Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Napa Valley

After San Francisco, we headed to Napa Valley. We rented a car and headed over the Golden Gate Bridge- luckily there was no fog (though it was still a very grey day).
We then stopped in Sausalito for lunch at one of the best taco places in the area. The Sausalito Taco Shop is not to be missed if you're looking to stop for a quick bite. I had the cup of soup with chicken and cheese and the big donkey, their signature burrito. The donkey was too big; if you get it I suggest not getting a starter or planning to split it with someone. It was delicious though! So was the soup! We also ordered guacamole with their homemade tortilla chips, also awesome. The tacos were great too. One is a normal portion, and if you want to get a little extra get two; three can leave you unbuttoning your pants.

We kept moving, stopping at Muir Woods to see the great redwoods. Redwood trees can live to 2,000 years old and 380ft! They are the tallest living things in the world. Many of them were logged for their wood, but today they are protected in some national and state parks. The other famous tree found in California is the giant sequoia and can only be found in the Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks. Giant sequoia's are related to redwoods and can grow to 311ft and live 3,200 years!

Muir Woods is a beautiful park that is very well maintained. Parking can be a drag, and if you had a big lunch before hand be warned: the road to the park is steep, narrow, and windy! However, this is an amazing pit stop or day trip and I highly recommend it. Seeing the tallest living things in the world for only $7 is unbelievable!
So tall I couldn't even get the tops!
Afterwards we drove to Napa Valley. The GPS told us to go in some weird way, so I recommend sitting down beforehand and looking at a route yourself. We stayed at the Vino Bello Resort. As we got closer to arriving we were really disappointed- Napa looked pretty commercial, dry, desolate, and boring. The hotel was nice, but it's a very big resort in an industrial park. We were missing the charm we had heard about! We arrived late in the evening and were pretty beat after a long day, so we ate in the restaurant at the hotel, which was pricey but delicious. For appetizers we had clam chowder (I love when they have it in the soup still with the clam shells), tomato bisque with fresh basil, and the tempura dungeness crab nuggets with sweet and sour mango peach chutney. For the main course, I had a cheese risotto with shrimp and prawns- delicious!

The next day we got up and walked around the resort. The resort has two nice pools with grills, hot tub, lounge tents and more. In the back there is a vineyard on a hill that you can walk around on your own. Built into the hill under the vineyard is a tasting room and spa. We took a nice walk around the vineyard, picking grapes as we went along.

Then we headed to our first real vineyard, Domaine Carneros. As we drove up, it was quite impressive. It is a large pseudo-french chateau looming over the vineyards around it. We took the tour ($30) and it was definitely worth it. Our guide, Tracy was knowledgeable, not pretentious at all, and made all of the information accessible and understandable. She explained how the grapes are chosen based on the region, the origins and history of the grape plant, and how the champagne is made. Some interesting facts I learned: the reason why there is always a gold label around the neck of the champagne bottle because back in the old days it was meant to hide any imperfections (champagne was turned by hand back then); a whole bottle of red wine will fit in a standard burgundy glass (the fat bulb glasses); the Frenchmen who made the original champagne and turned it by hand had to wear metal suits because the bottles would often explode; in the Carneros area in Napa Valley, all of the grapes are grown organically because they produce the finest quality grapes (not necessarily simply because of the other benefits). The chateau that the wine is made in is based off of a real chateau in the Champagne region in France, which in my opinion was a little cheesy and pretentious looking, but hey, when you're that rich, you can do what ever you want with your money. Apparently there is a saying, "To make a small fortune in Napa, start with a large one," and it's obvious that that is how it's done. (It doesn't help that it takes 7 years before you can actually have a crop suitable for harvest!) The tour included a glass of champagne, rose champagne, and Le Reve (their very, very expensive champagne) as well as pretty much whatever you want at the end in a private tasting room.

The view from the chateau
For a late lunch we ate at the Rutherford Grill which apparently is a popular spot for the winemakers to go. Well, the word is out on that story, and when we got there, there was a half hour wait. By the time we were seated, the wait was an hour (around 5pm). However, when we passed by around 1pm on a Monday it looked empty. There is also no corking fee apparently, so bring your own wine if you like (the wine list is extensive, so don't worry if you don't byob). The food was great here too. I had an interesting dish- enchilada filled with squash and topped with a sunny side up egg. We also tasted the rotisserie chicken, which you can see being fire roasted, was nice and juicy, the skin was flavorful, and the mashed potatoes were excellent. My mom had the fish sandwich, also great, and the bun was super delicious (possibly the best part of the whole meal!).
As we drove back, the sun began setting and the hills to the east started to burn pink. That night we ate at the restaurant Angele, a French restaurant on the Napa River in downtown Napa. We drove through downtown Napa and it looked quite charming, though it was pretty dead despite it being the high season and a Saturday. At the restaurant, I tried the Country Pâté and French Onion Soup for appetizer. The Country Pâté was okay, but the soup was delicious! For dinner, I had the rabbit which was terribly dry and very disappointing. My mom had the Becquet D’Agneau, which was lamb and couscous and was absolutely delicious. My dad had the duck and that was also very tender and flavorful. I just picked the bad one I suppose...

Sunday we decided to go on a little hike since the region is so beautiful. I found an easy one in St. Helena. The main street in St. Helena was quite charming, reminding us a little of the Hamptons. We drove to Bothe-Napa Valley State Park to walk their 1.2 mile History Trail ($7/car, during the summer they have a pool if you're looking for a good campsite!). The trail starts in the back of the park. When you park and begin walking, you will quickly see on your right some rocks laid in a rectangle. These outline the foundation of the first Methodist church of the pioneers in the area. To your left is the pioneer cemetery which is pretty well preserved. I was surprised that most of the dates are in the late 1800s- a reminder that California wasn't settled all that long ago. You walk through the park a bit and up a hill and you'll see these two strange red trees: manznitas and madrones. Manzanitas' bark flakes off like paper and then underneath shows a bright red skin. Madrones look like thick, red lava has been poured over the tree. I thought maybe the trees had freakish diseases, but they didn't. They were definitely strange! Apparently there should also be red woods from around 1850 (they were cut before 1850 during the Gold Rush for timber), but we didn't see any. At the end of the History Trail, you'll reach Bale Grist Mill which was a mill built in 1846 and still works. Unfortunately, the state parks have been hit bad by serious budget cuts in California. They essentially receive no funding at all, so you can get a glimpse of the mill, but they really want you to pay another $5 per person to get a good look (I would suggest maybe parking here instead of at the Bothe-Napa Valley State Park). We walked back along the highway on the right hand side of the road by the vineyards, then crossed over and back into the park at the gate near the fire department. Before leaving, we stopped at the Native American Plant Garden, which was to have different traditional, native plants that the Native Americans specially cooked and ate. Sadly, because of budget cuts I'm assuming, there was no garden. The plaques naming the plants are still there, but most of the plants are dead or dying.
Pioneer Cemetary

Madrone tree

Bale Grist Mill

Walking along the vineyard
We then headed over to Castello di Amorosa, a vineyard where the wine is produced in a pseudo-Tuscan castle. No expense was spared in trying to create an authentic medieval castle. The owner, Dario Stattui, did an excellent job, as a result, of creating a tourist attraction of his vineyard. Though it's not as tacky as the French chateau, you much imagine the level of snobbery and opulence to spend dozens of years on building a perfectly replicated Tuscan castle in the middle of California. If you are looking for small, quiet country charm, this is not the place for you. However, the castle is quite impressive-- the bricks, wood beams, drawbridge, and stone courtyard impressively and beautifully replicate a 13th-century medieval castle. In the formal dining hall you will find jaw-dropping frescoes, including a replica of the famous work Good Government, all of which was done by hand. The castle is nestled in the side of the mountain, with a spectacular pine forest as a background, vineyards all around, and even an assortment of foul and sheep as you approach the entrance. Somehow, despite the audacity of it all, you are charmed.

We went for the wine tasting, which also gets you into a 15 minute video by the owner, whose apparent eagerness to "show you around" makes you feel welcome and invited, not snobby at all. You also can walk around the courtyard, chapel, and down into the tasting rooms. Be sure to check out the bathrooms-- the spouts for the sinks are dragons! The castle is also host to New Years Eve parties, harvest festivals (where you get to stomp on your own grapes), and an awesome looking Halloween party.

Stunning dining hall
Walk down to the tasting room and I think you'll find yourself equally impressed. Continuing with the Italian theme, the wines are based off of the traditional Italian wine styles (Gewurztraminer, Pinot Bianco, Sangiovese, etc.) and all of the servers are actually Italian. None of the wines from this vineyard are available outside of the showroom (except for online for individual sale). I found  our server, Domenico, to be quite "Italian" (energized, friendly, loved to talk, especially about wine) and therefore an attribute to the whole experience.

Afterwards, we continued down the road to Sterling, a wine my father is a fan of. This one is a bit more expensive because you have to take the tram, a self-guided tour, and tasting. We arrived moments before a massive Asian tour group so we were certain the rest of our visit would be riddled with lines. We did have to wait for the ski-style tram, but it wasn't so bad. You take the tram up to the Greek-style "villa," showing off great views of the forest on the opposite side of the valley, including Castello Di Amorosa in the distance.Once at the top, you receive your first state and listen to a video about the video and owner. One cool fact is that the bells in the bell tower are from the 18th century. After the video, you walk to a patio area where you can grab another glass and have a seat. By now everyone has thinned out in their own pace. Whenever you're ready, you get to walk inside to see the production of the wine, watch informative videos, and read information placards. Something I haven't mentioned yet is that fall is harvest season, so you can see and smell the grapes getting loaded in different containers and fermenting. You also continue a bit more along and learn a lot about the barrels. Here barrels are all hand-made in oak and are sometimes heated or burned to create a vanilla or even chocolate taste. The next patio area is where you'll grab your first red wine and has a spectacular view that is the best you'll get in Napa.
View from the tram

Now, you'll arrive in the showroom at the end. The regular admission ($30) ends here with 2 or 3 more glasses of wine in the showroom before leaving. The slight upgrade ($5 more) allows you to sit down and taste more of the reserve wines. As I said, my dad is a fan of Sterling, so he knew he wanted to buy. If that's the case (no pun intended) for you too, it's definitely something you should do. Now, generally you walk into a tasting knowing if you want to buy a whole case of wines. If that is what you are planning, find out about any savings or deals they have. At Domaine Carneros, they had a $5 shipping special. Sterling had a pretty good deal: join their "club" and get 40% of the first 3 bottles, 30% off the rest, and get free tasting to 4 other vineyards. So if you're going to Napa, don't be afraid to ask about all of their deals and do the math and see if it's worth it for you; don't let yourself get bullied into something either.

Watching the fermentation, while looking at an explanatory video and information
Feeling good, we decided to have dinner in. Our hotel was perfectly equipped with a full kitchen (even a dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer!) and there were beautiful outdoor grills by the pool. It was nice to stay in, enjoying wine, cheese, and steak.

The next day was our last full day together in Napa. We were supposed to go on a hot air balloon in the morning, but because of the fog we weren't able to. We had joined the wine club at Sterling and as a result got free tastings to four other wineries. We started at Acacia. Though the vineyard was near our hotel, it had the feel of being secluded and it was a much smaller, quainter place, giving me the rustic feel I'd been hoping for. Tastes are by reservation only as the place is very tiny. We arrived early, 11am, as weren't the first arrivals but were the only visitors there at the time. It still felt a little too early so we stepped outside with our first glasses and explored. 

The winery is small enough that you can walk around yourself and see the production before your eyes. We watched the different sorting steps with admiration. Little by little we got our successive glasses and wandered further. I walked through the vineyard, taking pictures and feeling pleasantly alone to do as I wished. There's a lovely shaded picnic area, as well as outdoor sofas, even a bocci ball court. By noon, however, several other couples interrupted our solitude and we had to wait a while to get the attention of the server to order a bottle. Overall, this was my favorite visit.

Going on a stroll around Acacia
We stopped at the hotel on the way home to pick up sausage, cheese, avocado, and crackers for a picnic and headed to Provenance. The reviews online weren't so great but we decided to scope it out anyway since it was free. The floors here are made of former wine barrel caps which looks cool. the tasting room is furnished with nice couches and through a glass wall you can see the production tanks. Our server was an older man, probably 60s or 70s, and new so I think he was a bit nervous and as a result a little too formal, though he was also very informative. One thing he told us was that they are starting to use specialized twist off caps for heir more expensive wines, since they have a special material that allows for a certain amount of oxygen to pass through (for aging); we would have thought the true cork would have been for expensive bottles. Outside they have wrought iron chairs under trees where we had our picnic. We got the feeling taking our glasses outside would not have been permitted like in Acacial.

After, we hit our final stop of the day, Beaulieu Vineyards (BV), right across the street. The vineyard boasts being the oldest around at about 110 years of continued service. During Prohibition they sold their wine to the diocese of San Francisco and during the Depression (when they sold $100+ bottles of wine for $1) they made enough to scrape by by selling tartar crystals (which are the result of wine making). The tasting room is very much a show room, definitely not as homey as the others. The wines were good, but by now, after tasting so many different wines, they all tasted the same. We happily headed back to the hotel for some TV, leftovers, and packing.

As a warning, getting to San Francisco airport from Napa is awful and even fast and aggressive drivers should prepare for an hour and a half drive. We took a long route around to avoid Oakland & San Francisco (which is the way Google Maps tries to automatically send you), since my flight was at 9am and we'd be hitting the famous California rush hour traffic. It ended up taking 2 hours and fifteen minutes! Be prepared!

Now, off to Oregon!!!