Napa Valley: California's Landmark Wine Country

American winemaking landed on the map with the historic 1976 Paris wine tasting. Today, it is California's best-known wine-growing region.


Napa Valley: California's Landmark Wine Country

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Sierra on October 15, 2006

If you mention the words "Napa Valley", certain images come to mind: grapes, wine, olive oil, great food, and most of all, indulgence.

While you would certainly be right on all these points, there's more to Napa than simply winery tours. Music festivals, art fairs, culinary celebrations, holiday special events, farmers' markets, bicycle tours, health spas, romantic getaways, museums, unique shops, and much more to do make up today's Napa Valley experience.

- Fresh fruit and products are always available in the area, and it should be no surprise that Napa has a booming culinary scene, ranging from corner bakeries and farmer's markets, to the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena and the impeccable French Laundry in Yountville. Come hungry!

- Friday mornings from 7:30am-noon, don't miss St. Helena's Farmer's Market, located in Crane Park. While Calistoga, Napa and Yountville also host markets, this one seems to be the local favorite: stalls loaded with organic produce, fresh meats and fish, and a variety of other local products.

- The Napa Valley Mustard Festival usually takes place throughout February and March. This is a visually spectacular time of year to visit Napa, with bright yellow mustard plants lining many of the vineyards, and a wealth of activities to choose from.

- For a different way to see the wine country, try hot air ballooning.

- The Wine Country Film Festival is not limited to Napa; screenings and events take place in Napa, Carneros, Sonoma and American Canyon for four weeks midsummer. Filmmakers from around the globe submit films to this competition and you may find yourself rubbing elbows with Hollywood elite for a mere $8-10 per ticket at the various public screenings.

- "Crush season" varies from year to year depending on the weather and how the grapes have grown, but generally lasts from early September through late October, occassionally even into November. This is Napa at its most interesting, when you can see fresh truckloads of grapes being crushed into what will eventually become wine. It's another visual feast as well, with ripe grapes on the vines and the valley ablaze in colors.

- The Christmas/holiday season is a wonderful time to visit Napa, when the vineyards are decked out for the holidays and many special events are available to the public.${QuickSuggestions} In Napa, prime tourism season runs from March to November; this is when the weather is best and the valley is at its loveliest. Hotel/spa rates tend to be higher on the weekends and holidays.

Budget-minded? The best discounts are offered early/mid-week, usually Sunday-Wednesday. Spa and hotel websites also often offer "Internet specials" if you book online or print out coupons.

Napa has more than 300 wineries, so depending on the length of your visit, it is easiest to pick 4-6 wineries that you really want to see in a single day, and then map out your route, allowing for time to spend at each winery and some extra time for spur-of-the-moment changes to your itinerary. Most major wineries line Route 29 (west side of the valley) or Silverado Trail (east side of the valley); of the two, Route 29 is much more heavily trafficked, which can cause delays, especially on Saturdays.

If it’s your first visit to wine country, you may want to make time to stop in at Copia in Napa; they bill themselves as "The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts", offering wine tasting and cooking classes as well as art exhibits and more.

Winery hours vary – anything from 9am through 6pm – and rarely past 6pm. Some can only be viewed by appointment; and often, smaller wineries do not even offer hours, selling wines through local wine stores only. Should a winery be an "absolute must-see" for you, call ahead to the winery to check on their current hours. Most wineries have a web site these days; and winecountry.com also provides a list of local vinters.

Unless there’s a local concert, play or festival happening, there isn’t much in terms of nightlife in Napa beyond restaurants and wine bars, but many spas are open as late as 8-9pm. This is a place to relax, indulge, and to get away from high-paced city life.

If you really want to understand the fascinating history of Napa Valley, I recommend three books that will give you a very good portrait: Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine by George M. Taber; and James Conoway's pair of books, Napa: The Story of an American Eden and The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley.${BestWay} To reach Napa Valley, you can fly into San Francisco (SFO) or Oakland airport. (Sacramento and San Jose are also reasonably close but both will add 45-60 minutes to your drive time). Shuttle and limo services are available from SFO and OAK to various hotels in Napa Valley.

I personally prefer driving my own car around Napa, which allows me to change my itinerary at a whim and to set my own pace. My car rental agency of choice is Enterprise, because you can either pick up cars at airport locations, or they will come pick you up to bring you to their local rental agency. Parking is generally free; in downtown areas you may have to use metered parking or paid parking lots. If you can afford it, get a convertible rental for touring Napa!

A very popular tour option are bike tours; two popular organizers include Napa Valley Bike Tours and Bicycle Adventures. You can also rent bikes locally through St. Helena Cyclery, or the Calistoga Bike Shop, who also offers a single-day bike tour.

To solve the problem of who will be your designated driver, or if you have a larger group of people touring together, limousine companies offer a wide variety of services, ranging from 3-hour short tours to full-day excursions. Prices vary depending on number of people, number of wineries visited, if meals are included, and any other tours/special items. Tour companies will work with you to create an experience that best suits your tastes and interests.

Another popular visitor's experience is the Wine Train, which takes a 3-hour tour up the valley starting from and returning to Napa. You cannot get on/off the Wine Train except for specific luncheon tours. I do not recommend taking the Wine Train in bad weather or after dark (unless you're taking the Murder Mystery Tour), as you will not see anything!

Many of the local area hotels will also be happy to recommend local guide services to you, but it is usually better to plan ahead than to try to find somebody with availability at the last moment. Be aware that most tour companies will charge a cancellation fee if cancelled within 24-48 hours of planned departure time.

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For more information, visit napavalley.com.

Grgich Hills Cellar

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Sierra on October 17, 2006

Grgich Hills Cellar is the first winery I can recall visiting in Napa Valley, circa 1989. At the time, the tasting room was a tiny, cramped room at the front of the Grgich property (the same room as today, which has now been expanded), and I remember an older man talking to us with great enthusiasm about their wines. I have no idea if the older gentleman I remember from that trip was Miljenko "Mike" Grgich, the legendary patriarch of Grgich Hills. It probably was, as we were visiting the winery at a "quiet" time of the year.

If you don't know who Mike Grgich is, then you don't know much about the history of California winemaking. Grgich was born in Croatia and came to America to make wines; he worked for several notable wineries in the Napa region before finally being able to open his own winery in 1977.

Grgich catapulted to fame in mid-1976, when the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay he had produced won top honors at the historic 1976 Paris tasting, which pitted top American wines against France's finest in a blind tasting. The French wine experts, much to their own chagrin, selected Napa wines over French ones for top honors (a 1973 Stag's Leap cabernet took top red honors).

It should be noted that Grgich has embraced biodynamic farming standards, which means using no artificial pesticides, fertilizers, or fungicides; they are the largest biodynamic vineyard in the country. At a time when Napa is becoming increasingly crowded with vineyards, and there is concern for the environmental impact that agriculture has on local ecosystems, Grgich is helping to demonstrate that organic, biodynamic farming does make a difference in the end product, allowing the terroir to show more influence in the wines.

Grgich Hills produce six varietals, and you can usually taste all of them in their expanded tasting room. They're best known for their chardonnay, of course, but they also produce Fumé Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, and a Chardonnay/Riesling late-harvest, botrytis-affected dessert wine that they have named Violetta, which is not produced every year.

What I like about visiting Grgich is that their tasting room is all about the wine: the room is almost entirely bare aside from some rather modest displays of wine. Like Mike Grgich himself, the tasting room focuses you entirely on the wine, with nothing to distract you.


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For an excellent history of Mike Grgich's impact on the Valley, as well as extensive information about the Napa region, I would highly recommend James Conaway's Napa: The Story of an American Eden, and for information about the Paris tasting, I'd recommend George M. Taber's Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.




Tel. (800) 532-3057.
Tasting fee $10; you keep the glass.
Grgich Hills Cellar
1829 St Helena Highway
Napa Valley, California, 94573
(800) 532-3057

Plump Jack Winery

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Sierra on January 17, 2007

PlumpJack's vineyards date to 1881, and their winemaking facility originally used to house Villa Mt. Eden Winery (now located in Yountville).

PlumpJack was started in 1973 by James and Anne McWilliams with one goal: to make an outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon. They certainly have achieved that, consistently producing some really lovely reds - including a Syrah and a merlot - but they also make a lovely reserve Chardonnay. Their tasting room is very modern, with seating space outside where you can take a bottle and enjoy the views.

Located off Oakville Cross Road close to the Silverado Trail, PlumpJack for years was a quiet secret among those who ventured off route 29 (the main traffic way in Napa Valley), or who was familiar with PlumpJack's other brand holdings - their Squaw Valley Inn, their athletic gear, their restaurants. In the past ten years or so, however, PlumpJack's outstanding wines have found their way onto more and more restaurant wine lists across the country.

Several years ago, whenever I visited PlumpJack, their tasting room was usually quiet, perhaps only one or two other people sharing the attentions of the knowledgable staff. The artsy, attractive tasting room has come a long way, and now they are frequently quite busy - but still as friendly as ever - even during the traditionally more-quiet midweek days.

PlumpJack Winery, 620 Oakville Cross Road, Oakville, CA (707) 945-1220. Tasting fee $5.

PlumpJack Winery
620 Oakville Cross Road
Oakville, California, 94562
(707) 945-1220

Long Meadow Ranch : Wine, Olives, and Beef

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Sierra on January 30, 2007

All vineyards in Napa are, of course, working farms; but you don't usually see that. You usually see an artfully crafted tasting room, and on those properties that allow tours, you'll follow a short path that stays pretty close to the tasting room.

Long Meadow Ranch is different than the rest, and not just because first and foremost, LMR gets you to focus on what is important about this vineyard: the land, the people, and the work that goes into producing its wine, its olive oils, and oh yes - its beef and produce.

Wait - beef and produce? From a Napa vineyard? Oh, yes.

Long Meadow Ranch has its roots with a land grant from President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Over the next fifty years, the land was used to grow olives, grapes, apples, and to raise livestock, including cows and goats. When prohibition interrupted Napa Valley's way of life in the 1920s, the commercial operations on the property eventually closed down.

Fast-forward to 1989. Ted Hall, formerly a partner with an international management consulting firm, had long been an amateur winemaker; now, with the purchase of Long Meadow Ranch, he took the leap from amateur to professional winemaker.

From its (new) beginnings, Hall was determined to run his ranch with sustainable, organic farming methods. He and his family have certainly achieved their goal; all of their crops are organically produced, and certified as such by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), helping to lead the way to prove to the winemaking industry that it is possible to be ecologically responsible and commercially successful at the same time.

LMR also has an unusual approach to visitors to their property. Unlike most wineries, which offer a public tasting room, Long Meadow Ranch instead offers a variety of educational tours that are available by reservation only. The least expensive tour they offer is the "Wine & Olive Oil Tour" ($35), a basic overview of the facilities including the wine caves. You can also take a guided hike of the property ($50), or take their popular Pinzgauer Adventure ($50) - or if you have a bit more time to spare, combine the Hike or the Pinzgauer tour with a lunch consisting of LMR meats, produce and wines ($150).

I opted to take the Pinzgauer Adventure: up to ten guests pile into a Pinzgauer - a Swiss Army cross-country all-terrain vehicle with open sides and canvas roofing. On the day I visited, it was just a couple from New York and me, so it was practically a private tour! We met our driver at LMR Rutherford Gardens, Long Meadow Ranch's organic produce farm located across route 29 from the Grgich Hills tasting room. The produce farm is open to the public March - November, offering a variety of heirloom tomatoes, fruits, vegetables, eggs and other LMR produce; Rutherford Gardens also supplies many of the top restaurants in Napa Valley. We piled into the truck, and off we went, starting with a three mile ride up to the winery via the winding back roads of the western valley.

The award-winning winery building sits several hundred feet above the valley floor, affording gorgeous vistas across Napa from its front landing. Designed by William Turnbull, the building was constructed using the materials that were excavated to create the vineyard's wine caves. It is solar-energy powered, and thermally efficient, maintaining a consistent year-round temperature. Here we met our tour guide, Lydia Damian, who is the Director of Hospitality for the ranch.

Our first tasting was not wine, but olive oil, offered to us in small, round glasses. I had never drank olive oil straight up before, and we were offered a few tips to tasting, including allowing the warmth of our hands to heat the glass and release some of the fragrance. The oil – rich and smooth – went down easily, rich sunshine captured with earthy undertones and a bit of a spicy aftertaste – one of the most delicious olive oils I’ve ever tried. Long Meadow Ranch produces two varietals, their Napa Valley Select, and their Prato Lungo, created from Napa Valley's oldest olive orchards, located right on the LMR property.

There is no doubt that organic farming methods can make a difference in the end flavor of a product, whether it is fruit fresh off the vine, or the wines or oils that come from those fruits. We walked down the hallway and took a look at LMR’s traditional frantoio (olive press), consisting of a couple large, extremely heavy circular stones constructed into an unusual-looking machine. Lydia explained to us the process used to make olive oil, from the initial crushing to how undesirable materials – stems, leaves, etc – were separated from the golden oil. An olive tree, once matured, produces approximately 45-50 pounds of fruit per tree, and it takes one ton of olives to make just 30 gallons of olive oil.

From there, it was back into the Pinzgauer, and we headed up the mountain to Long Meadow Ranch’s primary vineyards atop the Mayacamas Mountains. Long rows of healthy vines curved over the hillsides, drinking in the warm September sunshine, some rows already being harvested for the fall crush.

Here Lydia talked to us about the various methods that LMR uses to ensure healthy soils and strong plants. The vineyards are grown using a "dry" method, where the vines are started out with minimal water, encouraging them to root deeply, which in turns means that the grapes rely less on artificial watering during the growing season. It also leaves the plants less susceptible to rot or infection from over-watering. She also spoke about how Long Meadow Ranch uses ground cover plants to enrich the soil and prevent soil runoff, a vital issue in the Napa region.

We continued down the hill to the Prato Lungo olive orchard. Many of these trees date back over 135 years to the original settlers of this property, and they are still producing fruit. (Olive trees can live to over 1,000 years old and can remain fruitful so long as they are properly cared for.) Ted Hall had discovered the olive orchards by chance while doing a physical survey of his property; once the undergrowth was cleared and the trees properly pruned, they were found to still be producing olives. And always, the organic details – in the spring and early summer, the calves are allowed into the orchard, where their hooves help aerate the soil, and their manure helps enrich it.

That is the most important part to understand from the tour, how each and every plant and animal that makes its home on the ranch helps contribute to the big picture. From choice of ground cover plants, to which plants are grown in the organic gardens; from the care that goes into their wines and olive oils, to the various uses that poultry and livestock serve in the yearly cycle, Long Meadow Ranch is a perfect place to come to see organic farming at its finest.

Oh yes – they also make quality wines, too. It was time for us to return to the main winery building and have a tasting!

Long Meadow Ranch is best known for their Cabernet Sauvignon, a beautifully smooth and elegant full-bodied red wine, which is served at top restaurants throughout Napa, San Francisco and California, as well as across the country. Harder to find due to its limited production is their Sangiovese (the 2004 vintage will be released March, 2007), a more delicate, softer red. They also produce a lovely Ranch House Red, and they recently released their first Sauvignon Blanc - a crisp, tasty white.

Along with their wines, we also tasted their beef, which was outstanding. LMR breeds Highlands – big, shaggy, striking cattle that readily adapt to a variety of terrain. They produce very flavorful meat, and Long Meadow Ranch sells a variety of beef cuts, as well as burgers, hot dogs, beef stick, and beef jerky. (If you’re a fan of jerky, like I am, you’ll love the Cabernet beef jerky – delicious!).

After the tour was over, they brought us back to Rutherford Gardens, where I spent some time wandering through the organic gardens, amazed at the variety of vegetables growing there. The garden property includes 100-year-old fig trees, which still bear fruit.

If you’re looking for a wine country experience that’s off the beaten track, I would highly recommend heading over to Long Meadow Ranch for a tour, and to wander around the organic gardens for a bit. LMR has set the standard for which other Napa wineries should follow to evolve into responsible farming for the 21st century.

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Long Meadow Ranch is located at 1796 So. St. Helena Highway (SR 29) in Rutherford, CA. For more infomation, contact: Lydia Damian (707) 963-4555, ex.161.

Mumm Napa Valley

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Sierra on February 2, 2007

Mumm has, for nearly 200 years, been one of the premiere vintners of Champagne in France; their wines celebrate victories, launch ships, and add elegance to any special occasion.

Just as you could not call a Californian wine a "Burgundy", it is improper to call sparkling wines that come from anywhere but the Champagne region of France by the name "Champagne", per standards of the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. This is a legally protected right as part of the Treaty of Madrid (1891), the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and more recently, through European Union laws. You will find sparkling wines from other regions of the world called names such as Cava, spumante, Cap Classique, DOCG Asti, Sekt, and Crémant, among others; generally finding "méthode traditionnelle" on a label designates a sparkling wine.

In the U.S., such wines are simply called "sparkling wines". Mumm opened their vineyards here in 1986 - designated Mumm Cuvée Napa to distinguish their products from the original Mumm in France. Over the past 20 years, Mumm has done the same in California that they did in Europe: produce an outstanding product that leads its competitors for quality.

The first Mumm vineyards in the U.S., located in the Los Carneros district, have something very much in common with their French counterparts: the lime in the soil helps create depth and richness in the grapes' flavor. Mumm now sources their grapes from four Napa regions: Carneros, Yountville, Rutherford, and Oakville; and traditionally uses three varietals - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

Complimentary public tours are available daily, on the hour, from 10am to 3pm, or you can make an appointment for a private tour and tasting for groups of 10 or more, for a fee. The tour encompasses the vineyards as well as the winery, and takes 45 minutes.

Mumm has not simply created a tasting room where you belly up to the bar like most other wineries. A Mumm tasting - like the special occasions when you would open a bottle - are an experience.

From the parking lot, you walk down a short path into the wine shop on your right. If you’re here for a tasting, ignore all the wine and glasses on display and instead walk through the shop and to your left, where you can take a seat at any open table you like, either outdoors in the sun, or in the air-conditioned interior. Enjoy the magnificent views westwards towards the Mayacamas range; I love coming here late in the afternoon when the crowds are generally quiet to enjoy some sparkling wine as the day slips towards sunset.

You have the choice of either single glasses of Mumm, or you can have a comparative tasting; prices range from $5-$20. I selected a "Magnum" tasting; the menu claimed that magnums are "creamier, softer, and more complex than regular sized bottles". (Champagne/sparkling wines come in eight sizes - quarter, half, full ['regular'], magnum, Jeroboam, Methuselah, Salmanazar, and Balthazar; magnums reputedly have the best flavor.)

I was served two full glasses of sparkling wine; one was their signature Brut Prestige, the other their blush-colored Blanc de Noirs. They sparkled in the California sunshine: bright, bubbly, with condensation slowly swirling around the outside of the glass in the warmth of the afternoon. The wines are served with a card next to them which shows the label, so that if you like the wine, you know what label to look for. They were both delicious, but I must admit to preferring my sparkling wines "blonde", so I liked the Brut Prestige better. The Brut Prestige was so smooth and tasty, I could have easily whiled away a sizeable part of my afternoon enjoying the scenery, the wine, the weather.

The only flaw that I think there is in the magnum tasting is that the regular-sized bottle is not offered to taste side by side with the magnum; after all, it is in the comparison that one best notices the differences.

Mumm's environment invites you to linger over your glasses and savor the wine. And savor you shall, for their wines are outstanding. You can even feel free to take your wine and take a walk around the garden area or to explore their photography galleries. When I was last there, they were hosting an Ansel Adams review. If you are there in the spring, you will see the photography from the Napa Valley Mustard Festival "Mumm Napa Photo Finish" contest.

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Notes: Their wine shop has a variety of interesting glassware and wine-related items, but mainly focuses on their wines, in all sizes, and in particular showcases their smaller production wines, such as their award-winning DVX, their sparkling Pinot Meunier, and their Cuvée M, which are only available via the tasting room or online order.

Open daily 10am-5pm. 8445 Silverado Trail, Rutherford, CA 94573
Phone: (800) MUM-NAPA or (707) 967-7700

For the budget-mined, note that their website has coupons available for discounts on tastings: www.mummnapa.com  




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