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Tour Beringer Winery and maybe even ask a girl to marry

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Beringer is one of Napa Valley’s oldest and best-known wineries, and a tour of its luxuriant, tree-rich grounds in St. Helena gives a taste of winemaking’s old days as well as the polished amenities of today’s industry. It’s a nice blend.

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The Beringer name is so familiar to people—two brothers, Jacob and Frederick, German immigrants, founded the company in 1876—that even non-wine drinkers may recognize it. This familiarity equates to approachability, which is reflected in the location of the winery itself. It’s not at the end of some long, broad driveway or perched on a hilltop. It’s right there, practically right on Main Street (Highway 29) in St. Helena, greeting you like a friendly neighbor with his hand out. Park amid the elms and old-growth redwoods, and in a few steps you’re standing at Rhine House, the Beringer boys’ tribute to the Mainz-on-the-Rhine home they left behind to come to America.

Only if it had a Glockenspiel could this 17-room Victorian mansion look more German in its robustness and character. This was Frederick’s home, containing some 40 stained glass windows, and today it has been converted into a showplace of tastings and special events. The day we were there, in one of its upstairs rooms, an employee was clearing off a table covered with a sea of empty wine glasses. “We just hosted a group from MIT,” she explained. “It started out as a tasting. Then they just wanted to drink.”

Behind the Rhine House is a courtyard with a Ruth Asawa-sculpted fountain in the center, and up a short path is the old stone winery and wine caves that were dug into the hillside in the 1870s by Chinese immigrants who, like the Beringers, were trying to find a path for themselves in this new land. This job for them consisted of digging some 1,200 feet of tunnel into the rock by hand. These subterranean tunnels are a rarity among Napa Valley wineries, and when you step inside them it feels cool and the scent of wine is in the air and muted overhead lighting casts a soft glow on the barrels along the walls.

Tastings and dinners are held here too, and one alcove we peeked into had a long wooden table with place settings for 20 people. Another nook held racks with wine bottled as far back as the 1940s.

Back in the open air again we stopped at the Hudson House, which was where Jacob and his family lived and which is only a stone’s throw from his brother’s digs. If the Rhine House reflected Frederick’s sensibilities—he handled the business side of the enterprise—then Jacob, the winemaker, must have had a different personality, for the Hudson House has the feel of a relaxed country home with a wraparound porch just perfect for kicking back on a warm summer evening and sipping on a private reserve chardonnay.

Groups can reserve the Hudson House for catered dinners and special events. Weddings also take place there, and it’s said that some men, swept up by romance and perhaps ample amounts of what might be called “liquid courage,” have even popped the question to their partner there. Jacob and his brother would be pleased.

The Beringer Winery at 2000 Main Street in St. Helena is open daily from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. during the busy season from June-Oct. 20, closing an hour earlier in the off months. Reservations are recommended for the tours and must be made 48 hours in advance.

The “Taste of Beringer” tour ($40 per person) lasts one hour and includes a sit-down tasting of three wines paired with bite-sized food nibbles. Only for aged 21 and older. An introductory half-hour tour costs $25 per person; it allows those under 21 to come along and they are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. You can taste two wines on this tour if you are of drinking age.

The public is welcome and no reservations are necessary for the wine and chocolate room, where you can sample the work products of both Scharffen Berger chocolates and Beringer. Special tastings led by a wine expert are available beginning at $50 per. For more details on all these matters, see the Beringer website.

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