February 27, 2003 -- "My dentist makes wine," John Thoreen, director of the wine center at Meadowood Resort, tells me as he takes me through an impromptu Champagne tasting out by the croquet lawn. "That's how Napa ticks."
Being on a first-name basis with Napa's smaller wine producers makes Thoreen tick, too. A former humanities professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, the raspy-voiced, avuncular Thoreen is Meadowood's Vineyard Concierge, so to speak. For resort guests, he unlocks the gates of Napa Valley wineries that are either not open to visitors or only open by appointment. He also serves as cosmopolitan chaperone for the half- and full-day tours of the wineries that the wine center sets up for guests. It's one good reason to stay at this classic Napa Valley property, which rambles over 250 pine-scented acres just outside St. Helena.
The Champagne tasting was the overture to a day spent on Pritchard Hill, the hot Napa wine area right now. We started at Chappellet, where we got a tutorial in soil, slope and varietals from chief operating officer Jon-Mark Chappellet. Then we had lunch, accompanied by a selection of Chappellet wines, including the 1999 Pritchard Hill Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (only 1,100 cases made), in a pine-shaded sward overlooking Lake Herman. The tasting certainly bore out a recent Wine Spectator magazine judgment that Chappellet is now making its best wines ever.
After lunch we visited Harrison Vineyards, which I'd never heard of, but which has a terrific cabernet made from 32-year-old vines, and concluded at Long Vineyards. By then it was raining so we ended up in Bob Long's cumin-scented kitchen, the aroma wafting from a pot of black beans simmering on the stove. Long took us through his entire portfolio--from Pinot Grigio to Cabernet via Chardonnay and Sangiovese--accompanied by his own witty, pithy history of Napa Valley winemaking. It was the wine-country experience you fantasize about.
Meadowood is still Napa Valley's great summer-camp-for-adults, all year round. It has a 75-foot-long pool, seven tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course and a spa whose massage offerings have recently been expanded. (I recommend the Hot Rock massage.) The property has 85 cottages, suites and lodges. The spacious Lodge rooms, whether Hillside, Hillside Terrace or Poolwatch, are the accommodations to get. They have muscular stone fireplaces, beamed ceilings and a large deck--and they feel like an on-property pied-a-terre. My second choice would be the Lawnview Rooms in Croquet Lodge, which overlooks the croquet lawn.
Thoreen or his assistant, Donna Leverenz, speaks to every guest who inquires about a wine tour to gauge their expertise level. To get into the cult wineries such as Bryant Family Vineyards, says Leverenz, you must have "a connection to it." Translation: You're already a collector. That's because wineries like Bryant Family Vineyards don't need converts: They already sell out their entire, quite small production, so they're looking to solidify their relationship with the customers they already have. It's nice work if you can get it.
The virtue of the Meadowood program though is that it can take you to wineries like Harrison, ones that aren't compulsively written about and that produce wines that you can actually find at retail. I'll take discovery over bragging rights any day.
Room rates at Meadowood range from $460 to $3,585 night. Tour rates are $200 for the first hour, $100 for each subsequent hour, plus transportation if provided by the Meadowood wine center. For more information, consult the Meadowood Web site. Reservations by phone at 800-458-8080.