On Monday, November 11, I had a reason to drive to Saint Helena, 50 miles north of our house in Albany, California. Saint Helena is in the midst of the Napa Valley. A client asked me to scout a location for a photo shoot. Rather than drive up and back alone I took my wife Joann and we combined the work trip with a dinner date.
Joann did some research ahead of our visit. Being that it was a Monday a few restaurants were closed and we thought it best to plan ahead, select a restaurant, and make reservations. We settled on the Farmstead restaurant at Long Meadow Ranch, a farm-to-table restaurant with a general store, cafe and tasting room.
After the client meeting we headed to Farmstead. While driving north on Highway 128 we were struck by a giant bunny leaping out of a vineyard; Bunny Foo Foo at the Hall Wine Tasting Room. The late afternoon sun glinting off the bright surface of the bunny was arresting. We stopped to grab a few snapshots. From there it was s short drive to Long Meadow Ranch.
With time to spare before our dinner reservation we took advantage of the tasting room and wandered the grounds while we sipped wine. Dinner was fabulous. I had the special of the day, bacon wrapped meatloaf. Joann had trout. I’ve never considered meatloaf to be a gourmet item, but with our waiter’s recommendation I’ll have to say this dish was out of this world.
The Quixote Winery is a hidden gem among the better known wineries of the Napa Valley. It’s located on the east side of the valley in the Stags Leap District. Having returned from Spain in June with a fascination for Antoni Gaudi’s designs, a friend suggested we check out the winery.
The whimsical architecture is like nothing else in the valley. The original winery owner, Carl Doumani, was fascinated by Don Quixote the Novel by Miguel de Cervantes. In his search for somebody that could create a winery to fit his vision he commissioned Friedensreich Hundertwasser, a Viennese artist and architect.
We visited the winery on August 27, having made a reservation the day before. Tasting is by reservation only, although you might be able to get same day reservations. We signed up for the White Label Experience that included an estate tour and a tasting of five wines paired with a plate of gourmet cheeses. With just two of us we had a rather exclusive tasting. It was a delightful experience and we left with three bottles of wine. This is a small winery. The estate vineyards cover 27 acres with Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
If you are planning on visiting the Napa Valley keep in mind that there are some 400 wineries with tasting rooms, and the valley includes some 16 distinctive appellations, each with it’s own distinctive soils and climate that lend themselves to different varieties of grapes.
The Los Carneros AVA at the southern end has a cool climate moderated by marine winds from the Bay and soils dominated by a clay-hardpan. This region produces Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Thirty miles to the north the Calistoga AVA with warmer temperatures and rocky volcanic soil is better suited to thicker skinned grapes such as Cabernet, Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Sirah.
Oh, and after our wine tasting we drove the short distance to Yontville where we split a Pulled Pork Sandwich at the R+D kitchen; a delight to the palate after the wine tasting. There’s no shortage of options for wine and food in the Napa Valley and the surrounding areas.
June 12 our day starts with a ride from Girona to Begur where we begin our next adventure, a walking tour titled Hidden Gems of the Costa Brava. While we booked this tour through Macs Adventures, Macs contracts with a local tour operator Catalan Adventures. Our driver for the trip to Begur is Steve, the owner of the tour business. It’s about an hours drive.
Once we arrive at Hotel Rosa Steve spends half an hour with us going over the tour details including reviewing the maps, walking routes, suggestions for places to eat and such. Breakfast and lodgings are included in our tour package but for lunch and dinner we’re on our own. We have two nights in Begur. It’s market day and the main square is full of vendors selling shoes, cheese, clothes, beach towels. We buy cheese since we’ll have a picnic lunch on our first day of walking. I also buy a pair of sunglasses, since that’s one thing that didn’t get packed.
We spend the afternoon walking around town exploring the history and architectural details. The Hotel Rosa is in the older part of town. Just across the street are two restaurants, Plattios and Fonda. With two nights in town we try them both. Plattios was highly recommended. The advise was to make reservations as soon as we checked in to the hotel, so shortly after arrival I called, but got no answer. This went on for several attempts and finally I went down to consult with the hotel manager who informed me that they don’t answer the phone before 6:30 pm. Most restaurants don’t open before 8 pm. The manger was happy to make reservations for us. A small place, I counted 16 seats. The food was exquisite. One of our best meals on our trip. While we didn’t come to Catalonia for the food, the food and wine experience has been one of the highlights of our trip.
By the way. After several days in Costa Brava I have to say the walking is easy compared to the foothills of the Pyrenees.
On Saturday November 24, with Thanksgiving behind us, we decided to hit the road for a three day trip to Mendocino. We grabbed a few items of food, a change of clothes, hopped in the truck and headed north, taking Highway 101 to Cloverdale where we turned west onto Highway 128. We logged 126 miles from our house to Mill Creek Retreat, where we had reserved a camp site ahead of time. The drive took us four hours, since we’re inclined to take our time and enjoy the drive.
As we headed west on Highway 128 we were surprised at the color along the route. Oaks and willows were putting on a show of yellow. We stopped to take a few photos. We just drove past many wineries and tasting rooms along the way. Being preoccupied with the color and beauty in the valley we didn’t stop for wine tasting. We did stop at the market in Boonville to pick up a bottle of wine from one of the local wineries, a bottle of Husch Pinot Noir which proved to be quite nice. There are dozens of wineries along this drive, so you could easily spend a day or more just visiting wineries.
We arrived at our intended camping destination at 3:30, set up camp and let our dog Carson loose to roam free. One of our criteria for selecting Mill Creek Retreat was the fact that it’s a dog friendly and dogs can be off leash. We found this location through Hipcamp.com, a website that lists camping locations on private property that may not be listed on other camping directories.
The next morning, before heading off to explore the town of Mendocino we walked down to the creek. I was curious to see what photo opportunities I might discover. I can usually find something close at hand.
Sure enough there was some color along the creek, and with the soft-misty light of the clearing fog, I captured a few pictures. I had to improvise a camera support, since my tripod got left behind. I jury rigged three trekking poles with with a little Ultra-pod. This seemed to be sufficient for my Sony RX 100.
At the end of the day we found ourselves at Van Damme Beach where we watched the sun sink into the ocean before heading back to camp.
First stop in the morning on our waking tour, and the bike tour as well, was the local boulangerie. It was a real treat to walk into a French bakery in a small town and buy fresh bread. Part of the treat was the opportunity to interact with the local people. While we didn’t have much of a command of the French language, we were always able to communicate with the few words we had and by pointing to what we wanted. Such a variety of choices from which to choose. From the boulangeire, we would then head to the butcher for salami or cured ham of some sort, then the produce market for apples, peaches, or what ever else we might need for our picnic lunch. Once we were provisioned with bread, cheese, and fruit we would head off for the days adventure, walking ancient paths, and country roads.. At the end of the day’s walk we would typically have a fine four course dinner with a local wine. No shortage of fine wine in the Dordogne. Bread and wine becoming the bookends for our daily adventures.
The highlight of the trip though, wasn’t the bread, the food, the wine, or the places we visited. It was the people. Everywhere we went the people were warmhearted and friendly, whether it was the old woman we met on the first day of our walk, the clerks at the boulangeries, or the inn keepers.
One event in particular stands out as a highlight. Dinner at La Maison Rose. La Maison Rose is a small bead and breakfast in Origne. Dinner is served family style with guests and hosts sitting on benches at a long table. The house, was once the presbytery for the church across the street, and it’s easy to imagine we’re simply carrying on a tradition that has gone on for centuries in the dining room. We shared dinner with Mr et Mme de Rochefort, the hosts, with a fabulous four course dinner of roast rabbit, fresh bread, and a local Bordeaux wine. It was a treat to be entertained by the Rocheforts and to visit with guests from New Zealand, England, and South Africa. Gathering around a common table and sharing bread and wine is like medicine for the soul.
The dining room at La Maison Rose. Set for breakfast.
Mr et Mme de Rochefort. Our hosts at La Maison Rose in Origne
Having just returned from France, I thought it would be appropriate to share something from our recent travels for World Tourism Day. One of the locations we visited was La Cité du Vin in Bordeaux. I was struck by the design of the building, with it’s flowing curves and ribs. Evocative of knotted vines, wine barrels, wine turning in the glass, and the swirls and eddies of the the adjacent Garonne River. The website says “Each and every architectural detail evokes liquid elements and the very soul of wine.” Beyond the design, the museum houses exhibits about wine, covering every aspect of wine that you might imagine.