Long before the sky darkened with battalions of hot-air balloons like a scene from (local vintner) Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," before fleets of white limos whizzed past palatial gates, even before hordes of oenophiles swirled, gargled, spat and talked in tongues of "hints of tropical fruit and leather," there was another Napa.

That Napa Valley personified the Wild West, complete with cowboys and Indians, mountain men and missionaries. It was a land of redwood forests, parched plains, wildflower meadows, rugged mountains--a land where centuries of humans flocked for the water, not the wine. And the legacy of that authentic place can still be found today, right in the midst of all the winey madness, if one knows where to look.

For more than a decade, I joined the hordes who swarmed this valley in a wine-sodden haze, sampling the tourist's delights. But I knew little of the real Napa--its history, its citizens, its daily life. So when I sobered up last summer and realized that my husband and I had actually bought a house in downtown Napa, I knew it was time to move beyond the passing acquaintance of the visitor. Shovel in hand, I began digging for bedrock Napa; what I found was a region settled by hucksters and dreamers--who all came here like me, looking for paradise.

My new home is in the town of Napa, which sits at the south end of the valley, slightly removed from the feverish wine hunt on Highway 29. Founded in 1848, the county seat still boasts Victorian homes, white picket fences and a courthouse square. Napa City was built along the Napa River, and the inevitable winter floods begat the type of high-water architecture found in river towns and bayous of the South. The hot summer weather promoted wide porches and yards smothered by camellias and honeysuckle.

Shortly after I moved in, I ventured downtown for the annual Labor Day River Festival, where an orchestra played on the bridge. Music floated out to the crowds packed into the park and the boats bobbing on the water down below. A soprano sang "You Are My Sunshine," then "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In." The show closed with fireworks popping, their trails drifting past the full moon while the band thundered "Stars and Stripes Forever." Patriotic blood pumping to my brain, I thought about what the repertoire said about a Napa that is vintage small-town America, yet possesses a liberal dose of uniquely California quirks.

I reasoned the first place to search for the real Napa was its history, so I walked to an aged stone building on First Street. Upstairs, amid the musty shelves of books, files, maps and photographs, sat four white-haired ladies. Like historical societies everywhere, Napa's is manned by its elders. Perhaps they're the only ones who've developed a respect for history, having watched so much of it slip away. They were overjoyed to learn that someone under 90 was interested in their passion, and vied to tell tales of hangings in the courthouse square and happenings at the Napa Insane Asylum.

Toni, a petite woman with upswept hair, told the history of her family, which coincidentally was the history of Napa Valley. Her great-great-great-grandfather, George C. Yount, was the first American to settle here. When he arrived in the early 1830s, the region was a colony of Mexico, with missionaries and soldiers residing in neighboring Sonoma. Napa was considered too dangerous because of tribes of Native Americans who had lived along the Napa River for thousands of years. However, the Mexicans decided to use Napa for raising cattle, using its pasture land and water supply.

But down-on-his-luck George Yount had other ideas. He was a trapper, hunter and carpenter who had emigrated from Missouri, leaving behind an impoverished wife and three children, promising to send for them when he was able. Luckily for him, the pay for carpenters was better in those days. In exchange for making wooden shingles for Gen. Mariano Vallejo, Yount was granted Rancho Caymus, a 12,000-acre parcel that covers the site of today's Yountville, Oakville and Rutherford. He constructed a log cabin with rifle ports and lived alone amid his neighbors, the Wappo tribe. He grew grapes and made wine, which he shared with the other pioneers as they arrived.

Fifteen years later, when Yount sent for his wife, the thankless woman showed no appreciation, reporting that she'd given him up for dead and married another man. But Yount's 17-year-old daughter decided to make the wagon train trip west and live with Daddy. She settled in Napa, married and had five children. "What I wouldn't give," sighs Toni, "to have her diary--this 17-year-old girl from Missouri who decided to come and live in the wild frontier."

Curious now about these other settlers from Missouri, I headed north to Yountville, population 3,500. Driving past numerous bistros, I stopped at Pioneer Cemetery to visit Yount's grave. I found the black wrought-iron fence of his burial plot, the white marble obelisk tombstone. And I must say, if one were seeking an eternal resting place, this would be it. Black gnarled oaks dot the grounds, and climbing the hillside beyond the graveyard fence are vineyards, only a short distance away on a midnight stroll.

The ladies at the historical society had another tip. Following their advice, I donned my hiking boots and ventured to Mount St. Helena, the ancient dormant volcano that provided the region with the perfect soil for growing grapes. My quest was to visit the spot where Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson had lived with his bride, Fanny.

Stevenson's journey to Napa had been as twisted as the corkscrew road leading up the mountain. His trouble began when he refused to follow his father's wishes to become an engineer and, worse, became a writer instead. He set sail for California, and when he arrived in San Francisco, the delicate Stevenson was half dead from bronchitis. He continued down the path to Hell and married a divorcee 10 years his senior.

In an effort to recover his health, the newlyweds spent their last $10 on a cabin at a Calistoga hot springs resort, then decided to travel up the mountain and live in an abandoned miner's shack. A man after my own heart, Stevenson discusses this era in his book "Silverado Squatters": "I was interested in California wine. Indeed, I am interested in all wines and have been all my life. . . ."

When he returned to Scotland, he incorporated bits of Mount St. Helena into Spyglass Hill, the setting of "Treasure Island."

I suspect little has changed on this isolated mountain since Stevenson's day. The state park features no rustic display maps, no RV campgrounds, no "Treasure Island" gift shops selling plastic pirate hooks. In fact, there are few facilities of any kind except restrooms conveniently located behind every shrub. Following umpteen switchbacks, I climbed the wooded trail to see where the writer once lived, and about a mile up discovered the stone monument of a book that marks the spot.

For years I'd heard about the notorious Calistoga hot springs, where Stevenson had gone for his health, and decided it was time to investigate one firsthand. I drove Upvalley (as the locals say) to the town of Calistoga. Eight thousand years ago, the Wappo tribe built sweat lodges over the escaping steam from the region's geysers, consecrating this ground as a holy site.

But the first white man to capitalize on this natural phenomenon was Sam Brannan, a Mormon missionary and first-rate huckster. Brannan published a San Francisco newspaper in 1848, and while following up a rumor, learned of a potent discovery in the Sierra foothills. Demonstrating the newspaperman's credo that knowledge is power, he bought every pickax, shovel and pan to be found, then announced that there was gold in them thar hills.

The Gold Rush was on. Brannan graciously consented to part with some of his newly purchased hardware to the dreamers who arrived overnight, and in the process became California's first Gold Rush millionaire.

In 1860, Brannan headed north and discovered a land of natural hot springs, where water came boiling out of the ground at 220 degrees. He bought that land and constructed a lavish resort. During the Victorian era, the practice of "taking the waters" was considered a healthful cure for everything from scaly skin to tuberculosis, and when the resort opened, tourists flocked to Napa Valley. This tradition still thrives today, and Indian Springs, the oldest remaining spa in Calistoga, sits on the original site of Brannan's creation.

When I drove into Indian Springs' long circular drive, I decided it looks every inch a Calistoga dowager's resort. A white Mission-style bathhouse sits grandly on a backdrop that could serve in any Wild West movie: rugged mountains, towering cactuses, steaming geysers and a blue sky stretching straight to heaven. To the left is a Tahoe-size swimming pool fed by hot springs and surrounded by deck chairs.

A staff member led me from the lobby to the quaintly Victorian dressing rooms with whitewashed walls, hydrangea bouquets and ceiling fans. Handing me a large bath sheet, she said, "Please take everything off." When I walked into the next room, an attendant peeled away my towel and helped me into a large concrete trough of black volcanic ash. As I leaned my head back against the pillow, she shoveled two heaping handfuls of warm black mud onto my crotch, smeared me down from head to toe and left me to marinate.

My last experience of anything like this was probably in the womb. I expected to sink into the tub, but the muck was firm, and so I was suspended in a warm cocoon listening to the murmur of running water and hissing steam. Eventually there was a shower, then a long soak in a claw-foot tub of mineral water. The women brought cool towels for my forehead and ice water flavored with cucumber and citrus. The only thing missing was a baby bottle filled with chilled champagne--an oversight I would remedy on my next visit.

I gradually began to understand that bedrock Napa is not about Pinot Noir, foie gras or health spas; it's about agriculture. It's a community whose rhythms follow the crops and seasons. And like most farming communities, winter is the time when Napans rest and rejuvenate. At the end of January, when the wild mustard blooms, the Mustard Festival begins, a two-month series of events to benefit local charities. On opening night, my husband and I enter the black-tie gala, toss down a few flutes of Mumm's to kill the jitters, and walk upstairs past the trapeze artists swinging from the four-story atrium. Tonight's kickoff is held at Grey-stone, the West Coast campus of the Culinary Institute of America. Once the world's largest stone winery, Greystone was constructed in 1889 using local tufa stone; it sits majestically on a hill, looking more castle than plebeian winery.

Arriving in the Barrel Room, I try hard to suppress a spasm of joy at having reached the zenith of my career as a decadent: The cavernous space is filled by representatives of the best wineries in the Napa, and the best restaurants, which hand out precious morsels like baby lamb chops and salmon en croute. As patrons peruse the art gallery, dancers in Moulin Rouge costumes kick the can-can, a cabaret singer belts a passionate rendition of Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose," and I swirl, gargle and do not spit, except occasionally while speaking.

When I venture over to taste the Chardonnay of Grgich Hills Cellar, I meet the proprietor, Miljenko "Mike" Grgich, sporting his famous black beret. He tells me in a thick Croatian accent about witnessing a very different scene in this same room 40 years ago. Grgich came here a dreamer, and his dream was to make the best wine. Living in Communist Yugoslavia, he had heard about this paradise called the Napa Valley, and began a nine-year-long process of immigration.

When he arrived in St. Helena in 1958, there was one hotel. For $2 a night, he had his pick of rooms, as all 24 were vacant. His nephew, a priest, had arranged a job for him at Christian Brothers, one of the few Napa wineries that had survived Prohibition by making blessed sacramental altar wine. When Grgich started to work in the Barrel Room at Greystone, he manned the bottling line under the direction of Brother Timothy.

"The wine industry was not glamorous 40 years ago. No. The wineries were made up of people who came from old country and planted vineyards. You couldn't even make a living at it--they lived very poorly--but they kept at it. It was just a labor of love."

The radical transformation of Napa Valley from sleepy farms raising cattle, prunes and walnuts to world-class vineyards is in part due to Grgich. He was the winemaker who created the Chardonnay that beat the French wines in the legendary Paris Tasting of 1976. This competition was a blind tasting in which Napa Valley wines won in both the white and red categories. This news stunned oenophiles, dynamiting age-old biases against America's "second-rate" vintages. As during the Gold Rush era, California was again swarmed by prospectors, but this time they came searching for wine.

In my dig for Napa soul, I hit pay dirt at the Green Lantern. Out front, a sandwich-board sign announced: "Napa's Oldest Hole in the Wall." One step through the front door proves this is not a metaphor. A concrete wall has been bashed away between two rooms, leaving a ragged archway. The decor lends itself to hangovers: Green Christmas lights circle the room, the wall behind the horseshoe bar sports three buck heads and a color TV. To the left is a banner listing the Budweiser NASCAR schedule.

The Green Lantern is a working-class bar, serving the folks who install drywall in the winery tasting rooms, chase the hot-air balloons, man the mud baths, harvest the grapes. No one is drinking wine. My husband and I dine on Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and free popcorn.

Seated at the far left of the horseshoe in front of us are, yes, two gold prospectors wintering over from Alaska. To their left is a dwarf. To his left is what--to my cold fish eye--appears to be a transvestite. One of the gold miners assures me that the object of my scrutiny is all woman. And he knows. I point out that her girlish charms might be recent additions. He shrugs, looks a little worried, and takes a gulp of his rum and Coke. At the apex of the horseshoe, a man wears a T-shirt announcing: "Women Want Me/ Fish Fear Me." He leans on a pool cue, takes a long drag off his cigarette, closes his eyes and belts out a chorus with the jukebox: "I've got a friend in Jeee-susss! Yeah, gonna take me UP to the Spirit in the Skyyyy! Oh . . ."

Another pool player seeking salvation.

Like all paradises populated by mortals, Napa has its occasional fall from grace. One the natives keep laughing about is the Great Idea hatched in the summer of 1994. The promoters of Napa's Town and Country Fair decided on a gimmick to promote flagging attendance at the rodeo: They would open the event by orchestrating a Pamplona-style running of the bulls through downtown Napa.

When the big day came, 25 longhorn steers were let loose in front of City Hall. They tore through town, and along the way, one caved in the side of the sheriff's car, another cornered patrons of the local bank and a few more munched the manicured civic shrubbery. The longhorns picked up speed as they approached the fairgrounds and--in a particularly poignant moment--charged a group of animal rights' protesters, sending them scurrying for cover. Chants of "Just Say No to the Rodeo" erupted into squeals of terror.

One old-timer, a rancher who participated in real cattle drives through Napa, lamented: "It's the end of an era. The young people today don't like cowboys anymore." Ah, but pardner, times have changed. Old Napa's been revamped to make way for the new, plowed under to make way for vineyards. Sure, people still care about cattle around here. As long as you're serving them up with a good bottle of cabernet.

Cathleen Miller last wrote for the Travel section about the Chelsea Hotel in New York.


Touring the Napa Valley

GETTING THERE: Napa is about 70 miles northeast of San Francisco, 50 miles southwest of Sacramento. Air fares to both cities from the Washington area start at about $375. Depending on traffic, the drive from either airport should take 60 to 90 minutes. (Warning: You'll almost certainly hit more traffic coming from San Francisco.)

GETTING AROUND: Napa is simple to navigate by car, the two main thoroughfares being the parallel north-south routes of Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. If driving is not an option, take the Evans Shuttle from the airport (707-255-1559), then take a taxi from the shuttle's parking lot to downtown Napa. Use Napa City as your base, because you can get to most places on foot. The Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau (see below) can arrange bicycle, van and limousine tours of the wineries.

WHEN TO GO: Summer is hot and crowded; all other seasons are enjoyable, with winter quietest. The rainy season begins in November but temperatures seldom fall below freezing, so even this time of year provides a respite from the bitter frozen East. By March, the wild mustard and blossoming fruit trees have reached a crescendo, and in October, the golden and red leaves of the vineyards make for spectacular displays.

WHERE TO STAY: Lodging is available in all price ranges, from Auberge du Soleil's $2,000-a-night cottages to chain motels. Some of the better values are B&Bs in downtown Napa, like La Belle Epoque (1386 Calistoga Ave., $159-$219) and the Inn on Randolph (411 Randolph St., $124-$259). Note that almost all Napa Valley lodging requires a two-night minimum stay on weekends; book well in advance. For lodging and reservations: Napa Valley Reservations Unlimited, 1-800-251-6272.

WHERE TO EAT: Napa ranks as a culinary capital, and of course the restaurants feature good wine lists. Naturally, most of the best are pricey, and so are some of the worst.

Greystone (2555 Main St., St. Helena) is worthy for its beautiful stone building alone, but the Mediterranean-inspired menu by chef Joyce Goldstein is all that California cooking can be. Try Tra Vigne (1050 Charter Oak Ave., St. Helena) for Northern Italian food and lovely outdoor patio seating; Mustard's Grill (7399 St. Helena Hwy., Yountville) for more informal roadhouse decor and American classics; and Bouchon's (6534 Washington St., Yountville) for a French bistro atmosphere, complete with zinc oyster bar imported from Paris.

The unbeatable budget option is picnicking, as many wineries offer outdoor facilities. Pick up sandwiches, salads and a boggling selection of cheeses at Oakville Grocery (7856 St. Helena Hwy., Oakville) or Vallergas Markets (426 First St., Napa, and two other locations).

RECOMMENDED READING: Wine Spectator's "Wine Country Guide to California," which offers excellent maps and info about wineries, restaurants and lodging, is available by mail order (1-800-761-4099). For in-depth background on Napa and Sonoma, read "Wine Country" by John Doerper (Compass American Guides). A book rich with history is Lin Weber's "Old Napa Valley: The History to 1900" (Wine Ventures Publishing).

INFORMATION: Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau, 1310 Napa Town Center, Napa, Calif. 94559, 707-226-7459, www.napavalley.com.

Vintage Napa: A Winery Sampler

Tasting wine is like viewing abstract art: Both require some fairly esoteric knowledge and invite idiot pretension. If you are a novice eager to garner more from your Napa visit than a hangover, or have long dreamed of being able to enter a French restaurant and wipe that smirk off the sommelier's face, this is where to learn.

Begin your education at Goosecross Cellars' Wine Basics Class (1119 State Lane, Yountville), a fun, non-threatening place to learn how to taste wine. Classes meet Saturdays at 11 a.m. and are free (707-944-1986, www.goosecross.com).

S. Anderson Vineyard (1473 Yountville Crossroad, Yountville), the only family-owned champagne house in the United States, offers candlelight tours of its caves. Tours at 10:30 and 2:30; cost of $5 includes tasting (707-944-8642).

Schramsburg Vineyards (1400 Schramsberg Rd., Calistoga), one of Napa's oldest wineries, offers educational tours on champagne-making. Basic tour and tasting costs $7.50; by appointment only (707-942-2414).

For more experienced oenophiles, the component tasting seminar at Merryvale Vineyard (1000 Main Street, St. Helena) is a two-hour class that helps you map your palate. Saturdays and Sundays, 10:30 a.m.; cost $10 (707-963-7777).

Red wine lovers can head to Arroyo Winery (2361 Greenwood Ave., Calistoga), a small, homey establishment where you can do barrel tastings and discuss the winemaker's art with the owner. Free, but call for an appointment (707-942-6995).

CAPTION: Napa Valley from all sides: Clockwise from top, Oat Hill Mine Road in Calistoga; one of the valley's many vineyards; a Victorian home in Napa; and downtown Calistoga.