Napa Valley Leads the Way

Ten years ago, tasting rooms were unheard of in many of the world’s wine regions. Now they’re everywhere, and the credit goes to California.

Hay rides, apple picking, cornfield mazes, tractor pulls, fairs and festivals. The agricultural areas in this country have charming ways to draw people to their farms and help visitors become familiar with their produce and their way of life.

For good or ill, it takes ingenuity and a bit of show-biz to draw the public. Can you imagine people fighting weekend traffic jams, then standing in line for a bite of an apple or a taste of a sugar snap pea? But that’s what happens in wine country. That’s the magnetic allure of an ounce or two of wine.

Napa Valley producers have built an economic tourism engine unlike any other agricultural center in the world. Nowhere on earth is there such a frenzy as there is on Highway 29—and rightfully so, when you add in the fabulous restaurants, architectural wonders and magnificent vistas that draw crowds throughout the year.

According to the latest survey results from MKF Group, a wine business advisory firm based in Napa, approximately 750,000 people visit Napa Valley tasting rooms every year, generating direct sales of of approximately $31 million. It’s impossible to track how many people go on to become lifelong wine enthusiasts based on these visits, but it’s a safe bet that a clean, charming, efficient and hospitable tasting room is a great marketing tool—both for that winery and for the industry as a whole.

Everywhere I travel in other wine regions of the world, wineries are modeling against the hospitality found in Napa tasting rooms to deliver samples of their wares and sell wine to visitors. Representatives of these wineries, with their attractive, responsive “cellar doors” (the term used internationally) will acknowledge that their facility and service program was inspired by something they saw in Napa Valley. In particular, Bordeaux, Chile, Spain, Tuscany, South Africa and the Hunter Valley in Australia, where cellar doors did not exist 10 years ago, now welcome wine enthusiasts; these visitor centers are as advanced and as approachable as those in the Napa Valley. Virtually every producer I have spoken to credits the Napa wine scene with opening their eyes to the potential of wine tourism.

Where there is wine there must be good food as well, and Napa Valley is blessed with any number of great restaurants; even its more informal spots have a certain cachet. In this issue, you’ll find Editor at Large (and Napa resident) Jeff Morgan’s compendium of the most noteworthy restaurants, markets, wine bars and lunch spots. His reviews can serve as the definitive, up-to-date guide on where to dine while in the Valley.

But it’s not all tasting rooms and souvenirs in Napa, or anywhere else in wine country. For people working the land or toiling in the wineries, it’s hard labor. And perhaps no terrain offers more challenges than steep hillsides, such as those found in Napa Valley. Also in this issue, Morgan takes a look at the mountains that frame the Napa Valley, and the winemakers who grow grapes on them. Many of these mountain wines are pricey. Are they worth the extra money? We think you’ll be intrigued by Morgan’s conclusions.

Napa Valley may be one of the most beautiful wine countries in the world, but there are others of course—we could not leave France completely out of the picture in this issue. Roger Voss takes us on the route des vins in Alsace, one of the more tourist-friendly, and easy to negotiate, wine areas in all of Europe. The wines are crisp and delicious, and the hospitality is heartfelt.

Also in this issue you’ll find a fun guide to what to drink with spicy foods. The heat element and ingredients in foods from Mexico, Thailand, Japan, the Southern U.S. and so many other places are different, and each combination requires a slightly different approach to quenching the heat while also enjoying the flavors of the food. See pairings for Michele Anna Jordan’s recommendations.

Gary and Mardee Haidin Regan immerse us, so to speak, in Tequila. As they point out, this spirit made exclusively in Mexico has come a long way from its days being drowned in sweet-and-sour mix and liqueurs or tossed off thoughtlessly in shots. This is a sipping spirit, with much of the depth and complexity of single-malt Scotch.

Enjoy this issue—and don’t forget to visit a tasting room or two this summer. It’s a great way to discover new wines and be reminded that behind every label, there are people eager for your approval.

Published on June 1, 2004

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