marquee weekend attraction at Heavenly's "Unbuckle at Tamarack" apres ski party, where a mountaintop cafeteria morphs into a dance palace from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. daily.

Heavenly, located in both California and Nevada, gives riders the opportunity to take turns in two states from a single lift. Spacious blue-squared groomers abound, but for thrill seekers there is also plenty of black diamond terrain, like the gnarly chutes in Kille-brew Canyon.

Those who prefer to gamble off the slopes can head to the casinos in Stateline, Nev., which make Heavenly a popular place for an alpine bachelor party, but also give South Lake Tahoe, its California neighbor, a honky-tonk atmosphere with the coattail-riding wedding chapels and tattoo parlors.

Kirkwood: About an hour's drive from South Lake Tahoe, through unspoiled mountain valleys, is this remote playground for expert skiers and riders who want to get away from the crowds while getting their fill of adrenaline rushes.

Though perfectly suited for the newbie on snow, Kirkwood's excellent beginner terrain is often overshadowed by its famously steep bowls, rocky cliffs and tight chutes - settings for extreme skiing tournaments like the Rahlves' Banzai Tour. A quick ride up Cornice Express chairlift delivers 1,000 acres of big-mountain skiing.

Where to apres: Kick back in front of a roaring fire inside the rustic Kirkwood Inn, originally built as a log cabin in 1864, and enjoy $2 tacos during the daily 3-5 p.m. happy hour.

Sierra-at-Tahoe: If I were a pint-sized skier at this family-friendly mountain, it wouldn't be long before I'd be begging my parents to get me on a snowboard. That's because the resort got George Lucas to team up with the leading snowboard maker and create the world's only Burton Star Wars Experience.

It's an interactive snowboard teaching center/playground where kids 3 to 6 can learn to link turns among Chewbaccca, Ewoks and other characters from that far, far away galaxy. Young Jedi get outfitted with R2-D2 or X-Wing Fighter vests and boots and boards especially designed for kids.

"Concentrate. Feel the force flow," instructs a talking Yoda, one of the many chainsaw-carvings in the learning center. The fun at Sierra-at-Tahoe, however, is not lim-ited to kids. The 2,000-acre resort offers adults a solid mix of beginner to expert trails, guided snowcat tours, world-class terrain parks and even an amateur skier/boarder cross course.

Squaw Valley: The setting for countless ski movies, Squaw - dubbed "Squallywood" for the oft-filmed hot-dogging feats that attract awe-inspired on-lookers - is where the late skiing daredevil Shane McConkey dazzled crowds with his high altitude back flips and where Olympian Jonny Moseley cut his teeth shredding moguls on KT-22.

Squaw's legendary terrain offers something for everyone, from gentle mountaintop green runs to steep, wide-open bowls for the advanced to expert.

A great way to experience the mountain is the Dawn Patrol, which, for $29, allows early risers to board the tram at 7:30 a.m. on weekends - an hour and a half before it officially opens - and nail first tracks on pristine powder or freshly groomed corduroy, depending on conditions.

Squaw has changed a lot since it hosted the 1960 Olympics, opening a base village in 2005 with restaurants, shops, bars and a hotel. An ongoing $70 million upgrade has brought the world's first and only ski-in/ski-out Starbucks to its mid-mountain Gold Coast Lodge, and the 2011 acquisition of nearby Alpine Meadows - a locals' favorite, with seven powder bowls - allows a ticket holder to enjoy a combined 6,000 acres and 270 trails at both sister resorts.

Where to apres: Le Chamois & Loft Bar, opened in 1969, is the longtime watering hole for locals who fill its rafters and overflow its patio once the lifts wind down. Mamasake offers a hard-to-beat happy hour special: a can of Bud and a sushi roll for $5. For a more upscale place to relax, head to Uncorked, a chic wine bar that offers plates of artisan cheeses and salamis.

Northstar: With gorgeous summit views of Lake Tahoe; moderately pitched groomers ideal for family cruising; steep, mile-long runs to challenge the expert; and a 22-foot halfpipe custom-built for Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, there is a lot to keep guests wanting to stay on the mountain all day.

But once the bindings come undone, the Village at Northstar comes alive. Ice skaters glide by on the outdoor rink while nearby families settle down on roomy couches at the al fresco Cabana Bars, where kids toast marshmallows over open fires and parents sip spiked hot cocoa concoctions like the "Dirty Snowman."

Apres options abound in the resort's village, from the glitzy Chocolate Bar to live music acts at Tavern 6330'. For those looking to burn off their dinners, there are guided moonlight snowshoe tours for all ages.

(c)2013 the Boston Herald

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