Finally, the other shoe drops

As we’d feared, Friday came early…up at 6AM for a hot air balloon ride. We got picked up at 7AM and crammed into a long van with a bunch of other people, some of whom seemed awfully nervous. As it turned out, there was nothing to be nervous about…those things are so stable you’d never even know you were moving if you weren’t looking off the side. We flew from one end of Calistoga to the other, and it was great…lots of great pictures, stunning scenery, gorgeous weather. We even had good luck with our compartment mates. For those of you who’ve never been in one, these big commercial balloon baskets have five compartments: one in the middle for the pilot and four at the corners for the passengers. Since we were expected to have four people in each compartment we knew we’d have to share with somebody; luckily we were paired with two Japanese women who, put together, weighed about as much as my leg…so we had all kinds of room to move around and take pictures. We landed just after floating over the local Old Faithful geyser and rode back into town.

By this point Nellie was feeling a little queasy and couldn’t even partake of Ric’s spectacular breakfast. Nevertheless, it was time to leave so we piled into the car and drove the twisty, turny hills (which didn’t help said queasiness) to Healdsburg where we wanted to try some more wine. Well…where I wanted to try more wine, anyway; it was Nellie’s turn to drive. Anyway, she was in no condition to drink more wine. Our first stop was Mounts Family Winery, up in the hills and definitely a working winery. None of their wines really blew me away, but they did a decent little Petit Sirah (I don’t know why I call it “little”…it was 15.5%!) so we bought a bottle, took a picture of their gorgeous view and drove back down the hill.

Our next stop was Unti Vineyards, somewhat bigger and more diverse, but no less friendly. I tried several here, almost taking their Sangiovese but eventually settling on their Barbera. We thought about trying one more — Bella — but Nellie was feeling worse and I didn’t want to deal with the large crowds in their tasting room. It was a gorgeous setting though…I could see bringing a lunch up there, buying a bottle and drinking it on their lawn overlooking the northern valley.

There was a brief interlude where someone finally lost their lunch just as I was paying for mine, after which we drove down the valley to Glen Ellen and checked in to the Gaige House. The room itself was a bit of a letdown after the previous three hotels, but the grounds (especially the pool and back garden) were stunning. We relaxed for the little bit before going to an early dinner.

Good thing we went early too: the fig cafe + winebar is an awfully popular spot, and there was a line out the door half an hour after we sat down. The local whites we tried with our starters weren’t great, the my pork chop and Nellie’s steak (paired with the Petit Sirah we’d picked up that morning) made up for it, and the apple + fig bread pudding wasn’t too shabby either. Tired from our long day, we started the walk home.

Along the way we understood why the hotel had been handing out flashlights to guests…there were no street lights out there, and cars would have trouble seeing you. I figured we’d be okay as long as we stepped off the road and onto the shoulder when a car came along, until I realized the real reason people need flashlights: so they can see where they’re going. As one car came along I nimbly stepped off the road…and into a 3-foot ditch. My right arm stopped some of the fall but my left knee hit some rocks leaving a couple of puncture wounds on my kneecap (it looks like I’ve been attacked by a large rattlesnake, or perhaps a vampire with bad aim). Once I recovered from the initial confusion of what had happened, and explained to Nellie that I was indeed okay, I crawled out of the ditch, dusted myself off and slunk back to the hotel.

We knew our perfect vacation had to go in the ditch at some point, but I didn’t think it would be quite so literal. Still, we weren’t licked yet. We decided to end the day by crawling into bed as soon as possible, and start afresh the next morning.

Calistoga, etc.

A suggestion: always start your day with breakfast made by a trained chef, or at least the partner of a trained chef. Our morning began with a 3-course brekkie: strawberry muffins, stone fruit w/ Syrah reduction sauce and a peach & creme fraiche french toast that I would punch somebody to get my hands on. Ridiculous.

Our bellies full of delicious energy, we walked to the Calistoga Bike Shop and picked up our transportation for the day. It was a bit cool to start but we quickly got warmed up, stopping at August-Briggs for our first tasting. It was okay, but not much more than that. First of all, we were unaccustomed to having to share the tasting bar with other people. Second, none of their wines impressed us. Their zin was okay, but we had a Robert Biale sitting in our room, so we were set for zins, and nothing else rocked us. So we left. Our first (and, as it turned out, only) time not buying a bottle at a winery visit.

Now we had several hours to kill, and were actually getting a mite peckish, so we decided to stop in at Solbar, part of the Solage resort, which we’d just ridden past. We felt we were a bit underdressed, but shag it: we’d heard such great reviews of the place we had to stop. And manoman, were we glad we did. Nellie’s heirloom tomato soup and fancy-ass BLT were great, but my salad and buttermilk fried chicken were stellar. They also gave us some fantastic wine…the Failla pinot noir I had with my chicken was out of this world.

Right, then: on to more tastings. We biked up to Vincent Arroyo, where they poured us…oh, I don’t know, seventy wines. Seriously, though, they poured us nearly a dozen (some named after their dogs) and gave us a tour of the facilities. They spent a ton of time on us, and so did some of their patrons, who were full on crazy and chatty and (only Dickinsons will get this reference, but) Sybil-like, and so we loved our time there. We left with their reserve Petit Sirah and an expectation that it probably wouldn’t get much better.

We were wrong. We got to Zahtila, another tiny producer, whose winemaker’s husband Mike also spent a long time with us, patiently pouring wine after wine. Their dogs also made us feel welcome, practically tackling us when we pulled up on our bikes. We departed there with their estate Zinfandel and the promise that we would try to come up with a cross-border shipping solution.

Our last winery of the day was a very small producer called Shypoke. There was a bit of a mix-up in the appointment, but no matter…we sat on their veranda, drinking wines at a table made from old champagne riddling racks, until the winemaker arrived. They make four wines, and poured four wines (full glasses, mind you…seriously, they poured what you would get in a restaurant) and we fell in love with each. They’re one of the very few bottlers of the Charbono grape, but their Cab Sauv was excellent (and unlike anything we’d tried on this trip), their Sangiovese was superb and their Petit Sirah was incredible. We ended up buying that Petit Sirah, but — duty restrictions aside — we would happily have bought all four. The block of vines that produced the Petit Sirah was named after their daughter Amelia, who we also met. And their dog. God…we wanted to adopt these people. Or be adopted by them. We talked about wine and farming and import laws and weather and craftsmanship and flight times. We were so enamored with them, and their wines, that we didn’t even notice we were about to run out our time limit on the bikes. Egad!

We finished our last glass (leaving with a bottle of the Petit Sirah) jumped on our bikes and took off. Halfway back to the town Peter, the Shypoke winemaker, pulled up alongside in his mini with the bag Nellie had left back at their house. So awesome. We grabbed that and raced south, returning the bikes about 15 seconds before they closed. A close call, but so worth it. If we hadn’t been forced to return the bikes we’d have stayed on Shypoke’s veranda all night.

For dinner we went for simplicity, picking up some salami, cheese, bread and fruit in town, and paired it with the Zahtila Zinfandel and Arroyo Petit Sirah while chatting with a newlywed couple from Denver. It was a good, good, good, good day. And tomorrow will be good too, if we can drag our sorry asses out of bed for 7AM for our hot air balloon ride!

Comin' down the mountain

Just before we left Yountville we walked around a little to scout out the dining choices for our next trip. And there will be a next trip. We picked up a couple of pastries from Bouchon bakery, though we forgot about them and they eventually went stale in our car. Quel dommage.

We left Yountville and drove along the less-busy Silverado trail, taking a quick detour up Howell Mountain to kill some time. We didn’t stop at any wineries, but did see some nice views. We then drove down a crazy winding narrow barely-paved road (kind of like driving to Rocamadour but without the sheer cliffs) to the main road again, and entered St. Helena.

There’s not much to the town of St. Helena but the main street, and a nice one it is. We parked the car and went in search of a place to eat. Once again, our book saved the day as it recommended a place called Cook. Turns out, it’s the place all the locals go to for a good meal…score! My BLT was awesome, and I don’t even like BLTs. Nellie’s gnocchi in marinara was excellent as well, as was her Chardonnay (I didn’t drink at lunch…I might have been sporting a tiny headache after the previous night) and our dessert — apple crisp with vanilla gelato — sent us on our way with a smile. Now it was time to start with some tastings, so we headed up Spring Mountain road.

Said road is long and winding indeed, and it took us a while to find our first stop: Robert Keenan Winery. A dog ran out to greet us — a dog who is, we discovered, featured in the book Winery Dogs of Napa — and lead us into the tasting room. There we met several other patrons (including another Canadian, natch) and Laura, the hostess, who poured us several wines. Our favourite was a Cab Franc, which we bought, and and we began the long journey back to the main road.

Our next stop was Smith-Madrone, which was even harder to find. What a find this place was. Run by two brothers, both of whom resemble a cross between Richard Attenborough and Santa Claus, it is very much a working winery…no fancy tasting rooms or luxury seating here. Since we arrived earlier than the other tour participants he sent us on a little walk (avec Chardonnay) just up the hill, to find this view:

Not bad, right? We sat there for a few minutes, soaking it all in (including the very tasty chard) before heading back down. By this time the others had arrived, including a guy with his harem of hot women, and the tour started. Well…not a tour so much as a spoken-word art piece by Mr. Smith with some live demonstrations built in. Very educational too. He was just a great old guy, and we spent over an hour with him. We’d have stayed another hour if thought he didn’t have to get back out and tend to the grapes. We left with a bottle of their Riesling, which was entirely unlike anything we’d had in Ontario.

Entirely happy with our tastings we drove back down to the main highway and drove north to Calistoga. We found our B&B, the Chanric Inn, and checked in. Zoinks, this place was nice. The hosts (and their dog Dinnigan!) were great too. We dropped our crap, hit the pool for a rather chilly swim, drank the Smith-Madrone Riesling, chatted with the other guests and got ready for dinner.

Regrettably, dinner was pretty disappointing. We wanted to pair something with the Keenan Cab Franc we’d bought, and fell for the first piece of red meat we saw. We went to a grill that I think we knew we shouldn’t have. Our soup was okay. Our glasses of white were shite. Our mains (my ribs, Nellie’s “filet mignon”) left a lot to be desired. The best we could say about this place was that corkage was free.

Happily, the meal didn’t last long because, after we walked back the room, we fell asleep on the bed like little kids.

Northward bound

Dinner last night on the patio of the hotel’s restaurant was just what we needed. The 24 oz. steak we shared was excellent, but the pumpkin ravioli was ohmigod. My chocolate and butterscotch (with a touch of salt) was spectacular, and Nellie seemed to enjoy her sorbetto. We paired the James Cole Petit Verdot with the meal, and it went beautifully.

Now then: on to Calistoga.

Transition

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.

Keever

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

Pelican

As all first-time visitors to San Francisco must do, we visited Alcatraz today. The lines were long and the ferry was crowded — I can’t even imagine what it’s like on a weekend — but it was worth a visit. First of all, it was interesting to see a prison that close…it seemed so small compared to other prisons I’ve seen from the outside. Also, it was hard to get over how tiny the cells were.

Second, the island itself was strangely pretty, for what’s essentially a great rock, and the views from the island of the city skyline and bridges were fantastic. It also helped that the weather was gorgeous today, a vast improvement over the gray skies of the past two days.


Back on dry land we hopped in a cab and went to try Church Key. Unfortunately it wasn’t open for lunch; fortunately, we were near Rogue. I had to go back to a) have some more of those pulled pork sliders, and b) make up for my last beer yesterday, which had been shit. I had the hazelnut brown, Nellie had the Dogfish Head punkin.

There was one last thing on our agenda: looking down Lombard Street from the top. We walked up endless hills to get this vantage, which it turns out isn’t that impressive. We’d hoped to jump on a cable car to take us down the hill, but it was packed, so we just walked the last few minutes back to the hotel. Since then it’s been a nice relaxing afternoon of lying around our suite, and reading outside by the fire.

Tonight we’ll stick our noses into Haight-Ashbury for dinner so we can at least have a look at what that neighbourhood is like. And that will more or less wrap up the San Fran portion of our trip.

The reluctant tourists

Yesterday was a very San Francisco (tourist) day. We strolled out the hotel’s back door and down to the waterfront, walking along to the end of the municipal pier for much better shots of Alcatraz than we’d managed the day before, as well as a view of the Golden Gate bridge and back toward Ghirardelli Square. We turned and walked back, through the throngs of walkers, runners, cyclists, dogs and occasional Segway tour, toward Fisherman’s Wharf.

It’s every bit as touristy as you might think (there was a wax museum and a Rainforest Cafe and a slew of cruddy-looking stores selling cheap San Francisco paraphernalia), but at least there were some redeeming features like Boudin (where we picked up a loaf of sourdough) and the sea lions at Pier 39. Still, though, I was anxious to get away from all the crowds.

We started the long walk uphill to Coit Tower, atop Telegraph Hill. The views from the top of the hill were pretty good, and at the top of the tower they were even better.


We were getting pretty hungry by this point so we descended the steep-ass hill and found ourselves at the Rogue meeting hall. Nellie started with the Rogue Morimoto Imperial Pilsner and finished with a Northwestern Red IPA. I had a Dogfish Head (!?) Punkin and wrapped up with a Rogue Chammemellow. In between we had two Rogue samplers  (#1: American Amber, Eugune Triple Jump Ale, Northwestern Red IPA and Chipotle Ale; #2: Hazelnut Brown, Mocha Porter, Dry Hop Red and Chocolate Stout) along with some really excellent food…my pulled pork sliders were amazing.

Finally, since it was on our way home, we decided to join the throngs of people taking pictures of Lombard Street. Or, rather, the bizarrely twisty stretch starting at the top of Russian Hill. Even walking up to that stretch was tough…it’s steep enough that cars have to park at a 90-degree angle lest they roll downhill. But we got our pictures with a minimum of wives having to be pulled up the hill, and then made the short walk home to our hotel. We reckoned that San Francisco is like Halifax on steroids. That must be why we love it so much.

Rather than go out for dinner last night we just picked up some meat, cheese and wine to go along with the sourdough and chocolates we already had. We sat outside on the terrace enjoying the fire pit and views and fresh air. We met more Canadians (seriously, they’re everywhere…so far we’ve met an employee from Toronto, another employee from Vancouver and his wife from Dartmouth, and guests from Calgary, Missisauga and Brantford) and scammed a hot dog and loved our vacation and enjoyed our dinner inside only after the drizzle started. There might have been some wine spilled on the floor. Might.

Today: Alcatraz!

California: getting started

First of all, easiest 5.5 hour flight ever. A weekend Globe, a bad movie (Robin Hood), an EnRoute magazine and a few episodes of Modern Family and there we were in San Francisco. One crazy-ass cabbie later and we were at our hotel, the amazing Fairmont Heritage Place at Ghirardelli Square. Our room…well, it’s actually quite ridiculous to call it a room. It’s a two-bedroom suite, twice the size of our condo and twice and nice inside. I’m not kidding when I say that I would happily live here. We had just enough time to drop our stuff, take pictures of our swish new spread and poke around Ghirardhelli Square a bit before the daily wine and cheese tasting. That’s right: the daily wine and cheese tasting. We sat around the fire pit (it was getting a little chilly outside) and savoured the feeling of not giving a shit about anything.

For dinner we hit the first of several (reportedly) great beer places we’d  picked out, La Trappe. It was a tiny little basement bar…Nellie called it a cross between Smokeless Joe and C’est What, which will only make sense to Toronto beer drinkers. There was a 49-page beer menu but, quite frankly, we never made it off the first page draft list. There was more than enough there to occupy us. I had a St Feuillien Grisette Blanche, a Bavik wittekerke and a Caracole Nostradamus. Nellie had a La Chouffe golden ale, a St Feuillien tripel and a Brugse Zot dubbel. They were all good, though my Nostradamus was a little harsh. Nellie’s dubbel was better, and I could see why they were pouring them for half the people in the bar. Our frites were good (wasabi mayo and curry ketchup…tasty!) and my sliders were excellent with a little leftover wasabi mayo added in, but Nellie’s mussels were a little disappointing. Still, it was a great find for our first meal, and wasn’t the slightest bit touristy. Actually, one other interesting point: drinking beer seems to actually be a trendy thing in this city. There were groups of girls there last night you’d expect to see dancing in a club, but instead were sitting in this basement bar drinking Chimay all night. Weird, but awesome.

We hit the hay pretty early since we were still on Toronto time, and slept like the dead. Even though we’re at street level, noise doesn’t bother us and the blackout curtains made our gigantic home like a cave. We’ve been up long enough to have some breakfast, watch a little Freaks and Geeks, write this, shower and get ready for our first proper day of exploring San Francisco. Now let’s hope the rain holds off!

…rdelli

We’re here. Our hotel is amazing, and our room ridiculous. Too bad the weather went to shit just as we got off the plane, but still…it’s been a pretty awesome first few hours of drinking wine and exporing nearby Ghirardelli Square. Next up: Belgian beer.

At long last

As I type this my wife is packing her suitcase. My new Blu-ray copy of Last Of The Mohicans is playing. I have a glass of Fielding Chardonnay Musqué. And I am on vacation.

One year ago today we were wrapping up our trip to France. That’s the last time (save a random day here or there) I was on vacation. And with all the hours I’ve been putting in, believe me when I say that I need one.

So, I shall spend the coming week enjoying northern California and all the craft beer and delicious wine therein.

Oh, speaking of: I drank Project FiftyBrew #31 earlier this week: a can of Hockley Dark. Tres bien.