Sparkling wines and sky-high thrills

Business Jet Traveler » April 2009
People below look up and wave. Houses appear and shrink. Far above the trees,
Wednesday, April 1, 2009 - 5:00am

You don't need the daring verve of Richard Branson to feel the exhilaration of being lifted into the sky by balloon. In the winter of 1991, you may recall, Sir Richard and Per Lindstrand completed the longest all-time flight in a hot-air balloon by navigating their Virgin Pacific Flyer 4,767 miles from Japan to Canada via the North Pacific jet stream. They reached the highest ground speed ever for a manned balloon-245 miles per hour. Your foray need not be an exercise in such rugged endurance; on the contrary, it can be a thoroughly pleasurable-and remarkably safe-little adventure. Imagine clinking glasses of California sparkling wine as you look down at the serenely elegant source of your drinks: Napa Valley's Domaine Chandon and other fine vineyards.

In California wine country, you meet your FAA-certified pilot at daybreak, when the wind is calm and the air is cool-the best conditions for ballooning. You are greeted with the sight of startling flames and the sound of loud bursts from a blast valve punctuating the half-lit morning stillness. The burner uses bottled liquid propane, mixes it with air, ignites the mixture and directs the flame and exhaust into the mouth of the "envelope" of the balloon, which is made of a fire-protected Kevlar weave. You join a group of four to six people and watch the multi-colored envelope take billowy shape and emerge from the grass, inflating to a great teardrop of surprisingly delicate nylon fabric.

You climb into a sturdy gondola or wicker basket. Your pilot generates more roaring bursts of the burner and the great colored balloon, obeying Archimedes' principle, begins to ascend. Hot-air balloons rise because the density of the warmer air inside the balloon is less than the density of the cooler air outside the balloon. As you climb, the ground becomes suddenly broader and people below look up and wave...and become swiftly smaller. Houses appear and shrink, their windows glinting the first sun streaming through the oaks. Orange light bathes the rolling geometric rows of neatly pruned Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines.

Far above the treetops, you barely feel you are moving. You are drifting with the air current in what deceptively feels like super slow motion. You are 1,000 feet above the ground and rising, but without linear perspective haven't the slightest fear of height. Far below, the world is coming to life: tiny trucks follow narrow ribbons, distant dogs bark in backyards, crows call faintly. It's the serene sense of quiet you will remember. 

TO LEARN MORE

For information about northern California balloon rides, contact:
Above the Wine Country (
www.balloontours.com, 800-759-5638),
Balloons Above the Valley (
www.balloonrides.com, 800-464-6824)
or Napa Valley Aloft (
www.nvaloft.com, 800-627-2759).

For information about winery tours and tastings, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and mud-bath spas, contact: Napa Valley Chamber of Commerce (
www.napachamber.org, 707-226-7455) or Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce (
www.sonomachamber.com, 707-996-1033).

A LITTLE HISTORY

Hot-air ballooning swept the world's imagination in 1863 when a young French novelist persuaded a publishing house to take a chance on his story of two friends and a servant sailing across Africa from Zanzibar to Lake Victoria and beyond to the Indian Ocean in a gigantic hydrogen-powered balloon. Along the way, they solved secrets of geography, fantastically survived numerous mishaps and rescued a captive missionary about to be sacrificed by fearsome natives. The author was Jules Verne. And his Five Weeks in a Balloon, or, Journeys and Discoveries in Africa by Three Englishmen was the first in a dazzling series of best-selling adventure novels.

The French connection was no coincidence. Nearly a century earlier, in 1783, scientist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis François d'Arlandes successfully petitioned the court of King Louis XVI to grant them the honor of being the first humans to be lifted aloft in a balloon propelled by air heated by wood fires on the ground. De Rozier and d'Arlandes made the first manned free flight in history that year, traveling 12 kilometers in 25 minutes.

The modern hot-air balloon-some 7,500 are now in use throughout the U.S.-is a relatively recent invention. Not until 1960 did a man in Iowa named Ed Yost fly the first balloon with an on-board heat source, allowing the pilot far greater control, both ascending and descending.

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