[MetroActive Travel]

[ Metro Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

The Hidden Valley

Napa Valley
Cat's Cradle: Nichelini Winery's loyal guard cat, Boots, takes a little snooze after tuckering himself out keeping a watchful eye on the Napa Valley's prime hidden wine-tasting spot.

Photo by Thomas Kuntz

Discovering the character that made the Napa wine country great requires a lot of planning and more than a little luck

By Christopher Weir

BOOTS THE CAT presides over Napa Valley's Nichelini Winery from atop an old barrel. He licks himself in all the wrong places, then luxuriates beneath the glint of a late-morning sun, his eyes roaming each visitor with nonchalant curiosity. You get the feeling that this pussycat is an old soul, that he's working on his eighth or ninth life.

Boots probably remembers grandmother Nichelini knocking heads with the feds during Prohibition, the bootlegging trips to San Francisco's City Hall and a few Model-T races gone haywire at Horseshoe Bend.

But Boots isn't talking today, so it's up to Joe, Greg and the rest of the Nichelini clan to hash out their family lore, which sounds something like "Dirty Harry meets The Waltons." Meanwhile, Joe's sister Toni pours a healthy dose of the winery's 1993 zinfandel.

My glass roils with sensuous aromas that are about as subtle as Las Vegas Boulevard late at night. The flavor crashes against my palate like a freight train loaded with cherries, anise, chocolate and spice. It's so voluptuous that I'd almost be afraid to take it home to meet my mother.

You used to be able to find wines like this: sturdy, ripe, in-your-face wines that shove mountain soil down your throat without asking permission. Too many wines these days taste like an apology. Polite, equivocal, scared. But not here, not in this glass.

Of course, you used to be able to find wineries like Nichelini, too. But Napa Valley is no longer in the business of local tradition, good cheer and distinctive winemaking. Ever since selling its soul to the yuppie revolution 15 years ago, Napa Valley has become an upwardly mobile spectacle teeming with wine trains, faux vintners and traffic jams. It's as if the valley hallucinated itself into Chateau Disneyland and never came down.

But what I'm discovering at Nichelini Winery and other destinations along this sojourn is that while Napa Valley's local color may be endangered, it's far from extinct. And not too hard to find. All it takes is a little planning, a few wrong turns and some dumb luck.

Backroad Vintners

I STUMBLE OUT of Yountville's The Diner high on caffeine, vitamin C and carbohydrates, a tactical state of being that should help ward off any wine-tasting demons. For now, morning solitude reigns over the valley. In a few hours, however, the streets will be jammed, and the tasting rooms will be about as comfortable as the front row at a Nine Inch Nails concert.

Moshing at a winery, however, is neither fun nor cool. Here's some popinjay jamming his elbow in your gut while uttering some platitudinous soliloquy about malolactic fermentation. There's some day tripper pronouncing "merlot" with an emphasis on the "T." Really, weekends on the Napa Valley wine trail can be more unnerving than entertaining.

But there's still hope: appointment-only wineries and backroad vintners. Thus, my voyage to Nichelini Winery, 10 miles west of Rutherford and an era removed from the valley floor. After Nichelini, I meander up Howell Mountain for an appointment with Bob Lamborn, proprietor of Lamborn Family Vineyards.

On the telephone, Lamborn sounded like a thoughtful, no-bullshit guy with a contagious laugh. He's no different in person. "If that's a black widow," he says, grabbing a spider from the corner of his otherwise spotless tasting room, "kiss me goodbye."

He pours some of his 1994 zinfandel, a big wine brimming with seductive fruit, earthy accents and a flinty, peppery finish. It's the kind of zinfandel you can build an evening around. A long evening.

After giving me an impromptu lesson in the art of dowsing, Lamborn leads me through his 10 acres of zin vines. "A vineyard is like a thumbprint," Lamborn says, explaining his estate-grown, hand-crafted, single-varietal winemaking philosophy.

My visit ends with the Lamborn 1988 Late Harvest Zinfandel. Produced from grapes picked weeks after the primary harvest, it reveals a slightly sweet tapestry of dark chocolate, blackberry and cloves, all cascading into a supple Elysian intensity that would shake a few lightning bolts out of a Greek god.

Old World Leisure

I WAKE UP IN A strange place, but it sure feels like home. It's Scarlett's Country Inn, a small bed & breakfast nestled in a verdant enclave south of Calistoga. After brewing some coffee, I step outside and into a crystalline morning. Sunlight shimmers and shatters against the Mayacamas Mountains, and vapors enshroud the neighboring vineyard. Two dogs and a cat hover at my feet. A chicken struts across the driveway.

This is not the kind of bed & breakfast that's cloying and cute. No, it's much better than that. It's like something straight out of a Keats poem, a sun-kissed homestead that captures the essence of Old World leisure.

Scarlett is already making things happen in her kitchen, so I step inside and sit down for another cup of coffee. She tells me about her animals, her property, her passion for competitive water-skiing. Soon thereafter, she unleashes a breakfast that's so good it could bring tears to your eyes.

But there are no tears this weekend, just good memories of good people. Napa Valley doesn't need another wine train. It needs a time machine.

Nichelini Winery, State Highway 128, 11 miles east of Rutherford, 707/963-0717.
Lamborn Family Vineyards, 2075 Summit Lake Drive, Angwin, 707/965-2811.
Scarlett's Country Inn, 3918 Silverado Trail, Calistoga (707/942-6669).

[ Metro Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

From the May 1-7, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
Copyright © 1997 Metro Publishing, Inc.

Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate