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Wine at its Soul

With more than 400 wineries, stunning views and gourmet food restaurants, Napa Valley in California has something for everyone.

“…and the wine is bottled poetry,” these words by Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson, carved on an oval-shaped signpost, greeted us at the Napa Valley in California. Indeed, the famous writer of “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” and “Treasure Island” was also a connoisseur of wine, and his remark has rightly been picked up by the Vintners association in this region.

On Route 29, as the miles of vineyards under the autumn sun greeted me, the mood of expectation gathered momentum. Wine tasting, stately houses, gourmet food—all these were waiting to be explored.

I remembered reading that the Napa tribe, from whom the valley gets its name, lived here before the white settlers arrived around mid-19th century. Although Francis Castro and Father Jose Altimura were the first Europeans to explore the Napa Valley in 1823, California was still a Mexican territory. There were ranchos—land grants to those who wanted to settle down as they arrived from other parts of America. Even then, planting vineyards was perhaps not on their minds.

Post Mexican-American War, as California became a part of the United States, settlers started planting fruit orchards and vineyards, following the example of George Calvert Yount. He is believed to be the first Anglo-Saxon resident in Napa County and the first person to plant a vineyard in the county in the 1850’s. The county’s Yountville town is named after him.

The combination of Mediterranean climate, geography and geology has helped to make Napa Valley a premier wine-growing area in the world. Today, it boasts of more than 400 wineries and around 815 different wine brands. Its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are highly prized by connoisseurs round the world. Most of these firms are family-owned.

However, the reputation of the wine from north California wine took time to establish itself with the world still swearing by Bordeaux in France and Tuscany in Italy as premier wine-growing areas. That was until the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when in a blind tasting contest in Paris, a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from Calistoga winery in the Napa Valley dislodged many competitors from France and elsewhere. This event was even adapted for a film, “Bottle Shock,” in 2008.

As we arrived in the heart of the wine county, we saw bunches of grapes ready for picking as they hung from the vines and visitors emerging from buses and cars, and were greeted by a happy buzz floating from wine-tasting bars under a cavernous building. On our way to a wine tasting hall, we were pleasantly surprised to find an old grape pressing apparatus.

The attendants at the various counters in the wine tasting venue were quite knowledgeable and suggested us the signature of each produce, how best to combine and with what kind of food, and so on. We bought a good variety of labels to enjoy later at home to carry on the experience.

Driving around the valley on the winding roads was a pleasure by itself, with quaint houses and stone bridges—apparently, there are more than 300 of them. But all the wine drinking made us ravenously hungry.

For lunch, we drove down to St. Helena, a pretty town with starred restaurants, art galleries and boutiques. It seemed just the right setting for Napa Valley with its old world house facades and a genteel air. Three blocks of the town have been designated as a historic district on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Our lunch at an Italian restaurant, tucked in a corner, was a gourmet food platter served with, what else, excellent local wine. The reputation of St. Helena as a hub for good food is well founded indeed.

Afterwards, we walked around the town, exploring shops with colorful displays to buy preserves and local knickknacks.

The onset of evening was a reminder that it was time to say goodbye to Napa Valley. I left “with promises to keep” of visiting the valley again.


Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist who writes on travel, film, and women and gender issues. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.