This is no exaggeration — Napa Valley is to America what Bordeaux is to France. Home to the famous oaky Californian Chardonnay and superior quality Bordeaux blends, it single-handedly catapulted America into the global wine market. However, unlike its stiffer, old-world French counterpart, Napa Valley is a breath of fresh air. It seduces you with complex wines minus the snobbery of intimidating, structured tastings and high-brow dining rooms. Wine tourism is firmly integrated into the economy of the region, not as an afterthought, but a well-mapped-out journey.
In the winter of 2011, I was on a quest. A childhood friend and I decided to take off on our very own Sideways-esque journey, our itinerary chalked out with multiple wine tastings and reservations at some of the best restaurants in the area. The journey began at San Francisco airport. Hi-fives and fist-bumps out of the way, we hopped into our rented mid-sized sedan and set off on our epicurean five-day trip.
The two-hour drive from San Francisco to Napa is extremely scenic and charming, offering sweeping ocean views as far as the eye can see. Our base-camp for the trip was American Canyon, a quaint little town, aptly referred to as the “gateway to Napa” and a short drive away from all the vino action.
While the region has been practicing viticulture for almost 200 years, its recognition as a premium wine-producing region is fairly recent. The historic victory of wines from Napa over Bordeaux in the infamous blind tasting in Paris in 1976 (commonly referred to as the “Judgement of Paris” and a plot for the 2008 film Bottle Shock) is considered to be the turning point for the fortunes of Napa Valley wineries.
While Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grape varietals account for most of the wine production in Napa, the region also has a local favourite — Zinfandel. This thin-skinned red grape accounts for over 10 per cent of Napa’s vineyards and is used for the production of everything from slightly sweet sparkling roses to ripe, jammy red wines.
Our timing couldn’t have been better. We arrived in Napa in early October, a time when most vineyards are in the midst of the season’s final harvest. The action moves from the vineyard to the winery, where the harvested grapes are subsequently prepared for crushing, pressing and fermentation. Given my profession at the time — a sommelier at the Gordon Ramsay restaurant in Dubai — my itinerary was carefully studied and planned by industry peers. For a leisurely couple of days in the valley, I’d recommend winery hopping in your car or for the uninitiated, the tourism board has a few certified operators that cater to private wine country tour packages. A much-loved tourist experience is the Napa Valley Wine Train which offers a variety of dining experiences, all while chugging along vineyards in exquisitely restored vintage rail cars. Most wineries in Napa offer visitors a selection of tours and tastings that suit everyone from the novice wine tourist to more serious aficionados. These range from informal wine tastings in cellar rooms to more extensive tours around the facility and even a tête-à-tête with the winemakers.
Owing to the largely symbiotic relationship between food and wine, all significant wine regions across the world are almost always surrounded by excellent restaurants, and Napa is no different. No gastronomy trip here is complete without a meal at the region’s landmark restaurant, The French Laundry. The Michelin three-star establishment serves French food with Californian flair and is helmed by Chef Thomas Keller. Since 1994, it has become one of the finest gourmet destinations in the country. However, its fame also makes it nearly impossible to secure a reservation. Even after attempting to book a table almost two months before the trip, I was put on a wait-list and told that I would receive a call if there were any cancellations (I never did!).
Our exposure to Chef Keller’s brilliance came in the form of dinner at Bouchon, a casual French bistro he opened down the road from The French Laundry in 1998. The buzzing dining room is packed with tourists and locals alike, tucking into pots of foie gras accompanied by a selection of local wines.
We visited Kendall Jackson and Robert Mondavi, two of the most renowned wine houses from the region, and relished a scrumptious four-course al-fresco lunch, prepared and served by the in-house chef, with each course paired with wines from the estate. The cuisine is Californian which leaves every plate up to wide interpretation, the only caveat being that the ingredients must be fresh and locally sourced.
With over 50 restaurants, numerous tasting rooms and shops, a walk around historic downtown Napa is a must on every tourist itinerary.
Auberge du Soleil is one of the earliest luxury establishments in the area and is highly recommended for its unique and extensive wine-list. The stunning spa hotel also houses a Michelin star restaurant and a bistro with an attached courtyard that offers some of the best views in the area. You could also start off with brunch at Angele, a French country restaurant that serves refined bistro fare. Located by the riverside, the minimalist dining room is a converted boathouse and is well-renowned amongst locals for its french onion soup and delicious banana gratin. Ubuntu in downtown Napa is one of few restaurants in the world with a coveted Michelin star that serves entirely vegetarian fare. Our six-course tasting menu was a delightful way to savour the bounty from the restaurant’s farm — heirloom tomatoes, carrots and peas taking centrestage, rather than just being accompaniments on the side.
Just like its cuisine that places such great value on provenance of ingredients while encouraging the playful use of traditional cooking techniques and presentation, the wine makers of Napa Valley too, have one foot in the past and one in the future.
The author is a Delhi-based chef.