American Times NAPA VALLEY: California steals the bucolic beauty of Tuscany's vine-clad countryside

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The Independent Online
THE SIGNORELLO vineyard is reached through a pale sandstone gateway topped with pale terracotta tiles. A line of cypresses marks the crest of the hill behind the main villa, and beneath the trees stretch rows and rows of vines interspersed with olive trees.

It is the sort of luscious Tuscan landscape Bernardo Bertolucci captured so knowingly in his summer idyll of a film, Stealing Beauty. All that is missing from the view is a glimpse of a medieval village on a distant hilltop. But this isn't Tuscany, and there aren't any medieval villages. It is the Napa Valley, California's premier wine-growing region, an hour's drive north of San Francisco, and the vista created by the masters of Il Signorello is an entirely artificial one.

The valley, as it turns out, is full of such conjuring tricks. Not far from Il Signorello is the Stag's Leap winery, which offers a reasonable facsimile of a French chateau, complete with stone buttresses, giant barrel storage rooms for sample tastings and a formal garden. Ten miles or so to the north is the property owned by the film director Francis Ford Coppola, whose main house has the kind of Gothic feel that would not be entirely out of place in the Loire.

Napa, as it turns out, is not just a byword for beautiful countryside, fine wines and palatial weekend retreats. It is also America's quintessential shrine to Euro-worship. Not content to feast on its own considerable beauties - the gently rolling hills, the wooded hollows, the sun-drenched country houses - Napa feels obliged to create a kind of upscale Disneyland, where everything of interest is really a replica of something else, in this case the epicurean rural life of France and Italy.

Bordeaux, of course, is where the first vines came from when Napa rediscovered its wine-making traditions once Prohibition was repealed and the postwar economy took off. But the worship of all things European goes well beyond varieties of grape.

Every rural lodge is a studied imitation of a French gite. Every restaurant aims to reproduce the feel of a French rural hideaway or an unassuming Italian osteria - albeit with a longer, fancier and pricier menu.

In Yountville, the valley's gastronomic capital, there is The French Laundry - Napa's answer to country haute cuisine; Bouchon - an upmarket bistro complete with wooden shutters and flowery writing on the daily specials blackboard, as well as a busy, family-style Italian restaurant and a superior pizzeria.

Before Napa began its dizzying upward spiral a decade ago, the roots of its Euro-worship were planted in the San Francisco Bay area, which has always fancied itself as the most European of American regions.

Alice Waters' seminal Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, showed how to give a fancy Californian gloss to Mediterranean favourites, and soon her brand of gastronomic verve was being exported to the country to accompany the ever more refined Napa vintages. Berkeley is also the origin of the key book of themovement - Bella Tuscany, a gushing little travel tome by a University of California professor, which does for rural Italy what Peter Mayle's picture-postcard paeans did for Provence.

Napa may not have the charmingly rustic locals (it has illegal Mexican labour instead), but makes sure it has everything else. One winery is filled with European sculpture, another with European modern art. The valley is even dotted with European street signs.

Not all of them quite hit the right note. In Yountville, next to a white- and-blue Avenue des Champs-elysees sign, is a charmingly printed German public notice whose meaning surely eluded the enthusiast who filched it. "Widerrechtlich parkende Fahrzeuge werden kostenpflichtig abgeschleppt!" it warns in a frighteningly officious accumulation of hard consonants.

For the ardent Euro- enthusiast, though, that still sounds a lot more romantic than the pithier, down-to-earth American equivalent: NO PARKING - TOW ZONE.