Cool Napa Off The Beaten Path

This is my second article about George Taber’s wonderful book, In Search of Bacchus, Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism. If you love wine tourism this is a book plan your next vacation around. Like my previous article, I do have an observation that can be taken as a criticism. But in saying that, I have to explain that the trap that Mr. Taber fell into is one that many others have fallen into before.

The book rightfully begins with the star of wine tourism, Napa, and his description of its evolution is insightful and beautifully colored with the personalities that developed that industry. But the conclusion that he comes to, that Napa is a place of big wineries, expensive travel, impersonal tourism, and lots of traffic, is ultimately an outsider’s view. I didn’t understand how he could reach that opinion until I read his credits. In each location he thanked his sources. For Napa, he thanked Magrit Mondavi, wife of the patron Saint of Napa Marketing, Robert Mondavi. While Mrs. Mondavi surely knows that story better than anyone, for visitors coming to Napa, getting off the beaten path and into the real Napa is where wine magic lives. Here is a bit of advice; don’t ask the folks at the wineries where to go! Don’t depend on the winery staff for recommendations to other wineries, restaurants, or hotels.

This is the reason why; they don’t get out much! Wineries are a location based business and the staff doesn’t go exploring very often. Also, people who have big wineries know other people who have big wineries. People with smaller wineries know other small wineries, but usually not many. Why? Because they are busy making wine! If you really want to know about Napa and Sonoma, ask a tour guide because they go everyplace. In fact, most tour guides don’t draw a hard line between the two counties, because they tour in both, plus San Francisco. Most winemakers in Napa don’t know any winemakers in Sonoma, and vice versa, because, as I said, they don’t get out much.

Mr. Taber went to big, expensive wineries because that is what his confidants know. The reality is quite different; most of Napa’s wineries are small, family businesses who think of themselves as farmers, not winemakers. The winemaker is someone they hire. The very expensive, ultra premium wineries are a small percentage of the valley’s businesses, as are the mega wineries owned by international consortium.

There are many reasons why this community of family wineries has grown; some are zoning, economics, location, prestige and always the desire for a healthy and entertaining life style. But, the result is that there is both the surface Napa that presents itself to the public along Highway 29 and the other Napa that people discover with multiple visits and the desire to go beyond the beaten path.

Every time Mr. Taber wrote about a wine tasting at a large, prestigious estate, I thought of the charming wineries just minutes away where his experience would have been so much richer through his contact with the families who grow the grapes and make the wine. So George, the next time you come to Napa, please call me and we’ll visit the other Napa, where the top tour guides spend their time, and where the hidden gems of wine country are happy to reveal themselves.

Ralph & Lahni DeAmicis are authors of seven books on wine country and two iPhone Apps. They operate Amicis Tours and transport clients throughout Napa, Sonoma, San Francisco and the rest of California.

What were the WOW moments you experienced?
In our work as tour guides we visit all kind of wineries, but the experience in the small family wineries is so unique, each one its own story, that you could spend years exploring this area and never get bored.

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