by Daphne Miller
When New York State native Dana Asher visited Napa for a wine tour with operator Napa Insiders last year, she hoped to brush up on her knowledge of the grape. But the vacation left her with a more than just an appreciation for Pinot Noir.
“As soon as I looked around, I started fantasizing about moving there,” Asher laughs. “I am dying to get back. I bought a Napa map and framed it and it’s up in my kitchen right now.”
Asher’s not the only traveler who is heading to California wine country because of its vintage blend of wine, food and scenery. Almost five million visitors flood the Napa Valley every year, according to the Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau. And many of them are turning to organized tours like Napa-based Napa Insiders’ five-day, all-inclusive tours. Run by valley resident James Tennant, the upscale tours specialize in intimate, small-group forays to boutique wineries and restaurants hand-picked for their character and quality.
“I choose the destinations based on my own research, by the feeling I get when I go into the tasting room, and based on opinions from people I know in the valley,” Tennant says. “There have to be reasons we go there — for the wine, the people and the character. Not only does the wine have to be good — the winery has to really want visitors.”
Tennant runs 12 seasonally based, organized tours a year, highlighting the various stages of wine production and local scenery. For example, the Harvest & Crush tour takes groups close to the action during the valley’s bustling October stretch, while Picnic Time focuses on soaking up the region’s idyllic summer weather. Customized tours are also popular for groups who want more control over their itinerary.
I have a wide range of clients from all over the country — Texas, New York, Philadelphia. As far as wine knowledge is concerned, some people know nothing about it and want to learn more, and some know a lot,” Tennant says. “So I plan a range of experiences.”
A former resident of Canada and Florida, Tennant moved to San Francisco in the early 1980s to found a franchise car-rental business. Like many of his current clients, Tennant fell in love with Napa at first sight, and began running guided tours in 2004.
“I had been to the wine districts of France, Italy, Canada and New York State but was blown away by Napa,” he recalls. “Napa combines great food, wine and scenery with a friendliness and relaxed approach that is unique.”
Located 45 miles north of San Francisco, Napa Valley was settled in the 1830s by farmers attracted to its rich vol-canic soil. Many of the original farmers planted small vineyards with cuttings they had obtained by Catholic priests from the Sonoma and San Rafael missions. Quicksilver, lumber and cattle were early sources of income
for locals, but over the years, the wine industry established the valley as one of the world’s premier wine-growing regions.
Though Tennant’s itineraries are dynamic (and they change as he makes new finds), his tours consistently include a few favorites. In the 18th-century-style salon at Swanson Vineyards in Rutherford, small groups convene around an elegantly appointed circular table for a private wine and chocolate tasting. The one-hour event recalls days of indulgence and deep discussion in the salons of Paris, but groups are free to talk about anything from the virtue of Muscat to that day’s sports scores.
“One of my fears was that it was going to be a snobby wine tour, but it was extremely down-to-earth,” says Asher. “Most people on the tour knew a little about wine but not much. We were encouraged to talk openly, even if we disliked what we tasted.”
Texas native Jackie Butler traveled with her husband, Dale, on a tour in 2005, and agrees. “We were new to wine, and the other people on the tour were more knowledgeable,” she says. “Jim was full of knowledge but kept everyone interested. Even the people who knew a lot about wine learned new things. And he would add wineries based on people’s tastes.”
Because the pairing of food and wine is so intrinsic in wine country, the tour pays serious attention to dining. Meals include evenings at lauded eateries like Celadon in Napa as well as gourmet picnics at wineries like Bouchaine in Carneros. At restaurateur Pat Kuleto’s estate, tucked high in the Napa mountains, groups feast at a table overlooking undulating vines. The repast, prepared by on-site chef Janelle Weaver, almost exclusively uses ingredients grown on the fantastical farm.
“The meals were amazing,” recalls Butler. “On a lot of tours, you feel limited with a set price. Jim was so attuned to what made a meal great and we never felt like he was keeping tabs. We ordered anything off of the menu we wanted, and if he wanted us to try something new, he would just order it so we could try it.”
The tour also aims to take the pressure off clients who are typically plagued with the stresses of cars, clocks and schedules. Groups are chauffeured in vans and given lodging at the Napa River Inn, chosen for its luxurious 19th-century ambiance and prime location, just a few walking blocks from downtown Napa. The property also offers amenities such as a full-service spa, restaurants, a gourmet general store and a gallery displaying local art.
“My husband has MS (multiple sclerosis) and we were concerned about a lot of walking,” says Butler. Her husband, Dale, continues: “Jim was very accommodating and helpful. When we were up at Kuleto’s we had to get from the tasting room to the house, and he made sure our getting around was taken care of. Also, we generally live by a calendar, watch and clock — but during the tour, we had no clue what day it was. If we wanted to know, Jim would tell us, but otherwise, he just let us relax.”
Much of the appeal of the tour stems from Tennant’s own genuine love of the region and the places the group visits. At Reverie Winery in Calistoga, he gleefully pointed out bottles of wine tucked away along the tasting trail (pourers walk visitors through the grounds and pour wines at strategic spots), then gazed in wonder at a redwood grove that sometimes serves as a setting for hors d’oeuvres for his group.
As for Asher, who is still dreaming of sun-soaked days among vines bursting with fruit, the combination of Napa’s allure and the tour’s pampering approach was a definite hit.
“We were a close-knit group, there was no driving, and we were completely catered to,” she says. “It could not have been better.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Napa Insiders runs tours from March through December. Per-person prices range from $2,195 to $2,295 for five days and four nights. Accommodations, wine and most meals included. Contact Napa Insiders: Tel: 866-918-8500. www.napainsiders.com
NAPA VALLEY — Travel Tips
• The Napa Valley is serviced by both the Oakland International and San Francisco International Airports, located approximately 40 miles to the south and southeast, respectively.
• The Napa Valley enjoys moderate temperatures most of the year. Almost all the rain falls between November and April. Summer temperatures range from the low 80s in the south end to near 90 in the far north; but nights can be cool enough for a sweater or light jacket.
• Visitors can learn about Napa history by reading Silverado Squatters, a classic account of Calistoga and the Napa Valley written by Robert Louis Stevenson. The author and his new wife settled for nine months in the bunkhouse of an abandoned silver mine in the late 1800s.
• Napa Valley is the second-most-visited tourist destination in California (Disneyland ranks as #1), and features more than 200 wineries.