My first New York Times story was a piece about Wine Country real estate:


Destination Guide | Napa and Sonoma

Vineyards With Vistas



Published: July 26, 2006

An hour to 90 minutes north of San Francisco, the Napa and Sonoma Valleys have long lured second-home buyers with properties ranging from rustic cabins along the Russian River to palatial estates overlooking the Napa Valley.

Decades ago, most second-home owners were escapees from fog-shrouded San Francisco seeking summer sun. Recently, however, buyers have come from Los Angeles, Texas, the East Coast and even beyond North America. Each region has a distinct personality, with the Napa Valley typically more upscale and Sonoma County a bit more laid back.

It is no mystery why the towns and countryside here are so attractive to second-home seekers: seduced by high-quality restaurants, coast-side golf courses, unique shops and galleries, easy access to the Pacific and the redwood forests, and wineries that routinely outrank the top French producers, many see paradise in this nook of Northern California.


With vineyard-lined hills, hot-air balloon rides and top-ranked restaurants, the Napa Valley — stretching from the town of Napa up to Calistoga — is a place where travelers’ dreams come true. Strict growth limits, including a virtual moratorium on subdividing land outside of city limits, have preserved its agricultural heritage.

After remaining flat for most of the 1990’s, prices in the region have taken off, doubling or tripling over the past eight years. Many sales experts say prices have plateaued in recent months and probably won’t be climbing in the short term. But the general wisdom is that California real estate, especially in places like Napa and Sonoma, is almost always a good long-term bet.


With more than 70,000 residents (over half the county’s population), Napa has grown into a midsize city in the last few decades. It is the hub of the valley, with grocery stores, chain restaurants and shopping outlets. Its housing stock ranges from affordable Craftsman bungalows to rambling Victorians, and its geographic focal point is the Napa River. A wine-tasting and shopping center called Copia has drawn busloads of tourists to the downtown.

There are two 18-hole golf courses nearby: the Napa Valley Country Club and Silverado Country Club. They might be one reason that many second-home buyers choose to live near, not in, Napa. Homes just outside of town are popular because they feel remote and private, yet are 10 to 15 minutes from downtown attractions.

As soon as you leave Napa’s city limits, you enter a landscape of tawny hills, oak grasslands and elegant ranch-style houses. You won’t find sidewalks or storm drains; instead you will marvel at vistas of vineyards backed by stately mountains to the east and west.

Jocelyne Monello, a real estate agent who moved to Napa from France in the mid-1970’s, says she has seen tremendous changes since then. It used to be that “nobody knew what a French baguette was,” she said. “Now I can get one in any market.”

She recalled Napa as “a real country town with lots of horses,” adding, “We used to go to San Francisco for a nice evening, but now we don’t need to do that.”

In addition to great cuisine, there are cultural events ranging from the Emerson String Quartet to the Chilean band Inti-Illimani, usually held in the Napa Valley Opera House.

Ms. Monello took me to two estates outside Napa. The first, offered at $4.4 million, was a modern European 5,000-square-foot home on 12 acres, 5 of them a vineyard of Bordeaux grapes. The house was surrounded by mature oak trees and had views of Mount George and the Napa Valley Country Club. Ms. Monello noted the home’s proximity to Napa’s airport, which caters to private planes.

The other was a “chateau” with French and Tuscan accents, on a glorious hilltop overlooking the town of Napa and the mountains beyond. Built during the past couple of years, the 13,500-square-foot home had a stone entryway and a terra cotta and peach exterior, with tile roofs. Though a grand house, it managed to be inviting, too — especially the outdoor kitchen, which opened to the backyard pool. The home had 45 acres, and the twisting driveway took about five minutes to drive up. All wires run underground, so nothing marred the view. The price: $13 million.

For those sticker-shocked by such prices, there was a more modest home at 4009 Browns Valley Road, on Napa’s east side, that had great character. Though it appeared to need work, the house evoked a time when Napa was more rural. With four bedrooms on 0.28 of an acre, it was listed at $1.28 million by Re/Max’s Sheryl Bartholomay and Richard Van Zandt. Because the house was in town, it had services including city water.


In Yountville, at the heart of the Napa Valley, just about everything is within walking distance. In the early 1990’s you couldn’t give away houses there, said Curtis Carruth, sales manager for Re/Max Napa Valley. How things have changed. A dozen years ago the chef Thomas Keller took over the French Laundry in Yountville, eventually helping to put the town on the map.

Most of the shopping caters to tourists: a converted winery called Vintage 1870 includes boutiques, galleries, a wine shop and restaurants.

The houses clustered around town have a suburban feel; most have been built in recent decades. Just a couple of blocks from the heart of Yountville was a Craftsman-style home built in 1993 at 2 Heritage Court. On just under a quarter-acre, it had three bedrooms and picturesque views of vineyards to the west. It was listed at $1,225,000.

Some spectacular homes have been built on the outskirts of Yountville, in areas where vineyards stretch for miles. A modern country home at the end of Ragatz Lane just south of town recently went on the market for $2.95 million. The house had four bedrooms and 1.34 acres of property, as well as exposed beams, skylights and walls of glass that overlooked the nearby vineyards. It also had a pool and a guest house.

Of the many vineyard estates between Yountville and St. Helena, some qualify as magnificent. A five-acre property with a stone home overlooking the valley recently went on the market for $8.775 million. The house, near Rutherford, overlooked the Napa River and had mahogany doors, a clay tile roof and 16-inch exterior walls. There was also a guest house.

St. Helena

Many consider St. Helena the true gem of the Napa Valley. With an Old West feel and a history stretching back to the 19th century, the town gives one a true sense of place. It can be more expensive than Napa, but many buyers find it worth the expense, given the combination of vineyard living, restaurants like Tra Vigne and strong local community. Many St. Helena residents are second-home owners, but they’re locals in a way, too, said Mr. Carruth of Re/Max Napa Valley. “They just see each other on weekends.”

An outlet mall with stores like Donna Karan and Movado is two miles north of town. The area is a mecca for bicyclists, who can rent their wheels at St. Helena Cyclery.

It is still possible to find nice places in town for under $1 million. A two-bedroom home on Oak Street, built in 1931, listed for $995,000. A handsome, well-landscaped bungalow, it was a short walk to downtown. The lot size was just 0.17 acre, but the house was well suited for a couple who would rather not hop in the car every time they need something.

Down a country lane through vineyards was a three-bedroom farmhouse-style home on more than five acres. The property, on the market for $4.8 million, included an income-producing Cabernet vineyard, a wraparound porch and a long pool. To get there we drove on West Zinfandel and took a left on Gamay; the house was at the end of Cabernet Lane.


Best known for its spas, especially its mud baths, Calistoga is more eclectic than St. Helena and hotter than Napa (the valley warms as it gets narrower). Calistoga vineyards grow lots of Cabernet grapes, which like heat. The roads toward Angwin have views that take your breath away. It’s a smaller version of St. Helena without the prestige or cachet, Mr. Carruth says.

A 12-acre vineyard with a plantation-style home in the area had only two bedrooms, but the wraparound porch made it seem larger. The views stretched beyond the vineyard to a ridge above. The house, on Highway 128 near Tubbs Lane, was listed at $3.75 million.

But you don’t have to spend a fortune to find a home in Calistoga. A three-bedroom bungalow on a residential street near the fairgrounds was listed for $675,000. Large windows and a patio ideal for outdoor entertaining made this a nice summer home.


Still largely rural, Sonoma County is generally less glitzy than Napa County, but don’t expect low prices. Most second homes are in the million-dollar-and-up range, county agents say. There still are some relative bargains at $500,000 or so — for example cabins along the Russian River or tidy two-bedroom houses in downtown Sonoma.


Set along the Russian River, near the Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys, Healdsburg is famous for its town square and European atmosphere. Notable restaurants include Bistro Ralph and the Dry Creek Kitchen at the Hotel Healdsburg.

Healdsburg’s housing stock runs from Queen Anne cottages to Italianate mansions, with the odd Craftsman bungalow or Gothic revival house thrown in. On the plaza is Oakville Grocery, where you can enjoy an al fresco lunch or order sandwiches for a vineyard picnic. Healdsburg has become internationally known — bond traders in Hong Kong buy vacation homes there, says Pamela Bernier, an area agent. “It’s a strong draw for people who don’t care about schools but want five-star restaurants and an upscale European vibe,” she said. Wine-country estates surround the town.

You don’t have to be a megamogul to buy in Healdsburg. A couple of blocks from the plaza was a three-bedroom Victorian with high ceilings, stained glass and a pool. The house, at 518 Fitch Street, was ideal for a short stroll to get a morning coffee or a late-afternoon glass of wine. It was listed at $959,000.

For those who crave broad vistas of the Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys, the hills above town make the ideal vantage point. A 2.07-acre property at 1240 Chiquita provided stunning views of vineyards and mountains. The ranch-style house was less spectacular than the setting, but with three bedrooms and three baths, it was spacious. There was also a second unit, with one bedroom, for guests. The home was priced at $1,225,000.

Some properties combine proximity to town with a rural ambience. Less than two miles from the town plaza, a Craftsman house at 801 Samantha Court had open-beam ceilings, a large stone fireplace and big windows that framed the surrounding foliage. The house had four bedrooms and listed for $1.3 million.


Surrounded by redwood forests, Occidental is small-town in appearance but not mentality. It is a locus for original shops, like Renga Arts, which sells gifts and accessories made from reclaimed materials. Down the street, Hand Goods sells imported jewelry and crafts from around the world. Occidental also has its artsy side: high-quality chamber music comes to this tiny burg.

Occidental is a tight-knit community with a solid family base. Two Italian families, the Gonnellas and the Negris, settled the area a century ago. They came to serve the lumbermen and bought land. This has enabled family members to live here even if they couldn’t drop $800,000 for a starter home, Ms. Bernier said. There are still a couple of family-style Italian restaurants in town, including Negri’s.

Because Occidental is so small, many buyers find properties nearby. A few miles away is Joy Road, near the Pacific coast, where a rammed-earth home on 3.75 acres nestled among redwood groves. This spacious three-story chalet-style home, built in 1994, listed for $1.35 million.

It is possible to find properties in town, too. One “vintage cottage” on 0.85 acre in Occidental, at 3084 Bohemian Highway, had an old barn, gardens and mature trees, and listed for $610,000.

A buyer seeking a return to the Garden of Eden might consider the former site of the Western Hills Nursery, a three-acre property above Occidental with 1,500 rare plant species, according to the listing. The property was laced with meandering paths, stone waterways, ponds and bridges. The listing included five photographs, none of which showed the two-bedroom house, suggesting that the property was the main attraction. It was priced at $1.95 million.


The hub of western Sonoma County, Sebastopol is a family-oriented town where most people are buying primary residences. But the surrounding hills and valleys have rural estates attractive to second-home buyers who enjoy a laid-back country atmosphere. These houses feel remote, but many are less than 15 minutes from Sebastopol’s fine restaurants (for instance the Zagat-listed K & L Bistro), the cineplex, Copperfield’s Books and the weekly farmers’ market.

Sebastopol takes pride in progressive values: three of its five council members belong to the Green Party, and shopkeepers sometimes risk losing business by placing antiwar posters in their windows. But there has been an influx of well-heeled residents in the past decade, and Hummers now compete with hybrids for space in the Whole Foods parking lot.

Small homes in Sebastopol start around $600,000, but second-home buyers typically want more house — and more land. A 4.8-acre property with a two-bedroom home and guest cottage on Vine Hill Road, about 9 miles west of Sebastopol, was listed at $1.15 million. A four-bedroom home on Frei Road had 2.5 acres, garnished with a fountain and fruit trees. This modern house, built in 1994 and priced at $1. 295 million, had a spacious kitchen and a living area that overlooked the patio.


Situated on the cusp of the Carneros region, Sonoma retains a traditional Mexican feel with a central plaza. It was there that the Bear Flag was raised in 1846, signaling the end of Mexican rule over Alta California. The eight-acre park in the plaza’s center is still an oasis of tranquillity at the heart of the town.

In recent decades, another kind of invader has made its presence felt: the franchise outlet and the big-box store.

Still, the surrounding valley has retained its beauty, and vineyards roll over the hills. Some visitors come to taste wine and get spa treatments at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa. Then they return to claim a piece of Sonoma for themselves.

A couple of miles northwest of town, near Boyes Hot Springs, a three-bedroom house at 18109 California Court with contemporary architecture and an in-ground pool and hot tub was listed for $725,000. The home, on a cul-de-sac, had French doors that open onto a back patio. There was a wood-burning fireplace to keep the place cozy during the winter, and a wine cellar at the ready for any purchases made in the surrounding valleys.

About a mile east of the town of Sonoma was a four-bedroom traditional home on 0.82 acre. Near the end of East Napa Street, the home listed for $1.3 million and combined proximity to town with a rural setting. It seemed a fine home for those who enjoy all the attractions of Sonoma: park, shops, restaurants — and tranquillity.

Bodega Bay

Set on the Pacific coast, Bodega Bay can be breathtaking on a sunny day. The main attractions are the dramatic beaches and rock formations just out to sea. A golf course right on the water is a big draw, and the Kortum Trail, along the bluffs a few miles north of Bodega Bay, is just one of many hikes that promise drop-dead views, if the weather’s clear.

But that’s a big if. Some buy a house after a sunny-day visit, but they often get so discouraged by the frequent fog that they sell in a couple of years. According to one agent, Bodega Bay has the highest turnover rate in Sonoma County.

A nicely landscaped three-bedroom north harbor home on 102 Cypress Loop, overlooking Bodega Bay and the ocean, was on the market for $799,000. Less than a mile from the Bodega Harbour Golf Links, the property would be ideal for those who enjoy playing 18 holes before lunch and spending the afternoon on the beach or fishing the rich waters of the Pacific.

Years ago the prime real estate in Bodega Bay was one of the houses perched atop bluffs overlooking the ocean, on the west side of Highway 1. But climate change has increased erosion along the coast, and some of these homes are “dropping into the sea,” Ms. Bernier said. “They come onto the market, but no one is touching them.”

So if you’re going to spend $1 million or more, you’ll want to make sure your home is on terra firma. A four-bedroom home at 20290 Osprey Drive was spacious enough for an extended family and had peerless views of the ocean. The modern architecture complemented the pastoral setting; the house listed for $1,095,000.


This town along the Russian River has stately redwood forests and some of the lowest prices in the county. The river is ideal for floating in a canoe or inner tube, or simply watching from the deck of a favorite restaurant or bar. But don’t buy too close to the river or your dream house may get swept away in the next flood. The houses here were built years ago as getaways — there were few full-time residents, says Paul Bombige, a local agent. The housing stock started as cabins, which were boarded up in winter. But with the real estate boom, residents have improved the homes.

Today Guerneville is more desirable and charming, but it rarely approaches the refinement and elegance of the Napa Valley. Mr. Bombige estimates that 40 percent of the houses here are second homes.

Guerneville attracts significant numbers of gay buyers. “About half of my clients are gay,” Mr. Bombige said, adding that the clientele is attracted by the region’s beauty and tolerance. People cash in on the high city prices and buy acreage up here, he explained. For the price of a condo in San Francisco, you can get acreage with a nice house.

Guerneville is like the least expensive house on the street, Mr. Bombige concluded: The more expensive houses around it pull it up in value. This means, he says, that there is probably a better chance for appreciation in Guerneville.

A two-bedroom house with river and mountain views was on the market recently for $469,000. This would make an ideal retreat from city life for a San Francisco couple. One thing to keep in mind about Guerneville, however, is that many of the homes are in the shade of redwood groves, so sun seekers may not get all the rays they crave.

Some properties near Guerneville offer spacious lots, like a two-bedroom house on more than three acres at 17360 Watson Road, about two miles from downtown Guerneville. The home had high ceilings, long views and is very private and quiet, at the end of a rural road. It was listed at $759,000.