I was first introduced to this mysterious, bittersweet, wonderful life on February 14, 1983, which, if my math is correct, means I recently turned 30. In anticipation of this momentous and inherently anxious occasion, I planned a trip to the place that makes me happiest: Northern California.
How do I love thee, California? Let me count the ways…
The terrain is vast and varied. Drive for an hour or two in any direction and you’ll usually end up in completely new environs; an ambitious traveler could skip about from vineyards to cliff-side beaches to snowy forested mountains in the space of a single day.
The people are relaxed, welcoming, and friendly. I can’t recall a single rude encounter with a Northern Californian. Of course, when you live in such a beautiful place, it seems almost impossible to be mean or angry.
And the weather never disappoints. I love the perpetual fog and chill and drizzle of San Francisco, but if you aren’t so inclined, just take a quick drive north to Napa and bask in the golden sunlight that warms the world’s best Cabernets. Or slip down the PCH toward Monterey and Carmel and soak up the cool-aired beauty in a place where the mountains and sea unite, their offspring a dreamy, surreal landscape of crashing waves and vanilla-pink sunsets.
All of that alone is enough to justify a trip West, but the real reason I wanted to go to California is because it was the site of the best vacation I ever had, about two years ago in June 2011. It was one of those trips where everything went right, even the things that went wrong. Michael and I enjoyed an easy, breezy jaunt from Half Moon Bay to Yosemite to Lake Tahoe to Napa. The weather was cooperative, the food was memorable, even at roadside diners, and natural beauty was forever opening up before us. It’s hard to put into words what made the trip so perfect. Something about it just glows in my memory and I revisit certain moments of it when I’m feeling down, turning them over in my mind as slowly as I can like a velvety chocolate truffle on the tongue.
I also had an inkling that an event as potentially troubling as my 30th birthday might best be spent in a place where drinking wine before noon is not only acceptable but encouraged. Thus, giving Napa top billing on our itinerary was a foregone conclusion.
I knew it would be impossible to recapture the perfection of that trip two years ago. It will always stand out as a singular, accidental kind of happiness, and you can’t grow that kind of bliss in a test tube. But, at the very least, I hoped to experience a new though different version of that trip, and I’m happy to report that I was not disappointed.
We arrived at SFO around 10am on February 13, picked up our rental car, and immediately headed north toward St. Helena, in my opinion the prettiest stretch of Napa’s central Route 29. One of the best meals we’ve ever had was on our last visit, at Silverado Brewing Company, where Michael partook in his life’s most decisively important burger eating experience. And so, like Harold and Kumar before us, we headed straight there from the airport, our stomachs grumbling and visions of double-fried French fries and ice-cold lagers dancing in our heads. So you can imagine our crestfallen expressions when we arrived only to discover that they’d inexplicably closed their doors. Our dreams of the perfect food were not to be realized.
As we attempted to overcome our disappointment, we drove back down Route 29 toward St. Helena’s Main Street area, which is lined with shops, tasting rooms, and a handful of restaurants. Driven by hunger, we committed that most inexcusable of tourist offenses, deciding on the first restaurant we came to. We ended up at Market, whose portions and prices are remarkably incongruous. Michael ordered the fried chicken, thinking the gourmet version touted on the menu would have to be something extraordinary, but the two drumsticks and golf-ball sized scoop of mashed potatoes he received in exchange for the handsome sum of twenty-some-odd dollars was more than a small letdown after a long morning of flying and driving. I had the veggie burger because I’m a vegetarian and just about every restaurant from here to Timbuktu seems to offer a token veggie burger as the one consolation prize for us herbivores. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good veggie burger, and this one was pretty good. But a little meatless creativity is always appreciated.
Sated, though not entirely so, we strolled back down the pleasant main street in the unexpectedly welcome 70-degree February sunlight and decided to see if we could check in to our hotel, the Harvest Inn, which, upon our arrival, quickly became one of my favorite hotels to date.
The Harvest Inn is a collection of cottage-like buildings nestled among pristine gardens and soaring pines, and to top it all off, there’s one helluva’ vineyard view that can be enjoyed either from the cozy confines of the breakfast room or by way of a sunset stroll around the property with a glass of California red in hand. In a word, the Harvest Inn is enchanting.
Since we’d arrived a little early, our room wasn’t ready but the charming lady at the front desk happily gave us four passes for free tastings at nearby vineyards to pass the time while our room was readied. I’ve learned that you can enjoy some of Napa’s best wines, scenery, and company without spending a dime, or, at the most, for about $20 a day, tops. The visitors center in downtown Napa as well as your hotel are more than happy to hand out cards for either free or buy-one-get-one-free tastings. With very little effort, one can set out at 10am when the wineries open and be stumbling drunk by 6pm when they close, all for the cost of the gas to get around (though if this is your M.O., you should probably hire a driver). Of course, gulping wine by the gallon is no way to actually enjoy it, and we left Napa two days later with a surplus of unused tasting passes.
But I digress.
We left the hotel with our passes in tow and headed back up Route 29 to Markham Vineyards, where we imbibed our first tasting of the trip. This being February, there weren’t large crowds at any of the vineyards we visited, but, even though the vines were bare, the land was green, the flowers were blooming, and the sun shone brightly. Winter may be Napa’s “low season,” but I really don’t think there’s a bad time of year to visit.
At Markham, we were the only visitors in the tasting room, so we were able to strike up a conversation with the girl working the counter, an essential component to wine tasting in Napa if you’re at all interested in getting a few generous pours or a sip of something jaw-droppingly expensive. And indeed, it worked, especially after I impressed her with my observation of a theretofore undetected hint of gardenia in their Chardonnay. In addition to the two whites and two reds included with our tasting pass, she poured us each a generous serving of a reserve Merlot. I don’t really care much for Merlot, but this one was rich and bold and reminiscent of the earthy Spanish wines I tasted at Marqués de Riscal a few years back. Also, can you really ever complain about free wine?
I should also note that Markham was hosting an exhibit of the work of Rolling Stone photographer Baron Wolman. The walls of the tasting room were lined with pairs of images, one of Wolman’s original photograph and one of its corresponding Rolling Stone cover. It was a nice touch to add to the tasting experience.
We passed a contented hour or so at Markham and then, exhausted from having risen in the pre-dawn hours to catch our early westbound flight, ventured back to the hotel to inquire as to whether our room was ready. It was, and the rest of the evening was mundane, though its participants found it exceedingly pleasant: a nap, a trip to the grocery store for rations, Anthony Bourdain and assorted Wes Anderson flicks on the idiot box, more wine, and the deep, exhausted, blissful sleep of the travel-weary.
I woke up early the next morning because a.) I’m of the female persuasion and it takes me a little time to put this all together and b.) Michael likes to arrive at hotel breakfasts as soon as they open so he can beat the crowd and gain access to the hottest, freshest food and coffee. Also, c.) it was Valentine’s Day and my birthday and there were unsettling stirrings in my mind, disrupting my sleep.
We got to the breakfast room around 8:30 and were greeted by the aforementioned bucolic view of the property’s vineyard. Also in the breakfast room were a smattering of retirement-aged couples there to celebrate the romantic holiday. We struck up a conversation with an adorable couple from Iowa who had somehow finagled a cooking class at the private mountaintop home of a certain husband and wife who, based on the description of their estate, counted themselves among Napa’s wealthiest citizenry. We in turn recounted with youthful pride our knack for acquiring excessive tasting passes with the implied but unspoken goal of getting nice and tight without spending much if any money.
Breakfast at the Harvest Inn was impressive, as far as hotel breakfasts go. I was expecting the usual rundown of fruit, cereal, and perhaps a toast and English muffin station, all of which were included, but there was also quiche, warm pastries, gourmet coffee, and a selection of interesting teas. Combined with the opulent vineyard view, it was the perfect start to my Valentine’s birthday.
After breakfast, we decided to drive around a bit and explore. We could see large, majestic homes up in the hills above the valley and hoped to get an up-close glimpse. A few dead-end roads later, we at last stumbled upon Spring Mountain Road, a steep drive marked by dozens of hairpin turns that take you by an impressive succession of hilltop villas and sprawling, tree-lined vineyards. As we climbed through the hills, a sweeping view of Napa Valley stretched out below us, the early morning fog still visible but dissolving, a wine country Brigadoon slowly revealing itself before our eyes.
It was a sight to behold, but by the time we’d reached the road’s summit, we were both suffering from carsickness, and a bout of nausea just wouldn’t do right before a wine tasting. As we made our way back down, I closed my eyes and held my head out the window, gulping in the cool air in hopes it would settle my roiling head and stomach.
It did, and when we arrived at our next destination, the Mumm Napa winery, I was ready to celebrate 30 with some bubbly. Here’s another tip for Napa on a budget: A tour and tasting at Mumm is normally $25 per person, but the 10am tour is free. It doesn’t include a tasting, but you can visit their website and get a two-for-one tasting coupon, meaning that you can end up with a tour and tasting for two for about $20, depending on your menu selection and proclivity for pre-noon drinking. Frugal travelers that we are (and lush that I am), this is the route we chose.
Having been on several winery tours in the past, I don’t find them terribly interesting. Grapes, harvest, press, juice, ferment, drink. To decant or not decant. A discussion of the merits of oak barrels versus steel. Etc, etc. Okay, I get it. Now let’s drink. But I actually enjoyed the Mumm tour immensely because I’ve never seen how sparkling wine is made. Plus, I recently read a biography of the Widow Clicquot and was interested to see how champagne techniques have evolved over time, and what’s stayed the same. Our tour guide at Mumm was friendly and knowledgeable, and even mentioned Veuve Clicquot while demonstrating a riddling rack. I was impressed.
After the tour, we made our way over to the tasting room, armed with our two-for-one coupon. Michael chose the classic tasting and I chose the rosé tasting (being Valentine’s Day and all, pink champagne seemed appropriate), which came with a chocolate covered strawberry. The weather was perfect as we sipped our champagne on a terrace overlooking Sterling’s vineyards, and I couldn’t think of a better way to mark the beginning of my not-so-dreaded 30s.
After Mumm we decided to drive over to Sonoma, since we hadn’t been there before. I’m partial to Napa Cabernets but figured Sonoma wines couldn’t be too terrible. It’s still California, anyway.
The drive to Sonoma only took about half an hour and we, of course, stopped by the visitors center to see what kind of passes we could get our hands on. An older woman, perfect for the job given her immediately evident and boisterous enthusiasm for all things Sonoma, gave us a few recommendations and passes, though not as many as we scored in Napa. Not to worry, though. As I said before, you can’t complain about free wine.
Our passes were for tasting rooms within walking distance of the visitors center in Sonoma’s charming “downtown” area. The first one we hit up was rather low budget. A middle aged surfer-hippie was working the counter and was none too subtle about pressuring us to buy a bottle or join their wine club, which wouldn’t have been nearly as offensive if the wine hadn’t been so bad. I don’t blame Sonoma—their Pinot grapes were from Santa Barbara! We managed to escape without spending anything and walked over to the next place, where a kindly old gentleman served up some generous pours of some spectacular wine while an album of Beatles covers played in the background. I was happy, to the extent that I ended up buying a bottle that he said would age well so I can save it to open on my 40th birthday.
Our Sonoma itch sufficiently scratched, we drove back to Napa and relaxed in our hotel room before heading out for my birthday dinner at Brix. Brix is a Napa institution, rustic and modern at once, sophisticated but not stuffy, with an impeccable staff and a wine list to match. We arrived a few minutes before our reservation time and sat at the bar while we waited for our table. After a long day of free tastings, Michael and I were both a little “wined out,” something I didn’t think was possible, so we both ordered a glass of local beer and took in the scenery.
It wasn’t long before the hostess came to fetch us and show us to our table. We started with an order of fried green beans to go with our beer and then sat and people watched while we waited for our entrees. Michael’s arrived and his eyes gleamed with ravenous anticipation for the meal he was about to consume: lamb and risotto in a rich, wine-based sauce. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so enamored with the sight of my own dish. I’d ordered the one meatless item on the menu, something called “winter vegetable napoleon.” How bad could it be? Pretty bad, actually. I should’ve Google-imaged it on my phone before ordering. “Vegetable napoleon” is just fancy-speak for “tiny weird stack of sad looking vegetables.” Half of the vegetables in this particular vegetable napoleon were carrots; the other half were of an oddly pinkish-hue and unknown provenance. It was a little disappointing, given that it was my birthday dinner, but I choked it down while momentarily regretting my decision to give up meat.
But I wasn’t going to let a few strange and undercooked vegetables ruin my Napa birthday. All in all it was a fabulous day in a beautiful place, and I got to enjoy the whole thing with my most favorite person. What more could a girl ask for?
Next: More Napa, Carmel/Monterey, and Big Sur