Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Calistoga; Napa & Sonoma Valleys

We were happy to return to Napa Valley, with its rolling hills, endless rows of grape vines, and luxurious wineries. Even happier that our friend Sharon was camped there, and we'd get to spend a few days visiting and enjoying the bounty of the valley together.

We made camp at the Napa Valley Fairgrounds in the little town of Calistoga, nestled in the north end of Napa Valley. Although it was parking lot camping, it was good enough, and convenient to town, wineries, trails, and Sharon.

We got together for a dog walk and dinner at the elegant new Silver Snail, got caught up, and heard all about the resident mountain lion at large in the woods behind her camp! Exciting, in a I-feel-like-prey kind of way...

Chateau Escargot:

That tawny beast in front of the Silver Snail isn't the mountain lion, that's the ever exuberant Harley dog.

In the cool of the morning, while walking Toby, I heard the blast of burning gasses, and looked up to see a hot air balloon drifting overhead.

I found that there was a trail very near the campground - just a couple of blocks to the trailhead. The Oat Hill Mine Road was constant climbing for as far as I followed it in (4.5 miles), but it wasn't tortuous, boring road climbing, it was varied terrain, not too steep a grade, alternating through trees and meadows, and offering great views down the valley:

The way back down was a blast as always, and I veered off onto a narrow singletrack that I'd spied on the way up. This, as it turned out, made the ride a whole lot more interesting, as this trail was at times not more than 6" wide, clinging precariously to the steeply sloped hillside. It required intense concentration to keep the bike on trail, with potentially painful consequences for failure to do so. It was like riding a dirt-covered curb downhill for miles. I had to put a foot down a few times, but no falls, and good fun.

In the afternoon Nancy and I went to the mill where Sharon works on weekends, a working water-driven stone grist mill. Sharon hooked us up on the next tour, during which Jim the Miller gave us a very interesting and thorough explanation and demonstration of the grain mill. That evening over dinner at The Whale we planned to visit some wineries.

After getting some work done in the morning, we headed out after noon, picked up Sharon, and went to our first stop: Chateau Montelena. If this winery sounds familiar its because it was one of the two Napa vineyards who's products won top honors for their 1973 Chardonnay in a 1976 blind tasting in France, against the best wines of France. (The other was Stag's Leap for their cabernet sauvignon) We'd heard of this when we watched the excellent film adaptation of this story: Bottle Shock. We subsequently wanted to visit this historic winery because its success changed Napa Valley and helped catapult it into the wine mecca that it is today.

We found Chateau Montelena to have lovely grounds, the stately stone house overlooking a bucolic pond, chinese gardens, and it's vineyards.

The wines were very good, but also very expensive ($50 - $150/bottle), so we enjoyed our tastings and left empty handed.

From there we went down the valley a ways to the enormous Robert Mondavi estate. There we took a tour of the winery from a friendly young Californian lady ("Fer Sure!") We learned more California wine history, about soil types, grape vine horticulture, picking, pressing, fermenting, casking and bottling. And yes, we sampled a few of their products - the estate grown bottles that are not widely distributed.

The next day (Happy Birthday Sharon!) we packed a picnic lunch and drove over the mountains to adjacent Sonoma Valley. Our first stop was at Kenwood, because Sharon had served a chardonnay of their at dinner the 1st night and we really liked it. Leaving there we drove south to the charming little town of Glen Ellen, to Benzinger, where they use Biodynamic, organic and sustainable farming methods. Sounds good, right? Turns out harsh chemicals and fertilizers make tastier wine! No, I'm sure it's just my poor we proceeded down to the town of Sonoma to visit Gundlach Bundschu, which we all liked much more. It was a fun afternoon of wine immersion, and we were all in need of a caffeinated beverage to shake off the cobwebs. We went to the center of town to find a cafe, and found that, plus a large crowd gathered for the weekly farmer's market:

We joined the throngs, browsed around, grabbed some fresh produce and food-truck grub. It was a long, fun day, ending with a grilled salmon dinner at the Snail, and goodbye for now.

It was great to see Sharon again, and spend some more time in beautiful Napa and Sonoma valleys.

And I'll leave you, for the time being, with this photo of a large and indignant crawfish I found stalking around near the pond at Chateau Montelena. He brandished his claws menacingly at my lens, and reminded me of President Nixon "I am not a crook!" (I am a crawfish!)

Yeah, he's lucky he wasn't there with 100 of his friends or he'd have part of my large and indignant lunch!

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