Tag Archive | Napa Valley

California Road Trip: Point Reyes Elephant Seals!

When we last left off, Jon was trying to convince me that I didn’t really want to go see the Elephant Seals – that they were just like Sea Lions.  I told him I was going anyway…

Once you get off the bus at Elephant Seal Beach it is only an eighth of a mile to the overlook.  When we were there, the beach was filled with female Elephant Seals and some babies, but apparently the males hadn’t arrived yet to join the party.  Oh well, the females were still really cool to see.  There is a ranger at the overlook to answer questions and a high powered telescope set up, so you can get a close up view of the beach.  The Elephant Seals here are Northern Elephant Seals – the males can grow between 14 and 16 feet long, and weigh up to 5400 pounds!  The females are up to 10 feet long and 2000 pounds.  As for life expectancy, females live an average of 22 years, and start breeding at 3 or 4 years of age.  The average life span of a male Elephant Seals is about 14 years.  They were really neat to see – even though the distance on the pictures doesn’t do them justice.  I’m so glad we went to see them!

Elephant Seals at Point Reyes - They Are Much Bigger Than They Look Here!

Elephant Seals at Point Reyes – They Are Much Bigger Than They Look Here!

Female Elephant Seals at Point Reyes

Female Elephant Seals at Point Reyes

Also at the same stop is the lifesaving station.  Had we not been so hungry, I would have gone for a visit, because it looked really interesting.  The United States Life Saving Service (USLSS) – the predecessor to the modern U.S. Coast Guard – was founded in 1871, and first established a presence at Point Reyes in 1890.


The Trail Coming Back from the Overlook

To date, more than 50 ships have foundered on the rocks near Point Reyes; the lifesaving station ensured that those mariners had a fairly good chance at survival.  And they didn’t just rescue boats; the surfmen also saved two survivors of a DC 3 that crashed (sadly the other five aboard were swept away and drowned before rescuers arrived).  Even though they clearly performed a valuable service, the work wasn’t without risks – evidenced by the small cemetery that contains the graves of three surfmen who died in the 1890s.  At least two more men died while serving at the lifesaving station; two surfmen in 1960 radioed the station to say that they were returning after assisting a disabled vessel, but they never arrived.  Their boat was found the next day on the beach with the propellers still turning; their bodies were never found.

The View From Elephant Seal Overlook - the Historic Life Saving Station is in the Distance

The View From Elephant Seal Overlook – the Historic Life Saving Station is in the Distance

After visiting Elephant Seal Beach and seeing the Life Saving Station, we got back on the shuttle bus for a trip back to the Drakes’ Beach Visitor’s Center.  The driver slowed down for a California Blacktail Deer and pointed it out to us.  To recap, all in all, we spotted California Quail, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, California Blacktail Deer, Tule Elk, Bobcat and Elephant Seal.  Not to mention the ever elusive cows, chickens, seagulls and crows.  It was a fantastic visit.

To Give You Some Perspective - From Left: Elephant Seal (Male), California Sea Lion (Male), California Sea Lion (Female), Harbor Seal (Female)

To Give You Some Perspective – From Left: Elephant Seal (Male), California Sea Lion (Male), California Sea Lion (Female), Harbor Seal (Female)

Once we departed from the National Seashore, we stopped for a while at Point Reyes Station, a small town (population 350) close by.  We wandered around the shops and got some coffee and tea pick-me-ups.  We also found a shop called Zuma that sold handmade products from artisans around the world – they had baskets, scarves and shawls, and jewelry.  Jon and I love hand woven baskets, and we found several that we liked there.  We came home with a Cambodian basket and a Nkuringo Wishing basket from Uganda.  And I got a carved and polished wooden heart trinket too.

By this time, even though I had a snack after leaving the park, I was starving.  We decided to check out the Station House Café, so we popped in right as they were opening at 5 pm.  We were seated right away, and we proceeded to have one of the best meals of our trip!  I had the braised short ribs with Rainbow chard, creamy polenta and local mushrooms.  I paired it with a 2011 Long Meadow Ranch Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc.  My meal was absolutely delicious!  Jon had the Blackened Yellowtail with turnip puree, leeks and cranberries.  Yum!  Our entrees also came with popovers, funnel shaped breads with an egg flavor inside.  The service was great – the food came really quickly, and we enjoyed our visit thoroughly.

My Braised Short Ribs at the Station House Café

My Braised Short Ribs at the Station House Café

After dinner, we headed back to Petaluma and spent the rest of the evening relaxing.  Our day at Point Reyes was an amazing day.

Hey Mambo!

Tonight I’m drinking a wine that one of my coworkers brought over when we had our felting party.  It is a Napa Valley Red Blend called Hey Mambo Bistro Style Wine – Sultry Red.  What a name!  And the description is a real kicker!

A bar and tables emerge out of the SMOKY blackness.  I sit in the back corner and order ravioli and a bottle of wine.  On the stage, the lights reveal a LUSCIOUS gem – with COCOA brown hair and CRANBERRY lips.  She belts out a lonesome note to awaken her band.  Her voice like VELVET, beckoning strays to the dance floor.  The music, the food, the wine, all together hypnotizing.  I savor every drop. 

The wine is an interesting blend of 29% Syrah, 26% Petite Sirah, 13% Zinfandel, 12% Grenache, 10% Tempranillo, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 4% Merlot.  The wine is a deep garnet color.  The nose is of raspberry and light smoke.  On the palate, it is very fruit forward with light tannins and a hint of that same smoke.  I enjoyed it both with food and on its own.


2010 Hey Mambo Sultry Red

It retails for about $10, and while it won’t knock your socks off, it is a smooth drinking, everyday wine that will satisfy your guests.

Memorial Day weekend is almost upon us!

Memorial Day weekend is almost upon us, and it’s time for the Memorial Day trek down to Portland. Jon and I have made this an annual pilgrimage for the last couple of years, since I got Jon into wine tasting. Honestly, we go more than just Memorial Day weekend, but you know what I mean. When we first met, Jon and I both enjoyed wine, and I had been wine tasting in various locations during my travels, including in the Willamette Valley. It wasn’t that I was an experienced wine taster, but I had experience with more than a few wineries. Jon, on the other hand, hadn’t been wine tasting at all, despite living in California less than an hour and a half from Napa Valley. Go figure. At any rate, we’ve been to the Willamette Valley at about a dozen times now, and each time makes us want to continue coming back for more.

Admittedly, Pinot Noir is priced higher than a lot of other varietals, but only to a degree. Those of you who have tasted in the Napa Valley know that prices for wines there are high. Pinot Noir is an extremely picky grape to grow, demanding a lot of time and attention in the vineyard. This translates into a higher sticker price.  The Willamette Valley has a perfect climate for it, with the warm days and cool nights that produce a spectacular wine. Pinot Noir is also grown in California, but you will find the California Pinots to be much different that the Oregon Pinots – they are much more robust, without the silky, cherry taste that I love about Oregon Pinot. Oregon Pinot has that softness that so few wines from Washington or California have. I know that part of that is the wineries catering to consumers’ palates – wine drinkers lately want a heavily oaked, tannic red. I just don’t.

So, back to Willamette Valley. Jon and I have made a commitment to try new wineries every time we go – to expand our horizons so to speak. This is harder than it sounds, because we already have a short list of loves, and a long list of likes when it comes to Willamette Valley wines. In order to try new ones, you have to not visit some of the tried and trues. I know you will agree that it is truly a problem. It would be much easier if we lived closer, but at least for now, we have to make do with what we have.

A few months ago, I bought the Wine Trails of Oregon book. The author’s goal was to visit every winery in Oregon with regular tasting room hours. A steep challenge by any stretch of the imagination, since the Willamette Valley alone has over 200 wineries. I’m sure that there are new wineries, even since the book was published! He has it set up with closely situated wineries together, so you can hit several in the same area in a day. It is a pretty handy guide. I’ve been using it to plan our trip, thinking that we will head to a new area – one we haven’t been to. Although the author intends to not give a review of the winery or the wine, sometimes he’ll say what he thinks is an amazing wine. He also calls out extraordinary friendliness and service when he experiences that, which is nice. Going to a winery with a snobbish tasting room staff is never a good experience.

I’m leaning toward the Gaston area, but we have also talked about going down closer to Salem as well. Jon and I will need to sort that out this weekend.

One thing that is already decided is the fact that we are going to La Rambla on Saturday night! La Rambla is a tapas bar in McMinnville… and it has paella. I’m always on the lookout for paella, since it isn’t offered often enough. I stumbled upon it several years ago, before I met Jon. I went on Memorial Day, and they were fresh out of seafood paella due to the busy holiday weekend. I kept it in mind, and Jon and I went back one weekend in November when we were there. It was amazing! The tapas is wonderful, the paella is great, and they have a comprehensive wine list. I think we’ll probably bring our own bottle and pay the corkage fee though (restaurant prices are so high, especially considering we’ll have several bottles in the car). We tried to get reservations last year with the family last year on Memorial Day weekend and it was booked solid. So this year, we called a couple of weeks ago, and we scored! We haven’t been there since November of 2009 and we still have fond memories. You can be sure I’ll tell you all about it.

And on to Sonoma Valley

The next day of our wine tour we decided to go to the Sonoma Valley, which is just southwest of Napa Valley.  Napa focuses on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, where Sonoma focuses more on Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.  We decided to make our first stop Cline Cellars.  We tried a Cline Syrah from the grocery store on our first night, and we were so impressed that we had to make a visit.  They have very reasonably priced wines, starting at $11 a bottle.  We stopped by at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, and this place was hopping!  There were already almost a dozen people tasting, including a local character who had the whole tasting room laughing.  Our server, Rene, was excellent – personable, down to earth and he knew a lot of the wines.   I did stump him though, when I asked questions about one of the rare varietals.  I liked that he admitted he didn’t know the answer, instead of trying to pretend.  And then he pulled out an awesome book with every grape varietal known to man!  Their Syrahs were good, their Zinfandels were very good, and Jon and I both enjoyed their Mourvedre and Carignan (a varietal that I have not heard of before).

Cline Cellars

After our tasting, we enjoyed a picnic lunch at their picnic table with wine, cheese and pepperoni that they also sell onsite.  We toured the grounds, which included a fishpond complete with turtles and frogs, and two mini-donkeys that the kids can feed carrots.  And to top it all off, they own replica models of the 21 California missions.  These models were made for the 1939 World’s Fair using the original blueprints for the missions.  It seems that when they were going to be auctioned off piecemeal, Cline’s owner bought them all, and then built a museum on the grounds to display them.  They were very cool – an unexpected treat.  We will certainly be back again!

After Cline, we went across the street to Jacuzzi Winery.  They are owned by the same family, but while Cline focuses on Zins and Syrahs, Jacuzzi focuses on the Italian varietals, some of which I had never even heard of.  They did have some good wines, but unfortunately, the experience we had there didn’t make their wines worth it.  Our server barely looked at us, and when I asked him which he thought were the best wines to taste (you get to choose 5 from the list), he informed me, “I can’t tell you what you’ll like.”  Well, duh, but surely you can tell us which ones are your best wines.  It irked me, because any winery that doesn’t specialize is going to have some that are better than others.  The snooty server also said, “I won’t tell you that our wines are better than Cline wines, but they are.”  Wow, selling out your own partner winery just isn’t cool.  That said, we liked their Pinot Noir, and their Dolcetto, but left without buying anything.  We tried to taste their olive oils, but it was so busy and crowded there, we gave up.  All in all, I thought Jacuzzi was a dud.

After Jacuzzi, we went into Sonoma’s downtown for a bit, and toured the Sonoma Mission.  It was the last mission built in the string of 21 California missions, founded in 1823.  It was only a religious mission for 11 years.  In 1834, the Mexican government secularized the missions and put General Vallejo in charge of Sonoma.  He founded the town on Sonoma around the mission, and they used the mission as a parish church for a time while the mission started to fall into disrepair.  It was mostly crumbled after the 1906 earthquake.  Fortunately, they started restoration in 1909, and the mission became a museum in 1913.  It is one of two missions that are part of the California Park System.  It is a neat mission and well worth the $3 fee, and is easily toured in about 20 minutes, unless you want to watch the 20 minute video.  You can also see the Barracks, and General Vallejo’s home.

It is certainly worth the visit – it is interesting to imagine what life was like during the period.

Our Introduction to Napa Valley

We started our first full day in Napa Valley with a walking tour of the downtown area.  We got a tour with historical facts about Napa, the architecture, and even a beer tasting.  Beer was the dominant production in the area until wine took over in the 1870’s.  Our tour was very interesting, and we got to see inside a beautiful turn of the century mansion that is now a B&B, Churchill Manor.  Edward Churchill built it in 1889, after making his fortune in banking.  Churchill also owned a beer brewery called the Golden Ribbon, and the Tokalon Vineyard.  The vineyard land was approximately 700 acres, and is now a part of the Robert Mondavi Winery empire.  Jon and I both would like to stay there one day – when we can afford it.  Until then, our economy lodging.

One day we will stay here

Churchill Manor - one day we will stay here.

After the tour, we headed up the wine trail.  We had lunch at the Pacific Blues Cafe, and had a great pulled pork sandwich and Cobb salad.  We browsed in a wine shop that had a fantastic selection of rare wines and everything you could imagine… from California.  It seems California doesn’t believe that other wine areas exist.  We saw two lonely bottles of Oregon Pinot Noir.

So, our first stop for wine tasting was Robert Mondavi.  Big producer, big attitude is apparently the theme here.  We stopped in the tasting room, where we got to listen to a waiter from Canada schmooze the server into a free “industry tasting”.  You have got to be kidding me… but it worked.  But it seems that most of us can get a free tasting – Jon and I did too, with a coupon.  The server basically ignored Jon, but gave me a bit more attention.  We tried wines that ranged from $80 – $160, and while they were decent, there wasn’t one that I would have bought at those prices.  I’ve had better $30 reds at home.  We left there feeling like we had just had a very strange experience.  At least we checked Mondavi off our list – but they at least could have told us about the Edward Churchill connection.

Next stop was ZD Wines.   This was a spur of the moment choice, but an excellent one.  They focused on Chardonnay, which is 80% of their production, and it showed.  We both loved their Chardonnay.  We also really enjoyed all of their other wines, but the price points are a little steep for us.  The folks at ZD are a fun, lively bunch, who are very friendly to chat with.  No weirdness here – ZD was more like the wineries in Washington and Oregon.  They recommended a stop at Peju, so that’s where we headed next.

Jon in Front of ZD Wines

Peju does a very regimented tasting.  You are put on a list, and then in groups of 10, shuttled into the tasting room.  Our server was a bit of a schmoozer – it seems that they are on commission there, and he liked to use the “grandchild needs some shoes” bit.  He also thought Peju wine was the best on the planet.  Jon and I disagreed.  We enjoyed their Sauvignon Blanc, their Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel, but the rest we could take or leave.

The group next to us at the tasting recommended we have dinner at Go Fish, a seafood restaurant in St. Helena.  It was our splurge dinner for the trip.  Jon had the halibut, I had a Chef’s plate of sushi.  The halibut was very well prepared, and delicious, but Jon left hungry.  We brought a bottle of our ZD Chardonnay to enjoy with dinner.  YUM!

In the end, we learned that some places in Napa are of the snobbish variety.  I guess we’ll just have to figure out which ones we like and don’t like along the way.

Our tips so far:

Family-owned winery in WA or OR means it is a small boutique winery, where you will usually be served by the winemaker or a family member.  The family-owned distinction in Napa means nothing to the consumer – these families are rich and their wineries are just as big!

Every famous person in the world it seems has started a winery in Napa/Sonoma.  The Andretti family of racecar fame, the Jacuzzi family of hottub fame, Francis Ford Coppola, are just a few.  But… it doesn’t necessarily mean they know good wine.  It seems Napa is all about who you know.

Napa by way of San Jose

We flew down on Sunday, July 25th and arrived at the Oakland Airport.  First on the agenda was a stop to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose.  I have been wanting to see it since I was about 8 years old and saw it on Ripley’s Believe It or NOT!  For those of you who haven’t heard of it, like Jon, Sarah Winchester was the widow of the 2nd President of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.  Her only child died in infancy, and her husband died when she was in her forties.  She bought an 8 room farmhouse in San Jose, hired a team of carpenters and set to work renovating and adding on.  Legend has it that her spiritual advisor told her that she was cursed, and that she must build continuously in order to confuse the spirits of the people who were killed by Winchester guns.  At the time of her death, her  home had 160 rooms and all sorts of crazy architecture.  Of course, I didn’t realize that now it is right in the middle of San Jose.  There is a mall across the street, and a huge movie theater right next door.

Winchester Mystery House

So, the final verdict…. It is touristy, and we had to wait about an hour for our tour.  They do small group tours though, so you can ask questions and interact, and they give you enough time to look around.  It was certainly worth it and we had a great time.  It had it all: a door that opens onto a second floor drop, windows that look into other rooms, skylights in the middle of the floor!  You can see the progression of her insanity  – at the beginning her renovations made the home much more ornate, but then later it seemed to get more “builder grade”.  I wish they would have told us about the ghosts though!  It did make me wonder if she had lived today, would she had been deemed insane and committed?

We drove to Napa in the late afternoon.  Once we checked in to our lodge, we drove around downtown Napa a bit and got our bearings.  We had dinner at ZuZu, a tapas place in downtown Napa that focuses on locally grown ingredients.  Their mussels were fantastic!  Their paella was good… but we’ve had great paella at a couple other places.  I’m still looking for a paella that can beat the paella I had in Grand Rapids, Michigan of all places!

All in all, the first day was a great day.  The only low point was definitely Jon hitting the squirrel running across the onramp on the freeway.  We had to drown our sorrows in wine.

Countdown to Napa Valley

In less than a week Jon and I will be Napa Valley bound for the first time.  We are very much looking forward to getting away on our first of many honeymoons, and celebrating our one-month wedding anniversary.  Cheesy, I know, but it is fun anyway.  Having never been there before, I scouted out the non-wine itinerary.  We are detouring to San Jose to go to the Winchester Mystery House, and then we’ll be heading into the valley, for 3 days of wine tasting, good food eating, relaxing, and more.  Our lodge has an outdoor pool!  It doesn’t take much to make me happy.  I’m also going to try to talk Jon into going to Calistoga to see the geyser (a regularly spouting geyser like Old Faithful, but probably smaller).  And…. they have fainting goats!  The kind that get startled and fall over into a semi-sleep trance state.  I’ve seen them on TV, but never in real life.  This is a real draw for me – call me immature, but you know you want to see them too.  I’ll take pictures, but somehow I’m sure the stills won’t really capture the whole “fainting” concept.

Jon is in charge of all things wine-related.  He is hemming and hawing about which wineries to visit, since we obviously can’t visit them all.  He probably won’t have it narrowed down before we go, and I’ll just have to say – STOP! Go there!  This is usually how it works.  That’s fine, I’ll be happily consumed with Mystery Houses, swimming pools, and fainting goats.