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Friday, December 10, 2010

Napa/Sonoma Tourist Traps

Darioush "Winery"
Image from
 Yes, some of the wineries are more about capturing tourists (and their money) than wine and wine education.   I've been to tourist traps when visiting other places, too.   I remember the western shop in SW Utah where the Japanese tourists were trying on the cowboy hats and gun holsters.  Though I didn't see any assless chaps like they sell in San Francisco...

Anyway, not saying you shouldn't stop at any of these places.  It's just whether you're looking for "wine Disneyland" or people passionate about their product.   What makes a touristy winery?  They get a lot of out-of-state visitors often for some non-wine reason.  Some are on the list mostly because their location has turned them into tourist stops.  Some because their goal in life seems to be to extract the maximum dollars from each visitor.

Castello Di Amorosa
Napa's newest, and very successful, tourist destination.  It's a recreated medieval European castle and is very well done.  But what the hell is it doing in Napa Valley?  Well, it's part of the Disneyland theme so well-practiced there.   You can't get inside without paying and tours cost extra.   But yes, it's worth doing once as it's still cheaper than going to Europe to see the real thing.

Coppola Winery
I'm not quite sure what to make of his new venture in northern Somona.  It's just finishing construction and I haven't visited recently.   But they have a restaurant, a full bar, a movie gallery, a swimming pool, and a bandshell "inspired" by the one in The Godfather II.  They obviously want you to spend the entire day there.  I can't wait to be a tourist and check this place out myself.

Domaine Chandon
A beautiful setting, good sparklers, and buttload of tour buses.  What really got me was after a fairly high tasting fee they have glass tip jars everywhere planted with a few dollars and people whose goal seems to be sure you leave a few bucks.  You don't tip winery employees, but out-of-the-area visitors don't know that.

Just look at some photos of this place and decide for yourself if this remotely resembles a winery.  That doesn't mean it's not worth visiting if you want to pretend you're in Syria.

Meant to look old.  It's not.   Doesn't pull it off nearly as well as the Castello, but then it was done with a lot less money.

One of the original wineries designed to bring in tourists though Robert Mondavi wanted it to be for the wine.  Tours during the busy season feel more like being part of a cattle drive.  They are a victim of their own success.

You take a tram to a Moorish castle on a hill to taste wine.  You get up there and you're kinda trapped for awhile like in a tourist "trap."  Taste in their reserve room, skip the standard tourist wines.

V. Sattui
The original Napa  tourist trap.  Come on a bus, buy a deli sandwich and some wine, then sit outside and have a picnic.  This is the last place I'd want to have a "wine country picnic," but it's the most visited winery in the state.  Same owner as the Castello.

Your first warning should be the "visitor info" sign out front. Yeah, right. Inside you'll find an "Italian village." You can tell places where the staff works on commission.  The winery is strategically placed to get you on your way into the wine country.

All of these wineries are doing something right as they all see lots of visitors so if you're going to show up on a summer weekend expect big crowds.

Always good to end on the positive:
  • I have been through the Castello Di Amorosa a few times and find it amazing. 
  • Domaine Chandon makes some excellent bubbles.
  • Mondavi can put on a great tour and has excellent reserve wines.
  • On a recent off-season visit to V. Sattui I found our hostess very pleasant and knowledgeable plus some of the wines quite good.
  • Viansa's "Thalia" is one of the better Sangioveses around.
  • Some other very busy wineries that still seem to thankfully be mostly about the wine:  Beaulieu, Benziger, Beringer, Cakebread, Domaine Carneros, Louis Martini, Mumm, and Sebastiani.