The Napa Valley
you dream of is not in California
, at least for those of us who
don't own a boutique vineyard. The Napa
dream of exists halfway across the world, slightly north of Rome
, nestled quietly on an Etruscan hillside
where grape vines stretch as big as Yountville, strung across undulating
greenery from one ancient castle to the next. Don't go to California
expecting the Napa
of your dreams; because
is something else altogether. The bits and pieces from movies, bottle labels
and intoxicating anecdotes are ground up, pressed, packed and clearly labeled Made In America
. At first glance, Napa
is a highway. An
American highway, with slightly more aesthetic scenery and a handful of
recognizable names like Sutter Home and Mondavi, whose road signs are typically
blocked by the tour bus convoy. Winery tours end in souvenir shops, one step
away from selling mouse ears. But shy of that one step, Napa
is special; big and small, theme park
and playground, grande and boutique, commercial and memorable, top-shelf and
table wine alike.
Just because Napa
is far from what you dream of, does not mean Napa
is far from paradise.
When I started down the St. Helena Highway
(Route 29), the main
thoroughfare that strings together the Valley’s towns and vineyards, I felt a
tinge of disappointment. The Autobahn it is not, but neither is it a quaint,
country dirt road. No bicycle baskets filled with bottles and baguettes here.
But beyond the asphalt hum, offshoot roads spider-web up
into the adjacent hills or cross perpendicular over the valley, connecting with
the somewhat parallel-running Silverado Trail. Along these tendrils you’ll find
the juicy fruit.
The simple rule for the bolder traveler is to avoid the
mega-mart vineyards in exchange for the family-owned, couple-acre,
creatively-named boutique winery. The philosophy is certainly advantageous. You
avoid the large tourist busses, tasting pours tend to be more generous and you
may just pick up some knowledge from the owners/operators. Plus, you can very
easily find yourself in a quiet corner of California
with a private picnic lunch and a
delicious view. Some tactic is necessary to divide and conquer your fair share
of the Valley, what with so many ducks, frogs, horns and Italian phrases scribbled
over your guide map. Some good advice? Ask advice. B&B proprietors are a
Up into the hills off of Route 29 hides Hendry Ranch Wines. They
offer perhaps the best tour around, or at least the most distinctive, but
nevertheless they uncork an array of luscious vintages. Like any smaller
operation, the Hendry vintners take pride in each grape and they pour passion
into every glass. Owner George Hendry began as a scientist, creating the
cyclotron, a particle accelerator that is used in medical imaging. He still
lives in the white house at the edge of the property. But our tour was given by
George's cyclotron partner, Jeff Miller, who described the inner workings of
the winery in an exquisitely scientific way. Jeff provided interesting perspective,
one that proved wine-making is just as much science as it is art. The oak-aged
vintage, with its dominant and smoky whisky finish, is creative but precise. No
frills but truly unique, for a truly unique winery.
To explore more of the Valley we utilized a limo tour, Beau
Wine Tours. It was effortless and extravagant and by the time we arrived back
at our B&B, we had become fast friends with the other family sharing our
As my wife and I stumbled from the limo at our Best Western
Elm House, I made sure to cross the B&B's small courtyard. The multitude of
rose bushes let off a distinct aroma, adding to the afternoon haze (half sun
and half grape induced). We stopped in the lobby and snatched a few fresh-baked
cookies and I began to understand the paradise of Napa
This collection of villages is complex but simple. It is
American highway and American countryside. It is arrogant but altogether quirky.
Part of Napa
charm lies in her ability to honor Janus as much as Bacchus. One moment you’re
standing in a gleaming steel distillery with thousands of bottles rattling to
completion and in the next, the sun is melting behind the far-off ridges while
you enjoy a glass of Cabernet at a picnic table along a silent hillside
Let’s be honest, a stigma of haughty finery has always
wafted around in-the-know winos. Blend that with the sometimes-elitist nature
of the indie traveler, and you’ve distilled a full-bodied arrogant bouquet that
goes down smooth but leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
But in a way, that's part of the fun. Napa
offers the finest sommeliers or Two Buck
Chuck on a picnic table. Either way, you laugh and you drink. Then you laugh
some more because you're drinking and you drink more because you're laughing.
Many of these vineyards are famous for one reason or another.
Some because of quality, some because of quantity. Napa
leaves it up to you to decide which
reason to indulge.
Mumm Napa is one of the larger, more frequented stops along
most tour bus itineraries. This vineyard, known for its sparkling wine
selection, houses a spectacular patio that overlooks its grapevines. Around
sunset, when the Greyhounds and Peter Pans rolled out, we caught Mumm exhaling.
All it took was a bistro table and a flight of sparkling wine and we found it,
right there - paradise in Napa