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.