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A Vacation From the Theme Park

Times Staff Writer

With a cool glass of chardonnay in hand, it’s no longer a sizzling summer day at a crowded theme park. You’re in Napa Valley, a vineyard of Riesling grapes around one corner and eager sommeliers nearby.

Even the Mickey Mouse ears donned by seemingly every other child in sight don’t ruin the illusion.

This is the Golden Vine Winery at Disney’s California Adventure, a respite for adults who suffer from Mickey burnout.

“This is like big-kid Disneyland,” marveled Canadian tourist Susan Basran, 35, sipping a glass of Clay Station Zinfandel. Basran and her husband, Guy, took in a tasting, then carried glasses back to a table on the winery’s patio, where their young daughters waited.

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The Mission-style “winery” is a bucolic spot nestled near California Adventure’s entrance, next to the park’s tortilla and sourdough bread factory tours and a 3-D film attraction called “It’s Tough to Be a Bug!” Breezes find their way to the terrace even on the most blistering August days. A giant rock formation shaped like a grizzly’s head looms above.

With 100 grapevines near the entrance for effect, Golden Vine is not a real winery, but a combination of two restaurants, a wine bar and a chilly barrel room where guests can watch a seven-minute film on winemaking.

Golden Vine opened with California Adventure in February 2001 and was run by Napa’s Robert Mondavi Winery. Disney took over operations that October, when the post-Sept. 11 economic slump hit theme parks and Mondavi pulled out.

Since then, Disney officials said, the attraction has emphasized educating guests about wines. And just as the cotton candy and hot dogs at the nearby “Paradise Pier” might stir an interest in visiting Santa Cruz’s boardwalk, goes the reasoning, the wine tastings might inspire visitors to make their own trips to Napa Valley.

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“We try to make wine less intimidating,” said Mary Niven, vice president of food and beverage for the resort. “It’s about creating a true California experience for our guests.”

Tastings cost $10 and include three samples. There are six options for the Wine Country tasting -- three reds and three whites -- and four for the Sauvignon Blanc tasting. A sampling of port wines and blue cheese is also offered, as are dozens of wines by the glass.

All but two of the employees who lead the tastings are sommeliers, trained by Disney in a yearlong course, and the others are taking classes.

That means that while guests are sniffing and swirling and sipping, they’re learning. Like Jeff Henry, 24, a Costa Mesa electrician who hopes someday to reopen his family restaurant and figures he needs to learn about wine first.

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He brought friend and ice-skating coach Tiffany Nielsen, of Walnut, to the wine tasting for her 21st birthday.

Sommelier-in-training Keith Lucero, his shirt printed with green and magenta grapes, guided them through a sampling of white wines. Between glasses, he urged them to cleanse their palates with crackers.

Nielsen’s favorite was the Silverado Sauvignon Blanc, Henry’s the Clay Station Pinot Gris.

“For beginners like me,” Nielsen said, “this is really informative. I didn’t even know how to pronounce ‘gris’ half an hour ago.”

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And there’s no other place where wine tasting happens just a grape’s throw from the couple’s next stop: the park’s Tower of Terror ride. After all, even if the winery’s terrace does its best to make one forget, the wine tastings are still in the middle of the Disneyland Resort. Guests walk by with acrylic wineglasses in one hand; with the other, they push strollers that have Eeyore or Nemo balloons bobbing from the handles.

As sommeliers wax poetic about a chardonnay’s bouquet, they must pause when the park’s traveling surf band tools by.

The adjacent Grizzly River Run water ride provides occasional screams. Tastings stop for the day when the Main Street Electrical Parade’s synthesized songs fill the park.

Nonetheless, adult guests said they loved Disney’s more mature side. Jessica Yocum, 21, a secretary visiting from Las Vegas, said the chance to taste fine wines between roller coasters was like an extra vacation.

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“I’ve always wanted to visit Napa Valley,” Yocum said.

“This might be the closest I ever get.”


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