Napa Valley Balloons

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Ballooning Like a Parisian in Napa
Napa Valley owes a lot to France. Following in the République’s grape-stomping steps, Napa rose to prominence as a world-class wine region on par with Bordeaux and Burgundy. A lesser known tie between the two, however, is hot-air ballooning, a Napa Valley must-do, which originated in Paris more than two centuries ago.

What started as an experimental paper-and-silk affair has evolved into the tranquil nylon-and-rattan pursuit we know today. The first riders, two of Marie Antoinette’s noblemen, only got a 22-minute jaunt above Paris, compared to the 100-minute float I recently enjoyed with Napa Valley Balloons over rolling vineyards.

More daunting for me than the 2,000-foot rise in a hand-made basket was the 5AM wake-up call. Riders need to clamber into the basket at or before dawn, when the northern California air is at its coolest and calmest.

Weather aside, the 12 of us we were in excellent hands with pilot Mike Eakins, a former Air Force pilot and sky diving champion. It was his deft hand on the thunderous propane gas burner, which kept the air inside of the balloon less dense than the air surrounding it (and, consequently, the dozen of us from splattering on the ground below).

Safely aloft, the wind led us over lush green vineyards, where we watched hares racing along the vines and a smattering of multicolored balloons dotting the horizon. The ride’s route is at the mercy of the wind and ours ended hilariously in a hardware store parking lot where shoppers gaped at the giant rainbow balloon deflating onto the asphalt.

Regardless of where you may land, Napa Valley Balloons returns you to the starting point, which is, fittingly, the grounds of the Domaine Chandon Winery in Yountville. Inside the visitors' center, we warmed up by a fire with a sparkling glass of Brut, in all of the French splendor that Napa Valley offers.
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Yountville, CA 94599, USA