Tag Archives: Calistoga

Days of Wine and…Well, Mostly Wine

So as previously mentioned, Mr. Wordtabulous and I finally managed our long-delayed 20th anniversary getaway: five days in California wine country and San Francisco. I wanted to be really pumped about the trip, but as we approached departure, I went into a death spiral of tasks: at the new job, at the freelance job and at home, so that I didn’t even start packing until 8:30 the night before. For me, packing is like a mouth-watering appetizer. As I select each piece and outfit, I imagine ahead of time what I might be doing when I wear it. Will I be holding a wineglass, mouth pursed, a thoughtful expression on my face? or will I be perusing items in a cute shop? or perhaps driving down a winding, sun-dappled road in a convertible, laughter on my lips and my long lustrous hair blowing back…wait a minute, that’s not me. I do get carried away.

The  next morning we dragged the boys out of bed for good-bye hugs (grandpa was on his way for a little grandson time) and took off for the airport where I asked myself, “Why did I not assume the airport would be full of OTHER people departing on Spring Break trips?” MSP is a big airport and it was packed. We saw a lot of people dressed for the beach, a young woman searching frantically for her preschool aged daughter, and a flock of pacemaker people getting herded to the death chamber specially engineered security area. The usual, just on a massive scale.

I got the dreaded middle seat on the flight out, between Mr. W on the window side and some fatherly looking man on the aisle.  This man woke long enough to order a bloody mary mix from the beverage service which he set on his tray table. Then he went back to sleep, periodically heaving his body up into the tray and knocking the drink about. I watched in fear and fascination for most of the three and a half hour flight, wondering if I was going to end up with the beverage in my lap or handbag, but was too wimpy to do anything about it. I hate flying. I don’t fear it, and I rarely get sick from it anymore, but the personal space invasion and the NOISE, help me Lord, the NOISE–between the ventilation system, the engines, and the crazy loud announcement bell followed by the muted, unintelligible announcements, I became quite crazed. Bloody Mary man didn’t spill a drop, but by the time we landed at San Francisco, I (figuratively) was baring all claws and teeth.

I wrote an earlier post about how GPS navigation saved my marriage on last year’s trip with the family to San Diego, because a) I don’t do well reading maps in a moving car and b) Mr. W. becomes quite tense when faced with uncertainty while behind the wheel.  This trip I had the Nav all set up on my phone before the key was in the ignition. Ten minutes later, I was trying to explain to a skeptical Mr. W. how the blue “you’re doing it right” line jumped from the route we were dutifully following to another, nearly parallel route, which exit we had missed. JUMPED. First the blue line was on one road–the one we were on, then the whole thing blinked and suddenly our blue arrowhead was alone and the blue line was over there somewhere and Nav, the electronic minx, was rerouting. By the third time this happened, I was frantically trying to zoom in and keep ahead of our progress and Mr. W. was not amused. Digitally zooming and scanning ahead while watching road signs is worse in terms of motion sickness than reading maps and by the time we were out of the city, on the way to parts north, nobody in the car was super happy. Or remotely happy. Or even 100% physically there; I had the sense that I’d left a portion of my brain and some nerve endings on the plane. Why didn’t I drive and let him navigate, you ask? Excellent question, smarty-pants; perhaps you should come with us next time we travel and helpfully suggest that BEFORE we get into the car. What? No thank you? I thought not. Mr. W bought me a conciliatory cheeseburger and some crackers and we continued in a better frame of mind and body.

The weather was cool, damp and gray. Rows of black, gnarly grapevine trunks looked devoid of life, almost oppressive, like coils of barbed wire across the hillsides. But there was plenty of plant life in full vitality and the variety in California always tickles me. Also, the fact that people were selling boxes of ginormous strawberries along the roadside seemed promising. Our first post-cheeseburger stop was at the Benziger winery. It is huge, and looked beautifully laid out, but we decided not to tour the grounds after seeing a tractor towing a people-wagon half full of cold looking families across the  parking lot. The tasting room and gift shop were elegant, with polished wood and a quieter ambiance. We opted for the more expensive tasting, featuring some of Benziger’s nicer (biodynamic) wines, including the 2007 Tribute. The first wine we tasted was a Cabernet Sauvignion. As I lifted the glass to my lips Kat, our hostess, said, “You are going to taste jalapenos and peppers,” and sure enough, that was exactly what it tasted like. I don’t know if it was the power of suggestion, or the actual flavor, but it was the weirdest tasting wine I have ever had. It wasn’t unpleasant; we bought a bottle. We narrowed the reds down to a few and bought some of those as well, but I can’t tell you what we got or what it tasted like (see my earlier post: Wine Newb.) We spit and dumped our glasses but I still had just a bit of a buzz rolling as we left.

I strapped on my Relief Band for the winding, hilly road to Calistoga, where we did a little window shopping (adirondack chairs made out of oaken barrel staves!) in town before heading to our B&B.  We found the Chateau de Vie just north of Calistoga, with grapevines crowding right up to the porch of our carriage house and to the edge of the small gravel parking area. The main house, a grey stucco three-story, was classic chateau on the outside,

but California modern and masculinely stylish inside. Our host Phillip, (who owns and runs the place with his partner, Peter) met us and offered us wine and water in the comfortable sitting room that shared the main floor with the dining room and kitchen. A spacious patio off the back led to a hot tub and pool but the temps made the fire inside the carriage house more inviting. He pointed out the small gray buds on their vines which promised leaves and fruit would be appearing in a week or two.

Phillip had set us up with 8:00 reservations at Brannon’s Grill in town, but since it was only about 5:00 he offered us a fruit and cheese tray including his homemade sun-dried tomato tapenade that he brought out to our carriage house room. It was paradise. We could have called it a day right there…but we had reservations and wanted to make the most of our vacation, so we carried on. The bar and dining area was nice, wood paneling all around and jazz playing in the background. The service was prompt and considerate. I had braised rabbit ragu over fresh pappardelle pasta, and my husband had the Dover sole with green beans and mashed potatoes. The manager brought us complimentary glasses of Prosecco, and, I think because we were referred by CdV, our waitress brought us a complimentary apple crostata, which I have previously raved about and misspelled. We felt loved.

A chorus of frogs serenaded us off and on that evening but otherwise the night was quiet, and we woke, refreshed, to a drenching downpour outside. Not a problem. We didn’t have any plans except for some casual shopping  and visits to wineries which wouldn’t open until later anyway. We spent the morning in bed savoring fresh roasted coffee brought to our door and watching Kitchen Crashers on the big flat screen tv, while pools of rainwater gathered in canals at the vine’s feet. Peter brought our breakfast: scrambled eggs with tarragon, sauteed Chanterelle mushrooms, grilled bread, berry cornbread muffins and fresh fruit. Also orange juice and glasses of chardonnay. According to Peter, the early area winegrowers had a tradition of meeting weekly for scrambled eggs and chardonnay and I am totally on board with that. At that point I was glad I only packed stretchy jeans.

There was shopping and more wine tasting that day. We stopped at Regusci but there was a really large group (or two) of squealing young women there, so we headed down to Goose Cross Creek. We took a drive up a road Peter recommended for a great view of the valley. A mist occluded the view and wind tossed the trees up on the hilltop, but it was secluded and quiet.  Not hungry at all, we nevertheless stopped for had the best french dip sandwiches we ever had at the Rutherford Grill (in Rutherford.) The place was packed at 2:00 p.m. and we snagged seats at the bar where I enjoyed a beer for a change. We stopped at Caymus, where vintner Chuck Wagner served us himself (although we didn’t figure that out until later,) and then drove into St. Helena for some shopping. I don’t have much to report on shopping–I’d rather shop flea markets and thrift stores than boutiques, but I had a great time looking around. By the time we were done, things were shutting down and Mr. W. and I were aching for some downtime. Which we got, with another fruit and cheese tray. The gravitational pull of the king-sized bed was irresistible so we spent the evening in, watching Moneyball and The Help (CdV also has a nice selection of DVDs.)

Sunday morning dawned sunny and clear (note the view from the bed,) and another amazing breakfast awaited us.It was time to pack and take more pictures, to chat with our hosts and promise to send all our friends. (Go!) Then it was off to San Francisco, with one last winery stop at Bennett Lane where a nice man with a bit of a Jersey accent waited on us. Friends, on the third wine I asked, “Is this a cabernet?” because I thought I was tasting merlot, and it turned out that it was a blend including 22% merlot, so maybe I have learned something. After we left, about five miles down the road Mr. W. realized that the man, who had seemed familiar to him, was his cousin’s wife’s sister’s husband, whom he had met at a family reunion in that area two years ago. True story. Sometimes I think we live in a novel because the character list is so small. The rest of the vacation in San Francisco I will save for the next post, except to say that I was driving at this point, Bryan was navigating and the second we entered the outskirts of Oakland, the smartphone Navigation’s blue line jumped and we were on the wrong road. Vindi-freakin’-cation! Sweet.



So Far, in California…


apple crustatta at Brannon'a Grill, Calistoga, CA

San Francisco chewed up our GPS navigation and spit it out, laughing. Why so possessive, San Fran? We’ll be back in a couple of days. We barely made it out of there.

For our first stop we  tasted and purchased some very agreeable wines from the Benziger Winery in Sonoma. Then we made our way to Calistoga where we did some.browsing in the local art, craft and olive oil stores before we checked in at our Bed & Breakfast, the Chateau de Vie. They have their own wine, which is delightful, but even without that, it is handsdown the nicest place I’ve ever stayed. Top notch, people. So far, worth every penny. Our host, Philip, went out of his way to take such good care of us, bringing us a delicious fruit and cheese tray that paired excellently with the wine to tide us over until our dinner reservation layer. The main house and the vineyard-adjacent carriage house (which we are in) are stylish, comfortable and immaculate.

We topped off our day with dinner at Brannon’s Grill where I had Rabbit Ragu on fresh pasta and Mr. W. had sole. The food was very good and the service was amazing, which was all dandy until our waitress brought out the apple crustatta pictured above that absolutely eclipsed everything else.  Even though we were full, we ate every crumb as though we hadn’t eaten a thing all day. At one point I was just muttering, “so good,” over and over with a tear in my eye. I feel so large right now, I don’t even have words to describe it. A good first day.

Confessions of a Wine Newb Headed for Napa

It isn’t that I am new to wine. I have enjoyed reds and whites for years, and certainly did my turn with blush wines in college. I believe my taste in wine has evolved from “easy-drinking” to a…more sophisticated range of flavors and tannins? I am sort of grasping here.  My knowledge and vocabulary haven’t gotten the kind of workout my taste buds have, so they have fallen behind. I like wine, okay? Without a label, I can’t tell a Malbec from a Merlot, and the names of wines I learn while drinking them spill out of my head like water (not wine, wine would leave a stain, and these names do not leave a TRACE.) If I want to tell my husband which wine I liked that we tried, I’ll use landmarks, such as “You know the one; we had it last week with roasted pork, and I finished it off while you were talking to your dad on the phone. It was red.”  My husband, an informed and inquisitive cork dork, can usually figure it out. His brother, a true wine snob, just shakes his head at me. The highest praise I have gotten from HIM (following a five minute tutorial on the flavor profile of one particular wine) was a perplexed, “Well, I’ll give you credit; you stick to your guns. You don’t say you taste chocolate overtones, just because everyone else does.”

I admit I don’t know if I have all the requisite tools to become a connoisseur, but I have a taste for wine, a plane ticket, and some expendable income dedicated to winery visits, and that is a good start for an enjoyable trip to wine country. Mr. Wordtabulous and I will be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary (17 months late) in California. And who knows, maybe while there the switch will flip on and I’ll come back with the lightbulbs in my mental wine vault glowing brightly (but not warmly—mustn’t heat the wine.) We’ll be in Calistoga for a few days, any recommendations for a must-see winery?