By Craig Stoehr Special to Published Nov 22, 2007 at 5:05 AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: When he isn't tending to business at the racetrack, Milwaukee Mile Chairman Craig Stoehr is an avid traveler who regularly visits exotic lands and shares his adventures with readers. During this installment, Stoehr visits California wine country.

After a recent Blue Marlin board meeting in San Francisco, I decided to spend a few days in Northern California's wine country with my girlfriend for some much needed rest and relaxation (that recent European trip was anything but restful or relaxing!).

In San Francisco, we again stayed at the Hotel Vitale, which has now become my favorite urban hotel anywhere in the world: the design, the rooms, the views, the restaurant and bar, and the impeccable service (as a frequent visitor, I was upgraded to a spectacular Panoramic Suite at check-in) all make for an absolutely spectacular experience. Also worth noting were the several restaurants we visited on this trip, including the Slanted Door (pan-Vietnamese), A16 (a great Italian restaurant located in the Marina district), and Momo's (located across from the San Francisco Giants' stadium, AT&T Park).

We took the more scenic route out of San Francisco -- 101 North -- traveling to Sonoma and Napa over the Golden Gate Bridge. After crossing the bridge, a quick stop at the Marin Headlands is a must. Although quite windy, if the fog isn't too bad, it offers a birds-eye view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it's also the site of an old military installation used during World War II to protect against a possible Japanese invasion.

From the Marin Headlands, we drove down to the seaside town of Sausalito, located across San Francisco Bay, with great views of the city and Alcatraz (Sausalito is also accessible by ferry from San Francisco). Sausalito is really a charming place (it's generally sunny even when fog is covering San Francisco), and we stopped for lunch along the water at Il Piccolo, a little Italian cafe where we had a great prosciutto, artichoke and brie panino while taking in the view.

After lunch, we continued on to Sonoma, where we stopped for wine tastings at the Viansa, Sebastiani, Buena Vista and Ravenswood wineries, and also walked around downtown Sonoma for a bit. Although the Napa Valley wineries receive more attention, the Sonoma Valley wineries are also nice, and a little less crowded. Another treat between the Sonoma wineries and Napa was a quick stop at Taittinger's U.S. outpost, Domaine Carneros, which is marked by an elegant French chateau with beautiful grounds, and where we enjoyed several sparkling wines along with a cheese plate.

Our headquarters in Napa was La Residence, a charming little inn located just north of Napa on Highway 29, around the corner from one of my business partner's favorite restaurants, Don Giovanni. La Residence was spectacular: located in a picturesque setting minutes from 20 wineries and numerous restaurants, it was the epitome of tranquility. A nice touch was the nightly (and complimentary) wine and cheese tastings. Even though it's located just off the highway, the grounds were serene.

The next day we visited the Robert Mondavi winery, which offers a great, albeit commercial, introduction to a winery and wine tasting. After Mondavi, we headed to Mumm Napa, located along the famous Silverado Trail, to taste Mumm's sparkling wine on their terrace. If you're only going to visit one sparkling champagne maker, I would recommend Mumm Napa.

After Mumm Napa, a visit to the Hall winery in Rutherford, further up the Silverado Trail, delivered the highlight of the trip. At La Residence, they had served Hall wines, and we inquired about the label, as we had never heard of it. We were then informed that Hall had recently purchased La Residence, and our host quickly arranged a private tour of the Hall Rutherford winery for the next afternoon (the Hall St. Helena winery is open to the public, but visits to Hall Rutherford require reservations, which can be arranged by calling in advance). Perched atop the same mountain where the legendary Auberge du Soleil resort, spa and restaurant is located, Hall Rutherford resembles a sumptuous private residence, affording spectacular views of the valley below.

Hall Wines is owned by Dallas-based entrepreneur and investor Craig Hall and his wife, Kathryn, former United States Ambassador to Austria. Our gracious host and sommelier, Dean, gave us an unforgettable tour of the intimate facility, which included an underground cellar constructed with Hapsburg brick imported from Austria, and a tasting room where a chandelier with 1,592 Swarovski crystals hung from the ceiling. After tasting a number of excellent wines, we determined to join the Hall wine club, looking forward to receiving our first shipment. Hall also recently broke ground on a Frank Gehry-designed visitors' center at their winery in St. Helena. One thing is for sure, the Halls definitely know how to do things with class, and the tour and wine tasting was an unforgettable experience -- the best I've ever had in numerous visits to Napa.

That evening, we dined at Auberge du Soleil, located around the corner from Hall. Although I had heard about Auberge many times, I had never experienced it, and for a romantic evening and/or special occasion, it is well worth the splurge (try to book a table outside overlooking the valley below). Hungry from a day's worth of wine tasting, I ordered the seven-course tasting menu, with each dish coming with a different and specially selected wine. All I can say is that it was certainly a memorable evening, and the perfect way to cap the brief trip.

Craig Stoehr Special to
Oconomowoc native Craig Stoehr is the Chairman of the Milwaukee Mile and is involved in several other business ventures locally, national and internationally. He is an avid traveler who has visited about 70 countries and will recount some of his experiences abroad with OMC readers.