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Vineyards With Vistas

Peter DaSilva for the New York Times
The Girl and the Fig is a popular French restaurant in Sonoma, Calif. More Photos >
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.

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