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Friday Fishwrap: Random Jottings at Week's End
Six Hours In The Napa Valley

By Charles Olken

It is a question one hears frequently. I have visitors from out of town and I want to take them to the Napa Valley for a day. Where should I go? With hundreds of wineries in Napa from which to choose, from large, well-organized to small and intimate, there are plenty of answers, and most of them are correct. It is hard to have a bad time in the Napa Valley because the scenery in attractive, the wineries are accessible and the restaurants are special. And then there is the wine. Even with the tremendous expansion of plantings from one end of California to the other in the last thirty or forty years, it is still the Napa Valley whose name speaks loudest when people want to visit here in wine country. Napa accounts for something like 40% of all touring dollars spent in California despite having only 10% of the wineries and 10% of the grapes.

Last night, at a book-signing event for just published The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wines and Wineries (write to us via the CONTACT button above to get your autographed copy), the question was asked with a twist—a particular set of limitations, to wit. “I will have a group of high-powered clients traveling by limousine from San Francisco to the Napa Valley. We have lunch planned at noon at Bottega in Yountville (see our recommendation archived under Satisfying Saturdays in the Blog buttons to the right). And they would like to visit the J winery.”

Those two notions are, of course, mutually exclusive unless one wants to spend half the day riding around wine country instead of visiting wineries. Bottega is in the Napa Valley. J is in the Russian River Valley almost up to Healdsburg. “But, not to worry. A solution is at hand,” I explained.

You are leaving from San Francisco. Drive up Highway 101 and cross over towards Sonoma on Highway 37. Turn up towards Sonoma town, and drive across the Sonoma end of Carneros and then towards Napa.

Make your first stop at Domaine Carneros ( Like our recommendation of Gloria Ferrer in an earlier blog entry, this sparkling very handsomely designed sparkling wine house sits in a privileged location looking out over the vines and has a very attractive visitors center. It is not J, but like J, it is a maker of very good bubbly and also features quite likeable Pinot Noir. After bubbly and hors d’ouevres, you can then run up to Yountville and Bottega, about twenty minutes away for lunch.

One reason to visit wine country is to learn about how wine is made, and no winery does a better job of organizing it tours and explanations than the Robert Mondavi winery in Oakville ( Not only is it an attractive winery, but it knows how to put on a show from vineyard walks to the tour of its winemaking facilities to its tasting options when finished. It has been a stop that I have made with visiting family and college classmates on almost every occasion. And it never disappoints. The key to success is calling the winery and discussing what you want to do with them before you go. In this instance, with a giant limousine filled with a dozen visiting business executives, a private tour will get laid on. I suggested that they asked for one of the technical tours simply because there is more to be learned that way.

“OK”, my inquisitor said, “but all of that sounds a little corporate to me. How about a smaller winery to finish up”? We discussed options and she liked the notion of getting off the Valley floor and up into the hills. The place that suits my fancy in those situations is Pride Winery ( Perched at the very top of the Mayacamas Mountains and straddling the border between Napa and Sonoma Counties, Pride, like Domaine Carneros, is not just a very good winery but occupies a setting with plenty of eye-appeal. Its wines represent the fully stuffed end of the spectrum, but are typically quite well-balanced and, despite their tendencies to ripeness, do not lose themselves to overripeness. Their high recommendations in Connoisseurs’ Guide attest to their overall quality. And there is an even more compelling reason why I often choose to end one-day visits to Napa at Pride. With all the driving and eating and tasting, I like the last stop of the day to be relaxed. Standing at the very top of the Napa Valley, looking out over the rolling vineyards, slows down the somewhat frenetic pace of the day.


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