Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Napa in Three Days

My name is Sarah. I am not an alcoholic. I felt like I needed to state that since I'm about to tell you that we spent a week centered around beer and wine. It actually is a trip we took last year, but I just never finished writing it up.  However, we were at another winery in Maryland this weekend, in the drizzling rain, standing in a cellar full of oak barrels and wine that smelled of roses, and it made me nostalgic for Napa, what I think was the best smelling trip I've ever taken.  Naturally, then I asked Jason if we could retire to Napa, and he said, of course not, we can't afford it. So while my plan of retiring to wine country may be on hold, I'm just going to take a moment to relive the time that we were there.  It all started two years before the trip when I was chatting with my friend Rose about our upcoming 30th birthdays, and we decided we should take a trip to celebrate. I can't totally remember how we landed on Napa, but it probably had to do with fact that we were drinking wine when we decided. Do you know what we did for Jason's 30th? Nothing. I think he was out of town for work. Worst wife ever.

So after ten years of flying Delta every once in a while, we had enough points to cash in for tickets. Not enough points for a direct flight or a flight at an ideal time, but still the right price. 

Here on the East Coast there is a growing wine region in Virginia, where tastings are $10, weekends are crowded, and there are maybe a few dozen wineries in a half hour radius.  But on the coast that actually uses the words "gnarley, stoked, and tight," wine, not just the vocab, was totally different. It was quite overwhelming to narrow our top choices down when there are over 400 wineries in Napa. Tastings often require appointments weeks in advance and fees averaged $30, with some more like $70 if it included a tour of beautiful grounds and snacks.  And just like most things in California compared to the East Coast, wine out in Napa was in a totally different league than cheap bottles we get from Trader Joe's (God love 'em!). To be fair, we've loved the wines, views, and options in Virginia, but Napa was definitely more of an experience - cave tours, food pairings, and carefully curated art collections just to name a few of the attractions.

Unfortunately for me, I didn't have a chance to narrow down top picks until the flight out, much less two weeks. Also unfortunately for me, money *is* an object, so we only visited wineries that were lower priced (many of which I found a coupon for!) and took same-day reservation or walk-ins. Thankfully because we were there in early April, mid-week, it was easy to get into tasting rooms and restaurants. It really was a great time to go because it was warm without being hot. I also heard winter is a good time to go to avoid crowds. Summer and fall are the busiest seasons in wine country. 

When considering where to stay, I learned about the various towns within the Napa area. I wanted an area that we could walk to dinner, and even though we went with Downtown Napa, Yountville and St. Helena would have qualified as well. I think Calistoga would have too, but we never stopped in. 

Napa (the town) was the biggest and cheapest of the towns in the greater Napa region. They had the most hotel and dining options, but it was also the furthest (really only 20 minutes or so) from most of the vineyards. We stayed here at the Blackbird Inn, though the Westin Versa and Andaz hotels were highly recommended.

Yountville was beautiful. The sidewalks bordered pristine gardens, charming homes, and world class restaurants - all with the price tags to match.  We did stay here the first night at the Maison Flourie, and I'm glad we did. Our bodies hadn't adjusted to West Coast time so we went for a jog at 6 am, just as the previous night's rain was tapering off.  I never knew a scent could be so strong as to permeate the entire block without being a bad smell.  The two main streets were full of blooming roses, which, mixed with the fresh rain and warm baking bread, created the most wonderful smell. I've been sitting here for ten minutes trying to think of a way to describe the smell and can't think of any way to describe it that wouldn't be redundant, but it made me want to live there, it was that good. We were also surprised at how clean it was, and because it's me and Jason, this led to a discussion about the correlation to income. (The economist in me wonders why trashy streets appear more as average income decreases. Does it have more to do with the resources available or with characteristics of the residents? Does owning vs renting matter? And then the part of me that loved Captain Planet as a kid wonders why anyone would leave their trash outside at all. Also, "heart" was definitely the least exciting super power of the show, Captain Planet. What does that even mean?)

Maison Flourie Dining Room - because traveling West is the only time I will naturally get up early enough to catch such beautiful light.

I think if we go back I'd like to stay in St. Helena. The downtown was a little bigger and had more casual dining option (read: cheaper) than Yountville.

I also wish we could have experienced the hot springs of Calistoga, where I heard there's more of a Western vibe, but oh well.

We stayed at a local B&B chain, while we were out there.  It was actually our first time doing the B&B. I always thought staying there involved a curfew and an awkward family style breakfast with strangers trying to make small talk. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked the homey feeling, lots of personal space, and delicious food (breakfast *and* happy hour!). Turns out, we were the ones making awkward conversation. I'm still not really sure if you are supposed to say good morning to the other guests, so I would usually alternate between feeling so rude for ignoring someone's entrance and feeling like a busybody when my attempts at conversation resulted in guests furtively looking into their laps and quickly resuming their original conversations. Of course, this might have just been me. Other guests responded way better to things Jason and our friend Jesse had to say. The conclusion is, I'm usually doing the opposite of whatever is socially appropriate.

So now that I've explained my impressions of the area and how we got there, I'll get onto the important thing: where we ate and drank.

Have you ever heard of the French Laundry? Ok, maybe I actually hadn't either. But it's been named the best restaurant in the world amongst all sorts of other awards.  We also didn't go there. It was vacation, but we couldn't spend the week's budget in one spot. :) Lucky for us, Thomas Keller also has two other places in Yountville, where we stayed the first night: Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery. We ate at both. While it wasn't the $225 per plate of the French Landry, Bouchon was certainly still a treat for us. I was impressed by the impeccable service and it was definitely a place you'd want to book reservations a couple weeks out. Since Jason has been making more pasta, we were curious to try it from a reputable source. We shared the gnocchi, even though it was an appetizer, and the pasta bolognese. The gnocchi was amazing - really the best either of us ever had. I think it was ricotta gnocchi with a light butter sauce and root vegetables. The pasta bolognese on the other had, while it wasn't bad,  I honestly thought my bolognese and Jason's pasta were better. They had favors from the bakery on the way out the door, which was a nice touch. I am also very proud of the self-restraint I showed to only grab one.
Day 1:

Our experience during dinner that first night was good enough to go to the neighboring Bouchon Bakery to pick up lunch sandwiches and pastries before heading out. (Also it helped that our B&B was in walking distance.) At the bakery I had what they named a "TKO" for Thomas Keller Oreo. Oh man. They are really very different from an Oreo - not as sweet and much more chocolately. But they are so good I've tried to make my own twice in the two months we got back. Jason, aka "the dough man," could have stayed there all day to watch the bread makers behind the window.

The wineries, while not exactly walking distance, were mostly close together. Armed with carbs and my spreadsheet, we ventured off for some wine!

Hall was first on the list. A giant rabbit sculpture signaled the beginning of the driveway, and fragrant flower beds led the way to a modern glass and concrete building on one side and a sculpture garden on the other.  My aunt had recommended it, but I hadn't realized there were two tasting rooms until later. It turned out fine, since the one we went to in St. Helena didn't need reservations, and the one in Rutherford required reservations.. I mean re$ervation$. Honestly, everything we tasted was amazing. We spent well over an hour savoring the tastings as we strolled through the art and took in the mountains from the patio. Can you tell it was my favorite? (Wine, art, and flowers!) While the wines weren't cheap, they also were right in line with the prices elsewhere in Napa.

Our next spot, Round Pond Estate was recommended by a few books. We heard they had a patio for picnics, but unfortunately it was only if you bought their food. The view out the food side was much more scenic than what we could see out the tasting room windows. So we ate our sandwiches that we packed from Buchon Bakery in the parking lot, which made me feel even more like an imposter in wine country, pretending to be a wine aficionado. 

Let me tell you what I did like about this place: the winemaker. They had just opened a couple bottles of their rose for the season - so new they weren't even available for tasting - and the winemaker was pacing around in his boots and marmot jacket providing samples to the staff. 
"Do you want to try some?" Young and bearded is not how I pictured winemakers to look.
"Sure!" I hesitated, "We're not members." 
"Great! I'd love to hear your thoughts." He was so enthusiastic, I was relieved to be able to pick out one of the unique additions to the wine, which actually was my favorite there - and also only available to members. 

So... this spot was good, but not really a "must-see."

Another recommendation from my Aunt and Uncle was up next: Orin Swift Cellars.  Have you ever heard of "The Prisoner"? It's originally was this guy's wine. Just a tasting room in downtown St. Helena, I think I liked the designs of the brand better than the wine itself. The labels themselves are works of art, Chinese book pages served as the floor covering and one wall was made from a ship hull. I didn't love all of the wines, but there were some true gems to be had in a wide range of prices. (Actually, I think some bottles were the cheapest I saw the whole trip.)

This picture also serves as the label for their "Palillon" wine. "I've seen other people try to take the same picture," our buddy, Jonathan, said, "but their hands aren't worn - in a beautiful way - from year of work and winemaking."

Unpretentious, no reservations required, and also the cheapest tasting fees of the trip ($10) - I loved it. Our pourer, Jonathan, a former chef, was easy to chat with and gave us my favorite eating recommendation of the trip.

Our good fortune and our monetary fortune (aka the day's travel money) ran out though at the next spot. A few guidebooks recommended Clos du Val. While the patio was somewhat nice, a rainstorm drove us into the generic tasting room. We didn't like any of the wines, the pourer was somewhat crass, and to add insult to injury, it was our most expensive stop of the day. We kicked ourselves for not leaving at the first signs of terrible, and called it a day.

Clos du Val.. at least it was pretty

Our base for the next few nights was the Blackbird Inn in downtown Napa. A sister B&B to where we stayed in Yountville, the grounds weren't quite as pretty, but it still proved to be a great spot. On the edge of the main strip, it was a 10 minute walk to both the main dining streets, and an amazing taco joint where real residents eat. Plus, if you pay for it using gift cards from Costco, these B&Bs really were the best value for something in a moderately priced accommodations in walking distance to eats.

Our friends Rose and Jesse arrived just before dinner at Norman Rose Tavern, recommend by our chef friend at Orin Swift. He said they often have Pliny the Elder on tap, which for the uninformed is a beer by Russian River Brewing and (one of) the best IPA(s) in the country. Part of me cringes that I care to note it.  Why did we care? It would have been like letting my dad down if we didn't get it. Really, after living with my dad, I could totally win Jeopardy if the categories were: American craft beer, 70's Rock, and "Physics is phun!" 

Remember I said our luck ran out? Pliny the Elder was in fact not on tap and the remaining beer options were average. The food was good, though the appetizers and desserts shined brighter than the entrees.

Jet lag made us pretty tired most nights, and our since idea of "nightlife" is going out for ice cream and being home by 10, that was about all the excitement we could handle for the day.

Day 2:
I'll start with the food. We ate at the Oakville Grocery for lunch. It was more of a cafe that sold tons of amazing specialty grocery items plus wines. I do have to say, my Reuben sandwich and Jason's chicken salad sandwiches were more flavorful than Thomas Keller's sandwiches from the day before. I wouldn't call it my favorite meal, but if I could transplant one eating spot to my neighborhood, this would have been it. 

My favorite meal of the trip was that night's dinner spot, at a Spanish tapas joint, la Taberna. Some of the best ordering advice I've heard is to order something that scares you or is unfamiliar, as those tend to be the dishes that best showcase a chef's talent. La Taberna is exactly the kind of place to follow that advice! Octopus doesn't scare me, but my mid-western boy rarely goes for it. He was glad he did here. A lively atmosphere and wonderful local beers on tap made us glad we snagged seats while we could.

Wineries that day included Cakebread Cellars, Miner family and Paraduxx, all of which had buy one get one free tastings in the app. (Read the fine print though, we couldn't use the coupon at Paraduxx since it was after 12 noon.)

Cakebread was nice so I'm really not sure why I didn't like it more. We were big fans of Alejandro, our pourer, who gave the four of us a private tasting in the courtyard while teaching us the history of the winery and Napa itself. The wines were all good, and the atmosphere was nice, but it was kind of a production, and I hate when the pourer is waiting on me to finish my taste. Makes me feel too rushed. I guess I answered my own question about why it wasn't a favorite.

Miner Family Vineyard was Rose's favorite of the trip. We went before it got crowded, took a seat on the patio overlooking the valley during the tasting, and just sent the guys in for the next wine. I remember their Syrah being outstanding, but only because we bought a bottle.

Paraduxx was a beautiful setting. The views weren't spectacular, but it was more of a cozy setting with couches set up under the trees. I loved that they poured all the tastings at once so you could go at your own pace. I've heard similar reviews about their sister winery, Duckhorn.

We went mostly to places that were red wine focused. There were a few places whose specialty was sparking wine that I kind of wish we went to, but ran out of time. Mumm and Domaine Carneros were all recommended.
Day 3:

Maybe the one place we went to for their whites instead of reds was Grgich Hills. I can't even count the number of guidebooks or people who referenced the movie "Bottle Shock." (Seriously, is that main association everyone has about Napa? I finally saw the movie maybe 5 years after it came out.) Anyway, the movie focused on the Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena that won the judgement of Paris. So now that winery is a bit of a tourist destination. I'm still a sucker for historical experiences, but instead of fighting the crowds there, I thought the better strategy was to go to follow the winemaker of the winning Chardonnay, Mike Grgich, to his winery, Grgich Hills. And let me say, yes, the Chardonnay was wonderful, and we were only slightly disenchanted to learn you can buy it all over the country. (Sidenote: the Cabernet at Stag's Leap also beat out the French wines during that event, the "Judgement of Paris." I would have liked to go there too, but ran out of time.)

Because we had gone to Hall the first day without Rose and Jesse- and honestly because we loved it so much but hadn't bought anything the first day- we went back to Hall. Yup, still loved it.

We hit Gott's Roadside in St. Helena for lunch that day. There was definitely a fun drive through diner vibe and the food was fresh and tasty. I was kind of tired of heavier food so enjoyed my salad, but I think the fried and grilled foods is where they really shined. I was tempted by the craft brews on tap, but was attempting this thing called "moderation." I ordered a salad for crying out loud. I regret it.

We spent the next couple hours bopping around downtown St. Helena mostly checking into antique stores or furniture boutiques for "inspiration." I was hoping to score some fun vintagey find like designers do on blogs/ Instagram/ tv/ what have you. I didn't but I also don't look effortlessly photogenic like those home designers do, so no biggie.

Our last winery was Merryvale based on the fact that no appointments were required and it was super close to downtown St. Helena.  I didn't think it was possible, but I think I'd kind of hit my limit for tastings. (Not that I drank too much, but more that it just wasn't as enjoyable as it should have been. Like seeing too many cathedrals while traveling; I think I heard it called "cathedral fatigue" once.) It was pretty, but nothing really stood out about it as memorable.

And somehow I wasn't as amazed as I should have been.

Maybe because we didn't want to end on a mediocre note, we drove the 15ish minutes to Auberge du Soleil, a posh hotel/spa/restaurant with famed views of the valley. Munching on happy hour snacks as the sun sunk was the perfect way to wind down the day.

Our friend Jesse takes some great pictures, so they went off to "chase the light" with plans to meet for a later dinner. We ended up taking a different route home and drove through the neighborhood where non-tourists live I noticed an ugly looking taco lean-to on the side of the road. And if there's anything I know about tacos, the worse the shop looks, the better (seriously, gas stations, unmarked trucks, and run down convenience stores have my favorite tacos). Jason loves me, so we turned the car around, knowing if we didn't I wouldn't mourn this missed opportunity forever (some or all of the logic in that sentence may be faulty). Guys, I love tacos.  Tanya's Taqueria did not disappoint.  They were everything a good taco should be: corn shell, fresh salsa, full of flavor.  I was a little sad to discover them on the last day since they were so close to our hotel.

Real dinner, not my pre-dinner tacos, that night was at Azzurro Pizzeria. Maybe like our experience at Merryvale, I had hit restaurant fatigue, because I while it wasn't bad, it wasn't something I'd go back to. Pro was that they served Pliny the Elder on tap. Con was that they charged extra for extra sauce someone requested.

So that concluded the Napa part of our trip. Then it was off to meet my parents in San Fransisco. This is where the beer portion of the week came in, but I'll have to save that for another post.  Suffice it to say, Pliny the Elder was involved.