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Heaven on Earth

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Saturday, April 01, 2000

For lover of food, wine and the good life that comes with them, the Napa Valley is a paradise without peer.

The first time I spent a weekend in the Napa Valley was in 1965. 1 was on my way from New York to Saigon to take up an assignment as a war correspondent for The New York Times, and I decided that I might as well indulge myself in a bibulous stopover before beginning what turned out to be a three-year slog through the nation's least popular, least productive war. My timing was good; the sleepy agricultural valley — where only a dozen or so wineries had managed to survive the long, lean years after Prohibition—was starting to come to life. The most vivid symbol of that was an archway taking shape on the west side of Highway 29, then as now the main stem of the wine country. It was to become the entrance to Robert Mondavi's new winery.

I have been back many times since then. Over the years, the Napa Valley has evolved into one of America's greatest lures for those who, like me, count food and wine as passions. Nowhere else in our hemisphere will you find quite so seductive a combination of natural beauty, good things to eat, good things to drink, fascinating people and agreeable places in which to stay. The American equivalent of Burgundy or Bordeaux, you might say, but prettier, with easier access to the vineyards and the wines — and id on parle Anglais.

The Napa Valley is thirty miles long and five miles wide, more or less, stretching northwest from the city of Napa to the town of Calistoga. Napa city's population is 67,000; the county's is 122,000, making it one of the slower-growing areas of a fast-growing state. In the right season, at the right time of day, from the right angle, the countryside looks achingly lovely.

November, with the harvest just completed and the leaves beginning to yellow on the vines, is my favorite time of year. The unmistakable sweet-sour smell of fermenting grapes mingles evocatively with the scent of eucalyptus as workers rip out old vines, leaving patches of chocolate-brown earth here and there until replanting starts. At moments like this I remember why I used to fantasize about giving up journalism, buying a house, planting a few vines and settling down here as the proprietor of my own little corner of Eden.

Naturally, a lot of people have noticed how much these few square miles have to offer, and some churls complain that it has been turned into a Disneyland for grownups, or a Southampton for San Francisco. "In fact:' concedes Thomas Keller, owner and chef of The French Laundry, "I feel like more people come here now than go to Disneyland. Our little valley has taken the world by storm."

Keller should know; his sixty-two-seat restaurant in Yountville, housed in a historic building and hard to find, feeds more than 700 people a week. The nightly waiting list staggers beneath the weight of eighty to 200 names. Part of the reason is the brilliance of the food; the Laundry was termed "the most exciting" in the nation by Gourmet editor in chief Ruth Reichl a couple of years ago when she was reviewing restaurants for The New York Times. But Napa mania is also at work here, as Keller acknowledges. "Of course things are out of control," he says. "But what's not out of control in America today? in a lot of ways it's wonderful, and in a few it's a little scary."

To savor the best of the valley, start your first morning at Gordon's Cafe and Wine Bar in Yountville, the prettiest of the valley's small towns. Housed in a general store (and former stage stop) dating from 1876 and run by the delightfully exuberant Sally Gordon, who knows the wine biz inside out, this is the switchboard for valley news and gossip. (The last time my wife Betsey and I were there, she introduced us to Cherise Moueix, which led to a visit to Dominus Estate, her beautiful winery.) Excellent juice, coffee and muffins, plus eggy things, at breakfast; on Friday nights, the place turns into Wine Country Central, as vineyard owners, winemakers, hangers-on and tourists jam every inch of available space for delectable, gently priced dinners. No outsider is ever permitted to feel like an outsider for long when Sally Gordon is part of the mix.

Next you'll want to poke around St. Helena, toward the north end of the valley — be sure to examine Dean & DeLuca's spectacular selection of wines, and try Vanderbilt & Co. for Italian pottery, linens and hostess gifts, if you're lucky enough to have a hostess, though you can do a lot worse than to stay at the valley's best hostelries. But wine is why you're here, and most of the best-known wineries have tasting rooms. They line Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, which runs parallel to it; you can pick up a map at the Visitor's Center in Napa or at almost any hotel. The showplaces are Mondavi, Niebaum-Coppola and Beringer, the last near the tunnel of elms shading the highway north of St. Helena. Some of the other, often smaller places where I have been impressed (by both the wine and the people) are Domaine Chandon, Grgich Hills and Cakebread.

Be warned, however, that many of the new, small superstar wineries are as reclusive as Garbo. Your key to them is a charming woman named Robin Lail, daughter of the great Napa vintner John Daniel Jr. of Inglenook, and a fourth-generation vintner in her own right (including Merryvale and her current venture, Lail Vineyards). Robin's travel company, Connections, puts together individually planned itineraries for well-heeled wine tourists, and she can open many otherwise closed doors. That counts today, because the old order changeth. New stars are shining, and Robin Lail knows them all.

Given how seductive the Napa Valley can be, especially for tourists who don't have to get caught up in local issues or politics, it's all the more remarkable to think that without the foresight of one man, the late Jack Davies, who headed the Schramsberg sparkling-wine house, the whole place might be suburbs today, like so many other valleys within commuting distance of San Francisco. From 1969 on, Davies made the best Napa fizz, often served at American embassies and the White House. But far more importantly, he quietly and successfully fought for the establishment of the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, which made forty-acre parcels the minimum size for agricultural purposes. That helped fend off the tract-house builders, sharply restricted commercial development and guaranteed that the valley's relatively few hotel rooms would be more or less permanently booked solid.

Jack Davies' widow Jamie, a striking woman with piercing blue eyes, carries on the fight. If Robert Mondavi is the valley's patriarch, she is its matriarch. Betsey and I called on her during our most recent trip to the valley. She drove us up into the mountains, stopped her car above the Schramsberg vineyards, looked out across the land and commented a bit wistfully, "Some days I think we're not very far 1-179 from drive-in wineries here."

Half of San Francisco flocks to the valley on weekends, and often those who've made a bundle in other states (even other countries) shift a sizable share of their loot here the very first chance they get. A few of the newcomers will succeed in making superb wines. Others will concentrate on pushing the limits of conspicuous consumption. That takes several forms, some socially useful — like bidding up the prices at the Napa Valley Wine Auction' which raises millions for charity each year — and some aesthetically destructive, like putting up a replica of a Dutch manor house, painting it pink and spotlighting it at night lest anyone miss it. Or amputating the tops of mountains to build McMansions overblown even by the standards of Beverly Hills. Châteaux on steroids, local detractors call them.

It's all part of the much-debated "Hamptonization" of the valley, along with the iron gates and the stone walls that make vineyards look like estates, not farms. The sharp-eyed visitor can still spot many happy reminders of the old days: the roadside signs quoting Robert Louis Stevenson ("And the wine is bottled poetry"); the Virginia creeper cloaking the Beaulieu winery, where Andre Tchelistcheff long ago made some of California's greatest wines; and Taylor's Refresher, a drive-in dating from the 1950s on the southern end of St. Helena's Main Street. Nor are the changes strictly for the worse. One new pleasure (hopefully) will be the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, for which ground has been broken on a site in Napa city (and for which I proudly serve alongside Julia Child, among others, as an honorary trustee). Financed in part by the Mondavi family and many other leading growers, the $70 million project should provide a place where visiting wine lovers can learn about the vine, its history and its many contributions to human welfare.

But Jamie Davies is right: most of the farms, alas, are long gone; plum orchards and pecan groves have been plowed under, so that except for villages, ponds, roads and mid-valley hills, the valley floor is an unbroken carpet of Vitis vinifera, the noble wine grape. Vineyard land is going for up to $100,000 an acre, and still new vineyards are being laid out on the hills to the east and the greener hills to the west, too. And where there are no vines, there are hotels, motels, deluxe food and wine emporiums specializing in $40 bottles of olive oil and $200 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, and restaurants without number.

Still, no plague of white stretch limousines, presumably imported from Las Vegas to ferry eager tasters from vineyard to vineyard, no armadas of gaudy hot-air balloons rising above Calistoga, can ever significantly dim Napa's glory. Not even the Napa Valley Wine Train, which after more than a decade is still loathed — not too strong a word — by most of the oldtimers who built the valley into what the train-riding tourists come to see.

What remains most wonderful, to hark back to Thomas Keller's comment, is the sheer beauty of the place — the tight little blue flowers on the rosemary bushes, the majesty of the oaks and redwoods, the muted mystery of the morning fog, the orderly march of the vines up hill and down dale — plus the California-clear flavors at Keller's restaurant and several others. And, of course, those fabulous wines.

Napa bottlings now grace wine lists from St. Petersburg, Florida, to St. Petersburg, Russia. The French have long since stopped sneering and started investing. Instead of a handful of wineries, there are 260-odd, some of the best so small that their products never appear in your hometown shops or on the lists of your hometown restaurants, whether you live in Manhattan or Montana. Bob Mondavi, thirty-four years ago the impetuous, little-known son of a far more famous father, is one of the titans of the new wine world, recognized as a visionary, a wine evangelist and a patriarch everywhere the grape is grown. Wine has made him and some of his contemporaries rich. "Mondavi saw what this place could be before anyone else did," says Bob Long, who makes one of the premier Napa Chardonnays. "Then he went out and made his dream come true, for himself and the rest of us."

During our trip, Betsey and I had dinner with Bob and Margrit Mondavi at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, as perfect a re-creation of a Parisian bistro as you could ask for, with a gifted chef (Philippe Jeanty, ex-Domaine Chandon) and a down-to-earth menu. Here we reveled in absolutely exemplary fish soup (for me) and quenelles (for Betsey), followed by a dandy daube de boeuf, full of rich, robust flavor. Bob liked his meal so much that he scarcely spoke for half an hour, which must have been a record for that volcanic talker. Still, Mondavi, a marvel of energy and enthusiasm at 86, told us how impressed he had been — "a little shocked, too" — by the wines of some of the newer, smaller producers when he had tasted them a few weeks earlier. "These young people are challenging us," he said, and he described a $27 million program of improvements at his winery, involving a switch from stainless steel to oak fermenters designed "to give us simple but sophisticated wines, not punch-in-the-mouth stuff."

Others, equally tough judges, are impressed too. Jancis Robinson, the English wine critic, who edited the authoritative Oxford Companion to Wine, raved recently about such young Napa superstars as Paradigm, Dalla Valle and Screaming Eagle, comparing them favorably to the haughty aristocrats of the European wine world. (The prices can be haughty, too-we saw Screaming Eagle Cabernet on one restaurant list for $750 a bottle!)

Two of the newer owners who win unusual respect from their peers as much for their style as for their worldclass wines are Daphne and Bart Araujo and Bill Harlan (an owner of Meadowood, the woodsy, wildly popular resort outside St. Helena). Along with his wife Deborah, Harlan spent ten years putting together Harlan Estate, parcel by parcel, on the western slope of the valley, after ten years of preliminary studies in California and abroad. Both Harlan and the Araujos came out of the real estate business and have devoted almost as much attention to architecture as to wine. Harlan's twin goals, he told me, were to build a winery that looked "as if a farmer might have built it 100 years ago" and to produce "a first growth for California." The Araujos, for their part, dug into a mountain near Calistoga to provide cask storage rather than disrupt the vernacular style of the old Eisele estate and its grounds-not surprising, since Daphne is a well-known landscape designer.

The champion of the vernacular in the valley, a man who wanted its new buildings to look like the first cousins of the old ones, was the late William Turnbull. A nationally recognized architect, he built a winery for himself (Johnson-Turnbull, since sold and now called Turnbull) and the Cakebread winery next-door. His last building, completed after his death in 1997, was a combination winery and olive frantoio (crusher) for Ted and Laddie Hall on their 650-acre Long Meadow Ranch (Hall, a jolly, deceptively mild-mannered man, is a director of the international management consulting firm McKinsey & Company in San Francisco). The innovative building method-the winery was constructed of earth excavated from a hillside, mixed with a small amount of cement-fits in well with the Halls' aim of demonstrating, as Ted says, that "great things can be done in a socially responsible and sustainable way."

In other ways, however, the ranch, which overlooks the valley from the west and boasts breathtaking views, is a throwback to an older Napa. All-organic, it produces all its own compost, raises prize cattle and chickens, and produces oil from olive trees that were rescued from the forest that had swallowed them up. Happily, its first Cabernet vintage, which Betsey and I sampled, tasted very promising.

An altogether different aesthetic approach was taken by Christian Moueix — who manages Château Pétrus, his family's great Bordeaux vineyard-and his wife Cherise when they built a winery for Dominus Estate. Like Clos Pegase, which chose the American Michael Graves some years ago to design its buildings, Cherise, who once ran a Paris art gallery, opted for the avant-gardein her case, a Swiss firm, Herzog & de Meuron, which also designed the new Bankside gallery of the Tate in London. At the Dominus winery, which opened in May of 1998, they used rock-filled wire-mesh boxes called gabions for the walls. The result is an exceedingly handsome structure, dark and low-lying, with an interior filled with lacy light patterns filtered through the stones.

Near the end of our visit, Betsey and I ate lunch in the garden at Tra Vigne in St. Helena with Belle and Barney Rhodes, connoisseurs, collectors and owners of Bella Oaks, a vineyard whose grapes Joe Heitz makes into superlative red wine. The wine train's big diesels thundered past only a hundred yards or so away, blotting out all conversation. After it passed, Belle told me that her friend Tom May, owner of Martha's Vineyard, whose grapes also go to Heitz, thumbs his nose at the train every time he spots it. Well, I can see why he might. But my own reactions, as I contemplate the torrent of change in the valley, are closer to those of Warren Winiarski, the laconic boss of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, a former university teacher who headed west in 1964. "When there's honey, there's bees," he said at his new hillside winery, which skillfully combines industrial and administrative elements with natural surroundings. "There's nothing much you can do about that. But you can still drive down Route 29 and realize all over again that the earth yields beautiful things."

 By R.W. Apple Jr. R.W. Apple Jr.