Napa Vs. Sonoma

By Elissa Leibowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 17, 2002

The gravel parking area at Napa Valley's Van Der Heyden Vineyards was so small that the vintner's wife dashed out the screen door of her house and dispatched her son-in-law to hop on a riding mower and block the driveway entrance, so that no more cars could come in.

I was sitting on patio furniture under a silver tarp stretched over the driveway. Toys belonging to the Van Der Heydens' grandchildren were scattered across the yard behind me, and a large shed served as the tasting room.

Who cared? Despite the lowbrow appearance of this backyard winery, I was drinking some fine, fine wine. Yet I couldn't have impersonated a wine snob if I'd tried.

For $5 each, my two travel companions and I tasted five vintages -- four under the tarp and one inside the wine room. Andre Van Der Heyden, a laid-back Dutch immigrant in a raggedy hat, stood behind a counter surrounded by yellowing newspaper clips and old family photos.

"I'm comfortable in what I'm doing," Van Der Heyden said of his winery, which produces 3,000 cases annually, a pittance in these parts. "If I had a big winery, I'd have big problems." He poured three generous glasses of his shining star: a late-harvest cabernet sauvignon, which he says is the only one like it in the world. Cheers to that.

Contrast that to our visit to Niebaum-Coppola, the mammoth fortress of a winery co-owned by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. To get to the tasting bar, we had to walk past a Coppola shrine, complete with his Oscars and photos with his nephew, actor Nicolas Cage. Then we elbowed our way through the connected galleries of a winery mega-store, where, among the overpriced dishes and trinkets, DVD sets of "The Godfather" trilogy were for sale.

When Erik, my brother-in-law, finally nabbed a spot at the crowded bar, he plunked down $7.50 to taste four wines, all of which he probably could have bought at a wine store at home. I didn't fly cross-country for that.

As I quickly learned during a long weekend in Napa Valley, a newcomer can tour the Northern California wine region in one of two ways: You can nudge your way into big-name, well-marketed wineries to sample mass-produced wines poured by tasting room managers too busy to chat. Or you can stick to small wineries and sit on patios and linger over larger-than-usual samples while talking to the vintner about his craft.

The choice was easier than deciding between a glass of Dom Perignon and a plastic cup of white zin from a box.

Napa Valley is the most famous grape-growing and winemaking region in America, and deservedly so. Last year, about 4.5 million tourists visited Napa Valley alone and spent more than $7 million. In line to buy coffee one morning at the Oakville Grocery Co., I overheard a local say that "Tuscany looks a lot like Napa." True, but shouldn't it be the other way around?

The valley curves like an upside-down funnel, with the Vaca and Mayacama mountain ranges as boundaries. Six main towns are contained within, three of which -- Oakville, Rutherford and St. Helena -- are distinguished by little more than their little markets and the highway that divides them.

The town of Napa itself is rather disappointing. It's pretty enough, but there's little to do, aside from visiting the new, overpriced Copia American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, which seemed to have been built just to draw people into town. Recent revitalization (read: a few good restaurants and coffee shops) has improved the place a bit, but the town still feels like a little kid jumping up and down to get his mother's attention.

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