As we got into the Napa valley proper, we suddenly worried if we had made a huge mistake. It was not feeling relaxing. We were in rush hour traffic, and when we got to St. Helena, the highway was lined on either side by trendy shoppes, restaurants, boutiques, wineries and the like, with people shoving their way into parking spots or back onto the highway. It was made all the worse by having to follow behind a jacked up Jeep with a large pair of neuticles swinging off the hitch.
Fortunately, we chose to stay further north in the valley at Calistoga, which was much more to our liking. Small town atmosphere and pace, yet still catering to the tourists with a main drag full of restaurants.
We stayed at Doc Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort, which was not luxurious, but perfectly acceptable. And the natural hot spring pools (at 102, 92 and 82 degrees) were a very welcome attraction at the end of each day. We didn't try the actual mud baths, but we were amused by the resort's logo, which looks to us like some sort of anime character. Another novel touch is the Doc's green car with the license "MUDKING".
The room wasn't quite ready when we got there, so we spent some time at the Sharpsteen Museum, founded by Disney animator/producer Ben Sharpsteen; one of his Oscars is there in the museum, something we didn't expect to see by leaving LA. The museum was small, but fine. It connects to the neighboring cottage, one of the original cottages from the resort built by the rip-roaring ex-Mormon Gen-you-ine Old West character Sam Brannan, who founded the town of Calistoga (named very very very apocryphally by a tipsy Brannan who called it the Calistoga of Sarafornia.)
We also hit the Hydro Grill, which is a great place with 20-or-so microbrews. Having tasted a few while up there, the clear winner was Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA. Other highlights were the very dark Death and Taxes and the very summer-y Sudwerk Hefeweizen (associated with UC Davis's brewing curriculum).
Later, we took in a wine tasting in town at On ThEdge, which had interesting wine that was 100% Charbono. I'm always keen to try varietals typically used for blending all on their own. The tasting room shared space with beeswax candles and other products, and they had an active hive in a cabinet, so you could open it up and see the bees (including the queen) behind the glass doing their buzzy business.
For dinner, we went to Miguel's, which had a really excellent black mole chicken, which tasted even better on the fried plantain. Did some soaks in the pools and then got ready for the next day.
After breakfast, we picked up bikes at the Calistoga Bike Shop and this was by far the best decision of the trip. The whole thing was a lot of fun. The wineries are so close together that biking is a perfect way to get around. If you were efficient, in a car, you could go to dozens of wineries, but that's too much like work. Biking spaced everything out nicely, and allows one to soak up the scenery. Calistoga is also quite bike friendly, with bike lanes and a few bike paths (even if the main one takes you past the dump (where we were lucky enough to see the workers emptying their truck, poking through the contents and shouting out "Pornos!" as they struck rubbish gold.) the recycling facility and the water treatment plant.)
The pimply teen at the bikeshop sent us to Twomey first, but it was closed, but the rest of the trip was great. At Dutch Henry, we made friends with Floyd the cat, who later jumped around on the barrels in the barrel room and climbed the tree outside. August Briggs was perhaps our favorite winery of the whole trip; lovely fruit-forward wines and really friendly people, including the father of the owner, who is a real hoot. He runs the barrel tasting. It's neat to have a taste of things that have spent sombunall of their expected time in the barrel.
On the ride up toward the north, I spotted (for free!) the attraction of one of the local tourist traps, the Old Faithful (of California) Geyser. I'll save you $8 and show you a picture.
At Bennett Lane, they had a great white blend, the Maximus, although they seem to have some difficulty figuring who the hell they're honoring. Their label quite clearly has a coin of Gaius Julius Verus Maximus pictured on it; he was the Emperor Maximinus' son, not an emperor himself. Although touted as a gourmand, the Historia Augusta quite plainly says that "He was fond of gay living, very sparing in the use of wine, but voracious in respect to food, especially game, eating only boar's flesh, ducks, cranes, and everything that is hunted." The classical scholarship displayed these days on wine labels is enough to make one cry.
It was also at Bennett Lane that we met a really extroverted guy and his girlfriend and their 3 dogs. Jack and Harley were enjoying a bottle of wine on the patio, and soon Jack was up and making us his best friends. Or, at least, his best single-serving friend. We wondered if one of their dogs was a pug/chihuahua mix, but it appears that Phoebe is just a fat chihuahua.
At Envy, we picked up a couple bottles of a rosé. I looked around carefully for wine snobs before buying them. Riding out to Victor Arroyo, we saw the geyser again (free!). V.A. didn't have any wines that grabbed us, but we came away with some of their estate olive oil, which is really tasty. We pedalled our way back to the bike shop, cooled off with another beer at the Hydro, showered, and came back to the Hydro for a meal of all-appetizers. Also, it was music night at the Hydro, so we had the Swing 7. I was critical of the trombonist, but otherwise they were a fine little Big Band/swing combo. Joining them for one of their numbers was a clarinetist who clearly had some great chops... and he was 96. A bit frail, but he was smooth and could still make that licorice stick sing.
The next day, just as we were setting out in the car, a strange vision appeared. An old gent on a bicycle absolutely covered with streamers and spinners and pinwheels. A rainbow vision, he was a one man parade. We learned later that he comes into town every morning and was "not right in the head". But I applaud him.
We set out by car into the Sonoma/Russian River area. Much more laidback than Napa valley, much more enjoyable. Our first stop was Rodney Strong, so Becca could try the family label. Strong gets big environmental snaps for his solar panels/green energy, and in the tasting room there's a big reproduction check from the power company to the tune of $2+ million.
The guy at Christopher Creek was very friendly and gave us a map and indications for other wineries to visit. They also had a dog, Mookie the Moocher, who was a silly, friendly girl, despite being part pit-bull. The guy would ask her, "Do you talk?" and she would bay lustily and then run around to visit everyone in the room. She got a well earned treat for her efforts. Limerick Lane, Mazzocco and Ridge are the other stops I remember. We had a great conversation with the guy at Ridge/Lytton Springs. He's clearly studying oenology, and we learned a great deal about varieties and hybrids and New World grapes versus Old World (vinifera - use your Latin) grapes. Ridge has a really beautiful vineyard around the tasting room.
After that, we took a long drive to see what our little guidebook called the most scenic drive between Sonoma and Napa counties. It was certainly the twistiest, narrowest and most dangerous route we drove. Scenic, not so much, apart from a brief stretch through a really impressive stand of tall, old trees. Many of the curves were marked at 10, but the guy on my ass was clearly a well-seasoned commuter and wanted to get past. I pulled out into a driveway to let him go, but I'm afraid the quick maneuver onto the gravelly driveway was probably the most dangerous thing I did the whole trip.
Back into Napa we were dissed by the CIA, which wasn't yet seating for dinner. Going back up the road, we stopped so I could arrange for the photo used for my icon, a plan that has been brewing in my mind for ages. Back in Calistoga, we eventually had a fine meal at Brannan's Grill, which has a magnificent (and well-stocked) 19th century Brunswick mahogany bar. The food was a little foofoo, but I certainly enjoyed it. Especially when topped off with some Lagavulin 16.
For our last full day, we took the Napa Valley Wine Train, which was a nice relaxing ride. Scenery of vineyards, wine-tasting on the train, a fine meal prepared on board... great stuff. We got to meet Lou Schuyler, a Southern Pacific engineer who was instrumental in getting the Wine Train idea started when SP wanted to pull up the tracks. Though retired (he turned 86 last Saturday), he still comes to ride the train once a month. He had his lunch at a table catercorner to ours, and he would occasionally drop by to chat a bit and give us some info, such as the fact that the vineyards plant roses at the end of the grape rows not for show, but because (mine canary-like) they show the first signs of disease that the vintners need to know about and can nip in the bud, as it were.
The track follows highway 29 up and back, but I was surprised how much different and better it looked from the train than it did when I was staring at the neuticles on the way in. Wine tasting on board the train was fun, and though we didn't buy any bottles, I give my hearty recommendation to the Luca Sangiovese, Girard Zinfandel and Martini Cabernet Sauvignon. The lunch was splendid as well. They do murder mysteries on the train twice a month, and you can charter the train. aaronjv can add this to his list of live game venues to use when somebody hits the lotto.
After the train, we hit a couple wineries in the afternoon before closing time. Chateau Montelena is notable for being one of the older wineries (established in the 1880s). The winery was also part of the Paris Tasting, in which California wines beat out French wines in a tasting conducted by nine French judges. Their Chardonnay was judges the best of the whites (and nearby Stag's Leap was the best of the reds). A movie about the tasting, Bottle Shock, with Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman, is currently filming, at least partially on location at Chateau Montelena.
Next day, we drove home, mainly via the 101, so we got to cross the Golden Gate, which was fun. We even made a quick stop at Mosby Winery near Santa Barbara and picked up a case (50% off!) of their Traminer. Saw a couple accidents, but fortunately all on the other side of the road. Finally home, we were greeted by happy tomatoes and other produce from the garden. OK, that's more than enough! Ciao for now.