Everything we know about wine we learned from a trip to Napa Valley, California. The experience taught us how to check a wine’s color and density while stroking your chin; how to judge its legs as if you were a guest at a beauty pageant; and how to swirl the wine from cheek to cheek like it was mouthwash. Tasting fine wines, we discovered, is like listening to French poetry: too much and you have to spit up.
In Napa, we toured over a dozen vineyards—learning about growing seasons, harvesting techniques, fermentation processes, and French oak casks—but the highlight of the trip was an impromptu visit to the Far Niente estate. They normally open their tours only to people who are “in the industry,” such as restaurateurs, sommelier, and other drunken wine snobs. We happened to catch them on a slow day.
We arrived early and parked by the main house, a painstakingly restored 19th-century stone mansion. With time to spare, we toured the landscaped grounds and the garage full of antique cars. Ah, the life of the idle rich.
We fit right in, dressed in shorts and tank tops like we didn’t care what anyone thought of us. We didn’t; we had hurried there directly from the mud baths in nearby Callistoga. Despite our untidy appearance and unkempt hair, they still treated us like royalty. Maybe they thought we were wine critics instead of travel writers. Ah, the advantages of anonymity.
Then the tour began. They showed us the vineyards, the fermenting room, and our favorite: the storage caves cut beneath the house. Surrounded by all those casks, you might think we’d have wanted to get locked in, but you shouldn’t drink wine before its time. That’s Lesson Number One. (Lesson Number Two is always know where the bathroom is.)
At the end of the tour came the obligatory wine tasting. Believe it or not, some people participate in vineyard tours just for the free wine waiting at the end. Those barbarians! After a battle of righteous indignation, we set aside our armor and sidled up to the table for Far Niente’s free offerings.
Our hosts brought out a thin-stemmed glass goblet for each of us, then a chilled bottle of chardonnay. Although we rarely drank white wine, we became instant converts. With white wine, we learned, you can’t skimp. Those five-dollar bottles of twist-off happiness we used to buy would no longer satisfy us.
At every wine tasting, you’ll find a “spit bucket.” The idea is that you swirl the wine around in your mouth and then spit it out (as if you’re reciting French poetry, some say). With wine this tasty, however, we couldn’t help but swallow. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Following the chardonnay, two remarkable things occurred. First, they distributed new glassware—apparently each wine deserved its own specially shaped goblet. Then they brought out an 18-inch-diameter wheel of hard Parmesan cheese with the next bottle of wine. We’d heard of nibbling cheese to cleanse the palate between servings, but this was no cheap grocery store giveaway; it was a Wallace and Gromit wet dream.
We watched the others nonchalantly chip off a chunk, as if they had a similar Parmesan spare tire sitting on their table at home, maybe propped up between the silver candlesticks. Not us. When it reached our side of the table, we felt a mischievous urge to stuff it under a shirt and race for the door. We didn’t. We wanted to stop the proceedings to have our picture taken with it. (“This is us in Napa with our new best friend, the Big Wheel of Cheese.”) We didn’t do that either. Instead, we settled for simply hefting it a few times—not an easy feat—and chipping off a half-pound wedge. It barely made a dent.
The rest of Far Niente’s wines were delectable, and we can, with a clear conscience, recommend any of them to those of you who can afford them. Yes, we discovered these wines aren’t cheap, even at the vineyard. Take it from us, though: once you’ve had the best, you’ll realize how well the other half live. But that story will have to wait for another day.
Lessons Learned: While we have fond memories of our stay in Napa Valley, it’s the cheese that captured our imagination. We’ve never seen anything like it. While Far Niente makes an excellent product, it was that big wheel of cheese that made it rise to the top, above all the other wannabe wineries. Ask for one on your next vineyard tour.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: San Francisco International Airport or Oakland International Airport (Napa Valley Airport serves only private flights)
Native Population: 125,000
Normal Attractions: Winery tours and tastings, the Wine Train, Calistoga mud baths, hot air balloon rides, scenic vistas, and fine dining.
Final Point of Interest: Napa Valley’s Hakusan Sake Gardens offers hot and cold sake tasting for those who are tired of the same old red or white.