The wine that made me fall in love with wine was Ridge’s 2002 Lytton Springs. I was eating at an Italian restaurant in San Francisco with new friends, visiting from Austin, and a couple brought a magnum to have with our meal.
Seven years later, and seven and a half hours after leaving West Hollywood, I finally found myself pulling into a gravel parking space across the street from Ridge’s Lytton Springs tasting room in northern Sonoma County. Like a great Zinfandel, my interest in wine had only grown deeper and more intense in time.
I was too excited and humbled for expectations, so it was inevitable that I would be surprised when I saw Ridge. Its building was at one point the most sustainable in the US, solar powered and constructed from rice hay and clay, and it seemed muted against the technicolor vines on the hills to the south and east. Our warm tasting room manager led us through their wines at a nice slow gait and humored my over-enthusiasm to the end. This, we would soon find, is how it is.
It was a gray day, with bursts of rain from time to time, and it didn’t bother me. I was finally there. And coming from a city with 36 days of rain annually, I don’t mind a 37th. The plan was to cross over to the Napa Valley to check in to our hotel in Calistoga, and then taste wines around the town.
Along the route, we passed a lot of wineries, and, finally being in wine country, after a few miles, we thought it best not to wait until we got to Napa to visit another. Soda Rock’s castle-like campus looked interesting to us, so we skidded to a stop before passing it by and turned into their lot. The eccentric tasting room appealed to the senses, with a toothy, grinning hog on display, looking freshly styled by the taxidermist; a blown-up portrait of a timelessly beautiful young woman taking up an entire wall; and the smell of new wood and wine permeating the air.
Soda Rock’s style.
We enjoyed our extensive tasting and the woman who guided us through it. When my boyfriend went to pay for us, she noticed that he had a Visa Signature card. “Oh, you’re good,” she said. Pardon? As it happened, Visa Signature was running a promotion with a huge number of Sonoma Wineries–tastings would be free.
Making a splash at Field Stone.
After checking in to the charming Mount View Hotel and Spa and submitting to naps, it was time to find a restaurant for dinner. We wouldn’t get to see how lovely Calistoga is in the light until the morning, so we just looked in restaurant windows and read menus until we came across something that just seemed right. Bosko’s Trattoria was it. I ate my entire plate of fettuccine with juicy shrimp and al dente mushrooms in a garlicky Asiago cheese sauce, and even dipped into my boyfriend’s spaghetti with sausage, eggplant, peppers, and marinara. Our server also turned us on to Rosenblum’s 2009 Zinfandel, which we’ve had no fewer than a dozen bottles of since. It was exactly what we needed and wanted.
Well rested and fed, we stayed up late to watch Bottle Shock, the story of the famous 1976 Paris wine tasting in which internationally renown French Chardonnays lost to Chateau Montelena’s California Chardonnay (albeit in the French style). What happened to the California wine industry after that is history of a satisfying nature.
Montelena was only a short drive from the hotel, so in the morning we decided to visit the tasting room. Under a brilliant sun, Calistoga turned out to be very charming, with a ridge of mountains creating the most striking background to the east. Reluctant morning drinkers that we are, we wanted to visit California’s Old Faithful before the tasting room, just a bit further down the road. Not the same as America’s Old Faithful, but hopefully an impressive geyser nonetheless.
California’s Old Faithful, not at its most glorious.
We saw (California’s) Old Faithful erupt as soon as we arrived, and it didn’t seem terribly tall, so we made the most of our admission fees and explored the small park. A herd of goats was very happy to see us, especially after we filled our hands with 25 cents of feed, and we were happy to see them too. A bit unsatisfied with the geyser, and deciding it was still too early to sip wine, we waited for one more eruption. And waited. And waited. Glad we did–the pressure built up enough to send a stream of hot water twice as high into the air as the first eruption. We were officially impressed.
Chateau Montelena was worth visiting. The tasting fee is not insignificant, though, and anyone expecting California style wines will not find them. The property is just beautiful, though, with its moss-covered stone edifice and a large pond with swans gliding over the reflections of clouds and autumn leaves.
And then we went to our favorite winery of the trip. Matt at Vincent Arroyo Winery answered our apologetic call inquiring into appointments and generously squeezed us into their busy Saturday schedule. He didn’t have to. We just love Petite Syrah, but it’s a love of a few years, not a lifetime. We’re only ripening in the wine world. But I really feel like that visit was special–the start of something that lasts. After Matt’s personal tour and explanation of their wine-making process, with his beautiful dog in tow, and a tasting of every wine they make, from Chardonnay to Port, I know that when I’m ripe to invest, I’ll invest in Vincent Arroyo Wines.
Vincent Arroyo’s vines.
From there, we drove south down the Napa Valley and stopped in Yountville for lunch. My boyfriend had pre-ordered two fried chicken lunches from Thomas Keller’s “Addendum” to Ad Hoc, and before long I was eating the best fried chicken of my life at a picnic table. Everyone has asked me why his is the best fried chicken, and I can only guess. I think it starts in a lemon-herb brine and, internet rumor has it, enjoys a nice sous-vide bath before getting dipped in egg and coated in a salty, spicy batter and fried. It’s the sous-viding that presumably makes the chicken so moist, and I think the combination of a uniformly thin coat of the dry batter, high heat on the oil, and proper ventilation in the cooling process makes for the intensely crispy skin. Again, pure speculation. And don’t get me started on the potato salad.
Ad Hoc’s Addendum.
With full bellies and a nearly empty tank (we were only aware of the former), we were off to Hess, to do a tasting, of course, but also to see the Hess Collection. While we certainly enjoyed the tasting, and becoming more intimately familiar with a brand we know and trust, the art was phenomenal. Room after room was filled with provocative, beautiful, truly creative art, and what we saw was only a fraction of the full collection. It’s quite a bit off the beaten path, and well worth most of the curvy drive, then when you realize you’re dangerously low on gas, back-tracking to find the nearest station, which is hard to do because you don’t have cell phone reception, then finally finding a station, and doing the full curvy drive off the beaten path again.
I think it can be hard to tell, sometimes, if the restaurant in your hotel is genuinely well-liked by the greater city in which it resides, or if it’s convenient and full of your fellow duped guests. After a fair amount of asking-around, we discerned that our hotel restaurant, JoLe, was, in fact, very reputable. My boyfriend had made a reservation for us at Bouchon that night, but Calistoga and Yountville are separated by a half hour drive, and I just didn’t want to put him in a position of driving so far and paying so much when I was so content in Calistoga.
We got to sit at the chef’s counter, where a young cook humored my enthusiasm and curiosity as he prepared food. The staff was memorably genial, prompt, and helpful, and the potty humor of an older gentleman at the table behind us made us giggle to ourselves more often than we’d like to admit. The last tastes in my mouth before leaving Napa were Vincent Arroyo’s beautifully aged 2005 Petite Syrah and perfectly cooked sweetbreads, and I couldn’t have been happier.
We left on Sunday and traveled home by way of Big Sur. I would eat at Nepenthe for the third time, but the first time in more than 12 years. Seeing northern California as a young 20-something was exciting, as I was coming into my own as an adult and trying to figure out where I saw myself making a life. But I’d fallen in love with this unique corner of America years before, when I was a teenager, obsessed with John Steinbeck books, convinced I was destined for city life, seeing the west coast for the first time with my dad. As my boyfriend and I ate our Ambrosia burgers, looking out over the Pacific Ocean and the craggy, wooded coastline, I couldn’t help but take pause and appreciate how far I’d come.