Published in The Daily Telegraph June 2005
The countryside is spectacular, the natives are friendly and the restaurants out of this world – and that’s before you’ve ever begun to explore Napa Valley’s outstanding vineyards, says Peter Grogan.
Amy Currens, of Robert Sinsky Vineyards, sips her wine appreciatively. ”Mmm, Pinot’s good today. It really likes sunny days.
Welcome to Napa Valley, the Monaco of the wine world. An acre planted with the finest vines costs half a million dollars; the average bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon at the excellent Groezinger wine merchants in Yountville is a startling $67 (£39); and even the wine, it seems, knows what it wants.
The success of the endearingly wine-stained movie Sideways is just one reason why each year several million people slurp their way up the 30 or so miles of Interstate 29, from the town of Napa to Calistoga. Among the others are good food, lovely scenery and a sense of well-being among friendly, helpful people. And in California, where the pleasures of the table are paramount, it’s fine to start tippling at 9am in the name of “research”.
The whole valley is now geared towards high-end tourism – more so than most European wine-growing areas – and many wineries have excellent restaurants, shops and facilities. The industry has also been successful in broadening its appeal. A trip to Napa has something for anyone who has ever enjoyed a glass of wine.
It’s best not to come during the main holiday season, in July and August, when the roads and the tasting rooms are full to bursting. The harvest season in September and October is a good time, though even then a midweek visit is wiser than coming at the weekend.
On a short trip don’t try to fit too much in. Three or four wineries a day is ample. And try a couple of small-scale “mama and papa” wineries, rather than just the big beasts. Ballentine Vineyards and Esquisse Wines, in St Helena, are good examples.
Robert Mondavi in Oakville is best for educational and wine-tasting courses. And across the road is an extraordinary flying saucer of a building that houses the joint Mondavi-Rothschild venture, Opus One. Tasting here needn’t take long, since the label produces just the one opus each year. Roger Asleson, director of public relations at the winery, says the British market is vitally important.
“Britons spend almost three times as much on wine per head as Americans,” he says.
As well as winery tours, dining is one of the main attractions of Napa. Even though Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck has recently flapped its way past The French Laundry to the number-one spot in the chefs’ and food writers’ poll of the world’s best restaurants, Thomas Keller’s gastronomic fireworks are still second to none. It’s crucial to book three months ahead, but well worth it.
“You wouldn’t believe how much butter you ate last night,” said one of the sous-chefs, the day after my visit. I’m not sure which was worse for my heart, the half-pound or so I apparently consumed, or the bill (about £140 per head, and that’s being very restrained with the wine list).
To get a sense of what all the fuss is about, Keller’s other Yountville eatery, Bouchon, serves unimpeachable French classics – and saves food-lovers the expense of a flight to New York to try his newest venture, Per Se.
So what about all those $67 Cabernets? A lot of the wines from small producers (known as “garage” wines) are over-extracted and over-priced. But since the main market for them is in California itself and they’re seldom found in the UK, it’s still worth trying a few.
The best of the big names – Ridge Monte Bello, Dominus and Shafer Hillside Select – are made in the image of modern claret. Even at today’s friendly dollar exchange rate, however, Bordeaux offers better value.
The best approach – and this knocks $40 off that average price – is to look for the good value “Calitalian” wines, made from the Italian Sangiovese, Barbera and Nebbiolo varietals. Silverado Vineyards and the mighty Shafer, near-neighbours on the pretty Silverado Trail behind Yountville, both make terrific Sangioveses.
A short trip away at Viansa Wines, near Sonoma, they seem to have compressed all of Italy into a few dozen acres, such is their range. There are also good-value wines being made in California from Loire and Rhône grapes.
And the Pinot Noir that only likes sunny days? Well, something has to account for that grape’s inconsistency. Amy Currens could just be on to something.
Snip of the week
2003 De Loach Pinot Noir, California, 14.5 per cent volume (£6.95; The Wine Society, 01438 741177). A plummy, spicy, chocolatey and toffee-like Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley that is also great value. It packs quite a punch and is perfect with hamburgers and plenty of fries and ketchup.
Wines of the week
2003 Avila Pinot Noir, San Luis Obispo County, 14 per cent volume (£9.99; Oddbins). A “full-on” blast of summer pudding Pinot fruit, which is kept in check by toasty oak. This wine has been winning friends and influencing people from Oddbins to The Ivy restaurant. It is great with steak.
2002 Wente Chardonnay, Livermore Valley, 13.5 per cent volume (£5.59 until July 2; Waitrose). Nicely restrained and balanced in a Burgundian style. Fully dry, but with a lick of tropical, pineapple fruit – not enough to cloy – and some nice gentle oak. Not too little and not too much. Just right.
1999 Beringer “Appellation Collection” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 13.5 per cent volume (£11.99, or two for £9.99 each until August 29; Majestic). Mature, with soft tannins and complex touches of coffee and red capsicum. Very classy and terrific value. Will give any Bordeaux a run for its money.”