A hot air balloon over Napa Valley vineyards.
Brian Baer

5 Things You Don't Know About Napa and Sonoma

Above Wine Country
By Erika Lenkert

With more travelers sojourning locally rather than long distance and more and more ambitious chefs and winery owners vying for tourist dollars, there is much ado in Northern California Wine Country these days. From a celebrity winery with a family-friendly swimming pool to a chic dog-friendly hotel DIY wine blending, here are some surprising happenings in Napa and Sonoma valleys.

Photo caption: A hot air balloon over Napa Valley vineyards.

The resort pool at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Napa, California.
Chad Keig
You can have a pool day in Sonoma without booking a hotel.
We've become huge fans of Francis Ford Coppola's latest winery in Northern Sonoma's Alexander Valley, simply named Francis Ford Coppola Winery (300 Via Archimedes Geyserville; tel. 707/857-1400; www.francisfordcoppolawinery.com). The wine and the basic winery tour, which peeks at the growing and bottling process, are fine -- the real attraction is the swimming pool. Like a resort pool without the crowds or steep overnight prices, it offers a limited number of guests, private changing "cabines," pool chairs, towels, wine tasting for two, and access to the glamorous pool and bocce court for the day. Living the high life, sipping wine and cocktails, and noshing on decent food from the poolside menu isn't cheap (the entrance fee is $125 for 4 people, $100 for members), but we found it a worthy splurge for a retreat.

Photo caption: The resort pool at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Napa, California.

Barrel Blending Day Camps at Judd's Hill Winery in Napa Valley, California.
Devin Joshua
You can custom blend and bottle your own wine in an afternoon.
Off the Silverado Trail over in Napa, Judd's Hill Winery (2332 Silverado Trail; tel. 707/255-2332; www.juddshill.com) -- as known for its ultra-premium Bordeaux-style wines as for owner Judd Finkelstein's playful ukulele and Tiki-loving style -- now offers a super cool opportunity to make your own wine at their Barrel Blending and Bottle Blending Day Camps. Day Camps are 3-hour workshops that let you custom-blend amounts starting from three bottles ($225 for up to 4 people) to 12 bottles ($695 for up to 10 people). You'll bottle, custom label, and take your wine home the same day. Reservations required just 24 hours in advance. Watch a preview video of Blending Clamp here.

Photo caption: Barrel Blending Day Camps at Judd's Hill Winery in Napa Valley, California.

Some of the dog-friendly perks at the Westin Versasa Napa in Napa Valley, California.
Your dog is welcome.
Westin Verasa Napa (1314 McKinstry Street; tel. 707/257-1800; www.westin.com/VerasaNapa) was developed to offer high-end shared ownership opportunities to well-heeled buyers, but when the economy tanked, plans changed. Now the property is a full-fledged resort hotel -- with some dog-friendly perks that are rare for this area. Dogs have access to sweet doggie beds, treats, and free (leashed) reign over common areas, which include a pool, spa, and two restaurants -- the casual Bank Café & Bar and the contemporary, chic La Toque, both presided over by renowned chef Ken Frank. Rooms are spacious, with somewhat corporate, upscale décor, and many include kitchens. Rates start at $169-$499 for doubles, or $259-$699 for suites.

Photo caption: Some of the dog-friendly perks at the Westin Versasa Napa in Napa Valley, California.

Caviar at Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg, California.
Brian Baer
Sonomas only two-Michelin star restaurant is closing.
We're sad to report that one of our favorite area restaurants (and one of the only to receive 2 Michelin stars), Healdsburg's Cyrus, (29 North St.; tel. 707/433-3311; www.cyrusrestaurant.com) closed on October 28, 2012 due to lease-negotiation difficulties. It will be missed. Seemingly half of the Bay Area thought of enjoying one more meal the second they heard the news and booked every last table. On the bright side, the owners -- the dynamic duo of Chef Douglas Keane and Maître D' Nick Peyton -- will launch another venture after a short break, so keep your eyes and ears open (and fingers ready) for future reservations." target="_blank">

Photo caption: Caviar at Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg, California.

Vineyards in California's Wine Country.
Brian Baer
You can book affordable wine country digs via home rental websites.
Hotels, B&Bs, and even motels can be amazingly expensive in wine country. But you'll find great, unexpected deals if you opt to rent someone's home for a night, a week, or more. One of our editors found cozy cottages in Guerneville, right along Russian River, on Airbnb.com here and here. Both are $200 or less per night in high season (trust us, it's a deal around here). Our editors have also had luck on VRBO.com finding larger rental homes to split with friends: Here's a 3-bedroom house in Napa ("sleeps 6 to 7"), including a separate wing for kids, plus a private pool and hot tub, kids, for as low as $275 a night (November through February), normally starting at $1,175 total for 2- or 3-night weekends -- a deal, provided you have people to share it. You'll pay about the same for this 2-bedroom house, also in Napa, with an infinity pool (and giant outdoor chess board!), starting at $450 a night plus a dreaded $200 cleaning fee.

Post your home rental finds and other wine country suggestions on our message boards here.

Photo caption: Vineyards in California's Wine Country.