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Great Golf Courses in California Wine Country

Where to tee off in Napa and Sonoma.

From bud break to harvest, life in California’s wine country has a rhythm all its own. Many travelers get their first taste of Napa and Sonoma counties during either the peak summer season, when the social scene is at its apex, but rolling traffic jams of hired town cars make the Silverado Trail a drag; or the fall, which is a hopping-good time but also the “crush,” both literally and figuratively. The shoulder seasons of winter and early spring tend to be quieter, with a charm all their own. The weather is cooler but still dry, and a round of golf in the morning is a great way to work up a thirst for an afternoon at the wineries, where the tasting rooms are generally much less crowded. Though wine country isn’t the world-class golf destination it could be—real estate in this region is almost always most profitable when used for vineyards, not fairways—there are more than enough worthy golf courses to fill a trip planner, especially along the region’s still-rural back roads.

Without question, the first stop should be Mayacama (1240 Mayacama Club Dr., Santa Rosa; 866-393-1819; mayacama.com), a private club in the Mayacama Mountains just outside Santa Rosa, Sonoma’s county seat. As the only gated golf and residential community in the area, Mayacama is a unique property—and impressive in size. A two-mile-entry drive leads onto the 675-acre property, ending at a lavish Mediterranean-style clubhouse perched on a knoll. The golf course sprawled at its foot is a 2001 vintage Jack Nicklaus design and, of the more than 200 courses that carry his name, one of his best. But then Nicklaus was working with a first-rate canvas: sun-kissed hills studded with stately oaks and traversed by deep barrancas and creeks. These hazards create forced carries off the tee—they’re surprisingly intimidating, despite not being overly long—but, more frequently, these overgrown gulches are used to defend the greens, placing a high priority on the aerial game. The club’s culture is geared toward purist sensibilities: Most rounds are played on foot, with a caddie. This policy helps members and guests enjoy the natural setting to the fullest, as long views are seldom broken up by unsightly cart paths.

Another way in which Mayacama stands out: It’s sometimes not clear whether it’s a golf club that places a heavy emphasis on wine, or vice versa. At the clubhouse bar, discussions involve oenophilic jargon just as often as they feature tales of birdies and bogeys. Thirty-five vintner members, including some of the top names in the business, supply their wine to the club and host numerous events each year, allowing members a taste of the truly rare stuff that never hits the open market. This inside connection to the industry makes Mayacama’s social memberships as appealing as its golf offering.

For the casual golfer looking to play one or two rounds at a centrally located track, the Sonoma Golf Club (greens fee, $125 to $185; 17700 Arnold Dr., Sonoma; 707-939-4100; sonomagolfclub.com), 20 miles southeast of Santa Rosa, is a good choice. This is another private facility, but it opens its doors to guests of the nearby Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn (rooms, from $179; 100 Boyes Blvd., Sonoma; 707-938-9000; fairmont.com). Sonoma is a traditional course, with straightaway holes and treelined fairways. The original design was by Sam Whiting (co-designer of the Lake Course at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, host of this year’s U.S. Open) in the 1920s, but the course was renovated by Robert Muir Graves in 1990. Certain elements of its character seem to have been lost in the process, particularly around the greens, some of which have acquired unnaturally contoured “wings” to prevent thin shots from running off the back. But there’s still a classic feel to the place that’s refreshing—it’s challenging enough to have hosted the Champions Tour, but it’s also the kind of layout that a player of any skill level can enjoy.

The simple act of driving is one of the incidental pleasures of wine country, for both flatlanders and those who enjoy mountain roads. One of the best slalom runs is the Bohemian Highway, winding about ten miles from Freestone, which is ten miles west of Santa Rosa, up to rural Monte Rio, where towering redwoods create alternating patches of intense light and plunging gloom. The western coastal forest feels light-years removed from the glamorous valleys to the east, and the towns along the Russian River manage to be both hippie and edgy.

Monte Rio is home to the Bohemian Grove, the Bohemian Club’s famously secretive summer camp for masters of the universe, including several U.S. presidents of both parties. (Somewhat disappointingly, those who seek it out are met not by jumpsuited henchmen but, rather, by a plain farm gate and a “No Trespassing” sign.) Back in the late 1920s, the club, at the behest of member (and Pebble Beach co-designer) Jack Neville, commissioned the great British golf architect Alister MacKenzie to design a nine-hole course on the far side of the river. These days, the course, now known as Northwood (greens fee, $30; 19400 Highway 116, Monte Rio; 707-865-1116; northwoodgolf.com), is a humble public track that plays much longer than the 2,893 yards on the card. Because the redwoods that frame the hole corridors keep sunlight down and moisture in the turf, there isn’t much roll to be had on the tee shot here. The greens are well thought-out and have some nice contour, but it’s an open question as to how much of MacKenzie is really left in the design—on several holes there are grassy indentations that look suspiciously like filled-in bunkers. In the end, the course itself is quite basic, but scampering around among the colossal trunks is a rare pleasure.

Over on the eastern edge of Sonoma, drivers heading east in the early morning, leaving the county via the village of Glen Ellen and the vertiginous passes of Trinity Road, might witness an incredible sight: the entire Napa Valley blanketed beneath an ocean of rolling fog. A few minutes later, a set of hairpin turns twists across Howell Mountain and into the forgotten valleys of Pope and Guenoc, backcountry with a tumbledown general store, a roadside folk-art installation known as Litto’s Hubcap Ranch and seemingly not much else. The rest is given over to farms and vineyards. Oddly enough, there are a couple of noteworthy golf courses out this way too.

Langtry Farms (greens fee, $400; 22000 Butts Canyon Rd., Middletown; 707-987-2772; langtryfarms.com) is situated just across the Napa border in rural Lake County, on a 22,000-acre property so vast that the winery has an entire American Viticultural Area (Guenoc Valley) to itself. The estate was named after its original owner, British actress Lillie Langtry, who was one of the great beauties of the Victorian era. “Jersey Lily” made a renowned claret here in the 1890s; today, winemaker Eric Stine oversees an operation that produces a full flight of single-estate wine, with an award-winning Petite Syrah as the star of the show.

The estate’s brand-new golf course, designed by former British Open champion Tom Weiskopf, can be described in a single word: penal. It was constructed on a challenging site—a valley floor pocked with large plots of environmentally protected marshland—meaning golfers play from one island of green grass to the next, not unlike the “target golf” layouts often found in the water-restricted Arizona desert. The threat of a lost ball looms over almost every full swing, so players had better bring one of two things (and preferably both): their “A” game or a sense of humor. Still, there are plenty of memorable holes, like the snaking, double-black-diamond par-five 12th and the short par-three 15th, which was inspired by the famed “Postage Stamp” hole at Royal Troon in Scotland.

Like Sonoma Golf Club, Langtry Farms attracts visitor play by partnering with a hotel group: in this case, Auberge Resorts. Auberge has three properties in the Napa Valley, including nearby Calistoga Ranch (rooms, from $1,095; 580 Lommel Rd., Calistoga; 707-254-2800; calistogaranch.com). This collection of supremely comfortable Craftsman-style cedar bungalows is the kind of place where the temptation is to cancel everything and spend the day cat-stretching by the pool; on the other hand, for guests who manage to pull themselves away from the resort, there are complimentary Mercedes-Benz cabriolets and SUVs. Bombing around in an E-Class beats the boxy rental car every time. And there’s still one more back-road golf course—perhaps Napa’s best—left to see.

Turning off Pope Valley Road at Aetna Springs (greens fee, $40; 1600 Aetna Springs Rd., Pope Valley; 707-965-2115; aetnasprings.com), drivers proceed down a lane flanked by ancient oaks clad in Spanish moss, that bromeliad so adept at creating an atmosphere of the rural uncanny. The plot only thickens as visitors arrive at the resort and begin to explore the property. Aetna Springs is old. Built around a 98-degree natural hot spring, the resort dates back to 1873, and the original nine-hole golf course was the first built west of the Mississippi. The place is absolutely dripping with California history: Architecturally, three of the resort’s structures are attributed to Bernard Maybeck, the visionary designer of San Francisco’s landmark Palace of Fine Arts; politically, Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for governor at Aetna in 1966; and socially, from 1976 to 2003, the resort was owned––not without controversy—by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.

Even the past few years at Aetna Springs have been tumultuous. Developers Bill Criswell and Robert Radovan (the same team behind Calistoga Ranch) acquired the property in 2007 with the intent to revive the moribund resort and augment the existing nine-holer with a brand-new 18 on a site nearby. They built a stylish new clubhouse in the Maybeck mode and hired architect Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design to complete a renovation of the course. But then, in 2009, Napa County’s Board of Commissioners scotched the plans for the new development. And, of course, the ongoing economic crisis didn’t help.

Today, Aetna Springs exists in a weird kind of limbo. It’s open to the public, but this fact isn’t actively promoted because it’s operated with limited resources by a skeleton crew. Still, Doak’s transformation of the course is so good that these troubles should in no way discourage golfers from arranging a visit. Aetna Springs is an object lesson in minimalist design, with simple yet effective strategies giving voice to the site’s natural features. From the elevated tee of the par-four first, for example, players must decide whether to attempt to carry a dry creek that splits the fairway diagonally in order to gain the preferred angle for the approach. Not unlike the famous Barry Burn at Scotland’s Carnoustie, this creek system zigzags around the course, appearing in different guises on five of the nine holes. But Aetna will please more than just architecture aficionados. There’s abundant beauty here as well—the 147-yard par-three fourth, set in a tiny box canyon lined with oaks and red-muscled madrones, is one of the most tranquil golf holes anywhere.

After a week or so of exploring the wine country, this much becomes clear: Golfers and oenophiles both love to discover a hidden gem. On the way back from Aetna Springs, a tip from a friend led us to Outpost Wines (tasting fee, $25; 2075 Summit Lake Dr., Angwin; 707-965-1718; outpostwines.com), a small vineyard tucked away at 2,200 feet atop Howell Mountain. On the outside, Outpost wears something less than a welcoming face—it’s a far cry from the Beringers and Mondavis. Once through the front gates, though, guests are led to a well-appointed tasting room to savor the work of “rock star” winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown. During his time at Calistoga’s Schrader Cellars, Brown became the youngest vintner ever to receive two perfect scores from The Wine Advocate. His winemaking style has been described as “minimalist,” a low-tech approach geared toward drawing out the unique personality of each season’s Cabernets, Zinfandels and Petite Syrahs, almost like a Tom Doak golf course in liquid form. After a day battling the winds at Aetna Springs, these are the kinds of parallels that come to mind while swirling a glass and watching the sun set beyond the valleys.

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