My recent cook's tour (brief tour) of Napa Valley, Calif., proved that this venerable
old wine region (well, venerable for the United States, and certainly in
comparison to my own Washington State's wine industry) still has a lot going
for it. While some complain about the crowds, the commercialism, and the prices
(all justifiable complaints), you can't deny that Napa Valley is beautiful, has
a solid and sophisticated tourism infrastructure, and produces some darned
People come to Napa Valley with many different objectives. Most center
around wine, of course, but with nearly 400 wineries to choose from in this
little 30-mile valley, choices must be made. Are you here to stock your cellar ... or to find a location for a wedding or other event? To hike, bike, or picnic?
How about a hot air balloon ride? It's all available here in Napa, along with
exceptionally fine dining and breathtaking scenery.
Vist Napa Midweek
If you want to avoid the crowds, come midweek and avoid the summer and the
early fall harvest/crush period. If you want to avoid spending a lot of money
... well ... stay home. Napa's expensive, so just buck up. Sure, you can cherry
pick the few wineries without tasting fees and spend your time window shopping
or wandering the trails and winery grounds, but you'll miss part of the Napa
As for my objective, I wanted to visit a variety of wineries, some large and
famous, some smaller and more quaint, some for the architecture, some for the
grounds or views, and some -- of course -- for the wine! My own tour included
several wildly divergent wineries: Trefethen, which I profiled in last week's
column (see Part 1 on this page below), Clos Du Val, Stag's Leap, PlumpJack, Rutherford Hill, Burgess, Opus
One, and Domaine Chandon.
Proud French Tradition
Clos du Val has a reputation for Cabernets and Merlots built since the 1970s
when Bernard Portet, a prodigy of France's famed Chateau Lafite, teamed with
American businessman John Goelet to grow these Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet
Sauvignon and Merlot. The winery also owns vineyards nearby, in the
cooler-climate town of Carneros, from which its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
grapes are grown and harvested. Clos du Val's tasting fee is $10 and is waived
with any wine purchase. Library/reserve tastings are available for $20 on
weekends. You can tour the merlot demonstration vineyard adjacent to the
tasting room at any time, or can arrange a more extensive operations tour by
calling 800-820-1972 or 707-261-5225 in advance of your visit. The grounds
include a picnic area and pétanque courts, which the winery describes as
"the French version of bocce ball."
Namesake Of Stag's Leap District
Stag's Leap Winery is a 240-acre wine estate founded in 1893. Its vineyard
comprises 90 acres within the coveted appellation that shares its name, Stag's
Leap District. The appellation begins seven miles north of the city of Napa and
continues north about three miles to Yountville Crossroad. Stag's Leap Winery
shares this district with 11 other wineries including Clos Du Val, and 18
growers have vineyards here. Stag's Leap's primary varietals are Cabernet
Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petite Syrah. Tastings are a staggering $40 per person,
but with this winery's reputation and history, I decided to spring for it.
Worth it? Hard to say. The wine is delicious, earthy, and complex, but can a
few mouthfuls of any substance truly be worth $40? In my income bracket, the
answer is "no." But a singular experience -- a fine meal, a museum
visit, a gondola ride to a stunning vista -- is easily worth $40, so I decided
to approach Stag's Leap in that spirit.
Wine With A Roguish Spirit
Our next stop was PlumpJack, which takes its name from the nickname of Sir John
Falstaff, from Shakespeare's Henry IV and Merry Wives of Windsor. The portly,
Bacchanalian knight might seem an odd namesake for a producer of premium wines,
but PlumpJack founder Gavin Newsom is anything but conventional. PlumpJack is a
relative newcomer to the wine scene, releasing its first vintage in 1995. The
PlumpJack dynasty also includes wine shops, restaurants, luxury inns, a night
club, and a specialty sport retailer. The fun-loving, comfortable winery
produces wines that have earned a solid following and the respect of the
industry, and the business enterprise is a model of social responsibility. I
was impressed and enjoyed all aspects of my visit.
NEXT TIME: More Napa wines and outdoor adventures.
Please read more in Part 3.
Sally O'Neal is a travel and outdoor writer who enjoys fine wines as much as a good hiking trail. While she's a strong proponent of wines from her native state of Washington as well as the activities in the Columbia, Yakima, and Walla Walla valleys, she now admits that Napa Valley is a fine little wine and