Visiting every last one of Napa County's 141 tasting rooms is not exactly a dirty job (well, except for the wine stains; white shirts are not advised). But if somebody had to do it -- and if it, alas, wasn't going to be yours truly -- I'm glad it was Rick Kushman and Hank Beal taking on the task. Because the result, "A Moveable Thirst," is quite simply the best Napa travel guide I've ever read.
For one growing season, from bud break to final crush, Kushman, an award-winning TV critic from nearby Sacramento, and executive wine buyer Beal blanketed the sun-splashed epicenter of American wine. Their travelogue, unfolding over the book's first half, introduces us to a delightful mix of places and people, making it clear why Napa's mix of working-class and not-so-working-class citizens so relish life in Wine Country.
The book's second half contains detailed reviews of the tasting rooms, including the essentials (hours, cost, tours, the all-important availability of spit buckets) as well as back stories and incisive observations on the atmosphere and service.
The Terra Valentine winery, owned by Minneapolis native Angus Wurtele, is "part Gothic mansion, part 1960s shrine to free thinking ... a huge, fascinating, slightly weird place" with a plethora of stained-glass windows.
That meshes with my memories from a visit last February, but somehow I had missed the fact that "most of the door handles are ornate metal fish" and I certainly didn't know that the panels in the tasting bar "were once headed for William Randolph Hearst's castle at San Simeon."
Kushman deftly balances his roles as journalist and hedonist. He dubs wine "a glass of happy" and admires "rip-roaring wines." There's a great running gag involving the restaurant Bistro Don Giovanni.
As a TV critic, Kushman surely has seen a lot of "Simpsons" episodes; that show's blend of whimsy and warmth are reflected here. In serving as "the enthusiastic idiot" to Beal's serious expert, Kushman might be making like Homer, but he displays more than a little of Bart's wiseacre wit and Lisa's worldly wisdom.
Which makes it as much fun to read about this Homer's odyssey as it must have been to chronicle it.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643
Read Ward on Wine at www.startribune.com/blogs/wine.