Napa, Ca -- Not so long ago, the revered winemaker who would come to personify the greatness of Napa Valley wines, Robert Mondavi, was quoted as saying that wine is "poetry in a bottle."
I would add that Napa Valley wines can be described with the same spirited reverential experience. Its 400 wineries fit in a pastoral roadmap along both sides of Highway 29 from Napa to Calistoga, some 30 miles of sweeping world-class vineyards, almost 100% family owned and operated.
My latest journey to the Napa Valley began in Yountville, a petite-sized walking village with a Tuscan imprint, about 10 miles north of the city of Napa. Here, spread out over several blocks, was my temporary home, the relaxed 23 acre Villagio Inn and Spa and Vintage Inn. An aqueduct and promenade connects the two resorts, interrupted only by a dining and shopping area in a 130 year old former winery. Villagio Inn offers a European style complimentary champagne buffet breakfast and afternoon tea and coffee service. A bottle of fine wine awaits all guests in each spacious room.
Within easy walking distance, the go-to restaurants are Hurley's and Bistro Jeanty, whose owner rides to work daily on a bicycle.
Once settled in, I turned to the several wineries I had made prior appointments with, and this is a good idea for anyone who wants to know more about Napa Valley and its wines. Only some 75 are open to the public but nearly all will make appointments. My list included some historic, venerable names and some new rising stars.
Rich Frank, the former President of Walt Disney Studios bought himself a lovely piece of Napa Valley property in 1993 while he was making movies and TV series for the mouse empire. Frank Family Vineyards is off the beaten track near St. Helena but is right on the mark with its wines, including 2,200 cases of sparkling wine considered one of the best in the valley. Frank has since bought an estate up and overlooking the Silverado Trail that parallels Highway 29. Here the Winston Hill label is made, a spectacular blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot grapes. The 2008 is now out ($150.). Frank's Zinfandel has captured the essence of good taste. The 2009 has jammy richness. ($36.). Zin is the "fastest growing grape in Napa Valley," according to Dennis Zablosky, long-time manager of Frank Family Vineyards.
It all happened for Napa Valley in a miracle wine event in Paris in 1976 when winemaker Mike Grgich, at that time making Chardonnay white wine for Chateau Montelena in Calistoga, came out of nowhere and beat the French versions in a critical blind tasting of the best the French had to offer. Grgich, then just a few years in this country from his native Croatia, was thrust into the world wine spotlight along with Napa Valley.
He founded his own Grgich Hills Estate with Austin Hills of the coffee empire in Rutherford in 1977 and has never looked back except to sentimentally recap his monumental history as a winemaker. "I have been very fortunate," he says. "There have been lots of sacrifices, but I have led a very interesting life"
Nowadays he lives on a 50 acre hill in Calistoga where all his Zinfandel is grown naturally. He reminds me that Zinfandel came from his native Croatia. "I make my Zinfandel with elegance, not power. My Zinfandel does not burn anyone's taste buds. I make it for food."
Francis Ford Coppola, the great director of Godfather movies and others is busily determined to make his resurrected and restored Inglenook Vineyard in the Rutherford district of Napa Valley, the finest winery in the world. Inglenook was the original name of the historic property back in 1879 when it was founded. In 1972 Coppola bought a piece of the land which later expanded to over 200 acres. Most recently, he has gained complete control over the entire estate and is busy converting the name of all his premium wines to Inglenook.
Many of Coppola's movie images and equipment are on display in this fascinating winery, including hand-picked gift items.
A Sinatra-style hat selected by Coppola, sits in my collection. I was privileged to have Harold Francis, his right hand man, for a private 3 hour tour of all the facets of the estate.
The 2008 Rubicon Blend is the flagship wine here. ($175.) using only the finest Cabernet organically farmed grapes.
The tour was finally capped off with the annual Italian Festa at V. Sattui Winery and Italian Market near St. Helena. Festa Italiana is a mid-summer food, wine, music extravaganza. Owner Dario Sattui toasted the assembled and we all cheered the gold medal quality wines, from Sangiovese to the 2008 "Paradiso" Bordeaux Blend.
Napa Valley is the experience of a lifetime.