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Napa Valley: Easy to Hate, But Not Hard to Love

28 Sep

Napa Valley SignThere are many reasons to hate Napa Valley: the perpetual traffic jam that is highway 29; Costco sized tasting rooms full-to-bursting with tipsy tourists elbowing each other on the way to the bar; insultingly high tasting fees. ($30 for one 1 oz. pour!? Not for me, thanks.) In fact, just last week, Steve Heimoff referred to the Valley as a “Disney-fied mecca” in one of his posts, echoing Randall Grahm’s sentiment in his new book Been Doon So Long in which he refers to Napa Valley as “the adult theme park.”

I can’t say that I disagree with these sentiments.  In fact, when I am asked by out of town guests to host them on a Napa Valley wine tour there is much internal groaning and dread on my part, but a funny thing happens when I get there, I am absolutely jaw-dropped by the beauty of the place.  Every single time.  A visit to Napa Valley can be enchanting whether it’s your first visit or your 51st —  if you choose to look at it with a glass half full mentality.  Here are a few classics you can learn to love again, promise:

Robert Mondavi Winery – Yep, I’m going there (literally and figuratively).  Why?  Because it’s extraordinarily gorgeous.  Whether it’s your first time or not, drinking in the view of the To Kalon vineyard topped by a piece of wedgewood blue sky through the archway at the front of Mondavi’s mission style complex is undeniably breathtaking.  This is the quintessential Napa Valley experience, for without Robert Mondavi the tasting room and perhaps Napa Valley as we know it may not exist today.  Instead of lamenting how big and crowded and corporate it’s all become, why not bring a sandwich and have an impromptu picnic here while you watch all the giddy tourists go by?  (Whether or not you taste the wine is completely up to you.)

Heitz Cellar – Among the most well-respected Cab producers in Napa Valley, Heitz’s low-key tasting room is an oasis of calm among the chaos of Highway 29.  Those who overlook this winery in favor of its flashier neighbors (and there are many) miss out on one of the most relaxed, laid-back tasting room experiences in the valley.  In addition to the usual suspects, Heitz also offers some unusual ones for tasting, Grignolino and Petite Verdot among them.  Did I mention it’s free?  Yes, you can taste some good, very good, even excellent wines here any day of the week without dropping a dime on the experience.  Who says you can’t get something for nothing?

Mumm Napa – With one of the most informative tours on the production of sparkling wine to be had for free and without an appointment, Mumm offers a very good opportunity to get a little winemaking education.  I have taken many guests here and each has remarked on how much they enjoyed this particular experience and how much they learned at Mumm.  Plus, a sparkling wine pit stop is a refreshing change of pace from the onslaught of big, brawny Cabs that inevitably fill a Napa Valley day.  Okay, the wine tchochkes in the gift shop and the Santana Brut are a little ridiculous, but they’ll quickly fade from memory after someone brings you a glass of bubbly — Mumm has no tasting bar, only table service — while you enjoy the picturesque vineyard view.

Silverado Trail – I have been to Napa Valley many times for no other purpose than to drive this road, which runs parallel to the much more crowded and much less scenic, Highway 29.  Built in 1852, it was the first permanent road to connect Napa to Calistoga to the north.  Today, there are more than 40 wineries along the Silverado Trail, but most are nestled discreetly into the lush oaks and pines that line the road or tucked into small hillsides, making this drive feel much more bucolic and relaxing than a slog along stark 29 to the west.  Here, you still see hand printed signs advertising “goats for sale” and the occasional entrepreuer selling homemade pine cone wreaths from the back of a truck on the side of the road.  Driving Silverado feels a little like the Napa Valley of so many years ago, the one many of us long for but find increasingly difficult to recognize.

There are many experiences in Napa Valley worth having again.  What’s chronicled here are perhaps the most obvious, which are often the most overlooked.  But, what about the others:  the obscure, the odd, the unique, the unexpected?  They’re out there, even in a place as overrun with tourism as Napa Valley.  It’s all about setting out to find them.


What Not To Do in a Tasting Room

22 Sep
Don't do this either.

Don't do this either.

I have worked behind the bar in three different tasting rooms (in two different California AVAs) off and on for the past seven years.  During that time I have poured wine for a vast cross-section of humanity: wine enthusiasts, seriously moneyed collectors, tourists, famous chefs, bachelorettes in sparkly veils, sommeliers, 21st birthday celebrants, wine writers, foreigners who don’t speak a word of English, and The Dude (a.k.a. Jeff Bridges)…

Along the way I’ve learned a lot about wine, which was my original goal, but I’ve also learned more than I expect to about the behavior of the people who come to taste it.  I believe wine tasting represents a social contract between the taster, the tasting room staff, and the other patrons.  In the spirit of a better tasting room experience for all, I have put together a few guidelines I like to call What Not To Do in a Tasting Room:

1. Do not bring your children. Children do not like to go wine tasting.  They get bored, which may lead to one or more of the following:  running, crying, breaking things, or generally annoying the adult patrons.  I have seen a mother set up an expansive array of blankets and toys for her child on the floor of one not especially large tasting room on a crowded Saturday and then proceed to tell other guests they couldn’t stand there because it was her son’s play area.  I have seen another mother begin to set up a makeshift changing table on the tasting room bar.  (She was politely directed to a restroom.)  I have seen far too many parents blithely let their children run around large, unfamiliar vineyards unsupervised.  Moral of the story – tasting rooms and children don’t mix.  Hire a babysitter.

2. Do not pour your own wine. The Alcohol Beverage Control board frowns upon this.  A winery could face stiff penalties for “allowing” such behavior.  Be considerate.  There is a reason why tasting rooms are not self-service.  If you would like another pour of something, or feel you are not receiving prompt service, politely inform a staff member.

3. Do not show up three minutes before closing and expect to enjoy a leisurely tasting. Tasting rooms typically have their hours of operation clearly posted.  If it’s three minutes to five, and a winery closes at five, and you know it takes at least 15 minutes to taste a few wines, it stands to reason that you don’t have time to taste.  Please respect the math, and the fact that there is a lot of behind the scenes work to be done at the end of the day.  Most of this work cannot be completed while guests are still in the tasting room.  I always offer a quick and complimentary pour or two, along with a polite reminder that it’s closing time, to late arriving guests.

4. Do not rinse your glass with water between every pour. The notion that you must rinse between each wine is misguided.  Tasting lists are generally arranged from the lightest to fullest bodied selections, meaning that subsequent pours will be heavier than their predecessors, rendering rinsing unnecessary.  Additionally, rinsing with water actually dilutes the next wine, meaning that it won’t show as well as it could.  If you taste out of order, wish to retaste an earlier selection, or simply feel uncomfortable not rinsing with anything, please ask for a small rinse with wine or a new glass.

5. Do not treat the cracker bowl, breadstick jar, or what have you as your own personal buffet. Eat a nice breakfast or lunch beforehand.  Bring picnic supplies with you, but do not stuff your face with every last breadstick and free cracker you can find.  In addition to being unattractive, this is selfish.  Other guests might want a breadstick, too.  Be thoughtful of others and leave some behind.

6. Do not ask for a to-go cup of wine. Duh.  This is illegal.  (And, yes, I really had someone ask for this.  Twice.)