Travelogue USA 5: Napa Valley

NAPA VALLEY
19-21 October 2016

The second bucketlist item on our US tour was a visit to Napa Valley to do some (more) wine-tasting in this world-renowned wine-growing region.

We hadn’t pre-planned any of the transport arrangements and, after some debate, decided that a ferry/bus combo was a great way to combine form and function. This meant we only had to be at the ferry port at a very reasonable 10h40 for the hour’s commute to Villejo from where we’d catch the VINE bus for the remaining hour or so journey.

We do love a good ferry commute; old hands thanks to Shawn’s worthy induction at Gulf Harbour in Auckland earlier in the year. As per tutorial, we got ourselves a table and – thanks to having brought killer fresh turkey, gammon and mayo sarmies from a deli at the port – settled in so comfortably that we might as well have been on a fancy brunch cruise, with very pleasant landscape view unfolding as we left the city behind.

The busstop to catch the VINE bus to Napa was just across the road from the ferry port. On the bright side it was only $1.60 each for the entire hour-long journey. On the downside, we needed exact change because the bus drivers don’t handle cash at all. With my “spending money” (ie the coins Christian had discarded along the way) still sitting at less than a Dollar, we were lucky the  ferry ticket office was nice enough to break a ten to make up the difference.

The VINE runs a North-South route along Highway 29 all the way through the Napa Valley so you can take the same bus  (for the same fare) all the way to the end in Calistoga. It’d take a while getting there though – maybe a little over a couple of hours – with the number of stops along the way since the Napa Valley is just over 35 miles long (but only 5 miles wide and home to almost 300 wineries!).

We were very pleased when we arrived in the town of Napa. The downside of so much info available on the internet is the FOMO that comes with making a decision among so many options. We’d considered Calistoga, St Helena and Yountville, but ended up choosing Napa simply for the authenticity that came with its name. It is a pretty little town and felt like a great decision from the moment the bus pulled in at the Soscol Transit Centre (a very unglamorous sounding name in the planning phase!!)

The short walk from bus stop to the hotel – 3 Palms Boutique and Resort – took us on the 3rd Street Bridge over the river, past the Waterfront and along Coombs to 2nd Street. No more than 10 minutes and meant we’d already walked almost the entire one end of town!

Our check-in was unusually spirited thanks to a very animated welcome by the frontdeskman, Pablo, who it turned out was equally enthusiastic about EVERYTHING. And punctuated almost every sentence with “RRRIGHT?!” so you couldn’t help but be an active participant in what was actually a dialogue, but made to feel like a conversation.

Pablo magically produced maps from drawers and brochures from racks as he spoke so we ended up with a solid pack with circles and squiggles showing where we were and where we were headed, like one of those old animated Disney cartoons where dance moves unfold as a series of dotted lines, footprints and numbers.

Conveniently, Napa town itself has its own wine route, which Pablo suggested was perfect to fill what remained of the afternoon and then we could tackle the Valley the next day. 

As advised, we began by going to the Tourist Office to get “Taste: Downtown Napa Wine Tasting Card” that for $30 each allowed us access to 8 profiled tasting rooms in a walking tour around town.

Chuffed with our purchase (for both value and the clear direction it provided), we emerged from the Tourist Office into the glorious sunny afternoon – and got as far as the corner when we realised that the first tasting room was actually IN the Tourist Office! … so back in we went.

Being a big shop with lots of commemorative items on display and an equally large area dedicated to olive oil (for which the area is equally renowned apparently) info and tasting, we hadn’t even noticed the big bar along the left hand wall, which constituted Square One Tasting Bar.

The hostess was chatty and gave us a detailed account of her background (she was originally from Philadelphia, moved to Napa with her parents, returned to Phili only to find out she was pregnant, then baby-daddy came to lure her back to Napa, all spelled out in graphic detail) and some very scant, could-have-been-deduced-from-the-label info on the wine we were tasting. Between her long stories and heavy-handed pouring, we feared this was going to be a short tour!

To keep us fresh and lively, we decided to do the least practical route for the wine route, crisscrossing town rather than ordering by proximity so that we could get a bit of a walk in between each venue. While this may sound masochistic, you have to realise that 4 of the wineries were on 1st Street, 3 on Main Street and the last on the intersection of 1st and Main so we’re talking no more than a couple of hundred metres even doing the drawn out way!

The second stop, Napa General Store, was a bit more high end than the first and was also a huge long bar counter set to on side in (as the name would imply) general stuff; souvenirs, BBQ accessories, cook books, branded clothing, some go-well-with-wine foodie items etc. The lady who served us was all business so we were in and out in less than 10 minutes, even with all the swirling, holding up to the light and comparative sniffing we did of the selection she poured us.

Next was Capp Heritage which was more  relaxed. The old gent behind the bar set a more gentle pace, talking through what he was serving more than just reciting the description on the label.  In the attached lounge was a group of ladies that were making an afternoon of their tasting, so this was obviously Capp’s hosting style. He served us a variety of St Vintners wines and chatted intermittently, leaving us to enjoy the wine and our own company in between. The painting featured on the wine’s label – a blonde cowgirl – hangs on the wall in the tasting room and apparently had just been a painting the vineyard owner’s daughter liked. Since it has hung on the wall, one visitor to the tasting room has recognised the artist and another had named the lady depicted in the painting!

We then moved on to Bounty Hunter, which was our undoing. Not only did they have a menu of 21 pages of wines (and only 2 pages of food), but also a Happy Hour with 2-for-1 Guinness, which we had to buy to log on our Guinness Index.

The wine tasting rooms close anytime between 5.30 and 9 but even though there were some still open, we were done for the night.

Dinner was predetermined from our afternoon’s scouting: Filippi’s Pizza Grotto on 1st Street. The Feast offer gave us a small pizza to start with a half ‘n half lasagne / spaghetti main. Could not have asked for better!

A solid dinner and a reasonable bedtime helped return our vigour by morning for the long day ahead.

 

We awoke the next morning with plan in hand.

Certain growing regions are certified as American Viticulture Area (referred to as AVA or “appellation”). Napa Valley is an appellation with 16 sub-appellations. Each has distinct meso- or microclimates (functions of wind, rain, temperature and time in the sun) as well as terrain factors  (hill, valley, type of soil etc) that combine to influence the grapes that are grown there. With more than a passing idea of which appellation grows what, you should be able to do food and wine pairing from the AVA details on the label.

On Pablo’s advice, we planned to do most of our tastings in St Helena, which is a flat plane cooled from Northern winds, giving a high intensity and concentration, producing Cab, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Merlot, Zin and Chard.

We began at Beringer, on the far side of St Helena from us, figuring we’d start at the farthest and work our way back home.  Having just missed the VINE bus by 4 minutes (we didn’t have a timetable so it was just really lousy luck) and with another hour until the next, we sucked it up and caught a Lyft so we were there 20 minutes later (and $27 poorer).

The Beringer estate feels like a country club with its meticulous landscaping, restored building and shaded walkways. There are various tour and tasting options but we were neither keen to be cooped up (excuse the pun; winebarrel-makers are called “coopers”) nor spend the annual budget, so we opted for a simple 3 wine tasting, which was still a notable  $25 each! (Plus tax. This tax on top of quoted pricing had gotten quite, well, taxing and we were oddly looking forward to the transparent world of VAT!)

Our sommelier welcomed us with “The dead of winter and you’re in shorts!” We took it in the good humour it was intended and pointed out that it was already 25 degrees and forecast to reach 29, so hardly what should be described as winter. He was friendly and helpful and talked us through the “flight” (as the fancy tastings are called), not only recommending different wines for each of us so we could taste twice as many, but also adding in a bonus Merlot for the hell of it because he “had a bottle open” (a common occurrence in his industry, one would think). He also told us that one of Beringer’s claims to fame was the brilliant marketing on the part of its owner who cashed in on the end of prohibition in 1934, inviting people to come and experience the vineyards. Obviously wine isn’t made overnight, but still 4000 people turned up just to celebrate the rebirth of wine.

On the outskirts of St Helena, we just walked into town to grab some lunch. Thoroughly enjoying the abundance of Mexican food in California, Villa Corona was an obvious choice. Burritos and tacos with the complimentary chips and salsa lined the stomach quite nicely!

Following Pablo’s dance card, we walked through the other end of town to Sutter’s,  where we were delighted to find that the tasting was complimentary. Not an amazing flight though with 2 very sweet, 2 very dry, a pink and a white sparkling.  Still, no looking gift horses in mouths from our side.

Heitz Vineyard was across the road from Sutter’s… but easier said than done, remembering that this main road was a highway with steadily flowing traffic. In a game of human Frogger, we stayed on the side of the road for ages looking for a gap on both sides, before deciding to try our luck at one side then the other. Fortunately the road planners were smart enough to put a third central lane between the flowing traffic ones, which is designed for lane-crossing turners. Not sure how this strategy would be received by motorists since there is a strictly enforced (and abided by) no jay-walking policy everywhere, we were relieved it worked out well when motorists slowed down and flashed for us to cross in front of them.

Heitz was a bit snooty and since the hosts were too busy with their current patrons to even acknowledge us, we took some pics of their pretty vineyards and didn’t spend a cent on their experience.

Right next door was V. Sattui, a bigger, more commercial vineyard that Pablo had described as “The Disneyland of Napa”. Only selling its wines on site and having been nominated best vineyard in the valley for 4 years running (at various prestigious wine competitions in America), it does a roaring tasting and sales trade.

Being known for its outdoor acreage, we decided to forego the tasting and buy a bottle to enjoy at leisure in the shaded picnic area, overlooking Vittorio’s Vineyard, named for the founder who established its more than 125 year-old-tradition of producing excellent wines. This was a popular choice with most tables having secured for themselves a picnic mix-and-matched from the charcuterie, Italian deli and Marketplace inside the winery. With a generous selection of breads and over 200 varietals of cheese to choose from, no 2 tables were eating the same thing. Even though we’d had lunch, we sampled what was on offer as we walked through the Marketplace and it was all exceptional.

The VINE bus stop being outside V. Sattui’s was as good a reason as any to return homeside – and get a gander at what the towns of Rutherford, Oakhill and Yountville offered en route.

Our welcome home was a flight at Stonehedge because it closed earliest.  The lady was a bit curt and the store a bit short on atmosphere, so it was a quick one.

We had better luck at Wines By Mark Herold, which appealed to Christian from the outset with a “Hippies use the back entrance” sign on the door. It was a far vibier store, so we not only completed the flight but also got a glass of our favourite while we mingled with another group of tasters and chatted with the hosts.

Somewhere along the way we realised that Bounty Hunter hadn’t clipped our tasting card the previous evening, which was too good an opportunity to pass up redoing since they had such a wide selection… and it was Happy Hour. Their faux pas paid off for them though because (free) wine-tasting turned into Guinness… and turned into dinner when I saw in real life signature dish: a full beer can roast chicken.

We’ve seen it done at home on Webers, but this was a beauty. A big bird, perfectly roasted with golden crispy skin and served still perched on its beer can, the beer from which had made the chicken tender beyond description.  We sided with mac ‘n cheese, bacon beans and crisps. So so good. The poor lady next to us looked at our feast and then her hummus and low cal, low carb, low taste dunky things and her face dropped.  No mind, we’d walked town flat – which got the same jaw-drop expression when we told people so obviously isn’t commonplace – and machines must be fed!

 

We had less of an excuse with our final morning’s mammoth Subway brunch… but we needed somewhere to put the (quite modest) leftover chicken and a mixed pork sandwich seemed like a brilliant place!

Soon we were checked out, on the bus and headed for El Cerrito to catch the train to San Francisco International Airport, where we would be welcomed by the Emirates Lounge as part of our new Skywards Gold benefits, so could freshen up and chingching with a spot of champers to celebrate another epic holiday well done.