Bear hunting, before we head off to the Napa Valley wineries.
How my husband goes bear hunting in Connecticut
Before we start our journey to the Napa Valley. I have been asked by many of you for an update on Yogi. Our temporary resident black bear, (not sure if he knows it’s temporary though). In my last blog, you may remember he was living under our deck and finding his way into our dustbin. (garbage). He had gotten under the deck by pushing through the old slightly battered trellis. Having decided a new trellis would probably suffice in keeping him away. Friends kindly pointed out, trellis is probably not going to deter a 300-pound black bear, but we are from bear less England, so what do we know?
The new trellis looked lovely, until we arrived home one day to find it in pieces. With the bear snoring peacefully under the deck without a care in the world. The following weekend my husband puts on his ‘don’t shit with me face’ and mumbling something along the lines of “ forget rabbit proof fencing, this is going to be bear proof fencing”. He promptly pokes his head through the lattice hole to check Yogi is out before he puts the barricades up.
Fending off a 300 lbs bear with a stick?
For health and safety sake, he has me crouching beside him with a long stick just in case Yogi is in residence and makes a bolt for it. I am not sure if this is a good idea, but I make a point of putting my running shoes on. Let’s face it all I have to do is outrun Phil, and that’s a given because I’m crouching and he’s lying face down with his head through a hole.
Fortunately Yogi is elsewhere and now he’s lost his bed because no way is he going to get through the substantial 4×2 timber. Several friends have suggested that Yogi is at the bottom of our garden watching, and plotting his REVENGE.
And on a more culturally finer point, let’s take a trip up the Napa Valley.
Just an hour plus drive north of San Francisco lay the breathtaking vine filled hills of California wine country. The Napa valley is home to over 400 wineries ranging from small family run vineyards to internationally renowned wine giants.
A walk round Napa
Napa town is very handsome with a mix of old and new architecture. It has the usual ubiquitous specialty shops, lots of restaurants and many more tasting rooms; this all down to the explosion of serious wine drinking in the early 60s. but no one seems to be complaining. The Napa ‘list of events’ calendar is a wine lovers dream. For 12 hours a day 7 days a week you can participate in a progressive wine tour.
A ‘French Laundry’ In Napa
You soon realize Napa is also a destination for culinary delights where you can dine at the famous ‘French Laundry’ restaurant of Chef Thomas Keller or seek out the areas outstanding culinary schools, where you can attend for a day or two or even a week. There are two-year courses if you’re that inclined.
Even on a short stay, you can still learn all about food and wine pairings and eat the finest ingredients all to designed to release the gourmet in you. Unfortunately my culinary skills have and never will be released, they are severely lacking. Fortunately my husband did not marry me for my cooking skills.
Every day in this cornucopia, there is something to stimulate the connoisseur in all of us with an affinity for world-class food, fine wines, the arts, luxurious spas, shops, music festivals and not forgetting the ubiquitous tours. One section of the Napa arts scene is an art walk of eye-catching installations and displays catching you unawares as you wander around town.
Perhaps later a promenade along Napa’s downtown riverfront and stopping for something to eat and a glass of wine as the sun goes down and perhaps follow some evening pursuits of opera, jazz or a comedy.
Wine or Gin I can’t remember.
Personally I don’t get on very well with wine any more. More often than not I seemed to lose the use of my legs and occasionally items of clothing. Once I removed every olive in a salad by hand and ate them. Mel our host hastily replaced them only to find they disappeared just a quickly. Or was that the night of the Gin. It’s all a bit fuzzy. I don’t touch Gin now either.
Hot air Balloon
What better way to see this countryside but by a balloon ride, with the patchwork of vineyards spread out like a rolling carpet below. Alternatively you may favor something a little nearer terra firma by taking a dining journey on the Napa Valley wine train, a three-hour discovery from fully restored vintage railcars carrying you through a picture postcard.
Ingredients or not
Napa did come as a delightful surprise, having spent several years in the states I am no longer astonished by the list of ingredients in everyday foods. I use the word ingredients loosely, some of the stuff that makes its way into our food chain, can in no way be described as edible. However the dictionary definition also adds ‘an element or component of something”. This is the one I’m going with because I’m sure I’ve seen the same words on bottles of drain cleaner and fertilizer.
And don’t get me started on the crab dip and crab sticks. The main ingredient is (you are not going to believe this) ‘imitation crab”. I am afraid all I can see is a grubby tatty fish dressing up in a crab outfit, trying desperately to walk sideways and failing miserable.
OxBow Public Market
Over the river from downtown is the Oxbow Public market. Filled to the gunwales with fine food and guaranteed to add pounds to the hips. Chocolates, cheese, wine, beer, oysters, olives, ice cream, bbq, pizza, sushi, burgers, cup cakes, bakery and locally sourced fresh and cooked meats, fruits and vegetables. We dined about three times at the charcuterie café. ‘Truly scrumptious’. Usually I would be tempted to go and sit outside overlooking the river, but people watching indoors was far more interesting. I think epicurean was invented here.
Good old Tourist information
As ever upon our arrival in town, we headed straight for the tourist information center. I had obviously heard about the wine train, which I was very much looking forward to travelling on.
However we noticed a poster for the cable car, it promised “a discovery of the Napa Valley from the seat of a repurposed open San Francisco cable car”…. Sold. Don’t bother me with your enclosed scenic wine train, and booked two tickets for the next day.
Alternatively you can book on line, ahead of time. There are two separate trolley tours one for $99 and one $139. For $139 (ours) there are three winery stops, wine not included, a two-hour guided tour, wine included, and a catered lunch. Not forgetting a generous 6 ½ hours of sheer idyll. Ours was closer to 8.
Note to the Brits
Minimum age on the trolley is 21 (it’s the drinking law thing) it’s the same everywhere in the States. Even though your children have been drinking in the UK for several years, Do Not buy for them or even take them in the store if they are younger than 21, you’ll be in deep doodoo if you do. Whether you are 21 or 80, you will most probably be asked for proof of age so make sure you have that on you, even if you are a doddering old fart.
When I first arrived in the US and was asked for age ID every time I purchased alcohol I was very flattered, thinking I obviously looked much younger than I actually was, until I realized they ID you whatever age you are. It’s the law so please don’t mess with them.
There is a nominal charge for wine tasting, at all wineries, and is usually around $20.
The Trolley Tour
Picking up at a few hotels and the V market, the trolley slowly carries you due north through the quaint villages of Oak Knoll, Yountville, (of French Laundry fame). Oakville, Zinfandel, St Helena. Sitting parallel to the road you can spend the first half of trip on one side and swop over for the return.
Cruising past endless vineyards and wineries of every style, shape and color from Tuscan castles, to Venetian estates, giant rustic barns, and the odd Persian temple? You catch glimpses of some through the trees and vines, eloquently terraced on the hillside.
There is a sudden awareness that these grapes are producing some of the finest wines in the world. And to cap it off; you’ve nowhere to be, nothing to do but sit back and relax, moreover let the warm Mediterranean like breeze gently wash over you.
Watching the world go by I can’t think of a more beautiful place to do it. Especially as the backdrop is none other than the undulating hills of one of the worlds best wine country’s. You could even turn your phone off!
One of the pickup points and also a stop off is the V Market in Yountville. It’s a former winery with lots of original fixtures, fittings and machinery adding a unique feel to this quaint market of specialty shops, galleries, and cafes.
I can’t remember which winery we had lunch at, but what I do remember, is, as a group we were eating a delightful picnic in the gardens of the winery and for a few moments it went very still as faces were captured by the dark ruby liquid and the realization this is a very special place which infuses your entire being.
Dungeons and Dragons at Castello di Amorosa
The two hour highlight of the trip is at the Castello di Amorosa. A labor of love by Italian winemaker Dario Sattui in honor of his Tuscan heritage. At first glimpse, as you approach the Castle, there is a promise of something very special.
As a Brit I sometimes find the word Castle overused but this is a proper castle, thus as castles go, it’s a stunner. Authentically built it has the ability to catapult you to past times.
How to turn a modest winery into a Tuscan Castle.
Construction began in 1994, initially intended it to be an 8500 sq ft modest structure, with no cellars, and soon morphed into 121,000 square-foot Tuscan Castle. With over a hundred rooms on four stories and four basement levels. It took 15 years of pulling together Artisans, materials and methods from all over Europe. Consequently you come to the conclusion, wineries are destinations in their own right.
It has everything you would expect in a castle drawbridge, moat, ramparts, armory, tower and salient loopholes and not forgetting the dungeon complete with torture implements. I have no idea what some of them might be used for and in this instance perhaps ignorance is bliss.
As an interior designer in a past life I can honestly say the décor inside is the most historically stunning I have ever seen.
The Castle can be rented for private tours and events. I couldn’t think of anything more enriching. Its obvious the family take as much love and attention to their winemaking as they did with the castle. We enjoyed some serious wines tasting in the cellar caverns.
Psycho house complete with bathroom but no shower.
The last stop on the tour is the Beringer winery, also the longest continuously operating winery in Napa. Known as the Victorian Rhine house its a testament to the classic Victorian architecture of turrets and gables and imposing façade. However the name ‘ Hitchcock ‘springs to mind when you first lay eyes on it. It’s as stunningly Victorian inside as it is out. A gentle stroll round the house and beautiful gardens completes the day.
The trolley tour was a memorable day out, we sampled some beautiful wines, which obviously can be purchased. But being on someone else’s clock this tour is not for the serious wine tasting and buying. You see some pretty substantial wine-tasting going on at wineries, either on the trolley tour or pottering around by yourself. As a result you need to order an a la carte tour. There are hundreds to choose from $1000, 8 seater bus tours to chauffeur driven cars for 2.
You can either do your own legwork and arrange your itinerary, or alternatively choose one of many private Napa wine tours. They will take the strain and arrange private functions, tastings, group events, meals etc. It’s like a driver concierge arranging everything from the front seat of your car. And you can drink infinitum.
As there are over 400 wineries in the valley, we enquired at the tourist information if there was a vineyards top ten. Enquiring if it was wine or architecture we were more interested in. We picked the latter. Her parting shot was “you mustn’t miss Artesa”.
A Persian Temple? Surely Not
The road trip had us disappearing around valley walls and through secluded countryside, with silent and calming views at every turn. Characterized by its gentle undulating hills, panoramic views of the low lying mountains, grasslands, distinctive valleys, ponds and streams. It is a place where getting lost is something to be cherished.
Our first planned stop was interrupted by the sight of an ancient Persian (think Persepolis) palace. With columns, capitals, water features and fountains and a host of architectural elements in gold travertine stone. We had to momentarily stop and remind ourselves where we were. The inside was just as beautiful and interesting.
As my husband is a motor racing aficionado and the Yoda of drivers, cars and teams, we could not miss the winery belonging to Mario Andretti. Described as ‘Old world charm’ it does not disappoint. The courtyard and fountain paying homage to Andretti’s ancestry. The architectural details brought alive by the sienna hued tinted plaster. It was closed for a private tasting, but we enjoyed pottering around.
We had spotted several places on our trolley tour that we thought might warrant an extended visit. And this was our opportunity to visit the ‘French Laundry’ and nearby Bouchon bakery also owned by Thomas Keller in Yountville. We explored several very interesting galleries on route 29 between Napa and St Helena. Viewed some amazing artwork and talked to some of the artists. One artist in particular lived in LA and spent his hours rummaging around scrap yards and turning his finds into fascinating artwork.
Probably saving the best till last
Spanish owned Artesa is a groundbreaking innovative winery designed by a Barcelona architect. Built into the hillside, its a harmonious bond between nature and architecture. Most vineyards have their own artist in residence and Artesa is no exception. Artist Gordon Huether continues the ultra-contemporary theme. His commissions here include glass, metal and canvas. Furthermore introducing new works so seasoned visitors see something new.
Certainly his edgy art. and installations made my trip to Artesa very special.
We arrived just in time to tag along on a tour of the winery. As a result learnt all about the location and weather and its effects on the vines and grapes. To the fermenting and bottling. Afterwards, left to ur own devices, we spent time outside mesmerized by the views from this vaunted elevated position and this is when you realize there is a reverence for this region.
The French Laundry
Chef Thomas Keller’s 3 Michelin-starred restaurant in Yountville just north of Napa, is, as you can imagine not easy to get reservations for. However all is not lost, and forewarned is forearmed.
Tables need to be booked two months in advance, through the Tock web site, and are released on the first of the month for dates two months away. For example if it was the 1st of July, the tables being released would be for September 1st to October 30th. Expect to pay over $300 per person, non refundable (not including wine) at the time of reservation.
To know my husband is to love him, and I am under no illusion that he will ever cough up that much for dinner.
Early on in our relationship he asked if I wanted to go on a special date. Here’s me thinking he was pushing the boat out for something extra special. Date nights are not something my husband has ever grasped the concept of. I eagerly said yes, he says great! Crewe Alexander are playing at home to Everton and there’s a really good chippy on Gresty Rd.
For my US friends, Crewe is a very low league football (soccer) club. Everton is the ‘other’ team from Liverpool, one that my husband has semi fervently supported all his life. And one that I support on special occasions and when they are not playing the team my children support. A chippy is a take away fish and chip shop. I have to say the chippy in question did make bloody good fish and chips. The chips making a seriously good chip butty (sandwich). And before you laugh, renowned chef Marco Pierre White, introduced Anthony Boardain to one. Explaining that only thin sliced white bread makes the perfect chip butty. If you want to see a Brit drool just say “chip butty” in his ear.
My dear husband after reading this blog was quite indignant regarding my description of the chippy on Gresty rd at Crewe Alexandra. He reminded that the chippy was also a sit in (which we did) and they also did a great cup of tea.
On a final note
Napa valley is not just for wine. It’s an excellent place to chill for a few days, and see some beautiful countryside, eat delicious food and see some amazing architecture. And for that reason would be perfect after spending a week or so in San Francisco.
Many of the vines here are descendants of vines brought over by the early Italian immigrants, over 100 years ago and maybe that is enough of a explanation of what makes the Napa Valley what it is today.
click here for more of the Trolley tours
click here for Napa Tourist information
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