The Hidden Napa

Unheralded and largely unknown, the historic city of Napa is ripe for discovery.
As you drive north on Highway 29, America's most famous wine route, dissecting the Napa Valley, America's most famous wine region, you pass winery after majestic winery.

Toward the southern end of the valley, near Yountville, you see the spectacular Domaine Chandon and the stark stone edifice of Dominus. A tad further north in Oakville is stately Far Niente and that Spanish-style icon, Robert Mondavi Winery. Then comes Rutherford, with historic Beaulieu Vineyard and the spires of Niebaum Coppola across the way. Before you know it, you've arrived in this wonderful little hamlet with storefront cafés, bookstores, wine shops and boutiques. Quite naturally you think that this is Napa. But it's not; it's St. Helena.

Like so many other visitors to Napa Valley, you have sped right past one of the area's hidden jewels: little-known and underappreciated Napa city. Don't blame yourself or start an argument with your spouse who's driving, because forgoing Napa for the tasting rooms and splendid restaurants that line Highway 29 is common practice. But I need to tell you: You've overlooked a place well worth visiting.

Nestled between Highways 29 to the west, 12 to the south, and 121 to the east, the city of Napa, founded in 1847 by Nathan Coombs, offers a wonderful mix of the old and the new. For example, the city's opera house, built in 1879, is one of northern California's more significant landmark buildings (it was once the site of readings by Jack London). After the town of Eureka, Napa has more Victorian homes than any city in California. And if it's local food and entertainment you're after, Napa maintains a terrific open-air market. (It's held every Friday, May through October, at the pedestrians-only Town Center.)

Then there's the new: Within the next couple of years, the elaborate American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, which is being heavily underwritten by the Mondavi family, will open its doors along the Napa River. This 70,000-square-foot facility on 6.5 acres will feature interactive gardens, wine exhibits, conference rooms and an outdoor amphitheater.

Originally a grain mill built in 1884, Napa Mill and Hatt Market is in the final stages of being converted into a riverside marketplace with restaurants, shops and a hotel. And what about serious dining? Maybe you have already been to Celadon, Greg Cole's outstanding restaurant on Main Street in downtown Napa. Now he's opening Cole's Chophouse a block away. Carnivores' mouths should be watering at the opportunity to sample Cole's traditional American preparations with any number of superb Napa Cabernets, Merlots or Meritage-style blends.

The next time you visit the Napa Valley, I strongly recommend that you spend quality time in the city where most of the people who work in the wine industry live. Sure, the sprawling wine estates and hillside homes are awe-inspiring, but Napa is really the heartbeat of the valley.

· · ·

As you are about to see, our June issue is packed with great information for wine enthusiasts, starting with our cover story on California Chardonnays priced between $15 and $30 (page 28). If you are a fan of this luscious golden wine, reading this article, which contains ratings and reviews of 257 wines, should be like hitting the mother lode.
This month also features our annual focus on the Napa Valley. Steve Heimoff, our California-based contributing editor, has been doing his research over the past year, as he's uncovered eight up-and-coming Cabernet specialists who some day may be the next Diamond Creek, Heitz or Opus One. See page 40 for introductions to some of Napa's new pacesetters.

And if that's not enough, we shed light on Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, once the favorite wine of nobles and again one of the best reds in Tuscany (editor at large Roger Voss's report begins on page 48). And speaking of Europe, senior editor Michael Schachner visited southern Spain in February for his article on the many faces of Sherry (page 64).
Cheers and enjoy the summer!

-Adam M. Strum

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