Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Napa: The wine country Walt would have built

Originally published in the Post Register October, 2003.

NAPA, California -- If Walt Disney had built a recreational “wine experience”, it would look something like Napa Valley – cute, small towns, wineries small and large with villa-like tasting rooms and tours among the grapes. There’s even a wine train cruising the valley’s west side, with stops all along the way.

You don’t have to be a wine drinker to get a bang out of Napa Valley and its sister wine region to the west, Sonoma Valley and the Russian River region. Indeed, a good friend of mine – a former Mormon bishop – once published the Napa daily newspaper and a companion wine magazine without ever having tasted a sip. He and his wife still live in the hills above the valley.

For non-drinkers, there’s plenty of food, good shopping and natural beauty. Outside major cities, Napa and Sonoma valleys probably have the highest concentration of fine restaurants in North America. It’s nigh unto impossible to choose poorly. Or, head to Calistoga at Napa Valley’s north end and soak in a mud bath or partake of the mineral water. For a really interesting diversion, there are olive presses.

But back to the vineyard.

Our escorted group of four, which included my wife, Kathleen, and restaurateurs Pat and Maria diGiorgio from Key West, Florida gets a personal, in-depth tour of Mondavi (www.mondavi.com), called Napa’s “most famous winery” by Wine Spectator magazine (the Beringer people might have a thing to say about that). It puts out a basic selection of table wines under the Woodbridge label. The winery also produces some pretty high-end stuff under the Mondavi label, though our guide admits that “there isn’t much sense to wine pricing.” In other words, the difference between a $100 bottle of wine and a $12 bottle often is little more than $88, and only true experts can tell the difference between a good French wine and one of California’s finest.

It’s a complex, capital-intensive operation at Mondavi and other large wineries. Grapes eventually find their way into enormous fermenting tanks, from where the winemaker decides how to blend the various lots into the best wine for the buck. Downstairs, oak casks line the floors, aging the good stuff. All told, Mondavi generates about 9 million cases of wine a year, the vast majority under the Woodbridge label.

Our guide is a fount of information, including the fact that Americans consume an average 700 cans of soda pop a year compared with 12 bottles of wine. By comparison, the French consume an average of 75 bottles per year, the Italians only slightly less.

You can purchase soda pop in Napa Valley, but people look askance.

Up the road, it’s a very different feel at the Schramsberg vineyards, home to America’s most famous sparkling wine.

Schramsberg hit the big time with the unlikely help of Chou En Lai. It was a 1969 Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc that President Richard Nixon hoisted in 1972 in Beijing to toast peace and begin the process of normalizing Sino-American relations. Since then, Schramsberg has been served at state dinners by every president (though one must assume that teetotaler George W. Bush toasts but doesn’t sip).

Alisha Clark, a reservationist who served as our private tour guide, tells the story of how owner Jack Davies (now deceased) loaded 13 cases of sparkling wine into his pickup and delivered it to an airport after getting the telephone order from the White House back in 1972. The check came later by mail.

Joined by Public Relations Manager Sandy Maus, Clark took Kathleen and me deep into the Schramsberg caverns where wine becomes champagne. In one spot, workers pound the bottles like turkey drumsticks on timpani drums to loosen the yeast that creates the bubbly’s bubbles. In another, young wine in rack after rack waits to be “riddled”, or turned slowly and precisely by hand to see that the champagne ages correctly.
At the end of the process, the yeast is collected at the top of the bottle, frozen and removed. Schramsberg makes no bubble-less wine. It offers tours only with advance notice – try its web site: www.schramsberg.com.

Between Schramsberg and Mondavi just outside the impossibly quaint village of St. Helena is the Culinary Institute of America, sort of an intensified graduate program for new chefs. The Graystone restaurant on the premises is a mandatory stop. I had polenta-stuffed poblano peppers, and Kathleen had a cut of beef for which we developed a deep, abiding affection.

Mentioning the Graystone is really just gloating. Eating well is just a matter of wandering down a street or alley and stepping into the first restaurant that strikes your fancy.

While Napa and Sonoma get all the attention, let’s not forget that most of California’s wine comes from elsewhere, and not all of it ends up in gallon jugs or boxes with a spout. If your travels don’t take you north of San Francisco, there are wineries literally all over the state.

For example, Kathleen and I toured the Sierra Nevada foothills one day and paid an impromptu visit to the Ironstone and Stevenot wineries. Each is great, but Ironstone is worth a half-day just to tour the grounds, enjoy a picnic and see the museum and caverns. It’s just outside Murphys, California, east of Stockton (www.ironstone.com). Willie Nelson had performed there the night before.

One plus to the Central Valley and Sierra foothills is lodging won’t set you back $150 to $250 a night, as it will in the Napa Valley. Plus, nobody really cares if you’re drinking soda pop.

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