Napa Valley – Disneyland for adults
One of the more surprising things about California’s Napa Valley is just how small it is.
The 45km stretch of small towns, vineyards and bucolic countryside – a uniquely northern Californian mix of grapevines, olive trees, conical evergreens and the occasional, incongruous row of palms hovering over the landscape like visitors from the tropics – has a reputation in the wine world and with travelers alike that is wildly disproportionate to its size.
While the valley produces just four percent of the state’s wine, that wine is ranked among the world’s best, making it a magnet for oenophiles.
Here it is all about the good things in life. With some 400 wineries dotting the countryside, the main streets of Napa Valley are dedicated to wine and its complementary pursuits; small art galleries and antique stores, boutiques and hotels, restaurants that range from the rustic to the Michelin-starred, local food artisans of every stripe and, because the valley is geothermal, numerous spa resorts.
“Napa is like Disneyland for adults,” says Andy Florsheim, owner of the Goose & Gander restaurant in St. Helena. “The focus is on slowing down, having the time to really taste things, whether that’s food, wine, or great olive oil.”
The wine that first put Napa Valley on the map was cabernet sauvignon but today a wide range of grape varieties flourish here. Within the Napa Valley appellation there are 16 sub-appellations, including the iconic Stags Leap district.
Thanks to its Mediterranean climate there is no “off season” (in fact, it is at its busiest in November and December in the days before Thanksgiving and Christmas). Large populations of Italian, French and Hispanic immigrants have given the valley a character all of its own, a breezy Californian version of Old World style.
One of the best ways to see the valley is to begin in the town of Napa, and drive north via Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga. Downtown Napa is also the departure point for the family owned Napa Valley Wine Train, a series of beautifully refurbished, wood-paneled Pullman rail cars – some of which embarked on their first journey in 1915.
The train gently rocks its way to St. Helena and back, bordered by vineyards to either side, for the duration of the three hour-long dinner or lunch journey. Besides the three dining cars, which are fitted out with white linen and sparkling silverware Orient Express-style, and a tasting bar, observation deck and lounges, it also offers winery tour packages.
If you are driving, begin at Shafer Vineyards, known for its premium Hillside Select cabernet sauvignon and the Relentless syrah/petite sirah blend that Wine Spectator magazine named its 2008 wine of the year. It lies in the famous Stags Leap district, a small box canyon 3km long and 2km wide.
“The area is known for a unique style of cabernet, with rich fruit and softer tannins than in other areas of Napa,” says owner Doug Shafer. “The best descriptor I can think of is ‘juicy,’ with a smooth finish.”
The stunning winery, embedded in steep slopes of cabernet sauvignon vines, runs two tasting tours a day for up to 10 people that are available by appointment only. A wait of up to eight weeks is not unusual, particularly around harvesttime, Shafer says, so it is worth booking ahead to avoid disappointment.
Drive 30 minutes north through picture perfect Yountville – home to Thomas Keller’s iconic restaurant The French Laundry and the adjacent Bouchon – and you’ll arrive in St. Helena, a lovely little town bursting with tasting rooms for the various wineries in the area.
Just outside town, Raymond Vineyards is a regular stop on the Wine Train tour. The certified organic and biodynamic vineyard and custom winemaking operation has an eccentric winery that includes mirrored fermentation tanks, a crystal chandelier, and costumed mannequins. The winery also doubles as a party venue.
The Theater of Nature introduces visitors to biodynamic farming and practices such as burying goat horns filled with cow dung to produce a highly concentrated fertilizer and insect repellent – and explains the basics of fermentation, aging, and wine tasting.
At the next stop, Calistoga, you’ll find the Indian Springs Resort & Spa, an old-school spa resort with clusters of cabins and gnarled olive trees lining the drive.
Nearby Tamber Bey, a winery and tasting room with vineyards in Yountville, is housed within the Sundance Ranch, an equestrian facility for training top performance horses. The central courtyard is flanked by stalls for 18 resident horses.
“Our wines are soft on the palate, and very food-friendly,” says Tamber Bey’s manager, Doug Eisele.
Aged in French oak barrels, the pinot noir and rabicano, a Bordeaux blend named for a pattern of white markings on a horse’s coat, in particular stood out for their depth and complexity.
Jericho Canyon, a boutique winery making only handcrafted Bordeaux-style wines, is just a five-minute drive away but it might as well be another world. The vineyard is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful in the valley.
Started by Marla and Dale Bleecher in 1989, Jericho is a true family affair. Last year, their youngest son, Nick, produced his first wine, which was also the first rosé made on the estate.
“I joke that I’ve been working in the wine industry for 20 years,” he says. “I had a ‘mandatory’ internship working with my parents at the vineyard, so I’ve been picking grapes and pruning vines since I was four.”
Bracketed by Mount St. Helena and the Palisades mountain range, the canyon is a microcosm of Napa Valley: sweeping terraces painstakingly planted with small plots of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc to make the most of the sometimes extreme temperature variations and volcanic, gravelly clay loam soils that produce small, intensely flavored yields. Likewise the Bleecher family’s respect for the land, combined with an emphasis on living well, is characteristic of the valley as a whole.
Text: Sam Eichblatt
Take a tour in Napa Valley on this interactive map
Published: March 17, 2015