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The Best Grapes are in Napa Valley

October 01, 2004

The grapevine has an amazing power to transform reasonably attractive countryside into an oasis of culture and beauty that speaks to all of one's senses - and no place is that better manifested than in the famed Napa Valley.

A visit to Napa is not just a chance to see where wine is made, or to explore the upscale shops and stores that now have found their way into the tiniest of Napa Valley communities. Rather, a trip to the valley is an almost spiritual journey that presents you at once with the beauty of 63,000 acres of vineyards and the industry that has brought a European elegance to the Valley lifestyle.

The town of Napa itself is no longer the sleepy berg it was before its name became synonymous with world-class wine. With 75,000 residents, Napa has become a city in its own right - albeit with the feel of a small town. Major new shopping complexes such as the Napa Premium Outlets have sprung up and, in keeping with one of the latest trends, Napa now has 10 wine bars that allow you to taste to your heart's content without ever setting foot in a winery.

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Up the 30-mile-long valley are much smaller towns such as Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga - each an easy and scenic drive from Napa and all of them offering their own unique versions of what a Napa Valley wine town should be all about. Taken together, the towns of the Napa Valley offer a Disneyland for wine-lovers whose E-ticket rides will include some of the most famous labels in the world. But even if you are only mildly curious about wine, the chateaus, the gorgeous vistas, the educational tours that show you every step of the wine-making process - all of these things will make a Napa Valley visit worthwhile.

It's impossible to see any more than a small sample of wineries on your weekend or daytrip, and we're told that people from the Bay area just drive up to Napa week after week checking off a few more wineries from their list each time. Most of the wineries charge for wine tastings - although we did come across one that didn't - and either your pocketbook or your alcohol tolerance will probably limit the number of wineries you can visit on any given day.

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