As a life-long resident of Washington State, I'm a big supporter of my
state's burgeoning wine industry. I remember when, in the 1970s, people thought
a few spud farmers in the Columbia Valley were a little bit loco when they
started planting wine grapes. But a few decades later, no one was laughing when
Washington State's 500th winery opened and the state's super-premium vintages
were taking international awards. As an agricultural science editor for
Washington State University, I get to be involved in Washington's wine
production "from the ground up," an aspect of my work I truly enjoy.
So when I had the opportunity to visit California's Napa Valley early this
spring, my first thought was, "Why? We have all the great wine we need
right here in the Northwest!" But my second thought was, "Why not?
After all, this is Napa -- the mother of U.S. wines, the big kahuna, the holy
grail ... ." In short, if I'm going to be a wine snob, I'd better go to
Napa. Am I ever glad I did!
Napa Valley: Fast Facts
The valley that has come to symbolize the American wine industry is about 30
miles long and ranges from a mile to five miles wide. Only about 4 percent of
California's vast wine grape acreage is planted within the valley, but it is
home to nearly 400 wineries and a long, venerable history of grape growing and
According to the Napa Valley Vintners, a non-profit trade association,
Charles Krug is credited with establishing Napa Valley's first commercial
winery in 1861, and by 1889 there were more than 140 wineries in operation
within the valley, including Schramsberg (founded in 1862), Beringer (1876) and
Inglenook (1879). This history, combined with a reputation for international
awards and a sophisticated tourism infrastructure, makes "Napa
Valley" synonymous with "California wines" in the minds of many.
The Napa Valley (a.k.a. simply "Napa") begins about 50 miles north
of San Francisco, within a short drive of that city's international airport, or
the airports of Oakland, Sacramento, or Santa Rosa, Calif. Once you arrive,
it's easy to navigate. Most of the large wineries -- as well as most of the
hotels, shops, and restaurants -- line a single road, Highway 29, which starts
at the mouth of the Napa River, near the north end of San Francisco Bay, and
continues north to the town of Calistoga, famous for its mineral water and mud
Sampling The Wines
Trefethen Vineyards is the first winery north of the city of Napa, and the
first at which I stopped on my own tour of the valley. It's a winery worth
visiting, both for the architecture as well as for the wines. The Trefethen
tasting room is located in a 19th-century winery building, which was designated
a National Historic Landmark in 1988. The old winery and the friendly staff
provide an excellent ambiance for sampling their award-winning wines.
Trefethen charges $10 per person for a basic "Estate Tasting,"
which includes tastes of four current release wines, which may include special
releases. Reserve tastings -- run $20 per person -- and include tastes of three
Library and Reserve wines, which may include older vintages only available at
the winery. Take time to reserve and participate in a tour of this historic
winery by calling 707-255-7700 or 866-895-7696 in advance. Tours take
approximately 30 minutes and do require a reservation. For directions and more
information, see http://www.trefethenfamilyvineyards.com/ .
Not all wineries are open to the public; some are open for special events or
by appointment only. Most charge tasting fees. Some have picnic areas, some are
even dog-friendly. With hundreds of wineries to choose from, you'll want to
narrow your focus and do some advanced planning.
I wanted to visit a wide variety of wineries, some for the architecture,
some for the grounds or views, and some -- of course -- for the wine. My own
tour included several wildly divergent wineries: Trefethen, as I mentioned,
Clos du Val, Stag's Leap, Plumpjack, Rutherford Hill, Burgess, Opus One, and
Domaine Chandon. In my next column, I'll provide a brief thumbnail profile of
my experience at each, plus a few notes on walking trails near the wineries.
Please read more in Part 2.
Sally O'Neal is a travel and outdoor writer who enjoys fine wines as much as
a good hiking trail. While she's still a proponent of Washington wines and the
activities in the Columbia, Yakima, and Walla Walla valleys, she now admits
that Napa Valley is a fine little wine and recreation region. She writes weekly for sportsmansguide.com.