One of the great benefits of living in California is the diversity of destinations within driving distance. Driving to work, I can often see snow-capped mountains ahead and the glistening Santa Monica Bay in the rearview mirror. There are mountains, beaches, deserts, cities, and forests all within a couple of hours drive. This past weekend Megan and I journeyed up to the Napa Valley for several days of good food, great wine, and much-needed relaxation. The trip was a last-minute idea, brought about when we spotted a good deal at a nice hotel that would accept some of my hotel points. Since the forecast for northern California looked good and since Napa was on the list of weekend getaways we wanted to visit, we jumped at the chance.
In the past couple of years, we’ve made several trips to San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles for wine tasting since it is only a few hours’ drive from Los Angeles. For some reason, we were under the impression that the drive from Los Angeles to the Bay Area is over 8 hours. In actuality, we made the trip in about 6.5 hours.
On the way, we encountered a few vicious squalls as we drove through the pancake-flat Central Valley, but traffic was light until we reached Silicon Valley. Even driving through the newly developed suburbs around San Francisco, we made good progress and arrived in Napa just as the sun was setting. Before checking into the hotel, we stopped at the grocery store for provisions, intent on making our visit to wine country as affordable as possible. Our plan to cook for ourselves was further boosted when we checked into the hotel and were upgraded to a one bedroom suite. The suite featured a full kitchen, dining area, two bathrooms, two flatscreen TV’s, and a large balcony overlooking the hotel pool. The hotel upgrade was to be the first pleasant surprise in a string of good fortune we experienced during the weekend thanks to Napa being virtually deserted during the offseason. Throughout our entire stay, traffic was non-existent, barely anyone was with us in the tasting rooms, and the hotel was sparsely occupied.
On Sunday morning, I went out for a cool morning run around the charming town of Napa. Although I had been warned that Napa was fairly developed and lacked the charm of smaller places like Sonoma, the parts of town I saw appeared quaint. Following a substantial breakfast, we set out for vineyards by driving north along Route 29. The south portion of the road is an expressway that gradually slows to a divided highway with occasional lights before morphing into a more scenic two-lane road. Similar to the character of the road itself, the vineyards along Route 29 follow a similar transformation. They start with the large, well-known wineries that boast palatial buildings and change to medium-sized, premium vineyards as you head north before completing the cycle with smaller, less-known wineries at the north of the valley.
Our first stop was at St. Supery, a medium-to-large sized winery that was highly recommended in the books I researched prior to our trip. The winery is best known for educating visitors and is supposed to boast a tour featuring some slightly hokey teaching instruments such as a smelling tube that helps to identify aromas in wine. The building itself is somewhat modern and nondescript. Either the educational facilities were closed during our visit or we missed them entirely. Instead, we proceeded to the tasting room, where a couple of other visitors were cozied up to the bar. After reviewing the tasting options, we settled for the less-expensive, less-exclusive tasting that allowed us to share four wines. At first, we felt neglected, but after a couple of sips and some probing questions the gentleman behind the bar opened up. Soon, Joe (his actual name) was peppering us with jokes, lecturing on the unique aspects of St. Supery’s wine, and recommending other wineries that we should visit. Over an hour later, he was providing us with samples of the reserve wines and talking football. Overall, the wine was superb and it was an educational way to start our wine tasting, even if it wasn’t the type of education we were expecting.
Next, we drove a couple hundred yards north to the Grgich Hills winery. I first came to know this winery through my uncle Bruno, who shares a Croatian heritage with the winemakers and has been generous enough over the years to introduce me to their highly regarded wines. Grgich also became famous due to the movie “Bottle Shock,” which recounts the rise of Napa wines to prominence and describes how a Napa wine (made by the founder of Grgich) beat out the best of France in a blind tasting. Fitting of a famous winery, the tasting room was crowded and we needed to wait for a place at the bar. When we finally did get served, we were granted only limited attention and were largely left to ourselves to discover the wines. When we did have the opportunity to speak to the pourer, he seemed uncertain of the winemaking process and lacked confidence discussing the biodynamic method Grgich referenced often in their literature. Our continuous questions probably did not encourage the server to hang around any more than necessary. As for the tasting, the white wines had a unique mineral taste. I enjoyed the Cabernet Sauvignon, but was underwhelmed by the other wines we tasted.
Following our tasting, we enjoyed a light picnic in the Grgich parking lot. Eating in a car can rarely be considered elegant, but on a beautiful day with endless vineyards stretched out as far as the eye can see it seemed quite refined and our apple, bread, and cheese certainly seemed to taste much better than it should. After lunch, we drove further up route 29, passing through quaint towns and numerous vineyards. We drove as far north as Calistoga, a small outpost at the north of the valley that has a decidedly different feel from the southern part of the valley. The town seemed more rugged, but quaint in its own rustic way. Initially, we tried to visit the Calistoga Geyser, but were turned off by the egregious $10 per person price tag, a steep ask considering the geyser only erupts once every 10 minutes and there is little else to recommend the site. Instead, we proceeded to the Castello di Amorosa, where we had scheduled a tour of the faux castle. The tour took 90 minutes and gave an overview of castles and winemaking. It didn’t help we toured the castle with a large group, but the castle had the artificial feeling of Disney with little in the way of substance. To be fair, it was an attractive castle and I would love to have such an impressive wine cellar, but even after an hour and a half neither Megan nor I was sure why the castle was built. Our best guess is that some rich guy who owns another winery (V. Sattui) decided that building a castle in Napa would be a profitable attraction for visitors who wanted to do something different than wine tasting. At the end of the tour, there was a wine tasting, but after St. Supery and Grgich, the wine tasted like colored water. For Megan, the highlight of the visit was a friendly cat named Guinevere in the tasting room, although even in this case our guide only told us the cat’s name and didn’t deem it necessary to tell us whose cat it was or why the cat was in the winery.
Our second day in Napa was equally enjoyable and the wineries were even less congested. Our first stop was at Cakebread, one of the famous wineries in Napa everyone recommended we visit. To be honest, we were wary since they are known for high-quality, high-cost wines, which only meets half our criteria. Still, the beauty of a wine tasting is it allows you to sample some wines that would be otherwise unaffordable. In this case, we made a reservation and were provided a private tasting with Bob, an extremely knowledgeable veteran of Napa. He was a wealth of information, providing in-depth explanations of the winemaking process and describing the history of the region. He explained how when Cakebread first started that Robert Mondavi, who already had a thriving vineyard across the street, stopped by to offer assistance and lend some equipment to the burgeoning enterprise. Every wine we tastes was sublime and if only it was affordable then we wouldn’t need to drink anything else. After the great tasting, we drove up to Rutherford Hills Winery, where we ate lunch while overlooking the Napa Valley.
Next up was Honig, a small winery recommended by a friend and located slightly off the beaten path, on a side street off Route 29. The pourers were much younger and obviously enthusiastic about wine, although the wines paled in comparison to the other vineyards we visited. The wines were average even though the prices were still consistent with better Napa wines. The only one we liked was an odd Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc. The thick, yellow wine tasted like a less-offensive dessert wine. Overall, we were disappointed with Honig and couldn’t leave soon enough.
Following a slightly disappointing tasting, we moved on to Goosecross, another winery off of Route 29 that Megan remembered as being good. We arrived just as a couple of people were leaving and were once again treated to having the tasting room all to ourselves. The pourer this time was an affable Texan, Matt, who patiently explained the in’s and out’s of various wines. As with other wineries and nearly everyone we met in Napa, he displayed a passion for wine and was eager to educate us. Our tasting diverted from the normal flight and he generously added several different vintages for us to compare and some special reserve wines that were transcendent. In addition, he explained the differences between the various appellations and was happy to share recommendations for good wineries and local restaurants. He encouraged us to explore the Silverado Trail, a less popular road running parallel to Route 29 and has a vastly different culture.
With the light waning, we managed to fit in one more winery before closing time. We proceeded up the Silverado Trail to Mumm Vineyards, which specializes in sparkling wine. The setting is more like a restaurant and we sat down at tables on an enclosed balcony overlooking rolling vineyards bathed in the late afternoon sun. We were provided with tastes of three different sparkling wines, each of which were dry and tasty, although felt more appropriate for a wedding than for everyday sipping. Just as we were ready to leave, an older woman came over and offered us a taste of a special wine. Compared to the others, this wine was clearly superior. It was at this point, that the heady mix of wine and general exposure to the exorbitant prices of Napa finally wore me down. Up to this point, I had been responsibly moderating my purchases, only buying bottles I truly loved and seemed to be at least moderately good values. However, my practicality wavered and I splurged on a special sparkling wine, a purchase I immediately regretted since I have had a decent bottle of prosecco sitting in my refrigerator for the past few months.
Our wine tasting in Napa completed, before heading home, we went out for one wonderful meal. While it was nice to eat in our hotel room and enjoy simple picnics in scenic surroundings, it would have been shameful to leave Napa without eating out for one nice dinner. Fortunately, we had plenty of recommendations and we opted to follow the advice of our host at Cakebread, who suggested Bistro Jeanty. It was not a decision we regretted. Located in Yountville, the small little bistro had a cozy feel and we were seated next to the fire in the back. Several people had told us to order the tomato soup and we supplemented this appetizer with the escargot in garlic pastis butter. Both were amazing, but the tomato soup with a tasty puff pastry soufflé draped across the top was one of the best dishes I have ever had. For the main course, we split a deconstructed beef stew with mashed potatoes, buttered peas and carrots and steamed mussels in a red wine sauce. Again, both dishes were divine. To cap the meal off, we had a chocolate mouse crème brule. The calorie count for the whole meal probably topped 3,000 calories per person, but the buttery dishes loaded with crème were well worth however many years were shaved off my life.
Thus ended a memorable weekend in Napa. Both Megan and I marveled at how lucky people are to live in such a beautiful location. The weather was perfect, the wines were excellent, and everyone we met was extremely knowledgeable and helpful. Visiting during the offseason suited us perfectly since it allowed us to linger at wineries and savor the wine while we learned about the interesting process and unique history of the region. We are certainly fortunate to live within driving distance of such a fantastic place and we hope to make it back soon. As if the wine were not enticing enough, the tomato soup alone is well worth the trip.