Arcata to Napa Valley: Will drive for wine.
It was the final driving day of our trip. The hiking was over. A 4 ½ hour drive would carry us through more redwoods and park us in the land of wine and sunshine, where we would spend a couple of days eating and drinking our way through Napa Valley.
We stopped for breakfast at Los Bagels before leaving Arcata.
At what is probably the only Jewish-Mexican bakery in the world, we found some deliciously creative bagels and strong coffee spiked with Mexican hot chocolate. It is probably also the only place in the world where you can buy knish, challah, rugalah, empanadas, and guacamole all under one roof.
I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to nosh and shmeer or simply shout “Que Delicioso!” and run out the door.
Before leaving Arcata, we stopped in at Wildberries Marketplace for picnic provisions.
We also made a quick stop at the drive-thru tree, because once you’ve seen the World’s Largest Oyster and a 60 foot Paul Bunyan and giant blue ox balls, you are pretty much obligated to drive through the Drive-Thru Tree.
Best $5 I ever spent.
The sun was a dazzling ball of fire in the sky, the day was beautiful, and we were closing in on Napa Valley. The wine tasting would soon begin.
I started to get nervous.
I had a problem, you see. I knew how to drink wine (gulp, sip, swallow, repeat), but I had no idea how to taste wine. I could tell you if it was a red wine or a white wine. Maybe I could discern the difference between dry and fruity. But ask me if it’s a buttery wine or whether I can recognize an aftertaste of blackcurrant or tobacco?
Not so much.
In about an hour, I would be surrounded by people talking bouquets and appellations and macerations. I knew that there was a lot more to wine-tasting than how high to hold your pinkie.
I didn’t even know how to hold the glass properly. Temperature, smemperature. I tend to boorishly grasp the body of the glass like a running back heading for a touchdown rather than delicately holding the stem so that the heat from my body doesn’t affect the wine.
I am more the “I’m going to hold my glass however I fancy and commit to a life of drinking lukewarm wine and not give a crap” type of wine drinker. This serves me well when drinking wine from a plastic cup at the local BBQ place, but would make me stand out in Napa like a kazoo in a string quartet.
My wine taste also tends toward the unsophisticated. I am a fan of easy to drink red wine blends with clever names and labels that look like gothic horror scenes.
I am more:
In a panic, I quickly Googled “Wine Tasting.” I read a Wikihow on “How to pretend you have good taste in wine,” and I quickly memorized some important sounding words: jammy, tannins, stemmy, off-dry, viticulture, and unctuous so that I could rattle them off like I knew what I was talking about in hopes that no one noticed I knew nothing about wine tasting. I also only had to remember 3 basic steps: swirl, smell, sip.
As for the fourth “s”….”spit”….well, anyone who thought I was going to spit out perfectly good wine was just crazy. Besides, there is no way I could delicately spit out my wine. I would end up looking like a distressed camel and dribbling it down the front of my shirt. Sure, this meant my wine tasting would be more like a pub crawl, but I didn’t really see anything wrong with that.
Who doesn’t love a good pub crawl?
I had a plan. I would swirl. I would smell. I would sip. I would pretend it meant something. Anytime someone looked at me quizzically, I would just shout, “This vintage seems very fruit forward, rather flamboyant, don’t you think?” like someone with Tourette’s before quickly walking away.
I had this.
Choosing from the seemingly infinite number of vineyards and wineries to decide where to visit had been overwhelming. There are over 400 wineries in Napa Valley. Because it was our first visit, I decided to base my selections on the “Wow!” factor. I wanted exceptional experiences. Each winery had to offer something beyond good wine. Wine be damned. Give me views, castles, and stone walls climbing with ivy.
Known as much for its architecture as its wine, Castillo di Amorosa definitely had a “wow” factor and was a perfect introduction to Napa Valley.
Nestled in the hills just south of Calistoga in Napa Valley, Castillo di Amorosa was the labor of Dario Sattui, a 4th generation Italian winemaker who spent decades travelling and studying medieval castles and wineries in Europe. He started construction on the castle in 1994. The 121,000 square foot castle opened its doors to the public in 2007. There are 107 rooms, a Great Hall with 2-story replicas of Tuscan frescoes hand painted by Italian artists, a 500 year old fireplace, 8,000 tons of hand-chiseled stones, 8 levels, a drawbridge, a dungeon, a torture chamber, a medieval church, and an impressive wine barrel room with ancient Roman cross-vaulted ceilings.
The “Castle of Love” seemed like a good place to start. It had a lot of “wow” factor, but also had a large and unpretentious tasting room that didn’t require reservations. This would be a good way to get our feet wet. We’d be wedged shoulder to shoulder with people trucked in on buses wearing flip flops and Pabst Blue Ribbon trucker caps. We couldn’t screw up there.
We were surprised to find that it wasn’t very crowded. Where I expected something Vegas-esque, I found something quite charming.
There were relatively few people in the tasting cellar. We were quickly attended to by a flamboyant man with a pencil mustache, a purple silk pocket square, and a questionable accent.
We were also surprised at the heavy pour.
Oh dear, sweet Lord. I could tell after the first stop that my winery itinerary was far too aggressive. It was simply not possible to do more than 2 wineries in a day, maybe 3 if you ate a lot of bread.
Unless you have a stomach pump hidden in your trunk.
Which I didn’t.
But secretly wished I did.
Napa Valley is Disneyland for alcoholics wine lovers.
We quickly crossed Chateau Montelena off the list, stopping only long enough to note how lovely it was, but passing on the wine tasting so that we would be able to survive our reservation tasting at Rombauer Vineyards.
I would like to say I chose Rombauer because they are still a family operated winery after 35 years in business. Or because Koerner Rombauer’s great aunt Irma authored the internationally renowned cookbook the Joy of Cooking and that the winery appreciates the intimate relationship between food and wine. Or even because they embrace sustainable practices, even providing nesting boxes for barn owls who natuarally keep their vines free of pests.
But none of those things would be true.
I chose it because I really wanted to see this little hobbit door.
The garden at Rombauer was delightful, with dramatic views of the Mayacamas Mountains, overflowing with flowers and plants, and filled with whimsical sculptures collected by the Rombauer family over the years. After our tasting, we purchased some wine and decided to have a picnic on the grounds.
While Arcata had not shown me boobies, I had found a delightful selection at the small gourmet market there and we noshed on pasta salad, fresh fruit, marinated olives, garden salad, and two giant slabs of sweet bread while we enjoyed a perfect Napa Valley afternoon.
After two tastings and a bottle of wine….we needed a little nap time.
We had chosen a private rental over the area hotels because it afforded us all of the amenities, plus complete privacy, for about half the cost. I am sorry to say that we were the very last short-term customers of this lovely pool house. The owners let us know that the local government had passed an ordinance that would prohibit future short term rentals of less than one month.
The pool bungalow was simply perfect.
It even came with a very ferocious watchdog who parked herself at our front step. She is obviously well trained in the personal safety arts. Quite vicious, really. We felt very secure.
We slept off our wine haze and woke up just in time for dinner.
We had dinner reservations at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch.
We dove enthusiastically into the Warm burrata with whole roasted garlic, estate olive oil and grilled bread and Grass-fed beef meatballs with caramelized onions, greens and tomato marmalade.
Unable to resist the rich smoky smell of the grilling meat, Matt opted for the Heritage St. Louis ribs with green apple coleslaw while I went for the nightly special, a savory short rib with mashed potatoes and broccolini.
Cocktails, wine, and a decadent Butterscotch pudding with almond cocoa nib streusel and house made ice cream rounded things out nicely.
Drink wine all day. Eat all night.
I could get used to this.
Our second day in Napa Valley was our only “full day” so we hit it with vigor.
We started the day off with brunch at Archetype, one of the most visually appealing restaurants I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.
Strong coffee was in order.
I also found it necessary to order the largest stack of pancakes known to man, anticipating the amount of wine that might be consumed as the day progressed. I thought starting the day with a belly full of bread and sugar would certainly help.
Matt’s waffle looked very nice, but I almost felt sorry for him as I shoveled another pancake in my mouth. This is the face of someone who just realized they misordered.
We had 3 reservation tastings scheduled for the day and I was looking forward to each one.
First up was Kuleto Estates, which turned out to be our favorite winery overall from the trip.
Pat Kuleto had a vision of creating something akin to a Tuscan estate when he built his property high on top of a hill in Napa Valley. A restaurant designer by trade, Mr. Kuleto had a specific vision when he purchased the property and his vision became a stunning reality.
After entering the gated estate, we snaked slowly up the 2 mile road that led to the winery sitting on top of a mountain with a vista of all of Napa below. Mr. Kuleto still owns the villa on the property but sold the winery and much of the land to Foley Family Vineyards who operate the winery tours, limited to only 6 guests by advance reservation only.
We found the actual winery was located at an elevation of nearly 1600 feet. The surrounding slopes were planted with vineyards. We were told that all wines made at Kuleto are Estate wines, with total production around 7,000 cases each year.
We were each handed a glass of wine to sip as we were given a lengthy tour of the property. The winery and surrounding property were stunning.
After the tour, we were seated on a huge shady stone terrace covered with a grape arbor. The tables were long, warmly worn wooden tables and we each had a variety of glasses.
The wine tasting was long, detailed, friendly, and plentiful. There were plates of cheese to accompany each selection. One of the more experienced tasters in our group was able to convince our host to bring out a couple of bottles of their reserve wine and let us sample them after our tasting was over.
What was missing was the snobbery and judgment that I had expected. I felt like I was drinking with friends.
This is where I learned why Napa Valley wineries are a heavy pour.
The wine clubs.
It is so hard to resist joining the wine club after several glasses of their delicious wine. You can’t help but find yourselves huddled together convincing each other that you really need continued access to this wine at home.
“We can’t buy this in stores, you know.”
“They only make 329 bottles of this wine each year.”
“It’s only $600 for 3 bottles. That seems like a good deal.”
“I can’t live without it. I just can’t.”
Somehow, we managed to avoid the wine clubs, but we did order some wonderful bottles that would follow us home and give us something special to look forward to once we had returned to the land of cheap table wine and the occasional bottle of Five Buck Chuck from Trader Joe's.
We spent several hours at Kuleto before it was time to head back down into the valley.
Several people had recommend V. Sattui as a winery that would be a good stop if we wanted to fit something in between reservations. We had some time to kill before our second reservation, so we stopped at V. Sattui on the way.
The only thing I saw at V. Sattui that I liked was the exit sign.
Maybe I had ruined it by visiting such a quiet and exclusive winery first, setting my expectations a little high. Or maybe I simply visited V. Sattui at the wrong time, a time when no fewer than 20 tour buses lined the parking lot and visitors swarmed the property like ants, gobbling up overpriced jars of jam and snatching up cheese in the deli like they were free samples at Costco.
It was a touristy messfest.
The tasting room was out of the question. There were hundreds of people, all shoving their glasses to the front of the counter for a $10 taste, and then scooping up a baguette and an overpriced baseball cap before running outside to the barbecue to take a selfie. We quickly fought our way through the crowd to buy some picnic provisions before making a run for it.
It was a beautiful property, though. I wish I had visited on a less heavily trafficked day.
We took our picnic supplies and made the short drive to Rutherford Hill where we had a reserve tasting as well as a table in their private oak grove picnic area.
Rutherford Hill was a quiet change of pace after the madness of V. Sattui.
We enjoyed a leisurely tasting and purchased 2 bottles which gave us access to their private picnic area. There we tucked into the warm sunshine while enjoying smoked trout, cheese, artisan crackers, grapes, olives, sun dried tomatoes, and a delightful little red velvet cake.
And Trader Joe’s Bacon Jam. Sweet, spreadable bacon in a jar. God bless America.
Oh, and one of those baguettes that I had wrenched from the hands of some lady in a “I heart Minnesota” shirt as I ran screaming from the deli.
After our late afternoon lunch – now 12 robust samples and the best part of two full bottles down – we continued on to the fourth and final winery.
To be honest, my memory of this last stop is a little hazy. I recall standing in a wonderful sunny courtyard filled with waving lavender and staring into a giant mirror ball. There was a giant camel there. I am sure of it. And I would think I imagined the large wall covered with bits of bedazzled sweaters, but I have photographic evidence.
While a giant mirror ball, large camel, and bedazzled wall might sound like the ramblings of a drunken stupor, they were simply lovely parts of the artistic campus of Hall Wines.
I recall the sunlight dazzling through the vineyard as we were taken on a sunset tour at Hall Wines and I remember having my glass regularly filled and refilled and refilled again with wine which, by this stage of the day, all tasted fairly similar and simply amazing. We sampled grapes from the vineyard and wine straight from the barrel.
There were lots of sparkling lights.
And gobs of wine.
And giant shiny rabbits.
That my friends, is the perfect description of the final winery tour on any given Saturday in Napa Valley.
There was nothing left to do but try to soak up some of the alcohol with greasy burgers, fries, and milkshakes and no better place to do it than Gott’s Roadside.
I still have dreams about that cheeseburger.
As we drove up the mountain toward our little bungalow, the sky faded from blazing sunlight to a cool orange and another sun drenched day in Napa Valley came to a close.
It’s hard to imagine, but my first thought the next morning was “Where should be go for our first tasting?” I purposefully avoided making any reservations for our final day because 1) I had no idea how hung over we’d be and 2) We had an afternoon flight to catch back to Seattle and I didn’t want to miss it. We had decided to play it by ear and fly by the seat of our wine soaked pants.
Because I love the bubbles, I couldn’t leave Napa Valley without sampling some sparkling wine. I chose Mumm winery because it opened early for those that wanted to drink for breakfast and because it didn’t require a reservation.
And because they interpret “sample” as “pour a full glass.”
I also loved the fact that a tasting at Mumm is served at a table on their outdoor patio rather than indoors at a tasting counter. Matt does not drink sparkling wine, so he was content ordering a glass of Pinot Noir and watching me consume 4 full glasses of sparkling wine at 10:00 a.m. on an empty stomach.
Maybe not my brightest moment, but when in Napa…..
After 4 glasses of bubbly with no breakfast, I was in desperate need of food, so we stopped in at Addendum, an adorable little add-on behind Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc restaurant in Yountville. I knew that for $16.50, one could get a basket of the same famous buttermilk fried chicken sold in the restaurant (or ribs!) and eat it at a picnic table with two sides, cornbread, and a plastic cup filled with wine.
Because I needed another glass of wine.
We had about 2 hours to kill before heading to the airport, so we decided to drop in at Whetstone Wine Cellars. I had really wanted to visit Whetstone because they had a relaxed approach to winetasting that really appealed to me.
I was nervous because it’s a “call ahead” place and we had not, in fact, “called ahead.”
My uber nerd alarm was pinging as we walked across the grassy lawn lined with shady live oaks toward the 1885 French-style chateau that serves as the winery. I knew we were going to be rejected.
Instead, we were immediately greeted by Ace, the Ambassador of Whetstone, and his ball. and told by the staff to find a seat anywhere we liked. Only one other table was occupied, so there were plenty of tables on the lawn to choose from. We chose a couple of seats under a leafy tree.
A staff member immediately showed up with a bowl of completely addictive rosemary salted almonds and asked if we’d like to do a tasting of if we’d simply like some wine. We chose a bottle of the 2015 Jon Boat Pinot Noir and she promptly brought it over.
This was my favorite wine, by far. And, while Whetstone lacked the drama and views of Kuleto, the laid back coolness of the place appealed to me. This was definitely my favorite experience overall.
We lingered in the sunshine, liking salt off our fingertips, wrestling Ace’s slobbery ball out of his mouth, and swirling the decadent Pinot Noir in our glasses as long as we could.
But magical moments are just that….moments, and too soon, they pass.
We were thrust cruelly from the sun dappled enchantment of a wine hazed afternoon into the trauma of the Sacramento airport, filled with screaming children, lines, and carts blaring their horns for us to get out of the way.
Just to sweeten the deal, we discovered our flight, purchased on American, was a “code share” flight and this required us to drag 4 suitcases and 2 backpacks from the American terminal to the Alaska Airlines terminal….in another building.
This would have been an impossible feat of agility had I been sober. However, after 4 glasses of sparkling wine, one Solo cup of Pinot Grigio, and half a bottle of Pinot Noir, it was a disaster in the making.
I can barely get on an escalator when I am sober and am only in charge of my person. When I am forced to roll my carryon suitcase onto the escalator with me, it takes on a special level of awkwardness.
But ask me to get on with my rolling carryon, a backpack, and a large rolling suitcase after spending the morning drinking bounteous glasses of wine? Absurd.
There is nothing to be ashamed of in admitting I am afraid of getting on escalators. It’s not like I am telling you I wet the bed. Escalators are six-ton moving machines with teeth. You may as well be asking me to jump on a moving bus.
When forced to get on an escalator, it’s not like I scream or cry or make a scene, but I do hesitate just long enough for the people behind me to get annoyed. As each riser pops out, I feel like there is only one optimum time to commit and step on and if I miss that precise moment, I will end up on a half-step, will lose my balance, and will catapult to my death at the bottom of the escalator. So…I stand there for too long, waiting for exactly the right moment to commit.
Getting on at the airport is the worst, because I not only have to worry about getting my body onto the right step, but I have to pull a suitcase (or in this case TWO SUITCASES), onto a step behind me. If I pull it on wrong, it will crash into me from behind and I will catapult to my death at the bottom of the escalator. If I push it on before me and then miss my optimum step, the gap will be too large and the suitcase will inevitably pull me forward and I will catapult to my death at the bottom of the escalator.
It’s die if you do or die if you don’t.
I was standing at the top of the escalator contemplating this impossible conundrum when I realized that the reality of two suitcases meant I would not have a free hand for the absolutely essential death grip on the railing.
This was madness.
I could spend the rest of my life at the American Airlines gate and simply live out of my suitcase until I ran out of clean underpants…or I could step onto that escalator.
It was do or die time.
I watched carefully. I saw the right moment. I stepped.
And I fell all the way down the entire escalator with two suitcases.
And it was not a pretty fall, like the kind damsels do in the movies. It was ugly. Beastly ugly. It was all knees and elbows and ugly faces framed by giant suitcases.
I would like to say this is the end of the story, but there was another escalator at the Alaska Airlines terminal and I fell down it too.
This did not help my fear of escalators.
I will be doomed to staircases for the rest of my life.
Until next time...keep your wine glass full and avoid escalators, friends!