The newest Disney theme park, Disney's California Adventure, features the familiar, time-tested combination of attractions that have made the entertainment company a household name: a terrifyingly fast roller coaster, a wet-and-wild water ride, a lavish parade spectacle, an abundance of irresistible junk food and -- wine tasting?
Among the attractions at the $1.4 billion, 55-acre park in Anaheim, which is adjacent to Disneyland and celebrates the offerings of the Golden State, is a taste of California wine country. Disney partnered with Robert Mondavi Corp. to create the Golden Vine Winery, which is not an actual winery, but a tasting, retail and restaurant complex complete with a demonstration vineyard of Riesling vines, which were planted on a south-facing slope of the park's centerpiece, the bear's headshaped Grizzly Mountain.
Visitors to Golden Vine may view a short film on vine growing and wine production and participate in an "essence tasting" by sniffing items whose aromas are often detected in wine. They can also purchase tastes of any of a dozen Mondavi wines; buy wine, gourmet take-out food or wine-related items at the gift shop; or have a in-depth wine-and-food experience at the informal Terrace cafi or the gourmet Vineyard Room restaurant.
"We need to take the mystery out of wine and keep the magic," declared Michael Mondavi, president and CEO of Robert Mondavi. "Wine has a great story to tell. And the best storyteller in the world is Disney. You know, 95 percent of consumers drink wine only rarely. We see this as a great opportunity to teach them about wine."
On the resort's opening day on Feb. 8, the essence tasting on the winery patio was proving to be a popular lure to park visitors. All afternoon, a knot of casually attired people of all ages gathered around the simple, hands-on exhibit of a dozen or so plastic wineglasses. One contained Mondavi Pinot Noir, and the others were filled with various aromatic items, including mushrooms, fresh berries, a cut rose, cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, cloves and caramel. A "wine ambassador" guided guests through the experience of sniffing the wine and comparing its bouquet to the other aromas.
"I'm not really a wine drinker," confessed Fred Torio of San Jose, Calif., who was visiting with his wife, Leticia. "But I could identify the smells, and it taught me a little bit about the aromas of different wines. It's really amazing that the wine is made of grapes, and yet it smells like vanilla beans and strawberries."
Golden Vine Winery is staffed by 265 full-time Mondavi employees -- an unusual arrangement with Disney, which ordinarily exercises total control of its park staffing. Michael Mondavi said he insisted on staffing the facility to maintain complete control of the experience. "We wanted a Robert Mondavi culture, not a Disney culture," he said. "We wanted our people to be passionate about wine and food."
The result is a level of gastronomic quality rare for the confines of a theme park. The $10 take-out sandwiches in the winery's deli are filled with imported Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and fig confit. A refrigerated case displays smoked salmon, raw-milk Camembert and Laura Chenel goat cheeses. At the Vineyard Room, executive chef Stephen Silva presents a four-course prix-fixe menu ($36 per person without wine, $50 with) of a quality that would please even the fussiest patron of a wine-country restaurant in St. Helena.
It remains to be seen if what plays so nicely to affluent wine-country visitors will appeal to Disney guests. Because of the broad demographic profile of park visitors, Mondavi's strategy is to offer free samples of several food items in the deli, and sample tastes of wine at the tasting bar, so that patrons can decide if they like an unfamiliar flavor before committing to a purchase. "If we sell them a glass and they don't like it, they'll think they don't like wine," explained Mondavi.
Golden Vine is not the only upscale, wine-oriented dining venue in the new Disney development. Within the park, Wolfgang Puck operates Avalon Cove, a seafood restaurant perched along a manmade lake, with views of the 170-foot-tall Ferris wheel and the mile-long roller coaster. Joachim Splichal's Catal restaurant anchors one end of the new Downtown Disney shopping and entertainment plaza, located between California Adventure and Disneyland. Catal features a casual tapas bar with 40 wines by the glass on the first floor, and upstairs, a stylish, 240-seat restaurant with an extensive, eclectic wine list.
The new Disney's Grand Californian Hotel, located in the California Adventure park, also has a high-end restaurant, Napa Rose. The Arts & Crafts style of the 750-room hotel carries through to the restaurant's decor -- with a little Hollywood thrown in. Executive chef Andrew Sutton, former executive chef at Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley, presides over the kitchen. An ambitious, 350-wine list showcases mostly California bottlings.
While Disney's California Adventure certainly appeals to kids, the park's attractive, sophisticated design and upscale food and wine venues offer plenty of pleasure for the older crowd. Disneyland for adults? You bet.
Read our past report on the Mondavi-Disney project: