Travel within the U.S.
California Wine Country Weekend
Three single sisters travel to Napa Valley to enjoy California vintages, farm fresh food, vine-terraced greenery and plush spa pampering.
The last time I visited Napa Valley, I was in a committed relationship. (Turns out I was the only one committed to it.) Although our love soured like an unripe grape, the fact remains that wine country is an impossibly romantic place.
Which made me wonder, could I love Napa without a lover? Would I become nauseated watching clusters of adoring couples fawning over each other amidst the picturesque rolling hills and sun-dappled vineyards? There was only one way to find out. And it called for a threesome.
I arrived with not one, but two very special travel companions—my sisters. Pascale, my big-hearted “big sissy” and Los Angeles bestie, is a true California girl with her sunny disposition, mega-watt smile and hot bikini bod. She’s a tech-savvy videogame whiz; even her refrigerator has the latest apps. Junior (a nickname bestowed on her in college) is my chic, sensible, overachieving younger sister who is meticulously organized and wise beyond her years. As kids, we were partners in crime when it came to silliness, and although she grew up to be the most mature and responsible of the three, I can coax some screwball out of her under the right circumstances.
It is a rare treat to vacation as a trio, as we live on different continents (Junior’s in Europe) and don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like.
Of course, that lull in togetherness can have its share of challenges when we reunite. Just as the same varietals of grapes can yield very different wines, we are siblings from identical Old World vines, yet we have three contrasting personalities, aspirations and lifestyles, not to mention palates. Junior exhibits the seriousness and elegance of an aged Cabernet Sauvignon; Pascale is as sweet and delicate as late-harvest Sauternes; as for me, I embrace the sassy fruit character of Sauvignon Blanc—the wine world’s “wild child.”
So, with much excitement and perhaps the smallest amount of trepidation, we began our journey.
We nested “up valley” at the historic Mount View Hotel & Spa in the quaint, laid-back town of Calistoga, about 75 miles from San Francisco at the north end of Napa Valley. This charming hotel, built in 1912, captures the intimacy of a bed and breakfast and delights guests with thoughtful little luxuries, such as artisan coffee and freshly baked pastries delivered to guest rooms every morning.
Mount View’s website promised “relaxation and rejuvenation,” and from the looks of the fluffy feather beds and enticing spa menu, our trio was in for some top-notch pampering. The moment we arrived, the hotel’s congenial staff effused Calistoga friendliness and warmth. Our Winery Suite, one of ten on the property named after area vintners, included a bottle of Flora Springs 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon—a nice touch, especially when there’s a corkscrew and glasses at the ready.
We arrived just in time for poolside wine tasting, a weekly late-afternoon affair featuring complimentary pours from local vineyards. The concierge asked if we would like to join the festivities. Let’s see—sip a perfectly chilled glass of rosé beside a sparkling outdoor pool while dishing with my sisters? Yes, please!
That evening we enjoyed a superb dinner at JoLe, a farm-to-table restaurant in the lobby of the Mount View hotel, where menu items like the seared Sonoma foie gras, grilled asparagus and smoked trout are elevated by organic, seasonal ingredients. Standouts include smoked pork shoulder with a tomatillo-garlic salsa and bacon-wrapped veal sweetbreads accompanied by cinnamon cap mushrooms, baby carrots and English peas. JoLe’s smart, eclectic wine list features selections from neighboring boutique producers, such as Showket Vineyards Sangiovese and Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay.
The next morning, we began our wine country adventure with an outdoor Terrace Tasting at Joseph Phelps Vineyards. I was eagerly anticipating those three little words that tug at an oenophile’s heartstrings: Swirl, sip, spit. We were in expert hands with Michael Cawelti, one the vineyards’ affable wine educators, who guided us through tastings of six wonderful Rhone and Bordeaux-style wines as we gazed out at postcard-perfect views of lush grapevines in diverse shades of green and violet.
Michael poured the 2010 Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc made with 100% estate-grown grapes. Crisp and vibrant, it was laced with melon, lemon verbena and citrus zest. Being equal opportunity tasters, we advanced to the Phelps flagship, Insignia. The 2008 was magnificent—full-bodied and complex, bursting with rich blackberry, currant and spice notes.
Our next epicurean excursion led us to Auberge du Soleil, a little slice of foodie heaven on earth, where the blood orange salad and sunchoke risotto are as spectacular as the view. Auberge du Soleil is a Michelin-starred culinary destination nestled high in the hills of Rutherford. To call it an excellent restaurant would be an insulting understatement; dining at Auberge du Soleil is a transformative experience. A sun-drenched lunch at a highly coveted table on the terrace brought new meaning to “afternoon delight.” We feasted on exquisite Mediterranean-inspired cuisine from a vantage point that afforded panoramic scenes of olive groves, blossoming gardens and the glorious Mayacama Mountain Range.
Executive Chef Robert Curry prepared plate after delicious plate of gastronomic glee. Some of the best were the Maine rock crab cake and ancho chili remoulade; cabernet-braised short rib with an extravagant assortment of wild mushrooms; simply prepared and perfectly crisp asparagus with hen egg; and my personal favorite, the pan-seared halibut in a divine Meyer lemon foam.
“Michelle, you’re not going to lick that plate, are you?”
“Of course not,” I replied. “I’m just inhaling the Meyer lemon essence. It’s like aromatherapy.”
“You’re embarrassing us. People are staring.”
“Already? Really? I’ve only had one glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Wow, this sauce is orgasmic. Hand me the wine list.”
I could have stayed on that terrace for hours, but there were three people waiting to get their hands on us back at the Mount View Hotel & Spa—our spa technicians—because it just wouldn’t be a proper ladies adventure without a trip to the spa.
Not surprisingly, each of us chose a different treatment. Junior opted for the signature Swedish-style massage with warm basaltic stones—50 minutes of full-body relaxation. Pascale raved about the Seaweed Wrap; her skin was covered neck-to-toe in a silky, mineral-rich seaweed gel infused with juniper, lavender, lemon and ylang-ylang. In true wine country style, I succumbed to the Grape Seed Mud Wrap. I was slathered in a decadent mixture of warm mud and crushed grape seeds from Napa Valley wineries, and then massaged until I could barely speak.
We emerged rejuvenated and utterly relaxed, and happily padded back to our suite in robes and slippers. Recounting the day’s adventures, we collapsed on the pillows with big, silly smiles of contentment on our faces.
Across the street from the Mount View Hotel & Spa is Calistoga Balloons. We launched at sunrise, when the winds are the calmest, and we gracefully drifted over majestic Mt. St. Helena. There were bursts of colorful wildflowers on the grassy slopes, fields of lavender and hundreds of verdant vineyards all around us. It was incredible to see wine country from a completely different perspective, serenely floating 2,500 feet above it all.
Our basket touched down in a farmer’s field, and the Calistoga Balloons crew shuttled us back to town for a delightful champagne brunch in the backyard garden at the Calistoga Inn. We raised our glasses to toast our skilled pilots, Bob and Jim, and our celestial adventure.
Next, it was on to Girard Winery for an unconventional wine-tasting experience: Sip & Slider. Girard celebrated National Hamburger Month by throwing an afternoon bash in their Yountville tasting room; they cranked up the music and served tasty grilled sliders with a plateful of enthusiasm.
Girard’s lively staff has a terrific time pouring wine and making sure revelers enjoy themselves. We sipped a glass of the light and fruity 2011 Girard Sauvignon Blanc before moving on to a burger-friendly flight of 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel (earthy and spicy), 2006 Artistry (big and bold) and 2008 Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon (intense and juicy with toasted oak influences).
Ever the sociable hosts, our servers invited us to join them for more Girard fun in the coming months. The Girard Winery calendar is chock-full of events, from classic to quirky. Any excuse for a party, as they say.
Our final bacchanalian expedition was certainly the most lavish. Modeled after a palatial Italian villa, the Del Dotto Venetian Estate Winery and Caves in St. Helena is a massive, cathedral-like structure. I dare anyone to find more Italian marble in all of Napa Valley. As we checked in for our tour, Andrea Bocelli’s “Romanza” filled the ornate wine salon and wafted past Venetian crystal chandeliers and hand-painted frescoes—an impressive replication of the Del Dotto family’s Italian heritage.
Our amiable guide, Ed Evans, led us into the candlelit caves to taste wines thieved from 100 percent new oak barrels. Del Dotto is reputed for their experimentation with barrel aging, so we jumped at the chance to taste how profoundly the barrels impact flavor. We did a side-by-side thieving of the Del Dotto 2010 St. Helena Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon—one from a Colbert French Oak barrel and one from a Missouri U-Stave American Oak Barrel. Both were excellent, but I preferred the influence of the French Oak—a more delicate vanilla flavor—to the meatier BBQ spare ribs flavor imparted by the American Oak.
Then, there was charcuterie, cheese and chocolate, oh my! I was thrilled to learn that Joshua Schwartz of French Laundry and Bouchon fame is Del Dotto’s executive chef. We sampled his exceptional house-made salami, including Finocciona and Gentile, made with Duroc pork shoulder and belly, garlic, black peppercorns and Del Dotto Pinot. Il Mio Dio! I wanted to break into Del Dotto’s sausage cellar and thieve a few links for the trip home.
Far too soon it was time to bid farewell to the Napa Valley. Steps away from the Mount View hotel, we stopped to pick up a few Calistoga mementos along Lincoln Avenue, which is peppered with art galleries, antique stores and specialty shops such as the Calistoga Olive Oil Company. Proprietor Jamie Anzalone sources his extra virgin olive oils from a small family ranch in the Sierra Foothills. Single varietals and infusions like fresh basil and Thai chili pepper are artfully arranged on reclaimed redwood tables and wine barrels, and visitors are encouraged to taste. If you don’t live in the area, Jamie can ship goodies like applewood smoked sea salt and cask-aged balsamic vinegar from his online store.
Nibbling on black truffle cheese as we packed our suitcases, it dawned on us: We hadn’t argued once, no one cried (well, only happy tears), and we had miraculously managed to share one bathroom among the three of us—a feat we couldn’t accomplish in our teens. Had we bottle shocked ourselves into submission?
I suspect it has less to do with those mood-enhancing glasses of wine than a simple law of nature. The grapes don’t fall too far from the vine. We each have a blend of our mom’s champagne-like effervescence and our dad’s joie de vivre. Those characteristics connect us in an almost telepathic way, no matter how long it’s been since our last reunion. As sisters, our vines are entwined. They always will be.
In vino veritas, and I came home convinced that Napa is for lovers: lovers of phenomenal wine and food, lovers of nature, lovers of touring, tasting, unwinding and uncorking. You don’t have to be one half of a couple to have a singularly good time in wine country. I’ll always drink to that!
Copyright © Michelle Gigon/2012 Singular Communications, LLC.
Visit / Stay / Dine
MOUNT VIEW HOTEL & SPA
1457 Lincoln Ave.
Calistoga, CA 94515
Guest Services Concierge: 800-816-6877
Mount View Spa: 707-942-5789
1458 Lincoln Ave.
Railway Car #15
Calistoga, CA 94515
AUBERGE DU SOLEIL
180 Rutherford Hill
Rutherford, CA 94573
DEL DOTTO VINEYARDS
1445 St. Helena Hwy South
St. Helena, CA 94574
JOSEPH PHELPS VINEYARDS
200 Taplin Road
St. Helena, CA 94574
6795 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
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