Aspen Untucked: A different kind of seasonal town | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Untucked: A different kind of seasonal town

by barbara platts

In this town, one industry is king above all others. The area is known as a world-class destination. On the downtown streets, the Beemers and Mercedes whiz about quickly. Money is spent flagrantly on booze, food and experiences. Here, it's acceptable to drink just about any time during the day.

No, this isn't Aspen. It's a little place called Napa.

Located in Northern California, Napa is a town of about 80,000 people. It is placed in Napa Valley, about 50 miles northeast of San Francisco and 60 miles west of Sacramento. Instead of ski slopes, the surrounding area is lined with grape vines planted on miles and miles of rolling hills.

Even if you don't consider yourself a wine person, you've probably heard of Napa. Wine bottles in liquor stores across the country proudly bear the name of this valley. If you're an avid wine drinker, you probably know much more about the area than me and spend some time every week reading Kelly Hayes' column about wine that also is in this publication.

Although I'm leagues and leagues away from being considered a wine connoisseur, I do think of myself as a wine appreciator and a rather huge fan. I've taken a few trips to Sonoma County, the western neighbor to Napa, in the past couple of years. But last weekend was my first journey to Napa. I went with two Aspen girlfriends to explore the area and, of course, taste as much good wine as possible.

Napa's growing season is really just getting started. The small grapes on the vines are practically the size of ants. Over the summer and early fall, they will grow much larger in size and be harvested in September or October.

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My friends and I only spent about 36 hours in this wine region, but we were able to visit six wineries during that time. From the smaller operations to the big shops, each had its own flare and produced drastically different wines, even though they were all so close together. Most wineries we visited had a nice selection of wines, both red and white. However, from what we learned, Napa is well-known for its cabernets and sparkling wines.

For how big of a name Napa is around the globe, the area actually only produces about 5 percent of the country's wine. To give you a better idea, California as a whole produces about 90 percent. We heard that a reason for this is because more high-end wines are made in Napa and larger production wines (such as Franzia) are made in less desirable parts of the state.

During my stay in Napa, I found that one of the most interesting attributes of the destination wasn't the wine prices or the nightly hotel rates, it was the living and breathing community underneath all of the visitor information. Like Aspen, there's a lot more going on then just what the tourists see. There are locals who live there year round, even in the offseason (winter and early spring). Then there are the seasonal workers that come in every year to work at a winery, restaurant or hotel. Our tour guide at the popular Robert Mondavi winery spends his winters in Massachusetts and his summers in Napa and has done so for many years. The people who live there are always eager to share knowledge and advice with tourists who come in for a quick visit, though I'm sure underneath they get slightly annoyed with all of the craziness, just like we do in Aspen. When glancing through the local paper, it was obvious that the community and surrounding ones deal with the same kind of problems we do. From crime to education, the residents are trying to find the best ways to continue making their place a great one to live in.

If you find yourself in Northern California, or in need of a destination for a future trip, I highly suggest traveling to Napa. Take some time to visit the wineries and eat the incredible food. But, most importantly, make sure to talk to the locals. That's where the true flavor lives.

Barbara Platts would love to live in wine country for a season but isn't sure it would be the healthiest of choices for her. Reach her at bplatts.000@gmail.com or on Twitter @BarbaraPlatts.