Last year, about this time, I did a real jackass kind of thing. I invited myself along on someone else’s vacation. It was St. Patrick’s Day, we’d been enjoying all that Chicago has to offer on a gorgeous, unseasonably warm 70 degree day where everyone is Irish. My friends mentioned they were going to Napa and asked for recommendations. I then say “What? I’m going with you! You need me with you! I know people.” Obnoxious, right? I immediately apologized the next day and gave them an out, which they declined and invited me along anyway. That’s good friends for you.
Fact is, I wasn’t lying. I do know some very good people in Northern California and we had a fantastic time on that trip. Such a great time that another group of friends, after seeing the pictures on Facebook, wanted to plan a similar trip. OK. I can make that happen. Text and emails were sent and on a very rainy Thursday two weeks ago, we met at O’hare and immediately commenced with a few celebratory margaritas while curiously watching a troupe of German dancers in traditional costume. It was a bit surreal. Turns out American Airlines was launching their Chicago-Dusseldorf route that afternoon with this odd sort of launch party. It was the perfect start to a hilarious weekend, let me tell you.
California wine country, particularly the Napa and Sonoma valleys are quite spectacular and a little intimidating. According to this, there are over 450 wineries in the Napa Valley alone and maybe half as many in the neighboring Sonoma valley. I am lucky in that I have friends in the area to help me sort it out but visiting blind can be challenging. I recommend starting with the vineyards that produce the wine you like and go from there. Ask around, see what others recommend. Your best resources are other wine people. Deciding where to go can be mind-boggling, intimidating and expensive as wineries, rightly so, charge for tastings anywhere from $10 to $75 per person. Do a little research and book ahead as many places require reservations. Plus there’s the issue of having a designated driver, a necessity when you can’t quite grasp the difference between “tasting” and “drinking”. If you don’t have a DD, consider hiring a driver. Believe me, that couple hundred dollars is money well spent if you want to have a fully worry-free day. Also, this is not the place for large, raucous groups. Wine tasting is best enjoyed in small groups, a carload at most. I have to tell you that one of the best times I ever had was a solo tasting tour of Sonoma. In my experience a lone taster, especially a female one, is well looked after. Just be sure to pace yourself. It was during that trip 12 years ago that I decided to change the course of my life and become a pastry chef. Maybe I’ll tell you about that one day.
The good news, for me, is I have a dear friend who lives in St. Helena on the Napa side of the valley. Laurel was the sommelier at a restaurant group we worked for and bonded in a way that only people who open restaurants together can. She moved west about 5 or so years ago to be “where the wine was” and has transitioned quite nicely to the wine making side of things. I’m so proud of her. Whenever I come to visit, she really rolls out the red carpet. Laurel is a kind and gracious host, taking over the driving and planning duties. She puts together spectacular visits, tours, tastings and lunches with her large network of friends to places that I love and kindly avoids the mega-super-touristy places I dislike. And she is beyond hilariously entertaining. I miss her.
This year, I rounded up my Sunday Lunch crowd and we met up with a dear college friend also in town with her husband and a few friends. Remember what I said about big groups? Well, yeah, we may have pushed that aside for the first day but we also had winery friends that were greatly accommodating. After leaving rainy, cold and soon to be snowy Chicago, it was a delight to pull up to my friend Wells Guthrie’s beautiful winery, Copain, in Healdsburg. Collapsing into those Adirondack chairs overlooking the vineyards on a gorgeous sunny day was exactly what my weary soul needed. A glass of his wine in my hand certainly helped too. Our fantastic guide, Hollie, had ordered lunch and took us through the line-up. If you haven’t had Copain wines, seek them out. They are some of my favorites, especially if you enjoy pinot. Wells always warrants a visit when I’m in town. I like to see what he’s been up to in the last year. Copain Wines 7800 Eastside Rd Healdsburg, CA 95448 (707) 836-8822
In the effort of full disclosure, let me just say that I am by no means a wine expert, or even a good amateur. Let’s say I’m a “wine enthusiast”. I have a head for food, no question, and can remember the smallest technique or detail. But wine is a different matter entirely and I can’t quite explain why I don’t retain wine knowledge details as well. Thanks to many dinners and tastings with Laurel, I know what I like and what I don’t but I’m not sure I’ll ever reach a high level of knowledge. I tend to defer to the many people in my life that are much better at this kind of thing than I am. Luckily, I know a lot of them.
I am also aware that I am a very lucky person who has very amazing friends. Laurel, god love her, put out the call and her friends responded kindly and generously. Each and every place we visited was full of surprises, amazing experiences, interesting facts and above all, some really great wine. We sat at beautiful tables, wandered among hundreds upon hundreds of oak barrels in numerous caves, tasted wine from bottles and barrels, lounged on comfy couches in fancy hidden rooms, picnic tables overlooking budding vines and stone walls next to stunning vistas. All the while with a glass of something delicious. I’m already thinking about my next visit.
Here are some highlights of this spectacular weekend and I recommend each and every one:
Preston Vineyards: love this winery with it’s rustic farm charm. Great tasting room full of interesting stuff – unique tchotckes, books and food items from the farm like fresh eggs, olives and olive oil. Big fan of their rose and zinfandel. 9282 West Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg CA 95448 (707)433-3372
Macauley Vineyards: Laurel’s friend Hailey is lovely and took the time to organize a breakfast tasting for us. She baked a delicious fresh spinach and goat cheese quiche herself that paired wonderfully with their Tocai Friulano. She also picked up some amazing english muffins at Model Bakery (info below) and Laurel brought some rhubarb jam she had made. Pretty great, right? The lovely little cabin where they conduct their tastings is adorable, comfy and intimate. It was just us, that amazing quiche and their delicious wines; it was a great way to start the day. 3520 Silverado Trail St Helena, CA 94574 (707) 963-1863
Barnett Vineyards: There was a party for wine club members in full swing when we showed up so we joined right in, finding a spot up on the deck. Overlooking the gorgeous valley with a glass of cold rose, it was pretty damn near perfect. The subsequent tasting in the cellar room was pretty perfect too. 4070 Spring Mountain Rd St Helena, CA 95404 (707) 963-7075
Terra Valentine: Another friend, Lindsay, got us started with a glass of sauvignon blanc on the balcony overlooking a gorgeous valley then proceeded into a tasting room that felt like something out of Excalibur. The walls were lined with paneling from Hearst Castle and light streamed in from a giant stained glass window. Simply gorgeous. There was a small plate of cheese and chocolate and tasting the dark chocolate and one of their cabernets, side by side, was a bit of a revelation. 3787 Spring Mountain Rd St Helena, CA 94574 (707) 967-8340
Pride Mountain Vineyards: I’ve been here before but the day was foggy and I didn’t realize what I’d missed. As the saying goes, on a clear day you can see forever and what a view it was. Her friend Jake took us through the cellars, poured a tasting directly from one of the barrels and showed us a not so secret room where we sat and soaked up the environment. And the wine. Mighty fine wine. 4026 Spring Mountain Rd St Helena, California 94574 (707) 963-4949
Robert Sinskey Vineyards: Today we started the day on Laurel’s home turf. She’s worked here off an on for years and is currently assisting in the wine making process. She does an amazing tour and though she was answering all our random questions over the course of the weekend, filling in the bits and pieces of our severely lacking knowledge, here is where she really excelled. After touring the gardens and the wine cave with its endless rows of barrels, we sat outside at a beautiful table, overlooking their gorgeous vineyards and Laurel walked us through the Sinskey line-up focusing on their excellent pinots. There was a wonderful moment when we all looked up from our glasses and simply exhaled, thankful to be there, amongst the company of such good people. A few wineries do food pairings with their tastings and Sinskey does it particularly well. You taste the wine then you take a nibble of something and taste again, noticing the subtle differences of how food and wine effect and play off each other. I especially like the rose here, by the way, and highly recommend seeking it out. 6320 Silverado Trail Napa, CA 94558 (707) 944-9090
Miner Family Winery: next up was this gem where we were greeted and served with great enthusiasm by Scott, another FOL (friend of Laurel). Miner is interesting in that they don’t own vineyards rather, buy their grapes, so the wines from year to year may vary based on what they buy or what they’d like to make. They have a fairly large portfolio and it was great fun to taste and compare. We also toured their cellars and Scott did a barrel tasting where wine was siphoned directly from the barrel into our glasses. It was interesting to compare this glass to the bottled version from a different year that we tried back in the tasting room. 7850 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558 (707) 944-9500
Darioush Vineyards: we went here for one reason – the building is stunning. I knew that my friend Mark would get the vapours upon arrival. I was right. Built to resemble a large Persian palace with large columns and fountains at the entrance, the place is gorgeous. And the wines are pretty good too. We did everything wrong here – we didn’t know anyone, our group was too large and we didn’t call ahead. All big tasting room no-no’s, but the staff was kind, gracious and extremely accommodating. 4240 Silverado Trail Napa, CA 94558 (707) 257-2345
And believe it or not, that was it from a wine tasting front. Oh – did I mention that we ate extremely well too? Here are my recommendations:
Bravas Bar de Tapas: Delicious and great for a large group. Many, many small plates that easily accommodated everyone’s food allergy issues. The cocktails were delicious, the wine list good and when I was apologetically told they could only accommodate a group of 12 outside on the patio, I was thrilled. Outside! I hadn’t eaten outside in months! 420 Center St Healdsburg, CA 95448 (707) 433-7700
Bouchon Bakery: I don’t think I need to say much about this place other than this: GO. Be prepared to wait and especially be prepared to drop some coin. It’s worth it. 6528 Washington St Yountville, CA 94599 (707) 944-2253
Model Bakery: hands down the best English muffins I’ve ever had. Locations in St. Helena and next to Fatted Calf in Napa’s Oxbow Market.
La Condesa: great mexican food, great tequila, great cocktails. What more do you need? 1320 Main St St Helena, CA 94574 (707) 967-8111
Woodhouse Chocolates: I know my caramels and these are damn good caramels. Interesting custom crafted chocolate bars and truly beautiful chocolates. 1367 Main St St Helena, CA 94574 (707) 963-8413
Goose & Gander: OK, I bailed early and didn’t make it to this place BUT my friends that did said it was great with wonderful hand crafted cocktails. About as hipster as you’re going to get out here. 1245 Spring St St Helena, CA 94574 (707) 967-8779
Farmstead: I love this farm-to-table restaurant especially the mini ham biscuit sandwiches and the grilled artichokes. Just delicious. 738 Main St St Helena, CA 94574 (707) 963-9181
Fremont Diner: another big favorite of mine. Have to say I prefer breakfast to lunch (though still fantastic) probably because I never get a chance to really sit down and enjoy breakfast. Everything is just so delicious. I’ve never been here for dinner but I hear that’s very good too. They serve eggs from the chickens that roam freely in the back and make a mean biscuit. 2698 Fremont Drive Sonoma CA 95476 (707)938-7370
Oxbow Market: great place to pick up supplies – there’s cheese, coffee, produce, bread – everything you need for a nice little picnic. Any I have a real thing for the sweet corn cake sandwiches at PicaPica even if they couldn’t get their act together and open on time when I was there. That was annoying. This may be the motivation I need to finally figure out this recipe myself. 644 1st St Napa, CA 94559 (707) 226-6529
Sunshine Foods: another great place to pick up picnic supplies. Now, I know my grocery stores and love to wander a good one. This place is small but fantastic – packed with really great stuff. You can pick up snack-y things or the guys will make sandwiches to order and they have a really thoughtfully stocked butcher case if you get the urge to grill. 1115 Main St St Helena, CA 94574 (707) 963-7070
Fatted Calf: a must stop for artisanal charcuterie next to the Oxbow Market and conveniently, next to Model Bakery. A really great place and another friend of Laurel who put together a lovely tasting plate and gave us a tour. Nice people and you can pick up my favorite Rancho Gordo beans here. 644 C First Street Napa, CA 94559 (707) 256-3684
Oh, if you’re looking for a place to stay, the El Bonita Motel in St. Helena is perfect. Comfortable, clean if overly wine-themed decor, the rooms have mini-fridges and coffeemakers, are comfortable and there’s a nice pool if you need a break from the enthusiastic activities. We didn’t find the time but it looked lovely. Also, for the area, it’s priced reasonably. Let’s face it; this is by no means a budget vacation. But it is a great one.