Winding my way down Silverado Trail in Napa Valley, I had to smile at the spectacle of it all. Just outside this gilded bubble, the country was tearing itself apart. Some are eager to launch a “revolution” to combat a “rigged economy.” Still others bemoan America’s fraying families and straying ties to past values. Loudest of all are the voices decrying America’s fall from greatness and railing against the forces of “political correctness” visible only to them. From Carson City to Columbia, and everywhere in between, protesters clash, voters howl, citizens march.
But out in Napa, life goes on, and boy is it grand. Few outside of California had heard of Napa just a half-century ago, that is until a collection of winemakers, including a man named (no joke) Louis Martini and later the famous Robert Mondavi, formed the Napa Valley Vintners. Members of the group often stylishly referred to themselves not as a trade group but as an “eating and drinking society.” Now, since the 1976 Paris tasting where Napa wines outperformed the big boys from Bordeaux, the region is a world hub. Today, 450 wineries dot the valley, although one could hardly tell as the rows of vines blend nicely together along the horizon.
My first stop was at Bouchon Bakery in Yountville. There I had the privilege of buying a decadent croissant with a powerful taste of butter and just the right amount of chocolate. The line went out the door, but no one seemed to have anything better to do and the weather was much too pleasant to care. I got a doughnut for the road, which was wrapped in an unnecessarily large but nonetheless exquisite box without request. Even the sweet smelling coffee was nicely packaged and highly priced.
Next up was Mumm Napa, a consciously elegant winery offering nothing but sparkling wines. Tastings there are seated, complete with a maître d’ and table service. A hostess breezily led the way to the table, maneuvering through several well-perfumed bachelorette party herds. It was quite the view: lovely hills overlooking rows of vines interspersed with flowering mustard. Not to mention the carefully selected dresses, shawls, shoes, purses, hair, and nails. Slightly to the side sat a cardiganed family composed of glamorously graying parents and perfectly coifed adult children out for a lazy (but well put-together) weekend morning. Even my own table now glittered brightly once the waitress returned with my flight—gold and pink wines nicely arrayed by shade and price. It was only 11am on a Saturday, but as Mumm encouraged: “Everything’s better with bubbles, and they shouldn’t only be reserved for special occasions.” I drank it all in.
A little while later I realized Mumm was right; the day was better now. So, what the hell, why not drop in on another winery or two? After stopping off at V Sattui—whose expansive premises housed multiple tasting rooms, wine shops, and a rolling green picnic area with an outdoor chef—I meandered over to Beringer Vineyards. “Better Beckons” Beringer seductively offers to its visitors, and at least the façade delivered with an impressive Rhine mansion and wine cellar cave. Around back is a wine-themed food shop with merlot jellies and paired chocolates and cheeses. Every dainty detail is covered.
Although enamored by my surroundings, I was snapped back to reality by my fellow travelers on the “Legacy Cave Tour”—the overpriced jaunt around the wine cave and surrounding environs. One guy persisted in hectoring the tour guide about the price of everything. “Is this a publicly traded company?” the man strangely asked, his Ray-Bans loosely hanging from his shirt. Unaware that we weren’t there to listen to his inanities, he continued: How much is an acre of land here? How many grapes per barrel? How many barrels per acre? And then, not satisfied with the previous answers or interested in using deductive reasoning, he delivered the coup de grace: “How many grapes per acre?”
On the other end of the spectrum from that dimwit was the dreaded but inescapable wine snob. As we sipped our second sample while the tour guide described the unique flavors of Beringer’s Sangiovese, a man to my left swirled and spat: “What year is this?” The tour guide responded that we were drinking a 2013. Fortunately for those of us standing nearby, the man had already deposited his wine in the spittoon, or else he might have sprayed indiscriminately. “A 2013!” he exclaimed. “That is way too early for a Sangiovese!” The obvious will go left unsaid, but for what it’s worth, my subsequent research on his opinion has revealed decidedly mixed conclusions. Some say that wines made from the grape age well over time; others contend that “new world” Sangiovese should be consumed early in its life; still others hedged. “Actually it depends on the terroir,” the tour guide sweetly rejoined, no doubt readying the poison.
Here was the seeming contradiction of the Bay Area, revealed in my one hour drive north. How can the place home to San Francisco’s punks and artists, the Mission’s hipsters and family taquerias, Oakland’s bustling inner city, and “Keep Berkeley Weird” also be home to the Silicon Valley tech bros and this distinctly one percenter lifestyle? How is it possible to so effortlessly trade the Financial District’s skyscrapers for the gritty bars on the East Bay? And most perplexing for me that day was how I could on one hand look at Napa with derision for its showy excesses and silly triviality, and yet genuinely enjoy its relaxing warmth.
My phone lit up with the latest news. The outside world had not stopped its tumult. Above, the sun began its slow descent. It was time to head back to reality.
Rolling down Highway 29 on my way back to the Bay, it was hard not to be taken with the beauty of the valley. Life is a struggle, and one not to be shirked. But for one afternoon, I traded in my anxieties, concerns, and cares—both small and serious. I have to admit, it felt pretty good.