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Oct 21, 2017

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by Darryl Roberts
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 4.6

Downloading the Napa Valley Experience

I'm at Oakville Grade and Hwy 29. The only two things missing from the line of cars in front of me is an engine and a caboose. I swear to God my New Year's resolution will be to never, EVER, make a left on Hwy 29 again.

Napa Valley. What can I say. Most people think it runs from San Diego to Eureka. After all, isn't ALL California wine "Napa Valley."

Ah, no.

According to statistics, only two percent of California's wine production comes from Napa Valley. So why is it that every time "California" wine is mentioned, Napa seems to drool from everyone's lips? Can you say PR machine? Sure, I knew ya could.

Okay, I exaggerate. A lot.

The instant recognition of Napa Valley can be attributed to a number of factors. On a whole, Napa produces great wines; the valley attracts the rich and famous worldwide; and Napa offers a lifestyle to which many aspire. However, the recognition is mostly a result of two Napa Valley vintners who put California on the world wine map -- Miljenko "Mike" Grgich and Warren Winniarski. Grgich made the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay and Winniarski the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon that bested all the snooty French wines in the infamous 1976 Paris tasting.

If you're not familiar with the Paris tasting, in short, it was staged by a British wine merchant who believed California wines were as good or better than some top-growth French stuff. So in 1976, he brought together the best from France and California. And, just so the French didn't have any excuses in the event they lost, he decided to appoint all French judges to the tasting panel. (I wish I could've seen their smug little faces when they unveiled the winners.) So with this famous tasting, Napa Valley was thrust into the limelight worldwide and has held that spot ever since.

Now, as a warning, before you continue, be aware that this isn't an in-depth essay or dissertation on Napa Valley. I'm not gonna wax poetic prose about farmers struggling with terroir in order to produce liquid gold. Frankly who gives a shit. If it doesn't taste good, who cares how it got there. Maybe if they didn't struggle so much the wines would be better.

Rather, this is a quick guide on where to go to drink and eat in Napa Valley. After all, doesn't life really come down to the basics?

Napa only has 250 wineries, so the choice is a bit limited. Uh-huh. Most tasting rooms charge for sampling their wines ($3 to $5 per taste), so bring a pocket full o' small bills and an empty case to hold all your souvenir wine glasses. If you plan on visiting Opus One, bring financials and your banker. And don't touch anything for God sakes! Opus is a museum not a winery! Just kidding. (You'd think some enterprising entrepreneur would pool a bunch of wineries, sell you one glass and offer a discount at participating tasting rooms. Wait. Hmmmm...)

Anyway, the following wineries are my personal favorites. If you disagree, I have some sage advice -- start your own frickin' wine magazine.

Carneros Creek

Why? 'Cause they make some of the best pinot noir around. Ain't a fancy chateau (although they're building a new tasting facility), but it's cozy and the tasting room attendant will actually talk to you like you're a human being (not some low-life scum dragged in from the street).

Plumpjack Winery

Any winery that sells a $120 bottle of wine with a screw cap has my vote. It's a bit touristy (a haven for yuppies), but attentive staff and really good wine make it worth the trip.

Andretti Winery

It's new. It's small. It's on the best short-cut in the Valley -- Big Ranch Road. Don't tell anyone, but if you're headed north from the city of Napa, stay away from Hwy 29 and Silverado Trail (unless there's a winery you absolutely need to visit). Take Big Ranch Road. You'll thank me later. Anyway, Andretti (yes, it's Mario's) offers some interesting Italian wines (big surprise). Try the sangiovese. It's a tasting room only wine, and it rocks!

St. Supery

Look for the two palm trees on the right as you pass Robert Mondavi Winery going north. This is one of the spots we took Jonny Moseley when he visited 'cause it offers a unique educational center with smell-o'-rama thingamabobs. Wines are pretty sick, too.

Peju Province

It's right next door to St. Supery and boasts spectacular wines and interesting sculpture garden. If you want to taste Peju, you pretty much have to do it here, since only five percent of its production leaves the winery.

Mumm Cuvee Napa

Another spot we took Mr. Moseley. Nice patio setting, good sparkling wines and a fine art/photography collection distract you. Taste the sparklers in flights or by the glass.

Grgigh Hills Cellar

If you want to experience some of the best wines in Napa (maybe the world), stop here. Tasting room ain't nothin' fancy, but the hospitality more than makes up for it. And if you do lunch on the Wine Train, opt to stop at Grgich for a tour and tasting on the way up valley. How 'bout that.


Winery-hopping gets dull after about, well, the first day. So here are a few suggestions to slow the pace down and actually "experience" the Valley's warm hospitality.

Swanson Vineyards

Swanson Vineyards has created an Italian-villa-like setting that offers a private tasting for up to seven people. Hosted by Saloniere Kaitlin Parrish, you can take your time, sample up to five wines and even take the open bottles with you if you want. (If you want? Right.) Nibbles accompany the fine wines, as does intelligent conversation about the juice (or just life in general). Cost is $20 per person and, considering you can abscond with the product, it's a steal, er, great deal.

Merryvale Vineyards

Every Saturday and Sunday morning at 10:30 a.m. the winery hosts a component seminar that takes you through wine's four essential components -- sugar, alcohol, acid and tannin -- and then through a host of Merryvale wines to demonstrate how these components blend together to create balanced wines. It's basically a great way to understand (map) your palate to discover where you taste these different components. Cost is $10 per person, and it takes about two hours.

Finding a bad restaurant in Napa Valley is like spotting a set of real breasts on Baywatch -- it ain't easy. Great food abounds like phylloxera. Wait. Bad analogy. Anyway, finding a good restaurant (large or small) isn't hard; finding one without an attitude can be a bit more difficult. These are recommendations from personal experiences over the past year. A few are word-of-mouth from friends in the industry whom I respect (and owe money).


Alexis Baking Company
Take it out. The frenetic environment will frazzle even the best of you. But the coffee and fresh baked goods are killer.

Bistro Don Giovanni
Been there several times and have never been disappointed. Scrumptious food, impeccable service and a good winelist. Can't go wrong with anything on the menu.

Cole's Chop House
Pricy, but worth it if you crave flesh. Here's the plan: split an entree (between two), order up a couple of sides, and get a nice bottle of red. You'll escape for under $100. (If Cole's is too busy, try Celedon right around the corner. Same ownership. Same quality. Different menu.)

Downtown Joe's Brewery
Great pub-style food along with better-than-average microbrews. Personal favorite: Pulled Pig sandwich, fries and pale ale.

Don't let the setting (Napa Outlet Mall) fool you. This is consistently the best sushi in the Valley. Personal recommendations: Nekko Chan roll, fresh salmon and albacore.

Gillwoods Cafe
Smack downtown and consistently good. Experience the great pastry case (eat-in or to go) and the best restaurant coffee (if there is such a thing) in town.

Napa Valley Roasting Company
COFFEE! (Need I say more?)

Rio Poco
Get some of the best Mexican food in the Valley and salsa that's more addicting than morphine (not that I'd know about morphine) here. Can't go wrong on the menu.

Saki Tini
Set back off Trancas next to the bowling alley, this place has an eclectic menu of Pacific Rim cuisine with some (limited) sushi items. Killer Chinese chicken salad, black and blue tuna and some kind of Asian noodle dish with peanut sauce that I can't remember the exact name of due to a little too much unfiltered sake.


Bistro Jeanty
Haven't been there, but I've heard great things.

Gordon's Cafe & Wine Bar
Kind of a self-serve place with an emphasis on healthy, flavorful food. Great breakfast menu and inviting community atmosphere make you want to check out their wine dinners. Very reasonably priced.

The Diner
Dis be da place for a Valley breakfast. Good coffee, service and food. Personal favorite: vegan scramble -- potatoes, peppers, onions and salsa. Hot hot hot!

Touristy, yes. Crowded, usually. Good food, always. I haven't had a bad meal here yet. Fresh ingredients and a good, fairly inexpensive winelist. What's more, you can't go wrong with anything on the menu.

OAKVILLE (just ain't much dining here)

Oakville Grocery
Just look for the mob of cars and people just northeast of the Oakville Cross Road. Great deli selection means you can build your own sandwiches. Olives, cheeses, breads... You want it, they probably got it.


La Toque
Screw the French place in Yountville with the rude 'tude. Dine here. Attached to the Rancho Camus Inn, this is probably the finest restaurant in Napa Valley. The five-course Prix Fixe meal (around $75/person) comes with a wine-pairing option (about $35). Take it! Yeah, baby.

La Lune Market
This one's directly across the street from La Toque. Good, fast Mexican take out. Call in orders at least 20 minutes prior to pick up.

Rutherford Grill
One word: ribs. The best. (Yes, even if you're from Texas you'll be impressed.) Reasonable wine list, flavorful food, attentive servers... What more could you want? How 'bout a nice patio and a sizeable bar area to dine in a hurry. But why would you wanna do that?


1351 Lounge
New spot to hang at the end of the day. Very cool space and well-stocked shelf. Nibbles if you need 'em.

Gillwoods Cafe
(see Gillwoods Café in Napa above)

Napa Valley Roasting Company
(see Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company in Napa above)

Dean and Deluca
Fab selection of everything you'd want, or not, but'll buy anyway 'cause it looks so good. D & D has a great selection of raw (unpasteurized) cheeses for those, like me, who have troublesome tummies.

Sunshine Foods
Sushi. Yes, take-out fresh sushi from a grocery store. God bless California.

If you're looking for great food and a romantic setting, this is the place. Cozy, warm and fuzzy room(s) with innovative cuisine and a good wine list.

Pizza's king here. Other nice selections also abound for those who don't do the 'za thing. Nothing fancy, but then again, you ain't paying for the overhead.

Tra Vigna
Everyone dines here. Why? 'Cause they just do. It's the place to be seen. The nice, big open room makes you feel a part of... well, something. Great wine list. Or try Cantinetta at Tra Vigne (currently only open 'til 6 p.m.). An array of high-end deli-like items and a good wine selection are available to drink there or to go. You can even buy a bottle there and take it into Tra Vigne. What a deal!


All Seasons Cafe & Wine Shop
Great food, great winelist, great wine-by-the-glass program. Any questions?

Calistoga Inn & Brewery
Find casual dining and good beer here. (You really need a good beer after a day of tasting wine!) Entertainment five nights a week.

Here's a creative menu and a fun place to fill your face. Catahoula offers a nice wine list and is located just close enough to hit the spa afterward.

Wappo Bar & Bistro
A place to hang and drink with the locals.

Post Note: As I mentioned, it's hard to eat bad food in Napa Valley. If something strikes you and it's not mentioned above, go for it. I can only try so many places and eat so many meals.

Well that's it, kids. Remember: the best time to visit Napa Valley is during the off-peak season, which is February 7th @ 2:39 p.m. Seriously, if you don't want to battle traffic and tasting room crowds, visit between November and April. The weather might not be quite as delightful, but you'll be able to do and taste and see a lot more because fewer people will be standing in your way.

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