California's Napa Valley is synonymous with wine -- from the vineyards dotting its sloping green hillsides to the award-winning chardonnays and cabernets served at the area's fine eateries. What you might not know about Napa, however, is that it's also home to some of the most impressive -- and unique -- private art collections in the world. Many of these gems, though off the well-trodden paths taken by most visitors, are open to the public. So if you're going to the wine country, duck the crowds and head to the galleries.
First stop: the fascinating di Rosa Preserve, located on the Carneros Highway (dirosapreserve.org). This 217-acre refuge includes a 35-acre lake, two galleries, the original stone winery, and a tractor barn. Each venue, including the lake, is bursting with some 2,000 contemporary works from 800 Bay Area artists. Even the former home of art aficianado Rene di Rosa, who still lives on the property, is full of multimedia pieces.
The di Rosa collection, which opened in 1997, is eclectic. One sculpture is made entirely out of chewed gum. Another is a mound of scissors, corkscrews, and other items confiscated after September 11, 2001, by security at San Francisco's airport.
There's something for everyone here. Wildlife lovers will enjoy the numerous peacocks, geese, and herons. It's an adventure that can be experienced only through a 2 1/2-hour guided tour ($12). Reservations are a must, since groups are limited to 25.
The Hess Collection Winery at Mount Veeder, about 25 minutes from di Rosa, is only a bit more traditional (hesscollection.com). The emphasis is clearly on the fine Hess wines, which visitors may sample for a $3 tasting fee. But it would be a mistake to miss seeing the 115 contemporary artworks in the gallery. They include pieces by Francis Bacon, Frank Stella, and Robert Motherwell. One intriguing creation by Marcus Raetz is a series of faces made entirely out of eucalyptus leaves.
About 25 miles north of Napa in Calistoga lies Clos Pegase, a winery named for the mythic winged horse, Pegasus (clospegase.com). Owners Jan and Mitsuko Shrem are avid collectors of modern art. Their most noteworthy works, by artists such as Henry Moore and Richard Serra, are on display in a sculpture garden. Don't miss the seven-foot bronze thumb by French sculptor César.
If photography is your thing, catch the ongoing exhibits at sparkling-wine producer Mumm Napa (mummnapa.com). Located along the picturesque Silverado Trail about 15 minutes north of Napa, Mumm maintains a permanent exhibit featuring more than two dozen original photographs by Ansel Adams.
None of these places serves food. So you might want to stop in at Bistro Don Giovanni. It's one of my favorite spots in Napa Valley and it's on the way from Hess to Mumm and Clos Pegase on Highway 29. You will enjoy a first-rate meal and terrific wine. But don't forget: Napa isn't just about wine and food anymore.
By Linda Himelstein