Sunday, August 4, 2013

Touring Napa

Warning - this is a long post, settle in for a tour of wine country!

As part of our vacation in California, Matt and I had planned to take a few days by ourselves in Napa Valley. Over six years ago Matt proposed in a vineyard there (hard to believe it's been that long already!) and we always envisioned going back there to celebrate our 5 year wedding anniversary.

My parents were originally planning to come on vacation with us and keep Riker while we went to Napa, but the week before we left my stepdad came down with pneumonia and couldn't fly. We thought we'd have to cancel our getaway, but my sister Amanda and her boyfriend Justyn happened to be vacationing in the same area at the same time, and generously offered to babysit for two days so we could keep our plans. We were so surprised and felt so thankful and blessed that they offered; talk about family coming to the rescue! We had to switch our itinerary a little bit, but in the end everything actually worked out even better and we were glad to get to spend some time with Amanda and Justyn out west too.

Midway through our trip we left our rental house early in the morning and drove to Vino Bello Resort in the heart of Napa. Surprisingly, the resort let us check in early AND they upgraded us to one of their premier suites. Happy anniversary to us!

A short while later our wine country tour guide arrived to pick us up, and we boarded a shuttle with 6 other tourists to head out on a day of exploring and wine tasting. Booking a tour was the best decision ever - we were able to see tucked away wineries we wouldn't have normally traveled to, get VIP treatment and private tours everywhere we went, and taste to our heart's content without worrying about driving home.

After getting recommendations from friends we booked through Platypus Tours, and they were fantastic. The driver/guide, Sam, was very knowledgeable of the area and of wine, he took us to some amazing boutique wineries, and packed us a cheese platter for snacking in between tastings and a gourmet picnic lunch. We literally didn't have to lift a finger or think about anything all day. I would recommend them in a heartbeat!

Our first stop was to Hess Collection, which I loved. We sipped wine while we walked through the vineyard with a private guide, learned about the history of the very old estate and its owner, and then had a tasting of all their wines in the barrel room where the latest reds were aging.

Apparently Hess, the owner, has the largest private wine collection in the world. He also loves fine art, and has a big display of his own art collection at the winery as well. So, in addition to seeing beautiful vineyards and barrel rooms, we were able to tour gorgeous gardens and a mini museum.

Our second stop, Nicholson Ranch, was our favorite of the day. Not only were the grounds beautiful and the wine delicious, we met the winemaker himself for a private tour and he had such passion about his craft that it just made you want to drink his wine.

We learned a ton about Napa grapes and winemaking here, all of which I found so interesting. It's safe to say I won't ever look at large commercial wineries the same again! It felt really special to taste wines that were made with such love, care and hard labor, which are made in "small" batches, and which aren't shipped nationwide in large tankers. Nicholson Ranch uses yeast right from the vineyard and makes its wine without any electric equipment (gravity is all you need for filtering!) and even built their own underground cave system to store the wine so that it could age naturally and without air conditioning or heating.

Touring the caves with the winemaker was one of my favorite parts of the day. We could ask as many questions as we wanted, and periodically a strategically placed bottle of wine would appear around a corner, where he would pour us a glass of something new and then keep walking & talking. Eventually we ended up at his private underground banquet room, where we finished our tasting.

After the tour - and double tasting, then buying our favorite wines back in the standard tasting room - our guide for the day prepared a lunch for us on the Italian style veranda overlooking the vineyards.

My vegetarian meal included a croissant sandwich with hummus and a whole container full of fresh chopped veggies, along with quinoa salad and some homemade baked goods for dessert. It was just what we needed to recharge after drinking wine all morning.

After reluctantly leaving Nicholson Ranch, we headed out to McKenzie Mueller.

McKenzie Mueller was much smaller than the first two wineries, and situated on a family farm. They only do tastings by appointment, so our group had the whole place to ourselves. The winemaker's daughter walked us through the winery's history and their wines, and had us taste 12 (12!!) of her father's bottles. We left with a malbec (and two of their wine glasses that I fell in love with) - which I had no idea they even make in the U.S. since I've only ever seen them from South America.

Our last stop of the day was Ceja, another family owned vineyard.

The estate was really lovely and we met the owner briefly, who was bubbly and gracious and a really warm host. To be honest, I really wasn't paying much attention to the tasting at this point and was wandering around babbling with the other girls that were on our tour. But Matt said all the wines was delicious, and we left with a bottle of everything on the list. Ha!

Our guide dropped us back off at the hotel around 5, and we had a few hours to kill before our dinner reservation. What else to do than continue drinking wine? Vino Bello has its own vineyard and wine cave, called Trinitas, which we of course had to try. One of the couples on our tour was staying at our hotel, so after a quick change the 4 of us headed over to the tasting room to finish off the day.

At long last, it was dinnertime. Months ago I made reservations at Michael Chiarello's restaurant, Bottega, and I was so excited to go. I've watched Michael on the Food Network for as long as I can remember, and I love his simple and rustic Napa Californian style. Don't worry, we had a car service drive us to dinner. ;)

The atmosphere was really great and the service was impeccable. I also loved that our waiter was a sommelier so was very knowledgeable of food and wine pairings.

I have to say, though, that the food wasn't as amazing as I always dreamed it would be. Everything was good, but I was anticipating ooh-ing and aah-ing during the whole meal; unfortunately nothing was really incredible or truly memorable, but there were a few standouts and we had a great time anyway.

I've wanted to try a crispy 6-minute egg ever since I saw it on Next Iron Chef, so was jazzed when I spotted one on the appetizer menu. It was really good.

The cioppino had a really flavorful broth and the addition of hollandaise was unique. 

And our dessert was topped with rosemary gelato, which was so interesting. I loved the combination of sweet and earthy.

And therein concludes our first day in Napa. I told you it was a packed one! We had big plans of sitting outside by one of resorts many comfy fire pits when we got home, but after such a long day I zonked out as soon as we got back to our room. It really was an amazing anniversary. Thanks again to Amanda and Justyn for giving us the day! :)

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