Vowing to get the trip back on track, we arose early (despite a night of brutal pain in my knee and thumb) and had some very tasty breakfast. Nellie decided to take another stab at being the designated driver and began to shuttle me around to some Sonoma wineries. We tried Loxton Winery, which was highly enjoyable. I was determined to take home a Pinot Noir, and theirs was quite good, so we bought one of their last bottles. When our server heard it would be one of the four we’d bring back to Canada with us out of the dozens we’d tried, she had the winemaker sign the bottle. We drove past the cheeky little road signs on their driveway with our fourth of four and felt good about the start to our day.

Our next stop was down the road at Kaz Vineyard & Winery, which our little Back Lanes book described as being very laid back. It came exactly as advertised. Their tasting room was already decked out for Hallowe’en, and they had plenty of different wines. I don’t just mean a variety, I mean they had blends and varietals we’d not tried anywhere on this trip. We eventually settled on a 100% Lenoir, partly because we thought it might be the only one of those we ever see, and partly because we thought it would go well with lunch. It did, as it turns out — we picked up some pasta from Cafe Citti on the way back to the hotel, found ourselves a picnic table and ate lunch on a perfect California day. Oh, one other awesome point about Citti: they sell several Russian River beers. They had a few in bottles, but not Pliny The Elder (the #2-ranked beer in the world). Nonetheless, the guy behind the counter just pulled me a little sample while we waited for our order. Awesome! Between the food, the beer and the service I can pretty much guarantee we’ll be back to Citti on our next trip.

Thus ended the busy part of our trip. We spent the entire afternoon swimming, drinking wine under a tree, reading by the pool, rescuing a drowning honeybee and generally relaxing on a perfect afternoon. We even saw a family of deer grazing across a dry riverbed. It’s not often I could describe a hotel as being idyllic, but…this might just be.

It’ll be hard to leave tomorrow, but at least we’re leaving Napa and Sonoma on a high note. It was looking bleak for a while there.

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.