A Year To Remember
in Napa Valley, California
(October 2004)

Jane Yuan '63 Toronto

Now is the time to visit Napa Valley, whether you have been there before or not. Our family goes there every year for vacation/reunion. This year, especially, would be a year to be remembered. Napa is famous for many things: the world class wines they produce, the hot springs and spas with their rejuvenating reputation, and, of course, the renowned culinary experience there.

The wines of California, in particular those from Napa and Sonoma, have, in the last fifteen years or so, become some of the most sought after wines globally. From local wine stores to public auctions, the prices that many California wines now command could be well above their Bordeaux counterparts with similar ratings and might even be as high as some much lesser yielding Burgundies. California is famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon (red) and Chardonnay (white). It also makes very admirable Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel (red) and Sauvignon Blanc (white). Many of you may remember the superb California Cabernet from the 1997 vintage. The intensity of the fruit, the breathtaking bouquet and the reflection of the best of the terro'ir that California has to offer would probably not come by easily ever again. And yet, the stars did align again for the 2001 vintage, and that is the vintage you would be tasting if you go to Napa right now.

Many people told me that they didn・t know what to look for in a wine. The most important thing is to look for a wine, whether it is red, white, rose or champagne, that is pleasing to your own palate. Each one of us would find certain types of wine more pleasing or less appealing, and even that could very well change over time. If you do not have much experience with wine, it is always a good idea to go for lighter whites (Rieslings or Sauvignon Blanc) or fruitier red (Zinfandel, Petite Syrah) rather than the heavier ones. You・d want your sensory organs to get used to identifying the more easily discernable fruit such as apple, pear, vanilla, strawberry, cherry and plum rather than the darker olive and grassy and coffee type aromas. The most important thing in doing anything well in life, and that goes for wine tasting is to stay focused. And if it does not come to you the first time, don・t worry. It will come in time through practice and concentration.

Wineries worth visiting in Napa: Clos Pegase and Sterling are both famous not only for the quality of the wines they produce but also for their architecture and art collections within the premises. Walking within the confines of Clos Pegase, for example, is very much like visiting the outdoor Sculpture Museum in Norway or Japan on a smaller scale. If you are the type that likes to plan things ahead, make an appointment with Pride, David Arthur and Joseph Phelphs for their special tour. You will not regret it.

A good book to read on wine before you go (or even if you don・t go): Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, 2004 Edition, by Kevin Zraly. This book organizes its chapters by region and is a great primer. It is easy to read and I still look things up in the book from time to time.

Collector wines from Napa: With the Euro being so expensive, it may not be a bad idea to increase your allocation from Bordeaux and Burgundy (which is a hit-or-miss anyways) to Napa-Sonoma. I would look out for Pride Reserve, Harlan Estate, Grace Family, Screaming Eagle, Opus One, Caymus for reds and Kistler for Chardonnay.

How to get there: From San Francisco Airport take US101N and turn onto I80. After you pass San Francisco and Oakland, turn onto Highway 29 (Sonoma Highway) and follow the signs to Napa Valley.

Where to stay: Calistoga. Period. Although it is north of the town of St. Helena in the upper part of the valley, it has many hot spring hotels that you・d definitely not want to miss. Our family almost always stays at the Roman Spa and Hotspring Hotel (707-942-6269) or the Calistoga Spa and Hotspring Hotel (707-942-4441) on Washington Street. If you opt for a romantic experience with a golf course and an awesome view, and don・t mind paying a premium, go for Meadowood (800-458-8080) instead.

Where to eat: Pretty much anywhere in Napa. Our family favorites are Bistro Jeanty, French Laundry, Auberge de Soleil and, of course, Domaine Chandon, restaurant of the famous maker of California sparkling wines. Oh, did I forget to mention we like French? All right, to be less biased, let me slip in Bistro Don Giovanni, a great Italian restaurant that you・d also not want to miss if you do decide to go there.

Other things to do while you are there: Golf, hot air balloon, wine tasting, horseback riding, mud bath, more wine tasting, outlet shopping, more and more wine tasting. You get the point.