People seeking a special gift for the wine lovers in their lives, or just an entertaining guide to wine country, should check out "Napa Uncorked," an audio guide to California's most famous wine region, narrated by actor David Hyde Pierce -- Niles Crane of the long-running hit TV sitcom "Frasier."
The two-CD package ($19.99), produced by CDRoam, a Los Angeles-based company, takes listeners on an amusing fact- and history-filled jaunt through Napa, with stops in such storied terroirs as Rutherford, Carneros and St. Helena.
It is essentially a driving tour, designed to be popped in the CD player while tooling along Highway 29, so that its jazzy soundtrack fills the car speakers. A compact color map of the region has been included, along with information on more than 200 wineries.
You'll be chuckling as you navigate the vineyards. Hyde Pierce -- who came to the project through his brother-in-law, scriptwriter William Rempel, who is also an investigative journalist -- lends a witty tone to the narration and a skilled thespian's talent for phrasing and accents.
The actor, who has traveled to Napa himself on several occasions, genuinely connected with the project. "I loved that the script captured my own experience of Napa," he said, before admitting a "slightly more than moderate knowledge of wine." It has been enhanced since 1993, when he first took on the Emmy-Award-winning role of Niles, the snobbish younger brother to Kelsey Grammer's Seattle radio personality Frasier. The sibling shrinks have often bonded, hilariously, over fine wines.
"I was enlightened," said Hyde Pierce. "What we do with wine on the show, we do to poke fun at pretentiousness. But I started to like the taste." As the new owner of an EuroCave wine-storage unit, he added, "Of course, we drink a lot of wines on the show that I can't afford."
Hyde Pierce knew that, with the cover depicting him in a stomped-grape-stained white necktie and rolled-up white pants, perched atop a heap of grapes in a cellar, the CD could easily have been titled "Niles Goes to Napa." But that wasn't what he, or the producers, had in mind.
"I wanted the reverse, to be just myself, and the various characters involved," he said.
On the CD, Hyde Pierce plays a number of roles, from an exasperated Frenchman confronting California Cabernet during the famous 1976 showdown in Paris between American and French wines, to a fast-talking Hollywood type pitching "a wine war—don'tcha love it?!?!" about the family feud between the Mondavi brothers. Throughout, he balances laughs with a deft presentation of how far Napa has come since its humble beginnings.
His inflections are so wry that he can even raise a smile when covering the "bad attitude and mean appetite" of the phylloxera louse, or the Latin name for, in his opinion, the unfortunately named vine-killing Pierce's Disease.
"The funny stuff on the CD is reflective of the good writing," he noted, admitting that he made very few suggestions -- and in fact, picked up some welcome information during the recording process. "I was delighted to learn new stuff," he said.
Hyde Pierce will also narrate the next installment in the CDRoam series, which will take listeners on a tour of Sonoma.
And what about his own burgeoning wine connoisseurship? "I'm going to expand what I drink. A good glass of wine is a happy thing in my life."
"Napa Uncorked" can be purchased at www.cdroam.com and Amazon.com, in select wine stores and bookstores and through the Wine Appreciation Guild at (800) 231-9463.