‘You want what?!’ the bartender sneered. A beer. I wanted a beer. Was that so much to ask – in a bar? ‘>This<, madam, is a “tasting room”. We only serve wine here.’ She said this po-faced as she stood behind a marble-topped >bar< with racks and racks of glasses and booze behind her. She offered me a thimble-sized portion of Petit Verdot, which I picked up and then slammed down on the cast-iron table where my husband Tim was sitting.
‘I’ll cancel the tour then,’ he sighed and sloped off, looking like a dog who thought he was going to the park, but ended up at the vet. I felt bad for spoiling his fun. But equally, so very glad not to have to listen another oenophile – it means ‘wine lover’, I’d learned earlier, although I had other names for them by now – explain, in reverential tones, the grape-to-glass process.
I like wine as much as the next gal (but not when the next gal calls herself an oenophile). I’d signed up for the three-night side trip to Napa Valley, the Bordeaux of America, thinking it’d basically be a poshed-up pub crawl. I’d pictured us strolling from vineyard to vineyard, quaffing vino under the bright California sun.
It had all started so well. After several foggy days in San Francisco, the sun broke through the clouds soon after we crossed Golden Gate Bridge. We put the top down on the Ford Mustang convertible we’d hired, cranked up the Beach Boys and falsetto’d for the 80-minute journey. Halfway there, The San Pablo Bay mud flats and wheat-grass farmland gave way to the vineyard-swathed Mayacama Mountains, and before long, we were driving into downtown Napa, the region’s main city. Its streets were a hotchpotch of architectural styles: grand Victorian houses sat next to ‘50s red-brick bungalows, while neo-Classical office blocks overlooked neon-lit ‘80s shopping strips. We found Churchill Manor B&B, a 19th-century clapboard mansion, on a quiet, leafy side street.
Checking in, I asked how we could visit the vineyards without risking a DUI (or worse). The choices weren’t great: a sketchy bus service, taxis that charge triple London rates, tours that ferry you to packed-out wineries, or pricey chauffeured vehicles. Joanna, one of the B&B owners, suggested we spend the afternoon in downtown Napa’s tasting rooms instead.
Ten minutes later, we were downing Merlot in the hazy, half-lit Bounty Hunter Wine Bar. If it wasn’t for the 400 bottles of local vintages, this bare-brick, wood-floored saloon could have been teleported from the set of a John Wayne western. Perched on barrel-shaped stools, we worked our way through several glasses – and, bizarrely, some sticky-sweet Southern barbecue sandwiches (£8.50) – before moseying on to two more nearby tasting rooms, Vintner’s Collective and Back Room Wines.
Having already found the poshed-up pub crawl I was looking for, I’d have been happy to spend the next two days hanging around Napa’s downtown tasting rooms (and maybe sneak in a clay wrap and a massage – the valley is famous for its swish spas and mineral-rich mud). Tim, however, had other ideas. Being a scientist, he’s fascinated by the process of making wine (whereas I’m more fascinated by the process of drinking it), so he’d booked cellar visits.
Over a bowl of luscious Jerusalem artichoke and truffle soup that night at Lucy Restaurant (mains around £23), we had the inevitable debate, undoubtedly played out a thousand times a day in Napa Valley: who would have to spit and who would get to swallow the next day? ‘I want to drink.’ ‘So do I.’ And repeat – progressively louder and shoutier. In the end, we decided to splurge on a driver.
After a breakfast of spicy Huevos Rancheros (Mexican-style eggs) and fluffy orange-zest French toast on The Churchill’s colonnaded, lavender-scented back porch, Chris from My Napa Valley Driver arrived. He sidled behind the steering wheel of our Mustang and we set off for the vineyards.
Chris’ service is a rarity in Napa Valley. He’ll drive you – in your hire car – for £22 an hour wherever you fancy (although he’s got plenty of recommendations up his sleeve, too). That’s less than half the cost of chauffeur-driven vehicles – and their limos and stretch SUVs aren’t even allowed in many of the wineries due to limited parking space. Our plan was to start the day in the north of the valley, an hour up Highway 29 at Calistoga, and work our way back down.
As we left the city of Napa behind, the view transformed into a sea of gnarled grapevines. They were dotted here and there with olive groves, stony farmhouses and quaint towns made up of bijou art galleries, dog boutiques and cafes decked out in vintage Americana. Nearing Calistoga, the roadsides became more forested, with towering redwoods and muscular oaks lining the road, and we pulled into Schramsberg Vineyards (00 1 707 942 4558, www.schramsberg.com), the valley’s premier producer of bubbly (and a long-time favourite at The White House).
‘Are we doing a cellar tour here?’ I asked. ‘It’s called a “cave tour”,’ tutted the oenophile sitting next to me. She rolled her eyes at my ignorance. I rolled mine at her snobbishness. I’m still not sure who Tim was rolling his at.
I was hoping for a quick walk past the barrels to a cavernous secret bar, where a smiling sommelier would pour sparkling rosé into a pyramid of perfectly poised glasses. My vision seemed to be turning to reality as we were handed flutes of Brut Rosé at the start of the tour – hurrah! But before I could down it, I had to endure a lengthy lesson in the pretentious ‘swirl, sniff, slurp, spit’ technique (which I duly ignored; Tim took notes).
An hour and four vintages later – that sounds a lot, but pours are around 40ml, so it totalled less than one large glass of wine – we stumbled, like blind not-yet-drunks, up into the sunlight of the tasting room for a farewell flute of sparkling Chardonnay.
Pootling from vineyard to vineyard for the rest of the day, we learned considerably more about wine – and drank considerably less of it – than I cared to. Interested in barrels (me neither)? The type of oak, age and toasting gives each vintage a unique flavour. Ever heard of finings (nope)? They’re added to the wine to get rid of cloudiness and are made of egg whites or ox blood (ick!). Want to know what a Riddler does (no-one laughed at my Batman joke)? He rotates bottles of bubbly to push the sediment to towards the cap. I heard the same spiel on three cave tours, but it felt like a hundred. Every guide thinks they put their own unique spin on it, but trust me: seen one cellar, seen ’em all.
By mid-afternoon, I’d reached my limit. Yes, sitting post-tour in the sun-filled tasting rooms was lovely – a khaki-clad, golf-shirted man would proffer wine, cheese and biscuits as we basked in the sun. But it was staring to feel less like a hedonistic getaway and more like a university field trip. Tim, however, had already mastered the local lingo: ‘That Chardonnay had oaks and tannins as soft as feather pillows,’ he said in all seriousness. I tried not to laugh.
By the time we arrived at Pine Ridge Vineyards, all I wanted was a full glass of wine instead of a three-sip sample. And I’d be damned if I was going to be endure another walk through a room full of barrels, the guide speaking as softly as if it was the Sistine Chapel.
Tim cancelled the remaining tours, I downed the Petit Verdot I’d ordered and the rest of the day picked up after that – quite a lot, in fact. We played bocce ball at Pope Valley Winery with another couple, a tennis coach and a school teacher from Nevada. ‘Bocce is the top sport in the valley,’ the coach explained. ‘The reason? You can hurl the ball with your right hand while holding a glass of wine in your left!’
They’d been to Napa Valley a few times, and she sympathised with my tour tedium. ‘We never do them any more. For us, trips here are about the tastings and the valley lifestyle – picking up new pieces of art in the cute galleries, dinner at the country’s top restaurants, relaxing by the pools at the spas, cycling through – and one time, hot-air ballooning over – the vineyards, and doing a little shopping in the boutiques and at the outlet mall.’
Now I wanted to do all that stuff, too. We hired bikes the next morning and cycled through nearby St Helena’s back streets, then cut onto tracks than ran alongside grapevines, their fruits sparkling like amethysts. We hopped off and sneakily nabbed a few for our picnic lunch at Charles Krug, the first winery in the valley, now 150 years old. Sitting on the sprawling lawn, we sipped the estate’s reserve wines and lunched on stoneground sourdough bread and washed-rind sheep’s cheese we’d bought earlier at Oxbow Public Market in Napa.
Plenty of other people were picnicking, too – a group of 30-something guys on a remarkably refined stag weekend, six girls in their 20s in fits of laughter as they tried out the ‘schlurp’ technique said to enhance the flavour of wine, three couples in their 50s celebrating their first holiday together without the kids in tow. Sure, there were some wine snobs sprinkled here and there, but most people were just here for the fine wine and good times.
As we cycled from tasting room to tasting room, I even joined in the banter. ‘Mmmm… this Zinfandel is as jammy my gran’s blackberry preserve,’ I said to murmurs of approval from an oenophile sitting next to us; he didn’t realise my tongue was firmly in my cheek. The rest of the afternoon went by in a grape-hued haze. It turns out those ‘pours’ add up pretty quickly if you aren’t breaking them up with hour-long tours.
The next morning, we both woke up feeling a bit worse for wear. I’d had my fill of wine by now, so when Joanna from the Churchill offered us a glass of bubbly with our breakfast, we both quickly declined.
On the way out of town, Tim suddenly pulled over, ran into a corner shop, then tossed a paper bag in my lap when he came back. ‘Open it,’ he said, handing me a penknife. Wine was the last thing I wanted to see. I begrudgingly pulled it out – only to discover a selection of local beers. Tim might have wine-snob leanings, but he’d found the one tasting I could relish.