Monday, July 1, 2013

Travels and tastes - California's wine country ( Part 1)

By the time you get out of San Francisco International, deal with rental car mayhem and out-of-city traffic, you have no choice but to head north for the wine country.... All this stress warrants a drink or two and as you are heading further from the cool bay breeze you start to catch a glimpse or two of the vineyards in the hills, until they are all you see, left and right, up and down and all the way to the horizon.  Neat rows of curly grapevines, rolling with the hills and valleys, bordering the winding roads, even before your first sip, the sight alone can do wonders for your stress level.

Keep going and depending on your interests you can experience this wine country from many different angles all generously spiced by beautiful views, friendly people and good food...
Napa valley
Calistoga is a sleepy little town on the top of the Silverado trail, which is the home to a hot natural spring.  There is no shortage of  spa hotels which will happily stick you into a hot mud bath, massage your every inch and bathe you in the mineral water of every temperature desired...  Besides the mud, Calistoga is home to a charming 3 block main street, with good food, charming coffee shops (serving better coffee than 99% of coffee houses I have been to), shops with the strangest hours and a great little farmers market. 

Calistoga Coffee Roastery

Unfortunately I did not make it to the really famous Chef's market in Napa, so a glimpse of this sleepy town's fair had to do; it was everything anyone ever wants from fresh produce to local honey...

 I cried at the site Padrone peppers and heirloom tomatoes missing my little NYC markets, I guess I was pathetic enough that the nice farmers stuffed my pockets full of business cards offering to ship me anything I wanted...
Calistoga is as charming as Napa valley will get as the rest of it reminds me more of Disney world than a wine country.  All they are missing is the 9pm parade down St Helena Highway, with fireworks spelling "Drink wine here!" in the night sky, and they will be all set.  The huge commercial label wineries, with castles and parking lots filled with bus tours, the dog and pony attractions the manicured grounds... I wanted out, to say the least.  Silverado trail offers a bit of a break, with some of the smaller charming wineries, out of the way from the bus loads of senior citizens and bridal showers but with majority of the wineries offering tastings by appointment only and at $40 a flight, I was a bit put off as well.  There were exceptions of course; Dutch Henry winery was small, charming and welcoming, complete with a lazy dog, beautiful wines and sales woman who showered me with food and wine bar recommendations that could fill a week. 
There was a huge winery with a beautiful view which offered $50 tastings by appointment only, but since we showed up a few minutes till closing they were gracious enough to let us take pictures and poured us a complimentary taste of almost half the glass. 
Tasting room of the only Port winery is dacorated in dollar bills

A tasting flight at the wine bar

The town of Napa is cute and small and offers a great variety of wine tasting bars were you can order a tasting flight customized to your taste, but all the shops close between 4 and 5 pm and the streets are deserted except for a few open bars and restaurants.  Same is true for St Helena, where we wondered the streets killing time between the closing times of wineries and dinner... charming store fronts, interesting galleries, promising antique stores... all closed. 

 Must be a nice life, to own a store out there, open at 10 am -  close around 5 p.m., when do these stores make money, beats me...
We had dinner at Cook in St Helena, which was pretty delicious with the most outstanding dish being the muscles in spicy broth. 

 The sauce was good enough to drink, thickened with bread, spicy roasted peppers and tomatoes slowly cooked for a long time... delicious, especially souped up with a crusty crouton...
I wanted to check out the town of  Yountville, where all the famous restaurants and shops are so that is where we headed the next day. Again, I was hugely disappointed by the atmosphere of polished asphalt, not a grass out of place on the flower beds and the air of exclusivity. Even the Bouchon bakery was nothing special; I guess it is geared towards the ones who have never had a decent croissant. As Napa valley irritated me more and more I missed what I love most about the wine country I have been to in the East.  The farms and vineyards, the tall unkempt grasses, the small country feeling tasting rooms where I am not afraid to leave a fingerprint on a polished counter.  As I searched the Google maps for the most scenic route out, I made a little mistake... I did find a scenic route through the mountain and over to Sonoma, but I found one that was miles and miles of the most winding narrow road, no internet signal for navigation and most unfortunately no wineries.  The route was in fact so scenic that my driving husband coursed out loud, wondered whether I planned this as training before our upcoming Amalfi coast drive and loudly wondered how people live out there in the mountains.
Sonoma Valley
By the time we got to Sonoma valley, we were a bit shaken by the ride but determined to make the best of the remaining tasting hour.  This time I was not disappointed, the wineries immediately felt smaller, homier, and much less pretentious. 

We sampled delicious wines at Gundlach Bundschu, got a whole bunch of recommendations for same wine style wineries which we may enjoy, got an approving node to poke our head into their caves which were technically closed and finally felt like we were on the right track, deciding to spend the next day in Sonoma valley.

Inside the caves tasting room at the Gundlach Bundschu

That night we walked around the little town of Sonoma, which is built like a Spanish style mission town of a square with a park in the middle and many courtyards hidden in the borders.  Again, everything was closed but the bars and restaurants and we wowed to come back during the day the next day to check out the shops and the Cheese Factory. We had dinner at Girl and the Fig, which was exceptional. In a recent and true California way, chefs like the one at the Girl and the Fig are creating a food revolution. These restaurants are tiny, the menu changes constantly based on season and market and the selection is limited to4 or 5 main dishes, a few appetizers and a small desert menu.  The wine lists are hand-picked to match the food and the servers are well versed in matching you and your order with a perfect wine. By keeping the places and menus small with limited hours these places can manage imaginative and delicious dishes without through the roof prices.  I was so impressed with the simple, fresh French cuisine at the Girl and the Fig, I even bought their cook book, now if it also came with a garden, a farm and good weather....

Dinner at the Girl and the Fig... I am still thinking of how the spiced Walnut Ice cream was made

The next day, determined to stay in down to earth Sonoma and to visit some of the small family wineries, we set out early....
To be continued......

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