Napa, California – Day 2
Not a trick question, but…what do you get when you put seven strangers, a stretch limo, fine champagne and wine tasting at amazing boutique wineries together for an entire day? Answer: the perfect Napa experience. That plus a booming headache followed immediately by a late afternoon nap! Ok, so not completely perfect but it was worth it….
In the past, I have done several wine tours in big vans with lots of people. This time I finally found the magic formula. I booked a tour with Beau Wine Tours and landed in a very nice limo with only six other people in the group. Dave, our driver, picked me up at my friends’ home promptly at 9:40 am. Two of my fellow wine lovers were already in the black limo – Nicole and Shana. Both are 24, but look a heck of a lot younger. Actually, that statement is more about my age than theirs! Nicole just moved to Napa and works at Rubicon Estates Winery. Shana is a nutritionist in New York, and is in town visiting Nicole – her best friend from college. Our next stop was a lovely, small inn in Rutherford where we greeted Barbara and Joe, from Cincinnati. They are recently retired, proud grandparents and avid travelers, and Joe (a former teacher) quickly earned the nickname “Teach” from the group. Our last couple to join the group had the good sense to stay at Meadowood, one of Napa’s finest resorts – Margie and Jeremy hailed from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Cute couple. She is from Peru, he from New York. They met at work and still work in the same business – together. Once the group was in place, Dave opened the first of many bottles for the day – a fine champagne that was immediately consumed by our obviously very thirsty group! Needless to say, this set the tone for the rest of the trip! What I really liked about Beau Tours was their flexibility and personally-designed itinerary. Last night we all received calls from Dave, inquiring about what kind of wines we liked, where we had been and would like to go. Based on all of our input, he planned our wineries for the day. And they were all perfect.
Our first stop was Ballentine Vineyards. Beautiful, new tasting room and a picturesque setting. As this was the first of our four stops, we were all quite well-behaved and polite. We all tried several wines – I have yet to find a Chardonnay I like in this world, but have promised myself to try what is poured and to keep an open mind. At Ballentine I much preferred their ‘07 Block 9 Zinfandel. Very yummy, 91 points and a great after-taste. After our tasting we had the chance to walk through the vines, try some of the grapes and take photos. The grapes, I learned, are going to be harvested late this year, due to a lack of warmth in the valley and winemakers are hoping to hold off any rain and cold until they can harvest this beautiful fruit.
I have always had quite a love affair with Napa, especially the sheer romance and beauty of the setting. I love the many stunning homes and wineries set amid gorgeous vineyards, which trail up the hills and throughout the valley floor. Olive trees and trees reminiscent of Italian landscapes abound, and I can’t help but catch my breath at many of these sights as I ride down St. Helena Highway. So the second stop on my tour became an instant favorite the moment I saw it. Ehlers Estate, Dave explained, was one of the “ghost wineries” during prohibition. Many wineries shut down during this puritanical period in our history, some stayed operating in secret – thus “ghost wineries” kept the grape alive. Ehlers was one of these. Originally founded in 1886, this winery has since been renovated and is the perfect picture of what I think of when I dream of a special place tucked away amid vines and mountains and trees. The stone buildings house their tasting room as well as the barrel room, which is really now modern stainless steel vats. And just outside, under a grove of olive trees with lights threaded amongst the branches, is a long table for al fresco dining. A fountain and fireplace add to the ambiance – the view is of lush vineyards and mountains and stone gates leading to other neighbor wineries. You feel like you have been transported to another world, another time. It is both peaceful and exciting at the same time, to be in this place. This is the place I would love to celebrate a special event, with my closest friends in the world. Drinking fine Napa wine under a starry night, sharing fellowship and love over food and wine that compliment each other as well as the people who are blessed to enjoy it.
The icing on the cake at Ehlers was the fact that their wines not only matched the ambiance, but actually exceeded my expectations. My particular favorite was the ‘06 Cabernet Sauvignon (1886). While I confess to loving most Cabs, there are some that go to the next level and this is one of them. I like Cabs that are smooth, that are both pleasant to the nose as well as the palate after the first taste. This one was both smooth and pleasant, evoking a feeling of comfort and warmth in my core. Ohh, if only I could have this wine, great food and my favorite people with me outside under those olive trees in this special place, I would be happy to leave this world in complete bliss! I hate to confess that I am only a few years shy of a BIG birthday, but if I can hit that mark here in such a special place, I would move mountains to make it happen. I think it is safe to say, I am impressed.
Now, the first and biggest mistake made by our group was opting to have lunch at the third stop rather than the second! We were definitely in need of food! By this time, we had not only had multiple tastings at two fabulous wineries, but enjoyed the nice, cold champagne in the limo in between stops as well. Frank Family Vineyards, another picturesque and quaint winery was our next stop. We walked in quite happy, as you can imagine. The polite reserve we had at Ballentine had now been replaced with a level of comfort usually reserved for friends and family who have known each other for decades! Amazing what some wine and a limo can do to bring complete strangers together! Our tasting still did not produce a Chardonnay I liked, but their Sangiovese was out of this world! After a generous pour of this wonderful wine, we gathered outside at the picnic tables for a lunch we should have had before all this good wine. The sandwiches and salad were delicious, but not enough in my opinion for the amount of wine we were drinking. But once again, the view was outstanding – surreal – and the company delightful. We climbed back in the limo for the jaunt to our final winery, now best friends for life….
Our final stop, ZD, was a beautiful, serene place. Trust me when I say I can’t decipher my notes from this stop – and I was the least affected by the good grapes at that point! Once more, a Chardonnay attempt with no luck, but their ‘08 40th Anniversary Pinot Noir Carneros was perfect. They also poured an ‘07 Cabernet Verdot that was outstanding. Lots of laughter, pictures and final exchanges of addresses was in order before we climbed back in the limo for our rides home.
I arrived back at Kent and Chris’ ready to write this entry, but instead found myself comfortably asleep on my bed almost as soon as my computer booted up. I am not a napper, at all, but on this perfectly delightful day, with the influence of some of Napa’s best wines in my soul – sleep found me and my siesta was much needed and refreshing. I woke up, cleaned up and ventured out to ZuZu, a small tapas restaurant in Napa. One of the sommeliers from ZD had recommended it to me and to my surprise he was there at the bar when I arrived. Ryan is not only knowledgeable about wine, but has attended culinary school as well. We shared tapas, wine, conversation and I enjoyed listening and learning about wine pairings, food secrets and his story about what brought him to Napa and his passion for wine and food. I left the restaurant, tired but happy and content and very ready for sleep.
As I finish this entry I ask myself what this day brought to my life and to my experience. I realize now how much I enjoy traveling alone. It provides the opportunity to meet new people, to make new friends and to move at my own pace, on my own agenda. When you are solo, you can either blend into the background and allow new people and experiences to pass you by—-or you can embrace it all, and learn so much by simply being open to what the experience brings you. I was blessed today, to meet people from different backgrounds and parts of the country. I learned something from each of them and enjoyed their company and friendship. Each time I get to meet new people, I am changed I think for the better, for I have learned something new about the world through their eyes, and I have a shared experience with them that no one can ever take away.
Tomorrow, I am to meet Nicole and Shana at Nicole’s winery, Rubicon Estates. Then Sacramento and to my beautiful grandmother, which I believe will prove to be the heart and soul of this trip of mine….
I fall asleep on a prayer of thanks to be afforded the opportunity to meet new friends, see old friends and continue to grow in my knowledge and awe of the world I live in…