A Taste of Napa Valley
Stockton Record 09/07/04

Antoinette May
A Vintage Odyssey:

By Antoinette May

If the traffic goddess smiles, you can zip through the Napa Valley from one end to the other in less than an hour. Even when you take it slow, the names of great wineries whiz by. You want to stop at them all, but too many random visits—too many tours—leave you so exhausted you’re ready for the nearest beer.

Ever think of doing it by boat? American Safari has. A typical wine cruise offers private tastings at world-class boutique wineries, personalized tours of art preserves and artists’ private villas and exclusive dining in winery caves. All this and a private wine tutor.

Maybe you think the Napa and Petaluma rivers are too small to accommodate ships. Guess again. Views of farmhouses, rolling hills and vineyards stretched in all directions our 120 ft. yacht plied its way through mirror smooth waters. I’ve visited the Napa, Sonoma and Carneros districts countless times, but cruising the wine rivers was a first.

The gentle adventure began Monday afternoon shortly after boarding. As the San Francisco shoreline slipped away, we sipped champagne— Codorniu Napa Brut selected by resident wine experts--from crystal flutes. Such a pleasant step in my education, I mused, dreamily watching the Golden Gate Bridge silhouetted against the setting sun.

Nine crewmembers catered to the whims of 20 guests. Our staterooms were roomy and comfortable. A hot tub on the top deck offered ample opportunity for star gazing. Marvelous meals were cooked to perfection were paired to perfect wines. Dinner the first night was an art form, but only a prelude.

Next morning a mini-bus took us to the di Rosa Preserve for art viewing in a century old winery-turned residence. Rene and Veronica di Rosa have collected some 1600 works by 650 San Francisco area artists of the latter 20th Century. The result is a spectacular expression of the experimental freedom that characterizes the “California edge.”

Imagine a master vintner showing you through his own winery, describing his

love affair with Pinot Noir, offering tastes of his signature Chardonnay.

Winemaster Walter Schug did that for our small group while leading us among the cool casks in his prize winning cellar. It doesn’t get much better—except it did. Think gourmet lunch specially prepared and served in the cellar itself.

Wednesday we saw art, smelled art, tasted art and even heard art at the Artesa Winery which showcases the 450-year winemaking heritage of the Raventos family of Barcelona, once Europe’s leading methode champenoise producer.

Artist in residence Gordon Huether exhibits works in various media, including glass and metal, throughout the visitor center. Six more sculptures surround the main fountain. Down in the cellar, wines ferment to the sound of age old Gregorian chants. (The CD is the first switch turned on in the morning, the last turned off at night.) Walking through barrel lined corridors, inhaling the rich pungent aroma, we sipped the sparkling Rouge et Noir for which the winery is famous.

A delightful surprise waited at the Bouchaine Vineyards. Rose, that sweety sweet wine that most of us got sick on in high school, is back with a fantastic new spin. Though handled as a white throughout the winemaking process, Bouchaine’s rose is recognizably pinot noir with its rich aroma of white flowers, cherries and toast. Expect your whole concept of Rose to alter forever.

Bouchaine vineyards benefit from cool nights, foggy mornings and breezy afternoons, the temperature ideally suited to growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We loved the wine and cheese tasting and were reluctant to leave. Happily, no one had to be the designated driver. A mini-bus waited to take us back to the boat. Later that day we had a choice of exploring downtown Napa with its boutiques and galleries or kayaking on the river. It was a very good day.

Thursday brought a surprise—a visit to Carlo Marchiori’s home with a guided tour by the artist-designer himself. Marchiori’s murals are among the great designs of the world, defining buildings as diverse as Singapore’s Raffles and Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza. Marchiori’s villa, filled to the brim with whimsical, wonderful art, is a living museum and a privilege to behold.

We explored Calistoga, then toured the fabled Clos Pegase Winery. Clos Pegase means “the walled vineyard of Pegasus.” The Clos is formed from volcanic rock excavated to create an aging barrel. The French Pegase recalls Pegasus, the mythical horse whose thundering hooves unleashed the Spring of the Muses, giving rise to wine and art. The winery embodies the shared vision of winemakers Jan and Mitsuko Shrem who created a temple to both.

Located on a sunny plain, Clos Pegas is Merlot heaven. Stunning earth and russet buildings, rows of Minoan columns, mythical statues and mosaics, provide the perfect bacchanalian setting for the rich, ripe jammy reds that have made the winery famous.

After lunch there, we thought there was nothing left until we reached the ZD Winery, heard their inspiring story and sipped their exciting wines. In 1968, two young aerospace engineers, Norman de Leuze and Gino Zepponi pooled their resources--$3000 apiece—and applied for a winery permit.

For ten years they and their families spent weekends and holidays crafting wines. Finally, in 1979, ZD became a full time business. The rest, as they say, is history. ZD Wines have graced White House dinner parties spanning three administrations and have garnered 342 awards for excellence.

Though ZD makes a great Chardonnay, the winery’s reputation is founded on fabled Pinot Noirs. Rosa Lee Pinot Noir, a subtle blend of cherry, strawberry and plum touched with toasty oak, is only available at the winery. One taste was worth the trip alone.

The captain’s farewell dinner ended the day It was wonderful, but all the on-board food and all the wines selected to accompany it were the best of the best. The next morning we would dock in San Francisco. It was hard to think of returning to the “real” world. With the option of a private brandy tasting in the hot tub, we didn’t even try.

WHEN YOU GO American Safari offers a variety of cruise possibilities beginning at $l,695 for three nights. They leave from and return to pier 40 in San Francisco. The wine cruise season begins Oct. 15 with the last cruise on Nov. 22. For information call 888/862-8881.

Copyright © 2002-2004 Antoinette May