Deb & I developed a taste for California wine over the past couple years, so we decided to plan long weekend to Napa Valley. Our goal was to relax and enjoy the scene without a crazy busy agenda but we wanted to visit our favorite wineries, find some good food, and get some good pictures. Maybe it was the planning or just blind luck but in spite of 100+ degree weather we had a great time.
Fun “Monster” Car
I have to tell this story about our rental car. You see I wanted to rent a fun car so I used Avis’ Signature Series to rent a BMW 3. When we arrived, the only BMW 3 they had was an X3. “No.” I said, “an SUV is not my idea of a fun car, especially in Napa Valley.” The agent types away at his terminal, darts through the door behind the counter, then offers me a deal. He tells me he could offer me a Mercedes AMG C63 for a small upgrade price. After I realized what that was, I said, “YES! I’ll take it.”
Friends, driving this beast of a car was the most exhilarating experience I’ve had behind the wheel. Now I know what it means to have more power than you need. Whenever I revved it up, Deb would say “you’re making me sick.” While I can’t see owning a monster like this, I would be delighted to rent one again.
The drive up to Napa Valley through San Francisco was brutal. Who knew traffic on a Wednesday afternoon would be this crazy? Traffic was horrible all the way to Yountville. When my iPhone said we arrived at the hotel, we couldn’t figure out where to check in because the place was under major construction. After driving in circles we discovered a small sign that said check-in was at the Vintage House Party Room. Did I tell you it was over 100 degrees?
…OK not a terrific start to our “relaxing weekend in Napa”.
Friends recommended the Vintage House in Yountville. Since this was our first solo visit, I asked the Vintage House concierge to blend our plans to visit our favorite wineries with their recommendations for dining and recreation. Despite the construction, that Vintage House was fantastic. Yountville is an ideal location seated almost in the center of Napa Valley. On our first evening, the concierge arranged dinner just a half block away at a great Italian restaurant called Bottega Napa Valley. I highly recommend it. In fact, Deb liked it so much we went back for dessert on Thursday. You may not be able to tell from the picture above that Vintage House is set up like bungalows with a few units in each. So, your room doesn’t feel like a hotel but more like a stand alone home away from home – in Napa Valley.
Thursday – The Difference an Apostrophe Makes
Did I mention that an SUV was not my idea of a fun rental car? As I was walking to breakfast on Thursday morning, I noticed not one but two maroon Lexus RX 350s exactly like the one here. Deb calls this the “Silver Sneaker Car”. If you look carefully to the driver behind the seat, you can see the connection. Both drivers Thursday morning were of similar age. What’s sad is that it is identical to our Lexus RX 350. Now you know why we bought a fun car this summer.
When I began planning our wine tastings with the concierge, she asked me which Stags Leap I had booked, Wine Cellars or Winery. It was an odd question, so I sent her the reservation details to avoid confusion. On Thursday morning, our first visit was at Stags Leap. Apparently, even iPhone maps was confused. We were right on time for our reserved wine tasting and as we registered at the front desk, the hostess kindly said “your reservation is at the other Stags Leap one mile north of us. Come on back when you are done.”
We quickly found the hidden road leading to the other Stags Leap, Stag’s Leap Winery. This winery is rich with history dating back before prohibition to Horace Chase of the bankers who struck gold, started a bank, and bought the land. The name Stag’s Leap is attributed to a native Wappo legend of a stag leaping over the shear cliffs above the property to escape hunters. Our host explained the fascinating history of the winery from its inception to the 13 year legal battle with that other Stags Leap. Read the photo captions below to learn all about it. What a difference an apostrophe makes.
After an enjoyable couple hours learning the history of Stags’ Leap Winery, we had to return to the other Stags Leap, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. They were so nice when we stopped earlier and I wanted to taste some of their Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon.
It’s a Small World
Our afternoon appointment was on the north end of the valley, so we decided to grab lunch in nearby St. Helena. We drove by this really busy place called Gott’s Roadside but we didn’t have a lot of time, so I asked Deb to find something on her iPhone maps. Of all places, we ended up at a grocery store in St. Helena – quick, home made, and really good. After lunch Deb looks at her phone and screams “Trish is here in Napa!” Trish is Deb’s step-sister. I said call her to see if we can meet up. Unfortunately, she was already an hour out of town but just had lunch at Gott’s Roadside. Small World, eh?
Our last appointment was at Frank Family Vineyards in Calistoga where they make one of my favorite Cabernet. Then they introduced me to their really good stuff, Patriarch 2013 – wow!
Friday – Cakebread at Last!
Hot air balloons in Napa are almost as prevalent as wineries. Just a couple blocks from our hotel in downtown Yountville, there is a balloon launch every morning right at dawn. While I did not sign up for the in-basket experience, I thought ‘why not catch some pictures?’ So, before dawn, I walked down to catch them taking off.
Mid morning neared and it was finally time to visit Cakebread Cellars. But our drive to the winery took less time than we expected, so we dropped by one of our favorite stops from years ago, Niebaum Coppola Winery. Come to find out, Coppola changed his wineries over the years. What was originally Niebaum Coppola is now Inglenook. Coppola Winery is now in Sonoma Valley. We had to pop in for a quick look then drove across the street to Cakebread at last.
We signed up for a real wine experience at Cakebread Cellars because I know I already love their wine – really. This is the brand that made us appreciate good wine. Anyone who wonders about good wine should start with this stuff – any of it. Our plan was for a wine pairing. In all honesty I had low expectations about anything but the wine. Surprise! We were so pleased with how the food pairing enhanced the flavor of each wine, we were motivated to replicate and try sharing with our friends.
As I was searching the web preparing our trip, one place repeatedly showed up from each search, Castello di Amorosa. Castello di Amorosa is an authentically-built, 13th century Tuscan-inspired castle and winery. As you can see from my pictures, it is quite authentic down to the dungeon several stories under ground, the mote, and authentic 13th century artifacts. Of course their wine is quite good and the view from atop the Calistoga Hill Top is quite stunning.
Believe it or not, we had one more appointment – dinner reservations at Rutherford Hill Winery. Rutherford Hill Winery is run by the Terlato family. The reason I decided to “Chill on the Hill” was because I was looking for a place to take some pictures of the valley with dinner included. I didn’t expect to find another fantastic winery. Turns out the pictures weren’t all that great but the wine is excellent. Now I look for Terlato Wine all the time. After dinner we drove down to Stags Leap District to catch the sun reflecting off the cliffs turning them white as we learned from our host on Thursday.
Saturday – Bonus Wineries
Officially, we only had one appointment at Swanson Vineyards on Saturday but if we could we wanted to make a couple bonus visits. A friend recommended Swanson for their Pinot Grigio. Of course, we had to return to Inglenook, one of the oldest running wineries in the valley. Francis Ford Coppola successfully purchased the Inglenook naming rights and moved his former Coppola Winery to Sonoma. Now, Inglenook only offers estate wines. We highly recommend them – all of ’em. Our last stop in the valley was at Round Pond Estate for some Napa Valley olive oil. Then off to San Francisco.
Our plan was to make a leisurely drive into San Francisco to see the sights – whatever we could see. Deb had never been to San Francisco and I wanted to try to catch a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. What we didn’t plan on was the craziest traffic and biggest crowds either of us had seen.
We were told to take the last exit before crossing the Golden Gate so we could get some great pictures. As we drove up the hill, the cars were quite literally bumper to bumper going down trying to find a parking spot. I had to double-park and asked Deb to sit in the driver seat as I raced up the hill to catch a few shots. If these shots aren’t my best work, I blame the mad rush and my racing heart.
It’s hard to imagine but the traffic driving into the city was even worse. “Hey it’s Saturday, people! Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” I said to Deb, “wait until you see Fisherman’s Wharf. You’ll love it.” OMG! If we walked, it would have been faster getting through traffic.
On board the plane Sunday morning, we were very ready to get home after a fun but tiring weekend. Then over the PA we hear “ladies and gentlemen, we have a medical emergency in the back of the plane. We have to return to our gate.” Evidently, someone got sick. After they revived the guy, escorted his family off the plane and carted him off on a wheel chair, it took another 45 minutes to clean up the plane. I began to think “no, you won’t make your connection. It’s going to be a long night before you get home.” But gave us more opportunity to reflect on a terrific and fulfilling weekend in Napa Valley.