A trip to Napa County still is defined by tastings of its cabernet and chardonnay but for an increasing number of tourists, the valleys 431 wineries themselves are strictly optional.
Not for these visitors the bucolic vine rows girding Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, or the tasting rooms of Robert Mondavi, Grgich Hills and Stags Leap. Instead, many wine country tours start or end on the city streets of Napa, in a growing assortment of wine lounges.
While the downtown tasting rooms lack in postcard scenery, some owners and customers say, they make up for by allowing visitors to sample the Napa Valleys best-known product in a trip measured in footsteps, not traffic-choked miles. And for vintners whose lands are too small or remote to invite visitors to the premises, a downtown storefront can be the front door for curious wine drinkers.
Napa Countys migration of wine tasting from the countryside to city streets began more than a decade ago in a once near-desolate stretch of Main Street on downtowns north side. Eleven years later, the Vintners Collective, housed in a handsome historic stone building, is the showcase and promoter for 18 local winemakers.
The downtown district where Garret Murphy and his wife, Kim, launched the Vintners Collective in 2002 was nearly invisible to wine tourists. Where some saw an obstacle to winning travelers attention, though, the Murphys saw an opening, according to Nick Rood, the collectives manager.
The explosion of Napa Valley wines popularity over the past half-century left the county with more than 500 wine producers and a shortage of surplus land that left many newer or smaller wineries without the money, or space, to showcase their products on-site.
If you only wanted 1,000, 2,000 cases, how would you market yourself? said Rood, who went to work for the Vintners Collective in 2008. There were so many producers without tasting rooms, without representation, and thats how the concept was created it was to become a place that was both a tasting room and a director of marketing for consumer sales.
If smaller wine producers had much to gain, he added, so, too, do wine tourists searching for a new experience especially one not easily found on store shelves back home.
The thought was that after people come to Napa a few times and get tours of the vineyards, they ask themselves, What else is out there? What am I missing, and what cant I find back home? said Rood. You can have a nice tour of Mondavi and Sterling, but many of those wines are easily found. The idea here was to cause people to seek us out; we carry wines they cant get without us.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Lily Ng and her husband, Lee Gardner, made their first visit back to Napa County since moving to Los Angeles but at the Vintners Collective, not a winery.
It makes these small vintners available that youd never know of, she said between leisurely sips of sauvignon blanc. People always want to find that buried gem no one else knows about.
The combination of wines from multiple vineyards and the opening of nearby hotels that allow wine lovers to avoid the roads while indulging have given downtown tasting rooms their opening, according to one of the Vintners Collectives Main Street neighbors.
We have about 1,300 wines here, said Al Jabarin, who opened the 1313 Main wine bar two years ago and added a small-plate eatery, Lulus Kitchen, late last month. The diversity of the wine we pour is the attraction, and that makes this a different kind of place. We offer choice and thats the appeal.
On the day before Labor Day, the atmosphere in and outside Vermeil Wines lounge on First Street was one of relaxation and informality, of a kind not usually linked to its famous Upvalley peers. Two couples chatted amiably on leather sofas on the outside patio; one of the men was content to recline his bare feet on a low table in front, as if sipping his merlot in the privacy of his back porch.
Inside a tasting room suffused with the new-car smell of an establishment barely six weeks old, the decor suggested less a temple to the vintners art and more a living-room shrine. Facing the wooden L-shaped tasting bar were framed photos and magazine covers celebrating the Super Bowl appearances and highlights of the lounges creator, former NFL coach Dick Vermeil.
An extension of Vermeil Wines vineyards and tasting room in the retired coachs native Calistoga, the Napa wine lounge nonetheless was conceived for a different audience and a different purpose one tied directly to the restaurants and hotels also proliferating downtown.
Were open till 11 at night, so well get a good after-dinner rush from other places, retail director Andrew Curry said. This is their stop for afterwards because were open later.
We were trying to do something new here, he said. With the downtown being up and coming, this was something we wanted to get involved in. Were still in the heart of the valley; we just give people a closer option than driving so far up the valley.
As Curry poured glasses of Proprietary Red 34 named for Vermeils Super Bowl XXXIV victory in January 2000 while leading the St. Louis Rams for a foursome of middle-aged visitors, one of them already felt ready to leave the traditional vineyard experience behind.
Thats why we dont go up the valley anymore its too crowded, said Carolyn Willkie, an East Bay resident making a rare break from her usual wine trips to Sonoma County and Livermore. The traffic, the amount of people the only time we go to (wineries) on 29 is if we have relatives from out of town whove never been to Napa before.
Several doors west of Vermeil Wines on First Street, Damien and Christine Kunz had brought half a dozen relatives with them to the Ceja Vineyards tasting room where part of the attraction for the San Francisco couple was the fact that wine was not all that surrounded them.
Gathering for the 21st birthday of Christines sister, the family made small talk over their glasses on a huge chocolate-brown sofa beneath a mural blending images of vineyards, Roman amphorae and Cesar Chavez. But their outing in Napa would have legs even after they left the Ceja lounge.
We brought the whole family, Christine Kunz said, and the kids got to go to Ben & Jerrys
so the kid didnt have to just stand around and wait for us, and thats a major benefit for us, her husband finished with a smile. Theres nice food options around here, too.
We werent planning on this, but now that were here, wed come back, his wife added. Its a place where you can take a client, have a chat, act casual.
In 2006, the Napa Downtown Association launched a discount promotion to throw attention on the citys tasting lounges, in a bid to capture at least a few tourists who otherwise would ignore downtown on their way to Upvalley wineries.
The program, which offers $25 cards entitling the holder to 10-cent tastings at a dozen locations, remains available. But the Downtown Associations executive director, Craig Smith, said burgeoning foot traffic from Napas new luxury hotels and an increasing thirst for wines beyond the major labels are helping tasting rooms prosper on their own terms.
The beauty of tasting rooms is, people are able to visit multiple locations far more than if they drove to different wineries, said Smith. You enjoy three, four, six different (labels), have lunch or dinner along the way and have wines you literally cannot have anyplace else.
I dont think anyone thinks of them as replacement for the vineyards. But the person who has been to vineyards finds its a much easier and more relaxed experience.
Urban wine tasting rooms are also a recent phenomenon in Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga as well as in the smaller cities in Sonoma County.
On a recent Thursday night, the atmosphere inside the John Anthony Tasting Lounge was not only casual but stylish in a manner as overtly modern as the dance-floor techno-pop more muted than at a nightspot streaming from its sound system.
In a tasting room filled with crease-edged counters, square-back chairs and metallic, rectangular wall displays, John Arrambide poured $25 three-wine flights for late-arriving visitors as faddishly dressed as he. As he served up small talk to two women along with the wine, his curled Rollie Fingers mustache tilted with his frequent smiles.
John Anthonys daily rhythms have become deeply entwined with those of other tourist hotspots downtown. Since opening in July 2010, the tasting room inside the Andaz Hotel has received steady streams of visitors not just from guests in the rooms above, but spilling over from nearby eateries and lodgings, said Josh Vermes as he worked the tasting bar alongside Arrambide.
Oenotri gets jam-packed and when (diners) disperse, some of them come here, said Vermes. The hotels in the area, a lot of guests want that nightcap before they hit the sack.
Not all of John Anthonys converts were tourists, however.
Going to a winery is an event; you build your whole day around it, because youre learning about the wine, said Reynaldo Perez, a Napan who works for Dropbox in San Francisco and visits John Anthony weekly. Tonight I got home from work, changed, wanted to see who was in town and had a glass.
You cant compare the two its like apples and oranges. Here you can have some wine, meet friendly people, see where the night takes you.
For all of John Anthonys fashionable touches and atmosphere, its shape was as much the fruit of necessity as design, according to its creator.
We would love to have a small winery and tasting room, but it costs a fortune to get anything approved, said the Carneros and Oak Knoll grapegrower, who began producing wines under his own label a decade ago. To get one approved today (in the unincorporated county, governed by the Ag Reserves land-use laws) is a $2 million, $3 million project.
Our aspiration is to have that beautiful winery, he said. Its just that the cost is significantly higher than for a tasting room.
Truchard described most of his First Street customers as experienced wine lovers, often referred there by limousine drivers working the Upvalley winery routes. But he described the downtown tasting rooms, though far from the vines, as a permanent part of winemakers outreach to customers of the present and especially the future.
What it doesnt give is the sense of where and how wine is made, he said. But maybe in 10 or 15 years, some of these people (visiting) will become large wine buyers.
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