As we descend from 30,000 feet early Sunday morning, I once again find myself upon the eve of one of my business travel pleasures…a side trip. I am due in meetings in the San Francisco area first thing Monday but in order to get the best airfares, I chose to fly in Sunday.
I had planned to spend the day in my Bay area hotel working onmy presentations, taking a bubble bath, ordering room service , and curling up in my king sized luxurious bed with a novel. But after completing all my work on the three hour flight, I decided I should take a side trip to Napa before settling into my hotel for the evening. I thought, what the heck, if Elizabeth Gilbert can travel to Italy, India and Indonesia in search for everything and document it in Eat, Pray, Love,I can plan a solo trip to Napa in one day in search of Food, Wine, Enjoy and document it in my blog.
As we descend into San Francisco International Airport I daydream about driving through vineyards, stopping here and there for a wine tasting and picnicking in the beautiful countryside.
Life is good.
Within thirty minutes of landing in SFO I am navigating my rental car toward the Bay Bridge. I had been to both Napa and Sonoma on several occasions in the past. Never in the summer. Never on a weekend. Never solo. I had no idea on what to expect. I had little time to research the wineries, but I knew if I traveled North on Highway 29 I would end up in the heart of Napa Valley, and have my tantalizing pick of dozens of vineyards to wander and ponder. Since I was solo and I was my designated driver, I planned to do more exploring than tasting and more spitting than sipping.
As I crossed San Francisco bay the blue water stretched all around me, I inhaled the marine air. The summer landscape in the bay area came as a pleasant surprise. The ridges and hills were a golden maize dotted here and there with desolate green trees. I have been to the area many times, but never in the heat of the summer when it hasn’t rained since April. The highways were surrounded by rolling hills that no one had bothered to irrigate. The terrain was parched, but the landscape was beautiful. I had always been to the area when the hills were an emerald green and I loved it, but this drier, hay like landscape was delightful. I already knew I had made the right decision to journey to the Valley.
Traffic was light since it was before ten am. On most week days you could drive from historic downtown Napa, at the bottom of the valley, to Yountville (a culinary boomtown) in lower Napa, to St Helena the middle of Napa, ending in Calistoga, near the north border of Napa County, in an hour. Depending on your stops at the over 200 wineries in the valley, this hour drive could stretch into a day or for some tourists several days.
By the time I drove through Napa downtown the traffic was beginning to back up. On the West side of 29 , I passed Moet et Domaine Chandon in Yountville. I am not a fan of sparkling wines, so I did not stop. I heard it is worth the stop for the views. In fact, Highway 29 is picturesque with acres of vineyards sitting majestically up the hillside on either side. I began seeing wineries and vineyards galore, about every hundred yards.
My first stop was at the 130 year old Oakville Groceryat Highway 29 and Oakville Crossroads, about 15 miles northwest from Napa downtown. Every time I travel to Napa I stop there. The general store and deli carries a wide range of unusual groceries and picnic supplies. I purchased a bottle of my favorite Napa Valley whole grain spicedmustard to bring home (great as a dip with pretzels) and a deli sandwich of turkey and brie. I was starving and decided not to wait to eat at one of the many restaurants. Many Napa Valley wineries offer picnic facilities. And nothing is better than tasting a couple of great vintages, and then buying the bottle of wine and parking your friends and family on a picnic bench to enjoy the wine and eat lunch in the charming countryside.
As I ate my sandwich on the picnic table, the view of the neat rows of vines a few feet away was spectacular. It was nice to unwind. The valley air smelled of hay, sage and country living. The birds were bustling and chirping and the sun was warm, but not hot.
From Oakville Grocery, I could literally walk across the street to Napa Wine Company. The little town of Oakville is at the rim of the Mondavi vineyards. I did stop in the Spanish mission styled Robert Mondavi vineyard just northwest of Oakville. My stay involved a quick stroll through the grounds and gift shops. I did not do a tasting. Mondavi is perhaps the best known winery in Napa Valley. Since the tour is optional; take it if you have time. I didn’t have time this trip.
As I drove through Rutherford(one mile northwest of Oakville), I passed Cakebread, Sawyer, Suprey, Opus One, to name a few. My next stop was Peju, a French provincial winery on the east side. The driveway, pristine gardens and tower drew me in. It was still too early for a wine tasting, so I lingered in the tranquil gardens. The Tower is the tallest building in Napa.
From there I meander past Caymus, Frogs Leap, Beaulieu, Mumm, Rutherford Hill; the wineries fly by every other driveway on this dusty two- lane road, intimidating but welcoming. There’s also an Olive Oil store, but I can’t remember the name. Yes, they grow olives too! Does anyone know the name?
I stopped at Grigich Hills.
I was met by a friendly dog, as I casually walked right up to the vines and photographed a bunch of green grapes with venous leaveson a post marked 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon.
For all you wine connoisseurs, if you haven’t stopped reading this blog by now, I did actually taste this time. I won’t bore you with all the details of my choices, but Grigich Hills has always been a favorite.
I held up my glass. I took a good look, I sniffed once or twice, I swirled (it’s called volatilizing the esters, but who am I trying to impress?), I sniffed again; at last, I took a sip! I swirled the wine in my mouth, held it there for a few seconds, then I spit or swallow. Again and again. Taste, sip, enjoy. A vibrant and flavorful experience lingered in my mouth. A nice first flight.
As I continue northwest on Highway 29, I visited various tasting rooms. I soon realize that the swallowers far outnumber the spitters. I was a spitter, and felt I had to explain I wanted to preserve my palate (and my sobriety).
My last stop was at one of my favorite NAPA wineries, V Sattui in St Helena. I hit the jackpot. They were having a chocolate and wine tasting that day! Score! A two for one tasting. V Sattui is a unique wine country experiencewhich includes picnicking amongst the vineyards or beneath the centuries old oak trees. V Sattui has an awesome Italian marketplace with delicacies prepared by chefs.
By now the tasting bars were four deep. My server was friendly and informative. After my fill of award winning wines and mouthwatering chocolates, I decided to head back to my hotel. Highway 29 was a single file lane headed northwest whenI left V Sattui, so I was thankful I decided to leave when I did. I can only imagine the traffic in a few more hours as the wineries begin to close around 4-5 pm.
I stopped once more to photograph the summer vineyards heavy with bunches of grapes in marching row after row of vines that have been methodically set ten meters apart, enough for a tractor to pass between them.
I returned to my room before night fall, popped open a bottle of my private label reserve, and while soaking in my bubbling bath, I toasted myselffor my good sense in touring the Napa Valley.
Have you been to Napa? What is your favorite winery? I’ll have to plan my next trip there during the CRUSH season.