Not everyone who comes to the Napa Valley heads for the tasting rooms. Welcome to the winery gift shop boom.
If you're frustrated by the weekend traffic on the Napa Valley's Highway 29, take a deep breath and think of history. Back in the 1800s, when the only way into the valley was via the Napa River, traffic could still get pretty intense. One day in 1880, some 50 ships clogged the channel. (Hey, at least your car has a radio.)
Today, travelers come to the Napa Valley for its wineries--or at least that's why a lot of them do. Often the oenophile brings along a companion who doesn't care much about wine but who may be tempted to buy a lovely tablecloth or an exceptional bottle of olive oil. Enter the winery gift shop. The following five places can please visitors of all predilections.
Niebaum-Coppola Estate Vineyards and Winery Owned by the movie director Francis Ford Coppola, Niebaum-Coppola is known for Rubicon, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It's also known for its gift shop. Grappa di Coppola ($35 for 375 milliliters), made at Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, comes in a wonderfully minimalist glass bottle with a Thirties-style postage stamp on it. Then there's Francis's favorite pencil ($1), Francis's favorite pen ($18) and Francis's favorite pasta bowl ($12). Francis is a man who knows what he likes. Apparently Francis also likes Italian glue ($6 for 125 grams). Who can blame him? It comes in a beautifully designed donut-shaped tin with a neat little brush in the center. A sign alongside the display reads, "We had a young visitor from Rome recently who, upon espying these charm- ing Coccoina paste tins, exclaimed, 'That's the paste we used to eat in school!'" Ah, youth.
The gift shop also has a vast selection of linens. I honed in on a 70-inch- square April Cornell cotton organza tablecloth ($150) in a lightly gleaming apple green. I also coveted the matching whisper-thin napkins ($8 each). I rubbed my cheek against them, whimpering. My traveling companion gently led me away. (1991 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford; 707-968-1100.)
The Hess Collection Winery In addition to its Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon (under The Hess Collection label), the winery is respected for its impressive art gallery, with such works as Leopoldo Maler's Hommage, an actual flaming Underwood typewriter. The modern art made me feel as if I could have an Important Cultural Experience before indulging my real passion: shopping.
For me, the most exciting potential purchase at the gift shop was a decanter imported from Bordeaux, with a cherrywood base and a holder for a candle to illuminate the neck and check for sediment ($270). Somehow it looked sexy, and I lusted after it. On a more prosaic level, Hess sells cunning glass salt-and-pepper shakers adorned with hand-painted ladybugs ($18 for a set) and exquisite linen cocktail napkins with embroidered olives ($24 for four). I was particularly taken with something called a wine slip ($7.50), a tube of shimmery silk organza into which you glide a bottle for a presentation impressive enough to make even Boone's Farm look elegant. (4411 Redwood Rd., Napa; 707-255-1144, Ext. 220.)
Mumm Napa Valley If you have kids, this producer of sparkling wine is a worthwhile stop. Numerous small persons run around screaming merrily, and no one bats an eye. The gift shop offers some interesting children's books, like The Grapes Grow Sweet by Lynne Tuft ($24.95), and some scary children's books, like Mustard: A Story About Soft Love and STRONG VALUES by Jessel Miller ($24). Adults will appreciate the nylon picnic pack ($22), which contains a cheeseboard, a knife, a corkscrew and two cotton napkins. It's much more practical than those wicker baskets filled with crystal and china that many other winery gift shops sell. You can't really take one of those big, heavy picnic hampers on a hike unless you've got a Jeeves to carry it. (8445 Silverado Trail, Rutherford; 707-942-3434.)
Markham Vineyards This winery has earned high scores for its Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons, Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays. At its gift shop, I gravitated toward a Tulocay olive oil ($19.95 for 16.9 ounces), which comes in a lovely bottle with a silver spout tied to the neck with raffia. I longed for a hand-painted Rainy Day Clay plate ($130) covered with kissing fish, swimming fish and one harried- looking pink fish clutching an um- brella in its fin. A six-by-nine-foot circus-themed Indian wool rug ($1,360), with stylized acrobats and trapeze artists, was also a prize. (2812 St. Helena Hwy., St. Helena; 707-963-5292.)
St. Supéry Vineyards & Winery I've had a soft spot for this winery ever since my husband and I served its 1994 Dollarhide Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon at our wedding. (St. Supéry is also known for its Sauvignon Blanc and Meritage Red). The 1994 Cabernet we loved is sold out, but you can buy hazelnut chocolate-chip biscotti ($7.95 for 8 ounces) and pear or pomegranate vinegar ($6.95 for 250 milliliters). Another purchase might be a "wet suit" for wine ($18.75), an insulated bottle-shaped casing attached to a canvas strap. It's great for picnics because it cushions the glass and prevents condensation from dampening your clothes or the contents of your pack. (8440 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford; 707-963-4507.)
Some snobs might view the exploding popularity of the Napa Valley as the beginning of the end, with tourists who know nothing about wine snatching up souvenir T-shirts and birdhouses made out of corks. But when you're there, sipping a Cabernet that will be great in your cellar and eyeing Italian ceramics that will look fabulous on your sideboard, the gift shop boom doesn't seem like such a Faustian bargain.
MARJORIE INGALL is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.