Napa Valley Culture

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Napa Valley Culture
Napa Valley is influenced by San Francisco's artistic and cultural diversity, while maintaining its own historically important identity. Artists and musicians are attracted to the natural setting, and there's lots to do in addition to wine tasting.
By Courtney Humiston, AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of Chateau Montelena
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    A Taste of History
    It was in the mid-19th century that entrepreneurial settlers first recognized Napa’s potential for winemaking. Many of the caves and wineries that sprang from those early ventures are still in use, including Charles Krug, Inglenook, and Beringer. One, Chateau Montelena, earned a proud place on the National Register of Historic Places, both for the building itself and for its contribution to modern Napa history: Its chardonnay surprised the world when it triumphed against white burgundies at the blind Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, firmly establishing Californian wines as world-class.
    Photo courtesy of Chateau Montelena
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    A Wine-Country Gathering Place
    Much of the land in Napa Valley is either protected as wild or preserved for agricultural use. Businesses and residences are therefore concentrated along the banks of the Napa River in the valley’s eponymous main town. Downtown Napa is lively and packed with shops, wine bars, and restaurants. Life here revolves around the Oxbow Public Market, where vendors deal in champagne and oysters, wine and cheese. In any other town, perhaps, this market would be an inauthentic tourist trap. Here, it’s a marvelous gathering place for locals and visitors, all of whom share the same appreciation for good wine and good food.
    Photo by Jen Murphy
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    Fine Wine and Fine Art
    Fine wine and fine art have always found a common audience, and savvy Napa Valley curators know it. The private collection at the Clos Pegase winery relies heavily on wine-related art—specifically depictions of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. The Christopher Hill and Caldwell Snyder galleries in St. Helena hang works of more contemporary art. Meanwhile, the Hess Collection winery is the closest thing the valley has to a true modern art museum—with its startling collection of sculptures, paintings, and acquisitions from around the world, it’s an excellent one.
    Photo courtesy of The Hess Collection
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    The Art of Gardening
    Napa’s kitchen gardens resemble still-life paintings, disturbed only by chefs who dart from the back of restaurants to snip a sprig of thyme or a bunch of chives. Gardens here are as much about aesthetics as they are about food, and it’s not uncommon for tourists to pose beside tomato bushes and tidy rows of microgreens, just as they would stand beside statues and sculptures in other destinations. Snap a few of your own photos at the French Laundry garden, directly across from the famous restaurant in Yountville. Farmstead restaurant at Long Meadow Ranch and the gardens at Round Pond Estate are also worth a visit.
    Photo by Courtney Humiston
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    Music for Every Taste
    From alt-country to opera, Napa Valley attracts a wide array of musicians throughout the year. Star violinists wow crowds at the Lincoln Theater, and thundering divas bring down the Napa Valley Opera House. Music festivals such as Live in the Vineyard, BottleRock Napa Valley, and Festival del Sole attract serious headliners and sell-out crowds. Some wineries host regular performances on their own properties. Long Meadow Ranch and Robert Mondavi are two vineyards whose hospitality extends to their front lawns, welcoming the public for outdoor concerts all summer long. These events are a must for anyone who loves good food, good wine, and good music—preferably all at the same time.
    Photo courtesy of the Uptown Theatre
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    Cultural Festivals
    Napa Valley hosts multiple events throughout the year that showcase the best of the region's wine, food, and culture. Flavor! Napa Valley—a show that uses the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone as its headquarters—features chefs' demonstrations, wine-tasting classes, and other activities aimed at educating the palate. Filmmakers from around the world mingle with film-lovers at the annual Napa Valley Film Festival. Although some films related to wine do premier here, most of them have nothing to do with it. The wine receptions are, however, much more than an afterthought!
    Photo courtesy of Flavor! Napa Valley
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    Napa’s History Grinds On
    Public parks and quiet scenery can offer a respite from Napa Valley’s commercial side, but few places are as refreshing as the Bale Grist Mill. Built in 1846, the water-powered jumble of machinery is tucked into the woods on Highway 29 between the stagecoach-era towns of St. Helena and Calistoga. Visit on the weekend to see the two giant stones in action grinding grain and polenta, and to take home a canvas bag of freshly milled grain. In October, "Old Mill Days" honor the mill's history as a center of social life with live, period-appropriate music. If you really want to get into it, bust out the bloomers and bonnet—you won't be the only one.
    Photo by Enlightened Images/age fotostock
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    Wine Is Bottled Poetry
    For the sake of his health, the 19th-century author Robert Louis Stevenson spent a significant amount of time in Napa Valley. (He was inspired to write The Silverado Squatters during his honeymoon here.) It was he who once described wine as “bottled poetry.” It is therefore fitting that the Napa Valley Wine Library Association preserves one of the largest collections of wine literature in the world. Housed within the St. Helena Public Library, the collection is free and available to the public. However, the annual fundraiser, which is held on the lawn of the Silverado Resort & Spa, is an exclusive affair open to those who pay an annual membership fee.
    Photo by Joy Skipper/age fotostock
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    Breathtaking Winery Visits
    Many of Napa Valley's grand estates and tasting rooms are destinations in their own right, and visitors want a tour of the grounds as much as a sip of the varietals. Jarvis Estate is one such magnificent property, inviting guests to walk through a gently curving, 45,000-square-foot cellar complete with subterranean stream. In the extravagant Crystal Cellar at Raymond Vineyards, enormous steel fermentation tanks reflect the glitter of thousands of crystals dangling from massive chandeliers. In comparison, the vast and elevated acres of Kenzo Estate, in the Vaca mountains, are both refreshing and inspiring in their simplicity. Grapes grow on what were once bridle paths and polo fields, and the vineyards frame lovely views of the valley below.
    Photo by Robert Holmes/age fotostock