Is it possible to sum up the most famous wine region in the United States in one paragraph? No place has more effectively seized the collective imagination of this country than Napa. One reason must be the beauty of its landscape: Even today's well-touristed Valley remains a visual pleasure. Another is Napa's long (by American standards) history: Grapes have been grown there since 1838. Back in 1886, there were 175 wineries in the county; today there are around 260. Finally, there's the fact that no place has been better promoted—thanks primarily to the tireless efforts of Robert Mondavi, who began his one-man ambassadorship in the 1960s.
Cabernet Is King Although just about every red and white grape in the world has been grown in Napa at one time or another, some varieties do better than others. None, however, do better than Cabernet Sauvignon. Runners-up include Merlot, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc, not to mention Chardonnay—and even Charbono!
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Names To Know Certain wine districts within Napa are deservedly more famous than others. Star appellations include Stags Leap District, Oakville, Howell Mountain, Rutherford and Mount Veeder.
An Expert'S Selections The following 10 wines were chosen and described by Margaux Singleton, a longtime Napa insider, who runs one of the Valley's best wine shops, Enoteca Wine Shop, in Calistoga.
10 Top Bottles
2001 Saddleback Cellars Pinot Grigio ($18) Napa may not be known for Pinot Grigio, but this dry, characterful bottling is comparable to leading Italian examples.
2001 Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc ($23) Although Duckhorn put Merlot on the Napa map in the '80s, it's now almost as well known for its Sauvignon Blanc. A bit of Sémillon adds texture and richness to this grassy, figgy, delicious wine.
2000 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay ($33) Located near Calistoga at Napa's north end, this winery is most famous for Cabernet, but its rich, balanced Chardonnay is also a crowd pleaser.
2001 Storybook Mountain Vineyards Zin Gris ($15) Made from Zinfandel grapes grown north of Calistoga, this ruby-colored, aromatic dry wine is more like a French rosé than a White Zinfandel.
2000 Markham Merlot ($23) As one of the first and largest Napa wineries, Markham has long been a benchmark Merlot maker. This one has a delicious hint of chocolate milk on the finish.
2000 Summers Charbono ($24) There is precious little Charbono planted in Napa—only 30 acres—but the lusty-ripe, Zinfandel-like character of the Summers' wine makes it perpetually one of the best.
1999 Havens Napa Valley Syrah ($26) Michael Havens is a quiet but powerful presence in the Valley who turns out a terrific Syrah at a great price.
1999 Chiarello Petite Sirah ($45) Michael Chiarello, TV personality and a founder of Napa's Tra Vigne restaurant, also turns out an impressive Petite Sirah--redolent of blueberries, spice and smoked meat--from the 90-year-old vines near his house.
1999 Vinoce ($60) The name means "wine nut" in a French-Italian fusion, but this Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is serious stuff: a weighty, ageworthy red.
1999 Vine Cliff Private Stock Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) This sensational wine from a top vintage shows why Oakville is one of the best places in Napa to make Cabernet. Vine Cliff neighbors include Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle.