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I have returned to my favorite Wine Country cottage to relax, to taste the young, still fermenting wines of the current vintage, and to eat good food. Only an olive grove separates me from one of the
Wine Country's busiest thoroughfares, yet everything here is peaceful. I can listen to birds chirping in the blackberry thicket behind the winery and hear the splash of a heron as it lunges after fish in a pool left in the summer-dry creek. A hummingbird flits past, stalling intermittently to extract nectar; quail call from the vineyard. The heady aromas of fermenting must waft through the air,
mingling with the dusty smell of the vineyard and the perfume of autumn roses. Later that night, after dinner, I sit by the open window, sipping a glass of well-aged zinfandel. A screech owl calls,
interrupted now and then by the unearthly howl of wandering coyotes. This is the Wine Country at its best.
I first visited Napa's and Sonoma's wine valleys in 1968, driving across the hills from Davis,
where I had just started graduate school. The Wine Country has changed since then, but in many ways it has remained the same. There are more wineries now -- and more visitors, but the spirit of the land remains intact. This, I remind myself, is still one of the best places to visit -- as the great number of "wine tourists" would seem to prove. While some locals decry the influx of so many visitors, wine tourists are a special breed. For the most part, they are eager to learn more about wine, willing to taste and evaluate, eagerly picking up advice from the staff at winery tasting rooms.
They are a happy bunch, these visitors, united by a common appreciation of fine wine. There is an instant rapport, a communion of spirits, among lovers of fine wine that is unequaled in any other profession or hobby. It is open to all who embrace its spirit, and its members readily and freely share information. No serious scholar of wine will keep secrets from fellow students. The discovery of a great wine is knowledge to be shared. Tasting rooms are places where anecdotes are told and tips are given.
When I first saw Northern California's Wine Country, I was underwhelmed. Where I had expected a sea of vines, there was hardly a vine in sight, except on the valley floor near Rutherford and north of St. Helena, where wineries had hung on even during Prohibition and the Great Depression. But the wines I tasted at the few wineries open to the public at the time were very good. Food, however, was a real disappointment. You could get a hamburger, of course, or greasy fried chicken, or unidentifiable meat smothered in brown sauce, but no meal to incite culinary passion. In those days,
few people had learned to appreciate cabernet sauvignon, and even fewer had heard of chardonnay, which existed in limited plantings in only a few vineyards -- at rarefied places like Stony Hill, high above the Napa Valley floor. Sylvaner (labeled "riesling" by local custom), green hungarian, and carignane were varieties everyone drank. The latter might be labeled claret, "burgundy," or whatever name struck the vintner's fancy. The great red wines of California -- cabernet sauvignon from Beaulieu and
Inglenook, zinfandel from Ridge -- were rare and hard to find.
But change was in the air. Stately old wineries like Beaulieu and Christian Brothers, as well as
Robert Mondavi's new place in Oakville, attracted increasing numbers of visitors. Wine had become socially acceptable -- not only to the upper ten thousand, who always drank good wine, but also to millions of American middle-class gourmets. New converts flocked to the wineries to learn more about wine and to taste the elixirs at their source. New wineries sprouted from the vineyards with every vintage. Old stone buildings, abandoned during Prohibition, were resurrected. Neglected farmhouses were saved from oblivion, restored, and turned into tasting rooms. Within a decade, the Napa Valley's focus had shifted from mundane agricultural pursuits to a search for excellence in winemaking. Sonoma
County was not far behind. Soon there were outcries that too many wineries were ruining the pastoral valleys. That, of course, was not at all true. To my eyes, the wine-producing valleys -- Napa, Sonoma,
Russian River, Alexander, Knights', and Dry Creek, as well as the gentle hills of the Carneros -- are prettier than they were before, with vineyards supplanting pastures and prune orchards, and with beautifully designed and constructed wineries replacing rusty equipment sheds. These human touches in a naturally beautiful region certainly add elements of interest which make the area more appealing to visitors.
As local wineries gained international respect for their wines, the Napa and Sonoma vineyards took their rightful place among the great wine-producing districts of the world. Today, there is more good wine than ever but, best of all, the quality of food and lodging has caught up with the wine, making the valleys and mountains of Napa and Sonoma some of the best places to visit -- anywhere. Wine is more than a beverage. To fully understand it, you should know its background. We are inviting you on a tour of the landscape where some of the world's best wines are produced. We shall give you a short history of the region and introduce you to the men and women who grow the grapes and make the wine, as well as to the chefs who create the dishes that enhance wine's place at the table. Pour yourself a glass of wine, sit back, and relax, and we'll be on our way.