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Sonoma and Napa Valleys

The last leg of our California road trip was wine country north of San Francisco—Sonoma and Napa Valleys. This was Cherie's favorite part of the trip—you're shocked, aren't you?

Our favorite winery, Merryvale, in Napa Valley invites tasters to its barrel room

Sonoma Valley
Our first stop north of San Francisco is the town of Sonoma, at the southern end of Sonoma Valley. Since it's the 4th of July, the idyllic town square and main street are closed off for a parade and town barbeque. How quaint, but a pain in the keester trying to find our way around when the wineries are dotted around the town. As I mentioned with the Santa Ynez wineries, we navigate from maps out of magazines that don't exactly show road names, so we're on a scavenger hunt. Lucky for us, we found 21 wineries in 3 days :-)

First winery is Sebastiani, and we stopped there because our first taste of their wine was last year in Bisbee when we went with the neighbors to watch one of the presidential debates at a Bisbee pub. Surprisingly, the wine tasted better in Bisbee, leading to the first rule in wine tasting: Much of the enjoyment of a wine comes from the company you keep and the occasion you celebrate.
The Italian wine steward served Cherie an array of his wines. The photographer, well, if he was this dizzy at the first winery, imagine how good he was feeling by the last one! Most of the wineries also sell a wide variety of merchandise, above, from table settings to glasses, to picnic supplies, to, well, wine accessories.

All roads lead to ... wineries
The 2-lane country highway running through Sonoma valley is pretty, the backroads are hilly and lead to acres of vineyards and small wineries. This AAA winery map was our guide to the Sonoma wineries

A word on the wine labels below. Some of them have links to the tasting menus we used at the associated winery. Move you mouse over the label, and if a hand appears, click on the label to see the wine offering at that winery.

Though most labels are attractive, one winery, in the bottom right corner of the map, Gundlach Bundschu, has an outstanding series of labels. Unfortunately we didn't know about them in advance, so didn't stop at this winery, but we'll definitely stop there next time through. To see some samples of their label art, follow this link to the Gundlach Bundschu label page.

Our server, right, was a blast. I wanted to take her home, but didn't think Cherie would much like the idea. As we talked about housing prices in Sonoma, her family in Michigan (they own the Doll Hopsital and Toy Soldier Shop near Royal Oak), and life as a server, she kept reaching back for the premium bottles so we could taste the good stuff. My kind of gal.

My friend Mark said I should compile a list of "Best Of" wines and wineries from our tour. Unfortunately,
(1) I didn't take notes and can't remember, and (2) they were all so good, it would be impossible to judge — kind of like "who's the prettiest model in the Victoria Secret catalog?"

Nevertheless, there were some standouts:

Best overall winery: Merryvale. Best wines, best servers, great atmosphere
Best wine server: Ravenswood. She was the friendliest, fun-est, and most generous server we had.
Best scenery: In Sonoma, Benziger (farm-like) and Chateau St. Jean (regal). In Napa, Beringer winery felt European.
Best buzz: Franciscan. Wines delicious, and Cherie had to sit down on a park bench for an hour to regain her sea legs.
Best party: Rutherford Hill. Had a rockin' time with both the servers and the patrons.

So much for the best of's.

The biggest surprise: Smelling the wines. If the quintessential advice in life is "stop and smell the roses," the best advice I picked up from this trip was to stop and smell the bouquet—the wine bouquet that is. A fine wine can be every bit as much an olfactory ecstacy as an eipicurian one. If you've got a good glass in your hand, stop, swirl, and smell.

A family winery with a farm feel to it. Had a nice horticulural / vinticultural garden that explained the stages of growing grapes. Bought some cheese and had a relaxing wine & cheese brunch on their back porch. The country road to get there and back was a pleasure to drive.
Click on label for tasting sheet

Chateau St. Jean

A long, elegant approach to the winery is the first indication of the Chateau's sophistication. A walk through gardens to the tasting room sets the stage for an elegant tasting experience. We had lunch on the patio and shared a table with a couple of old brothers — one who lived locally, and the other from Phoenix. Talked about Matt, about serving in the Army, about the pleasures of wine drinking, and got an invitation to stop in and see the Phoenix brother on our way home from California. Didn't do so, but was honored to get the invite. Good wines can lead to good friends.

We first tasted Blackstone wine at the Del Mar racetrack, when we were living in San Diego. The name caught my attention because my father took a black and white posed photograph of Blackstone, the Magician, in the 1930s or 1940s. The wine's not great, nor bad, but the "winery" was just a retail outlet plunked down in an area of truly fine wineries. So if you're in the neighborhood, keep driving—this doesn't rate a stop.

St. Francis
Looked great from the outside, but the doors were locked before their posted closing time, probably because it was the 4th of July. Drats. So we just walked the grounds a bit to take in the views of the very picturesque winery.

Napa Valley

After the St. Francis winery, we drove to the end of the Sonoma Highway up to Hwy 101 and turned east on the winding Petrified Forest Road to cross the mountains separating the Sonoma and Napa Valleys. The road dropped us of in Calistoga, and we headed south along the two-lane St. Helena Highway to get our first taste of Napa wines. Vineyards stretched out for miles on either side of the road, with turnoff to the wineries fed by the grapes growing in the valley and on the mountain sides

Clos Pegase

Okay, our timing is getting worse by the hour. The Sterling Vineyards winery, which offers a cable car ride up the mountain to the winery, was closed, and the Clos Pegase winery closed early for the holiday. So again, we got out of the car, stretched our legs, marveled at the rows upon rows of grapes, and got back into the car to find our room for the night.

Our Vineyard Home
When we stepped into the elevator in the hotel we stayed at in San Francisco we saw a picture of their sister hotel in Napa Valley—the Vineyard Country Inn. It was just as beautiful as the picture.

Our suite had a fireplace, a bottle of local Napa Valley wine and glasses, bath robes, a soft bed, and a patio facing the neighboring vineyard, with views of the mountain in the background
If you go to Napa Valley, we highly recommend the Vineyard Country Inn. It is just south of St. Helena, the epicenter of Napa Valley wineries, and is surrounded by vineyards, has a nice pool and spa, and its old wine country atmosphere puts you at peace the moment you enter. But be prepared to shell out a few bucks for the pleasure
In the evenings we sat on the patio and watched the sun set over the mountains to the west...

...and in the mornings we had breakfast in their country kitchen, overlooking the dewy grapevines.

Our favorite winery

Their barrel room dining area

The production area

The tasting room
Our wine server grows Meyer lemons in his backyard, and he squeezed one for us in a specialty drink he makes with the Antigua desert wine and crushed ice. The Meyer lemon is a cross between a lemon and orange, and the flavor of this drink was pure heaven. Click on the label at right to see the Merryvale tasting sheet


The estate home is decorated in period furniture and offers an array of Beringer wines to taste
Beringer is a large estate with immaculate gardens, outbuildings, and the tasting room in the former Beringer family house, at left.

Click on label for available tours

Where the wines are fine—and potent
This is one of our favorite, heavy, swollen, full bodied, red wines (both Cabernets and Merlots) from Napa Valley. Much as I like their wine, I suggested that Cherie and I split a tasting so we could pace ourselves that day. But noooo, my dear wife insisted she wanted a tasting of her own, so I got the classic flight and she got the reserve, and we sipped from each other's glasses. Yep, swirl and sip we did, and the joy of California's sun and countryside exploded over our tongues, slipped around our palates, and trickled down our throats. Yummy. — Cherie spent the next hour on the bench outside, panting to keep the wine fairies in her tummy while I sobered up to drive to the next stop on our tour. Them Franciscans sure know how to make a great bottle of wine. We bought several.

Robert Mondavi

A landmark in Napa Valley, and home of one of the first great California wines rivaling the French


In 1975, Francis Ford Coppola bought the Inglenook Winery and Estate and began producing wines under his name. The beautiful chateau dates back to the late 1880s, and is open for wine tastings in several of its rooms. The grand staircase at the main entrance is topped by a stained glass window, and the second floor houses some memorabilia from Coppola's films.

One of the rooms in the cellar is an old dining room, with dust-covered bottles lining the walls.

The Historic Town of Napa
The town of Napa lies at the southern end of the valley. We worked our way through the wineries until we got to the town, then had dinner at Cole's Chop House, after which we strolled the old town. For our Michigan family and friends, think Northville or Plymouth, but more upscale.
I guess after drinking and hangin' loose all day, we just weren't in the mood for a Tony steak house where the wait staff is as stiff and s(n)ooty as a chimney on a mansion. Yeah, the steaks were good, but truth to tell we'd have enjoyed them more at a neighborhood mom and pop restaurant than at a ritzy art deco setup in downtown Napa. Nevertheless, we ate heartily and paid heavily and then took a walk through town to work out the kinks before heading back north to the much nicer and smaller town of St. Helena where our hotel awaited with a hot spa and a cool pool.

Photo from the Cole's Chop House web site: http://www.coleschophouse.com/about-restaurant.html

The Napa River winds through downtown

St. Helena
The epicenter of Napa Valley's Wineries and Vineyards

No, we are not complete reprobates. We stopped in at more than just wineries while in Napa Valley, and a bit south of St. Helena is the St. Helena Olive Oil Company, where Cherie and I nosed around to sample the home-made dipping oils, vinegars, sauces, and jellies.

After all, fine wines and fine foods go together like Anthony and Cleopatra, Bogie and Lauren, and Jamie and Cherie. They are best experienced together.

Rutherford Hill
We sampled a few wineries on our last day in Napa Valley, and one of the most fun experiences was at the Rutherford Hill Winery, which literally required driving up a wooded hill to find it tucked away in the foothills overlooking the valley.

We had a lengthy conversation with our pourer, at left behind the bar, about the virtues of various cork extracting devices, which he was kind enough to demonstrate for us, opening several bottles in the process. Of course, we had to taste them all. He also brought out the chocolates to taste with with port wine, asking us to sample the port before, and after, tasting the chocolate. Sure enough, two sins do make a right.

Then the lady in the white jacket, at left, showed up and she was interviewing for a job at the winery as the catering manager, so we, and the other pourer, conducted the interview together. That was interesting. Both interviewer and interviewee had fascinating stories and fun personalities.

William Hill
Coming full circle, at our last winery we were greeted by a friendly old yellow dog, just like our first winery many days before in Santa Barbara County. The distinguishing logo of the William Hill wine bottles is the grape leaf above the label. I'd always thought they were tree leaves, but the server explained they are the leaves of the varietal grapes used in the wine. Well, duh.
Click on label for tasting sheet


How They Met, 1 min, 40 seconds

On our way home, we stopped for a couple of days in Phoenix to visit Uncle Bill and Aunt Emily. We ate out at Applebee's, above, and at My Favorite Martin's Restaurant in their community, below, where Emily works as a hostess. It was a good chance to reminisce about family. Click on the pictures in this section to hear some of the conversations.

"It's out of this world" is the motto—but the food and service remind you of home

Civil War relative, 36 seconds Cherie with Aunt Emily and Uncle John, her father's siblings.
It's always good to see the aunts and uncles in Phoenix. It was a nice way to cap off our summer road trip, before returning to the drudgery of the work world. Recollections, 47 seconds

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