To toast the opening of the new American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, we asked an expert to take us on an insider's tour of America's favorite wine region.


Curmudgeonly Charlie Wagner is in the tasting room at Caymus Vineyards on hidden Conn Creek Road, I know I'm in luck. Because if you can show ol' Charlie you know a thing or two about wine, and are truly interested in his special select Cabernets, he might just reach down behind the bar for a bottle and let you taste some. As the wine columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, it's my job to ferret out these savory secrets. And since I've visited the Napa Valley more than 200 times over the last 26 years, I was tapped to take you on an insider's tour of the valley, a two- or three-day jaunt that now must begin, or end, at COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts.

I understand that one can't possibly eat and drink his or her way through a visit to Napa Valley, one of the world's most beautiful and diverse wine regions, although I'm sure some of you are saying right about now, "Oh yeah, just try me." Balloon trips, bike tours, and glider rides are all good diversions, but let's not lose sight of the purpose of our little excursion: the wine.

Napa Valley is America's most important, illustrious, and chronicled wine region. To accentuate the point, a ton of Napa Valley grapes from the 2000 harvest cost winemakers an average of $2,467. A ton of Sonoma grapes averaged just over $2,000, while the average per ton price for the rest of California was $568 for the same vintage.

To help you plan your next trip, I've consulted my notes to come up with the consummate guide to negotiating Napa. In fact, here are a few quick tips before you go: If possible, stay midweek; take Silverado Trail when you can to avoid traffic on Highway 29 (Up Valley, as the locals like to say); and only buy wine there if it's sold exclusively in the tasting room or if you can't find the wine at home. Read on for other insights and information.


FROM GRAPE TO GLASS
Begin at Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage, across from the Napa Airport and just north of Vallejo, for its fascinating, and often-overlooked, tour demonstrating how air-dried wooden staves are gathered around metal hoops to form the open-fired 60-gallon oak barrels in which most wines begin their journey. Armed with knowledge of the beginning of the winemaking process, the best winery at which to start is St. Supéry Vineyards and Winery, which makes perhaps the valley's best Sauvignon Blanc. Its self-guided tour features a demonstration vineyard, crush station, and gallery with a view of the fermentation room, barrel room, and topographical maps. Stick your nose deep down into one of the plastic "Smellavision" tubes, press a button, and experience what a Cabernet smells like or the typical aromas of a Sauvignon Blanc.