JUST THE FACTS: Our friends and frequent travel partners Don and Mary Ann Sadon, my wife Patricia and I spent most of the first week in October in Napa touring wineries, after spending a night enjoying “Old Town” Sacramento.
I work for the St. Joseph Health System which operates a chain of 14 non-profit hospitals in California and Texas. One of those hospitals is Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, where our friend Dennis Sisto is the CEO. Another is Memorial Hospital of Santa Rosa in the heart of the Sonoma County Wine Country. The two communities are
43 miles from each other and extremely competitive where wine is concerned. Whenever we have a Health System dinner with representatives of all our hospitals we have to be sure that we have an equal number of bottles of wine from Napa and Sonoma County or a fist fight is likely to break out.
I have visited these hospitals every year for 15 years or so, but, Patricia and I have never had the time to enjoy either community because I’m always working. So, we decided to spend some vacation time enjoying ourselves.
WINE COUNTRY REVISITED: I was born in Bakersfield, which is definitely “Beer Country.” Our local winery in the 1950’s, called “Santa Fe Winery” was operated by the DiGeorgio Family who owned a huge block of farmland outside of Bakersfield. The Postal Service awarded a post office to the little community of “Weed Patch,” made famous by John Steinbeck in his “Grapes of Wrath.” Unfortunately, the DiGeorgio Farm was within the service area of the Weed Patch Post Office.
Faced with the possibility of showing “Santa Fe Winery, Weed Patch, California” on its label, the DiGeorgio family cleverly incorporated the ranch as a city, and the label henceforth read, “Santa Fe Winery, DiGeorgio, California.” The winery failed anyway, but the DeGeorgios became deca-millionaires in farming and other enterprises.
The California Central Valley held few notable winemakers. The brothers Ernest and Julio Galo of Modesto made a fortune producing “Vin Ordinaire,” but only makers of dessert wines, such as the Ficklin Vineyard in Madera, with a world class Port, won awards.
As a young man my exposure to anything other than Brew 102 was confined to wines named “Thunderbird” and “Annie Green Springs,” known primarily for their alcohol content.
When I was about 24, I attended a Wine Tasting put on by Charles Krug Winery of Napa. I was hooked. A year of so later, I planned a vacation wine tour that included Livermore in the “East Bay” where Wente Brothers made fine white wines and Napa where we visited wineries such as Berringer, Charles Krug, Inglenook, Beaulieu and Christian Brothers.
I was a member of the Rotary Club of Covina at the time. Membership in Rotary required me to attend a meeting every week, and we could “make up” a missed meeting by attending the meeting of another club. I attended a meeting of the St. Helena Rotary Club, just north of Napa.
In those days, Rotary allowed only one member from each profession. There would be one lawyer, one doctor, one accountant, etc. Clubs like St. Helena, in an area where there was basically only one industry, had to be creative with professional classifications. So, they had a member with the classification “Wine Maker Chardonnay” and another “Wine Maker Merlot.”
At the time the Mondavi family owned and operated the Charles Krug Winery. Robert Mondavi disagreed with his brother over future plans and left the family winery to establish his own brand, the Robert Mondavi Winery. When I was there, Robert was a member of the St. Helena Rotary Club, but I was told, because his first vintage had not been bottled, his Rotary classification was “Vinegar Manufacture.”
Over the years I remained loyal to the brands of the wineries I visited, although they gradually began to disappear. I was thrilled when the Institute for Health announced that a glass of red wine a day was good for you. Two glasses must be twice as good, right?
I was aware of the hundreds of new quality wineries established in the Napa and Sonoma areas, so, when Don Sadon suggested a Napa Wine Tour, we jumped at the chance.
GETTING TO NAPA: If you are flying, there are three airports to choose from – San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento. The closest to Napa, as the crow flies, may be Oakland, but we’ve learned that Sacramento is the easiest and quickest, most of the time. It will take you a bit over an hour.
OLD TOWN SACRAMENTO: Because the Sadons hadn’t been there and it had been years since we had, we decided to spend a night in Sacramento before driving up to Napa in our rented SUV, a vehicle we needed because of all our luggage. It’s amazing how much you have to pack for just 5 days, isn’t it?
Sacramento is really a very nice place to visit. Old Town, located on the Sacramento River, is within sight of the State Capitol and has been refurbished to look like an old western mining town. There are many places to eat, drink and shop and it is certainly worth a visit.
EMBASSY SUITES: We like to stay at Embassy Suites Hotels. They are roomy and generally have a fridge for your juice and microwave for your snacks. We stayed at the one at Old Town in Sacramento, a few blocks from the Capitol. We also spent a couple of days in the one in Napa which has an open air courtyard with ponds occupied by a pair of swans and a family of ducks. It combines comfort, roominess and a hot breakfast, that’s why I stay there on business trips. Luckily, Patricia likes them, too.
THE OLD WORLD INN: We thought it would be fun to stay in a Bed and Breakfast in Napa. We found the “Old World Inn,” Napa’s first Bed and Breakfast, on the internet. It’s located on Jefferson Street walking distance from downtown Napa and it’s charming.
It’s perfect for honeymooners.
We found a little journal in the room into which previous guests had written a few sentences to describe their experience. They were all young and in love, and they all loved it. One of the things that made it special to them was a “Hot Tub,” big enough for two, smack in the middle of the room. Evidently to make space for the hot tub, they had removed the dresser so that there were no drawers for your clothes. A tiny bathroom, with a tiny shower and tiny toilet was just too much for those of us who have been spoiled by Embassy Suites. We moved after one night.
The folks at the Old World Inn were great people; they helped arrange our wine tour and made our dinner reservations. The breakfast was terrific and they arrange a wine tasting for their guests two or three times a week. You are required to pay in full in advance and we thought we’d have to forfeit two of our three nights, but, as it happened a potential guest called and took our room, so they refunded the two nights to us. The Sadons stayed there for all three days and enjoyed it.
You’ll enjoy it too if you don’t mind living out of your suitcase. Find it at
RANCHO CAYMUS INN: Located in Rutherford between Napa and St. Helena on Rutherford Road, about 30 yards from Highway 29, the Rancho Caymus Inn was part of our “Balloon Package.”
We decided we’d like to take a “Hot Air Balloon” ride while in Napa. We found a package on the internet which included a night at the Caymus Valley Inn plus the balloon ride. As it turned out, the wind was blowing too hard on the morning we booked and the balloon ride was cancelled, but, our stay at the Caymus Valley Inn was prepaid, so we moved there for our last night.
The rooms are huge, they’re all suites, and have fireplaces. It has the additional advantage of being the location of one of the finest restaurants in the Napa Valley, “La Toque” (more about which later).
The downside is, the Inn is located adjacent to the huge Beaulieu Winery and if you open your windows to get some fresh air, the smell of fermenting wine permeates the air.
You can check it out at www.ranchocaymus.com.
SHOPPING: There are places to shop in the Napa Valley, but, not as many as you think. There’s a nice shopping area in downtown Napa and there’s an “Outlet Mall” on Highway 29 with the usual designer name shops.
St. Helena has a quaint shopping area on Highway 29, their main street, and we found a nice group of shops in Yountville called “V Market Plaza.”
All had convenient benches for Don and me to pass the time while Patricia and Mary Ann moseyed through the merchandise.
DINING IN NAPA: We think Napa has the finest restaurants west of the Mississippi. Some would argue San Francisco has more good restaurants, but, for the size of the community Napa wins “Hands Down.”
Listed in the New York Times “Top ten restaurants in the United States,” “The French Laundry,” is located in Yountville. We didn’t eat there because reservations must be made far in advance and we hadn’t planned that far ahead.
LA TOQUE: Our dinner at La Toque was the most expensive meal Patricia and I have ever consumed, but worth it. The Prix Fixe menu, including 5 courses, is $98 a person. You can also purchase a Prix Fixe “wine pairing” which matches a fine wine with each of the courses you select. The Wine Pairing is $62 a person, so that’s $320 per couple, before the 18% service charge. The menu informs you that “tipping is not necessary.” It’s a little like buying a yacht, if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it. Not the kind of thing you want to do every week, but, certainly a swell “once in a lifetime experience.”
The portions aren’t large and I initially thought we’d come away hungry, but, when we finished with the 5th course, we’d had enough to eat. There was an appetizer course, a fish course, a poultry course, a main course and dessert. It was superb. The Sommelier brought each wine just as the course was served and explained exactly why he had selected just that wine. They were all a perfect match, as you might expect.
La Toque, in Rutherford, like a lot of Napa Restaurants is “off the beaten track.” You can’t see it from the Highway, so you’ll need to get directions. Here’s their website
BISTRO DON GIOVANNI: The Sistos arranged for us to meet for dinner at Bistro Don Giovanni, on Howard Street at the north end of Napa off Highway 29. Again, you won’t find it unless you know exactly how to get there.
Bistro Don Giovanni has a large menu featuring Italian and French selections and we all loved our food. I had a Spicy Red Tomato Soup and Crab Risotto. The food was excellent and so was the wine which Dennis brought from his own wine cellar. Here is their website: http://www.bistrodongiovanni.com.
RISTORANTE ALLEGRIA is, as its name implies, an Italian Restaurant located at 1026 First Street in downtown Napa. This one isn’t hard to find. The food is excellent, but it’s crowded, so be sure to make a reservation in advance. I had “Linguini Fruta d’ Mare” with a spicy red sauce. Patricia had “plain pasta” which she liked very much.
One little extra, they had an accordion player who played the type of songs you would expect in an Italian Restaurant, it was a lot of fun because he was very good, but, not very loud. Their website is http://www.ristoranteallegria.com.
THE PEARL RESTAURANT: Also located in downtown Napa, The Pearl had a limited menu, half of which was Vegan. It’s a small place which serves only wine and beer, but, the food was good, particularly the Corn Chowder.
MUSTARDS GRILL: A Napa Valley classic, Mustards is located on Highway 29 in Yountville, just a little south of St. Helena. Unlike most of the other eateries, Mustards has successfully competed in the Napa Valley for over 20 years. Go there for lunch and you’ll see why. We had Hamburgers with about the best onion rings you’re ever likely to encounter. The meal came with a terrific homemade Ketchup. The service was good considering the place was mobbed with customers on a weekday. We suggest you go early: www.mustardsgrill.com
THE NAPA VALLEY WINE TRAIN: This is really a gourmet meal on the rails. It was founded in 1972 by Vincent DeDomenico, who, with his brother, invented Rice-a-Roni and owned Ghiradelli Chocolate. The Napa Valley Wine Train offers either gourmet lunch or dinner in an elegant dining car. We thought the food was excellent, although the selections were limited and your wine cost extra. Pricey, but worth it if you’ve never done it.
There is a “Mystery Dinner Train” and other specialized offerings. You can learn all the options from their website http://www.winetrain.com.
We elected a lunch train that dropped us off at the Grgich Hills Winery for a tour and a tasting on the way up and then picked us up again on the way back. (More about Grgich Hills later.) The only downside to the wine train is the scenery – no kidding. Once you’ve seen a vineyard you’ve pretty much seen them all.
GILLWOODS CAFÉ: We also had lunch at Gill Woods in the mall in downtown Napa. It was a beautiful day and there was plenty of outdoor seating. The portions were more than generous. Don ordered half of a Tuna Melt Sandwich and said it was the biggest half sandwich he’d ever eaten. It was good, too. There is another Gillwoods in downtown St. Helena - just as busy. A local favorite.
EATING IN OLD TOWN SACRAMENTO:
THE FIREHOUSE RESTAURANT: Located at 1112 Second Street in Old Town Sacramento, the Firehouse is located in the old original downtown fire station. It has a warm atmosphere, a very friendly staff and the food is very good. I had an excellent steak. We recommend it if your travels take you up that way.
If you are beginning to think we didn’t miss any meals on this trip, you are correct.
Again, Id like to say we are not experts about wine. None of the wines we tasted and recommend here are cheap – an $18 Sauvignon Blanc was the cheapest wine we liked and some of the reds were pushing 3 figures. As Patricia says, “Life is too short to drink cheap wine.”
We aren’t connoisseurs, but, we learned a lot on the trip and we know what we liked. I’m not going to tell you about “the nose” or the “legs,” but if we really, really liked a wine – so much that we bought one or more bottles to send home – we tell you about it.
If you drive to Napa you’ve got no problem bringing wine home – you can fill your trunk and take it with you. If you’re flying, you’ll have to make a decision whether to take your purchase with you or ship it home. If you take it with you, you’ll have to ask the winery to pack it for you in a shipping package that you can check – you can’t carry it on. We elected to ship the wines we liked to our home.
This didn’t seem to be a problem, all our wines, but one, arrived within a week of our visit. The last, from the Groth Vineyard, still hadn’t arrived after a month. I called them about it and they told me my shipment was on a “weather hold” and wouldn’t be shipped to me until the temperature in my home town was under 85 degrees – the wine I ordered doesn’t like high temperatures and they don’t want it to spoil. Fine with me!
What a country!
There are hundreds of wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties we didn’t visit and only 10 we did, so our “favorites” list is limited. But, we think you’d probably like to visit some of these wineries if you take your own wine tour.
We hired a driver, knowledgeable about the wine district, to take us on a tour one day while we were there. He took us on a tour of Sonoma County Wineries that we would never have found by ourselves. This is really the way to see the valley, you can tell your driver where you want to go, or simply tell him what kind of wine you like and let him choose it. The Old World Inn arranged it for us.
When last I visited the Wine Country, you had to take a tour of the winery before you were taken to the “Tasting Room” for free wine. No wine was actually sold at the winery. When I visited the Ficklin Winery in the 60s I asked if I might buy a bottle of their famous Port. I was directed to a liquor store 5 miles away.
Not so today, the Tasting Room is designed to get you to “invest” in the wine on the spot. And the days of the “free” tasting are long gone. When you arrive at the winery you’ll be directed to the “Tasting Room” where you will be invited to pay $15 to try three or four wines. All wineries have “Wine Clubs” that will send you their latest bottling every 3 or 4 months, for a fee of course.
We learned that vineyards in the south of the region, closest to San Francisco Bay, have cooler weather than those areas to the north and are best for white wines and Pinot Noir. In the north, it’s 20 degrees warmer, beneficial more robust reds like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
IN THE ORDER WE VISITED THEM: Not in the order of our preference, they were all good.
STAG’S LEAP WINE CELLARS: A lady from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars presented our first wine tasting on the day we arrived at our Bed and Breakfast. We learned a lot, including that there are various wine growing regions within the Napa Valley and each winery is only allowed to put its own region on its label. It turns out that “Stag’s Leap” is a rock formation north of the City of Napa, and therefore is an “Appellation” or region.
There are actually two wineries using the name “Stag’s Leap” and they were engaged in a long law suit over which had the right to use “Stag’s Leap” as their name. As usual the court ruled that they were both right ruling one could call themselves “Stags Leap Winery” and the second “Stags Leap Wine Cellars.” It was the latter we tasted.
The have a truly excellent Cabernet Sauvignon which they have named “Artemus.” Listed at $55, we’ve seen it at Pavilions on sale for $40, but, worth it. Here is their web address: http://www.cask23.com/index-flash.htm
DOMAINE CARNEROS: The first stop on our chauffeured wine tour was Domaine Carneros a Champagne producer, in Napa County, south of the City in the Carneros appellation. Domaine Carneros is owned by a partnership which includes the French Champagne maker Taittinger. We were told that the French are buying up Napa Wineries. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
You may be aware that French wine makers sued American wine makers who were calling their sparkling wines “Champagne,” contending that only those wine makers in the region of Champagne in France should be able to use the term, “Champagne.”
The Court ruled that California wineries which had always used the term “Champagne” would be allowed to continue to use it. Any winery beginning to produce Champagne in California after the date of the court ruling would have to call their product “Sparkling Wine.”
The Winery occupies a beautiful Chateau on the top of a hill, a very beautiful setting.
The Champagne at Domaine Carneros was very smooth, but, we’re not big Champagne drinkers, so we didn’t buy any to send home. If you’d like to check it out their website is: http://www.domaine.com.
ROBLEDO FAMILY WINERY: Located in Sonoma the Robledo Family Winery is truly a family affair. Reynaldo Robledo, the patriarch, came to Napa as a Bracero (guest worker) to pick grapes more than 30 years ago. He worked in the fields, worked his way up until he managed properties for other vintners. About 10 years ago he purchased 30 acres of vineyards and started his own winery. There are some 10 Robledo offspring all working at the winery. They were featured on the cover of People Magazine not so long ago.
Talk about “Rags to Riches.”
We tried their “Carneros Pinot Noir 2005” and liked it so much we sent several bottles home. The list price is $35, but, you get 30% off if you join their wine club. Because it’s a small winery, you won’t find it at the Super Market, but, you can buy it on line at
LEDSON WINERY AND VINEYARDS: Located in Kenwood, near Santa Rosa, the Ledson Winery and Vineyard is the toy of Steve Ledson, a very wealthy man. The Winery is known as the “Castle,” it’s also the Ledson’s truly imposing family home. It’s like visiting a museum.
You can’t buy Ledson Wines anywhere except at the Winery or a hotel they also own. Unless of course you join one of their wine clubs. Each year, they celebrate some event from history by issuing a new wine. This last year, it was a Pinot Noir they named “The Catch,” for Dwight Clark’s miracle catch to win the Super Bowl for the 49ers. (Could that have possibly been 25 years ago?) It was quite good.
We liked their Cabernet, but, didn’t buy any because we would have had to join their wine club to get it. You can check it out at http://www.ledson.com/index.html.
FERRARI CARANO WINERY AND VINEYARD is located in Healdsberg north of Santa Rosa and is by far the most beautiful winery we visited. The gardens alone are worth the trip and it’s a place we recommend you visit on your tour.
You’ll find their wines on the top shelves of the wine aisles of Ralphs and Pavilion. We particularly liked a red wine blended from Cabernet and several other reds called “Tresor” or treasure. It sells for $60 at the winery. You can check it our at
GRGICH HILLS WINERY is located in Rutherford just south of St. Helena. Mike Grgich (pronounced Grrrr-GITCH) escaped Tito’s Yugoslavia and came to the Napa Valley in the 1960’s He worked for various wineries, including Robert Mondavi where he was a senior winemaker. One of his wines won the Paris Wine Tasting in 1976 which led to his founding his own winery.
Grgich Hills is the winery you can visit as part of the Napa Valley Wine Train experience. The train drops you off on its way to St. Helena and picks you up on the way back. This is the only winery we visited that we also toured, most places you just go to the Tasting Room. They say they’re the only completely “Organic” winery in the Napa Valley. The day we were there, Mike Grgich himself was in the tasting room autographing the labels on wine purchased by our group. Now in his 80s, he is still at the winery every day. Whether he interacts with every tour group or not, I can’t say, but it was fun to meet and talk to him.
They are proud of their Chardonnay and it’s very good, but, our favorite was the Merlot. We thought it was the best we tasted on the trip. Our tour guide said, “My wife has a nickname for the Merlot; she calls it ‘dinner.” The 2004 vintage will set you back $40, but, it’s worth it. I promise. You can reach them at http://www.grgich.com.
HALL WINERY: How could we pass up a winery with such a distinguished name?
A relatively new winery south of the St. Helena business district on the west side of Highway 29, the Hall Winery is the plaything of Craig and Kathryn Hall of Texas.
There is another Hall Winery, the Robert Hall Winery of Paso Robles which also makes very fine wines. We especially like their Syrah, but, that’s another wine tour.
This Hall Winery’s tasting room is colorful and filled with modern art. It’s manned by a friendly young lady who knows an astounding amount about wine for such a tender age. They have several Cabernets from grapes grown in different vineyards and they’re priced as much as $90. As you might guess, their most expensive Cabernet Sauvignon was my favorite of our whole trip. I even joined their “Wine Club” which means that 3 or 4 times a year they will ship me a couple of bottles of their finest and conveniently charge it to my United Mileage Plus Visa Card. Oh well, think of the Miles I’ll earn.
You, too, can enjoy their wine by visiting their website: http://www.hallwines.com.
GROTH VINYARDS (it rhymes with “broth”) is located in the Oakville Appellation. There are two north-south arteries in the Napa Valley: Highway 29 and the old Silverado Trail. They’re a mile or so apart and, at Oakville, they are connected by a road that is called simply, The Oakville Crossing. You’ll find Groth about halfway across the Crossing. They’ve been there for 25 years.
They have a very beautiful Winery and their tasting room was unique in one respect among the wineries we visited: the $15 fee we paid to taste 3 wines was applied to the purchase price of the wine we bought. They are very proud of the fact that you’ll find their wines at Costco, a great place to get a bargain on quality wine. You’ll also find their wines on the top shelf at Ralphs and Von’s Pavilion.
Their reds were very good, but I fell in love with their Sauvignon Blanc and bought a couple of bottles to ship home. It sells for $18 at the Winery and probably less at Costco. If you plan to ship wine to your self be aware that shippers will only deliver it if there is an adult over the age of 21 to sign for the package That’s why they suggest you send it to yourself at your business address if no one’s home during the day.
You can reach them at http://www.grothwines.com
MINER FAMILY VINYARDS: On our last night, we ate at La Toque, as described earlier. We told the Sommelier we only had time to visit one more winery on our way out of town and asked of all the wineries, which he would visit. He didn’t have to think very long before he said, “If it were me, I’d go to the Miner Family Vineyard.”
So, we did.
They’re located on Silverado Trail a little north of the Oakville Crossing. The building isn’t spectacular, but the tasting room is friendly and cheery. We tasted several wines that were quite good, but, I wouldn’t have said they were spectacular. I was beginning to wonder if our Sommelier might have been related to the Miner Family.
Then our host said, “Now try our Chardonnay, it’s our signature wine” and it was spectacular, by far the best Chardonnay we tasted on the trip. In fact, I couldn’t ever remember tasting better. It's $30 a bottle and worth it. You can buy it and other Miner Wines at http://www.minerwines.com.
GOING HOME: On the way back to the Sacramento Airport we stopped at In & Out Burger in Vacaville for a burger and a coke. It tasted great.
Here’s a quick recap of our favorite wines;
Pinot Noir: Robledo Family Winery
Merlot: Grgich Hills Winery
Cabernet Sauvignon: Hall Winery
Chardonnay: Miner Family Winery
Sauvignon Blanc: Groth Vineyards
Let me know if you agree. Bon Appetit!