Wine Country: Napa Valley

The latest in a series of Wine Country articles. The last dealt with Porto, Portugal.

Keepin? It Classy In California

I want to get this out in the open before you start reading in earnest. I will not try to create a bachelor party theme as I guide you through the countryside with this essay. I will not encourage you not to drink certain kinds of wines that start with an ?m.? I will not discourage you from sleeping with Sandra Oh.

So, with all that said, the first thing I will do is to get you to Napa, California. The cool thing is that you have three airports to choose from (SFO, SJC and OAK) all of which are within 85 miles of Napa, CA. Yes, with traffic, that could take you two hours to get to Napa. No, you really can?t avoid paying tolls as you drive north unless you want the drive to take even longer. But, with three major airports to choose from, you can shop for the best deal on the airfare while also looking for direct flights and avoiding rush hour times, so you?ve got that going for you. No matter which airport though, you?ll eventually head north and get on route 29 (after leaving Interstate 80 at exit 33 and heading west on route 37) which will take you to the south side of the town of Napa and your trip for wine will begin.

My first misconception regarding Napa Valley was the size. I think farmland and I think it has to be a huge area. No. Napa County is less than half the size of Cook County, Illinois and it?s about the size of all five boroughs in New York plus Nassau County. However, I was correct about the rural nature because instead of the millions of people in New York or Chicago, the entire county has fewer people than Fort Collins, Colorado. (New Belgium Brewery!) Why did I give you the most geographical information you?ve seen since high school? To tell you that getting around will be easy considering you?re in one of the major wine centers of the world. (That?s really true as we are entering the off-season times. You know it?s the off-season because why else would you create a mustard festival?)

The Tour

So, staying on route 29 through Napa, turn right at Oak Knoll Avenue (basically the last street before you completely leave town) which will take you to the other main thoroughfare of Napa Valley, Silverado Trail, and after only about four miles on it, you?ll come upon Stag?s Leap Winery. You?ll need to make a reservation to visit beforehand, but once there you can choose a 90-minute property tour and a tasting of five wines for $45, or you can do a ?porch tasting? and get straight to four wines for $20.

Only a mile and a half further down Silverado Trail is the Paraduxx Winery that recommends reserving a spot for a tasting. They offer two different options, but to me the Enhanced Tasting for only ten dollars more ($30 total) with limited production wines sounds like the one to choose. But, you could go whole hog and get the Howell Mountain experience that includes breakfast, a tour of the estate, wine paired meals on the mountain and a return to the winery to sample more wine.

Taking Oakville Cross Road back to route 29, at the corner of those two roads is The Tasting Room operated by the Napa Wine Company. Here they offer a tasting menu from several different wineries. If you were there this week, you could enjoy the tastes of a variety of Pahlmeyer wines, which is the only place where tastes of these limited production wines are available.

Four miles further down the road (and a short turn right on the not surprisingly named Zinfandel Lane) are the Raymond Vineyards. Here, you can find a value of only $10 for a tasting. However, with other tasting tours with subjects like Deconstructing Wine Experience and Barrel Tasting, it might be good to spring for the extra cash. Then again, no one?s judging you, so you might as well do all three. Heck, do as many as you want as long as you got someone to drive for you at that point.

Going about three miles further on route 29, there?s the Charles Krug winery, the first winery in the Napa Valley, established in 1861. Here you truly get a sense of the history of winemaking in the area as the Redwood Cellar on the property is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Just over a mile away are the Duckhorn Vineyards. The tasting price starts at $15, but you can go for a $55 price and do the ?Food for Thought? and eat Skewered Lamb Meatball and Pepper-Seared Beef Tenderloin with the perfectly paired Duckhorn wine.

At this point, you would probably be about done for the day (if not three wineries ago) and you could use to crash for the night. Just about eight miles further down the road is The Lodge at Calistoga, a hotel with a geothermal mineral water heated pool, sauna and spa for your relaxation for the rest of the day or the next if you need a break from wine. According to the Napa Valley website, the prices start at only $109. Plus, there?s made to order waffles in the morning. Waffles!

That?s just a quick sample of some of the wineries that you?ll find in the Food and Wine 2010 Wine Guide or maybe in Saveur. However, there are many, many more places to visit that have some great wines. How many? Just check out this map. I stopped counting around 50. Also, to reemphasize the smallness of the area, from the center of Napa to each of these wineries and ending up at The Lodge in Calistoga is only 32 miles. Amazing that there is that much beautiful wine goodness in such a small package. Happy tasting.

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About Jason McClain Jason is an aspiring novelist, which means there is a lot of time to put off writing and watch baseball or go fly-fishing, hiking and traveling. By "a lot of time", Jason means "procrastination."

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