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Undercover in Napa

Wine editor Lettie Teague leaves her business cards at home to experience Napa as a tourist would. Here, the lessons she surreptitiously learned.
A couple of years ago, my uncle from Nashville called, looking for some advice on a trip he was planning to Napa Valley. I was hard-pressed to help him, however, since even though I travel there at least twice a year, I'm never a tourist. I meet with winemakers, listen to enologists and do a bit of barrel tasting. In other words, I work. I can't, for example, recall the last group winery tour I took or, for that matter, the last time I ate cheese in a tasting room. Perhaps it was time to get acquainted with the Napa Valley most people know.

I decided to give myself a three-day crash course: do the tours, see the sights, eat in a few tourist-friendly restaurants. Here are the most important things I learned along the way. 

STOP TO SMELL THE SAUVIGNON BLANC. 
Maybe it's just because I'm a big fan of their Sauvignon Blanc, but one of my favorite stops on my visit to Napa was St. Supéry Vineyard and Winery's Smellavision display. This exhibit features the aromas of the two wine grapes Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Each is represented by several of its most frequently invoked components, such as cedar and black cherry for Cabernet and new-mown hay for Sauvignon Blanc. The aromas of these various elements are released by pulling down on a lever and are smelled through a tube. It's a particularly popular exhibit among women; in fact, the Smellavision crowd I had to elbow through that day would have made a perfume salesperson in Saks mad with envy. 

There are a number of other displays for the more scientifically minded, including a topographical map of the Valley made of table salt and a giant Plexiglas box revealing a vine's root system. But best of all may be St. Supéry's "lifetime tasting privilege" card for free return visits to the winery's tasting room (the first visit costs $5)--no small extra, considering the winery's first-rate Sauvignon Blanc. 

UNAVAILABLE WINES ARE ACTUALLY AVAILABLE. 
There are wines that tourists simply can't find--bottles they can't buy and wineries they can't visit--unless they are part of the elite on a winery mailing list. In California these are called cult wines. But when I stumbled across the Vintage 1870 Wine Cellar, in Yountville, which billed itself as "a place where locals like to shop," I thought I'd hit pay dirt. This had to be where local winemakers stashed their spare cult Cabs. Unfortunately, this turned out not to be true, though I did learn that the locals liked Australian Shiraz. 

In Calistoga, however, the Enoteca Wine Shop is not only truly personal (and one of its owners, Margaux Singleton, truly personable) but also boasts just about every wine an ambitious tourist or collector would dream of discovering. At Enoteca (on the second floor, off Main Street), I found bottles of Beaux Frères Pinot Noir, Turley Zinfandel, Araujo Cabernet and Marcassin Chardonnay. I nearly stumbled over a vertical selection of Pingus, the most sought-after wine in Spain, while heading to check out a '20s cultured-pearl bracelet in the store's quirky and equally compelling antiques section. 

A GOOD GIFT SHOP IS NOT AN OXYMORON.
It's very hard to get a winery license in Napa; I only wish it were as difficult to open a winery gift shop. There are simply too many, and most seem to be selling exactly the same merchandise. Apparently there's a big constituency for grape-leaf aprons, grape-leaf oven mitts and grape-leaf hand towels, in addition to stemware, CDs and stuffed sharks. All of these things, I suppose, somehow convey the spirit of Napa (though I do wonder about those sharks). 

There is, however, one winery shop whose merchandise is so distinctive that even employees of other wineries shop there. (My friend and I ran into a woman from Stag's Leap in the parking lot.) I'm talking about the Niebaum-Coppola shop. While much of their merchandise has more to do with movies than with wine (including most of the films made by Francis Ford himself), there's lots of stuff that's unrelated to either but that just happens to be great--like the Niebaum-Coppola mustard or, I'll admit, a Mice in a Box hand puppet I couldn't leave without. 

EAT FACING THE HIGHWAY.
Although the temple of tourist gastronomy in Napa is generally reckoned to be St. Helena's Tra Vigne (at least by the people who can't get into the French Laundry), my dinner there was greatly inferior to the hamburger and vanilla milk shake I had at Taylor's Refresher just down the street. Or, for that matter, my lunch at All Seasons in Calistoga. 

Taylor's Refresher is an idealized version of the American roadside stand, where tourists and local winemakers alike are charged a mere $5 corkage fee for the privilege of washing down their burgers with their own bottles. All Seasons, on the other hand, reminds me of Berkeley--little pretension, lots of high-quality food. My mustard-braised pulled-pork sandwich was meltingly soft, its accompanying shallot-vinaigrette salad perfectly dressed. And my meal cost well under $20, including a glass of juicy Joel Gott Zinfandel. In fact, All Seasons has a very well priced wine list, as well as its own wine shop. 

HEAD FOR THE HILLS.
While the business of Napa lies on the Valley floor, its true beauty and spirit are in its hills. A drive up to the Mayacamas Mountains can make you feel like the only person in the Valley. There you'll find tourist-friendly wineries like the Hess Collection (with its justly famous, and free, gallery of modern art) and, next door, the De La Salle novitiate, a still-active Christian Brothers retreat. Visitors are invited to walk around the chapel and grounds, which seem much more nineteenth-century Italy than twenty-first-century California. In fact, the only thing that assured us we were still in the modern world was a glimpse of a Christian Brother laboring over his office computer. 

THERE IS ONLY ONE MEAN MAN IN NAPA.
One of the best things about being a tourist in Napa is the friendliness of the people. In fact, almost everyone seems to be smiling. Except, that is, at V. Sattui Winery. 

I'd never visited V. Sattui before. But because the guidebooks recommend it and a friend told me it was her favorite place of all, I decided to check it out. Both the guides and my friend had made much of the winery's cheese selection, not to mention its free tasting of winery-only bottles. What I found instead was grocery-store-caliber cheeses all tightly wrapped in plastic and a tasting room set up to resemble a Wild West saloon. Here Napa's Mean Man was at work. His job was to pour people the wine they requested. I approached smiling and pointed to a name on the blackboard. The Mean Man snarled in reply, "Don't you dare point at me!" And he added, in case I didn't get his meaning, "Do I look like your waiter?" I asked as politely as possible for a taste of Zinfandel and set my glass down as soon as he turned away. Perhaps the reason V. Sattui wines aren't sold anywhere else is that the Mean Man also serves as the winery's sales rep? 

GET A TASTE OF CALIFORNIA, NEW YORK-STYLE.
Just across the highway and train tracks from V. Sattui and the Meanest Man in Napa is the curiously unglamorous concrete box that is the home of the glamorous food purveyor Dean & DeLuca. Although Dean & DeLuca was founded in my hometown, New York City, I admit harboring a secret preference for the California edition. While both stores have equally great cheese and bread selections, equally pedigreed pastries and perfect, shiny vegetables, the California store feels just that much more welcoming. And for the most part, its selection of wines is well chosen and fairly priced. 

TASTING ROOMS ARE REALLY DRINKING ROOMS.
One of the greatest misnomers must be the winery tasting room. In my three days as a tourist I never saw anyone engaged in what could accurately be described as "tasting" in such a place. Drinking, yes; tasting, no. Or, as the woman behind the counter at the Hess Collection told me, "If I suggest to someone they might want to pour out the rest of the wine after they've tasted it, they look at me like I'm crazy." Indeed, I've never seen more well-to-do people happily drinking $10 wine than I did on this trip. Sometimes at a very high rate of speed. In the Beringer tasting room, our guide admonished one woman: "These aren't Cabernet shooters!" while her friends exhorted her, "You go, girl!" 

WHITE ZINFANDEL IS ALIVE AND WELL.
Although Americans love to travel, I'm convinced that many of them leave looking for something they already know. How else to explain the 2.6 million people who pilgrimage annually to Hershey, Pennsylvania? Or for that matter, the number of people I saw in Napa drinking White Zinfandel? 

Could any wine be more widely available? And yet I was nearly crushed by the crowd at Beringer's gift shop, who bypassed that winery's hard-to-find single-vineyard Cabs in favor of its extremely popular White Zinfandel. 

A WINERY TOUR DOES NOT COUNT AS EXERCISE.
It's hard not to spend a lot of time in your car when you're a tourist. Although most of the big-name wineries are strung out alongside one another on Highway 29, a car is pretty much a necessity. (Unless you're a tourist on a bicycle, which means more exercise but a proportionately higher risk of getting run over). Either way, you can pretty much forget about stretching your legs on a winery tour. Most take about an hour (everybody has fermentation tanks to show off, after all) but rarely cover much actual ground. One guide assured us that although the tour was over an hour, it was only about "two blocks" long. 

NO ONE KNOWS WHERE TO FIND NAPA'S MOST FAMOUS VINEYARD.
Long before every winery in California championed its own "vineyard-designated" wines, there was Heitz Martha's Vineyard. Martha's was, for decades, the most famous vineyard in Napa. Now it seems to have been completely forgotten. No one appears to know where to find it. Even the man running Heitz's tasting room hadn't a clue. "I really don't know. I think it's somewhere behind Mustards Grill," he said unhelpfully. My friend and I made a few inquires along the way but were given vague looks and the vague instruction "Look for a eucalyptus tree." This was the tree that was said to make Martha's Vineyard Cab taste minty. But telling someone to look for a eucalyptus tree in Napa is like telling a New Yorker to turn right at a deli. We drove up and down, back and forth, but never succeeded in locating Napa's most legendary vineyard. 

I was talking to my Nashville uncle a few weeks ago. He's planning a trip to Sonoma later this spring. I'm thinking we should spend a few days together; according to my guidebooks, there's a huge Snoopy gallery in Santa Rosa showcasing the work of Peanuts creator (and former resident) Charles M. Schulz that's worth checking out.

Published March 2002
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