Okay, I’m going to make this quick as it’s really nice out, I just got back from the pool and we’re eating in an hour.

Our dinner last night at Magnolia was really good, and it was great to get a peek at Haight-Ashbury, but we were just dead tired so we didn’t have as much fun as we might have. Oh, and the cabbie on the way there nearly killed us. He was doing 60 mph on city streets, weaving in and out of traffic…insanity.

Leaving the city this morning was both easy (apart from a little rental car trouble) and awesome (since I got to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge) and we made great time getting up to Napa. We never did find a place to eat, and instead went straight to our first winery.

Before I get into each one, let me just say that if you’re the kind of person who wants to visit smaller, family-owned wineries, and who doesn’t want to see a tour bus in the lot when you pull in, then Tilar Mazzeo’s book Back Lane Wineries of Napa is what you want. There is a similarly named book for Sonoma (find them here and here) if that’s where you’re headed. Virtually all the wineries we will do on this trip were found there, since we had no other frame of reference for California wineries.

So, then: our first visit was to James Cole Winery, and it could not have been a better introduction to Napa. Ben, who hosted us in the tasting room (and is pictured in the book) was an excellent host, welcoming and helpful and not even remotely possessed of the snobbish attitude we’d been told to expect. He poured five wines, all of which were good (Nellie even liked the Malbec, and she usually hates those) but we settled on the Petit Verdot…we knew we were unlikely to see another of those on our trip.

While mentioning to Ben that we also like Zinfandels, he recommended we try Robert Biale Vineyards just down the road, as it was the best zin he’d ever had. Done! He rang ahead and let them know to expect us. We arrived a minute later to their stunning tasting room overlooking the vines and hills. The host, Austin, told us they make 13 different zins there, and we loved each one we tried, finally settling on the Monte Rosso. He told us the origin of the name of the most popular zin: the Black Chicken. During prohibition and when they lacked proper licensing, customers would call Aldo Biale (on the local party line) and ask for a few Black Chickens…which meant bottles of wine. He had other great stories too, and was an equally amiable host. Two for two, we left here already in love with Napa.

Next we drove a little further north to the outskirts of Yountville where we met Ashley Keever, of Keever Vineyards, and her dog Bones. This was the consummate family winery…only three wines on offer, and pretty much the entire family is involved in the making of them. Ashley gave us a tour of the house, the facilities and the gorgeous caves they’d bored into the hill; Bones followed us for the whole tour and occasionally dropped his tennis ball on me. Farm boy geek moment: the plastic lugs they use to collect their grapes are the same we use to collect blueberries, and the grapes she picked from the vine and let us try tasted almost exactly like blueberries. Anyway…their Sauvignon Blanc was good, their Syrah was very good, but my god…their Cabernet Sauvignon. Pretty much on the spot we declared it one of the four wines we’re bringing back to Canada with us. This place just had so much going for it…the view from their driveway was the best we saw all day, and by the time we left Ashley felt like a lifelong friend. We were there for less than an hour, and pretty much in love with the place.


Our last stop was at Elyse Winery, a place not mentioned in the book but recommended to our friend T-Bone as a place for great zins. And it was — especially their peppery Howell Mountain offering — but we ended up taking their #33 Mon Chou Bordeaux blend. In fact, we’re drinking it as I type this. Very laid back place too. When we walked in the owner yelled, “What the hell do you want?!?” and then the pouring started.

Tired, and still without lunch, we drove into Yountville and found our hotel, the Hotel Luca. So, so pretty. It’s like being in a little villa. Except one that has wi-fi and heated bathroom floors. We dropped our stuff, had a bite on the bar’s outdoor patio, went for a swim in the heated pool and are now sitting on the little courtyard patio outside the room drinking wine whilst waiting for our dinner reservation. We’d thought about French Laundry but couldn’t be bothered making reservations. We booked Redd instead, but can’t be arsed with that either. So we’re eating at the restaurant in the hotel, because we like the idea of stumbling 40 feet to our door.

All in all it’s been a fucking spectacular first day in wine country. If the second half of this trip is even close to how great the first half has been, it’ll be an all-time classic.

Hotel Luca

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