Napa Valley Taste Test
Mature trees and endless views make Silverado's courses feel timeless.
Sometime between the third and fourth private tasting of the afternoon in the opulent manor loft at the Rubicon Estate -- Francis Ford Coppola's California winery -- Volks-wagen's decision to hold the press launch for the all-new 2011 Jetta in the Napa Valley started to look a lot shrewder.
If the new Jetta's charms weren't enough to impress on their own, three (or so) glasses of Coppola's Captain's Reserve cabernet sauvignon -- along with stunning scenery and the convenience of a shuttle for the tipsy -- would smooth any rough edges.
Relaunches of familiar brands became a theme during my four-day golf trip from downtown San Francisco through the Napa Valley. One such brand is the venerable Jetta, now in its sixth iteration. Another is the Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa. Silverado was long a favorite "vacation" week on the PGA Tour
when the Kaiser International Open Invitational and Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic were played there from 1968-'80. Players loved the seclusion of the elegant villas lining the two Robert Trent Jones Jr.
courses and the wine list in the restaurant at the converted 1860s manor house that is the resort's nucleus.
San Francisco native Johnny Miller won two Kaisers -- in '74 and '75 -- and lived with his family for many years in a house a cart ride from the clubhouse. When the 1,200-acre resort went up for sale in late 2009, Miller put together a group of investors to buy the property, which sits on prime mountainside real estate overlooking posh Yountville and Napa Valley proper. Today Dolce Hotels and Resorts runs the hotel -- individual rooms start at $160, and two-bedroom suites cost $329 and up -- and Troon Golf management handles the course.
Miller's plan is to lengthen and toughen the 6,900-yard North course
so it can again challenge the world's best players -- and attract a PGA Tour event. That's not to imply it was any kind of pushover for the choppers in our group. The guys in the other cart might still be trying to extricate themselves from the fearsome bunker left of the green on the 436-yard first hole. After playing the No. 1-handicap hole 15 minutes after getting out of your car, you're hitting 5-wood into the 195-yard second. Make it a double, indeed.
Not much about Napa can be considered a "bargain." Silverado's $160 green fee and the $34.50 steak frites at Bouchon Bistro in Yountville are the closest we came. Napa's snob factor being what it is, Volkswagen's entry level sedan had the potential to stick out like a warm box of Franzia. But completely revised sheet metal gives the new Jetta a look much more like corporate cousin Audi's A4 -- a quality that stands out in the pack of Toyota Corollas, Honda Civics, Ford Fusions and Chevrolet Cruzes.
The trip from downtown San Francisco to Napa is equal parts elbow-to-kneecap freeway driving and snaking two-lane country roads. It's an excellent mix of real-world conditions to test just how well VW accomplished its delicate mission. The goal? The Jetta has to be cheap -- in terms of what it costs to build and what it costs to buy -- but it can't feel cheap.
How successful VW was depends on which version you get. In mid-range SEL trim, the Jetta has the same 170-horsepower five-cylinder that has motivated VWs for half a decade. There's nothing at all cutting-edge (or fun) about the drivetrain, but on the positive side, VW has had plenty of time to sort it out. Slogging across the Bay Bridge, the Jetta was a docile, quiet commuter. It gets 34 miles per gallon highway, with none of the buzziness common in its class. There's also substantially more shoulder and leg room than the previous version -- front and back -- and more rear-seat room than a 5-series BMW.
The center stack is the standout feature, with its standard LCD touch screen to control the radio, climate and Bluetooth phone hookup. It's cool-looking and easy to use, even when the car is in motion. Even the pretend-leather seats are a welcome retro touch. Things get dicey when you start to add options like navigation and the flashier 17-inch wheels. Once the Jetta trickles into $25,000 territory, there are a lot better cars for that kind of money -- ones that don't have an ocean of plastic across the passenger compartment. Volkswagen actually makes one: It's called the Passat.
The lush, vine-ripe scenery is reason enough to make the 50-mile day trip from San Francisco to Napa, but booking a tasting in advance at one of the premium wineries makes the trip a singular experience. At Rubicon, $25 gets you a five-wine tasting, a tour of the estate -- including the astonishingly expansive underground caverns where the wine is aged -- and access to Coppola's Centennial Museum, an eclectic mix of local history and film artifacts. The super-rare Tucker Torpedo car used in Coppola's 1988 film of the same name sits parked in the middle of the display. Tastings are also a way to sample a cross section of wines that would otherwise take hundreds of dollars. The $40 Jarvis tasting offers six wines, including one from the reserve collection, which costs upward of $120 per bottle.
Tiny Yountville -- population 3,000 -- is, despite its size, the cultural epicenter of the entire valley. If you plan seriously ahead, you might be able to score a table at Thomas Keller's The French Laundry, perennially rated one of the 10 best restaurants in the world. Once you're in, though, there's no ordering stress. The menu is a $250 multi-course chef's tasting. For mere mortals, Keller's casual Bouchon Bistro just down the block offers a taste of its famous sibling, but at a fraction of the price (and the wait). We walked in for lunch and were seated right away at the brushed nickel bar, where they serve some of Napa's best reds by the glass.
After golf, we took the scenic route back to San Francisco along the coast and over the Golden Gate Bridge, then decided to commit heavy-duty pizza heresy. It's generally taken as gospel that the best pies are produced in the 75-mile corridor between New York City and New Haven, Conn. Call it proximity to Italy or something in the water. Delfina Pizzeria ended up sorely testing that bias.
Wedged into a block of simple storefronts in a less-than-pristine part of the Mission District, Delfina doesn't look like much from the street. But the line of people snaking out the door, waiting for a table or a seat at the narrow Formica shelf across from the kitchen betrays the thin-crust alchemy going on inside. The salsiccia pie -- homemade fennel sausage, tomato, bell peppers, onions and fresh mozzarella -- is as good as anything produced in the Eastern time zone, and might be the best way to legally spend $15 in the entire city of San Francisco.