Napa Wineries: Touring, tasting, and toasting
Arriving late one night at a highly touted Napa riverside resort, our headlights expose hitches and wheels of cottage-style house trailers squatting in the dark. But scenarios from the Trailer Park Boys are swept from our minds when next morning a sunny breakfast orientation reinforces our plan to ‘drink in’ Napa’s beauty and natural wonders.
The activities director provides us untested tasters with detailed guides outlining tempting winery possibilities. She also throws in some history, “The adjacent Napa River is one of California’s four navigable waterways. Forty-niners canoed up this river stocking grub for treks to the gold fields, often packing local wines…which is why you’re here...right?”
Cosentino WineryAfter studying specific incentives characterizing Napa’s 400 wineries...art galleries, gardens, caves, great vistas, picnic grounds, specialty wines, unique architecture, organic vineyards, cooking classes...and even bocce ball pitches...we loop through the sun-drenched countryside; soon vibrant red, yellow and white-blossomed rose bushes front trellised rows of gnarly vines. Complimentary tasting tickets persuade us to stop at ivy-covered-brick Cosentino Winery.
Inside, Georgian grape groupies invite us to imbibe with them. Our cheerful sommelier pours us a series of reds. Feeling like connoisseurs by now, we comment: “Nice color!” “Good bouquet!” “Great body!” “Delicately delicious!” “Terrific aftertaste…” Nobody ritually spits out their wine...in fact, we cough up money for two bottles; those bubbly Georgians buy two cases.
V. Sattui WineryNearby, extensive vineyards encircle V. Sattui Winery. Inside this Italian-style villa, we’re served their excellent Riesling, a Gamay Rose, Cabernet, solera-made Madeira and Zinfandel, California’s popular, long established wine. Beloved Zinfandel vines, pampered beyond their productive stage, sometimes grow for over a century! Slick wine names like Cardinal Zin, Commander Zinskey, Zin Man and Zebra Zin readily sell this heritage libation. And we all feel pretty ‘Zin’ ourselves when sipping this perky pale potable. When a red-nosed fellow beside us requests a sixth taste, the sommelier smiles, “Sorry...legal limit’s five!”
Rather than explore V. Sattui’s underground cellars and caves, we visit its museum and discover that prohibition put many vintners like Victorio out of business. In 1975 grandson Daryl Sattui took out a small loan and lived here in his van, working hard to re-establish Victorio’s 1885 winery. Now tending 300 acres of vineyards, V. Sattui Winery sells 40,000 cases annually, strictly to visitors like us.
A few miles north, we pull into Daryl’s next enterprise. Here, he modeled his winery after a Tuscan castle where three stories underground provide ideal conditions for wine to mellow. Costing over a hundred million...and taking ten years to build...Castello di Amorosa is North America’s only authentically constructed castle.
Crossing its moat and passing through the courtyard, we begin tippling around its cozy bar before touring the regal interior. Entering the enormous dining hall, we see that Italian painters had been brought here to reproduce a famed medieval mural “Good Government;” the original graces Siena’s historic city hall.
After visiting the lovely chapel filled with saintly frescos, we stick close to our guide, dashing through a bewildering labyrinth of corridors stacked high with wine barrels. Sighting torture devices in the dungeon, he jokes, “Nowadays, that iron maiden and stretch table could persuade some guys to pay up bar tabs!”
Our castle tour ends in the knight’s tasting room filled with heraldic shields and suits of armor, the walls covered with frescos of jousting. After final toasts to ‘King’ Daryl, we saunter off singing, “...dream the impossible dream...”
Sarasota Hot Springs, Old Faithful, and the California Petrified ForestAt Napa Valley’s northern end we pass through Sarasota Hot Springs, a popular health spa area on our way to Old Faithful geyser. Arriving just in time, we witness this wondrous waterworks work its wonder, performing for over five minutes, boiling, sizzling and spouting a sparkly forty-foot gusher. We had been advised, “If you do get to Old Faithful, check out the Tennessee Fainting Goats! ” So, testing these renowned possum-playing goats, we sneak up and growl! They’re totally unimpressed. Like most kids, they do enjoy nibbling treats from our hands.
Four miles further, we enter the California version of the Petrified Forest. Following a shady trail through native purple-barked manzanita, moss-clad California oaks and mottled pink, yellow and orange arbutus, we arrive at the sites of ten huge prehistoric logs. A sign tells us that over three million years ago, a volcano buried this towering grove of Redwoods in fiery ash.
After logging…uh, writing...about these silvery mineralized woody wonders in our journal, we head back to V. Sattui Winery. This time we pick up cold cuts, cheeses, potato salad and freshly baked bread from the gourmet deli; uncorking a bottle of mischievous red wine, we picnic in the shady gardens with scores of others.
Wineries with Views - Artesa and Kirkland RanchOur last day, we investigate wineries boasting awesome views. Winding up a quiet road at the valley’s south end, we arrive at Artesa. Parked above terraced vineyards, we climb a long staircase alongside a cascading waterfall, stroll past sparkling fountains, reflecting pools and commanding sculpture, and drink in panoramas of Napa Valley, Carneros and San Francisco, as promised.
This modern winery resembles an art gallery. Inside, expanses of glass, including a large skylight above the Spanish courtyard, provide natural lighting. Rich wood panels add distinctive warmth. Here, we taste its notable sparkling wine and several robust reds while awaiting a guided tour.
The guide briefly recounts the Codorníu family’s winemaking history, which begins west of Barcelona in the mid-16th century. Sixteen generations later, they’re producing wines worldwide. In Artesa’s huge cellars, we listen to Gregorian Chants. The guide continues, “Not only is wine a matter of grapes, it’s about oak: choosing the most aromatic species, charring barrels to enhance oaken flavors...and protection of this delectable wood from hungry beetles.”
Our final stop, Kirkland Ranch Winery lies along Napa Valley’s southeast edge. The three-story log and stone hilltop ranch house perches above extensive vineyards and rolling pastureland. Inside, mariachis celebrate “cinco de Mayo,” strumming guitars, blaring their trumpets and harmonizing wistfully.
On the main floor, stuffed elk and cougar heads gaze down on us thirsty folk around the U-shaped bar; a sweeping mural above depicts early ranching days. Exemplifying western hospitality, a lanky cowboy-sommelier pours a range of reds, telling us about their organic vineyards where Peruvian shepherds bring flocks of sheep to graze away weeds while naturally fertilizing the vines.
He smiles knowingly as we giddily recount our touristy tales: free trolley-rides around Victorian-style Napa; explorations neighboring historic Sonoma; hopping the local Vallejo ferry to San Francisco...and best of all, drinking in the wonder of beautiful Napa, with memorable encounters of the wine kind.
When You Go:
Retiring from teaching in British Columbia seven years ago, Rick Millikan now encourages cycling and travel in stories published in several magazines and B.C. area newspapers, including the Vancouver Province. A much-traveled freelance writer/photographer, Chris Millikan lives near Vancouver, BC on Canada’s beautiful west coast.
Photos courtesy of Rick and Chris Millikan