The cacao tree is a prima donna, growing only within 10 degrees latitude of the Equator in the deep, moist soil of the tropical rainforest.
Young cacao trees demand shade, clinging coyly to the canopy of banana or rubber trees while their flowers develop into oblong, fluted fruits that dangle from the trunk like oversized Christmas ornaments.
The alien-looking cacao pods represent just the first step along chocolate's arduous journey from bean to bar. For a crash course on the entire chocolate-making process, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone has launched an interactive Chocolate Tasting this month at its new Flavor Bar.
With the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Factory in Berkeley now closed, the Greystone campus is one of the few places in the Bay Area where consumers can get a complete overview of this addictive foodstuff, currently being touted for its healthy, antioxidant properties.
It's a win-win situation for Wine Country denizens and tourists looking for something a little different from the usual cabernet and chardonnay tasting.
"We're trying to provide something for everyone," said Patricia Donnelly, manager of CIA's Spice Islands Marketplace and Store. "It's for people coming in at the end of the day ... or even a family with kids."
Although a few chocolatiers entice the public with tastes of their products — you can spoon out some chocolate sauce at Anette's Chocolates in Napa, or nibble on ganache and dark chocolate at Wine Country Chocolates in Glen Ellen and Sonoma — this kind of in-depth, educational tour is a rare opportunity.
CIA's 15-minute Chocolate Tasting moves quickly, so you might want to fuel up with some coffee or tea beforehand, to awaken all of your senses. You don't want to feel like Lucille Ball, struggling to keep up with the bouncing bonbons on the conveyor belt.
The interactive journey begins at the 16-seat Flavor Bar, built inside the new marketplace and store where culinary students staff the counter, provide the chocolate samples and answer questions.
A video starring CIA instructor Stephen Durfee, a former pastry chef at the world-famous French Laundry in Yountville, serves as the official tour guide.
To kick off the bitter-to-sweet tasting, visitors are supplied with samples of chocolate in 11 different iterations, from the cocoa bean and nibs to specialty chocolates from around the world, sourced from Barry Callebaut of Switzerland.
The tactile experience — you can crush the bean, rub cocoa butter into your hands and taste unsweetened chocolate with a chaser of cane sugar — helps reinforce the complex process that goes into each Hershey's or Valrhona bar.
The tasting also helps explain the labels on a blended chocolate bar: 70 percent means the bar is 70 percent chocolate liquor and 30 percent sugar, for example.
The tasting culminates with an explanation of the "terroir" of chocolate which, like wine, is influenced by the soil where it is grown.
While chocolate sourced from Ecuador has hints of jasmine and wildflower, the chocolate from Madagascar is subtly scented with citrus and the Venezuelan chocolate explodes with ripe cherries and berries.
You can prolong your chocolate experience by watching students make chocolate confections and cakes in the adjacent Chocolate Laboratory, behind a glass wall. Unlike Willy Wonka, you don't need a golden ticket, but you will need some cash if you want to take home some of the students' handiwork.