The beauty of Napa. Believe the hype. At some point in your life make sure you get to experience the splendor of this area. Wine fans have hundreds of wineries to choose from so many that is truly overwhelming. When we set to planning our trip we figured we could Google search a bunch and pick a handful. That proved to be too vast a task so we relied on referrals from friends. However, the wineries are just one aspect of the area. The landscape of hills and valleys, the quaint towns and the unbelievable food made the trip for me. For bikers, the area has done a great job of setting trials for your enjoyment and safety. It would have been nice to experience Napa on a bike. Next time, for sure.
Here I recap my top 10 experiences from my trip to Napa in July:
1. The town of Yountville. How cute are you? It is like it was created from the pages of a J. Crew catalog. In the morning you see runners, people walking their dogs, adults and kids on bikes – all enjoying life at a leisurely, enjoyable pace. Yountville is perfect small town America. The post office is on the main street with the police office right behind it, almost like Mayberry – but fancier. There are public spaces ideal for concerts, picnics and recreation. I imagine the people who live there don’t lock their doors and really appreciate the life they live courtesy of their community. A truly amazing place to visit.
2. Some people dream of going to Disney, I dreamed of going to French Laundry. It is Michelin rated and known at one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Reservations are near impossible to get. After eating at a super snobby French restaurant in San Francisco earlier in the week, I was mildly concerned about the stuffiness of this prestigious establishment. It turned out to be so not the case. The staff was amazing, so kind and anti-stuffy. The building and grounds are GORGEOUS. The courtyard provides an intimate place to share a glass of wine under a shade tree. There is also a great patio that allows for you and 10 to 20 of your dearest friends to enjoy dining ala fresco. Dinner is comprised of two unique nine-course tasting menus, one being a vegetarian option. The wine list is chosen over an interactive app on an iPad. From the first bite to the very last I was amazed, entertained, awed, romanced, delighted. My writing is inadequate to properly give the experience the attention it deserves. I would love to relive the experience over and over. One course will leave you wanting more of what you tasted, only to feel the exact way of the course that follows. My Mickey Mouse moment happened when we were walking out and were invited to visit the kitchen. Holy cow! Really? Probably the cleanest, perfectly functioning kitchen I’ve ever seen. We meet the Chef de Cuisine, Tim Hollingworth, who we teased for needing a work permit he looked so young.
3. After our amazing experience inside of French Laundry we walked across the street to discover the gardens of French Laundry. We probably looked like a pair of nerds “ooo-ing” and “ahh-ing” over the produce. We attempt to grow our own garden and were shamed at the abundance and beauty of the French Laundry crop. Basil leaves the size of my palm. The grounds were lovely, rowed in such a pristine manner, complete with chicken coop and green house. Culinary Gardener, Tucker Taylor (crazy cause I know a Taylor Tucker) was gracious to stop and talk to us about ice lettuce, which we had enjoyed during our meal. He pulled a piece right off the plant to let us sample raw. It originated in South Africa and it looks like it has little drops of dew on it with a salty taste.
4. Before we left for vacation I watched Bottleshock. Which is a movie that tells the story of the early days of California wine making featuring the now infamous, blind Paris wine tasting of 1976. It essentially put Chateau Montelena on the map and served as the foundation of the California wine boom. Chateau Montelena was on our list of wineries to visit because of the pure historical value. (Man-love loves history.) When we arrived a car with an older man and a rambunctious pup pulled up. We exchanged a few morning pleasantries. Later during our tasting we learned that we had just spoke with Jim Barrett (played by Bill Pullman in the film), the owner of the winery. Pretty cool.
5. My favorite winery we visited was Joseph Phelps. They had a really unique tasting experience. Rather than being bellied up to a bar they had a tasting table set up on a deck overlooking the vineyard. It was beautiful. Guests were able to taste at their own pace while enjoying the views and each other’s company. When you were ready for your next taste, simply let them know where you are in the tasting, they would pour and commence your relaxation. I think we spent more time there than any other winery we visited and some of those included tours. They also upgraded us because man-love is in the military. They were the only winery we visited that had a perk for service members.
6. Our plan was to eat at Bouchon Bakery once while we were in Napa. After tasting the flakiest, most amazing croissant of my life – we ate there every morning. Each morning I’d pick a different breakfast pastry and a different macaron to enjoy later in the day. Ah-mazing. They also provide the baked goods for French Laundry.
7. We learned a lot about wines while in Napa. Our most educational experience was at Del Dotto where we had in depth conversations about wine barrels. From construction, through the difference between French oak and American oak and toasting which is the process of burning the inside of the barrel to add richness and more flavor. The tour and tasting in the caves was awesome. We sampled wine made from the same grapes, through the same process with the only difference being aged in French oak or American oak. (I preferred the French oak.) The barrels are marked with what area the oak comes from. One barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon had MO/FO on it for Missouri oak and French oak, or for our immature humor something else to giggle over. The tour ended with a super delicious charcuterie board. Our guide was amazing even sending a hand written thank you note a month after our return congratulating us on our engagement.
8. I love, love, love bubbly. And I love, love, loved the experience at Schramsberg. While not “champagne,” Shramsberg produces their sparkling wine in the champagne style. Meaning it is fermented in bottles opposed to being pumped with CO2. “The bigger the bubble, the bigger the trouble.” Remember that next time you pop a cheap bottle of bubbly for your morning mimosa. This too was a great learning experience to see how sparkling wine is made. The cellars are filled with thousands of bottles in various levels of fermentation. Shramsberg Blanc de Blancs has been served at presidential dinners for years. The pictures and menus hang on the walls in proud accomplishment. Here too our guide, Jayme Powers, was amazing. It was so cool to hear about the riddling process and how their history plays into their new frog mascot.
9. Quintessa was a wonderfully intimate tour and tasting experience. It was a great to walk the grounds and overlook hills and valleys covered with grape vines. Unlike the small oak barrels we saw during other tours, we saw huge steel containers used in aging Quintessa wine. We talked a great deal about corks with our guide who showed us a staging/testing area in which they were looking for the best in corks. They also provided a great cheese plate; just solidifying my belief that that is truly how every bottle of wine should be enjoyed. There isn’t a large production or variety from Quintessa, one wine – you pick the year. We ended up with our largest wine “investment” from Quintessa.
10. The best part of our trip to Napa is our newly started wine collection. We made a nice investment in bottles that will age a few more years and be enjoyed over conversations relieving our memories of this trip. We purchased our first wine refrigerator that currently houses our souvenirs in a pleasant 55 degrees.