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Napa's passion for wine

When I think of the California passion for creating good Cabernet wine, it almost equals the earlier California effort to find gold.

Though many adventurers were drawn to California in search of gold nuggets during the 1848 Gold Rush, some discovered that the true gold was in agriculture.

No agricultural product has been pursued with more passion than the growing of grapes and the making of wine, especially Cabernet wine in the Napa Valley.

Three wineries in the Napa Valley can be celebrated for their historic contribution to the development of California wine, their architectural significance, and their vital place in wine production today.

While there are hundreds of wineries in the Napa Valley - making the choice of where to tour and taste a challenge - these three, well-aged gems are sure to delight a traveler.

The wineries are Rubicon Estate (formerly Niebaum-Coppola) in Rutherford, Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena, and Robert Mondavi in Oakville.

Rubicon Estate (Niebaum-Coppola) was the creation of Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum, who arrived in 1876 and built a classic structure known as the Inglenook Chateau. The handsome brownstone building, covered with ivy, is an architectural treasure in the Napa Valley. Niebaum's wine goal was the production of rich Bordeaux-style Cabernets. In recent years, the movie director Francis Ford Coppola and his family purchased the winery, restored its winemaking reputation with the Rubicon label, and established a Parisian-style park and fountains in front of the winery for the enjoyment of the public. Inside, you can see memorabilia from the Niebaum era and from Coppola's movie-making, including a Tucker car from his noted movie of that name. There are two tasting rooms, one casual and one more formal. A store and café sell Coppola wine and food, mainly pasta and sauces.

The great German Riesling winemaking traditions of the Rhine and Mosel River Valleys contributed several pioneers to the Napa Valley. Foremost among these were the Beringer brothers, who arrived in 1875 and built their palatial Rhine House and winery. The Rhine House is another outstanding architectural treasure of the Napa region. As in the old country, the Beringers dug caves deep into the limestone hills to provide a year-round, climate-controlled, cool environment for their wines. Wine stored in barrels in caves, which are high in humidity, also do not lose much liquid through evaporation. A cave visit is part of the tour at Beringer Vineyards. The lawns, oak trees, and stately house make the scene even more inviting. Beringer puts emphasis on the white wine varietal of choice for the modern drinker, Chardonnay, but still also makes a Riesling.

The name Robert Mondavi is legendary in the modern era of the Napa Valley, that period since the 1960s when Americans once again learned to enjoy wine. The Napa Valley flourished with winemaking before Prohibition, but was decimated when the Volstead Act of 1919 made winemaking illegal. The Great Experiment, as some called Prohibition, lasted from 1919 to 1933. Sons from a generation of wine families went into other businesses. However, a few families persisted, among them the Mondavis, holding their acreage together. There were 140 wineries in the Napa Valley in 1890, but only 25 in 1965. Robert Mondavi has been a tireless spokesman for the joy of moderate wine drinking as an element in the good life. His Cliff May-designed winery, with echoes of California Mission architecture, is in Oakville. Mondavi is respected for its big-flavored Cabernets.

For a pleasing outing, drive north on Highway 29 and stop at the three wineries. Then turn east and drive south along the eastern side of the valley on the scenic Silverado Trail, where the rustic pleasure of the vineyard landscape greets you.

Any time of the year is good, but the autumn months of September and October are especially pleasing. Then, the bustle of the grape harvest is under way and the vine leaves are changing from shades of green to flaming reds and yellows. Autumn is almost as popular as summer, the peak travel time, so travelers desiring the quietest period visit here during the Mustard Festival, February to April, when the fields are colorful with wild mustard and many musical and art events are scheduled.

The Napa Valley continues to re-invent itself in the new century to greet the modern traveler. The new Copia Center has emerged as a leading and guiding force in presenting wine, food and culture, making itself a destination stop not to miss. Many boutique producers of wine offer both delicious product and special experiences for the traveler. The Hess Collection and Vineyards has a major art collection. Clos Pegase Winery was designed to be a temple to wine. Walter Schug and the Schug Carneros Estate Winery have staked out a pioneering excellence in the alternative red grape, Pinot Noir. High in the hills on the east side of the valley Jon-Mark Chappellet guides his family winery on the Cabernet trajectory. A traveler can get an overview of the Napa Valley at dawn with a balloon ascension and then take a leisurely Wine Train ride through the valley during the day, sampling culinary and viticultural artistry to the fullest, with no restrictions on imbibing. Overall, the travel experience in Napa continues to improve as it evolves.

The visitor who made the defining remark about Napa Valley wine was Robert Louis Stevenson. He rested here for a time in the 19th century and wrote a charming book called The Silverado Squatters. Stevenson's much-appreciated comment about Napa Valley wine was, "The wine is bottled poetry."

Napa's passion for wine