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A Traveler's Guide to Napa Valley

Posted: June 6, 2001

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A traveler to Napa Valley is first struck by its lush yet rugged topography. Framed by two ancient mountain ranges, a manicured, rolling sea of green, shimmering vines stirs in the afternoon breeze. The valley waves its greeting.

Something about the vastness of this land, and the imprint of wine on its rust-colored soil, causes one to breathe deeply and wonder at the beauty of it all. Nowhere else in America has nature collided so spectacularly with mankind to produce a beverage as intriguing as Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the region's premier varietal.

In the late 19th century, wine grapes were grown extensively in Napa Valley by European immigrants, some of whom -- like Gustav Niebaum of Inglenook -- made wines renowned in New York and as far away as Europe. But America's 13-year entanglement with Prohibition, which ended in 1933, all but killed Napa Valley's burgeoning wine industry. It limped along for another thirty years, and by the mid-1960s could count only some 20 wineries among the fruit farms and cattle ranches that covered the valley.

And then a marvelous thing occurred. A small group of well-heeled Americans with a taste for good wine fell in with a few highly imaginative native Napa Valley vintners and created, in a very short time, a new centerpiece of American wine culture.

Robert Mondavi led the way with a new winery born in the wake of his tempestuous departure from Charles Krug, which today is still owned by his brother, Peter. Around the same time, Jamie Davies and her late husband, Jack, arrived from the Los Angeles area to establish Schramsberg Vineyards. For their pioneering effort, these newcomers chose an abandoned winery founded a century earlier by frontier barber Jacob Schram.

Close behind these trailblazers were other vintners who emerged from former careers as investors, professors, filmmakers, doctors and lawyers. With assistance from Croatian-born winemaker Miljenko Grgich, James Barrett revived an old winery in Calistoga called Chateau Montelena. Midwesterner Warren Winiarski founded Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. These two propelled the region to international fame after winning the now-famous Paris Tasting of 1976, which pitted their wines against some of the best in France.

Some say the Paris Tasting opened the floodgates to a virtual stampede of would-be winemakers. Today, with nearly 250 wineries employing thousands of Napa Valley residents, the wine community is nonetheless closely knit. Many of the key players of yesterday remain active today.

Visitors to the area have a special opportunity to make contact with members of this eclectic group. Contact might take place at the wineries, where some owners still pour their own wines in the tasting rooms. Or it can easily occur at one of many fine restaurants, where local winemakers flock to sample the handiwork of talented chefs now in residence. Should you recognize vintners dining nearby -- and if you like their wines -- tell them so. Like artists everywhere, these winemakers crave feedback. You might make a friend for life.

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