Wine country trail –Napa and Sonoma Valleys- Sept 2008

By Sri.

What do you visualize when you think of Wine country- green sun kissed hills, grape vines everywhere, rustic sceneries etc.. Well that’s what DW thought when I started planning. We were travelling to San Francisco for a conference, and she insisted that we visit Napa Valley. 

Little did she know, the ground realities- wine tasting, sip, spit and swallow, cautionary notes to drink plenty of water (one glass of water for each tasting of wine)  and to have plenty of crackers. 

The first she came to know was when she caught me practicing spitting water into the bathroom sink from three feet away. Aghast, she asks me, “ what are you trying to do?”, with emphasis on the trying.

I explained all the fine points of wine tasting, gleaned over reading on the internet, and few books. I also showed her three wine bottles that I had bought to start the wine appreciation experience., including wine-food pairing. We discovered that having a green apple before wine, makes any wine taste nasty, while having cheese before wine makes any wine tasty!!

My trip planning started off with looking at places to stay in Napa town, St Helena and thereabouts. The prices were prohibitive, and I wasn’t  sure that we wanted to spend so much. (After discovering  what wine country would probably look like on Google maps Street view, DW was a little put off). Finally I chanced upon a gem of a town- Calistoga, at the northern most part of Napa valley, at the foot of the palisade mountains; more rustic in nature, with mud baths, biking trails, and at the same time, some nice restaurants within walking distance. I also wanted to incorporate as many Non Winey things in the trip as possible to keep my DW interested in the trip! 

Muir Woods

We drove from San Francisco Airport, towards Muir Woods- a national forest, with impressive California redwoods- these trees procreate only after some disaster like a forest fire or lightning strike!!. One felt dwarfed by these towering trees.

Stinson Beach

Then onwards to Stinson Beach- a beautiful locale to slowly unwind after our conference.

Our winery visit started off with Cline Cellars, a subsidiary of the Jacuzzi family- apparently the same family that receives a royalty for each Jacuzzi sold! Interesting wines and olive oils – both flavoured and extra virgin Olive oils- the first time I could taste the difference between Spanish and Italian Olive oils. 

We next stopped off at the Sonoma Cheese Factory for lunch- tasted atleast 5 different types of cheeses each, and then ordered some sandwiches. We had by now got late for our next booking- a wine food pairing that I was really looking forward to, in Sonoma valley. We tried calling them up but couldnt get through.

Next stop was the BR Cohn winery-the three most memorable things about this winery were – the wine infused chocolate fudge, lemon wasabi paste and Doobie Red (the Doobie Brothers, an American rock band, whose manager owns this winery). 

the country side…

 Then we were supposed to got to the Petrified Forest in the northern most part of Sonoma,
close to Healdsberg, but we kind of gave it a miss (rather I missed the turn off- being too tense to reach our B&B by 6pm). A reminder- most wineries close by about 5pm, so try to plan your day accordingly. Some friends of ours went to Napa valley, after hearing about it from us, but reached about 4:45pm, and we get a phone call (at about 2am India time)- where do we go now; what to do??

DW, biking…

We relaxed the first night, and set out the next morning for my activity of the day- 7 hours of biking and wine tasting. 

I had researched this self biking tour on Tripadvisor, and the experience was every bit as good as we wanted it. We
were advised to buy biking shorts, that DW bought (glad at the end of the day) for 130$, given a bunch of water bottles, a map and a wrist band and sent on our way. 

 We visited a total of 7 wineries, and it was fun!! In one of the wineries, the
lady made us taste wine before and after cherry tomatoes, dark and white chocolate and cheese, and it was a “Eureka” movement for us!

Another place had small bushes of different wine varietals to actually taste, including Viognier, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. It was fun to taste the thick skinned wine grapes, and try to then go into the tasting room and understand why each varietal produces a corresponding wine.

This entire trip led to a close at 5:00pm, when the last guy graciously reopened his tasting room for us- an enthusiastic guy.  He kept asking DW, “So what do you taste in this wine?”… Tired after a day of heat (high 30 degree celsius), trying out about 23-24 different wines, and coming up with new adjective each time… She finally says” it tastes like wine!!”

Anyway, after this long and exhausting bike and wine tasting, we had a well deserved pizza and coke, and then headed back to the B&B. Here we indulged in a wine & cheese session with the host. DW had been hesitant about going for a mud bath, mainly due to hygiene issues. Things like – “ are we going into some mud that someone else has lain in… No, not me”. But talking to all the people there, we kind of got interested in the mud bath thingy. Our host, Nick  then promptly booked us in the Golden Haven Mud Spa for Couples.

We toddled off to the spa, and after registering and changing, we were led into a room, with a shower, the actual mud bath and an adjacent jacuzzi. We were advised to shower and then lie down on the mud, wriggle ourselves into the mud bath! That was a unique experience- I promptly wriggled myself in, while DW spent the first five minute ON the mud, thinking that she’d sink in. Probably due to the high salt content of the mud, one tends to float within the bath. The overall feeling is similar to a baby in the womb or an astronaut in space. After the mud bath, and the jacuzzi bath, we were wrapped up from neck to toe in towels and left to lie down for 25 minutes. One tends to sweat like crazy being wrapped up like that!

Finally when we walked out, we felt like we were walking on air!! We were so tired and exhilarated, that we decided to skip dinner and go to the B&B. Spent dinner time, wolfing down Cinnamon rolls & Muffins and reading some interesting nature magazines.

Next day, was our appointment in the Round Pond, Rutherford a unique farm where they produce olive oil and vinegar, and have a tasting session.

I had read about this place on the Chowhound, and was really looking forward to this visit. As usual, we got late getting ready, lost our way once, reached the winery instead of the olive mill and finally reached the mill half an hour late. Our hostess graciously accomodated us in the tasting (without charge) and then took us for a brief look around the facility. I had already shown and practiced with DW the way to taste wine vinegar- soak a sugar cube with vinegar, and put into your mouth- the sugar cube negates the tart taste of the vinegar and you can taste the underlying winey taste. Olive oil on the other hand needs to be slurped, and swilled and then a small suck of air through your rolled tongue gives you the underlying flavors!

Frog’s Leap Winery

After Round Pond, we went to the Frog’s Leap winery, a unique winery using dry and organic farming. So the tour was not just about grapes, but about veggies, how they use natural pesticides (like chillies) to keep pests away. The experience was informative, fun and very interesting, with a Basket ball hoop shooting in the middle of the tour.

Napa City

After this we went around to the Honig winery, where we had an interesting young girl showed us the difference in wine vintages. The same grape, same winery, same hill, but different vintages (2007, 2005 and 2002) tasted totally different. One got to understand the progression from “loud and fruity” to “smooth and velvetty” with years.

By this time we were running late for the planned lunch at the St Helena hospital, Deer park.. We missed a  couple of turns  and finally decided to drive over to Napa.. It was probably 12-13 miles by the Silverado  trail, but we reached there in no time.. We finally went to the  Taylors autimatic refresher, for their milk shakes and salad ( turned out  to be three  types of leaves.. Felt like cows!!

We then went to the Oxbow public market. Sort of a farmers market, with emphasis on good and wine, within a large warehouse like area.

By now tired, DW asked to be taken home.. We then had the unique experience of dinner at 7:00 in broad daylight.. An american concept.. We had dinner at Jole, a modern American restaurant, small portions, farm fresh, and interesting vegetarian dishes made just for us..

The next day was a drive back to SFO airport, enroute to Las Vegas. We saw an interesting phenomenon.. A traffic light was not working, but everyone followed a simple principle. The first car to reach a crossing got right of way, followed by the next car in the opposite lane. Smooth and without a single horn blown..

Back to San Francisco….

Cool and fun, that was our experience in Napa valley..

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