October 27, 2011

The Check-In/Check-Out Diaries: California Wine Country

You are standing in line inside JFK looking down at your ticket. What zone am I? This is the question you are asking yourself when you get the call from your Dr. Your biopsy results are in. This could go either way. For me I was fortunate to have good biopsy news and I’m here to say, it is a great way to start off a trip to California wine country.

After a relatively uneventful flight on Delta (that’s a compliment). The only complaint I have is how is it possible that the movie, The Hangover 2 was the exactly the same as the first one? I guess I can’t pin this one on Delta. It’s as if someone had a script and did FIND/REPLACE with Child/Monkey, Las Vegas/Bangkok, and car/boat. Was there a writing deadline (or MANY deadlines) missed?

I arrive at SFO, meet Beth, get a car and after a brief detour of Oakland (ended up on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd) we are headed north. Given it is Thursday evening we head straight for a restaurant where we have a reservation named Compadres Rio Grill. Yes, a Mexican restaurant is our first stop in wine country. No one is in the restaurant leading us to quickly figure out that this area is over by 8pm. We eat fajitas, enchiladas, and dos Margaritas (each) by ourselves.

We are staying at the Napa Best Western Premier. For those unaware “Premier” equals “Fancy” and equals having an extra toothbrush when I realized I had forgot to bring mine (fancy). Unpacked, it is still early so we walk across the parking lot to the Red Hen Cantina. We drink good Margaritas and wonder where all of the people are. Overall the drinks were good, cleanliness, uh, well maybe there’s a little of work to do there. No worries, it’s not like we would be spending much (or any more) time at the Red Hen Cantina. For those keeping track, yes, our first night in wine country consisted of Mexican food and Margaritas.

The next morning we wake up early and begin our drive to the north side of Napa. For seasoned veterans (or for those, like us, that have watched the movie Sideways) you always want to start at the furthest point for your wine tasting, slowly making your way back to your hotel. It really doesn’t take a seasoned veteran to understand this very basic piece of drinking and driving etiquette. Our initial stop is Castello de Amorosa. The first thing you notice is the driveway, with the hills to the right and the vines to the left, it looks like Tuscany. Then you see the castle. A jaw dropping structure that looks as if it has ALWAYS existed in this space (before the vines). Later we learn that this was actually built starting in the nineties, finished in 2007. A drawbridge greets you at the door and once inside there are tunnels throughout taking you through tasting rooms, gift shops, and cellars full of a wine that is only sold at the vineyard. Outside there are courtyards as well as roosters and sheep roaming. There is also a well. We leave after purchasing three bottles and an insulated box we are told can be checked on an airplane. One case minus three equal nine bottles left to buy!

Next stop is Sterling vineyard, a little mainstream, but there is a tram that takes you up the side of the mountain where the winery, tour, and tastings are located. Lunch is in the town of Calistoga at the Calistoga Inn that is also a restaurant and brewery. The outside garden area is incredible and the chicken club sandwiches were awesome! So good we decided to postpone the next vineyard visit for a piece of culture. No, we’re not on route 66, but we could be when we pull up to The Old Faithful Geyser. Every ten minutes the Geyser erupts, that’s pretty much the attraction. In addition to the shooting water there are four-horned sheep, fainting goats, and yes, another well (that’s two for those holding well scorecards). Route 66 has nothing on The Old Faithful Geyser.

After the side show our focus is back. We stop at Charles Krug, the vineyard started by the brother of Robert Mondavi. We learn about the bad Mondavi blood and deep grudges that lasted for decades. Back in the car a quick stop for a picture with the “Welcome to Napa Valley Sign” which has to be second (on the cheese scale) only to the “Welcome to the Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. Beringer winery is next and then followed by Robert Mondavi which is followed by Domaine Chandon. Tastings at all, bottles purchased at all. We meet friends at Domaine Chandon for champagne and then its back to the hotel for more wine tasting (fancy) and stories of Paris and debauchery. Drinking and stories flow into dinner at Don Giovanni’s restaurant and then we are back at the hotel, where we find ourselves standing in the parking lot.

We are all staring back and forth between the time (looking at watches and cell phones) and (across the street) at the Red Hen Cantina. It is not even ten o’clock so we decide to go have one nightcap.

Authors Note: In addition to the narrative below (which is accurate) there were notes (found the next day) jotted down that said the words “Ponches”, “Mooselodge”, and “Bowling”. I am unsure what this was in reference to. Note that “Mooselodge” was crossed out, twice. The phrase “San Fran is where you will find the strip clubs” is circled. Madness!

“You should be taking notes”, The Quarterback tells me. I have just met The Quarterback, but I can sense some wisdom is about to be sent my way.

BACK UP: After finding a seat at the Red Hen Cantina we enjoyed Margaritas, Captain Morgan, Vodka, and Patron, two rounds. Next to us was a VERY local woman who continued to want to interrupt our discussion which up to this point was centered on the group of restaurant workers playing dice at a nearby table. Both she and her guy would join us. It was only a matter of time.

It was after his confession of either playing for or coaching alongside football legend Dick Vermeil (this was never that clear) that he insisted, “You should be taking notes”. There was a moment of shock when The Quarterback watched me pull out my notebook, and start taking notes. This is what I learned:

The Quarterback was at one time a promising athlete who is now leading a promising life of alcoholism and alleged methamphetamine use. His girl, I never got her name, but know she is the sister of Linda Champagne who works at or owns a vineyard. Sister of Linda Champagne hates here sister (Linda Champagne) and seemed to enjoy letting random tourists in on this fact. After the family history The Quarterback began telling me about the 20/30 club. “It is a club where anyone in their twenties or thirties can go and hang out. Most of the time no one is there, but sometimes there is someone else and you can play a game of billiards.” That was said, this happened. (Authors note: I recall asking about bowling at the 20/30 club which may be what this “bowling” note was in reference to.) Both The Quarterback and Sister of Linda Champagne talk about “the industry” and speak about time in Napa as “pre” and “post” grapes. I continue to try and get more information on this fascinating idea (or concept) known as the 20/30 club, but all I get is a smile and “It’s where you need to be” response. The Quarterback also insists he is not talking about a bar. Somewhere between five minutes and two hours pass until finally The Quarterback leans in, pats me on the shoulder, and tells me, “You have graduated from Napa”. That was said, this happened.

The next day was understandably, somewhat of a late start. The morning consisted of muffins, coffee, and flashbacks from the night before. We hit the road around 10:30 and headed to Sonoma for what would be labeled as Champagne Saturday.

First stop was the hangover friendly Charles Schultz Museum where we walked through halls of Peanuts comic strips and Snoopy statues. Next to the museum we found the Warm Puppy Café where we shared a slice and enjoyed the sunshine. Back in the car we road tripped out to the deep woods to find Korbel. Are we allowed to refer to Korbel as the High Life of Champagnes? Probably not, but they had complimentary tastings, a tasty lunch of pork, cheese, and yes, champagne followed by us purchasing a six pack of bottles to be shipped back to NY (this is in addition to the case in our car that was close to being full – only three open slots available). We navigate out of the woods and then stop at Gloria Ferrer for more champagne and a tour that promised caves that really didn’t deliver on that promise (you are brought to a look out of a cave, no bats: bummer). After purchasing another bottle we head back into the town of Sonoma for pizza and then back on the road for one final stop, Domaine Caneros for a champagne flight that promises to have you leaving light headed. Gorgeous views, the sun setting, and constant sipping of champagne. It was the perfect ending before heading back to SFO for the redeye flight to JFK.

For us it was the perfect amount of time, one day for Napa, one for Sonoma. Sure, there are many vineyards we didn’t get a chance to see, but that’s a good reason to come back. Not too mention the unanswered questions, such as: What the fuck is the 20/30 club?

David S. Grant is the author of several books. His latest, BLOOD: The New Red will be available 11-11-11. For more information go to http://www.davidsgrant.com. Follow David on Twitter @david_s_grant