A Napa Valley Pilgrimage

Lyle Fujioka
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Friday - January 27, 2006 - MidWeek the weekend
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The one pilgrimage every wine lover usually makes is to Napa Valley. Nowhere in the world can you find the proliferation and density of wineries than the jewel of California. It would take weeks to visit every winery on Napa’s famed Highway 29 alone.

It amuses me greatly to hear stories told by those who somehow take great pride in the number of stops they make instead of the quality of wines they have tasted. Believe me, the winery folks view this type of debauchery as naive behavior. The primary goal of any wine tour should be one of discovery and fun - watching a loud, obnoxious “wine lover” slamming down tasting shots just to notch another winery on their route is hard to stomach.

My basic advice to those planning their trip is to secure a winery map, decide which wineries you’re interested in, lay out an itinerary with about 30 minutes per stop, and most importantly, restrain from making more than six stops a day.

While the fun factor motivates many, for those of us in the wine industry our visits all too often become business trips with adherence to their tight schedules a must. Like any culture, the diversity of winery attitudes becomes readily evident - laid back Napa to hard-core prim and proper snootiness abounds.

One of my most memorable visits to Napa included my wife, Sue, and wine distributor Dave. Our grape trip began rather innocuously with a free upgrade to a luxury class Cadillac simply because the rental agency overbooked our economy model. Upon reaching our last stop of the day at one of the larger wineries in Rutherford, we were greeted by our soon-to-be-tasting host as we exited our car with Dave behind the wheel.

A sidebar: In the wine industry, it is customarily frowned upon to have a competing distributor represented at a private tasting, and Dave was not comfortable about the arrangement. Further concern and complication involved our overnight stay at the winery’s very-difficult-to-reserve guest house.

Getting back to the story: As our tour through the winery progressed, our host inquired about our background. Sue and I were wine retailers from Hawaii, and I jokingly said Dave was our driver. During the conversation, we mentioned to Adrienne (our host) that we lived on the beach in Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu. As our very formal tasting progressed in the winery’s private room, Adrienne made a comment about Sue’s wedding ring - Sue’s very delicate fingers enhanced a very modest emerald cut stone. It appeared that Adrienne had incorrectly calculated that we were American Express Black Card guests - we had arrived in a luxury car, as she put it: “You actually fly your chauffeur with you?”

Living on the beach, jewelry on display, special tasting and guest house accommodations for her were all obvious clues.

What brought Sue and I almost to tears of laughter occurred when Dave excused himself to the restroom. At that point, Adrienne politely stated that she was very impressed with our driver’s wine knowledge. “He doesn’t say much, but when he does speak, he certainly is knowledgeable about wine.”

Sue actually kicked me under the table when I answered that it was difficult to find drivers with that much talent.

The ribbing Dave suffered after the tasting was more than any mere mortal could endure. That night, the wine gods exacted their punishment “bachi” on us for our frivolous behavior. The staff inadvertently (?) left off the guest house heater on a night which was recorded to be one of the coldest in Napa’s history. Forget about those survival tales about hugging each other for body warmth. I had every sock on my feet and hands, triple sweaters, towels wrapped around my head - all I remember was trying to figure out whose teeth were chattering the loudest. To make things right, Sue and I commemorated this grapevine journey by buying Dave a real chauffeur’s hat.

Insider’s Wine Tasting Tip To Napa: If you’re interested in tiny boutique producers (who are too small to own a winery), visit The Vintner’s Collective in the town of Napa.

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