Overdoing it on the Napa wine trail

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

One of the most difficult questions for a wine writer to answer is 'which wineries should I visit?' As in so many aspects of our professional lives, we are spoilt. We scarcely notice the red carpet being unfurled beneath our feet as we turn up (late) for a personal appointment with the owner or head winemaker.

Napa Valley being the world’s most visited wine region, and second most visited California destination after Disneyland, I decided to pose as a wine tourist on a recent trip there to see what sort of options are available to the casual visitor.

The first thing I learnt was how difficult it is to be casual about it. Californians in general may bring a whole new meaning to the word casual, but the wine tourist has to organise things well in advance. A couple of days before my weekend in the Valley I found myself pleading in a most unseemly fashion on the phone with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, “couldn’t you just add one person to one of your groups of ‘10 to 12 people’?” No, was the answer. Local authorities certainly do their best to limit visitor numbers to the smaller wineries. There are also sound commercial reasons for making a tour feel like a very personal experience. At Gargiulo on the Oakville Cross Road, for instance, they find that a remarkable proportion of people who come for one of April Gargiulo's personal wine tastings come back for their annual harvest wine and music fest. 

Nowadays more and more Napa Valley wineries are seeing tourism not as the price they pay for inhabiting one of the most beautiful, and accessible, spots on the wine globe but as a valuable way of establishing direct relationships with potential customers in a market where, ever since the Repeal of Prohibition, distribution has been notoriously complex and expensive. The five million visitors to the Napa Valley each year can usefully swell mailing lists and may well be encouraged to ‘join our wine club’, in other words sign up for regular purchases. It may be heavy on personnel costs to give barrel samples to small groups of wine lovers but the aim is to make them feel they have a very personal connection with the winery and, the owners hope, its wines.

Besides, most winery tours themselves generate income. As I quickly found out, the standard fee for a tour is a robust $25 (considerably more, for instance, than a tour of the Queen’s pictures) with some wineries charging a good deal more than this. Darioush Khaledi, owner of the eponymous Persepolis-inspired winery pictured left, may bill himself as one of those wine collectors who prefers to “share” rather than “cellar wines for profit”, but his special tasting of Darioush Napa Valley wines alongside Bordeaux and Burgundy costs $150 a person. 

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.

Wine lovers might like to know that old hands speak particularly highly of the tours at Forman, Newton, Frog’s Leap and Swanson. The (free) Preiser Key to Napa Valley was the best guide we found to the Napa Valley’s 400 wineries and 150 restaurants although unfortunately it is available only as a paper version and only in the Valley itself. 

See also www.uncork29.com.