The Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville sets the Napa Valley standard for good taste, and tasting protocol. It is one of the most visible and popular destinations in the Valley – the encroachment of the car parks into the prime vineyard land that surrounds it is astounding – and visitors pay either $15 for a taste of three wines at one of their two tasting counters, or $25 for an educational tour with ‘private’ tasting at the end of it. Ex Disney president Rich Frank’s Frank Family Vineyards in the historic Larkmead winery is unusual in offering tastings free.
But then his winery is in Calistoga at the most distant end of the Valley from San Francisco, where the buses and limos full of wine tourists tend to start out from. Every weekend they stream across the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges in search of the Napa Valley experience. The most sobering part of it is often the sheer weight of traffic on Highway 29, the main road through the valley flanked by the most obvious tourist destinations. The single most useful piece of advice I can give to visitors to the Napa Valley is to use instead the parallel but much quieter Silverado Trail – although it is windier.
A designated driver or hiring one of the many San Franciscans who have set up limo services for Napa Valley tasting trips is strongly recommended, particularly since so many tourists and those who cater to them seem more concerned with consumption than connoisseurship. I started out at one small winery on the Silverado Trail where my pre-booked $25 tour got me an enthusiastically bibulous young tour guide all to myself. At 10 in the morning, in the wine caves he guilelessly claimed were rat-infested, he seemed keener to consume than I did. “You’re real disciplined,” he said with some degree of wonder as I prissily sought out somewhere to spit (not a common feature on wine tours in my experience). “Some people spend two and half hours in these caves tasting from barrel."
Caves are a big thing for Napa winemakers and tourists alike. Burrowing into the hillsides is a thoroughly ecological alternative to expensive cooling systems, and provides visitors with the cover of darkness for their drinking exploits. I told my young guide that next on my itinerary was a $50 tour at the new Del Dotto Estate Winery and Caves just south of St Helena, the busiest town in the Valley. “Del Blotto, we call them,” he said knowingly.
Flamboyant Dave Del Dotto amassed his fortune by way of late night infomercials and his sales technique has not deserted him in the literature announcing what he calls his “wine experience” - although somewhat ominously he assures us that “it will prove to be the ultimate wine tasting in the world!”
His semi sunken “Cathedral” defies architectural analysis. Let’s just say Versace goes to Vegas (see www.deldottovineyards.com). “Everything you see in here has been brought from Italy,” our guide assured us in the marble columned entrance hall at the start of the tour I shared with two couples from Arkansas, adding, “apart from the sound system and the discoball.” He was at pains to add respectability to this last item by explaining its connection to the etymology of ballroom dancing and at first I was impressed by his erudition. Doubt set in when he told us that the British introduced the Shiraz vine to their colony Argentina.
Having established our first names (me Jane) and told us a little about the heady introductory Grenache in our generously proportioned but rather thick embossed tasting glasses, he led us to the other side of the heavy velvet curtain and “antique portal from 1760 AD” (Dave Del Dotto again) that separates the airy entrance hall from the long, echoing, candlelit tunnels where most of Dave’s wine experience takes place.
According to the tour guide, “we make world class wines, all of them rated between 90 and 100 points” but although Del Dotto’s top wines have indeed been rated highly by America’s top wine critics, there was little evidence of them in ten wines we were served in the raucous Caves, even though the rich, oaky style of the lesser wines we were offered was admirably consistent. Disco Caruso is piped at high volume but was drowned out by the two or three other groups of wine tourists who really did sound as though they were taking part in some Roman orgy. “Napa flu” is apparently a well-known local euphemism for over-doing it on the wine trail.
Nodding towards a fancy-looking dining area, our guide told us about the special privileges accorded to those visitors with VIP status. I was genuinely interested in how you qualified as a VIP. “Very Intoxicated Persons”, I was told.
That said, I take my hat off to the prevailing Napa Valley habit of offering some superior edible titbits at the end of a wine tasting. A Del Dotto tasting experience ends with some great cheese, prosciutto and pizza, and virtually all the most serious smaller wineries who offer personal, pre-booked tours to small groups will also provide some evidence of Napa Valley’s culinary reputation – possibly in the form of co-operation with a local cheesemaker, for instance.