Sunday, July 3, 2011

Kid-Free Saturday in Napa Valley

We awoke in our private cottage on the grounds of Honor Mansion in Healdsburg, CA ( Strolling past the croquet field and swimming pool we found breakfast awaiting us on the very pleasant garden deck outside the main house. The pond full of fat and friendly koi was a charming backdrop to our delicious fare.

I quickly understood that this place was going to be somewhat of a roadblock for our wine tasting week. The combination of understated beauty, delicious food, casually efficient service, and simply peaceful surrounds was going to create a large pull whenever we think of venturing out to hundreds of wine tasting options. Oh, did I mention that they do not allow anyone on the premises that is under the age of 16 years old?

Alas, we did finally get on the road around noon bound for the infamous Napa Valley. We decided to pay homage to the common namesake of the region on our first tasting day leaving our northerly nook nestled between Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, and Dry Creek Valley. We drove the beautiful, winding road over the hills to the southeast toward Calistoga.

We cruised through Calistoga south and cut over to the Silverado Trail with our day’s ultimate goal of Rombauer Vineyards ( This well established, signature, buttery California Chardonnay is THE favorite of my partner, and was the driving force behind today’s extended road trip to the south. The friendly folks at Rombauer did not disappoint. They have a valet meet you at the top of the long drive in order to better manage the volume of cars, buses, and stretch limos. Once inside we found the crowded, but manageable tasting room where we were greeted by multiple welcoming and knowledgeable staff. The 2009 vintage of their Carneros Chardonnay was as consistent as we could recall over the past many years’ vintages. After my partner enthusiastically signed up for their Chardonnay wine club (in bewilderment of how she did not accomplish this during our last visit a few years back), and purchased a case of the “Danville Crack” as it is affectionately known by the frequenters from the east bay of the city, I snapped a photo of her in front of the stars and stripes painted bull on the way down the drive and back onto the Silverado Trail.

By this time (around 3pm) we were quite hungry. No McDonalds, Wendys, nor KFC today. We proceeded over to hwy 29 and began our trudge down through the holiday weekend traffic in search of a small, chef owned and operated locale by the name of Cook ( Unfortunately, we missed it amongst the parade of cars traveling the wine road. We ended up grabbing a quick snack at Dean & DeLuca (, rushing to make the 3:30ish tasting cutoff at Frog’s Leap Winery.

Following a few misguided turns we did finally arrive at a very full Frog’s Leap Winery ( . This was one of my choices because I recall their anti-establishment attitude within the Napa Valley, their “green” approach to grape growing, and their zest for having fun, highlighted by their tag line, “Time’s fun when you're having flies”.

In the middle of the last decade they erected a new tasting room building on site, which truly is a tasting building as opposed to a room. Lots of understated, open spaces, with a large deck overlooking a back yard hosting a bean bag toss game. Uniquely, each visitor is offered their own tasting at a private table accompanied by a small plate of cheese & crackers. We were fortunate enough to get Robbie as our tasting educator. He was full of information and stories to delight. The wines were all a bit unique for Napa, as Robbie explained that Frog’s Leap is not interested in chasing Robert Parker’s points, nor whatever medals their neighbors may be collecting. This resulted in us enjoying a Chardonnay that was not so buttery; a Merlot that was a bit more complex than a simple, easy-drinking red; a Cab that was quite complex yet did not strike us as the typically big, bad, bold Napa Cab; a Petite Syrah that had an incredible amount of smoke, almost reminding us of a fine quality of a single malt scotch; and a smooth, slightly peppery, not jammy Zin with which we walked away with a few bottles to enjoy at home with a future summer bbq.

Throughout the 98 degree day we periodically discussed my partner’s prearranged plan to do an 18 mile bike/tasting tour of Dry Creek Valley this coming Monday. Many years ago my partner did a wine tasting trip via bicycle up the Silverado Trail. She has mentioned to me on countless occasions over the years that this was a terrible error which should never be repeated. Today I have been reminding her of this prior drunken pump up the trail, along with my significant concern for dropping dead of heat stroke somewhere up the Dry Creek Road. Currently, it seems to be falling on deaf ears.

The wine and heat ultimately were exhausting. We returned to our temporary home for a much needed nap.

To close out the day we dined at Zin Restaurant & Wine Bar ( in Healdsburg. We started with some yummy beer battered & fried green beans and then proceeded on with a great home-style meal of grilled hanger steak, onion rings, and creamed greens on my partner’s plate, while my plate presented braised short ribs, cold corn salad and horseradish mashed potatoes. We paired our meal with a locally made spicy zin by Big Jim, who happened to be dining across the room – a 2008 Dark Horse Zin ( . It worked perfectly.

Lots of re-hydration upon return to our oasis, and sleep.

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