Touring Napa Valley's Wineries
Spring Mountain Vineyard

NAPA VALLEY, Calif. - Much like the language of latte at Starbucks, the words spoken at wineries are unique to the industry.

Instead of just tasting good, cabernet sauvignons, or cabs, are described as "complex" and "intense." Chardonnays taste "nutty" and "buttery."

For one not versed in wine-speak, it took only two tastings to figure out what and, more importantly, what not to say. Soon, I was making comments like, "What a nice, velvety finish!" and "Umm, bold . . . intense."

Becoming a wine snob was easy.

Determining the best way to take a Napa Valley tour was a little more difficult.

There are limousines, balloon rides, trains - all very popular for the thousands who visit the wine country of northern California.

For our first day, we decided on the drive-by approach, easily the most affordable. After zipping over from San Francisco - about an hour away - we dropped off bags at the hotel and hit the trail.

Along California 29, the signs grow out of the vineyards like billboards on West Texas highways. Familiar names such as Robert Mondavi and Clos Du Val are joined by lesser-known wineries such as Franus and ZD. From Napa north to Calistoga, there are more than 300 wineries, most welcoming visitors with open arms and bottles.

We visited three wineries - Grigch Hills, Franciscan and Domaine Chandon - where we swirled and tasted some nice wines and some bubbly, listened to sales pitches to join wine-buying clubs, and learned the aforementioned wine-speak.

On Day 2, we got serious.

We went six-wheeling.

First, a little background:

The purpose of the trip was to celebrate the undisclosed birthdays of my wife, Helen, and her best friend from childhood, Sondra Brown Didriksen. Didriksen stumbled upon the off-road wine tour during a business trip to California.

Four of us, including Sondra's husband, Caleb, arrived at Bounty Hunter Rare Wine Co. in downtown Napa on a cool November morning. We were greeted with flutes of champagne and promises of great fun.

Next, we were loaded into the back of a Puch Pinzgauer, an Austrian-made six-wheeler used by the Swiss Army that is part Hummer, part Volvo station wagon.

The itinerary called for us to visit four boutique wineries, going behind the scenes to experience winemaking and tasting firsthand.

Then came the first bit of unexpected news. One of the wineries on the off-road tour had lost power and couldn't participate, saying something about a transformer. Then another winery canceled, citing the same problem.

A couple of phone calls later, and the plans had changed. We'd visit three wineries, not four, including one addition to the list.

Great fun was still promised, although the skeptic within was on watch.

Our first stop did not disappoint us.

At the Reynolds Family Winery, a small, picturesque farm just outside Napa, we were greeted with the rich smell of fermentation heavy in the air. A pond sat in front of the tasting room, which was otherwise surrounded by vineyards, their leaves yellow, orange and rich red.

"The actual estate is 14 acres, and 10 of those are planted," said Kathy Wood, tasting room manager.

Those 10 acres yield the Reynolds Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. We started with the 1999 estate cab, followed by the 2000 version. Both were great. Excuse me - I mean, "Complex with a variety of bold flavors."

Wood then poured the 2001 estate cab, which has not yet been released. It has a great future, she promised.

"This is the year to watch for," Wood said. "We'll release it in the spring."

Next, we were taken into a room stacked with barrels of cabernet franc, syrah and cabernet sauvignon. Vats of grapes were fermenting, easy targets for kamikaze fruit flies.

"Don't worry," marketing director Derek Santiago said. "They don't hurt the wine."

This is the stuff they don't teach in tasting classes.

The conversation moved from fruit flies to barrels in a hurry. Those used at Reynolds are made of French oak and cost between $600 and $700 apiece.

"That's where you get the oaky flavor," Santiago said.

Using something akin to a turkey baster, Santiago dipped into a barrel and extracted samples of the 2002 estate cab.

The flavor was powerful, ripe.

"It'll be ready in about a year," Santiago said. "By the time it's released, the forward flavors will lay down."

You can taste Reynolds wines at a handful of restaurants; thanks to recent changes in the law, you also can order wines at the wineries and have them shipped to you or purchase them online.

Following the barrel tastings, we were served a picnic lunch on the patio at Reynolds. I had a mixed green salad with candied walnuts, but the cheese plate - featuring brie, white Cheddar and fresh honeycomb - was the hit.

Lunch was served with a 1999 Pursuit Merlot, a Bounty Hunter special.

We were ready for naps, but tour guide/driver Jasper Trout had other plans. We headed north, the Pinzgauer screaming as it pushed 55 mph. The wind whipped through the open-air back, and we put the Army-issue blankets to use. About half an hour later, we pulled up to a gate with no name and Jasper pushed the intercom button. He received some instructions ("I got about half of what they said," Jasper confessed) and he pulled the six-wheeler through the gate.

A couple of minutes later and we were at the base of a gorgeous mountain, home of Spring Mountain Vineyard. It was the first time the Bounty Hunter tour had visited Spring Mountain, and we could tell that we were in for a treat.

Tom Ferrell, general manager of the vineyard and a longtime winemaker in the region, greeted our group. He began telling the story of the mountain, an estate that was purchased in 1884 by Abby Parrot - remember that name.

Eventually, four different estates would produce wine on the 800-acre mountain.

In 1974, a man named Mike Robbins purchased the Miravalle estate and created a winery named Spring Mountain. Open to public tours, the winery became popular mostly because of its Victorian mansion, which was home to the TV series "Falcon Crest," starring the insufferable Jane Wyman.

In 1991, a year after "Falcon Crest" ended its nine-year run, Swiss businessman Jaqui Safra purchased Spring Mountain and the three other properties. The gates were shut, and renovations began.

The result is stunning.

Driving along the mountain - and thank goodness we had six-wheel drive - we were overcome with the beauty of the hillside vineyards, bursting with bright colors. For more than two hours we toured the vineyards, and when standing atop the mountain overlooking the valley, we got the feeling that this was no ordinary wine tour.

Six-wheeling down the mountain, with a grove of huge redwoods standing to the left and deep canyons looming to the right, we knew that this was no ordinary wine tour.

"We've been closed to the public for the last 10 years," Ferrell said. "Not many people get this view."

We saw a ghost winery and an empty, 8,000 square-foot mansion called Chateau Chevalier, walked through a cave where barrels were stored and finally strolled across the grounds to the Miravalle mansion.

Once inside, Ferrell explained that the bird in the stained-glass window just off the stairway landing was not a falcon, as portrayed in "Falcon Crest."

"It's a parrot," Ferrell said.

We tasted some Spring Mountain wines - the Elivette reserve was exceptional - before piling back into the Pinzgauer.

It was getting cold now, and we were ready to call it a day.

The final stop was at Laird Family Estate, the polar opposite of Spring Mountain. A conglomeration of wineries under one incredibly huge roof, the facility is home to almost 20 winemakers and wineries.

"There are winemakers without wineries and wineries without winemakers," said Kathleen Clark. "That's where we come in."

In the tasting room, however, only wines from the Laird line were featured.

The 2000 Napa Valley Chardonnay was our clear favorite.

Clark, who works in the tasting room, said her top choice was the Laird Family Estate 2000 Dyer Ranch Syrah. She described the wine with words we understood, providing a great ending to a great day.

"I had it with pork chops, and it's my new favorite," Clark said. "It's bold, not wimpy."