On a recent holiday to the United States, I had the opportunity to visit the Napa Valley where wine has been produced, in what many consider as America's premium wine country, for over 150 years. Tthe first commercial winery in Napa was established in 1861. An early boom and growth in vineyards was curtailed with Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s and the vast majority of wineries were abandoned. Thankfully, this flawed legislation was short-lived and, since the 1940s, Napa has re-established itself and now produces some world class wines. The number of wineries now stands at 300+ and wine trade has become big business.
As with all things American, our cousins have taken the wine experience to the highest level of commerciality and customer friendliness. Make no mistake, Napa is no idyllic, backwater, wine valley - it is a full-on tourist melting pot.
The two main routes through the valley are highway 29 and the Silverado trail. Although there are plenty of wineries away from these parallel North/South roads, one does not really have to leave them to have a day (or two) of serious vineyard visiting. The modes of transport are numerous and the roads are busy with cars, jeeps, coaches, shuttle buses, limos, Harleys and mountain bikes. If none of these fit the bill then there is the legendary Wine Train that puffs its way from down town Napa up to St Helena before turning round and chugging back to complete a 3 hour, 36 mile round trip.
Most wineries are open from 10.30am - 4.30pm daily, give or take a half hour. They all have well laid out tasting rooms with a team of friendly, knowledgeable "front of house" staff that are on hand to pour and advise. Sadly, very few (if any) offer this service for free now, as the visitor numbers have exploded and the tastings were turning into free for all booze-ups. That said, for $10 - $20, you can taste enough wine to get a real feel for each winery and to help you make those important purchasing decisions!
Cabernet Sauvignon is the King of Napa red grapes as is Chardonnay for the whites. Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are common and there some very good Pinot Noirs now being made. There are many more varietals being planted and this willingness to experiment and be innovative is a key characteristic of the Napa Valley producer. During my trip I tasted some excellent varietals including Viognier, Riesling, Gamay, Zinfandel, Syrah and Muscat.
Part of the joy of visiting a wine region is the discovery of personal favourites amongst the producers. Two wineries that I enjoyed were V. Sattui Winery in St Helena which is in the heart of Napa and ZD wines on the Silverado Trail. As well as an excellent range of wines to taste, the Italian, family run Sattui estate offers a superb deli (that now earns the winery as much their wine sales) and a picturesque picnic area in the gardens, allowing a much needed break to relax and refuel before continuing on the wine trail.
The ZD Winery makes a limited number of wines but the quality is second to none. Their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are excellent and well regarded, but my favourite is their Carneros Pinot Noir. ZD was the first winery recognise Carneros as a region on their first bottling in 1969 and this wine is beautifully made and is quite Burgundian in style.
Napa is definitely worth a visit for its, wine, food and activities and you will always feel most welcome. Best advice is to try and visit at off peak times of the year and avoid weekends where possible as it does get very crowded, particularly at the more famous wineries.