California's Napa Valley is famous the world over for its rolling green hills, sun-dappled vineyards, and high-end wines. The Napa lifestyle is a coveted one, featuring exquisite table settings, farm-to-table cuisine, and wine-soaked afternoons.
But as we found on our visit back in May, this carefully cultivated image is not quite accurate. That's because the mornings are wine-soaked, too.
Which might explain why it's taken me almost five months to write this blog post: I'm still recovering.
After a whirlwind weekend with friends in San Jose, we arrived in Napa on a sunny Monday afternoon just in time for lunch, which was exactly how I'd planned it. That's because while some people never forget a face, I never forget a cheeseburger, and there was no way I was going to miss Gott's Roadside a second time.
See, about eight years ago, Angel and I spent a long weekend in San Francisco, and after a fantastic lunch at the famed Slanted Door, we spent the afternoon milling around the Ferry Building, one of this country's biggest and best food markets. Already full to the point of bursting from lunch, I was exercising the kind of willpower usually seen only in monasteries when I spied the holy grail of the Ferry Building: Taylor's Automatic Refresher, an old-school burger joint that is part classic diner and part all-American roadside stand (that has since been appropriately renamed Gott's Roadside). I knew that even if I resorted to what my sister calls my spare "cow stomach," I wouldn't be able to force down a cheeseburger after the multicourse lunch we'd just had. And so I stared longingly through the window as flames licked at the juicy burgers and tears rolled down my face and I vowed to return and stuff myself silly someday.
"Someday" had finally arrived. I mean, just look at it.
The burgers at Gott's are served on buttered egg buns, and both patty and bun are grilled to order, then assembled and stuffed into a small paper sack to keep all its juicy goodness intact. (Personally, I could do without the paper sack, since I got so excited when I saw this burger that I almost ate it, too.)
Gott's serves other stuff, too, of course -- thick, old-fashioned milkshakes and their famous ahi-tuna tacos, among other things -- but all of those will have to wait until I get tired of their cheeseburgers, which is likely to occur right around the time that I get tired of living.
After lunch we headed next door to the Oxbow Public Market, because if you think a cheeseburger and some fries is going to cut it for lunch, then five months really is too long to go between blog posts.
A 40,000-square-foot ode to all things edible, Oxbow features local food vendors, artisan cafes, an organic produce market, and of course wine. Who needs coffee and donuts when this place is serving up pizza and red wine at 7:30 in the morning?
I made a beeline for the Olive Press, where I loaded up my arms with olive-and-fig scented soap, artichoke-and-lemon tapenade, and as many of those little specialty vinegars (coconut! fig! black cherry!) as I could hold without stuffing them down my bra.
Oxbow houses everything from a small-batch distillery to an oyster bar to a VPN Certified Pizzeria Napoletana, and sells everything from steaks to spices to rock candy.
Don't get too excited, though. This is still California, after all.
In a textbook case of "the grass is always greener," the Wine of the Month in the Napa Wine Club is a white wine . . . from the North Fork of Long Island. Angel and I thoroughly enjoy Long Island wines, but let's not get crazy here. Offering a Napan? Napa-ite? Napette? a Long Island wine is like offering an Italian some canned Spaghetti-O's.
Soon it was time for a drink, and the handcrafted Lidia cocktail at Ca' Momi, featuring their own Ca' Secco Frizzante, or sparkling wine, caught my eye.
And it matched my necklace -- a win-win.
Afterwards, we took one more pass around the market to ensure that we'd sniffed, scarfed, and swilled everything on offer.
Satisfied that we had, we then headed north to the town of St. Helena to check in at our hotel, the Wine Country Inn.
A cross between an upscale inn and a homey B&B, I chose the Wine Country Inn because many of its rooms feature private patios for enjoying a sunset (or, as we were to find out, sunrise) glass of wine.
However, the real draw at the WCI turned out to be - surprise! - the food.
Accustomed to B&Bs where the owner doubles as the resident egg-flipper in the mornings, we were thrilled to find that the WCI employs an actual chef for both its fantastic breakfasts and for its over-the-top afternoon "social hour," featuring generous tastings from neighboring wineries and finger foods ranging from crostini with bacon-Pt. Reyes blue cheese spread, sliced pears, and house-made candied pecans to garlicky clam dip to cilantro-pepita pesto.
That evening at WCI we enjoyed a Champagne tasting from nearby Charles Krug and a platter full of snacks, which I find is the best way to prepare for dinner.
Later we made the short drive north to Calistoga for dinner at Solbar, at the elegant Solage Resort.
The chef at Solbar, Brandon Sharp, has a decent resume -- he was Sous Chef at the five-star Gary Danko in San Francisco, Chef de Cuisine at the acclaimed restaurant August in New Orleans, and Chef de Partie alongside Thomas Keller at what is arguably the best restaurant in the country, the French Laundry -- so we figured we'd be in good hands.
Angel started with the chilled ginger carrot soup with avocado, radish, and spearmint, while I went whole hog (heh-heh) with the Sonoma pork belly, which was served with sticky rice, pickled shiitakes, chili-lemongrass sauce, and a broccoli-stem salad.
That's right, broccoli stems. Also known as the banana peels of the vegetable world. A great chef really can get you to eat anything.
For our entrees, I went with the decidedly tropical-sounding lemongrass-poached petrale sole with jasmine rice, hearts of palm, coconut milk, charred green onions, pea shoots, and lime, while Angel took the waiter's advice and ordered the one thing that you should never order in a gourmet restaurant: A boneless chicken breast. As anyone who's ever been to a banquet, a wedding, or a dinner at my house knows, coaxing flavor out of an essentially flavorless chicken breast is a damn near impossible feat. But Chef Sharp not only served up a tender, juicy, succulent piece of chicken, he wisely paired it with chicken boudin, a rich, decadent pâté-like sausage made from chicken meat, skins, and livers. If this guy can make broccoli stems enticing, you can just imagine what he can do with the fattiest parts of a chicken.
The next morning we wandered upstairs around 9:30 to check out Wine Country Inn's breakfast. The place was empty, despite the chef whipping up daybreak delights like crustless artichoke quiche made from 10 eggs and six cups of cheese, which is a ratio roughly akin to serving an Egg McMuffin with 42 slices of cheese on top.
That's when we realized that, although we had somewhat sheepishly scheduled a few of our winery visits to start at 11:00 a.m., we had nothing on the lushes staying at the Wine Country Inn, who were already three sheets to the wind well before 10:00. I was starting to understand why breakfast at WCI starts at the ungodly hour of 7:30 a.m.: Your stomach's going to need a base coat if you plan to start drinking before most people have even hit the snooze button.
One of the things we liked best about the Wine Country Inn was its location, tucked away on a side road and nestled in the vineyards between two of our favorite wineries, Duckhorn and Freemark Abbey. Freemark Abbey happens to be our go-to Cabernet at one of our favorite steakhouses in New York, so it was a no-brainer that we'd start at one of our neighbors and work our way further afield.
Freemark is one of the oldest wineries in the Napa Valley, tracing its roots to 1886, when Josephine Tychson, one of the first female winegrowers on record, established the original winery on the land where Freemark Abbey still stands today. The building's exterior boasts the original stone, while the interior is warm with sepia-toned wood.
We had booked the Cabernet Comparison tasting, which is an in-depth tasting of Freemark's single-vineyard cabernet releases from the historic Bosche and Sycamore Vineyards on the Rutherford Bench.
We were guided through the tasting by the lovely Diane, whose electric-blue nails and winning personality added some levity to the very serious business of getting drunk on red wine well before noon.
Finally it actually was noon, and that meant lunch. After our visit to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York two years ago, we were beyond excited for our reservations at the CIA at Greystone in Napa Valley.
We started with a warm kale Caesar salad that came wrapped in its own little crouton, and the mussels with fennel sausage and caramelized onion broth.
For our entrees, Angel chose the 5 Dot Ranch skirt steak flatbread with smoked cheese curd and chimichurri, while I carbed out with the mushroom and Sky Hill goat cheese raviolo with sautéed spinach.
Oh, and an iced tea with a thoughtful little beaker of simple syrup on the side.
After lunch, we made our first attempt at getting off the beaten path, with a visit to Gargiulo Vineyards.
I don't know about you, but driving in an unfamiliar area has become my and Angel's very own version of "The Real Housewives": We yell at each other, we dramatically roll our eyes at each other, and, if Angel had hair, I'd probably pull his weave out. It all started about a dozen years ago, when GPS devices first became popular. Angel jumped on the bandwagon and bought a TomTom device for our car. We'd almost never argued over directions before that, but Angel's blind faith in that GPS -- even when it directed us to go the wrong way down a one-way street, or to make a U-turn in the middle of a 6-lane highway -- drove me insane.
Indeed, words cannot begin to convey how much I hated that TomTom, but this photo of what Angel gave me a few years ago for Valentine's Day probably can.
Although that TomTom met the violent end it so richly deserved, it was unfortunately replaced by yet another circle of hell: Google Maps on the iPhone. About ten years ago we spent two weeks in Italy, roaming the Tuscan countryside in a rented car. I cannot remember getting lost a single time, even though we had nothing more to go on than some hand-written directions I’d gleaned from travel forums and a bunch of road signs written in a language that neither of us understands.
On this trip, we spent five days in Napa, roaming the countryside in a rented car with Google Maps. I won’t bore you with the details of how many times we got lost thanks to one of us being convinced of Google Maps' omnipotence, but suffice it to say that things aren’t going well when the other one of us starts referring to the disembodied Google Maps voice as “that dumb-ass girlfriend of yours.”
And so, after lunch, we climbed back into the car, plugged in the directions, muted She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and made the short drive over to Gargiulo, an exclusive family winery tucked away on Oakville Cross Road (read: you can barely find this place without Google Maps, let alone with it.)
Have you seen those Dos Equis commercials featuring The Most Interesting Man in the World? He's played by an actor, of course, but that's because the real Most Interesting Man in the World is busy making wine. That would be Jeff Gargiulo, who started his career as a tomato-picker in Naples, Florida; parlayed that gig into owning one of the largest tomato growing companies in the world; sold the company and became the CEO of Sunkist for a number of years; started a music producing company with some partners in Nashville; and finally, at the point when most of us would have dropped dead from exhaustion, bought a vineyard in Napa and started making world-class wines.
Which is kind of funny when you consider that his real talent is in interior design.
The vineyards at Gargiulo, Money Road Ranch and 575 ovx, are spread across a two-mile-wide swath that extends to 600 feet in elevation up the Vaca Mountains to the east and the Mayacamas Mountains to the west. Screaming Eagle, whose wines regularly sell for close to $2,000 a bottle, is their next-door neighbor, and the two share the same soil.
After a cellar and vineyard tour with Garrett, we settled in with some snacks and, of course, a tasting of Gargiulo's incredible wines.
That evening we took in St. Helena's charming downtown area, shopping and eating and plotting our next day's adventure.
As much as we enjoyed our visit to Gargiulo, I was even more excited about the following day. That's because we were headed to Chappellet Winery, which sent us a map, some written directions, and the following message: "Please bring these directions with you, as GPS devices cannot locate us." Finally! Written proof that GPS devices are useless! And so we set off with some good old-fashioned printed directions, which seamlessly directed us up twisty Sage Canyon Road to the tippy-top of Pritchard Hill.
The winery building at Chappellet is stunning -- a pyramid of gleaming wood and glass woven seamlessly into the surrounding woods.
We were greeted by Dominic Chappellet, one of six siblings involved in running the winery with their parents, Donn and Molly Chappellet, who founded the winery in 1967.
After a tour of the storage facilities and tasting rooms, Dominic led us out back to Chappellet's bottling facility, where we had the good fortune to be there on bottling day.
As the yet-to-be corked, not-yet-labeled bottles chugged by on the conveyor belt, Dominic swiped one from the belt and asked if we'd like to try it.
That's like asking Angel if he'd like to throw out the first pitch at a Yankees game. During the World Series.
Soon it was lunchtime, and we had reservations at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch.
However, we'd had such an enjoyable morning that we were already running a bit late when we left Chappellet, and we knew we'd have to eat light if we were going to make our afternoon plans.
So we had a couple of clearly intriguing cocktails, then split a cheeseburger with home fries, an order of wood-roasted asparagus topped with lemon ricotta, and a skillet full of cheddar biscuits with honey butter.
The aforementioned afternoon plans involved shooting over to Sonoma to have a glass of wine with someone I knew only by his online screen name, Manpot, which refers to a Caribbean concoction also known as the "Altoid of Aphrodisiacs."
You know me: If I'm not hitching a ride on a golf cart with a couple of suspected sex traffickers, I'm getting drunk with an amorous stranger I met on the Internet.
Click here for Part 2 to find out if your mother was right about meeting strangers online!