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Napa Valley's Wine Region Boasts Many Other Pretty Faces

This year, visitors to Northern California's Napa Valley region will have lots more than great wines and rolling vistas to enjoy. VOA's Adam Phillips offers a taste of these and other Napa pleasures in this report.

Spirits were high in the tasting room at the Robert Mondavi Winery as tourists, wine connoisseurs sampled the many varieties of wine this vineyard produces every year. Wine pourer Jessica Cherry loves to please connoisseurs, but she takes special care to educate those who are unfamiliar the pleasures of wine.

"Start off with what you like," she advises. "I know with myself, I started off liking white wines, and then I went into reds. I constantly go back and forth. I love them all now!"

That's unusual in the United States, where only 12 percent of consumers drink wine. This contrasts sharply with Italy, winery founder Robert Mondavi's birthplace, where the joys of wine are considered an integral part of the good life. According to Inger Shiffler, the winery's wine educator, it was Mondavi's mission to get its estimated 300 thousand annual visitors to enjoy it, too.

"Mr. Mondavi's goal from the beginning was to get wine back on a dinner table, back with a meal, back with a family," Shiffler says. To do this, he offered a full tour of his vineyard that highlighted the winemaking process and "tastings" where guides "walk you though the wines and explain some of the things you might be tasting and some tips for how to appreciate wine."

There is a wine tour for almost every tourist in Napa's estimated 375 vineyards. Novices, for example, can learn basic wine tasting techniques. Connoisseurs can take an "essence tour" to deepen their appreciation for a good wine's underlying chemistry. During an essence tour, visitors sniff the aromas exuded by a variety of substances, from olives to lemons and bark, and then try to identify similar tastes and aromas in various wines.

All great wine requires great grapes, but winemaking itself is an art that involves knowing when to pick, choosing the right vineyards, deciding which grapes to choose and how you might blend those grapes together. Shiffler says that the winemaker's role is then "to taste and taste and taste and taste and figure out how to make the wine he or she would like to express."

At the Hess Collection Winery halfway up nearby Mount Veeder, Napa Valley tourists can appreciate another type of art: the painted and sculpted kind. Inside its airy museum space are Abstract Expressionist paintings by Robert Motherwell, portraiture by the British painter Francis Bacon, and a flaming typewriter by the Argentinian sculptor Leopoldo Maler. The collection is vast, and only about 20 percent of it is on exhibit at any one time.

David Johnson, who runs the Hess Collection Winery visitor center, says art is just as important to this winery's founder as wine.

"Art is Donald Hess' personal passion. And he was probably the first person to actually put an art gallery with a winery," he says. "And we do have people from all over the world who… love to come out and see the collection."

It is craft rather than art that's offered at the Saint Helena Olive Oil Company. It is one of the several small Napa firms that sell the oil made from the local trees - some which are centuries old - that thrive in this Mediterranean climate. Shop assistant manager Andrea Mason shows off the 15 or so limited edition varieties produced here.

"The one thing that differentiates Napa Valley olive oil from other regions is we like to do early harvest as well as Italian varietals," she says. "That's going to give you a very pungent or robust olive oil so you get a strong peppery 'after-kick.'"

Mason loves the time-honored way her olive oils are produced nearly as much as their flavors. "Farmers go out, handpick the olives, and then they press the olive," she says.

Mason adds that many still press the olive "the old fashioned way, which is just mortar and stone, and you are going to be crushing the complete olive." The olive oil is then bottled immediately, says Mason, "… because, unlike wine, you don't want to have an aged olive oil; you want to use it within its harvest year."

Other great reasons to visit Napa Valley, California, include hiking and camping in its idyllic green hills, dining in its gourmet restaurants, shopping in its quirky stores or attending an outdoor concert - all pleasures that go down nice and smooth, with or without a glass of wine.