A tasting tour of the Napa Valley and the smaller regions of California’s winelands, reveals an area brimming with rustic glamour and covetable fine wines. Our correspondent drinks a toast to excellence

When you stand by the side of the Silverado Trail just east of Pine Ridge and look north, you can see the two worlds of the Napa Valley. The hillsides and ridges are thick with trees, gashed by gulches and populated by black hawks, leading off into the distance to the dark mass of Mount Saint Helena, the ancient volcano that presides over the valley like an all-seeing godfather. Down below, nature has been tamed into trellised rows of vines separated by fields of mustard and grass, interspersed with whitewashed buildings. On a quiet day after harvest time, the musty scent of fermenting grapes wafts across the valley.

Wine barrels

Wine barrels

View from Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco showing the former prison island, Alcatraz

View from Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco showing the former prison island, Alcatraz

Anyone contemplating this picture of rural perfection would do well to remember one mitigating fact: this is the most expensive country real estate anywhere in the world – more expensive even than Connecticut or Surrey, England. And the fermenting grapes are likely to end up in bottles costing at least tens, sometimes hundreds, of dollars each. Welcome to the Napa Valley. Napa is the heart of the California winelands; not quite the place where American wine started, but the first name to spring to most oenophiles’ minds when it comes to US wine. The valley, which runs from the city of Napa in the south to the sulphur springs resort of Calistoga 64km to the north, houses many of the great names of American wine, among them Robert Mondavi, Chateau Montelena and Stags’ Leap Winery. It also houses some of the country’s best restaurants, including the renowned French Laundry, and numerous eccentricities, such as one of the world’s greatest vodka producers, Domaine Charbay. I’m here to explore Napa and to discover some of the lesser-known winelands of California.

The entrance at Darioush

The entrance at Darioush

I had set off that morning with a different view of the same valley. From my corner suite on one of the highest floors of Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco, the view stretched out across San Francisco Bay and over the distant haze of San Pablo Bay to a pair of blue-green streaks on the horizon. The streaks were the valley sides I find myself standing on after an hour’s spectacular drive, over Golden Gate Bridge and around the edge of the Bay, to get there.

First stop, Darioush – a winery that has created a considerable rumpus in the five years since it opened, as much for its buildings and gardens as its wines. Opened by Persian-American entrepreneur Darioush Khaledi in 2000, it is a tribute not to its owner but to the ancient Persian king Darius and his palace, Persepolis.

Director Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish estate in Napa Valley is the perfect place to set down a picnic

Dry Creek Road

Dry Creek Road

Driving through wine country

Driving through wine country

You are greeted by a forest of free-standing columns, and a silvery-white stone front gives the building a palatial air. The stone is the same as that which is used in Persepolis itself, quarried in Iran and cut in Italy before being assembled in the Valley. There are formal Persian gardens and an amphitheatre, made of the same stone, for outdoor performances. Inside, the Persian theme continues with pre-cast mouldings and ironwork; however, the reverie comes to an abrupt halt when I’m approached by a friendly, statuesque blonde in black Armani who asks if I’d like to taste the wines. Just as I’m starting to suspect that the palatial winery is all show and no go, I am handed a glass of Darioush Viognier. Viognier is a white grape used in the most famous white French Rhône wines, such as Condrieu. At its best it is gloriously aromatic, hinting at a sweetness that never quite arrives, its perfume lingering in the mind for days. The Darioush version is wonderful – richer and more full-blown than a typical Condrieu, but with the same elegance and evasive perfume. It is made in tiny quantities and has become prized by collectors.

Back on the Silverado Trail I head north. The Napa Valley has two roads: Highway 29, which runs up the middle through each town and village and is frequently choked with traffic and, just two or three miles away, the Silverado Trail, which hugs the eastern side of the mountains. It links together some of the best-known wineries with lovely views and a fraction of the traffic. The roads are connected by cross-valley roads every mile or two, so there is little reason not to make the Silverado your main route.

My next stop, on a bluff above the Napa River, is an unassuming-looking winery that’s all too easy to drive past. The tasting room is a simple space with a long wooden counter running down one side, and the feel is rustic and original – a striking contrast to my last stop. If Darioush is Napa’s future, Stags’ Leap Winery is its heritage.

Vineyards along the Silverado Trail

Vineyards along the Silverado Trail

Russian River Valley

Russian River Valley

A little background is useful here. Until the late 20th century, the world of fine wine was dominated almost overwhelmingly by great French names. But, slowly, producers in other countries and the New World were gaining recognition, and on 24 May, 1976, what’s now known as The Paris Tasting changed all that. Stephen Spurrier, a highly respected British wine merchant who ran a wine school in Paris, had fallen in love with wines from the Napa Valley, then still considered poor imitations of the real (French) thing by much of the wine establishment. Spurrier decided to stage a blind tasting of top French wines and their California counterparts made with the same grapes, to show the French wine world that there was more to California than ‘jug wine’. The tasters were pillars of the French oenophile establishment, from the director of Burgundy’s most expensive appellation, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, to the director of the definitive Revue des Vins de France. The results shocked le tout France: the all-French panel scored a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon in first place above a Chateau Mouton Rothschild and a Chateau Haut-Brion, and a Napa Chardonnay in first place above Burgundy’s best, including a Bâtard-Montrachet and a Meursault Charmes.

Inside Niebaum-Coppola

Inside Niebaum-Coppola

Along Dry Creek Road

Along Dry Creek Road

And the world of wine changed for ever. Napa and the rest of the New World now had the confidence to go with its expertise. The red wine that won the tasting was from Stags’ Leap Winery, and it’s worth visiting the vineyards to sample the latest vintage of the winning wine, Cask 23. It is a dense, dusty, tannic mouthful, but you can also taste the blackberry fruit and earthy complexity that convinced the French judges it was a top Bordeaux.

Ripe carignane grapes

Ripe carignane grapes

Back on the Silverado Trail, I head north through the pine groves for a couple of miles, then turn left onto the Oakville Cross Road and up the dusty driveway of Silver Oak Cellars. For wine buffs, a tour of Napa is a chance to meet your heroes, the places of origin of some of the finest wines in any cellar, and Silver Oak is a point of pilgrimage for any lover of Cabernet Sauvignon. Unlike most California wineries, Silver Oak makes just one wine. I was poured a glass of the 2000 vintage, which was a deep ruby, packed with suggestions of clove, olive, chocolate and Provençal herbs. It’s a wine to store in the cellar or drink with a hearty steak, but nevertheless a privilege to sip at the vineyard, surrounded by the vines that made it.

Celebrity winemaking is a growing trend around the world, with everyone from Australian golfer Greg Norman to French actor Gérard Depardieu getting in on the act, with some surprisingly good results – one of the best of which must be Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola’s Niebaum-Coppola Estate in the Napa Valley. The lavish 19th-century mansion is the Disneyland of the wine world, where you can wander around on a 90-minute tour of the winery and its manicured gardens and ponds. It’s the perfect place to set down your picnic (they’re generous about this kind of thing) and nibble your way through some caviar, foie gras and Serrano ham from a Napa delicatessen – Oakville Grocery, back at Oakville Cross Road, is one of the county’s finest gourmet-food stores – with an accompanying glass of the estate’s wine.

Sonoma is picturesque and sleepy, with a gentle Mexican feel to it

Cellars at Niebaum-Coppola

Cellars at Niebaum-Coppola

Silver Oak winery

Silver Oak winery

As the day draws to a close I have one more stop to make. It takes me high up into the western flank of the valley, with stunning views over the wineries and vineyards, to Domaine Charbay. Charbay initially gained its fame for brandy, but these days it is for its delicately flavoured vodkas that it is becoming known to connoisseurs. Visits to this family-run operation are by appointment only, so call ahead. Any martini lover will be enthralled by the old-style Alambic pot still and tanks where they macerate the fresh fruit for Charbay’s Key Lime, Ruby Red Grapefruit and Meyer Lemon vodkas.

Dry Creek Road twists and squirms as it rises through the vines and trees that nod their heads in the breeze. The early-morning sun squints through the mountains on the other side of the valley as I head west out of the Napa Valley and up Mount Veeder, an extinct volcano that looms over it. At each hairpin that the road rounds, the patterned vineyards and settlements of the valley look a little smaller below.

Sonoma central square

Sonoma central square

Deli sign at the side of the road to Healdsburg

Deli sign at the side of the road to Healdsburg

Soon the crafted civility of the wine country seems a thousand miles away. Pine forests rise up to rocky ridges; blurs of movement in the foliage suggest raccoons or coyotes. The sky is a deep blue and cicadas sing. A ridge fades away to offer a new vista: a row of mountains slashed by gorges and a deep valley below. Twenty minutes later we are down on the valley floor, back in civilisation in the form of the Sonoma Valley.

Sonoma’s central square is picturesque and sleepy, with Moorish-style arches on two sides and a gentle Mexican feel. The town was built by the Mexican general Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo in the 19th century, at a time when Mexico ruled California. I stroll around the square, dipping in and out of craft shops, thinking how Sonoma (a name almost as famous in wine circles as Napa) is so different – less developed, less exploited. I sit and relax in a café with a latte and a croissant.

Gearing up my tastebuds for more tasting, I set off through the pretty clapboard suburbs to Ravenswood vineyards, on a ridge by a meadow just outside town. Ravenswood specialises in one grape variety: Zinfandel. It’s the closest California has to a native wine grape, and thrives in the California sunshine to produce big, juicy, easy-drinking reds. Its origins have been debated for 150 years, and it was only recently that this ‘typical California’ grape was found to be, surprisingly, Crljenak, a Croatian grape of no great distinction in its homeland. Ravenswood’s winery is a rustic stone building with a small wooden tasting room and a terrace strewn with giant plant pots and boulders. I work my way through their range of single-vineyard Zinfandels – full-bodied, alcoholic wines, perfect with a pasta all’arrabiata on a cold winter’s day.

Maybe it’s something in the air, but I swear a glass of merlot is tinged with lavender and violet

A mirror in the reception room at Gaige House Inn

A mirror in the reception room at Gaige House Inn

Chateau St Jean

Chateau St Jean

But I wasn’t at Ravenswood just to taste wine; this time I was also there to make it. After a short seminar on the art of wine blending, I was presented with containers of wines made from three different grapes, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignan, and, after a taster of each, given the chance to blend the three into a bottle of my very own Ravenswood to take home. (Many of the world’s greatest wines are blends from different grapes.) I opted for about two-thirds Zinfandel and split the rest between Petite Sirah, for tannic structure, and Carignan, for softness. I was rather pleased with my creation, and it wasn’t until I opened it at home several months later that I realised how muddled it tasted. Best leave the winemaking to the winemakers.

Giant terracotta pots of baby lemon trees; gravel paths criss-crossing an immaculate formal garden; a stately home with a stucco front and red-tiled roof – Chateau St Jean could be anywhere in France, but it is actually about 20 minutes north of Sonoma. After strolling through the estate, built in the 1920s as a second home for a Midwestern industrialist, I go to the cool, quiet tasting room and try a rich, lusciously fruity Reserve Chardonnay and a deliciously aromatic Viognier.

North of Chateau St Jean, Sonoma Valley begins to taper, the forests on each side often extending across the valley floor. The little road winds and curves, fields of lavender start appearing on either side and signs of civilisation peter out. After a while, in a spot where vineyards and lavender fields merge, a simple white building appears on the right. Matanzas Creek is renowned for the quality of its red wines. Maybe it’s something in the air, but I swear a glass of its merlot is tinged with lavender and violet.

Medallions of lobster with avocado, hearts of palm and mango, at Cyrus

Medallions of lobster with avocado, hearts of palm and mango, at Cyrus

Alexander Valley

Alexander Valley

By the end of the day I’ve reached Healdsburg, rising wine and cultural centre at the heart of the Alexander Valley region, about an hour north of the Sonoma Valley. Before making my way downtown to dinner at Cyrus – a formal culinary haven, this elegant restaurant with sophisticated dishes and sleek interior, in a district known for its simple rustic charm – I sit in the central square and sip a glass of champagne. The breezes blowing in from the Pacific favour cool-climate wines, made from grapes that need less sun and less heat. My ‘champagne’ was local, a traditional-method sparkling wine from Korbel Champagne Cellars, just outside town. It was refreshing, delicate and memorable – an appropriate ending to a fascinating tour of one of the world’s most beautiful and unforgettable winelands.

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