Driving past vineyards in Napa Valley, I can now say, is one of the most beautiful things my eyes have seen – and within that, I rank the drive along California’s Highway 1, the views of Cinque Terre in Italy, and the sunsets of Key West. To walk within the Napa vineyards and their corresponding wineries just continues the loveliness. Each wine tasting terrace is more gorgeous than the next – each set of plants and landscaping, breathtaking. The smell of oaked barrels and wine mixed in the air – that combination of smells is pure happiness to me...
In all fairness, I went into this trip with the expectation that Napa would steal my heart away. California is my favorite state in the US, and well, it doesn’t hurt that I love wine. My mother is responsible for much of that – and then my current career in the restaurant industry didn’t hurt in farthering it along. I love a spicy red wine with cheese and charcuteries… I love a grapefruity white wine when eating sushi. And sparkling wine? Well – perfect for celebrations. And we know how I feel about celebrations.
My day-job in the restaurant world ended up being quite the ace in the hole for me when it came to arranging this trip. The majority of my co-workers have been to Napa Valley multiple times – so gathering advice on where to go and what to do was about as easy as talking about the weather. I surveyed the young, the old, the wealthy, the broke – and ended up with quite the list of travel notes. My bosses [whom I adore] were then kind enough to help me sift through my notes and create a three-day itinerary. Combine that with my stellar cheap-flight-finding-skills and the amazing double bonus surprise of “industry discounts” in Napa – and well, my trip to the Promised Land was not going to have to put me in as much debt as it probably should have. Then, it was just a matter of packing a ton of pretty dresses and my two of my best girlfriends – and hittin the ROAD.
We arrived at Oakland Airport around 10:00am local time, ready to put our itinerized plan into action. Rental car pick-up, quick stop for lunch at In-N-Out (when in Rome…), and a straight shot north up to Napa.
Our hotel accommodations were to be in St. Helena – which was told to me to be the most centrally located Napa city to stay in. I’d selected an “inexpensive” (- note, still exorbitant) option called El Bonita Motel – a dressed up version of a roadside motel. I knew it wouldn’t be fancy, but that it had a pool and a free breakfast each day – that combined with the location, the price-by-comparison, free wifi – and co-worker recommendation, made it an easy choice.
Before even checking into our hotel, though, our predetermined itinerary suggested hitting up wineries on our way in… and follow the itinerary we did!
First stop – Robert Mondavi. After meandering the grounds and admiring the statue out front (lovely mosaic detail) – we got ourselves into a tasting room and enjoyed our first pours of Napa wine. We were a little uncomfortable since it was our very first winery of the trip, but the folks working there were nice and the wine was yummy. Plus they gave us little plates with nuts, crackers and cheese. I also was impressed to be somewhat interested in the wine facts they shared with us. (Normally I am NOT a fact person). Overall, a nice winery – and really gorgeous grounds.
Next on to Cakebread Cellars. [Reservations ahead of time recommended – luckily, I’d gotten that heads up.] I was especially excited for Cakebread because I was told that their Chardonnay is SO yummy that even non-Chardonnay drinkers like it. We got a slight walking tour with our tasting – and it was lovely to enjoy the beautiful sunny day and chat with the other people in our group. One woman was especially delightful – a similar type to who I’d love to be if we fast-forwarded to me post retirement. Having lived and worked many places, she now currently works for herself and lives in a lovely cottage in Sonoma; her business card has a picture of her home on it, and it looks idyllic. Of the wines we tried, I enjoyed them all [- though I suppose I ought to note that while I liked the Chardonnay, it did not change my life…]. There was a Zinfandel there that especially impressed me because it was not as much of a knock-you-over-the-head type Zin as some of them can be sometimes. Yes, I bought it :)
Finally, we finished up our trek in at Sequoia Grove. Fate blessed us with the sweetest, nicest wine pourer chick ever – and it made for such a great tasting experience. (Yes, fine, you could also argue that after three wine tastings, anything might be remembered as a great experience – but honestly I’m quite certain we’d have loved this place even if it was our first stop.) In addition to trying delicious wines, we also got a chocolate pairing… so yummy! After trying to convince the wine pourer girl she should meet us out for drinks later that night, we shuffled on our merry way to go check into our hotel. [For the responsible few who might be reading this and raising eyebrows about potential drinking and driving concerns, let it be known that the driver in our group abstained from a lot of the day’s wines, and yours truly was in good hands.]
Once checking into El Bonita Motel, we threw our belongings in the room, changed into our bathing suits, and headed out to the pool. We would find as the weekend continued that late afternoon in Napa (in August anyway) is the hottest point of the day – and quite a great time for a dip in the pool. We then had ample amounts of time for showering and/or napping – and getting ready and primped for dinner.
8pm reservations found us at Terra Restaurant. Recommended to me by a few and an online menu to back it up, I thought it sounded like a nice place at which to kick off the trip. Boy WAS it. Maybe a little nicer than I realized… :) Tasting menu only, and a bit pricey, my girls and I decided to jump right in – and had SUCH an exquisite dinner. We didn’t even drink (you could say we’d had our quota for the day) – and I still was such a happy camper. (One of my companions got a corn soup that WOULD change your life if you tried it… best soup I’ve ever tasted, not kidding. My four courses were pretty darn great, too: Beets with goat cheese and pistachios. Forest mushrooms and an organic egg. Tuna with capers. Pork and polenta. Except for the tuna (which was fine, just not great), all of the items were to die for. SUPER yum. And since we informed them we were there for a birthday – we got a free dessert to share with a candle and my name written on the plate side in chocolate. Well-played, Terra, well-played.
With the day of travel and wine and time changes under our belt, we were so tired by the time dinner was over that it took every bit of energy we had to get ourselves back to the hotel and to pour ourselves into bed. Not a bad day one :)
After grabbing some breakfast-like items and coffee from our hotel lobby, our day two mission was to start the day off with champagne – at Mumm. It did not disappoint. A lovely patio table overlooking the vineyard proved to be an ideal setting for a sparkling wine tasting. Two white champagnes and a pink… and then, a sparkling red! So fun and yummy. I believe while we were drinking it I informed my companions that I felt like Marie Antoinette. Maybe a little dramatic, but then again, it’s me we’re talking about :) There might not be a better way to start one’s day – I’ll go ahead and say that.
After Mumm, onto our first organic vineyard! - Frog’s Leap Winery. Hippie Holly was sold at the word “organic” – haha – but had also gotten recommendations to go there, too. Another outdoor terrace for wine tasting = just. plain. LOVELY. Here we tried about four wines or so – two of which were reds that complimented each other so well that the nicknames for them are Husband & Wife. It was a perfect was to compare them, too. We all liked the “husband” one the best, but alas it was about $85 or so – and a wee bit out of our price range… Lovely to try, though! We wandered their grounds after the tasting – which also had included a farm and was really so neat to take in. We learned a bit about their environmentally-friendly practices and got to take some beautiful pictures.
Stop three of the day was to Rombauer Vineyards – which we knew to be highly recommended and had a great picnic area. First things first, the tasting. Which was… actually not so great :/ It was super packed – and with some pretty full-of-themselves type people. Our tasting felt rushed and crowded – we didn’t feel inspired to buy a single thing, and couldn’t get out of there fast enough to eat our lunch. Per co-worker advice, we’d pre-bought lunch at a place called the Oakville Grocery, so at least our yummy provisions made Rombauer worth our time. We didn’t have a limo driver to spread a white tablecloth on our picnic table for us (- true story times two), but we were happy just the same. After basically stealing our car out of the crowded valet system, we cruised out of Rombauer, ready to move on. [Post-note, it turns out some people’s favorite Napa wines are from Rombauer, so it’s a bit sad we had the experience we did. I think that if we’d been there during a less busy time we might have enjoyed it a ton more.]
Final winery stop was Sterling Vineyards – the winery with gondolas! [Yours truly needs to now confess that she expected boats in water – not ski-life type contraptions… but hey, BOTH are cool things – and now I know :) ] Once the gondolas bring your to the high up winery building, you take yourself on a guided tour, with wine stops along the way. The building and grounds were cool (lots of oak barrelly smells, to my delight) – but the wines seemed a bit “meh” to me. My friends and I were amused to all feel that way and joked out loud that only 24 hours into Napa, we were becoming wine snobs. In real life, we likely were just hitting our wine capacity for the day – but wine snobbery sounds more fun. We got to keep our glass here (as we did at Cakebread and Sequoia, I should note) – and also got to try some reserve wines, too. Gondolas back to the parking lot – and we were done for the day.
…Or so we thought! We stopped at a small grocery store on the way home to get some sodas, and noticed an interesting place next door. It was called Velo Vino and it looked like a wine bar… but all these bikers and Clif Bar trucks were parked outside. Curious, we wandered in… To find a hybrid wine bar / Clif Bar store. Plunking ourselves at the bar, some really friendly ladies started pouring us wine tastings, just like all the other places, and explained that the Clif family is very into wine and sources local farmers to make wine for them. How interesting! They gave us some nuts and cheese to pair with our wines – all of which were very yummy. I jokingly asked them if they ever pair wine with Clif Bars – and the girls said, no not officially, but pulled out samples of Clif Bars immediately and recommended ones for each wine we were drinking. Hilarious! And awesome. Great customer service, if I do say so myself.
Amused and impressed, we continued on our route back to our hotel – to nap/swim/primp for dinner.
Dinner reservations for this night were at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen – owned by, as it turns out, the same people who own Mustard’s and Go Fish (neither of which I’ve been to, but both of which had been recommended, too). Cindy’s was way more casual than our previous night’s experience, and a third of the cost, I might add. We started with some oysters that, you guessed it, COULD change your life. They were baked with spinach and a crème fraiche… absolutely phenomenal. If you EVER get to Napa, go to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and get the oysters. PLEASE. My one friend did not love her entrée, so I guess you could say their dishes are hit or miss – but mine, let me tell you about mine. Rabbit tostada. SO frickin yum. I was a happy, happy girl – even when they informed us the s’mores dessert we’d been looking forward to was not available. [They brought a free dessert to make up for it.] No wine at this dinner either – but we did check out the local watering hole for a beer later – which had a live band playing bluegrass-type jams.
Ana’s Cantina is apparently one of the only bars in St. Helena (maybe in fact, the only) – and is full of character for sure. From the dollar bills stuck to the ceiling, to the afore mentioned bluegrass band, to the eclectic clientele… it was worth spending some time drinking a couple of beers. The eclecdticness of its crowd - some young, some old, some hipster, some trashy – was actually kind of great; it was nice to feel like it was anyone’s bar. My favorite part of the night was that an older couple moseyed on out to the dance floor and were just plain ADORABLE dancers to watch. They clearly were so comfortable with each other and had danced together for years – for fun if nothing else. I was so happy watching them; a scene like that makes me daydream about finding the perfect love – a man to grow old with and enjoy, well, the shit out of life with. To dance to live music with, completely carefree and joyously. I made sure to tell them at one point that I loved their moves :) Happy Holly – day two.
Another quick morning fuel-up in the hotel lobby, and we were off to start our day at Beaulieu Vineyard / BV. A little stuffy a tasting room, yet we still enjoyed ourselves – especially since we got to taste wine from the normal tasting menu and the reserves. Some stories and some chatting, we ended up with nother chocolate experience – never a bad thing. I bought a wine here for my momma – a red with a great name and quite a bit of character.
Stop number two was another organic vineyard – Grgich Hills Estate. Sort of a dark, wood-smelling tasting room, we got a friendly guy who was more than happy to tell us all about their wine-making process while pouring us tastings. He explained that they use the Farmer’s Almanac and the zodiac to grow their grapes? And the elements? I kid you not – apparently there are earth days, fire days, water days, air days – and on those days you focus on different parts of the growing process… I can’t say I understood it all, but I actually found it fascinating. [Amusing side note: this nice wine pouring man reminded me of a way-less weird version of Kenneth from 30 Rock. Plaid button down shirt with jeans… I felt like he might tell us about the “hill people” at any moment.] I loved the wines here – and ended up buying a white wine that made me super happy.
Stop number three was supposed to V. Sattui, but the parking lot was so crowded that we started getting flashbacks of Rombauer, so after a unanimous “no thanks” decision, we chose to keep driving through the lot to the exit. Couldn’t do it. We pioneered our way to a winery that was not on the agenda at all – a place by the name of St. Supéry Vineyards & Winery. One of my friends had heard about it from her sister and since it wasn’t very far, we gave it a go. BEST IDEA of the day. We got ourselves into their upstairs reserve tasting room – where a man with a funny, radio-type voice and an old guy that could roll glasses of wine sideways on the bar without spilling entertained us and poured us wine for a good chunk of time. Delicious, fun, VIP – free… who can complain? We got pictures for sure.
We rolled out of St. Supéry realizing we didn’t have much time until our 3pm reservation at our last stop… but we also realized we’d not eaten anything since breakfast that day… What to do? Call Del Dotto (final stop); tell them we’d be late, and mad dash scarf breakfast at Taylor’s Refresher. What’s that? Well actually, its called Gott’s Roadside nowadays, but has been in the neighborhood forever – yummiest to-go food ever. Or at least when you’ve had a ton of wine - *grin*.
Bellies full, we ended up at Del Dotto Vineyards about 30 minutes after we were originally supposed to. Luckily, they allowed us in and found us a tour group we could join – phew! This was the most expensive tasting of the whole weekend – but we’d been assured it would be worth our while. First impressions alone, I was totally sold. Chandeliers everywhere – plus beautiful marble and high ceilings, Italian art pieces… gorgeousness everywhere the eye could see. They poured us each a glass of wine and immediately took us into their caves… where the natural light stopped, the chandeliers continued and the real wine pouring began. Our tour guide started pouring expensive, limited edition wines – and the caves were so dark and enchanting, I felt like I was in the depths of the Phantom of the Opera’s lair. SO exciting… and then all of the sudden, I felt nauseous. Really?? NOW? I kept trying to ignore it – I wanted to badly to do this tasting tour, but with each glass I tasted, the less I wanted wine and the more I wanted a washroom. I was so mad and disappointed in myself (- I’d made it ALL weekend to flake out now?), but I knew I needed to get out of there. After discreetly confiding in my lady friends, I ducked away from the tour group and scurried out of the caves, out of the building, and into the fresh air. Del Dotto has a gorgeous fountain right outside its entryway, and yours truly spent about an hour and a half sitting peacefully next to this beautiful fountain, not getting ill luckily, but also not drinking expensive, delicious wine while wandering dark hallways lit by chandeliers and candelabras. C’est la vie, I suppose… But a sad story if I’ve ever heard one. I wandered in later, just in time to see my tour group emerge from the caves to enjoy some gourmet snacks with their final wine pours. My reader will be happy to hear that I did get to enjoy the snacks at least. And take some lovely photos.
Goodness. From there, we headed back to our El Bonita home for a final evening session of napping/swimming/primping – only this evening, napping/swimming was replaced by awesome-bed-jumping-dance-party. So much frickin fun. I was lucky enough to have a Hogan in my entourage, and well, if you know them, you know the dance magic that ensued. And then, yes, the standard dinner primping surely followed.
Our final Napa dinner was at Tra Vigne – a restaurant recommended by MANY of the co-workers and friends I polled on Napa. We had an awkward, yet sweet server – who reminded me a little bit of a younger and just slightly-hipper version of Mr. Rogers. (Yeah, work that one out). From him we ordered a caprese salad to start… with some of the largest mozzarella on it that I’ve ever seen (only life exception to date: Italia) – and this mozzarella was TO DIE FOR. Changed my life, absolutely. Next I had a delightful salad that involved arugula, berries, goat cheese, and hazelnuts – like I said, delightful. And then finally – a crispy duck risotto. With each bite of my duck risotto I thought… this is heaven. Heaven is eating food like this. Heaven is forest mushrooms with organic egg. Heaven is pork and polenta. Heaven is amazingly baked oysters. Heaven is rabbit tostada. Heaven is fresh-pulled mozzarella in large chunks. Heaven is crispy duck risotto. I put down my fork and demanded the attention of my best-of-friends-lady-friends-fellow diners – saying, “I have an announcement to make. I’ll probably announce it publicly soon, but you might as well hear it from me now. I am a foodie. It’s been a long time in the works – and I may be a lower-level foodie, and a broke foodie… but let it be known: I am a foodie.” My friends just laughed (- I think my dramatic, yet totally serious lead-in had got them expecting an announcement of pregnancy or engagement), and I happily picked up my fork and went back to eating my piece of heaven.
It’s amazing how three days in a powerful enough place, with the exact right companions at your side, can change who you are - entirely. Maybe “entirely” isn’t the most honest word to use… I admit that I had the internal makings of wino and a foodie before setting foot in Napa Valley, yes – but once crossing its threshold, the amount of food-and-wine moments of pure bliss and self realization that hit me were so intense and so frequent that they permeated my entire being. And while I adore my home city of Chicago, and while I have a family here that I love with my soul, and while I even have a cute, new boyfriend to come home to – there were many moments of this trip where the only thought in my mind has been, “How can I EVER leave this place?”
Maybe it’s because I’m such an experiential person. I have always appreciated sensory-packed experiences that happen in everyday life – whether it’s a drink that involves a process (like taking a shot of tequila, or adding the perfect amounts of cream and sugar to a coffee) or having the perfect song to provide backdrop to the times you’re truly enjoying the company of the people around you. Experiences are how I like to live my life.
Wine country makes other experiential-type things seem like the kiddie pool at Great America. It’s taste, touch, sound – yes – but also intoxication and new-people-meeting and nature and variety and sunshine and oak barrels and new life and wandering winery cats and bubbles and *sigh* just Cali. Perfect weather, perfect vibes around you… Life feels more magical in California.
And there’s so much variety! That might be my favorite part of Napa Valley. There are no decisions to make on what wine you want – no commitment to just one wine that you’re not sure if you’ll like it enough for a whole glass or a whole bottle – just mini servings of different wine after different wine after different wine. If you fall in love, you can buy a bottle to take home. But in the meantime, in the moment - the flavors and textures and colors are endlessly captivating and ever-changing.
AND each wine has a story! I’m not a factual enough person to get caught up in the science of winemaking or to retain many educational tidbits – but the stories of the wines? That I can get behind. To know that a particular wine was made from grapes grown in the owner’s backyard, or that a vineyard is organic and uses planets and stars to help grow its grapes, or to hear WHY a wine was given a crazy/unique name? SO interesting to me.
As Monday morning came, my girlfriends and I packed our bags into our car with a final stop at the cutest, not-actually-in-France French bakery I’ve ever been to: Bouchon Bakery. Talk about sensory! Deciding what to order there was like a kid at a candy shop. I walked away with a pastry, a hazelnut macaron, and an espresso macchiato. As we hit the road again – I thought, “This is perfect.” Every taste in my mouth was perfect – the girls next to me in the car made my heart swell with love – the scenery of vineyards movie-reeling outside our car windows were as breathtaking as they were on the way in – my phone and camera were chock full of never-can-relive-that-moment-again shots – and the seek button on the radio was assisting me in musical accompaniment. This – this is happiness – and the most amazing start to a birthday I’ve ever experienced. How lucky a girl am I? The luckiest.