The Napa Valley wine country of Northern California has experienced tremendous growth in the past decade, and anyone who has not been there in 15 years (like Maureen and I when we visited recently) will not believe how built up the main road, Route 29, has become. The Napa Valley is now home to more than 340 wineries and when driving up Route 29, especially between Yountville and Calistoga, it can sometimes seem like all of them have their wineries and tasting rooms on this one road. While these wineries include some of Napa's most famous names (Mondavi, Beaulieu, Beringer, Charles Krug, Heitz), the constant stream of traffic including lots of tour buses can take away from the ambiance and natural beauty of wine country.
For a better Napa Valley experience, we recommend touring along another route, the Silverado Trail, which is called "The Road Less Traveled" by its vintners association. The Silverado Trail runs parallel to Route 29 and between Napa and Calistoga there are about 35 wineries spread out among miles and miles of vineyards and farm land, making for a very picturesque drive. Among the wineries located on the Silverado Trail are the renowned Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, which put Napa Valley on the world wine map after taking first place at the legendary 1976 Paris Tasting. The winery took the name of the small vineyard district it is located in, which according to local lore got its name from a Wappo Indian tribe legend about a mighty stag which lept across a mile-wide canyon to elude pursuing hunters.
Located nearby in the Stags Leap District is one of our favorite wineries, Clos Du Val. The winery was founded in 1972 by French-born winemaker Bernard Portet, who was hired by American businessman John Goelet to find a new wine region with the potential to produce world-class wines. Portet reportedly drove around the Napa Valley with his arm out the car window to get a sense of the valley's microclimates, and settled upon the then-undiscovered Stags Leap District. Portet purchased 150 acres of land and founded Clos Du Val, which in French means "small estate of a small valley." They later bought another 180 acres in the nearby Carneros wine district. Clos Du Val's first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon in 1972 was one of only five California Cabernets selected for the 1976 Paris Tasting and that same vintage took first place in a rematch 10 years later.
Touring Clos Du Val with winemaker John Clews
On our recent visit we were fortunate to have a tour of the winery with the current winemaker, John Clews. A native of Rhodesia and reformed accountant, Clews came to California to study winemaking at the University of California at Davis and in 1999 joined Clos Du Val after working at several other wineries in Napa and Sonoma. The gracious Clews gave us a tour of the wine making and barrel aging facilities where Clos Du Val annually produces over 65,000 cases of wines including the flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Chardonnay, along with small quantities of Zinfandel and a Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend called Ariadne. After the tour, we were able to taste several of the wines with Clews, who is obviously very proud of his work. The highlight was the 2004 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon, which is deeply purple in color and has powerful fruit and oak flavors but has an incredibly silky smooth mouthfeel. All of the wines were delicious, including the Chardonnary and Reserve Chardonnary from the Carneros district, which were nicely crisp and fruity.
Other wineries we recommend visiting on the Silverado Trail include Miner Family Vineyards, known for its powerful Bordeaux-style blend, The Oracle, and Mumm Napa Valley to enjoy a flute of sparkling wine while overlooking the vineyards. For a full listing and map of the wineries on the Silverado Trail visit the website of the Sliverado Trail Wineries Association.
WHERE TO DINE
We enjoyed delicous Clos Du Val wines with dinner at several good restaurants in the town of Napa. Our best dinner was at Uva Trattoria, a casual Italian restaurant with great homemade pastas and other dishes made with locally farmed produce. I enjoyed a special of homemade pappardelle with black trumpet mushroom cream sauce and grilled pork tenderloin, while Maureen loved her special of pan roasted salmon over a ragout of roasted red potatoes, leeks, asparagus, pea sprouts and pancetta. Both dishes were well paired with the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Clos Du Val, and our overall experience was enhanced by live jazz music from a talented trio.
We also recommend another casual Italian restaurant, Tuscany, where we enjoyed a 2004 Pinot Noir from Clos Du Val with a margherita pizza from the wood fired pizza oven and delicious linguine alle vongole.
WHERE TO STAY
Perfectly situated for touring the Silverado Trail is the Silverado Resort, located just outside the town of Napa. The resort has something for everyone, with two 18-hole golf courses, a well-appointed spa, fine restaurants and great accomodations in low-rise cottages featuring full kitchens and fireplaces.