Saturday, February 28, 2009

California, Day 2: Napa

I started this blog post yesterday with a comment about how the weather was very similar to Napa with a high in the low 50's and rain showers. Yeah, that changed today at around lunch time when big, heavy snowflakes gradually replaced the rain. Now it looks like it should be January, not March. It's a good thing we have plenty of wine in the house.

We took off from Healdsburg on the morning of February 13 -- yes, Friday the 13th -- after a very hearty breakfast at the Camellia Inn, another one of those "we liked it so much we had to do it again" places from our previous trip. Breakfast was an egg casserole with a rich, creamy mushroom topping, yogurt berry parfaits, and fresh French bread. And coffee, lots of coffee, of course. Oh, yes, I was a happy woman. I'm a sucker for a good breakfast.

I volunteered to drive the first leg, which took us through Alexander Valley, where we did not stop and taste because it felt a little too early in the morning to drink wine yet. Then we went up near or through Robert Louis Stevenson State Park with the emphasis on "up" -- yes, there was snow at the top, so maybe this post is related to the weather after all. I'm so very glad we hadn't tasted anything yet because the road twisted and turned over the mountain, and I likely would have lost my lovely egg and mushroom casserole on the other side, especially if I hadn't been driving. As it was, I had to take a moment at our first stop and have a couple of crackers to settle my stomach.

Langtry Estate and Vineyards, named for late nineteenth-century British theater actress Lilly Langtry, who originally owned the property, is actually in the Guenoc Valley AVA of Lake County. The tasting room sits high on a hill overlooking some beautiful countryside and (surprise!) a lake:

The wines were pretty good, too, and we debated over purchasing one of their excellent Petite Sirahs, the 2005 Serpentine Meadow, I think (I was not good about taking notes this trip). However, we once again came up against price point; this one was $40.00. We're not stingy about wines, but we've been doing this long enough to know that you can find a great bottle for under $30 and really good bottles for under $20. Plus, when we've had expensive bottles of wine, we tend to save them for a really long time, and I just know we're going to lose one at some point. So, we saved those coveted spots in Bertha and moved on.

Side note: Last night was Open That Bottle Night. We'll be opening ours today. I'll let you stay in suspense as to what that fabulous bottle will be. It will be one of the nicer ones we brought back from the Pacific Northwest a couple of years ago.

Back on the road with Hubby driving this time, we headed back toward Napa through Pope Valley. Being in Napa made us a little rebellious. We didn't want to go to big, commercial wineries. Nor did we want to waste time at places that had wines we could get back home. So, Pope Valley Winery seemed to be a perfect stop. The tasting room is in a little shed-type building off the main winery, which was build at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries and dug out of the hillside by Chinese railroad workers. The son of the owner poured in the tasting room as the winemaker racked the wine next door. It felt rustic, classic, and miles away from the mass-production facilities that we would pass later that day. We came away with a bottle of their 2002 North Coast Zinfandel Port and a couple of pictures:

After another fun drive over a mountain, we arrived in St. Helena in time for a late lunch. Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen is a charming restaurant in downtown St. Helena with upscale but accessible "California cuisine." I had the Chinatown duck burger with housemade shiitake ketchup and fries, and Hubby had the soup of the day, Manhattan clam chowder. Kudos to Cindy because that was the best burger I've ever eaten.

Napa Valley is, as promised, a true valley with straight roads and lots of wineries and vineyards. We started our afternoon in the Carneros region at Madonna Estate, which I had heard of and was curious about. We lucked out and found that their reserve tasting room, where they have a display about the four generations of Bartolucci winemakers, was open. Their 2005 Dolcetto earned a spot in Bertha, and we liked everything else so much that we joined the wine club.

After that tasting, we drove into Napa itself and left our car and stuff at the Cedar Gables Inn. If the Camellia Inn was a charming house in the California countryside, the Cedar Gables Inn is a beautiful manor that could have been plucked from the English Countryside and plopped in downtown Napa. It's definitely one of the prettiest B&B's we've stayed at, and my inner Gothic writer loved the setting with its rich colors and dark wood.

The weather seemed to have chased most people out of downtown Napa because the streets were fairly deserted. Our first stop was the Ceja Vineyards tasting room (warning - web page has loud music), where we tasted some good wine but nothing spectacular. Then it was on to the joint tasting room of Trahan and Olabisi, two wineries that make less than a thousand cases per year. In Napa terms, that's tiny, not just small, scale, but quality definitely outshone quantity. The wines from both wineries were excellent. We enjoyed talking to Chuck Custodio, the owner and winemaker at Trahan and bought a bottle of his 2005 Suisun Valley Petite Verdot.

By dinnertime, downtown Napa had come alive. We ate at Ristorante Allegria. I had an Insalata Mista and the Pappardelle Allo Zafferano, which is pasta with shrimp, artichoke hearts, wild mushrooms, and tossed with shrimp bisque. Everything was fresh and very good.

Next stop: Lodi

Sunday, February 22, 2009

California, Day One: Sonoma

Hubby and I had been talking for the past year about taking a trip out to Lodi, which is a wine-growing region about 85 miles east and slightly north of San Francisco. All of the Lodi wines we'd tasted were big and fruity, our favorite kind. I had suspected that February would be slow, and Hubby had Monday, February 16 off, so we decided to take advantage of low air fares and flew from Atlanta to San Francisco on Wednesday, February 11. Lured by happy memories of Sonoma wines, we decided to go to Healdsburg on Thursday, to Napa on Friday, and then end up in Lodi for the Wine and Chocolate Festival over Valentine's weekend.

Wine tasting during the off-season was an interesting experience. Disadvantages included the inconsistent weather. I wished several times that I had brought a warmer jacket as the wind whipped the rain at me and speckled my glasses under my hood or umbrella. On the other hand, with harvest and bottling over, many of the winemakers were around and willing to chat, and we got behind-the-scenes tours of a few places. We also didn't have to fight the crowds, at least not until we got to the festival in Lodi.

On our way into Healdsburg, we stopped at J Winery, which we had been very impressed with on our first visit in 2005. We had wanted to join their wine club then, but since they had a distributor (you can get their sparkling wine here), we were unable to. We took advantage of the laws having been loosened and signed up. Our favorite was probably the 2005 Pinot Noir from the Robert Thomas vineyard, which was smooth and nicely balanced between earth and fruit. Yeah, it's $65 a bottle. No, we didn't get any since space in Bertha the wine safe (see bottom of blog) is limited, and we didn't want to kick off the trip with such an expensive bottle.

We checked into our B&B, had a good lunch at the Healdsburg Bar & Grill, and continued our tasting with a visit to the Selby tasting room (web site is down, so link not provided). We already belong to Selby's wine club but couldn't resist a bottle of their Dolcetto. I'm afraid I can't give a vintage year since that one didn't make it back with us.

Then it was up West Dry Creek Road to taste in Dry Creek Valley, which we had not made it to on our previous visit. The highlights were Wilson Winery, where we got a bottle of their 2005 Bordeaux Blend (37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 28% Cab Franc), and then Unti Vineyards, where we had to make an appointment, but which was worth it. We came away from there with a bottle of 2006 Sangiovese blended with %15 Montepulciano and a recipe for Amatriciana sauce, which should go well with the Sangiovese blend with its smoky ("popcorn," Hubby said) nose and smooth underlying fruit. We ended the day back in Healdsburg at Longboard Vineyards, where we bought a bottle of 2006 Old Vine Carignan.

Our theme of revisiting favorites continued that evening as we went to Zin Restaurant and Wine Bar for dinner. We both elected to do the tasting menu -- as if we hadn't had enough wine, right? -- wherein wine was paired by the chef with the first and second courses. We both had mixed green salads for our first course, and then I had the "Blue Plate Special" of spaghetti and meatballs, and Hubby had chicken with mole sauce. The harried server only gave us a brief glimpse of the wine menu and what we were drinking, so I'm afraid I don't remember, only that we didn't finish it. Oh, and dessert was an incredible and decadent chocolate brownie sundae.

We stayed the night at the romantic Camellia Inn.

Metapost: What I did on my winter non-vacation...

I'd thought about writing a long, drawn-out explanation for why I've disappeared over the past two months, but I'd rather focus on the present and future, so I'll give you a brief overview:

Last September: Started business
Last October: Went on vacation to Belgium for family reunion
Last November: Put lots of time and energy into marketing
Last December: Business picked up - marketing worked?
In January: Still busy, got writing bug again
This month: Still busy with business and writing, but took a big hit with contract work and found February healthcare slump. Sulked a bit. Went on vacation.

Now, back to blogging. Why? Three reasons. First, I enjoy it. Second, I've let my life become unbalanced with putting so much time and energy into my practice. I notice a psychological heaviness when I'm not giving adequate acknowledgment to my creative side. This is important, especially since I'm genetically susceptible to workaholism (that's my story, anyway). Third, I have the ambition of being the invited guest for the "Not My Job" segment on the NPR quiz show, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, with the eventual goal of becoming one of the panelists. Yes, that's a random desire, but I am the random oenophile.

Also, in order to be consistent with the goal of bringing more balance to all areas of my life, I'm going to branch out occasionally and talk about my writing as well as my drinking. They go hand in hand, right? I belong to a great writing group, but I know that there are others out there with similar struggles who love wine and food, so this blog will be more inclusive of them, too.

This seems like a good time to set out some goals for me and for the blog. Why now instead of January 1? My birthday is this week -- I'm still moving through my thirties -- so that's how I set my goal years. Plus, it feels like I give myself a little extra time, just like people who delude themselves by filing for tax extensions. The government is going to get the money either way.

I'm in a profession where I help people meet goals, so here are mine, in random order:
1. Drink more French and Italian wines. After we get through some of the California ones we brought back, of course.
2. Get 25 rejections, whether from short story publications or agents, by my birthday in 2010. Those not familiar with the writing world may be confused by this one. If you're not getting rejected, it means you're not sending stuff out, and everyone has to pay their dues. That's what all the writing publications say, anyway. I've finished two novels and a bunch of short stories. It's time to stop being shy and really try to get published. I'll admit that my efforts there have been halfhearted to this point.
3. Post to the blog at least once per week, hopefully twice. My tendonitis has gotten better since I'm not hauling a laptop around all day or working on the computer so much.
4. Finish the first draft of novel #3 by June 1. There. I have a deadline now.
5. Lose 15 pounds. What? We ate well in California. Okay, not 15 pounds well, but I've been intending to lose at least 12 for a while. Don't worry, this isn't going to turn into a Bridget Jones-type blog.

Up shortly: Wine, adventure, and chocolate in California