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A perfect day in Napa Valley

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Some friends visited over the weekend, two lovely women I’ve known forever, including the daughter of one of them who has been admitted to the Culinary Institute of America’s Accelerated Wine and Beverage Certificate Program, an intensive eight-month course of study that will put 27 new students on the path to becoming sommeliers, or perhaps cicerones I suppose in this Golden Age of Beer.

The young daughter had never visited the CIA before, so we drove up there on Saturday to check it out. While walking the campus (where it appeared other AWBP students were early-arriving), we ran into a lady who runs part of the program. She recognized me; we all set to talking. Earlier, we’d tried to go into the CIA’s gift shop, but they wouldn’t let Gus in (perfectly understandable). Later, the lady told me that Robert and Margrit Mondavi also used to have a little dog, which they carried around with them everywhere in some sort of puppy-purse. That led to much laughter, and when someone said that there’s a pet store in St. Helena called (only semi-facetiously, I would think), Fideaux, I wondered if I should buy a Gus-sized leather doggy pouch from Hermes, perhaps. But I don’t Gus would like being schlepped around in a bag like a Christmas ham.

The temperature by mid-afternoon hit 100 degrees, in one of the few heat waves to occur in Northern California this summer, but other than things being a little toasty, it was as beautiful a Napa day as can be imagined. The sky was immaculately blue: not a cloud anywhere, and perfect visibility, so that the Mayacamas in the west and the Vacas in the east seemed close enough to touch. We drove up the Oakville Grade, about a mile past the old Vichon winery (which is in a state of deshabille, having been purchased by, I believe, Bill Harlan, who is reconstructing the facility for a new project). From that high vantage point, maybe 800 feet up, you could see the valley in all its glory, green and lush (through the miracle of irrigation) while the grasslands of the Vacas were gold and sere from drought. Since I was, on this occasion (and at my friends’ request), the educator-in-chief, I asked them to carefully study the Mayacamas range and the Vacas, only 4 miles apart, and perceive what makes them so different.

It didn’t take long for one of them to reply, “trees.” Exactly. I explained how fascinating it’s always been to me that rainfall falls off so rapidly in Napa as storms, robbed of their moisture by the wall of the Mayacamas, ebb their way eastward, losing their punch with every passing mile. The result, of course, is a heavily-forested Mayacamas versus a Vaca range almost brutally denuded of vegetation, except for the most drought-resistant shrubs, like madrone.

My friends wanted to visit a winery, but I talked them out of it. With the head charge–what is it now, about $25?–the crowds, the impersonality of the tasting room and the utter absence of anything to do while there except to take a slurp or three of something and then mindlessly pick up coasters in the gift shop, it hardly seems worth the time or the money. So we didn’t go to a tasting room. Instead, on the way up the Oakville Grade, we made that little oblique turn, across from the Carmelite monastery, where the Grade starts to climb, onto a narrow, twisty road that leads into the scenic foothills where Far Niente, Martha’s Vineyard, Casa Nuestra, Stelling, The Vineyard House, Futo and of course Harlan have their estates; and I explained how, acre for acre, this is probably the most expensive vineyard land in the New World. Even to me, after all these years, I get goose bumps.

I had pointed out the Oakville Grocery on the way up–a favorite place of mine for a snack and cappuccino–so on the trip back [south] they asked if we would stop there for sandwiches. I had to explain that the trick for managing Highway 29, on a tourist-choked day, was to never, ever take a left turn from the road (forcing you to cross oncoming traffic), which then, of course–when your mission is over–forces you to take an equivalent left turn out of the driveway to get back to the direction you want to go. (The preceding is probably the most inelegant sentence I’ve ever written, but you get the idea.) So, since we were headed south, back to Oakland, it was to Dean and DeLuca, on the west side of 29, we repaired. A great place for a quick bite to eat. (I had the chicken pesto sandwich on ciabatta. So good.) We ate alfresco, sitting on little stoops in front of the store, seeking refuge from the sun in the narrow shadow of the building itself. After a while, conversation stilled, and everyone was content to just sit there, in peace, enjoying the good food, drinking the cold bottled water, watching the traffic (limos, the Wine Train), and delighting in the eye candy of the valley, the Cezanneesque mauve rectangle of the Vacas, the azure sky, and feeling and breathing the clean, dry last air of summer. Ahh, Napa Valley.  I envy my friend’s daughter at the CIA. Her next eight months will be all discovery and delight.

  1. “With the head charge–what is it now, about $25?–the crowds, the impersonality of the tasting room and the utter absence of anything to do while there except to take a slurp or three of something and then mindlessly pick up coasters in the gift shop, it hardly seems worth the time or the money.”

    So, would you say there might be a virtual way for consumers to better interact with wineries than physically visiting them in the valley?

  2. GrapesRGreat says:

    I like the write-up, but you make it sound like wine tasting in Napa isn’t worth it, which may be true when hundreds of wineries send you samples day in and day out, but the fees are generally less than what it would cost you to buy even half the wines being poured so you can “try” them. I find that the best strategy is to stick to mountain based wineries that only take appointments. They usually waive the fee if you buy a bottle or two and are never very packed due to only taking so many appointments at one time.

    I believe you may be a bit jaded sir ;)

  3. No dogs in the gift shop? Doesn’t sound like my kind of place.

  4. You brought me right along with you, Steve. Three of my favorite old friends, together, taking in the glory of the day. A true blessing!
    Love ya!
    Alaina

  5. Sarah: lol! They have food in there (it is the Culinary Academy, after all), so state law forbids animals.

  6. A glorious day it was, Steve. I enjoyed reliving it through your blog. Hugs to you and Gus. XOX

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