From San Francisco and Sausalito we headed out into wine country and kicked off our visit with a glass of bubbly at Gloria Ferrer. With views across the countryside, this was a beautiful introduction to the world of Napa.
Napa is known for its wine production and yet it only produces 4% of California’s total; at least 95% of the bottle needs to be coming from the area in order to have it named on the label. In 1976, there was a competition organised in Paris in which two French judges did blind tasting of both white and red wine from France and from California… In what became known as the Judgment of Paris, a California wine came first in each category, shocking the French who of course could not believe that the Americans could produce wine of such a high calibre. As if that weren’t enough, a repeat tasting to celebrate the 30th anniversary in 2006 saw California wines take the top five spots again….
Our first pre-planned stop was at Beringer, where we took part in a group tour that took us through the history of the winery and the winemaking process. I found the tasting particularly interesting here, as we experimented with the effect of eating something salty, something sour, something bitter and something sweet on different wines. After this we returned to our hotel for some wine and cheese and an early night, as we would be getting up early the next morning for a full-day tour that began with a ride in hot air balloon.
It was my aunt who had suggested the balloon ride and I, of course, said yes although it was only later that I realised that this was actually on my bucket list. We left our backpacks and handbags in a locker as there wouldn’t be space on board the balloon but I still managed to hold onto my phone, my big SLR and my Gopro mounted on a stick. Ridiculous. We drove out into the fields where three balloons lay waiting for us. Each balloon had the ‘cockpit’ in the middle where our pilot would control the burners and then two compartments on either side, each with up to four people in it.
The afternoon tour was a limo ride (“limo” being a bit of a stretch – or, rather, not a stretch, as it was actually a white van) that would take us to four different boutique wineries. The benefit of a tour like this is that you can all drink as much or as little as you feel like, without having the driving hanging over you. It was, as they promised, a very social tour, which saw us quickly bonding with our fellow passengers and culminated in a rendition of American Pie. I blame the wine. You really don’t get drunk, though, as the tasting is spread out throughout the day – it’s the same experience I had when I went on a cycling tour in Argentina, we were unaffected but we had a policeman following us by the end of the day as he was obviously used to rowdy tourists causing mayhem. My aunt and I instead finished off this long day in style with a delicious meal at Bouchon Bistro.
On our final morning – yes, morning – we finished our time in Napa with a last wine tour at Stags’ Leap Winery. Another beautiful location (though sadly they have no licence for wedding ceremonies – I asked) and the story of a strong woman behind it all, involving bootleggers and gangsters (some information on the site but you’ll have to do the tour to get the details!).
I’m not sure how much I learned from all this wine drinking, beyond the fact that I seem to like most (good) wines. My nose is somewhat attuned to different scents given that I worked in perfume for many years but I’m afraid I still can’t distinguish different grapes and I still have no idea what type of wine I really like. I did learn that when you want more of a particular wine you should ask to “revisit it” – that sounds much more refined than “Gimme more of that one” doesn’t? Of course the main thing, I think, is to enjoy the wine, regardless of the grape or the vintage.
Next: from the flowing wine of Napa to the waterfalls of Yosemite
The practical bit
Silverado Resort & Spa – As the name suggests, this is a proper resort and could warrant a much longer stay than the two nights that we stayed there. It was a little out of the way from the action, I found, but I chose it to be within a short driving distance of the starting point for the balloon tour as I knew that this would be an early start.
The full-day tour – We did the Platypus package with Napa Valley Balloons, with an early morning balloon ride followed by a tour of some local wineries. The afternoon wine tour took us to four boutique wineries: Andretti, Tudal, Dutch Henry and Laird. Wine tasting fees at each of the different wineries were not included, which means that you don’t have to do the tasting at each stop if you find it all getting too much!
Stags’ Leap Winery – Note the apostrophe: there was a battle over the name with another winery, which was settled by allowing that one to use Stag’s Leap Winery. Get it? So clear…
Bouchon Bistro – The bakery next door is also well known. If you’ve read this far, all the way to the end of the post, let me tell you an embarrassing tale about this bakery: After our lovely dinner we wanted to pop in to get some breakfast for the next morning. When we tried the door it was locked, though, and one of the staff came out to tell us it was closed. I told him of our search for breakfast and he left us to it but my story must have been pitiful as a minute later he returned, carrying a little paper bag. “We usually give what’s left over to the local homeless charity but here you are.” Great. We’ve taken food from the homeless. We gave him a tip and hung our heads in shame. But the pastries sure tasted good the next day…