In February, to celebrate our anniversary Malaka and I went traveling to northern California with two couples who are good friends. Following two fantastic days and 3 nights of sightseeing and eating our way through San Francisco, we rented a minivan and drove to Napa for two additional nights of fun and exploration. Between the six of us only Malaka & I had visited this scenic valley before so we were all expecting a brief introduction to Napa over the next two nights and all of us were looking forward to seeing some hills and valleys as here in Sarasota, where we all reside, it is particularly flat. Speaking of hills, I only collected the rental car from a city depot a short walk from the hotel on the morning that we were driving to Napa in order to avoid having to drive on those steep city streets.
Driving and navigating out of the city streets was easy. Within minutes of leaving the hotel, all six of us along with some excess luggage that needed to be placed in the passenger compartment, were on the bay bridge with the city and Alcatraz on our left and our noses pointed north. We stayed on I80 north past Berkley and Vallejo then exited west on 29. Within an hour of leaving the city, we had spotted our first vines in the ground and not long after that, we took a right on Imola Ave and seeing the vine and tree covered hills ahead of us the city and all that it brought was a distant memory. Already, it felt that we were in the American wine country.
Our first scheduled target in the south eastern portion of the valley was Porter Family Vineyards. It’s small and is set at the end of the road at the top of the hill with great views looking north and west up the valley along the eastern ridge and has strong ties to Sarasota. The chilled Rose supported by great views and sunny skies were the perfect welcome and after a quick casual welcome by one of the owners and introduction to the winemaker we walked the 5 minutes through the vines to the cellar. Through the cellar doors was a maze of tunnels and rooms which had been carved into and under the hillside. This was why we were here. The tunnels were all lined with barrels and the rooms varied in size and position depending on their purpose. Everything required for processing from the sorting to the finished product happens in this hillside and knowing that some of our fellow travelers were on their first visit to any wine producing region we knew well that they had to experience the cool dampness, the eerie quietness that allows you to hear every footfall because of the assertive acoustics. The cave style tasting room was particularly impressive and the hour and we spent down there with the winemaker certainly set the tone for the next few days.
After leaving Porter Family Vineyards we stayed on the eastern side of the valley with our noses still pointing north and at our first opportunity got onto the Silverado Trail for the 40 minute drive that took past so many recognizable names we were left with no doubt at all that we were now deep into the heart of this iconic valley. Picturesque wine country scenes and photographic opportunities abound. The next stop on our itinerary was an important one; Rombauer. It’s Malaka’s most favorite American chardonnay in the $50.00 price range and we were on a pilgrimage of sorts. One to go and put our feet on the soil of the very location that has contributed so positively for such a long time now to so many great Sarasota sunsets and evenings of food, family and friends. Here we enjoyed a quick tasting indoors then found a table and chairs in their sculpture garden and took delivery of our picnic lunch then settled in for a pause and some relaxation. It was only after we had enjoyed the cheese and dried meat platter, the sandwiches, the mason jar salads and the chilled Rombauer, sitting there in the shade on a sunny day with her feet firmly connected to that hallowed ground, enjoying the conversation and the company of close friends that Malaka really connected with the spirit of the place.
For our two nights in the valley were staying at Meadowood. The iconic Napa property that is owned by legendary wine makers and is dedicated to showcasing Napa’s wine in an absolutely spectacular location and setting. It really is the perfect property in an ideal location off the valley floor. Tucked away in its own tranquil setting. Everything about this property is great. The rooms, the on property activity options, the dining and most importantly the team the delivers the hospitality. All will contribute posyively to your stay. If ever you are going to Napa I recommend that you stay at Meadowood as it positions you perfectly to explore the whole valley by day and escape to tranquility for some of the best dining around and welcoming room with a particularly comfortable bed and as a Virtuoso partner property we have access to competitive rates and good amenities that include room category upgrades along with on property food and spa credits. Also, I have been informed by an authority on the subject that the Meadowood spa is easily one of the best.
Our next day included my two favorite stops and it would also be the only day in our visit that we crossed west of the St. Helena Highway. We did so in southern portion of the valley. In Oakville. Our good friend, Michael Klauber of Michael’s on East here in Sarasota and the Gulf Coast Connoisseur Club whom we partner with for culinary/wine travel experiences around the world, had scheduled an early appointment for us at the storied producer Far Niente and as we slowly drove the long and beautiful tree-lined drive to the main buildings I could feel the anticipation from my fellow travelers in the vehicle. It was really only when we entered the building to see our names as the only names on the welcome board that we realized how special this experience would be. We took our time and enjoyed a full two and a half hours on property viewing the unique car collection, the wine production areas with the cellar and a private tasting in the main room looking east over the vines. On that day, in that setting with those friends the wines we tried were so very tasty.
Our last winery tour of our visit to Chappellet was most certainly the most unique and had us quite quickly back on the eastern side of the valley. This time, well east of The Silverado Trail off Sage Canyon Road, high up on the top of the hill. The design and architecture of the production facility is unlike anything else I have seen anywhere but that was not what stood out as unique. After a quick welcome and introduction we left the building for a short walk to a picnic table set in the shade among the very vines that produced the wines we were tasting. Here, with the plants, we would enjoy our tasting of the first two wines; recent vintages of a chardonnay and a pinot noir. Both were tasty and already, we felt a strong connection to this place. At the end of the tasting our energetic property guide excused himself for about fifteen minutes and returned all excited. “Ready to go” he said. None of us were as the setting was so idyllic we had slipped back into a comfortable and peaceful place with good friends and by now the wine was surely working. We all said “No. we are not ready for this to end”. Plus, we were expecting another picnic lunch to be delivered. That’s when he calmed us all down and assured us that our time on property was not over but that we would be re-positioning to a more spectacular location for our picnic lunch. More spectacular we though. How? As he stretched out his arm toward us he dangled what looked like a set of car kays between his thumb and forefinger, he pointed with his other hand and said “we are going in that”. The girls did not think that it was the most comfortable ride but every one of us agreed that bumbling slowly through the vines in an immaculately restored 1973 Swiss Army Pinzgauer troop carrier was the coolest wine related experience we have ever had. That was until we walked from the vehicle to the majestic picnic location with views that stretched for what seemed like forever for our slow, late lunch. Many many laughs. We arrived back at Medowood early enough to have a few hours of downtime before another wine tasting and a casual dinner on property.
The drive out of the valley to the San Francisco airport the next morning was not nearly as much fun or filled with as much excitement as the drive into the valley two days ago and the vehicle passengers were notable quieter. We all, however were departing happy. Happy that our time there was so enjoyable and happy that we all learned about wine production and tasted some good wine in great settings with great friends. Throughout our stay we were fortunate to have fantastic and unseasonably warm, weather which made for a most comfortable time for all.