We were already arguing with the GPS as we left the airport around 8:30pm: It wanted us to go south on the 101 but we were both pretty sure that wine country was north. About 20 minutes later we were abruptly kicked off the highway and thrust into the downtown streets of San Francisco. After some famously hilly streets, we found ourselves going through the Presidio and then a left turn put us in sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. Phew!
HealdsburgHealdsburg is a little under 2 hours North of San Francisco: We decided to make this our base for part of the trip given its proximity to the Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys, and maybe even a drive over to the coast.
We planned this trip about two weeks in advance, and wound up staying at the Dry Creek Inn. It wasn't awful... I mean, we weren't there much anyway :) The first morning we woke to the sound of the person in the next room dry-heaving around 5am. Then the guy went outside and started what I will describe as a "yard crew truck" and let it idle for about 40 minutes. At one point I actually got up, threw open the curtains, and gave a pretty decent "WTF" look while simultaneously making a shooing gesture. Not sure if it worked but it made me feel better. Again, we weren't there for the lodge, and the rest of our stay was fine so no big deal.
The first morning we ventured about 15 minutes South to Santa Rosa for breakfast at the Omelet Express. Three words: yummy huge portions. It was still early so we headed to Bodega Bay where it was actually a bit chilly but we managed to spot a pod of gray whales and also some deer. We took the "Bohemian Highway" back through the tiny town of Occidental where we spotted an interesting store (Renga) that sold unusual recycled things - sadly they are only open a few days a week so no shopping.
By now it was after noon so we felt a little better about starting to visit some vineyards. Our first stop was Iron Horse, which is known for its sparkling wine and definitely off the beaten path. There isn't really a tasting room, per se: It was more of a covered area with a stand up bar made of reclaimed wood. We each had a flight and enjoyed the view and the fabulous weather.
We had an excellent lunch at Henweigh before heading to Gary Farrell. The dog-friendly tasting room had a nice wall of windows overlooking the valley below. We split a flight and then took the backroads back towards Healdsburg. Along the way we stopped at Hop Kiln, only because the building looked so strange :)
Dinner that night was at Bistro Ralph, which we found via Fodor's trip reports and is located on the main square. Andy had the three course prix fix meal that consisted of fried shrimp, pork ravioli, and strawberry cheesecake. I had risotto and the ravioli. We had a bottle of J Cuvee 20 and added that winery to the next days itinerary.
We started the next day at the Downtown Bakery and Creamery, which seemed like THE place to be. We split a sticky bun and a blueberry scone before heading North to Ferrari-Carano. The grounds here are simply gorgeous, and we enjoyed walking in the gardens before heading inside for our tasting. We decided to do the downstairs "Library" tasting, which was well worth it because the guy didn't stick to the wines in the flights and pretty much let us taste what we wanted. Our favorite was a black muscat desert wine (Eldorado Noir) that was paired with chocolate covered blueberries.
We didn't have any concrete plans so we drove around a bit before deciding that we were hungry and finding ourselves at the deli at Korbel. We didn't do a tasting here or anything: The gardens looked beautiful but this place was way too tour bussey (and strollertown). Our lunch (salami and brie sandwich with champagne pasta salad) was fantastic though.
Next stop, J Vineyards. Sadly, the tasting room was crowded with a group of boisterous cyclists so though we love J's sparkling wines, we made this a quick stop. Next time we'll plan earlier and book their private tasting.
We decided to get a cab to the square for dinner, something that sounds simple but was so time consuming. Healdsburg isn't teeming with cabs, and when ours showed up the driver was super chatty in a weird kind of way (asked us how we were three times in two miles) and he was wearing a Tilley hat a la the host of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. We had a fabulous dinner at Dry Creek Kitchen: Andy had oysters and then some chicken dish, I had an artichoke ravioli with shrimp appetizer, and then the pork belly appetizer for my entree. For dessert we had a blueberry tart, which we only ordered so we could pair it with a glass of the Ferrari-Carano Eldorado Noir.
YountvilleThe next morning we were up early and headed over the mountains to Napa. It was a lovely curvy drive through moss-draped trees. Passing through Calistoga we saw a sign for the Old Faithful Geyser so we figured what the heck, we're here. After paying what we thought was a steep admission fee (cost was $10 per person, and it costs $25 per car for a seven day pass to Yellowstone !), we walked over to the pond housing the geyser. The California version of Old Faithful erupts every ten minutes, shooting a spray of water 60 feet into the air. We had a few minutes to kill so we walked over to the adjacent barnyard animal thingy where they had, among other things, a pen of three-day-old fainting goats. Little umbillicords still attached and everything. Aww ! They are called fainiting goats because, when startled, their muscles freeze for 10 seconds which sometimes knocks them over giving the appearance of fainting. No, we did not try to startle them.
We had an 11am appointment at Round Pond Estate, where we had a lovely tasting (three wines with light appetizer pairings) on their terrace. The weather was absolutely perfect (we noticed being more appreciative of low humidity since moving to Houston). After the leisurely tasting at Round Pond, we headed to lunch at the Culinary Insitutue of America. Located on the main highway, this seemed somewhat like a hidden gem as there were plenty of tables. We had lunch on the terrace overlooking the vineyards: Highlights include a flight of olive oils, cauliflower soup, pancetta wrapped cod, a flight of unusual wines, and a flight of desserts too!.
We decided to check into our hotel in Yountville, the Napa Valley Lodge, which was much nicer than the Dry Heave Inn. The website made it look a lot less motel-y than it was in person, but our room was well appointed and overlooked the adjacent vineyard. It also had a nice pool area, with several fire pits and bocce call courts. Best of all, the lodge was walking distance to town !
We spent the afternoon at Pride Mountain Vineyards - WAY off the beaten path. You basically drive all the way up a tiny mountain road, until you can't go any higher, and then you turn off that road and keep going. The views were amazing, and the interesting cave tour included barrel tastings (where we learned that a "thief" is a glass pipette which is bent at one end and used to remove a small amount of wine for tasting).
Dinner that night was at Mustard's, which came highly recommended from everyone we talked to and was packed when we drove by earlier in the day. It did not disappoint - we even bought the cookbook and have replicated the yummy Mongolian pork chop at home. The only hiccup was that it wasn't "in town", and as we didn't want to drive, this meant calling a cab, and the cabs in Yountville come from nearby Napa. Next time lunch at Mustard's and dinners within walking distance.
Our last day, the Fourth of July, was relatively unplanned. We headed North towards Schramsburg, where we had an 11 o'clock appointment for a tour and tasting. After some hunting on Yelp, we ended up at Grillwood's Cafe in St. Helena. There was a crowd outside, but the wait was only 10 minutes of so, and we snagged a table by the window and breakfast was quite good. Andy had some giant breakfast casserole, and I, a single blueberry pancake.
We had some time to kill before Schramsburg, so we wandered into Calistoga looking for a grocery store where we could pick up some packing tape for the box of wine bottles we'd accumulated. It took us several blocks to figure out why the streets were so strangely empty but the sidewalks were packed with onlookers - turned out we were the last car before the kickoff of the 4th of July parade.
The tour and tasting at Schramsburg lasted an hour and a half and we learned a lot about the production of sparkling wine. With another bottle added to the box, we headed back towards Yountville via the Silverado Trail. We wound up stopping for a light lunch at Domain Chandon, which was PACKED, but nice to sit outside on the terrace and people watch. We spent the afternoon lounging by the pool before walking 10 minutes down the road to dinner at Bottega. This was by far the best meal that we had during the trip; calamari with squid ink aioli, parmesan truffle fries, roast pork served with polenta and a cherry brown butter reduction, pan fried gnoochi, and some type of fancy Italian doughnut for dessert.
I can't believe it took us this long to get to this part of the country, but with fabulous weather and so many vineyards and great restaurants, I'm sure that we'll be back.