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.
Yountville is the more beautiful child -- a frou-frou, one-street village with immaculate gardens, walking paths, pampering resorts, country inns and restaurants like the French Laundry, with its months-long waiting list. It's the wine-country equivalent of Aspen or Palm Springs.
To the north is Calistoga, a hot, dusty throwback with mineral water spa resorts of the cheesy and classy kind, a petrified tree forest, California's version of Old Faithful and a few wineries.
End-to-end, the valley runs only 30 miles, but the drive can take up to two hours, thanks to the beastly traffic clogging the St. Helena Highway, a k a Route 29.
The first (and last) time we drove along the highway, I witnessed drivers making illegal U-turns and perilous lefts cutting off oncoming traffic. I watched one car cross the center line while the woman behind the wheel tried to read a map. And I shuddered when a rental car swerved in front of us. Was the driver tipsy?
Thankfully, we had Mary Hermsmeyer to teach us how to drive. Hermsmeyer is a 22-year Napa resident and a school bus driver who's been known to call the police when she sees drunk drivers in action. Off-season and on weekends, she commandeers the Napa Winery Shuttle, a van that transports visitors from vineyard to vineyard for $45.
"Quite often I don't see a designated driver," Hermsmeyer said. "That's a concern, especially when a lot of people are bringing their children along, who aren't very entertained anyway. I call in the [license plate] numbers when people start crossing over the lines."
At Hermsmeyer's suggestion, we stuck to the Silverado Trail, which runs parallel to Route 29, has many small wineries and is, literally, the road less traveled. It's connected to the main highway by several crossroads, which make great detours in the late afternoon when most of Napa Valley's 270 wineries close -- and deposit everyone on the road at the same time.
Hermsmeyer was right: The Silverado Trail wineries were better. I visited the Italian villa-style winery owned by race car driver Michael Andretti. I ran my hands over the thick, hand-cut, lava-stone walls of the historic Regusci Winery. At S. Anderson, I sipped sparkling wine on a patio encircled by meticulously groomed rose bushes. And I watched the sun bronze the mountainsides from the floor-to-ceiling windows of Silverado Vineyards while a merlot-filled chocolate dribbled down my chin.
Trying to determine which wineries to visit is part of the fun of mornings in Napa. En route to breakfast, we'd pass through our hotel lobby and watch blondes in capri pants, their polo-shirted boyfriends and a surprising number of families hover around the concierge's desk asking the same question: "Where should we go?"
Frankly, going to a concierge -- who will hand you photocopies of photocopies of maps and direct you to the same vineyards where she's sending all the other tourists -- makes for a generic wine country experience. You're better off wandering, but in an organized manner.
Granted, you may not want to do what we did: simply pick a name off a map because of a romantic notion of finding a fantastic wine that few others know about. We drove for 40 minutes on a twisting, empty road through the hills in search of the pretty-sounding Catacula Lake Winery, only to find that it's open by appointment only and sells some mighty pricey vino. At least it was a lovely drive.
We had much better success when we centered our day on a particular region. The Stags Leap District is where we met the Van Der Heydens and drank the best wine of the weekend. We sampled sparkling wine in the Carneros region southwest of downtown Napa, and enjoyed lighter crowds. And we stuck to chilled white wines in Calistoga, where the mid-summer temperature at the Clos Pegase winery topped 90 degrees. The heat certainly kept the masses away.
So where were all of the other tourists? Packing the tasting rooms along the dreaded Oakville-Rutherford-St. Helena stretch of Route 29.
Don't get me wrong, there are some darling vineyards along that dangerous road. But the neighboring big wineries and traffic sap away much of their charm. We loved Cakebread Cellars in Oakville until it became mobbed by those coming from Robert Mondavi across the street. We left sooner than we wanted to.
But we didn't abandon Route 29 altogether. We happened upon the St. Helena Olive Oil Co., where owner Peggy O'Kelly told us that her store "is where tourists come to sober up." We went there to mop up olive oil and aged vinegar with chunks of crusty bread.
Such a nice break for the palate, but we had to move on. It was the end of the day, and 270 wineries were about to close.