Friday, November 11, 2016

2016 Wine Country Vacation

Friday, September 2

Up at 5:30am and out the door 6:45am to make sure we get to CVG with time to spare. A relatively light day of traffic through Cincinnati with little delay. The usual great service at the long-term parking lot, giving us plenty of time to enjoy double-shot Bloody Mary’s before the flight. The first leg got us to Los Angeles (LAX), an hour or so layover and then to short, 300 mile flight to San Jose. We each watched Superman vs. Batman using Delta’s GoGo Inflight, Wi-Fi-delivered entertainment system. Very much enjoyed the Dorothy Lane Market sandwiches that Elaine packed for us.

Headed to Budget to get the rental car, a mid-sized Mitsubishi. Headed out to US-101 only to find slow, stop-and-go driving for the first hour, mainly caused by a fire off the side of the road that firefighters were busy putting out. After we got up to full speed, we discovered that the plastic air dam under from front bumper was not securely fastened and when the car went over 60 mph it started to wobble and make scary sounds. Need to swap cars before we head to San Francisco on Sunday.

Made it, finally, to Carmel and headed to Galante Vineyards, meeting Molly, to get the key to our cottage, which turned out to be right above their wine tasting room. One room with a low-slung Murphy bed, little kitchenette and a bathroom. The weather in Carmel is idyllic, with the day time high in the mid-60’s and the night time low in the mid-50s. Unloaded the luggage and found a place to park for the evening, about three blocks down the street in the residential part of Carmel.

The long day of travel made us thirsty, and at Molly’s suggestion, we headed over to the Cypress Inn for drinks. Met Garrett at the bar, a resident at Pebble Beach whose passion is helping people learn the English language, and talked and talked while enjoying two Bombay Sapphire martinis, each, which gave us a second wind. Ordered a little bar food, including some delicious grilled brussel sprouts, and glasses of wine, a Pinot Noir for Elaine and a Zinfandel for Paul. We noticed that the TV’s were playing Doris Day movies, which we thought was a bit quirky, only to find out later that Doris is co-owner.

Google Maps found us Lopez Liquors and Fine Wines, open until midnight!, just a couple blocks away, where we bought a fifth of Jameson for $20. Walked back to the cottage, exhausted and a little buzzed, to have a capper and a much needed nights sleep.

Saturday, September 3

The day began with Elaine bringing coffee from Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Company back to our room before heading out for food and exercise. While heading north on Monte Verde we checked out the Happy Landing Inn, a cute set of one-story rooms with names like Hemingway and Monroe. A likely place to try on our next trip back.

Ate breakfast at Friar Tuck’s Restaurant at Dolores and 5th Street. Started with a couple mimosas, then Elaine had Eggs Benedict, her favorite, while Paul had scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, toast and more coffee. Chatted awhile with Greg and Cynthia, the owners, who were as entertaining as the breakfast was good. Cynthia told us her favorite walk was south on Scenic Road, which starts at the bottom of Ocean Avenue, right before Carmel Sunset Beach. We took her advice and it did not fail. The beautiful Pacific Ocean on one side and unique, multi-million dollar homes on the other. On the way back we checked out another Cynthia recommendation, Mission Ranch, where sheep graze in fields and the views are gorgeous. After a total of about five miles, made it back to the cottage.

Called up Budget rent-a-car and arranged a car swap at the closeby Monterey Regional Airport, where we exchanged the Mitsubishi for a Kia Soul, which Elaine immediately started calling “the hamster car”. Took the 17 Mile tour of Pebble Beach, which now goes counter-clockwise, which makes way more sense since all the turns into and out of the parking areas for the scenic areas are right-hand turns instead of the far more dangerous left-hand turns. We met a very friendly squirrel who obviously lived on people’s handouts, contrary to the many posted signs that forbade people from feeding the animals. We stopped and took photos before ending up at the Pebble Beach Lodge for pictures at the 18th green and a beer at The Tap Room. Bought some presents at the gift shop, including a Tap Room shooter glass for Paul. Took the back way into Carmel, parked and bought a few more gifts at Carmel Bay Company.

Dinner consisted of drinks and appetizers at the Hog’s Breath Inn, followed by drinks at La Playa Carmel, another place to visit again for its views. The walk back was very dark, with people using their cellphones as flashlights. We had to check out the singing at the Cypress Inn, standing outside a window looking in. The singer started into “Let’s Give Something to Talk About”, which Elaine sang. The singer, who was not getting a lot of participation from her crowd, saw Elaine, opened the window and they dueted for a little while.

A great day, highlighted with the University of Dayton winning its first football game of the year, and combined with Ball State’s win on Friday, puts Elaine in an even happier mood.

Sunday, September 4

The day, like most, began with coffee, getting us ready to for a 3-mile run, down Dolores, Santa Lucia and Carmelo streets and back to Scenic Road, more or less running the path we walked yesterday, but in the opposite direction. Then along Scenic Road, much less crowded in the morning, ending at Ocean Blvd. Finished the exercise by walking up Ocean Blvd, which might have been the hardest part of the morning. Running in cool weather, after several months of extreme heat back home, felt absolutely wonderful.

Packed up the car, grabbed more coffee and a little breakfast, and got on the road headed to San Francisco. Traffic coming towards Carmel, was backed up for at least twenty miles but northbound was smooth sailing, with just a little slowdown around the San Francisco airport, all the way until we got to downtown. Then it was absolutely horrible as we inched along, car length by car length until we finally go to Pier 33 and parked.

Took the ferry boat out to Alcatraz island, munching a much-needed hot dog and Diet Coke along the way. Hiked up to the cell block and got an audio headset, which directs you along, giving a view of the daily lives on some of the worst criminals in history, their escape attempts from the prison and the activities they did to pass their days. Alcatraz also has some of the most stunningly beautiful views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, and the cloudless day was perfect for picture taking.

Ferried back to the mainland and took a 45-minute, one mile trip to Scoma’s restaurant for dinner. Thank God for valet parking as we were at our wits end with the traffic. A drink to decompress and appetizers, Clam Chowder for Elaine and a Prawn Cocktail for Paul. Next up was a leafy salad for Elaine and a Caesar salad, complete with yummy anchovies, for Paul. Pacific Black Cod for Elaine and a fried Combo platter for Paul completed the feast.

The final driving leg, which started for a short time with more mind numbing traffic, put us back on US-101, over the Golden Gate Bridge and north past Santa Rosa. Exited and headed east on Mark West Road for an up and down, twisty, curvy adventure through the mountains, which would have been fun except it was now pitch dark outside. However the weary-eyed travellers made it safely to Calistoga and checked into the Indian Springs Resort and Spa, unloaded luggage and headed over to Sam’s Social Club for a nightcap.

Monday, September 5

After the traffic and the hectic schedule of the weekend, it was time for a slow day. At least slow by Elaine and Paul standards. Elaine brought back coffee from the Calistoga Roastery to wake us up before the twenty-five minute drive to Hanna Winery in Alexander Valley for our Veranda wine tasting. The views from the deck are stunning and tranquil, with a lone hawk effortlessly circling the sky. Tracy, our hostess, started with their Chardonnay, one of the best we’ve ever tasted, paired with a New Jersey creamy cheese. Over of the course of an hour we sipped Pinot Noir, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend named Alchemie, more cheese, cherries and nuts. We ended up buying, and having them ship, a pair each of Chardonnay and Malbec, and single bottles of Cabernet and Pinot. We also picked up several ingenious wine bottle toppers which aerate wine as it’s poured, prevent drips and reseals the bottle. These will get much use at home.

Headed back towards Calistoga and stopped at Chateau Montelena, made famous by winning best Chardonnay in the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” and helping put California at the forefront of the world’s wine conversation. The beautiful grounds and the Chateau are worth the visit by themselves. After a short wait we met our pourer Amy, perhaps the happiness hostess on the planet. She gave us some history of the winery and poured five wines including a Riesling, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and a pair of Cabernet Sauvignon, the last one being sinfully delicious and pricey. We had them ship a bottle of Chardonnay and one of the awesome Cabernets and spent enough to get our wine tasting for free, which made the $165 price tag for the Cabernet feel like a bargain. This Cab is slated to open when Elaine retires, another reason for justifying spending that much on a single bottle.

Arrived back at the resort and walked down through Calistoga, deciding on sitting outside at the Calistoga Inn Restaurant and Brewery for a late lunch. Paul had a Calistoga Club sandwich and a glass of Gewurztraminer, and Elaine having a salad with chicken and a mimosa. After lunch we continued the stroll through town, bought some bottled water at Cal Mart and returned to the resort. Donning our suits, we headed over to the Mineral Pool, which is fed by a geyser directly behind the pool. Water and steam, at 232 degrees, shoot from a pipe every few seconds and gets cooled down to 100 degrees to feed the pool, basically making it an Olympic-sized hot tub. The steam room was unlike any other, with just walls and benches with no steam machinery, being that it’s fed from the geyser. There is also a smaller, adults only pool which is kept about 10 degrees cooler than the main pool. The sun and water completed the needed relaxation from the weekend’s whirlwind.

Back to Sam’s Social Club for drinks and dinner. Elaine had a Cauliflower Steak with charred cashew tahini, hot pepper vinaigrette, puffed farro, oil cured olives and pomegranate, while Paul opted for a more traditional Cheeseburger. Ended the evening around the fire drinking Irish Coffee made with Equator coffee, Jameson and twin dollops of the most delicious cream, while chatting with like-minded folks.

Tuesday, September 6

Began the day with more Calistoga Roastery coffee before hitting the neighborhoods for a 2.5 mile run where many houses have grapevines covering their entire front yard. Exercise complete, we showered up and walked the block to the Calistoga Wine Company and purchased a shipping box for a dozen wine bottles. Headed next door to the Palisades Cafe, which we visited on our last trip in 2010, where we picked up lunch for the road, a couple Beer Battered Fish Tacos for Elaine and Rustic Ham and Gruyere Cheese sandwich for Paul.

Headed west back over the Mayacamas mountains, a much easier drive in the daylight, to reach the Russian River Valley, where cooler climate grapes, like the Pinot Noirs we’re after, grow well. First stop was Merry Edwards Winery. Merry Edwards was the first female winemaker in Napa, was the founding winemaker at Matanzas Creek and her awards include being inducted into the Culinary Institute of America's Vintner’s Hall of Fame. Ron poured three Pinots with a white wine on either side. Very unusual to end with a white, but this one was nicely oaky and was up to the challenge. Clearly the best Pinot to us was the 2013 Meredith Estate Pinot Noir (named after Merry), and we came away with two bottles.

At Ron’s recommendation, our next stop was Dutton Goldfield, just up the road. David first poured a unique Pinot Blanc, a white Pinot that “should have been a red”. Being a slow day, one of the benefits of visiting wine country after Labor Day, David lined up three glasses each so we could taste three different Pinot Noirs side-by-side. We highly recommend trying this, it’s a great way to compare and contrast wines, going back and forth between the glasses. We both agreed we liked the Emerald Ridge Pinot the best. We also tried a Zinfandel grown in this cooler area, which gave the wine less alcohol and gentler flavors. Paul finished by trying a Chardonnay while Elaine had another taste of the Emerald Ridge. We ended up purchasing a bottle each of the 2015 Pinot Blanc Shop Block, 2013 Zinfandel Morelli Lane Vineyard and a 2013 Pinot Noir Emerald Ridge Vineyard.

We ended the wine day with a Sparkling Wine tasting at Iron Horse Vineyards, way up in the mountains at the end of a one-lane road. No fancy buildings or pretentiousness, just great cuvees and views as spectacular as they come. A few days before, Carl told us, the lines were five deep behind all their three tasting tables, but today perhaps a dozen or so folks were there. Tasted a variety of sparklers, chatted with some couples and Carl, who had to be a 60’s surfer dude. Took away a 2012 Ocean Reserve Blanc De Blanc, a 2012 Wedding Cuvee and a 2012 Commander’s Palace Brut.

Back to Indian Springs for the much-awaited Couples Massage. There is almost nothing better on this Earth than the relaxation of a massage as your body and mind drift away under the firm and well-directed pressure on your muscles, feet, neck and fingers. You find yourself barely breathing, more relaxed than you can ever imagine. World peace could be achieved if we all had massages every day. Finished up with some water in the Buddha Garden, listening to the water trickling, totally refreshed.

Headed downtown to find dinner and took a chance on Brannan’s Grill at the corner of Lincoln and Washington Street. What a surprise! A fantastic dinner, starting with salads, then Elaine had the “melt-in-your-mouth” half chicken and Paul a Flat Iron Steak, perfectly medium rare, with a generous portion of mac-and-cheese. Need to put a 5-star review on that place.

Ended the day with another Irish Coffee at Sam’s Social Club sitting by ourselves around the fire. Another day, well met and well done.
Wednesday, September 7

Surprise! Morning started with coffee yet again. We have had some really great coffee each morning on this trip, and today Paul had to have a second serving (saying cup would diminish the size) on the way out of town. First stop was the Armstrong Woods Redwood Forest after an hour’s drive, working our way to the furthest point then working back towards Calistoga. The redwoods are absolutely stunning, towering three hundred feet or more above and wider than your arms fully extended. Walking under the shade of their canopy is serene, peaceful beyond words.

We had lunch at Korbel, the second repeat performance from 2010 (Hanna was the first), We each had a glass of champagne, and yes, Korbel can legally call their sparkler champagne, and serve food, being grandfathered in many years ago when the French, well being French, claimed champagne as their own word. Since we own bourbon, maybe that’s a fair shake, but anyway, Korbel has been around for so long that the wine and food police granted them an exception. Lucky us. Elaine had a BLT salad and Paul a salami and brie on soft French bread (OK, I didn’t stay upset that long).

Visited Gary Farrell, another repeat performer, and Lydia poured Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs while we stared out the panoramic window to the beautiful views. Ruthanne, who we met at Dutton Goldfield yesterday, was also working there and immediately recognized us. We quickly decided to join their Wine Club, selecting the six-bottle, thrice a year Connoisseur membership, which allows us to customize each shipment to our desires. Hint: If you ever visit Wine Country and sign up for a Wine Club, do it early in your visit. Your selection and amount they pour will improve dramatically. It also waived the tasting fees, which can really add up, however most wineries, but not all, will waive that fee when you buy a bottle per person. Second Hint: Dress nicely. Slacks and a collared shirt for men, and a dress or long pants for women, will set you apart from the rest of the crowd and gather their serious attention. We selected our six wines for the Fall shipment, and added a 2014 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Toboni Vineyard and a 2013 Russian River Valley Chardonnay Westside Farms for to our ship home stash,

On Lydia’s recommendation our final stop was Arista and Todd started us out with a wonderful Pinot based on Oregon grapes and moved us to the local Pinots. Todd, who looked a lot like former San Francisco quarterback Steve Young, finished the tasting with local Pinots and a Zinfandel, which we took outside to their Japanese garden. Zen and Zin, a nice match. We took way two of that first wine, a 2014 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley.

Back to Calistoga and dressed up for our dinner at Auberge du Soleil, down the Silverado Trail in Rutherford. This is dining at its finest, perched on a hillside with southern views of the Mayacamas mountains in the distance. We selected the four-course dinners, an initial drink of a martini for Elaine and a glass of Domaine Carneros sparkling wine. Dinner wine was a Stag’s Leap Viognier. Appetizers were White Corn and Blue Crab Soup for Elaine and Sautéed Foie Gras for Paul. Second course was Heirloom Tomato Risotto with Lobster for Elaine and Seared Ahi Tuna with Glazed Pork Belly for Paul. Main course was Prime Beef Pavé for Elaine and Liberty Farm Duck for Paul. Not to be outdone, but having to overcome seriously full stomachs, dessert selections were Japanese Beignets (sinful) with Suncrest Peaches for Elaine and Swanton Farm Strawberries with Fromage Blanc Mousse for Paul. Drove back to Calistoga in the setting sun with full bellies and fond memories.

Thursday, September 8

Getting really used to coffee, and capturing these memories, in bed every morning. I wish every day could start at this kind of leisurely pace. Laced up the running shoes and put in a 3.5 mile run out Grant Street, past Tedeschi Winery, over the Napa River and turning around at the Old Faithful Geyser of California. Most of red grapes on the side of the mountain, primarily Cabernet, are still hanging on the vines where the Pinot grapes west of the mountain have mostly been picked and their leaves beginning to turn yellow. Running past soon-to-be-harvested vines is so much nicer.

Headed to Healdsburg, at Todd’s recommendation and he works there, to Barndiva for lunch. Elaine had their Banh Mi sandwich, consisting of ground pork loin, cucumber and cilantro on a brioche bun. Paul worked his way through a Filet Mignon Burger, complete with avocados and bacon.

Somewhere along the days, but forgotten by now, we had the Stonestreet Winery circled on our map, so we decided we must have been smarter a few days ago and took the fifteen minute drive across Alexander Valley Road to try their wines. We were greeted by Alex, more beautiful views sitting outside for this tasting and learned a little history of a horse name Rachel Alexandra, whose statue adorns the center part of the patio. She was the 2009 Horse of the Year when she won the Preakness Stakes, the first filly to win the race in 85 years, and owned by Jess Stonestreet Jackson Jr., the winery’s namesake, and the “Jackson” in Kendall-Jackson. Departed with a 2013 Stonestreet Chardonnay Cougar Ridge Vineyard and a 2012 Stonestreet Cabernet Sauvignon Rockfall Vineyard, only the second $100 bottle coming home.

Alex suggested Dutcher Crossing, another unfamiliar name, and we took the trek way up Dry Creek Road to their tasting room. Ryan poured several wines, all pretty decent, and we came away with a bottle of their 2015 Winemaker’s Cellar Chardonnay and the 2013 Taylor Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. We agreed later that this was on the bottom of the list of places we visited, but compared to the duds we’ve experienced on previous trips, this was more because the other wineries were so good. At least they comped us one of the two $10 tasting fees.

Hightailed it down US-101 to J Vineyards for our 4:00 pm appointment. We were seated upstairs overlooking the tanks, pumps and other wine-making equipment and Izzy poured a number of great wines, including a side-by-side comparison of three different Pinot Noirs. We chatted with Izzy for quite a long time before deciding on a bottle each of their 2012 Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine, 2013 Strata Pinot Noir and 2013 Nicole’s Vineyard Pinot Noir. Can’t wait to open the sparkler, which is made with 100% Pinot Noir grapes. If you didn’t know, all grape juice is white and it’s only the contact with the red grape skins during processing that turns wine red. The more time, the darker the wine.

Back to Calistoga and decided dinner would be light after the filling lunch at Barndiva. Walked down the main avenue in Calistoga, peered at a few menus and decided to give Johnny’s a try. Elaine had a couple of chicken sliders and a glass of Pinot Noir, while Paul went for some wings paired with a Sauvignon Blanc. Ended the last evening in Calistoga at Sam’s Social Club around the fire with Paul having his signature Manhattan and Elaine sipping a Gin and Tonic before enjoying our last Irish Coffees. We’re going to miss this place.

Friday, September 9

Coffee, of course, and then breakfast at Cafe Sarafornia on the main drag. Elaine bought a jewelry bag at North Star and some Equator coffee at the Cal Mart grocery store. Paul struck out trying to find some wines we can’t get shipped to Ohio, for example Matanzas Creek Cabernet, at the Calistoga Wine Stop only to learn they can ship any wine we want to Ohio, even when the winery can’t (or won’t). This was great news and we’ll be calling them as soon as we work our way through our overflowing wine collection. Paul bought a Keenan Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay to include in our two shipping boxes. We now have three empty slots left to fill.

Packed up the bags, loaded the car, checked out and headed our way towards the city of Napa via the Silverado Trail. Stopped in at ZD and shared a wine tasting, more than a bit overpriced at $40. ZD is on the floor of the valley and the view from our tasting table, facing west over grapes everywhere, was again breathtaking. Carson poured the wines on the patio and we bought a bottle of Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay. We found during this trip that we really liked Pinot Blancs and while ZD just started making them, they are not yet available. Carson suggested a stop at Robert Sinsky winery for a great Pinot Blanc. With not much time left, Paul went in and bought a bottle, but not before accepting a quick taste. Our two cases are now complete and we stopped at Buffalo’s Shipping Post in Napa to send them back to Ohio.

The travel back down south to San Jose for our night’s stay at Marriott Courtyard near the airport was uneventful, with a short backup getting to I-80 and Elaine’s phone giving us a last minute, time-saving detour just miles from the hotel as I-880 got clogged. The poor souls on northbound I-660 were stuck in a twenty mile backup. I love visiting California, but that traffic would drive us insane.

Checked in the hotel and consulted Google Maps for a local bar to have a beer. Walked about ten blocks to the Doghouse Sports Lounge, a local dive bar and the polar opposite of this week’s wine tastings. Enjoyed some Oktoberfest beer, the colorful crowd and a bartender who moved as fast as any we’ve seen. She talked so fast when asking us if we wanted a short or a tall beer that we had to ask her to slow down and repeat it. What a ball of fire. Stopped at the liquor store next door and bought a 200ml bottle of Jameson for $9, just enough for a pair of cappers later on. Back at the hotel we had Happy Hour drinks at the hotel bar, ridiculously overpriced glasses of Decoy at $16 each. Very not happy. DInner was at Vito’s NY Trattoria, a couple blocks from the hotel and one of just a few choices, however, it was a winner. Elaine had Veal and Paul the Mixed Seafood platter, Then the cappers in bed and the day was done.

Saturday, September 10

Back to reality day … dammit. Except Starbucks. Happy to have Starbucks again.

Checked out, gassed up and returned the rental car, checked our bags and breezed through security, again, with TSA Pre-check. Enjoyed our traditional Bloody Mary’s and tried not to get depressed. Other than a tighter-than-expected connection in Los Angeles which caused us to buy airline food, the trip home was uneventful. Now the wait for Fedex and UPS to enjoy our spoils.