Falling in love with Wine Country
By Carla Johnston
This trip was a romantic getaway for me and my husband, Glenn. We actually started our vacation in SanFrancisco, but that’s a separate blog. Our tour went like this: SanFran, then north to horseback riding in the hills of Point Reyes, north again to Healdsburg in northern Sonoma County, east to Calistoga, then south to St. Helena, Yountville, and Napa.
No Fairytale Here
Our adventure began with a huge misconception on my part, which is that horseback riding is a romantic adventure; an ideal way to take in the picturesque countryside; becoming one with the majestic beast. As it turns out, it was more of a terrifying adventure in which I was too busy trying to remain in the saddle to notice the picturesque countryside and I realized my majestic beast may possibly have suicidal tendencies as I peered down the 1,200 foot ravine only inches from his hooves. I learned an important lesson this day. Some people are horse people; some are not. If you are not a horse person, rent a bicycle and spare yourself the softball sized bruises on your legs.
Beautiful Country; Beautiful Cuisine
This being my first trip to the Sonoma and Napa regions, I was not prepared for the staggering number of wineries. Hundreds. Driving through the countryside, in the towns, on the hills; vineyards as far as the eye can see. They are so beautiful set against the backdrop of the Sonoma Mountains topped with an ethereal haze. The towns all have their own flavor. St. Helena and Yountville are the biggest with endless restaurants and shopping. Many renowned chefs migrate to this area, including Michael Chiarello (Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello on The Food Network). We ate at his restaurant, Bottega, and were not disappointed. We found out afterward that he prepared our wood grilled lamb chops personally! How cool is that?! Yountville is also home to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and Greystone Restaurant. Foodies, eat your heart out; Napa Valley cuisine is exquisite. Fresh local foods made to pair with local wines, famous chefs, and a rich cultural history combine to make the eats in Napa Valley truly significant. On this trip, I found myself taking as many pictures of the food as I did the vineyards!
I expected wine on this trip… and lots of it. I expected vineyards and tastings and glass swirling and sniffing. But it’s what I didn’t expect from the wineries that ended up being my favorite part. Each vineyard has a history, a story to share. Take Pat Kuleto for example. Pat is a restaurateur who purchased a parcel of land in the Napa Valley. When a scientist came to the land and told Pat there was no water to be had, Pat took the advice of his neighboring vintners and hired a Water Witch to come find water on his land. She did. Then he spent 3 million dollars to put in a switchback driveway to his Kuleto Estate, which is at an elevation of 1, 400 feet. The impressive winery boasts the most beautiful buildings, beefy outdoor bars, fountains, flowers and terraces tiered on the hillside. The breathtaking view of the surrounding vineyards is the best in all of Napa and we had a first-hand look at the “Napa lawnmowers:” sheep! Or how about the Jacuzzis, an extended family who came from Italy in the early 1900’s. They were a family of innovators who invented the “Toothpick Propeller” used in WWI and the Jacuzzi bath before they became vintners. If you go to wine country, I would highly recommend getting a full tour in addition to your tasting. It makes the experience more personal.
In addition to stories, each winery has its own essence. The stone winery at Jacuzzi, for example, was reminiscent of the original family homestead in Italy. Artesa, a modern-looking winery atop a hill, felt like a gallery with glass, fountains, contemporary furnishings and Spanish influence.
Bits and Pieces
Try a Bed and Breakfast. If you haven’t done this before, Napa is a beautiful place to find a quaint, romantic B&B. While they don’t always offer all the amenities of a hotel, the experience is personal and many times the homes are historical. We loved the Camellia Inn in Healdsburg.
In Calistoga you can get an authentic mudbath. Thanks to a volcano that erupted 8 million years ago leaving a layer of volcanic ash to mix with the hot springs, Calistoga is the mudbath capital of the state. While I didn’t try the mudbath I am seriously considering adding it to my bucket list. FYI: the Calistoga Inn makes a serious sandwich, the best I’ve ever eaten.