Back in Sonoma, I'd just run off with a man I met on the Internet. Which isn't nearly as salacious as it sounds, unfortunately, since our spouses were there, too.
Malcolm, known around the British Virgin Islands as "Manpot," is a veteran entertainment reporter who's interviewed everyone from Cher to Clint Eastwood and now spends his time lounging on the beach in Tortola, sipping wine in Sonoma, and offering to show random travel bloggers a truly local experience when they happen to be in town. Did I mention that he's also the guy who coined the catchphrase, "Champagne wishes and caviar dreams," Robin Leach's classic sign-off on the 1980s television staple "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"? I would expect nothing less.
Manpot and his lovely wife Candace were already waiting for us on the porch of the Swiss Hotel in Sonoma's historic town square when we arrived.
And because I was not already jealous enough of his island-hopping, wine-swilling lifestyle, Manpot just had to arrive in this.
Manpot wanted to show us where the locals hang in Sonoma, so after a round of drinks at the Swiss Hotel, we set off. Our curiosity was piqued as we drove through town and then a residential neighborhood of charming bungalows. Were we headed to a winery? A local bar? A favorite restaurant? Manpot's house? We had no idea, so you can imagine my surprise when we pulled up in front of this.
That's right: A deli.
But not just any deli.
Sonoma's Best is a deli, cheese shop, coffee shop, gift shop, and wine bar, all of which is run by Tom Jenkins, a man of quick wit, bone-dry humor, and great taste in wine. Which he proceeded to pour down our throats at a rate of approximately 1 glass every 15 minutes, or so it seemed when I finally made the mistake of trying to stand up.
Tucked away behind Sonoma's Best is a sweet garden, along with a handful of adorable cottages for rent. I'd love to stay in one of these someday, but with Tom behind the bar, you might as well just book a room over at the Betty Ford instead.
Back at the bar, the wine and conversation continued to flow freely, until Manpot and his wife had the good sense to call it an afternoon. Well, either that or they just slid off their barstools and I was too loopy to notice.
Which explains how Angel and I ended up at a pizza joint for dinner . . . which would normally be the equivalent of eating dinner at a McDonald's in Paris.
But this is Napa Valley, where even the pizza is artisinal. And so Oenotri, in downtown Napa, turns out authentic pizza Napoletana from a wood-fueled Acino oven imported from Naples, the pie's crust perfectly blistered and topped with local, seasonal ingredients.
The next morning, we were at it again. By 9 a.m., it was time to shake off the previous night's excess with some hair of the dog.
And so we headed over to the Cult Wine Tasting Room at the Napa Wine Co., which showcases a number of small, lesser-known "cult" producers, such as Crocker & Starr, Ghost Block, and Eponymous.
We loaded up the car with our latest finds, and then, because we hadn't had an argument in almost 24 hours, we used Google Maps to make our way to our next stop.
By then it had began to cloud up, conveniently just in time for our lunch at Auberge du Soleil. So much for the "soleil" part.
But with a view this spectacular, do you really need to rub it in with sunshine?
After much deliberation over the Auberge's mouthwatering menu, I started with the asparagus soup with dungeness crab, lemon, and creme fraiche, while Angel tried the gnocchi with pea shoots and parmesan.
Then it was on to the English pea risotto with gulf shrimp, bacon, mint, and yuzu emulsion for me, and the mushroom mille feuille with slow-cooked egg, snap peas, and watercress puree for Angel. All of which was enough to turn even a committed meat-eater like me vegetarian for an afternoon . . . with a non-negotiable exception for the bacon, of course.
After lunch we retired to the garden, which is Napa-speak for "I'm gonna need some more wine to help digest all this food."
That afternoon we were scheduled for a private barrel tasting at nearby Cosentino Winery. We'd driven by the gorgeous, ivy-covered building earlier in the week, only to be greeted by this on the day I planned to photograph it.
But, as we all know, it's what's inside that counts. Especially when what's inside is wine.
After checking in at reception, we were led into the cavernous barrel room, which had been lit with dozens of shimmering votive candles just for us, giving the room an ethereal, romantic glow.
As is customary in Napa, we started with a white wine to "warm up" our palates, followed by a succession of Cosentino's best reds, all taken directly from the barrel -- including one that our tasting guide, Erin, confided had never been un-bunged, making us the very first people to ever taste that particular wine.
Erin expertly guided us through the tasting, which began with some perfectly-paired nibbles and ended with us adding yet a few more bottles to the refrigerator-sized box we were planning to ship home.
Along with a bunch of stuff from the extensive gift shop.
For our last evening in Napa, we decided on dinner at Bottega in Yountville, which is owned by chef Michael Chiarello.
If you've ever seen this paragon of pomposity on Top Chef, Iron Chef, or some other torture device where you get to watch people cook but don't actually get to eat, then you know that his attitude is enough to put you off spending even one hard-earned dollar at one of his establishments. But it was hard to ignore the overwhelmingly positive reviews of Bottega, and luckily we have no integrity whatsoever. And so we booked a table, hoping to be pleasantly surprised.
We were more than pleasantly surprised. We were, frankly, blown away. That jerk.
The sprawling space is still somehow cozy and warm, with a fireplace and string lights outside, and warm amber tiles and dimmed chandeliers inside.
We lucked out with a table near the bustling open kitchen.
We started with two glasses of the Joseph Phelps pinot noir, which cemented our view that Napa should stick to what it knows, which is making excellent cabs and being envious of Sonoma's superior pinot noirs.
First came the bread, soft and chewy and served with an addictive dipping sauce made with olive oil, parmesan, and Asiago cheese.
When it came time to order, I went with the "polenta under glass," the recipe for which contains no fewer than 25 ingredients, all of which are expertly combined and then served an adorable little Mason jar topped with caramelized mushrooms, parmesan cheese, and a rich balsamic game sauce.
Angel decided on the shaved Brussels sprouts salad with Meyer lemon dressing, Marcona almonds, sieved egg (which slivers it up just so), and Pecorino. You know a salad is not just good, but great, when it can distract you from licking the bottom of a Mason jar.
Next up, it was the tagliarini with veal, pork, rosemary, and porcini mushroom sugo for me, and the waiter-recommended Pollo alla Diavola for Angel, which was roasted under a brick with Shishito peppers, cipollini onions, and cherry tomatoes.
That chicken has the distinction of being one of the best dishes either of us has ever had, anywhere. Damn that Michael Chiarello and his well-earned arrogance!
Indeed, everything was so fantastic that we had no choice but to order dessert, a delightfully tart grapefruit sorbet.
On our last day in Napa, our friends Ellen and Brian decided to drive up from San Jose to spend the day with us before the four of us returned to San Jose to finish out the weekend. We planned to meet at Round Pond Estate, which produces its own wines, olive oils, vinegars, and citrus syrups from its expansive vineyards, olive groves, and fruit orchards.
Unfortunately, however, the universe had other plans.
Ellen and Brian showed up late due to a work meeting that ran long, and Angel and I showed up even later, due to the fact that every. single. road. between the Wine Country Inn and Round Pond was closed.
Having been re-routed at least half a dozen times by that disembodied bimbo at Google Maps, we finally skidded into Round Pond, grabbed a glass of rosé at the bar (priorities!), and made haste to catch up with the tour, which began in Round Pond's garden.
There, we sampled everything from wild thyme and fennel to marjoram and kale. But our favorite were the delicate little alpine strawberries, which you likely have never tried unless you grow them yourself. That's because, our guide explained, they cannot be shipped since they tend to go bad within an hour or so of being picked.
Of course, it wouldn't be a vacation without some chickens.
Next, it was on to the wine cellars, which house Round Pond's extensive selection of cabernets.
Then it was up to the terrace for our "Il Pranzo" tastings and lunch.
We began with a tasting of Round Pound's two red wine vinegars, the first a traditional cabernet-merlot blend, and the second a more unique blend of sangiovese, nebbiolo, and petite verdot. Vinegars should never be tasted on their own, we learned, since the brain tends to reject bitter tastes by default (probably because many toxic plants taste bitter). Instead, soaking a sugar cube in vinegar, and then sucking on it masks the bitterness while simultaneously promoting the vinegar's other flavors.
Then we moved on to the estate's olive oils, which were rich and fruity.
All that sipping and sniffing had been fun, but thankfully it was soon time to stop messing around and get to the food. The lunch was a locavore's dream, with exquisite fruits, vegetables, and greens freshly harvested from Round Pond's gardens, along with local cheeses, meats, and of course Round Pond's wines.
All topped off with an olive oil cake -- using Round Pond's own olive oil, of course -- with fresh cream and berries.
As much as we hated to eat and run, I'd booked us for one last wine tasting, this one at Silverado Vineyards in Napa's Stags Leap district.
The wines were just okay, but we certainly couldn't fault the setting or the view.
Which just goes to show you: When the road ends in wine, and good friends to share it with, the journey is worth it -- no thanks to that #$%@* Goggle Maps, of course.
What's up next? A filching in Key West, a food festival in lower Manhattan, a freebie in East Hampton, fall foliage in the Hudson Valley, and faux pas galore in Paris. Check back soon!