you’re going to enter your $75 Cabernet in a competition?
my Appellation — Please!
dirty little secret No. 1
Is Frankenwine coming to a bottle near you?
A realistic view of
Napa's middle-class real estate market
The Mustard Festival
No Longer Cuts the Mustard
Money: Napa Valley Mustard Festival discloses more
Up, Up and Away in a
Upvalley Vineyard Values Continue
Napa’s ever-evolving Chardonnays
Visiting Napa Valley Alone
Celebrate Napa Valley's
hidden gem –– the Napa River
Napa Valley: Glitz grafted onto
What else is there
to do in Napa Valley?
Entertainment in Napa
Tasting rooms in Yountville
going to enter your $75 Cabernet in a competition?
The California State Fair once again presented Daryl
Sattui with the Golden Winery Award, recognizing his V. Sattui Winery as the top winery in
California for 2007.
This marks the
third time in the last four years
that V. Sattui was bestowed this honor. This award is presented annually to
the winery which has the greatest number of wines winning the highest
number of awards.
Of the 28 V. Sattui wines submitted, 23 won awards, a
record the winery says no other winery has accomplished in the State Fair
The biggest award was for V. Sattui’s 2004 Preston
Vineyard Cabernet, voted
Best Napa Valley Cabernet and also the
Best Red Wine from
the Napa Valley out of hundreds of other wines submitted.
The winery's other big awards include:
Double Golds for 2004 Preston Vineyard Cabernet
Best Napa Valley Cabernet & Best
Red Wine from the Napa Valley, 2006 Marsangnier, 2006 Semillon
Best Semillon from
Sonoma County, 2006 Semillon ( Napa Valley)
Best Semillon from the Napa Valley
Crow Ridge Zinfandel, and golds for 2006 Dry
– Best Riesling
from California and 2006 White Zinfandel –
Best White Zinfandel in California.
The California State Fair is the largest state wine
competition in California. This year 650 wineries entered nearly 3,000
wines from around the state.
Not to take anything from the V. Sattui wines, but
you’ll recall that this is the competition that called Charles Shaw (“Two
Buck Chuck”) the best Chardonnay in California.
I tasted that wine, by the way. While I certainly
wouldn’t call it the best in California (or even in Trader Joe’s where it’s
sold), it’s a pleasant wine, light, showing fruit but not too much, not
oaky or reeking of caramel and vanilla. It’s a great deal for $2, and
competitive with most wines that cost far more.
Of course, I don’t like typical big, buttery California
Chardonnays, so it’s not surprising I find the Charles Shaw version quite
pleasant. I like the Sauvignon Blanc even better.
Also note that wineries get to choose the wines they
submit, and though I doubt that they'd cheat by picking the best they make,
this always raises questions among those who find it difficult to believe a
wine made in such large quantities is that uniform.
Anyway, a winery must be very optimistic to enter
its wines in competitions. There's only one winner in a wine competition;
everyone else loses.
Some wineries that make very good wines were embarrassed
by being bested in the results -- and I don’t think those results are
particularly valid or relevant.
Aug. 13, 2007
Appellation — Please!
The recent decision by the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and
Tax Bureau (TTB) to stop issuing new wine appellations while it reevaluates
them might be great news for some grapegrowers.
Those appellations (American Viticultural Area) might be superfluous:
If Jerry Seinfeld were telling jokes to wine geeks, I
can hear his routine:
“So we spent a ton of money and lobbied to get Pope
Valley gerrymandered into the Napa Valley appellation even though it isn’t
part of it geographically and has different soils and climate.
“Now we’re going to seek our own American Viticultural
Area and spend more to convince people it’s really distinct!”
[Raucous laughter from happy wine drinkers]
He could tell a similar joke about Oregon, Washington,
Lodi and many other wine-growing regions:
“Oregonians have finally convinced Americans that the
state is a good place to grow wine grapes, especially Pinot Noir. So they’re
dividing the wine regions into increasingly obscure bits, inevitably
playing down Oregon. Is this designed to confuse customers? I think
it’s a plot by Russian River Valley Pinot growers personally.”
“Most people barely realize Washington state makes good
wines, much less that the Columbia Valley does. Wahluke
Slope? Rattlesnake Hills? You must be kidding.”
And “Lodi is being jigsawed
into six American Viticultural Areas. Lodi? Six! The local grape commission
has fought hard to finally gain deserved recognition for the area as a
premium-growing area instead of just a place you get stuck. Now we’re going
to slice it into pieces you can only find with a GPS.”
Maybe one of Rodney Dangerfield’s one liners works
“American winemakers are adopting the French system of
geographic designations so they can copy France’s recent success in wine!”
That reminds me of the minor Bordeaux winemaker who once
asked me when Californians were going to adopt the French system and start
mandating varieties, planting methods and yields. I almost laughed
until I realized he was serious.
Every study done proves that Napa Valley (and Napa) is
by far the most valuable word you can put on a bottle of wine made in
America, as Fred Franzia knew when he paid
millions of dollars for the “Napa Ridge” name so he could slap it on
bottles of cheap Central Valley wine. Nevertheless, now Napa vintners are
insisting on promoting their own tiny appellations as if there was any
difference between Rutherford and Oakville that more than seven people
could distinguish blind.
Napa Valley now contains all or part of 13 AVAs, maybe
to be more soon (Calistoga and Tulocay are
pending, and maybe the aforementioned Pope Valley). Yes, there are
differences between them, but most of the wine in Napa Valley comes from a
few broad categories: the cool area south of the Yountville hills that trap
the cold air from moving north; the warmer but rich upper valley floor, and
the low alluvial slopes or "benches" from there to north of
Calistoga; and the mountains.
Napa Valley wineries have traditionally stuck together,
a huge strength compared to those in Sonoma, who squabble and often didn’t
even mention that also-valuable name prominently on their labels until
recently when it was mandated by law.
Of late, however, I’ve seen intense economic competition
developing among Napa’s almost-400 gentlemen (and lady) vintners, and one
response is to promote the so-called “sub-appellations” heavily. And that always
leads to discussion of the differences between the appellations, with the
obvious implication: “Our is better than theirs!”
Every time they do this, they’re chipping away at the
strength that Napa has so carefully built.
People today don’t relate too well to geese laying
golden eggs, but I think most of us understood what Joni Mitchell was
singing about, “They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.”
That’s just what these Napa wineries are doing. They’ve
got paradise, the most valuable “brand” in the industry, and they’re trying
to disassociate themselves from it. Incredible.
Aside from people who write about wine like me and a few
wine educators and people who work as paid AVA directors, who does this
benefit? Almost no one.
About 1 percent of potential wine buyers care or should
care whether a wine is from Oakville or Rutherford. In fact, there’s far
more difference between the grapes grown in the west side of the two areas
and those from the east 3 miles away than between the two adjacent
townships north and south.
Most wine buyers respond primarily to grape variety,
brand name and image and price, with recommendations from friends and
experts also important.
They don’t care about appellations, especially ones
they’ve never heard of. A few years ago, consumer research found consumers
ranking the Ozarks higher than Stags Leap for wine because of the
familiarity of the name. And if you’re reading this, I assume you know
better than that.
Admittedly, if you’re trying to attract tourists,
location matters, but beauty trumps wine quality in this case, and
fortunately, some top wine areas are very pretty.
Don’t get me wrong. I love learning about and explaining
the nuances of terroir, but I also find seminars on the relationship
between the chemistry of organic sulfides and sensory perceptions
fascinating, and I make part of my livelihood writing about them. But
vintners who want to sell their luxury wines would do well to read
Vanity Fair and
Town & Country rather
than the National Geographic Magazine, and do a good job explaining
their own wines, not trying to convince people that the little piece of
dirt they share with a few other wineries is a reason to buy the
Dirty Little Secret
Most wine in America is drunk
While we who write about
wine rarely address it, most wine in America is drunk alone, not with food.
The majority is enjoyed in place of cocktails or just hanging around with
friends. Still other glasses are poured after dinner.
By contrast, most wine in
traditional wine-drinking countries of the Mediterranean is consumed with
meals, and considered as much a part of those meals as bread – which is
almost universally served.
That makes a big impact
on the type of wines enjoyed.
If you’re drinking wine
with a meal, you want something to complement the food and make it taste
even better. Most regions traditionally only made a few types of wine, and
that was enjoyed with everything served. Nobody worried much about whether
it matched the food; the food and wine evolved together.
There were some
surprises, too. Many regions in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece as well
as France and most of Austria, Switzerland and Germany traditionally
favored white wines. It’s only recently that snobbishness has declared that
red wines are better.
Those white wines,
however, tend to be fairly acidic – crisp is a nicer term – and rather
neutral, not full of strong flavors that clash with the foods.
Likewise, the reds tend
to be a bit tart with a subtle balance of bitter tannins that enhance the
Few people drink either
these bone-dry, somewhat acidic reds or whites (or the very popular dry
rosés) alone. When wine critics visit Italy and Spain, for example, the
winemakers try to get them to enjoy the wines with olives, cheese and tasty
sausages and ham. They all make the wine taste better.
The favorite aperitifs of
the Mediterranean are not white wines, but sparkling wines like Cava,
Prosecco and Champagne, whisky (Scotch), bitter digestives like Campari and soda, or licorice-flavored pastis and its cousins.
In America and many other
countries that don’t have a long wine tradition, however, the most popular
wines are formulated to taste better alone. By far the most popular is
slightly sweet, fruity Chardonnay smelling of vanilla and caramel from oak
barrels (or chips) and butterscotch from the malolactic process that converts
its tart malic (apple) acid to soft, buttery
lactic (milk) acids.
There wines are a far cry
from traditional French Burgundian wines made with the same relatively
neutral Chardonnay grape, which tend to be crisp and light and don’t have
the other flavors we associate with Chardonnay but are the result of
We also like soft Italian
Pinot Grigio, and, increasingly, Spanish Albariño, both good with foods but
also pleasant alone. Sauvignon Blanc, the traditional runner-up white here,
is often made soft and easy to drink for that reason.
For reds, the most
popular wines to drink alone aren’t tannic Bordeaux, but fruit-filled,
often sweetish wines such as Zinfandel, Merlot, or Shiraz, many from
Australia or Chile.
This phenomenon extends
to the high end of the market, too. Expensive “cult” Cabernets and
Chardonnays are picked very ripe, making intense wines that are better for
socializing than drinking with food. After all, if you’re going to open a
bottle of California cabernet that cost hundreds of dollars, you want to
savor it, not hide it under food.
There’s nothing wrong
with either type of wine, but it’s important to keep in mind how you’ll
serve a wine before buying it. And don’t hesitate to experiment. Wine
prices are at their lowest in years, making it truly a buyers’ market.
Afterthought: The dirty little secret
of Napa Valley: I believe that it produces far more white Zinfandel than
any other wine. That’s because the two biggest producers, Beringer and
Sutter Home, are based here.
Of course, virtually none
of the grapes used in these wines are from Napa Valley, but the wineries
were grandfathered into being allowed to use “foreign” grapes (from other
counties). New wineries have to use mostly Napa grapes.
There’s nothing wrong
with white Zinfandel anyway. It’s the fourth most popular varietal wine in
America. But I don’t like it, just as I don’t like $50 oaky, buttery
Chardonnay. Plenty of people do, however, including my sister; she drinks
no other wine in spite of my attempts to introduce her to other
Is Frankenwine coming to a bottle near you?
“This technology is coming whether we’re
ready or not,” notes Carole Meredith, a grapevine geneticist at the
University of California at Davis.
Researchers at the University of Florida
have inserted a silkworm gene that makes a bacteria-killing protein into
the cells of grapevines susceptible to Pierce’s disease. Now they’re
waiting to see if the process works.
There’s great interest in genetic
engineering that might help fight major grape pests but no genetically
modified wines are on the market or could be for years. The research is
in early stages, and it could take years to complete and pass regulatory
approvals. Then it would take additional years to grow vines and make
wine from them.
There is also enormous concern about
modifying foods in general, and that’s led to legal controls as well as
general consumer opposition.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are
already widely planted even though none are commercial grape vines.
Linda Bisson from the University of California at Davis Bisson defines
genetic engineering as the use of recombinant DNA technologies to alter
the genetic composition of an organism. “It takes a natural process and
directs and speeds it,” she notes. “Genetic engineering can increase
profitability in agriculture.”
Reinhardt Töpfer of the German Federal
Grapevine Breeding Institute says 2.5 million acres of GMO’s are already
planted worldwide, primarily soybeans, corn, cotton and rapeseed (a type
of mustard plant that produces Canola oil).
Much conventional and high-tech research is
conducted to improve disease and pest resistance among grape vines.
Töpfer says genetic modification could increase resistance to
pests and diseases like fungi, insects, nematodes, bacteria and
viruses. It could also help vines produce in hostile
environments that are too cold, too hot, too wet or too dry. All
could lead to lowered production costs plus less use of
chemicals like pesticides and herbicides.
Töpfer regards fungal resistance a primary
goal since it’s a problem wherever grapes are grown. He adds that
classical breeding techniques like that used by Luther Burbank have
already demonstrated a reduction in the amount of chemicals needed to
At present, both these classical breeding
techniques and biotechnology (genetic engineering) are used to create
modified grape vines. Classical breeding is used to develop new
varieties, while biotechnology is used to improve traditional vines.
Classical techniques are already widely used, while improvement in
varieties remains an aim, not a reality, for biotechnology.
likely to have nearer-term impact
Nearer term, Professor Bisson says, genetic
engineering is more likely to improve yeasts used to make wine than
modify vines. Yeasts mutate easily on their own, and researchers speed
up the process. That’s less controversial than inserting genes from
different species like animals and insects into plants.
Bisson says improved yeasts could combine
desirable traits from different strains. The prime goal of better yeast
is lowering the high alcohol content of wine from warm regions like
California by converting some of the natural sugar to other beneficial
compounds like glycerol that give appealing mouth feel.
Improved yeasts could also reduce smelly
hydrogen sulfide or eliminate off-flavors or improve flavor or color
It might be possible to increase production
of bacteriocin so the yeasts would control spoilage organisms and reduce
the need for sulfur dioxide used to preserve the wine.
Some yeasts also reduce the format of
carcinogens that develop during some fermentations; these substances are
already being banned in the European Union.
Most winemakers haven’t taken a stand yet
about genetic engineering. Though it seems to have slipped off the radar
for now, one issue that may force them to do so is Pierce’s disease.
This virulent malady has wiped out vineyards in southern California, and
threatens the state’s wine industry.
There is no cure for the disease,
so efforts are focused on controlling the glassy-winged sharpshooter, a
bug from Florida that spreads the bacteria that causes the disease.
Growers in the Temecula area, for example, spray their vines – and
adjoining citrus trees that also harbor the pest -- with Admire, a Bayer
systemic pesticide that kills the bugs. It’s considered less toxic to
the environment than many insecticides, but not many consumers are
anxious to consume products treated with even relatively benign poisons.
So far, no glassy-winged sharpshooters have
settled in California’s prime vineyard appellations. Tom Selfridge,
now president of the Hess Collection, says, “I believe we can keep it
under control.” Paul Dolan, president of Mendocino Wine Company and a
leader in natural farming of grapes, says “I’m hoping we don’t go down
the path of genetic engineering.”
For now, no genetically modified wines are
on the market. If they arrive, the debate is sure to intensify. Prof.
Meredith notes that Americans seem to thrive on genetically modified
breakfast cereals, but that may be immaterial: “Science doesn’t matter
now; there’s tremendous emotional opposition.”
Sept. 3, 2007
A realistic view of
Napa's middle-class real estate market
Just as is true everywhere
else, there is a lot of property for sale in Napa. I have a nice little
1923 cottage, but it’s just a little too small for me since I like to
entertain, and while I’m not too far from downtown, I’d like to be even
closer. So I keep in touch with my real estate brokers, who have become
friends. They also work with my daughter
and son-in-law, who have eight housing units, seven in Napa.
Paula Fields and Heli Sairenen of Coldwell
Banker Brokers of the Valley
work as a pair primarily with “normal” homes in Napa, not mansions. Of course, here, that’s $500,000 to say, $5 million.
Both are delightfully honest
and blunt, and never waste my time, so I recently asked Heli about the
present situation here in Napa. I think her comments would be of
interest to anyone owning property in Napa Valley or interested in
Boy, the market has changed.
There’s no question about that,” “Heli says.
She continues, “People are
still buying and the profile of the current buyer is a careful,
deliberate shopper who evaluates expenditures very carefully, i.e. the
value shopper is still out there.”
“There are some great values
out there right now since this is the ‘four D market’ for the seller,”
her name for the seller motivations in a tough market: distress,
divorce, death and deliberate buyer.
“The reality of life
situations still keeps the market moving,” she says. The speculative
frenzy of the quick buck is not there, and neither is the buyer who
wants a house because a friend bought a house. Many of the buyers now
are the ones who really perceive the long-term investment opportunities
or the move-up opportunity offered by this kind of a market. They
understand that if they have to take a price reduction (compared with
two years go) on the house they are selling, they will get it back in
the lower price of the house they are buying...plus the benefit of lower
property taxes due to lower acquisition cost.
“Yes, the buyers and sellers
are out there, but not in the mass numbers as before. Now everyone who
is shopping is thinking long term...and that is much more realistic.”
“A house should be considered
a place to live in and not as a cash cow,” she reminds us. “California
has been very lucky in property price appreciation and instead of using
that windfall as an estate building tool, a lot of people have used is
to fund their consumerism, which is really not good in the long run, but
too easy. I know sometimes you have to draw on the house, but it should
be only for a genuine need.”
“Bottom line, there is
business out there, but I personally find myself doing a lot more
counseling and as always, I am truthful with the facts. Now that the
market information seems to be the top news, people believe it more
She says that conforming
loans, those under $417,000, are still out there and under 7 percent. It
is the jumbos that are having a hard time. It is scary out there for the
liquidity since the lenders have not found secondary market purchasers,
and even FreddieMac suspended their loan buying for a day. I think it
will settle down, but this transition period will be hard.
Of course, with a good down
payment added as usually happens who you move up (or down!), many buyers
would qualify for pretty comfortable houses.
like more information, you can
Heli at 258-5220 or Paula at
258-5217 or e-mail
Sept. 10, 2007
The Mustard Festival
No Longer Cuts the Mustard
The Chef’s Market was
created to help downtown Napa merchants, and it did a great job. Over
time, however, conditions changed and it grew too big for its own good.
Fortunately, the sponsors recognized this and have made adjustments,
namely moving it from Friday, which would be busy downtown in any case
in today’s new environment, to Thursday, which used to be the late
shopping night in Napa years ago.
It should bring many
people to downtown Napa on Thursday to benefit restaurants and
merchants, though probably a more manageable number than in the past, as
do the mid week equivalents in cities like Vallejo and Sonoma.
Now it’s time to
re-evaluates the Mustard Festival.
It began as an attempt
to lure tourists to the valley in the rainy season when things were very
slow, and it’s certainly helped. However, things have changed in Napa
Valley. In the years since the Mustard Festival began, the Napa Valley
has become a world-class destination for food as well as wine, and our
first-class hotels and inns have proliferated. Meanwhile, the Mustard
Festival has become a self-perpetuating exercise that needs to change.
Most people who attend
the big Mustard Festival events don’t realize that they aren’t
charitable. Since everything else like them here are, most probably
never realize that most of the money they spend to attend mustard events
doesn’t go to charity.
It goes to putting on
the events and promoting them. Some of the fees do go in lieu of
fees to the locations such as the Culinary Institute and Copia who host
the events, and in the last two years, a small amount has been designated to
charitable causes (about 5 percent). It’s a pittance considering the cost of some of the
events. (See more on the contributions and finances of the Mustard
Festival at Mustard Money below.)
And there’s this whole
issue of mustard.
Napa Valley is known
for wine and food, not mustard. Mustard –the green version, which I
love, and the condiment—don’t even go particularly well with wine.
We should have a wine festival, not a mustard festival. And
it should be a community effort, with all events making significant
contributions to the community.
I propose we go one
step further. Make it the Napa Valley Winter Arts and Wine Festival,
gathering together all the arts – which are largely involved in the
events anyway—and making our locals arts organizations the primary
Yes, some of the
present promotional and organizational effort might be contracted out,
but local residents and organizations are already doing most of the
work. All they’re getting for their work is great parties.
The Arts Council of
Napa Valley is already starting the process of coordinating our arts –
music, visual, literary and performing, and I bet there are many people
in Napa Valley who would rise to help organize the effort.
One obvious group to
help might be the Conference and Visitors’ Bureau, but it is charged
with attending high-value guests, particularly from Sunday to Thursday,
not “tourists.” The Bureau is now working on a long-term plan called the
Destination Strategy, by the way, which should help bring even greater
focus to the optimum marketing of the valley.
I don’t think the
tourists who attend the Mustard Festival events, which are mostly on
weekends, would be less interested in attending winter wine events in
Napa Valley focused on the arts instead of mustard.
The mustard plants will
still provide beautiful vistas if nature cooperates, and we can continue
to include the mustard-oriented events as part of the overall effort.
But let’s not forget
that the mustard that’s spotlighted now doesn’t even grow here. No one
harvests it commercially; all that mustard seed comes from the Midwest
and Canada (as well as overseas). Leave the mustard to Wisconsin.
We should glorify
Napa’s wine. That’s why people visit here, and we should highlight it
during the winter as well as the rest of the year.
Money: Napa Valley Mustard Festival discloses more
After some prodding, the secretive
Mustard Festival board has announced that it donated more than
$100,000 to charity in the past two years as it has added
charitable contributions for the first time to the schedule of
events and promotion. These involved pass-through contributions
from local wineries and other organizations.
In 2006 the Festival established a
new charitable element and raised more than $30,000 for the
American Red Cross to help the people of New Orleans through an
auction lot contributed by Clarke and Elizabeth Swanson of
In 2007 the Festival raised
approximately $38,000 for Clinic Ole though the sale of Lowell
Herrero’s Mustard Festival artwork and an event sponsored by
Robert Mondavi Winery.
An additional $7,000 for Napa
Valley College scholarships for the children of vineyard workers
was raised through an auction lot contributed by Ceja Vineyards
and Meadowood Napa Valley.
Those are very welcome donations by
the wineries (and Meadowood), but I think the Festival’s
donations should be compared to that of charitable and other
organizations that contribute far more to the community from
their single events.
We should add that the event
promotion also includes events held by charitable and
educational groups that occur during the winter season while the
Mustard Festival is in progress.
Some of the
other financial details are interesting. 85 percent of the
sponsorship money came from organizations outside the valley,
including $100,000 from American Express and
$75,000 from the San Francisco Lexus Dealers Association.
A major emphasis of the event is
promoting Napa Valley to tourists, and it claims $836,120 in
donated media space and time, and 3.7 million hits on its web
site, which brought in 75 percent of the ticket sales.
Gross income for
the Festival totaled $924,000 leaving an event/sponsorship
profit of $10,077.
The Festival didn’t send me the
report (I have friends), but I assume you can get a copy from
them. It’s called the 2007 Festival Wrap-up Report. I’ve
requested their 990 report to the IRS, which they are legally
required to release as a 501 (c) non-profit corporation, for
details on how the $836,000 is spent.
I still think
the major tourist festival in Napa Valley should highlight Napa
Valley wine, not a tasty if attractive weed.
You can get
more information about the Mustard Festival at 938-1133 or visit mustardfestival.org.
Up, Up and Away
in a Beautiful Balloon:
A hawk's eye view of picturesque Napa Valley
If you've ever stayed one night too long in Napa
Valley and had to return early Monday morning, you've probably been
greeted by the magical sight of colorful hot-air balloons floating
above your car as you've driven through the Valley.
It looks like fun, but you don't know the half of it.
It's simply unforgettable, better than you could even imagine.
Slowly floating where the wind wants to take you over vineyards,
farms and towns, you get a view and perspective unimaginable from
any other experience.
That's especially true over the narrow Napa Valley
defined by steep mountains, compressing the scenery and ride to a
compact area over and among some of the most beautiful views in
A number of companies offer balloon rides for $175 to
$225 per person. The rides typically last about an hour, the
experience three or four, including coffee and pastry before the
ascent, and a post-flight brunch featuring Napa Valley sparkling
The largest company, and one that has been offering
the rides for about 20 years, is Balloons Above the Valley. It has
ten balloons, three of them monsters that are the largest in the
United States. Each holds 16 friendly people — plus the pilot — in a
woven rattan gondola, which weighs only 600 lbs. The rig is 120 ft.
high, as tall as a 14-story building and holds 250,000 cubic feet of
air. These balloons can lift 5000 lbs, so as company owner and pilot
Bob Barbarick says, "It doesn't matter how many pancakes you had for
The company also has smaller balloons for private
parties and smaller groups.
The balloons get their lift from hot air generated by
nozzles that burn propane. The flames can shoot 10 feet high, very
dramatic when they're only a few feet above your head.
The best time for ballooning is at sunrise, when the
winds are typically light in Napa Valley. In the case of Balloons
Above the Valley, that means meeting at 6:30 a.m. After signing a
waiver and downing a roll and coffee, you hop in a van for the
Obviously, the early morning time is perfect in the
warm summer, but the balloons do operate year round. Fortunately,
the heat from the burner keeps passengers warm even when it's cool.
If it's raining or too windy (over 10 mph), the balloons don't fly.
The passengers, variously called balloonists,
argonauts or even balloonatics, get to watch the inflation process.
The balloon is stretched out while a powerful fan partly inflates it
with cold air. Then the giant blow torches start and soon the
balloon is stretching skyward. At that point, everyone scrambles
aboard, climbing gracelessly in most cases, into the gondola. A
number of ground crew hang on as the hot air is again ignited and
when the pilot says so, the crew lets go (or jumps off) and the
balloon slowly rises above the parking lot, then the winery. There's
no jumpy sensation in your stomach as in an airplane because of the
slow and gentle motion.
The balloons typically travel about 500 ft. up,
though they can hover just above the vines or rise thousands of feet
up, high enough to cross the mountains.
As you glide along, jack rabbits and deer bolt from
their forbidden pleasures munching on grapes and tender grape vines,
and the occasional cow looks up curiously. A red-tailed hawk eyes
the balloon, trying to figure out whether it's a threat or a treat,
but soon zooms away seeking better prospects for breakfast.
The winds typically take you south.
Your pilot identifies sights as you pass their site,
here the late Robert Mondavi's knoll-top villa, there Trefethen vineyards,
famous for its Chardonnay and Cabernet. If it's in the fall, you see
the patchwork of fields dotted with beautiful red and purple grape
leaves that betray vines infected with viruses.
The distance you travel depends solely on the winds.
You may go only a few miles, allowing you to inspect every sight, or
you may, as I was lucky enough to do, travel about 13 miles over the
city of Napa, looking at its huge collection of Victorian houses and
the river downtown—including your starting point.
Another balloon load the morning I flew hopped over
the south end of the Mayacamas mountains, flying over the Hess
Collection and impressive Domain Carneros sparkling wine cellars,
ending up in a vineyard by Saintsbury Winery.
The landing is exciting, and I was sure we were going
to end up in the Napa River. But, no, the balloon came down with
only a few gentle bumps and bounces. Then the ground crew, with a
little help from passengers, helped furl the balloon.
Soon we boarded our van for a short trip back to the
starting point, where we enjoyed the brunch with Domaine Chandon
sparkling wine, a guilty pleasure at 9 in the morning. We also
received our certificates, balloon pins and complimentary T-shirts.
There may be a better way to start a day than gliding
over Napa Valley in a balloon, but if there is, I've never found it.
Balloon companies in Napa Valley
Oct. 17, 2007
Upvalley Vineyard Values Continue
Once again, those who live in the heart
of Napa Valley are winners, this time in a report on vineyard values
given at the annual Wine Industry Financial Symposium organized by
David Freed and his UCC Group. The event is a must for both those
who invest in and lend to the wine business, and many members of the
wine industry itself as they look into the future.
One of the most interesting talks was by
vineyard appraiser Tony Correia of Correia-Xavier, who has been in
the appraisal business since 1972 and tracking vineyard values since
1984. He reinforced the special place of upper Napa Valley among
vineyards all over California.
His talk on values was preceded by a
long introduction about grape demand and cycles. A quick summary:
When demand exceeds supply, people plant more grapes, and the cycle
has a 10- or 11-year period. “They always say it will be different
this time,” he observed. “Everyone plants too many grapes since they
think no one else is planting.”
From 1995 to 2006, for example, there
was a huge increase in planting, 120 percent overall in Santa
Barbara and San Luis Obispo alone.
Since 2001, however, there has been very
little planting, and it’s been up only 0.5 to 2 percent each yearin
Napa and Sonoma.
In additional, Mother Nature can disturb
the pattern. 1997 was a big crop year, and so were 2000 and 2005,
and they tend to cause gluts. “2005 was a monstrous year for all
varieties but Pinot Noir,” said Correia.
And when there’s a glut, grape prices
drop and wineries look for cheaper sources of grapes. Yet growers of
cheap grapes suffer far more than expensive ones in poor times.
“Napa is relatively insulated.”
And, of course, there’s a relation
between grape prices and land prices. The high prices paid for
grapes in Napa Valley match the high prices for land.
Typical price per acre for
San Luis Obispo and Santa
$25,000 - $50,000
Source: Tony Correia from the California
Chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural
Land in Napa Valley proper in the last
five years has ranged widely in price, however. Acreage sold between
$45,000 (Rigi in Yountville) to $300,000 per acre (Cohn in
Not surprisingly, the highest prices
are in the heart of the valley, from Oakville through St. Helena
--and Howell Mountain.
Area or AVA
Typical price per acre for
Pope and Chiles Valley
Napa Valley in general
Heart of the valley (Oakville,
Rutherford, St. Helena and Howell Mountain)
Source: Tony Correia
Of course, an estate home site on the
property could vastly inflate those figures, increasing the price
for a plot as much as $3 million. Not that many sales are occurring,
Number of recent vineyard sales
Number of sales
Correia points out that this year we’re
in ideal period for grape sales, with short crop, high quality and
Not surprisingly, he says,
“Winery-related real estate in North California continues to
On the other hand, the credit crunch
hitting the economy is taking its toll. “The vineyard estate market
is suffering. The ‘move up’ market has died.”
Even so, people who can afford it
continue to buy in the heart of Napa Valley. Correia says Napa real
estate has appreciated five times between 1996 to 2006; the Dow
Jones Industrial Average has by risen less than twice.
In spite of this, increasingly, land
owners don’t sell. “People buy the top properties for generations,
not immediate profits.”
That’s fortunate, for it’s difficult to
buy land or a winery and get a satisfactory return on the
investment. “The profits come not from operations but from property
resale. That’s particularly true if you can split the property and
sell as estates.”
On the other hand, the inflation of
prices makes it harder for growers to buy and hold on to vineyard
land. Fortunately, growers can deed their land to conservation like
Land Trust of Napa Valley and in effect eliminate the premium for
pricey home sites. “They essentially give away the rights to a
homesite they don’t want anyway. It makes a lot of sense in coastal
California,” observe Correia.
In addition to vineyards, Correia seems
winery sales also rising, but a lot of the value is in the brand.
“The permits have increased the most of all.” He adds that as you’d
expect, the cost per case is highest for small wineries – those
making only a few thousand cases of expensive wine.
Reach Tony Correia at (707) 933-9915 or
email@example.com. His company’s web site is
Napa’s ever-evolving Chardonnays
To many people,
“Napa Valley” means Cabernet Sauvignon, but the attractive wine
region also is famous for a distinctive style of rich Chardonnay. In
a recent poll, some of Napa’s top wine experts choose Rombauer as
the Chardonnay that epitomizes Napa Valley’s white wines.
surprised. Though Kendall-Jackson first popularized that rich,
slightly sweet buttery style with its overtones of caramel and
vanilla, it has been imitated with the volume turned up by many
vintners, and Rombauer’s Chardonnay is perhaps best known. Many
consumers love it and it sells very well in restaurants and bars.
Most other wineries
that make Chardonnay follow the same track, though perhaps not as
It’s ironic that
Napa is even known for Chardonnay. Most wine experts consider most
of Napa Valley too hot to grow quality Chardonnay, but it succeeds
there for a number of reasons.
For one, Chardonnay
is a very adaptable grape. It grows well in a variety of climates,
though it naturally produces better wine in some areas than other.
In warm places it develops higher sugars and less acid, which
produces the popular rich style.
Also, southern parts
of Napa County (south of the Yountville Hills) are cool compared to
the northern part of the valley and the mountains are also
relatively cool and windy. Most of the Chardonnay comes from those
the grapes grow may not always make much difference. Chardonnay is
actually a relatively neutral grape, and winemakers use it as a
palette on which to paint. They can start by picking the grapes very
ripe for fuller flavors and higher alcohol or residual sugar that
creates an unctuous feeling in the mouth.
Another type of
manipulation is fermenting in new toasted barrels, which imparts
caramel and vanilla flavors from the wood. Yet another is letting
the wine age on spent yeast cells – even stirring them up – which
imparts yeasty flavors like brioche.
A widely used
bacterial fermentation converts tart malic acid to soft lactic acid,
making the wine taste creamy and buttery. It also reduces acidity,
so winemakers often add acid to compensate.
Aging in new oak
barrels highlights these characteristics, and the result can taste
more like a vanilla-caramel liqueur than a table wine.
The pendulum is
swinging back from these rich wines to more restrained ones,
however, and a recent Wall Street Journal wine column even
echoed consumer complaints that they were having trouble finding
their luscious favorites. Even Kendall-Jackson has toned down the
sweetness, oak and malolactic fermentation in its popular Vintners’
Reserve Chardonnays and many other wineries are doing the same.
They may be trying
to recover some of the wine lovers who’ve switched to ABC, “Anything
But Chardonnay” -- Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Albariño, Grüner
Veltliner, Gewürztraminer and Riesling, even Chenin Blanc -- all of
which have more distinctive natural flavors and don’t respond well
to this winemaker’s manipulation.
A few wineries never
abandoned the classic lean approach, including Chateau Montelena,
whose Chardonnay beat the best of Burgundy at the famous tasting in
Paris 30 years ago this year. That’s also true of Grgich-Hills,
whose Mike Grgich made that famed wine, and Stony Hill and Mayacamas.
They’ve been joined
by others cutting back or bottling leaner wines. A few have even
bottled “naked” Chardonnay with no oak or ML. These include Stag’s
Leap Wine Cellars with Arcadia Chardonnay, Pepi, St. Supéry and
can be a bit boring, however, which is why winemakers started
fiddling with them in the first place. I suspect that if you applied
the same extensive processing to neutral French Colombard or even
Thompson seedless grapes, the resulting wine wouldn’t taste that
different from many “California” Chardonnays.
It’s better, in my
opinion, to apply a light touch of manipulation, and you get a wine
that can challenge Chablis and other white Burgundies from France,
still the world standard for white wines. One excellent recent
example is HdV, made from Larry Hyde’s grapevines in Carneros by
French winemaker Stéphane Vivier. Hyde’s wife Pamela is a cousin of
Villain, the famed co-director of Domaine de la Romanée Conti, the
most famed producer in Burgunday.
Otherwise, skip the
oaky Chardonnay and pass me the Sauvignon Blanc, which thrives in
Napa Valley. Hold the tarted-up “reserve” Sauvignons that are wanna-be
Chardonnays. I prefer my white wine crisp and fresh.
Visiting Napa Valley Alone
Much of the world seems designed for couples,
and that’s especially true for romantic getaways like Napa
Valley. Nevertheless, a single person can have a great time
in “Wine Valley.” He or she might even meet someone for a
future visit together, but if your goal is to meet someone
you may be disappointed. It’s better to plan to have fun,
and see what happens.
Getting to Napa
A great way to get to Napa is via the Baylink
Ferry from San Francisco. It’s an hour of relaxation—you can
even have a glass of wine on the way to get yourself in the
There is bus service from the Vallejo Ferry
to downtown Napa, thence to Calistoga on clean, modern
busses run by VINE, the local transit agency. Check the
napavalleyvine.net as it changes occasionally -- and
don't be discouraged if the bus is running a little late.
The busses from Vallejo to Calistoga and back run about
There’s also bus service from both Oakland
and San Francisco Airports provided by Evans Transit. And
Amtrak buses connect from the train station in Martinez to
Napa a number of times a day.
Once you’re in the Valley, downtown Napa has
a free shuttle (It looks like a cable car on tires) that
serves many popular destinations including the Embassy
Suites and Copia, a prime destination. Most attractions
downtown are within walking distance.
Napa also has conventional bus service, and
there are shuttles in each of the Valley’s towns
(Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga), though most of the
attractions for visitors are close enough for walking.
Unfortunately, the local and city governments
won’t let the Wine Train offer conventional passenger
service, but it’s still fun and you can just take the trip
and buy wine in the bar rather than buying an excellent but
Where to stay
In the past, most visitors stayed up valley
north of Napa if they could find a room and afford it. Some
of the nicest inns and resorts and best restaurants and bars
are in colorful Yountville and St. Helena in mid Valley.
Unfortunately, their limited space fills quickly, and few of
rooms are reasonably priced.
Calistoga at the north end of the Valley and
Napa at the south have a wider variety of lodgings. Both are
short hops from mid Valley.
Staying in Napa or Calistoga isn’t a
hardship, however. Both boast many attractions, restaurants
and bars, mostly within walking distance. Napa, in fact, has
recently become a hot tourist destination with many new
attractions and restaurants.
The city of Napa contains some large chain
hotels that often offer special prices, particularly now
with tourism down. One is a Hilton Garden Inn, for example.
The River Terrace Inn, though not a chain, offers a
delightful location on the Napa River, and often has special
One of the nicest places to stay is the
boutique Napa River Inn in downtown Napa within walking
distance of almost everything you’d like to see there.
Though no modest motel, it’s worth checking for attractive
The renovated 50’s Chardonnay Inn is a nice
motel close to downtown, and other inexpensive (under $100)
places to stay include the Napa Valley
Chablis Inn, the Chateau Hotel, Discovery Inn, Napa Valley
Redwood Inn, Hawthorn Inn & Suites, Wine Valley Lodge and
Napa Valley Travelodge Hotel & Suites. None are exactly
romantic getaways, but if you’re alone, who cares? You won’t
be spending much time in your room, and they’re all clean
The Calistoga Inn, which also has a popular
microbrewery and restaurant, has inexpensive rooms, though
the bathrooms are down the hall. Many modest spas in
Calistoga have inexpensive rooms, too. The ambience is about
like a Motel 6, but they’re clean and you won’t care much
about surroundings after a relaxing mud bath and massage.
One place I wouldn’t recommend is a B&B. Most
target couples looking for a romantic weekend.
What to do
Visiting wineries and tasting wine is the
prime attraction in Napa Valley, but it’s worth planning
ahead if you want to get the most out of your visit.
Start at Copia, which offers classes in visiting wineries
and you get a discount book as well.
Many wineries offer
classes, tours and events, but you need reservations. You
also need reservations at some of the other outstanding
venues, like the sit-down guided tastings at Joseph Phelps
and Duckhorn Cellars, and visits to hot small wineries.
Frank Family Vineyards is notoriously fun,
particularly late in the afternoon when the bachelorette
parties descend. Other friendly places include Peju
Province, V. Sattui, the amazing new Castello di Amorosa
winery, and the sparkling wine producers such as Domaine
Chandon, Domaine Carneros and Mumm Napa.
Many wineries host meals, parties and special
events that aren’t too widely publicized. Some are only for
their wine club members, but many are open to the public,
usually for a charge. Many singles attend these events.
In addition, many wine bars and tasting rooms
have opened in downtown Napa. Their formats range from
single-winery tasting rooms like Mason and Craig to
operations shared by a number of wineries like Vintners
Collective and Napa Wine Merchants. There are also a number
of wine bars and Copia, which offers classes and other
opportunities to learn about wine as well as taste it. Many
of the wine tasting operations have classes, too, and they
seem to attract more singles than couples. The Bounty Hunter
seems more a friendly wine bar than a retail store, as does
Back Room Wines, which has special inexpensive tastings each
Friday night. All attract many single tasters.
Of course, tasting wine is a friendly
pastime, and particularly later in the day, it’s easy to
meet people at tasting rooms. Do be prudent and watch your
consumption, however. The police take their responsibility
seriously, especially in St. Helena, a quiet town where the
police have little to do but rescue lost dogs and watch for
More than wineries
Napa Valley boasts many other activities to
enjoy beside wine tasting. One real treat though pricey is
early-morning balloon ride.
There are classes on wine, food and other
topics galore throughout the Valley, too, and they often
attract singles. The local community college offers many
short courses, and wineries and restaurants also provide a
chance to both learn and enjoy.
Two organizations of particular interest are
Copia and the CIA.
Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and
the Arts, is an interactive museum that’s a must visit in
downtown Napa. Aside from interesting tasting experiences
and exhibits, it has a vast array of classes and other
programs, some included with admission ($5) or membership,
others requiring separate payment.
Wine and food classes run throughout the day,
as do tours of its incredible gardens. A lot of singles (and
non-romantic friends) seem to attend them. You can check the
schedule and even reserve on line.
The Culinary Institute of America at
Greystone Cellars is the graduate campus of the world-famous
cooking school in New York, so it doesn’t really offer
classes for amateurs, but some are possibilities if you’re
in a related business or serious about food or wine. It does
offer excellent cooking demonstrations aimed at home chefs.
You can check the schedule online.
Napa Valley is also a treasure-trove of art.
Among the art collections you can see for free are those at
Clos Pegase Winery, Mumm Cuvée Napa, the Hess Collection,
and the sculpture garden at the Auberge du Soleil.
You should definitely see the di Rosa
Preserve at least once. It’s an incredible collection of
contemporary art, some bizarre but all worth viewing. The
preserve is in the Carneros Region of southern Napa County,
and requires reservations for tours, though you can visit
its Gatehouse Gallery free. The first Friday of each month,
it has a popular party for only $10.
The Valley also has a number of museums and
they offer classes, too. The Napa Valley Museum in
Yountville is another must. The Sharpsteen Museum in
Calistoga and Robert Louis Stevenson Museum at the St.
Helena Library (which also hosts the Napa Valley Wine
Library) are also worth visiting.
And though Napa Valley was once a desert for
performing arts, it’s becoming an oasis. The newly restored
Napa Valley Opera House’s remarkable upstairs theater may be
the best intimate concert venue in America and has a variety
of eclectic performances at reasonable prices. Its
downstairs café hosts performances, too.
Copia and many wineries and other
organizations sponsor film, musical and dramatic
performances, too. Copia has a movie each Friday night, and
also holds concerts and many other events. Jarvis
Conservatory offers movies and other performances downtown,
Likewise, the restored Cameo Theater in St.
Helena screens critically acclaimed current films and film
buffs are waiting anxiously for the 1937 Uptown Theater to
be restored. There is also a mundane multiplex in downtown
Where to eat
The only thing locals and visitors in Napa
Valley love as much as wine is food. The valley hosts many
incredible restaurants, including famed French Laundry,
which is definitely a couples place, as are Domaine Chandon,
Auberge du Soleil, the Restaurant at Meadowood and La Toque,
the other world-class romantic restaurants.
Other restaurants welcome singles, and most
have bars intended as much for eating as drinking. The bars
offer full menus, friendly bartenders and the likelihood of
meeting winemakers and vintners as well as visitors
including occasional celebrities.
Friendly locals at bars happily offer
suggestions about places to visit and eat, assuming people
are welcoming unless proven otherwise. The bars are also
comfortable for women alone, and bartenders discourage
anyone who gets out of line.
A few restaurants like Bistro Jeanty even
have communal tables where you’re sure to meet someone to
Some of the best bars for singles to eat are
ZuZu in downtown Napa, which serves tapas and wines, as well
as Angèle and Cuvée. Uva Trattoria has great
Italian-American food at reasonable prices, live music and a
friendly atmosphere and almost no tourists find it. Bistro
Don Giovanni's bar is small, but always crowded and
friendly, and the restaurant is a local favorite. So are
Fumé Bistro, Zinsvalley and Foothill Cafe, the latter three
a bit of a challenge to find.
Favorites in Yountville include Bouchon, Redd,
Hurley’s and Bistro Jeanty, while Rutherford Grill is
popular since it doesn't charge corkage; Zinsvalley and
Silverado Brewing north of St. Helena don't either). St.
Helena has a number of fine restaurants with friendly bars
for eating: Martini House, Press, Go Fish, Market, Cook and
Tra Vigne. Calistoga boasts the Calistoga Inn, Brannan’s,
barVino and Hydro Bar.
if you’re seeking a quieter time, the same bars that serve
meals attract locals and visitors alike after dinner. It’s a
good place to meet people — and maybe even find someone to
help explore the Valley the next day or on your next visit
to Napa Valley.
Market is rapidly becoming a vital hub of Napa life with its
interesting food markets and other places to shop as well as
many options to enjoy food, wine, and other beverages:
Five Dot Ranch
with sustainably produced, natural beef products.
serving Venezuelan arepas -- grilled corn flour-based flatbreads
filled with various options.
Library, focusing on cookbooks and periodicals
Artifacts, selling food-related antiques
serving and selling teas.
The Olive Press,
with an olive bar, olive oil and accessories
Organic Ice Cream, producing ice cream on site in a few months.
Oxbow Wine Merchant with a huge square
tasting and drinking bar, rooms for private tastings and
dinners, and a full kitchen so it can serve meals, not just
Oxbow Cheese Shop
Taylor's Refresher is a cross
between the one in St. Helena and the one at the Ferry Building
in San Francisco, with retro booths inside, a counter and lots
of seating outside with heaters and shading.
The Fatted Calf is a full
butcher shop that will feature pork products, notably sausages,
as well as other meat, but ironically in spite of the name, not
beef. They make and age the charcuterie and salumi
at the store – the whole complex will be full of food production
as well as sales.
Model Bakery will move all its
bread baking out of St. Helena to the new location, leaving the
pastry in St. Helena.
Hog Island Oyster bar
Oxbow Produce Market
Folio enoteca and cafe featuring wines
from Michael Mondavi's Folio Wine Company
Every Tuesday is Locals Night with music,
bargains and special deals -- and a big crowd of locals.
Carlin naturally expects the
Market to attract tourists, but he’s definitely aiming it at
locals. The Market will even offer a membership card for the
community good for special deals of all sorts from
the merchants, much like the Napa Valley Vintners’ Napa
Celebrate Napa Valley's
hidden gem –– the Napa River
Visitors to California from other
states may not appreciate one of California’s rarest
attractions: the Napa River.
In most parts of the United States,
navigable rivers are common, but there are very few in
California. Most flow to the Pacific Ocean over an impassible
sand bar or they dry up part of the year.
The Napa River, in fact, is why the
city of Napa is where it is. It sits at the end of the navigable
river; above Napa, the river is really a seasonal creek.
During the 19th century, Napa
Valley’s largest crop was wheat, not grapes and ships loaded
flour to be loaded to feed the hungry citizens of San Francisco.
A mural on a building at First and Main Streets depicts that
Over time, however, the river lost
its importance in commerce. The river became little more than a
sewer carrying the valley’s wastes to San Francisco Bay. Still,
it flooded the city a few times each decade, discouraging
investment or even maintenance of the city’s core.
It also became inhospitable to the
salmon and trout that once traversed the river to spawn up
Fortunately, a few local citizens
recognized the importance of the river to Napa, and vowed to end
the flooding while restoring the river as Napa’s gem. In 1996
citizens of Napa Valley voted to tax themselves to restore the
river and return the river to a natural environment, fighting
the floods with flood plains, bypasses and gradual slopes rather
than concrete walls.
In the process, the city planned to
make the river a focus of recreation and life, with trails,
parks and new attractions that would draw people to the
The project is well underway. New
bridges allow water to flow freely, while buildings were removed
from the east bank and the banks sloped to give the water a
place to spread. New paths are underway and a shallow bypass
will be a park in dry weather. Most dramatically, the old Napa
Mill has been restored into a prime visitor attraction, Copia
rose in the oxbow of the river followed by the Oxbow Public
Market, and the Westin Verasa Hotel will open this summer,.
Many new restaurants, wine tasting
rooms, art galleries, shops and clubs have blossomed downtown,
and Napa shines at night as it hasn’t since World War II.
Still to come are a path that
eventually will stretch for miles along the river with cafés,
shops and housing on it downtown, and docks, terraces and other
attractions that showplace the river itself. Visitors can
already enjoy the river restoration and the path around the Napa
In a few years, the river
restoration will have transformed Napa’s whole downtown.
A good place to learn more is
www.napanow.com has a great map of the many wine-tasting
Napa Valley: Glitz grafted onto
Though you wouldn’t know it from
articles you read, Napa Valley isn’t really the glitzy scene you
see for a few days each year at Auction Napa Valley. It’s
a farming community, not a retirement community or
destination resort. There’s a very strong sentiment to keep the
Valley as is, and people in the valley zealously protect
the farm land and fight incursions. There’s as much distain
among residents toward those who want to make it a trendy
playground for the wealthy as for those who want to fill it with
development and tourist attractions.
The worst thing you can do here is
something bad to the environment. People who arrogantly ignore
environmental and other county regulations and flaunt their
success are pariahs among most of the valley community –
including other wealthy newcomers.
By contrast, the way to gain
acceptance and respect is to protect the environment or help the
needy. The local heroes are people like Joseph Phelps, who
donated valuable land for farmworker housing, and the late
Robert Mondavi, who’s given so much to education and the arts,
and the many people who’ve donated their valuable land to the
local Land Trust or placed it in permanent agricultural or
Everyone is close to the soil and
even the rich act more like farmers than sophisticated city
dwellers. The agricultural roots of Napa Valley are never far
away, from dinner parties that start at 6:30 and are over by 10,
to the jeans and boots favored by residents and the roar of wind
machines protecting the grapes on chilly Spring mornings.
It’s often difficult to tell the
wealthy vintners -- owners of wineries – from the hired
winemakers who make their wine, and in fact, in some cases they
are the same people. There’s no hierarchical society like that
found in most cities; the life of the valley is wine, and if
you’re involved in the wine business, you belong. The former
school teacher bootstrapping a winery or the Mexican-born
vineyard manager is as welcomed as the rich developer, though
naturally people tend to develop friends with similar interests
The “aristocracy” is the old time
families who’ve owned property for decades – even generations --
but they’re not that exclusive and seem to welcome others if
they play by the rules: Respect the environment, don’t flaunt
your wealth and do good things for the valley and its people.
The way for newcomers to get accepted is to participate in
charitable and wine organizations. Giving lots of money to good
causes (including big purchases at the wine auction) helps:
Wealthy people here spend a lot of time and money supporting
each others’ favorite causes.
summer, the elite we read about in the San Francisco society
columns like to party in Napa Valley, with San Francisco mayor
Gavin Newsome, a part owner of Plumpjack Winery in Oakville,
joining the Gettys and Trainas at the home John Traina once
shared with ex-wife and novelist Danielle Steele, and some
locals like the Swansons of frozen dinner and winery fame are
members of that informal club. City swells do like to invite
other locals to their parties for color, but most Napans don’t
take that scene too seriously. They've got vines to tend and
wines to sell. That doesn't leave much time to join the
beautiful people at play.
else is there to do in Napa Valley?
Most people who head
for Napa Valley are undoubtedly attracted by its picturesque
wineries and excellent wines, but there’s plenty to see and do
even if you’re not into wine.
The visual and
performing arts are natural complements to the fine wines and
food of Wine Country life, but in all truth, art and
entertainment have been a bit slower to blossom in Napa Valley
than edible art. However, they are rapidly catching up, and the
Valley offers exceptional attractions in both areas. It also
features many outdoor activities but we’ll save them for another
Napa Valley contains
a number of exceptional collections of art open to the public,
and its wineries, restaurants and galleries feature a wide
From the south, the
major art museums are the remarkable di Rosa Preserve, which
exhibits more than 2000 contemporary pieces both inside numerous
buildings and outside. Some of the art can only be called
bizarre but clearly meets its goal to stretch your senses.
Admission and tours are by appointment only, though a galley is
open without calling ahead for $3.
The Hess Collection
winery in the mountains west of Napa is a fine collection of
more mainstream contemporary art. There’s no charge to visit,
but most people combine it with tasting Hess’s excellent wines.
Napa Valley Museum
in Yountville features many interesting visiting shows as well
as a permanent collection.
Mumm Napa Valley
includes a photographic gallery with changing and permanent
exhibits, while Cliff Lede Vineyards and Turnbull Winery also
sculpture garden at Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford is actually
part of the I. Work Gallery collection, and you’re supposed to
check with them before wandering over the resort’s grounds. It’s
well worth the effort to see pieces of outstanding modern
The other major
public collection is at Clos Pegase Winery in Calistoga. The
building itself is a work of art, and it houses part of owner
Jan Shrem’s eclectic collection of ancient to contemporary art.
The cities of Napa,
Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga also sport numerous
galleries selling art to the public.
The performing arts
have exploded in Napa Valley, too, fueled by the restoration of
the intimate 1870 Napa Valley Opera House in Napa and the
renovation of the 1200-seat Lincoln Theater at the Veteran’s
Home in Yountville into a first-class performance center. Both
host a full schedule of varied musical and other acts, from
popular to classic. Copia also holds regular concerts including
outdoors during the summer in its riverside amphitheater. It
shows interesting films Friday nights, the Jarvis Conservatory
shows art films most Saturdays and opera the other, while Cameo
Cinema in St. Helena is an small, old-time theater with
bars and clubs in the valley also feature live entertainment,
and the tiny White Barn theater in St. Helena attracts dedicated
fans. Some wineries, notably Robert Mondavi, hold popular summer
You can find
schedules in many local publications and web sites including
Entertainment in Napa
Napa is also now home to more
and more live music and other entertainment.
The newest is Silo’s Wine Bar,
now open in the Napa Mill.
It serves Napa wines with jazz
and standards. It’s a showcase for Wesla Whitfield
and Mike Greensilll, a singer and pianist well known
nationwide for their rendering of the great American
songbook of classics, and new residents of Napa Valley.
It shares space with the MJ
Check it out now from 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Visitors and locals can also catch the eclectic
selections of performances and concerts at the exquisite
Napa Valley Opera House, probably America’s best intimate
concert venue. It has events many nights a week; you can
check the latest schedule at
Jarvis Conservatory has art
films during the week and the popular Saturday live opera
with talented local and visiting pros and amateurs once a
month — plus opera from La Scala occasionally.
The Oxbow Public Market has
live music each Tuesday evening from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
during Locals Night.
Uva Trattoria has long featured
jazz and small ensemble versions of big band favorites five
nights a week, Thursday through Sunday.
Downtown Joe’s: also has live
music five nights a week; it’s more contemporary and aimed
at a younger crowd than Uva’s.
The new Ceja Vineyards Wine
Tasting Salon and Lounge is now featuring Latin music Friday
nights and salsa dancing with lessons on Saturday night.
Piccolino’s has music some
nights, including every other Monday.Other downtown restaurants that
feature live music at times include Allegria and the Border.
Tasting rooms in Yountville
Yountville, with its population of only 3,300, now has 10
tasting rooms – not to mention all its fine restaurants
where you can certainly taste wine. Bottega, for example,
has interesting wines, a great setting and excellent prices,
but you probably won’t be able to find any space at the bar!
These are only counting the tasting rooms in town, and don’t
include those at wineries like Domaine Chandon, Cliff Lede
Because these tasting rooms are in the town of Yountville, county rules
don’t apply, so you don’t need appointments in general,
though it’s always a good idea.
From north to south:
Girard in Washington Square Shopping Center, 6795
Washington St. (eastern side) 968-9297.
Verisimo in Washington Square Shopping Center, 6795
Washington St. (western side) 944-9463.
Jessup Cellars, 6740 Washington St. 944-8525
Ma(i)sonry (Blackbird Vineyards, Brown Estate, Joel Gott
Wines, Lail Vineyards, Pedras Wine Company, Renteria
Wines and Tor Kenward Family Wines.) 6711 Washington St.
Chiarello Vineyards (in NapaStyle store in V
Marketplace) 6525 Washington St. 945-1229.
V Wine Cellar (in V Marketplace), 6525 Washington St.
Hope & Grace, 6540 Washington St. 944-2500.
Hill Family in Edward James Court, 6512 Washington St.
Yountville Tasting Station (Page, Cornerstone Cellars
and Revolver), 6505 Washington St. 945-0388.
Groezinger Wine Merchants, 6484 Washington St.
All stretch about half a mile along
Washington St. and the free Yountville shuttle will take you
around if that’s too far to walk. Just call 944-1234 or
Sept. 22, 2009