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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"


You have to spit it out. That's the secret to surviving a frantic day of wine tasting in Napa and still remembering that you were ever there. Swish, sniff, sip, spit - that's the system. If one were to actually drink all the wines proffered at each winery, about one winery is all you could experience in any one day. Now some folks wisely tour wine country in hired limousines and can sip and swallow. But I think after their first winery visit, they must spend a lot of time giggling or napping in back seats.

I chose to explore Napa's beautiful countryside and visit as many wineries as possible by driving myself. With my wife, Margaret, as my navigator, a roadmap of wineries in hand, we cruised along the Silverado Trail, a 60 mile circle route on Highway 29 from Napa to Calistoga and back.

There are more than 250 wineries along the Silverado and our first stop along the route was the Hess Collection. Hess is a vineyard a few miles north of Napa, off the main highway, down rustic tree-lined Redwood Road. Donald Hess, a Swiss entrepreneur whose wealth comes from marketing bottled water in his native country, purchased this old Christian Brothers winery in 1986 and began his own. Though his wines were quite good, I think his real passion is art. An ivy-covered stone building houses not only his winemaking facilities, but perhaps more importantly Hess' art gallery, an eclectic collection of American, European, and Asian paintings and sculptures.

The first thing one learns from leaning up against a tasting counter and listening to the local experts tout their wines is that the language of wine tasting is a lot like the language of romance novels. Wines are warm and deep, lush and rich, gorgeous and complex, earthy and lively. Then they talk about wines as if they were having a relationship with foods. A wine might - work well with cheeses, compliment red meats, stand up to fusion foods, pair well with shellfish. I'd sip and spit and think hard and still come up with only two descriptions - like it, don't like it.

The Neibaum-Coppola winery is just north of Rutherford. Francis Ford Coppola, the movie director, bought and renovated the old Inglenook estate. The grounds he has created would make a wonderful movie set. A plaza with benches, trees, a reflecting pool and fountains stands before a renovated 19th Century stone chateau. Inside, Coppola has created a museum. On the first floor are the tasting rooms, a museum of wine-making, and displays outlining the life of Inglenook's founder, Gustave Niebaum, a Finnish shipping magnate, and the life of Coppola and his family. Up a grand staircase, on the second floor, one finds a museum of Coppola's movies. There's a Tucker automobile from the movie Tucker, costumes from Dracula, behind the scenes photos from the Godfather series, and a bevy of awards, including Coppola's Oscars.

Continuing north on 29, you'll find the V. Sattui winery just south of St. Helena. They have a gourmet deli and a tree-shaded picnic grove where you can enjoy lunch. Though their deli is wonderful with plenty of cheeses, meats, salads, and deserts, just across the street from Sattui you'll find Dean & DeLuca, perhaps the most famous gourmet deli of New York City with a branch in the Napa Valley.

Sterling Vineyards is at the northern edge of the Silverado Trail, near Calistoga. They charge $6 to take an aerial gondola to their winery atop a hill. This fee covers the round trip tram ride as well as the tasting. Most of the vineyards we visited had a similar tasting fee. Sterling's buildings look dramatic from a distance but up close are ugly white stucco. Perched high atop a hill, however, this winery had wonderful views of he valley below and their self-guided tour, through corridors overlooking different aspects of the winemaking process, did a wonderful job of educating us as to how wines were actually made.

We found new tastes, and new adventures at every turn and I must credit my friend, Jerry Gold, who has far more experience with Napa's wineries than I, for his suggestions on where to visit. With the aroma of french bread in the back seat and the lingering taste of wine in our mouths, we drove from winery to winery. As we traveled, sip and spit, became more sip and sip. Fortunately, the wineries closed before sip and oblivion set in.