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A view of the Domaine Carneros winery, Napa, California. Photo: John/Wikimedia Commons
A view of the Domaine Carneros winery, Napa, California. Photo: John/Wikimedia Commons

A memorable swirl through Napa Valley

Of a secret Napa guide, exquisite settings and discovering hidden wines

I call him my “Secret Napa Guide". I don’t know his name. Actually I don’t know anything about him, except the fact that he loves Napa wines very much, that he visits their wineries over and over again, and that he meticulously records the number of visits, and his comments on each winery. It is quite a list—an excel spreadsheet crammed with notes on 120+ wineries, some visited 15 and 20 times—lovingly put together over I don’t know how many years.

That list was given to me—just like that, without asking—a few days before our trip to Napa, California. Call it traveller’s luck—we just happened to be dining at a restaurant, got chatting with the sommelier, and when he learned we were headed to Napa, he said, wait a minute, I have something for you. Turns out, one of his regular clients had compiled this list, and he printed a copy for us to enjoy. I had a quick look—most of the names were unfamiliar—and I tucked it away with a mental note to pull it out when we reached there.

What I love about Napa is how it recasts a full day of unabashed pleasure as serious “work". There is this unstated sense of being on a mission, as if you are about to discover some hidden gem of a wine. You go to a beautiful vineyard, taste half a dozen wines—sniff, swirl, exclaim, feel it in your mouth, struggle to locate apt words to describe it—and then drive to another exquisite setting, and work your way through another half a dozen wines. Nibble on some cheese, enjoy the neat rows of vines marching into the distance, feel the sun soaking into your body, day-dream about living here, and then off you go to the next vineyard and sample some more offerings. It’s heady.

Day 1, we were half way to our first vineyard—appointment set by the hotel concierge—when I realized I’d forgotten our precious “List" in the room. Go back? Darn, that would set us back by an hour. Not worth it, we decided, let’s just go with the concierge’s recommendations, he’s a local, advising guests for years, bound to know the vineyards well.

That’s how we reached Saintsbury, a tiny wine-making facility, which felt more like a barn—unpretentious, worn-wooden structures—with a quaint garden that functioned as an open-air tasting room, very homey, set up with tables and sun-umbrellas. We had briefed the concierge to pick out small off-the-beaten path wineries, but this seemed to have no path at all, even the driver struggled to find it. The first wine, a rosé, was underwhelming. Ditto, for the second, a Chardonnay. We decided to skip the rest of the tasting menu, and jumped to the last wine, a Pinot Noir, Brown Ranch 2010. With rock-bottom expectations, I took a tentative sip—it caught me by surprise, a sensory wow, so light, so flavourful, so silky smooth, this was a master’s creation. The smile was back on our lips.

After that mixed experience, we thought a change in tack was called for—let’s hedge our bets by visiting the somewhat bigger and better-known vineyards.

We turned into Artesa, owned by the Raventos family, which has a long heritage of winemaking in Spain. Artesa is an absolute visual treat—stunning panoramic views, very avant-garde architecture, grand water bodies, striking art pieces—they even have an artist in residence. We sat out on the terrace and just soaked it all in, accompanied, of course, by a succession of wines—a Sauvignon Blanc, a couple of Pinots, a cabernet franc and finally, my favourite of the lot, the 2009 Artisan Series Cabernet Sauvignon.

Our next stop was the Michael Mondavi Family Estate. Michael is the son of the legendary Robert Mondavi. He also served as CEO of the Robert Mondavi Winery—we had visited it several years ago—until its controversial sale to Constellation Brands in 2004, at which point Michael resigned and set up his own winery. We walked into a beautiful tasting room—it had the intimate feel of a well-appointed country home—high ceilings, wooden floors, and a long bar at which the wine is served. Skirting the back is a large porch, and this is where we settled down for our tastings.

Happily buzzed by now, we drove into Domaine Carneros—owned by Champagne Taittinger of France—and into a dramatic old-world chateaux, set on top of a hill, with soothing views of lush vineyards all around. We sat out on the terrace, and sampled the house specialty—sparkling wines—as also a couple of Pinot Noirs. The highlight for me was the excellent cheese plate, and the “wine-speak" used to describe the cheeses, as in the gruyere had “complex flavours of caramel, fruit and mushroom" or the gorgonzola had “slight classic blue veins and a buttery semi-soft texture".

Back in the hotel, we evaluated the day’s “work" and came to the conclusion that although we had enjoyed a beautiful day and tasted many good wines, few stood out as truly exceptional. We yearned for more, a figment of our imagination perhaps, but we wanted one perfect wine before we left Napa. Perhaps our “Secret Napa Guide" would come to our rescue? We had time for just one stop the next day, so we scoured his list looking for the winery he had visited the most. And there it was, Miner, with a mind-boggling 25 visits, which he called simply “THE BEST".

It was a perfect sunny morning, and we drove up the Silverado Trail to Oakville, and were the day’s first visitors at the Miner winery. Owned by Dave Miner, this is a modest wine-making operation, they even buy their grapes from other vineyards in Napa. A quick tour—I was pleasantly surprised to see framed White House menus featuring Miner wines—and then to the tasting room. One sip, and we knew we were home. I loved the 2007 Syrah, La Diligence as also the 2009 The Oracle, Napa Valley Red. I don’t have the wine-vocabulary to describe them, but perhaps “divine" will suffice.

Our “Secret Napa Guide" had delivered.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

Also Read | Radha’s previous Lounge columns

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