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Napa Valley, Reconsidered

The three-bedroom, three-bath "Tuscan villa" (circa 1999) was stunning enough, to say nothing of the winery: a turnkey facility licensed to churn out 4,500 cases a year, the agent said. But it was the silver coyote that sold us on the place. It stole across the vineyard rows, Chardonnay and Merlot vines rippling into the valley in neat green ribbons, beneath a pool-blue California sky. The only thing standing in our way was a scant $9 million.

Perhaps it was brazen to go house-hunting just two days after we'd arrived in the Napa Valley, but we wanted to see Napa through the eyes of people who dream big. We had once fantasized about the Napa Valley the way surfers dream of Oahu's North Shore or gamblers of Vegas. When we were 15 and 17, hoisting bus pans in our uncle's Toronto restaurant in return for after-hours schooling in food and wine, a bartender poured us our first mind-blowing sips of Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon. She told us the story of how, in a blind tasting of American and French wines held in Paris on May 24, 1976, France's most esteemed wine critics rated Napa Valley wines higher than Gaul's own. It seemed so triumphant—so American!—and we never shook the David-and-Goliath story of this food and wine mecca.

By the time we traveled there several years later, the Napa Valley seemed to be more Goliath than David. The current of growth and expansion had taken a toll; Napa had become synonymous with brash, overextracted wines, the weekend traffic on Highway 29, and tipsy herds in tasting rooms. As it gloried in success, Napa lost its edge.

And then, last year, we started to hear the rumbling of change. The "dentists"—local slang for the well-heeled dreamers who bought wineries only to discover that growing grapes is hard work—have, for the most part, departed, leaving behind the diehards, the iconoclasts, the characters. Overzealous development has mobilized preservationists so that the buzzword now is sustainability, and nascent appellations, like the Diamond Mountain District and Oak Knoll, are focusing attention on the terroir that makes Napa unique. At the same time, several noteworthy resorts have opened, placing a premium on style, intelligence, and good value, and encouraging the valley standbys to sharpen their acts.

If the boom Napa of the late nineties was a Hummer, the new Napa is the electric-hybrid Toyota Prius, so we booked one of the rakish hatchbacks for our journey through the 30-mile-long valley, from its southernmost point in broadly agricultural Carneros to the funky spa town Calistoga at the northern end. And we planned our trip to coincide with the Napa Valley Wine Auction—crucible of wine country exuberance, whose symbolic pinnacle was surely the day in June 2000 when a bidder paid $500,000 for a six-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon. We reserved rooms and booked tables at the new places and the old worthies, set up appointments with many, many wineries, and made certain the driver was always desig- nated. We organized our trip around the three major whistle-stops on Route 29, proceeding more or less from south to north.

DOWN-VALLEY Carneros and Napa

Buffeted by winds off San Francisco Bay, Carneros has the coolest climate in the valley and is where much of the region's Chardonnay grapes are grown. These open plains would seem to be a curious location for the Carneros Inn, a hip resort and spa that in many respects exemplifies Napa now. Indiscernible from the highway, the inn is a collection of cottages with corrugated tin roofs, galvanized stovepipes, and shady front porches with rocking chairs. Little would seem to separate cottages here from modest farm buildings in Iowa, except their pitch-perfect khaki color and what's on the inside: hardwood floors, leather club chairs, wood-burning fireplaces, plasma-screen TV's. Mayberry has met Miami in a John Steinbeck landscape, but somehow it all makes sense.

Our cottage had a private terrace with glorious views of the Mayacama Mountains in the distance. Each terrace has an outdoor shower with a head the size of a record album. If you don't have time for the paprika facial at the resort's spa, a hot outdoor shower on a 60-degree morning can be equally invigorating.

Seven miles north of Carneros is Napa, the valley's largest town and the county seat. Until recently this place was considered a backwater; these days it's more likely to be the center of the action. We arrived on Tuesday morning to find the farmers' market in full swing, jammed with people buying cinnamon caps and maitake from the mushroom ladies, or tasting the Royal Blenheim apricots proffered by the heirloom stone-fruit farm and the beef jerky from a young guy selling Napa Free-Range Beef. On a dry-erase board we found a reminder of the valley's small-town vibe: "Robert partied all weekend and couldn't get it together this morning. No strawberries till next week."

The market is held in the parking lot of COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, a community center for foodies and one of the most appealing legacies of Napa's boom. The airy, light-filled museum, which offers daily lectures and tastings, encourages visitors to learn about every aspect of the food they eat. Exhibits never stray too far from the message that food is a source of amusement as much as it is nourishment, a sentiment perfectly captured in Will Cotton's painting of a melting chocolate sundae that greets you at the entrance. Julia Child's retirement and move to California a few years ago coincided with COPIA's opening, and her influence can be felt everywhere. The restaurant is even named Julia's Kitchen, in her honor.

A few blocks from COPIA is the sage green façade of Pilar, the valley's newest restaurant of note and, to us, the embodiment of the latest in Napa dining. Its chef-owners, Pilar Sanchez and Didier Lenders, are marquee chefs, having helmed kitchens at the Meadowood Napa Valley resort and the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant (one of the restaurants at the Culinary Institute of America). There's no sign outside, and only 13 tables. The interior is crisp, even spartan, but the luster of the polished concrete floors and powder-coated bar is softened by the walls, the color of rare olive oil, and the orange silk pillows scattered across the banquettes.

Pilar's menu—small, simple, and seasonal—and its wine list—which pairs California wines with "soul mates" from around the world—show that Sanchez and Lenders are as much curators as they are chefs. Even if Sanchez (visible through the pass-through) has traded her chef's whites for a T-shirt, the technique here is impeccable. At lunch, a touch of cream transformed a mushroom concentrate into a morel "cappuccino"; whole sand dabshad crisp, salt-flecked skin and sweet flesh and were served with a tonic relish of diced cucumber, capers, and dill. The dining room had quieted by 2 P.M., with Sanchez, behind the stove, accepting congratulations from a few devotees.

The atmosphere was several decibels louder at Del Dotto Vineyards, a winery not far from downtown Napa at the base of Atlas Peak. Josh Groban arias echoed through the tubular chamber of one of the earliest surviving caves in the Napa Valley, excavated by Chinese laborers in the late 19th century. The walls were furry and moist; they flickered with the lights of hundreds of votives balanced on barrels. Although it was 95 in the shade outside, in here it was cool enough to see our breath.


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