California Wine Country 2019

2019 marks 30 years Claudine and I have been married. To celebrate, we decided to take a couple of vacations this year. The first was a trip out to California wine country (Napa and Sonoma). We’ve visited both a few times but only as daily jaunts up from San Francisco. We also share our anniversary date with some friends (Vic and Kim) who visit wine country more often than we do so we booked a trip together letting Victor coordinate the lion’s share of the trip.

The following are the highlights of our trip along with some tips and suggestions should you find yourself out in wine country.

Historically we’ve stayed in San Francisco, San Jose, or some other part of the state, usually extending a business trip. Staying in wine country is the way to go. For this trip we opted for a luxury boutique hotel. The olea hotel to be precise. Vic found this hotel, and while it was pricey, it’s right in line for what it offers and have no buyers remorse from staying there. Future trips will likely be at a VRBO or something less hotel like, but I would absolutely stay at the olea again if the price and conditions were right.

The Olea Hotel

If you’re looking for a private boutique hotel with; gourmet breakfast, a good view, fabulous staff, great outdoor places to relax, wonderful pool and hot tub, on-site spa services, crazy comfy rooms with heated bathroom floors look no further.

The Olea was our home Monday – Thursday for our trip. Claudine and I actually came out to California two days earlier and spent those days in a nondescript Marriott in Walnut Creek. We stayed there on points because we thought we’d be bums and hangout by the pool. Turned out the hotel wasn’t all that great so we ventured out on Saturday to Mt. Diablo and the surrounding area and a trip up to Glass Beach in Ft. Bragg and some shopping in Mendocino on Sunday.

Downtown Walnut Creek was nice, lots of great restaurants including http://kaiwasushi.com/ for awesome “hole in the wall’ sushi. We also rolled the dice for an off-airport rental car through Sixt. While our experience was great; there was no line to get our car, and we returned it late at night on Friday. It turns out that’s usually not the case. Our car, a full size Chevy Tahoe was great, even though it was a Chevy.

Wine Country 101

If you’ve never been to wine country, or are new to wines and winemaking do take a tour or two. After that, all the stories are the same, the wine making process is the same and usually goes something like this:

Our winery was founded in the <late 1800’s, early 1900’s> we have always made wine here in some form or fashion. We survived prohibition by making wine for the Catholic church or for pharmaceutical use, or we turned into an orchard, and back into a vineyard after prohibition. In 1976 it was <our wine, or one of our closely related wines, vines, winemaker, father or grandfather of our winemaker> who was responsible for beating the french at their own game and putting California wines on the map. We still have those vines today, in a corner of our vineyard.

We <insert winery name> are focused on making world class <insert wine type>. Our micro climate here in (Napa/Sonoma) is the best for <insert one type of grape> because of our unique soil/sun/fog/coastal breeze/non-coastal breeze> and our <flat/hillside/north/south/east/west> facing vineyard is the best for <insert wine type>. We use only the finest barrels from a cooperage in the <USA/France/some other location> and only use <new/old/american/french> oak. We tightly control the char in the barrel better than anyone else and age the wine in our <warehouse/cave> and bottle it at exactly the right time every year. As you explore our wines through this tasting you’ll discover why we are the very best at what we do.

While a little tongue in cheek, it’s not far from the truth. There are, depending who you ask, between 400 wineries in Napa (600 if you include Sonoma) with tasting rooms and upwards of 2000 different wine producers in the region. Even google doesn’t have a solid count.

Over the course of our trip we visited (10) wineries for tastings or tours. Which is a lot over 4 days, as almost all involved a tour or considerable tasting time. 3 per day is a lot unless you’re going to taste and spit, or have a dedicated driver.

Day 1:
Clod Du Val
We didn’t have a scheduled tour or tasting. We dropped in and they were able to accommodate us for a tasting. Newly remodeled or added tasting room was fabulous as were the wines. We liked it enough to join their wine club. They do distribute some wines although the story is always “What you get here is not what we distribute”

Trefethen
We were set up with a tasting here by a co-worker. We opted to taste the red flight in their recently renovated barn tasting area. Trefethen is known for their Pinots and whites that we didn’t taste. Their reds weren’t our favorites but I did like the Dragon’s Tooth Blend quite a bit.

Dinner: Glen Ellen Star
This place was amazing, pricing was steep but amazing 5 Star food.

Day 2:
Del Dotto Cave Tour (Historic), the have 3 different locations and tasting options. We chose the cave experience with barrel tasting and it was excellent. They have a certain reputation but we enjoyed their wines and bought some. I also bought a checkable wine case for the trip back home from Del Dotto.

Favero
Fred Favero winery. Fred’s estate is also his home. Our friends met Fred back in 2009 and insisted we return on this visit. They weren’t wrong. Favero winery is perched atop a ridge that straddles the Sonoma and Napa borders. He makes 3 reds, an estate Sangiovese, a Monte Di Sassi, and an Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. He only produces around 500 cases a year and you must buy direct. His prices are very fair for the wine quality, in fact, he could charge 65% more just by labeling them Napa wines but he chooses not too. If presented with an opportunity, don’t miss a private tasting at Favero on his patio overlooking the valley.

Dinner: The Girl and Fig
Excellent food, great service.

Day 3:
B. Wise
B. Wise was a recommendation from Olea, in fact it’s one of the wineries that has an agreement with Olea and promotes a free tasting. The story is unique, there isn’t a winery visit, but there is a tasting room just north of Sonoma. We had the place to our self, they have some really powerful and unique reds. Highly recommend a tasting here. We bought a few bottles and will likely order more from B. Wise.

Kunde Mountain Top
We had pre-booked the Kunde mountain top tasting before we came out to California and we thought it was pre-paid. Had we realized it wasn’t pre-paid we would have cancelled it simply because it made getting to Repris on time a bit tough. The mountain top tasting was OK, not horrible, not great, just OK. You start in the main tasting house, board a shuttle to a perch at the top of the winery overlooking the winery for a handful of tastings, then ride the shuttle back down. Maybe 45 minutes at the top. It is a beautiful view, no question. The wines though were not to our liking. I did enjoy the reserve wine at the end. Same spiel as most, join our wine club for exclusive deals you can’t get in distribution. We didn’t join, nor did we purchase wine. Wade our tour guide was fine, a little too Mr. Rodgers like and they are living off the view and the fact that parts of Bottle Shock were filmed there.

Repris
Repris was a recommendation from Fred (Favero). He called Repris and set up the appointment for us. This was my second favorite private tour behind the time with spent at Favero. We beat feet from Kunde and got there just in the nick of time. It is also up on a mountain and takes time to get there. We arrived were greeted with a white wine for tasting, then another for our ride in a 4×4 side-by-side for a ride up to the top of the vineyard for a spectacular view. We stayed up top for a while getting the backstory for the winery then taken back to the caves for more tastings. We bought wine here, their reds were amazing as well. They too only sell direct.

Dinner: The Salt and Stone
Good food, great service. Likely our most forgettable meal though. Steaks were overpowered by the sauce or all would have been excellent. Mac-n-cheese with mushrooms and truffle oil was amazing.

Day 4:
Napa Wine Train:
This was a vacation check-box item. We’ve done it, we’ve checked the box, and that’s that. We are not group tour people. We don’t do cruise ship excursions we book on our own, direct and private (usually for less). So why in the world would we do a group train tour to take group wine tours and tastings? Because trains are cool that’s why. The wine train isn’t cheap initially, the Estate tour itself is about $375 per person, but when you break it down, 3 tastings at say $60 each is $180, the meal is a $75 meal, that gets you to $280, a driver for the day at $120 bucks is a deal. The train is nice, fairly cozy and thankfully for our tour only half full. I probably would have lost my mind if it was 100% at capacity as it was the tours seemed crowded.

The food was good, but not awesome. Portions were smaller than I expected and we got stuck with one winery that no one in our group would have chosen to visit. But again, box checked. I just wouldn’t do it again.

The wineries we visited from the train:
Domaine Chandon
Bubbles, nobody in our group cared for bubbles. I did enjoy a mixer and the grounds are spectacular. If you like bubbles, this is a no brainer stop for you.

Louis M. Martini
We entered this winery with low hopes. Their wines are average, and we think we’ve visited here before the renovation when the grounds were quite plain. The renovation is amazing, and the wines were surprisingly better than expected. I would visit here again, for a private tasting or tour, but not for a group tour.

Inglenook
Francis Ford Coppola makes Inglenook great again! We visited this estate many years ago and had, honestly a not great experience. The wines were good but the tasting server just didn’t want to be there that day. This time we took a broader tour, got the story of the winery from inception in the 1800’s to now. We even bought a bottle. Well worth the trip!

Dinner: Glen Ellen Inn (late evening dinner after the train)
This might have been my favorite meal, certainly right behind the Glen Ellen Star if not the favorite. Killer Cucumber Martini, and a great Salmon filet. The fact that I had just come from a couples massage at the Olea has nothing to do with my assessment 😉 don’t hesitate to eat here or the Glen Ellen Star.

Day 5:
We wrapped up our wine country time after breakfast at the Olea we checked out and headed south for a day in San Francisco with a mildly successful whale watching tour, dinner at Alioto’s, and a sunset cruise around the bay. The latter was my favorite. Awesome new boat in the Red/White fleet, all electric, very clean and quiet.

I loved every moment of this trip with good friends as phase 1 to celebrate our 30 years of marriage. I’ll post more photos later when I have time.

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