California: Fine drop found off-road (+photos)

By Cathrin Schaer

You know you're in the Napa Valley when the glasses on your dining table outnumber the plates by three to one, maybe more. People here take their goblets, bowls, flutes, decanters and other stemware very seriously indeed - and that's because they take their wine seriously.

With good reason perhaps. Wine has been made in the Napa Valley since the 1850s and the area is considered one of the top wine regions in California, indeed in all of the United States.

But this verdant valley, with its lakes, hiking trails and boutique lodgings, isn't only about the vino. Only a couple of hours drive away from San Francisco, it's also a popular tourist destination: the valley gets almost five million visitors a year, which makes it second only to Disneyland as a Californian destination.

That's also why, when you first arrive, it can be a little bewildering.

Unlike at Disneyland, Mickey Mouse is not here to direct you to the best rides, and all along the main Highway 29 there are signs advertising cellar doors, wine tasting times, award winning vintners and great vines.

At your lodgings, you'll find pamphlets boasting vineyard tours by railway, bike, balloon and even helicopter. And then, when you go out to eat, there are all those glasses on every dining table that make you feel a bit like Eliza Doolittle the first time she was confronted with two forks and knives in one table setting.

Help.

Enter Anani Lawson, sommelier to the stars. Well, if not exactly the stars - although apparently Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon are in town and Francis Ford Coppola owns a winery here - then at least to the diners at the French Laundry, one of the Napa Valley's fanciest and most highly rated restaurants.

But Lawson isn't just going to serve us some fine wine at a pretty table somewhere and talk about it. He's been hired to show this bunch of Napa novices from New Zealand the grapes.

As Jeff Smith of Hourglass Wines, whom we will meet later in the day, tells us: "There are many great wineries right on the main route but the real Napa experience is off the beaten path. The backbones of our community are the many small family-run wineries.

"And, when you venture beyond the main roads, you're sure to meet some characters, hear some outlandish stories, drink some great wine and get much more of the local feel. Press those that you meet here to turn you on to something unique."

Good advice. However if you're a bunch of New Zealanders and only in town for a day or two, this might not be quite so easy.

You might need to throw some money at the problem and hire someone like Lawson - who will be chauffeuring us around all day, visiting different vineyards with not only different flavoured wines, but also different ambiences.

Some of the places, Lawson explains, would not necessarily be accessible to the average punter - he's called his contacts in order to make special appointments.

First stop is the Robert Mondavi vineyard. With its massive terracotta-coloured Spanish mission-style buildings, set in russet-coloured fields, this is exactly what you'd expect a Californian winery to look like. It's one of the earliest vineyards in the valley and a fairly standard stop on the tourist wine trail.

Here they now make a very respectable 250,000 cases of wine every year and their gift shop is also well stocked with wine-related souvenirs.

But if that sounds too typical, then don't worry, the next stop is a way more underground.

Along the road to our next stop, we're tempted to stop every five minutes: there are little stalls selling organic vegetables and craft stores.

In the quaint, boutique-lined villages that cater to all the wine drinkers and remind us mostly of Martinborough, we see grocery stores where you can taste the local oils, gorgeous bed and breakfast style accommodations, adorable frock shops and a big black barn that's the Dean & Deluca deli, originating out of New York.

But we're on a tight schedule, folks, so instead we pull in behind all of those buildings and crowd into a small but stylish, paper-strewn office, the home of Acme Fine Wines.

Acme is run by David Stevens and Karen Williams, both long-time valley residents. What they do here is collect up all the best wines being made by small and smaller operations - some wine writers have called them "garagistes" because, once they've bought the grapes, the wine is literally being made in people's garages - and offer them, via the internet and their Napa Valley contacts, to a select few.

Sometimes there are only 60 bottles, sometimes there are 500 cases.

We're lucky enough to get a taste of a couple of Acme's offerings and to feel as though good fortune, and Lawson, have delivered us into the heart of the indie wine scene in Napa. We would never have found this by ourselves.

The day goes on and there are more highlights in the Californian sunshine: we meet Smith, who walks us and his dog around his balmy, tree-lined vineyard, talking all the while and giving us a pretty comprehensive history of the wine-makers.

He grew up here and tells how, in the 60s and 70s, it was all about lifestyle. A lot of the wine-makers were basically winging it, he says.

Perhaps, most appropriately, our last, but certainly not least, interesting stop in the Napa Valley is the Schramsberg Estate, where they make some of America's only bubbly, producing something like 60,000 cases a year.

* Cathrin Schaer visited the Napa Valley as guest of Air NZ.

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand operates a daily Boeing 777 service to San Francisco.
Long-term fares to San Francisco start from $2157 per person return, including airport and government costs.

Long-term fares to Seattle are available from $2520 per person return, including airport and government costs. For available fares see airnewzealand.co.nz

NAPA VALLEY
Anani Lawson can come up with specific packages to meet your interests.
His services cost around US$500-US$700 ($612-$857) for a day and around US$90 an hour.

It's worth it for wine buffs but, if it seems pricey, make up a group and split the costs.

He can be contacted via e-mail: ananisomm@yahoo.com or on mobile (001 415 359 5894).

On the other hand, if that's totally out of your price range, simply ask the concierge wherever you're staying for some tips on which vineyards to visit and how to get a little way off the beaten path.

If you come in the off-season (November through March), you stand a much better chance of meeting the vineyard's proprietors.
Vineyards to check out on-line:
robertmondaviwinery.com, acmefinewines.com, www.hourglasswines.com, crockerstarr.com, www.vineyard29.com, www.schramsberg.com.

MORE INFORMATION
Try www.napavalley.com, napavalley.org or www.napavalleyvintners.com.

- NZ Herald

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