Dreams Come to Life in Wine Country
In April 2010, Carol and I fulfilled a long-time ambition by visiting California wine country. We had actually started talking about this trip nearly 10 years earlier and for two wine lovers, it seemed inevitable that we would eventually experience Napa, Sonoma and the other northern California wine regions. Some of the details are captured elsewhere on this website but since this was mostly a vacation for us, I'll try to give you a flavor of our time out there in this journal form as well
We left on Tuesday the 20th, flying out of Midway on Southwest. It was a bit of a struggle getting to the airport that morning because of traffic. But getting parked, checked in and through security all went smoothly and the 4 1/2-hour flight to Sacramento was on time. It took a while to get our rental car and I wish now that it had taken a little longer -- long enough for me to notice that the vehicle didn't have cruise control. Oh well, we managed. Our destination that afternoon was The Old World Inn in the city of Napa . Our innkeeper, Ryan Geoghegan, greeted us and we were able to check in and freshen up. We were the only guests that evening so we felt a bit pampered, though the service and attention really never waned even as more guests arrived later in the week.
After enjoying the complimentary snacks and wine that The Old World Inn sets out every night at 5:30pm, we walked the four blocks to downtown Napa and found Norman Rose Tavern, an upscale pub where I had the best hamburger I've ever tasted. Carol also enjoyed her chicken sandwich and we shared truffle fries, a Norman Rose specialty. We had a Peter Franus Zin with the meal and this experience was a nice kickoff to our vacation.
Wednesday was my birthday and our first full day in Napa Valley. We visited a few wineries before heading back to the inn where we had arranged to meet B&B owners Russ and Sharon to get some info for the website feature. Carol has written a feature about the inn and the innkeepers so I won't say much here. Russ and Sharon are an interesting couple and very driven and capable as well. It's not surprising that this was the place in all of Napa recommended to us by Marti Mayne at BedandBreakfast.com.
During our conversation with Russ and Sharon, Carol asked if there was anything they would recommend as a "must see" in the area and they mentioned Goosecross Cellars and gave us a few other suggestions. Probably the most interesting was Oxbow Public Market. When we were done exploring wineries that afternoon, we stopped by Oxbow and found some wonderful cheeses and bread. Ricardo, the cheesemonger, let us sample a number of specialty cheeses that we’d never heard of. That evening, we decided to defer my official birthday celebration and have our cheese and crusty bread in our room, along with a nice Ancien Pinot Noir which we also picked up at Oxbow and, coincidentally, played a big part in our website features. When we were trying to find a small, family owned winery to cover, Ryan suggested Ancien and again, without elaborating here, it was a good choice and a lucky find. Check out my feature called California Wine Country in our "Wineries" section for details.
Thursday was spent visiting more wineries and getting very familiar with Napa Valley. We stopped at Silver Oak, the winery that has a partial interest in A&K Cooperage and several others including lunch at V. Sattui, a winery with a big general store and picnic grounds. I started to feel a bit overwhelmed on Thursday, realizing that there was no way we would be able to visit more than a small percentage of these great California winemakers. Actually, when I came to that realization, we stopped trying and just enjoyed the ones we did visit. We also spent part of the day exploring a couple local state parks. The walk we did in Skyline Wilderness Park just outside Napa was nice, providing a great view of the valley.
That evening, we officially celebrated my 58th birthday with dinner at Ristorante Allegria, an Italian place in downtown Napa that our new friends Steve and Laurie Schammel from Raleigh, NC recommended. It was a great meal and a wonderful birthday memory, celebrated with a nice Zinfandel from Milat Winery.
On Friday the plan was to drive down to San Francisco for the weekend so we checked out of The Old World Inn mid-morning and headed south. On the way, we passed Cline Cellars, a place that Carol had hoped we could find because of the grazing sheep she’d seen pictured in their brochure. The Cline grounds have five ponds and lots of willow trees. Knowing my passion for that scenic combination, she made a mental note to hopefully make it a destination on our visit. But had we not driven down to the city, we wouldn't have found Cline as it actually sits in the Carneros region of southern Sonoma County -- a bit off the beaten path -- well, at least off our beaten path. It was among our most memorable experiences of the entire trip. We bought a 1/2 bottle of their Zinfandel, some cheese and crusty bread at the small tasting room and sat on their wrap-around deck, eating, drinking the wine and enjoying the willows and water.
We'd already had several vintages of the Cline Zin over the years -- the '99, the '02 and the '06 -- so we felt very connected to this place before we arrived. Plus, we learned that Cline used to produce the brand "Red Truck," another wine we'd had before. The red truck (right) is allegedly the very one that inspired the name so we had to get a shot of it of course.
While getting a personal tour from Cline hostess Annabel, a young lady from Strasbourg, France, we learned of Jacuzzi, Cline's high-end sister winery that's right across Route 121. Before heading on to San Francisco, we spent some time at Jacuzzi as well. There's an observation tower that provides a great vista of southern Sonoma County, another great memory from a day filled with them.
We made it to the City by the Bay mid-afternoon on Friday, got checked in at the Holiday Inn Fisherman's Wharf and did a bit of walking as is our norm, checking out the area and enjoying the scenery. We stopped and had a late lunch of pizza at Cioppino's, a nice Italian place with outdoor seating. We did a bit more walking after lunch, then, just had munchies later that evening, stayed in, watched a movie and relaxed...something we probably needed to do at that point.
On Saturday morning, we took an open-air bus tour of the city including a ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to a viewing area overlooking the city. Also, it went past The Painted Ladies or “Seven Sisters” as they're called, a group of seven Victorian houses that Carol wanted to see. It was an interesting tour but we got off about three-fourths of the way through and walked around Chinatown and back to Fisherman's Wharf, about a mile hike (mostly downhill, thankfully). We ended up at Pier 39 and had lunch at Swiss Louis Italian and Seafood Restaurant overlooking the sea lions and had a refreshing Coppola Sauvignon Blanc with the meal.
There are a gazillion restaurant choices in San Francisco and many of those are in or near Fisherman's Wharf so we had a tough time selecting one for our only formal dining experience in the city. We ended up at Alioto's, a nice Italian seafood place on the water. We had their signature Pinot Noir with our meals. Then, after a pretty long walk which included some street vendor shopping, we ended up in our room where we finished a bottle of Acacia Pinot Noir before hitting the hay for the night.
We got up early on Sunday and did a hike to the famous "twisty" block of Lombard Street, a San Francisco tourist attraction that's been used in many movies -- most notably, the Dirty Harry film, Magnum Force.
We checked out about 9:00am on Sunday morning and began our journey to the north end of Napa Valley -- Calistoga, our home for the last four nights of our holiday. We had long planned to take the scenic Route 1 up the coast to Bodega Bay, the small fishing village that was featured in the Alfred Hitchcock movie, The Birds. I had no idea that the drive would be so long and so twisty and turny but after a short stop in Sausalito, we did make it to Bodega Bay in time for lunch at The Tides, the restaurant featured in the film. There are some touristy things about The Birds to be found but mostly it's still a quiet little village and we enjoyed spending time there that afternoon.
We headed northeast to Calistoga and found The Wine Way Inn, the B&B we had booked for the rest of our time in Napa. Gillian Kite greeted us and showed us our digs, The Calistoga Room, which is actually the estate's refurbished tack house. We enjoyed a Napa Valley “Rare Red” table wine while sitting on the deck outside our quarters that evening.
Monday was filled with more winery exploration and some walking around Calistoga. Also, we arranged a private tour at Ancien, the family owned winery that Ryan had recommended. Curtis Strohl gave us great insight into this small winery and into the passion that he and, as we found out, many wine producers in California share. It was very enlightening and you can read about it in our "Wineries" section. That evening, we had a chance to sit down with Gillian and her husband Nick, our hosts at Wine Way Inn, to get a flavor of how these folks from Bristol, England ended up in northern California managing a B&B. We shared a a Syrah from the Frias Family Vineyard with Nick and Gill and enjoyed getting to know them a bit.
We spent the morning of Tuesday the 27th exploring a few more nearby wineries before heading off to Healdsburg over in Sonoma County for our arranged meeting with Robert Larsen at Rodney Strong Vineyards. This was the data point at the high end of the winery spectrum and it too, was an interesting tour. The common thread -- the passion. But more about that at in our "Wineries" section. We had lunch in Healdsburg and did a bit of exploring of this interesting little town as well.
On our way back to Calistoga, after the Rodney Strong tour, we stopped at a most appropriate winery in The Russian River Valley...White Oak Vineyards. We've used White Oak wines to celebrate many of our important house events since we moved into our home on White Oak Court and it was great doing a tasting and spending some time with Jennifer (pictured below) at the winery that afternoon. That evening, we had a Sterling Pinot Noir and a White Oak Zin, which we had purchased at the winery earlier that day, with cheese and crusty bread, sitting around the fire pit on our deck at the inn. Another nice memory.
On Wednesday, we had arranged a tour of Storybook Mountain Vineyards, a small winery just north of Calistoga. Owner Sigrid Seps gave us a nice tour and tasting in the barrel storage cellar and seemingly like every place we visited, a great story of how things got started emerged. Storybook is a winery that I'd known about since my friend Richard Lipps and I had a bottle of their '97 Zin together before Carol and I moved to England. Our time at the winery is a great memory from our trip and I'm so glad we saw the sign while we were coming back from Healdsburg the day before.
That evening, we had dinner at Brannan's, one of the nicer places in Calistoga. We brought a bottle of Goosecross Cellars Cabernet with us and our waiter opened it without a corkage fee -- a nice touch. The meal was great and the cab was among the best we found during our trip. When we got back to the inn, we finished a half- bottle of Storybook Mountain Zin and had enough room for one glass each of V. Sattui red, which we finished the next night at the airport hotel.
On Thursday, we did our last walkabout in Calistoga before checking out and heading towards Sacramento for the early flight home the next day. We stopped in Napa and did one last walk on the riverfront promenade, then had a great al fresco lunch at The Napa General Store --.a lot fancier place than it sounds. We made it to the Holiday Inn at the airport late afternoon and relaxed in the room, finishing the V. Sattui, our last bottle of wine in California.
The travel to Chicago the next morning was uneventful but leaving the city on a Friday afternoon was problematical as you can imagine. It took us nearly as long to get home from Midway as it did to get from Sacramento to Chicago. But we made it home safely and we now have some great memories of our times in Napa -- again, something we'd been planning for a long, long time.