Grape Vines at Anderson Conn Valley
A row of cabernet grapes growing in the sun.
There is a reason I've been schlepping a pair of strappy black heels and an impractical sundress over mountains and deserts, through forests and fields, allowing them to take up precious space in our very limited cargo hold, and that reason is Napa Valley. The very thought spins visions of elegance -- sunkissed vineyards, romantic B&Bs, limosines and vintage bottles of wine being sipped on the terrace. And though we'll be admiring all of it from a tent, we are not stopped for one second from trying to look the part.
This was the only campground I'd made reservations for all summer. Although we've had remarkable luck at grabbing spots in peak season, we didn't want to take any chances. I was hesitant because reservations require a committment to a certain date and time and lately, that's been hard to adhere too. Still, while a majority of the our trip thus far has been roughly sketched but open to extreme interpretation, Napa was one place we'd both (particularly Andras!) been looking forward to and Bothe-Napa State Campground is the only
one remotely close to the vineyards, so I closed my eyes and clicked the "Reserve Now" button before we left,
From a vineyard close to where we were camping.
jotted it down in my planner and several months later, here we are, unhurried, unrushed and right on scheldule.
It was simply lovely and while I imagine that sleeping in a nice, plush bed with gourmet breakfast awaiting us in the morning would be quite nice, waking up to the birds and the sunlight and the stirrings of the valley enhanced our appreciation for this location more than detracted from it. And besides, when the sheer number of middle-aged Americans in t-shirts and khaki shorts got to be too much, we had the perfect place to escape.
Neither of us had any idea just how many vineyards and wineries were in the area and the decisions we had to make were staggering, so instead of stopping at random we went to the visitors bureau of St. Helena to pick up a winery guide and some tasting coupons. By this stage in my life I should know for places not to be like how they are portrayed on television, but I was still expecting Napa Valley to be all refined, polished and private--our own personal tour of the California winemaking tradition. I suppose if you had a lot of
money to spend this would be achievable, but most people seemed content with visiting the open tasting rooms, shoulder to shoulder with the next out-of-towner, and on our first day, not knowing any better, that's what we did too.
At V. Sattui winery, right off the main drag, we joined dozens of others for a peak in the cellar and settled on into the tasting room that doubled as a gift shop (or should I say gift shop that doubled as a tasting room?). Regardless, our wine steward was extremely jovial and really started us off on the right foot, giving us a quite a few more tastings than we paid for once he realized I was taking notes and we were, in fact, open to the idea of buying some bottles afterwards. In fact, despite the obvious tourist front and lack of intimacy, their wines are some of my new favorites. I really loved their house white and a rosé called Gamay Rouge that was fruity and sweet, the perfect picnic wine! They also had one of the oldest Madieras in the country (120 years) which melted like caramel on the tongue. I have no clue what to
Cellar at V. Suttui Winery
A nice, cool 55F while the wine ages in oak
do with it, but I now have a bottle anyways (but don't think I'll be breaking it open to celebrate the end of our travels. Oh no, this one will remain bottled for quite some time...)
Having such a great experience at this non-corporate winery, we thought that more well known wineries would provide an even more polished visit for their guests. Wrong, wrong, wrong
! At the Franciscan we paid for our tasting glass and then were practically ignored in favor of other, older, guests who appeared to have more money. Apparently the fact that we not only showered this morning but are wearing actual clean clothes (as in "we went to the laundromat" clean, not "doesn't smell or have any obvious stains" clean) doesn't warrant any special attention, any attention at all for that matter. Well well! It really is a shame, because even though we might not look like much now, bad news travels much faster than good and later on in our lives when we're rich, famous and ordering wine by the case, the Franciscan will miss out. Hmmpf! But we kept the wine glasses and are now able to toast each other over the campfire
Wine Tasting at COPIA
Stephanie holding her glass of wine in the tasting gardens. Cheers!
in style, so it wasn't a total loss. How we're going to keep those from getting broken the rest of the trip I have no idea.
After that we pretty much decided to seek out a more personalized experiences. Andras loves big, bold reds and on the first page of our winery guide was an ad from Anderson's Conn Valley Vineyards, touting their cabernets with an invitation to call for a private tour of the vineyards. Within moments we had arranged to meet the owner the next afternoon. It was the experience we were looking for. Family owned, Todd showed us around the wine production facility before taking us up the hill (is his Hummer) to the caves. I felt a bit silly. Well, first of all, I've been an adament un-supporter of Hummer's pretty much since they hit the market. I think they are an incredible waste of resources. And second, the hill was like...100 yards. Maybe. But I was in those strappy sandels afterall and he was being chivalrous so I relented. In the caves we saw the wine being aged and sat down for a private tasting of some very
good (and very
expensive) wines. Red
Another roadside vineyard
wines that I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would like at prices I never thought I'd consider paying.
That is what we came for -- sitting in a man-made cave, surrounded by french oak barrels, sipping ridiculously good wine while the owner prattled on about global-warming and ice-cores. Ahh....California. The world would be a much less interesting place if it weren't for you.
To make the day even better we discovered the wonderous food store that is Dean & Deluca. I can get lost in a normal cooking store easily, so here, with coffees and tea, charcuterie and cheeses, artisan salts and pastries...I was enrapt. I have no idea how long we stayed but we returned several times those last few days in Napa. It was also here that we were introduced to a product which is going (if it hasn't already) to change our lives -- truffle salt. Oh my goodness! When the clerk took the lid off this tall glass container of black truffle salt a waft of heaven began to purfume the entire store. It was magical
and, even better, available in vacuum sealed bulk packaged! When are travels end it will be
Grapes and More Grapes
Hidden beneath the leaves
sad, but then we'll be able to open up that package of truffle salt and inhale our sorrows away.
With spirits high we grabbed the last loaf of fresh-baked bread, some cheese and tapenade, prosciutto and a chocolate mousse cake. Sitting on the side of the road with our make-shift picnic we were in love (with each other, yes, trés romantic
but the food, my goodness, the food!
). We took little over a dozen pictures of that cake, and with each bite our eyes closed and our head tilted back in ectascy. If ever a large, beautiful cake is needed in our future, we will return to this moment and the decision will be settled.
On our last day we decided to visit a place called COPIA, a cultural arts center dedicated to the celebration of food and wine. When we arrived (right when the doors opened in the morning) we thought it'd be fun to take a look around and then head off to some wineries later, but we ended up staying the entire
day. Literally, they announced they were closing and then someone came and politely asked us to head towards the door. Wow! Of all
St. Helena Vineyards
Grapevines as far as the eye can see stretching across the valley.
the places we've seen this summer I feel that this just might be the most inspirational. That's a bold statement, and one I certainly don't make lightly.
There was still plenty of wine tasting, only for educational purposes rather than for pure pleasure. I can now taste the difference between french oak, american oak and steel barrel aged wine with confidence! Local vinters teach classes and the lady leading ours was nothing short of quaility. She poured us two glasses of red wine, and had us try both, asking who liked the first (Andras' hand shoots up) and who dislikes it (my hand raises here, although less enthusiastically). Then we did the same with the second (which I thought was better). Turns out the glass Andras liked was $100 and the one I liked was $10, and then, curiously enough, people who said they disliked the first actually went back and finished
it just because it was expensive! Her point was that evaluating wine is too subjective. Andras likes tannins and I perfer acids. Prices and ratings mean nothing because everyone has a different palate. I tend to agree. No reason wasting the money or calories on something you
Oh yes, that is the triple chocolate mousse cake from Dean & Deluca.
The tasting garden was also an experience in itself. Spaced throughout are different beds planted with fruits, vegetable and herbs that represent some of the different tasting notes of different wines. In the merlot bed grew blackberries and currents, peppers and various herbs. As we sipped and walked we also smelled and tasted trying to decipher the flavors and grape varietal. Upstairs there was a museum dedicated to the history of food and cooking in the American kitchen with excerts from the Hungry Planet book on display in the hall. And I shant forget that Julia Child's own wall of pots and pans are by the restaurant. Ah, such a fanastic experience. I could go on and on and on...(and I won't, but I could!)
With the food and wine and sunkissed hillsides soaking up the cool mists funnelling in from the ocean I really can't think of a place we'll miss more. No need for hot air balloons or fancy cars or chateaus and bell-service, an appreciation for all things edible and fermented is all you need. We haven't even left yet and already I can't wait to come back.
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