My pull towards Napa was initially hesitant due to its over-hyped name. My inner Italian snob questioned whether this place could ever measure up to Umbria or Tuscany: could the mountainside be as picturesque, would the wine uphold its reputation? As per usual, my curiosity got the best of me. And as per usual, I am glad it did, because Napa did not disappoint. Contrary to my initial suspicions, the images I saw in ads growing up are not photoshopped: the sun really does shine that bright, the sky is an exquisite blue, vividly green vineyards stretch beyond the imagination, and the wine flows. Oh, how the wine flows.
My relationship with wine begins on an outdoor patio of a medieval town in Italy, at the tender age of 16. My father, a wine connoisseur, poured me a glass of red and starkly stated: “This, Celinne, is the elixir of the gods.” Well… what do you even say to that? As I sloshed the thick, rich liquid through my palate, it was all I could do to keep the pucker from my face. Bitter, pungent, and alcoholic – this stuff was gross. In the years following, I mostly strayed away from wine unless circumstance demanded it. Yet at one point – perhaps it was my liver begging for mercy after four college years of subjecting it to boxed wine and cheap vodka – my interest in wine peaked and rapidly caught traction. I believe that, if given the chance to prove itself, wine can change one’s entire perspective on alcohol consumption and the importance of etiquette and thoughtful pairing.
It will be difficult for you to walk away from Napa without a deeper appreciation for the art that is winemaking. Regardless of your level of expertise, this place will enthrall and educate you. It is a world that, once you step in, continues to expand as you accrue experience. The following were three of my favorite places:
Joseph Phelps Vineyards embodied the wine tasting experience as I always imagined it: lounging under the cover of an umbrella on a beautiful sunny day, lazily gazing out at a field of vines while sipping on fine wine with your company. The casual, relaxed structure of their tasting enabled inquisition and conversation. Not once did I feel intimidated asking questions about the wine, and the staff was informative and eager to teach. As an avid white wine drinker, I was particularly impressed with their reds. I find red wine more difficult to drink due to its richness and high levels of tannin. Theirs, however, were remarkably smooth, aromatic, and easy on the way down.
Joseph Phelps is well known for their Insignia Cabernet Sauvignon. I also highly recommend their Pinot Noir from Freestone Vineyards, described as the “white wine drinker’s red,” as well as their Eisrébe, perfect for dessert lovers as it is a very sweet and refreshing white.
Jarvis Estate’s struck me as the pinnacle of wine-making sophistication. I felt like I was entering the magical world of fine wine the second the establishments’ heavy wooden doors creaked open. As I walked through the dark, hollow halls of the enormous cave the wine is produced and stored in, I half expected to see elves peevishly scuffling past me rolling large barrels. The winery demanded meticulous attention from all five senses: the dimly lit corridors, the rushing sound of the underground waterfalls, the musty cave smell mingled with the fragrance of wine, the rough, wooden texture of the barrels, and of course, the rich flavor of each unique glass of wine. I left the tasting in a daze, as if Will Jarvis himself whispered all the secrets of wine-making in my ear.
I was smitten with the distinctive taste of their Will Jarvis’ Science Project red wine, which is sweet, thick, and warm (for lack of a better description). Their Finch Hollow Chardonnay was also quite peculiar in the loveliest way: the flavor changed with temperature, becoming increasingly more fragrant as it warmed. The end result was something like burnt caramel, with a touch of childhood memory.
Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch was one of the best farm-to-table dining experiences I’ve had. I unfortunately was not able to try their wine, but can attest to the quality of their food. We were seated in their courtyard with a wonderful view of the gardens and local railroad track. Vegetation seemed to grow out of every nook and corner, and even the vine twining around the picket fence next to us was spurting tiny green apples. The staff was highly attentive, the menu was well thought-out in its flavor pairings, and the dishes were exceptional. The freshness of the fruit and vegetables ultimately spoke for itself. The fruit and produce stand next to the restaurant is also a must visit. The staff was incredibly friendly, even allowing us to sample our favorite fruits. All the wine in the region couldn’t have replaced the satisfaction of biting into that supple Californian fig.