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.


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