View of vineyards from Napa Valley Wine Train California
View of vineyards from Napa Valley Wine Train California
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Napa Valley Wine Country – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

Much to the envy of other wine-producing areas in California, the Napa Valley retains its position in the imagination of many wine travelers as The Wine Country. Napa acquired the reputation because the area was so important in the era when Americans re-discovered wine, circa 1950-1970. The compact, 35-mile stretch of vineyards from Carneros to Mt. St. Helena also possesses extraordinary natural beauty as a well-proportioned valley between the Mayacamas and Howell mountains. Today, more than 100 Napa wineries welcome visitors without any special appointment and produce some of California’s outstanding wines. Moreover, the wineries themselves are often handsome architectural statements.

Of the many grapes grown in the 45,000-plus acres planted in Napa County, several stand prominently above the crowd. They are Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel among the reds, plus Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc among the whites. Napa is a premier region in California for Cabernet, partly because of the dependable sun and moderate warmth, which is somewhat similar to maritime Bordeaux. Chardonnay also does very well here.

The Cabernet grape produces a more consistent wine in Napa (and California generally) than in its native Bordeaux, France, because the grape growers of California manage the vines more actively. In Bordeaux, if there is drought, the vineyard manager can do nothing more than genuflect before the forces of nature and the legal restrictions of the 1855 law that prevents irrigation. In Napa, drought provokes the vineyard manager to turn on the sprinklers.

Frost is another threat to vines in Bordeaux, but not in Napa, where overhead sprinklers eliminate the frost problem. The long, dry summers of the Napa Valley are ideal for grape development in Cabernet and other varietals. Only the occasional unseasonal rain, especially as the harvest time nears in late August and September, causes concern for the vineyard manager.

In Napa, Cabernet is made into either a big wine or a more accessible wine, soon drinkable, depending on the marketing goal and aesthetic position of the winemaker. All the wineries of the Napa region benefit from technological changes in vineyard management and wine production which have been advanced at the California agricultural colleges, with the University of California at Davis one of the leaders in matters enological.

Chardonnay, the premier white wine from Napa, tends to be produced in a fruitier and sweeter manner than the typical Chardonnay of Burgundy. The low yield of Chardonnay grapes and the high demand for white wines make Chardonnay and Cabernet grapes expensive in Napa.

The ritual of wine tasting in the Napa Valley begins when you drive to the winery and enter the tasting room. Often there is a modest fee involved. You may be invited to taste directly or you may be escorted on a tour of the wine-making operation first. The tour, typically, is a one-hour experience that explains the entire wine-making process, from fermentation through aging.

A tour is highly recommended for the first-time visitor. If you have gone to Napa before, you may wish to bypass the tour entirely or you may delight in learning the nuances of how each winery approaches the art of wine-making somewhat differently. Visiting hours at Napa wineries are generally 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., seven days a week. At the tasting room you can also purchase the company’s wines, which are sometimes not available at all in your local wine store. The wineries may be able to arrange shipment to your home.

The best way to encounter the Napa Valley is to drive up the valley, touring and tasting at wineries. My favorite time here is an autumn weekend in October when the vines have turned flaming red, the harvest is in frenetic process, and there is a nip of autumn chill in the air. However, this is also a busy time, and you will get more personal attention at other times of the year. Part of the pleasure of the Napa Valley is its pleasing proportion, its manageable size, and its human scale, when compared with the vastness of other wine areas of California.

Getting to the Napa Valley

The Napa Valley is an hour by car from San Francisco or the East Bay. There are two routes up. From San Francisco, drive north on Highway 101 and turn east onto Highway 37, then 121-12, connecting with Highway 29 in the Napa Valley. From the East Bay, the Oakland-Berkeley region, drive north on Interstate 80, then west at Vallejo, until you reach Highway 29. Unless you take an organized tour, you will need a car to drive around to the various wineries and to explore the small towns.

Napa Wine Country History

Wine is the single dominant focus in the Napa Valley today, but that has not always been the case. Stop at the Bale Grist Mill in Bothe-Napa State Park to learn about the early wheat and corn heyday of the valley. This grist mill ground wheat to feed hungry gold miners after the 1848 discovery of gold. In 1847, flour sold for 1.5 cents a pound. By 1849, flour had risen to $1.50 a pound as hundreds of thousands of miners descended on California. Wheat was the first major crop in the Napa Valley. The wheat boom lasted until 1869, when the transcontinental railroad pushed across the Sierra, allowing the trains to introduce the superior hard winter red wheat of the Great Plains. The winter wheat had a higher gluten content that resulted in a superior, lighter bread, which put California wheat out of business overnight.

However, the wine story also started early. George Yount planted grapes here in 1838. Gustave Niebaum, a Finnish sea captain, traveled inland to form the Inglenook Winery in the Napa Valley. The German Beringer brothers and Charles Krug were other early planters. Some vines had been planted at the most northerly California mission, in Sonoma, but they were not grapes of the vinifera class associated with modern gustatory pleasures.

It is instructive to read a book by Frona Waite, written in the 1870s, describing early California wine production. Wine was already at that time a big business here.

One of the charming early observers was Robert Louis Stevenson, who stayed here 1880-1881, and whose memorabilia are gathered in a small museum in St. Helena. The Silverado Museum, 1490 Library Street, St. Helena, is well worth a stop. Stevenson wrote a bucolic little volume, called The Silverado Squatters, that described his stay here, including his visit to the Schramsberg Winery, an early maker of champagne. You can still visit Schramsberg today. Stevenson tasted about 15 champagnes with the proprietor of Schramsberg. Seven miles northeast of Calistoga along Highway 29 there is a lovely undeveloped park, named after Stevenson, near the summit of Mt. St. Helena. Here, in a rude cabin, Stevenson regained his health, celebrated his marriage, and launched himself on his literary career. You can hike up to his cabin site.

Prohibition dealt a severe blow to the Napa Valley. As single-crop farmers, the growers felt the harshness of The Great Experiment to its fullest impact. Even after this 1919-1933 aberration passed into history, the vineyards suffered a generation of neglect. Winemakers were not seen then as artists, but as gangsters. The vines planted were rough grapes like Carignane, tough enough to ship on boxcars to families who were allowed to make their 50 gallons per year of household wine during Prohibition. Ambitious young men in wine families went on to other pursuits. Fortunately, all this gradually changed, but only starting in the 1960s.

Napa Wine Country Major Attractions

Your challenge in the Napa Wine Country is which of the valley’s many wineries to visit. Usually it is possible to visit about three wineries in a day’s outing. For a good map, pick up the free Wine Country Review, available everywhere in the valley.

View of vineyards from Napa Valley Wine Train California
View of vineyards from Napa Valley Wine Train California

Here are two good possible plans for visits to Napa Valley wineries:

Plan A: Visit three or four well-known names that have strong tours, tastings, and attractive architecture. Consider Domaine Chandon, Mondavi, Beringer, and Sterling in that order.

Domaine Chandon, 1 California Drive, Yountville, offers its sparkling wines for a nominal charge at an outdoor cafe, with or without a tour. They also maintain an excellent restaurant, called etoile, with dishes such as salmon with champagne cream sauce and candied ginger. Chandon is a French-owned enterprise, founded in 1973. Out of deference to the Gallic Champagne region, their sparkling wine will always be called just sparkling wine. Try their various sparkling wines.

Robert Mondavi, in Oakville, sprawling over a Cliff May mission-style building, offers instructive tours and entertains on some Sunday afternoons with music concerts. Mondavi was a crucial name in the resurgence of the Napa Valley, both because of their quality Cabernets and because of Robert Mondavi’s personal energy in promoting the valley and his advocacy of moderate wine drinking as a part of the good life. Try the Mondavi Cabernet or Zinfandel.

The tour at Beringer, 200 Main Street, St. Helena, on the north edge of St. Helena, takes you through their palatial Rhine House, constructed in 1876, emphasizing the historical wine story as you visit elaborate caves, cut in limestone hills, and used to store and cool wine. Try their Riesling.

At Sterling, 1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga, you ride up in a gondola to witness the modern high-tech operation on a self-guided tour. This Greek Mediterranean-style winery was deliberately laid out with the traveler in mind. From elevated Sterling you also enjoy sweeping views of the valley, looking south. Try their Merlot, a red that is as important as Cabernet at some Bordeaux wineries. Some of the most famous Bordeaux wineries, such as Petrus, use Merlot exclusively in their wine, while others use Cabernet predominantly, with some measure of Merlot.

Two other major entities should be mentioned.

Stop to see the Niebaum-Coppola Winery, 1991 St. Helena Highway in Rutherford. Niebaum-Coppola is one of the most historic and charming wineries in the valley. It is also an illustration of how celebrities and entertainment people like filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola have bought new energy into the wine country. Try their Cabernet.

The former Christian Brothers Greystone Winery, along the highway at St. Helena, is now the Culinary Institute of America. This massive stone warehouse, one of the largest stone buildings in the world when constructed in the 19th century, now houses a restaurant, a cooking paraphernalia store, and a prominent cooking school with many programs of interest to a wine traveler.

As an alternative strategy, consider Plan B, and visit three smaller producers. They can provide a more intimate tasting experience and may appeal more to the experienced wine drinker. They sometimes offer a tour only if you call ahead to make arrangements. Some good winery choices for this would be Heitz Cellars, Joseph Phelps, Grgich-Hills, and Stag’s Leap.

Since your main task in a Napa Valley wine tour will be choosing where to go, here are more wineries for possible touring and tasting. Always check the Internet or call ahead. Some are small wineries that you might want to call in advance to arrange a tour as well as a tasting are:

Chateau Montelena, Calistoga.

Cuvaison, Calistoga.

Freemark Abbey, St. Helena.

Louis Martini, St. Helena.

Rutherford Hill, Rutherford.

Villa Mt. Eden, St. Helena.

Whitehall Lane, St. Helena.

Scenic Drives

Be sure to drive the road along the east side of the valley, known as the Silverado Trail, at some point in your outing. This elevated road from Calistoga to Napa City shows the beauty of the area to best advantage, minus the traffic of Highway 29. Consider driving up the Napa Valley’s main artery, Highway 29, to Calistoga and then back along the Silverado Trail, which is especially lovely in October as the vine leaves turn yellow and red.

Autumn is a classic time of the year to visit the Napa region, both to enjoy the vine leaf color and to witness the harvest in progress, but other seasons are also rewarding here. In winter, the winemaker or winery owner will be more likely to be present in the tasting room or otherwise accessible if a special appointment is made. In spring, the budding out of the vines and the light green color of new leaves are engaging. Spring is a favorite bicycling time in the Napa region, with bicycle rentals easily available. Summer is a popular touring time because of vacation periods, with Napa often one element of the California vacation pattern. The warm sun is then swelling the developing grapes, creating the sugars that yeasts will transform into alcohol.

Adventures in the Napa Wine Country

Ballooning is popular here as a way to savor the landscape. Napa Valley Aloft, in Yountville, is active in this sport.

Spas and mudbaths are a further attraction. The mud baths and mineral baths at Calistoga, such as Dr. Wilkinson’s, 1507 Union Avenue, Calistoga, are heavily patronized.

North of Calistoga there is a faithful geyser, called Old Faithful Geyser, 1299 Tubbs Lane. This is said to be one of three geysers in the world, meaning they erupt with a regular timetable. The Napa Valley geyser spews forth between 17 and 40 minutes, but on a predictable timetable. The entire region has much geothermal activity, with electricity production taking place further north at a Pacific Gas and Electric installation called The Geysers, which is one of the world’s larger geothermal electrical production sites.

Five miles west of Calistoga on Petrified Forest Road there is a Petrified Forest, a remarkable sight to see. The huge redwoods that lie solemnly pointing away from Mt. St. Helena remind the viewer that violent volcanic eruption, from Lassen in northern California to Mt. St. Helens in Washington, is always a possibility in this chain of fire mountains. Although volcanism is the basis for the area’s geology, don’t allow the names to confuse you. St. Helena, the ancient erupter, is in California, while St. Helens, the 1980 pyrotechnic displayer, is in Washington state.

Each of the small towns in the area has some features other than wine to mention.

Napa boasts an attractive collection of Victorian architecture.

Yountville was the former home of valley-founder George Yount. The park in Yountville is a pleasant place to relax, picnic, or let kids loose at the playground. Vintage 1870 is an elaborate shopping and dining complex adjacent to Yountville Park.

In Calistoga there is also a small museum, called the Sharpsteen Museum, recalling the contributions of Sam Brannan, a Mormon who envisioned a resort here as early as 1859. Brannan pushed through a rail spur to the area. Perhaps appropriately, Brannan is said to have raised a glass of the local liquid sunshine to his vision and pronounced that this would be “the Saratoga of California,” thinking of the great spas in upper New York State. However, the glass may not have been his first of the day because the words came out as “the Calistoga of Sarafornia.” The name Calistoga stuck.

St. Helena, aside from its mentioned Stevenson Museum, also has an interesting beeswax candle factory, the Hurd Beeswax Candles, 2.5 miles north at the Freemark Abbey Winery.

Nearby Trips from the Napa Wine Country

If Napa Wine Country touring sounds like California travel you’d enjoy, know that Napa is only the first of several “wine countries” near San Francisco. An equally pleasant day could be spent in the Sonoma Valley to the west of Napa and the Mendocino wine region north and west of Sonoma. See my “California’s Sonoma Wine Country.”

The Sonoma Wine Country to the west can easily become part of an extended Napa Wine Country trip. If you have two days, you can make a loop trip by driving up the Napa Valley, then across the coastal mountains and down through the Sonoma Wine Country.

An enjoyable drive north and east of Napa, passing oak-woodland hillsides, takes you to Lake County, noted for its large lake, Clear Lake, and the rustic feel of its walnut and pear agriculture. Bass fishermen rank Clear Lake among the best in the west. Geologists are fascinated by Clear Lake, the largest natural lake entirely in California, because of evidence that it is one of the oldest lakes in the world. The best introduction to the natural history of the area is at the Visitor Center for Clear Lake State Park. The area nurtures some credible wineries, such as Kendall-Jackson. South of the lake lies one of the largest gold mines in California, run by Homestake Mining. This high-tech operation can extract one ounce of gold from seven tons of crushed rock. For the itinerant traveler, Lake County has the undeveloped feel that perhaps Napa/Sonoma had some 50 years ago.

For its wine and all its other appeals, the Napa Valley ranks as one of the premier travel destinations in California.

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Napa Wine Valley: If You Go

The Napa Valley Visitor Council site is a good place to start your Napa Valley research at www.napavalley.com.

This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page

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