Changes in Napa Valley

Dee Hitch
Wine Tips

We recently returned from a pilgrimage to Napa Valley. It has been years since we visited, and many things have changed.

When we started visiting California wine country back in the ’70s, it was still rural and peaceful with a few bed and breakfasts. Tasting was complimentary. Then, in the ’80s, we noticed some changes. Many wineries were charging $3 to taste but included a complimentary glass, usually with the winery’s logo. And there were actual hotels and world-class restaurants.

Fast-forward to the present. Friends recently reported that they spent $140 in one day for tasting fees with their daughter and son-in-law. Not hard to imagine as some wineries charge $25 per person. Beringer charges $35 for their upper tier tasting. While some wineries deduct your tasting fee if you purchase some wine, others don’t. Suddenly — or maybe really not so suddenly — traveling to wine country is not the inexpensive jaunt it used to be.

Price factor aside, as a visitor who goes there to be educated, I find the sometimes haughty attitude of tasting room staffs to be annoying. After all, we have traveled 600 miles to California and then driven the two to three hours from the airport to wine country. Even if a visitor is from “ nearby” San Francisco, it is still a trek. I find the cavalier attitude of the wineries to be very offensive. It is as if they view us all as irresponsible drunks.

Okay, I’ll get off that soapbox.

While in Napa Valley, I had a visit to Copia on my must-do list. Copia is Robert Mondavi’s brainchild. As a winemaker, innovator and owner of a winery, he wanted to teach everyone about wine. Copia’s full title is The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, and it debuted in 2001.

If I were a California resident, I would definitely become a member. There are constantly changing art exhibits, wine and food tasting programs, concerts and films. The restaurant is called Julia’s Kitchen, in honor of Julia Child; it serves lunch and dinner.

For the casual visitor, admission is $5. We wandered through the art exhibit, which included both paintings and photography — much of it with a wine focus. I especially enjoyed the sensory stations. First the visitor loads a smart card, usually starting with $10. Each station is a wine preserving dispenser, which features wine comparisons. Suppose I am interested in Alexander Valley chardonnays. The station dispenses chardonnay from four different Alexander Valley wineries. I pay with my smart card.

The educational possibilities are endless. A station could dispense merlot from France, Chile, California and Washington. Or sauvignon blanc from two different regions in New Zealand, California and Washington.

The bookstore is focused on food and wine. My husband bought “The United States of Arugula” as a present for me.

Copia is in the city of Napa, which wasn’t originally visited often by wine lovers. It was a sleepy agrarian community. My guess is that some residents relished the tranquility while others applauded the additional patronage that Copia has brought. A Westin hotel is now being built; Ritz-Carlton is planning one. The rural, sleepy Napa is no more. Just a few years ago, San Franciscans were buying second homes in Napa. A recent housing development has homes starting at $800,000.

Another attribute that just opened is Oxbow Public Market, described as an “ artisan food hall,” right next to Copia. It can’t hope to rival our own Pike Place Market with its history, crafts and extensive selection of vegetables, meat and seafood, but one drawing point will be Taylor’s Refresher, a “ drive-in” restaurant, which was recently featured on the Food Network. The original Taylor’s is in St. Helena, but that’s almost an hour from Napa. So Napa residents will easily be able to have the world-famous ahi burger ($14), which I personally attest is one of the foods that you must eat before you die.

Another educational focal point will be the tiny winery that Robert Mondavi’s granddaughter is installing at Copia. All the tanks will be see-through. Anytime of the year, visitors will be able to see some process of winemaking — and maybe learn something: Mondavi’s goal.

Copia is closed on Tuesday. Its winter hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Julia’s Kitchen is open Wednesday through Monday at 500 First Street; 888-512-6742.

Upcoming Events: Beaujolais Nouveau began on Friday, Nov. 16, just in time for Thanksgiving.

There is a “Buy Local” emphasis this year for Thanksgiving. Certain farmers’ markets will remain open for purchasing local produce for Thanksgiving Day. Luckily, Washington wines qualify!

Dee Hitch can be reached at

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