A whirlwind day of wine tasting on the way back home
So, maybe you’re having so much fun out on Highway 128 — The Eastern Gateway to the Napa Valley — that you just don’t want to turn around and go back all in one day. Or maybe you’re coming from a different direction and want to spend the night in Napa before you go exploring the wine country. In our case, my husband, sister-in-law and I were coming from a couple days in the Bay Area, and needed a good night’s rest before wine tasting our way home down Highway 128.
The Napa Valley is loaded with B&Bs and hotels, and making that choice could be overwhelming, so we chose a place with a connection to home: The Napa Inn, where our favorite waitress from Ficelle (a great tapas place in Winters), Kaci Sousa, is one of the innkeepers.
After visiting Muir Woods all morning, we were exhausted and hungry by the time we arrived in Napa. It was too early to check in, so we grabbed a late lunch at Downtown Joe’s, which was featuring a summer barbecue menu that day to complement their line of beer. I loved, loved, loved their pale ale. (No, I’m not a one-trick pony — I love beer too!)
The beer and pulled pork sandwiches kicked in. It was definitely naptime. We checked in and took a snooze, waking in the no-man’s land of too early (and too full) for dinner, too late to find much to do. We walked to a nearby Safeway for fresh fruit, Point Reyes blue cheese and Kendall Jackson Chardonnay (also sometimes known as “dinner” at our house), and spent the evening in our truly lovely room, and nibbled and chatted the evening away, turning in early because the following day’s wine-tasting itinerary was ambitious.
We enjoyed a fabulous breakfast and visited with Kaci who chattered away like a cute, colorful parakeet (which is why we love her so), and then headed off on a Silverado Trail wine adventure. I’d selected two of our destinations from the array of pamphlets at the inn: Hagafen Cellars and Goosecross Cellars. Both had “two for one” tasting cards at the inn, so… why not?
I had only one predetermined destination, that day, the new Midsummer Cellars winery, but that would be the last stop, as it’s at the far north end of the Silverado Trail. Everything in between? Done on a whim. Well, sort of. For reasons I don’t really grasp, there’s apparently a rule in Napa County that unless a winery has been established for a certain number of years, wineries can’t take “walk ins.” You must call ahead and make a tasting appointment. However, there’s a little loophole in that law: It doesn’t specify how long ahead you have to call. Technically, calling ahead from the parking lot still qualifies as “ahead.” Seems like a lot of fuss and bother for nothing.
Hagafen Cellars offered something unique: kosher wines. Our tasting room hostess, Nancy Rivara, explained that “kosher” in the winemaking process means the wine is “super clean.” For example, an organic compound is used to finish or “fine” the wine rather than non-kosher materials, such as egg whites, that are ordinarily used in winemaking.
Because of its kosher standards, Hagafen is a favorite destination for Israeli visitors, and their wine has also been poured on many occasions at the White House. On the wall are framed White House menus listing Hagafen wine. They offer the usual varietals one would expect, from whites to reds, and their top shelf is lined with ribbons and awards. But the only honor that really matters is whether you like the wine enough to take some home. We did — a bottle of very reasonably priced Roussane.
A really nice feature at Hagafen is a soothing, shady outdoor patio, where you can take your tasting glass out and relax, which we did while planning our next stop, Goosecross Cellars.
Because Goosecross is a bit of a skip off the beaten path, we never would have found it had we not picked up their card at the Napa Inn and said, “Why not?” And that would have been a shame, because this little family winery was delightful and the tasting room staff was welcoming and friendly. Our hostess that day was Caleigh, who treated us like old friends as soon as we walked in, and because it’s a smallish room with fermenting barrels stacked to the ceilings right there, it was intimate and cozy. The wine was tasty, and in the mid-range price, and we chose their Cabernet and Merlot to bring home.
Besides some nice wine, we got some good advice from Caleigh. We told her we wanted to find high-quality, low traffic wineries where we could visit with the staff, talk about the wines and have a low-key, personal experience rather than elbowing our way through herds of tipsy tourists jumping off tour buses and holding their empty glasses out at a packed bar, staffed mostly by bored college students.
Caleigh happily pointed us to our next destination: another family winery, Baldacci Vineyards, which vaulted to the “don’t miss” category of wine tasting stops, not merely because the grounds overlooking the winery are lovely, or because our tasting room hostess, Elizabeth Burchard, was attentive, well-informed and charming, but because the wine was just a knockout. Sometimes it is all about the wine.
This was one of those tasting experiences where every single varietal got two thumbs way up. Consequently, our credit card took a beating at Baldacci. Blame that on the 2009 Brenda’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, lovingly named after the wife of the winery owner, Tom Baldacci. That one set us back more than I care to admit, but it will be savored on a special occasion — Christmas or an anniversary. Was it worth it? Oh yes. It was that good. So was the bottle of Chardonnay, which was much gentler on the wallet. But hey, you have to splurge a little once in awhile, right?
Elizabeth advised us that we would enjoy olive oil tasting Round Pond Estate for our next stop, but this was one instance when spontaneity failed us. When we arrived, we’d just missed the tasting session, and they weren’t taking any walk-ins. (On the other hand, that necessitates another Highway 128 tasting adventure. Oh darn! Round Pond is actually located right on Highway 128 itself, just west of the Silverado Trail intersection. This naturally lends itself to a “Beyond the Silverado Trail” story. Stay tuned.)
With still a little too much time to spare until our 3 p.m. appointment at Midsummer Cellars, we doubled back to Conn Creek Winery, which I wanted to visit on my first Winters Wine Trail adventure but they were right in the middle of their tasting room remodel. I had a lovely phone chat with tasting room manager Paul Asikainen, and astonishingly, he remembered that conversation and greeted us warmly.
That’s another wine tasting note: There is good wine everywhere in the Napa Valley. You can throw a stick in any direction and it’ll land in a spectacular glass of Cabernet. So, the variable is the tasting room staff. Seek out wineries staffed by friendly, attentive folks who make you feel welcome and bypass the ones who don’t. Don’t just buy wine. Make friends as you stop — friends you’ll want to visit again and again.
Conn Creek Winery definitely makes that list. Like Hagafen, it has a unique attraction: a lesson on soils. Andrea Jackson, another of Conn Creek’s tasting room staff, pulled out a rack of soil samples from various parts of Napa Valley’s American Viticulture Area (AVA). Within Napa Valley’s truly Mediterranean climate (I’ve heard it said that the only other place where this exact climate exists in the whole world is in Italy, France, Spain and Greece), there are 16 regions in its AVA, such as Carneros, Stag’s Leap and Oak Knoll. Each soil has a different effect on the wine.
Conn Creek now has a special tasting room just for focus on these soil effects, as well as a new winemaking classroom that features barrels from each of the 16 sub-AVA areas. You can take a class on soils and their influence on wine, and then blend a bottle of wine of your own with your favorites. Sign me up!
With one more bottle of Cabernet to take home (it was just a Cabernet kind of day), it was time to head up the hill to the new home of Midsummer Cellars. When last I visited winemaker and winery owner Rollie Heitz, he was located right on Highway 128 near the Silverado Trail. His new location on Crystal Springs road is a few extra miles, but worth the ride.
First off, Midsummer Cellars is very small. You might think you’re lost because it almost looks like you’re pulling up to someone’s home. There’s no tasting room staff. But when you visit Midsummer Cellars, you experience something much better: the undivided attention of a premium winemaker, and for those of you who are really into the chemistry of beer and wine (like my husband), it was priceless. And yet — Rollie doesn’t even charge a tasting fee. He told us the first time that I visited that he really doesn’t believe in tasting fees. He just wants you to come taste the wine and hopefully take some home. We did both times, because his cabernet sauvignon, which is what he focuses on, is spectacular.
The truly enjoyable attraction of visiting Midsummer, however, is just talking with Rollie. Such a gentle, soft-spoken man, with an exhaustive knowledge of the wine industry and winemaking (he literally grew up in the industry right there in the Napa Valley) — it’s just an amazingly intimate experience. Midsummer will always be on my list of favorite places to take people. And, if I had it my way, there would always be a bottle of Midsummer Cañon Creek Cabernet in our wine rack. At least there’s one now.
With our day of hop-scotching up the Silverado Trail at its end, it was time to head back up Highway 128 for home: Winters. You realize just how hungry wine-tasting makes you about the time you pass Monticello Dam and thankfully, there’s no shortage of places to get some dinner, pronto.
We headed for Chuy’s Taqueria, because chicken fajitas and carne asada sounded great. No, it doesn’t go with wine. But, I’m not a huge fan of doing what you’re “supposed” to do. If it sounds good to me, I’m doing it. There’s another wine tasting tidbit: Don’t worry about what you’re supposed to do, or like, or where you’re supposed to stop — go where you’re greeted warmly, enjoy yourself and the wine, and decide if you want to return. I’ll help you out. Hagafen Cellars, Goosecross Cellars, Baldacci Vineyards, Conn Creek Winery and Midsummer Cellars — head on down Highway 128 — or back home on it — and go make some new friends!
Baldacci Family Vineyards, 6236 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558; www.baldaccivineyards.com
Conn Creek Winery, 8711 Silverado Trail, St. Helena, CA; (707) 963-9100; www.conncreek.com
Goosecross Cellars, 1119 State Lane, Yountville, CA; (707) 944-1986; http://goosecross.com
Hagafen Cellars, 4160 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558; (707) 252-0781; www.hagafen.com
Midsummer Cellars, 264 North Crystal Springs Road, St. Helena, CA 94574; (707) 967-0432; www.midsummercellars.com
The Napa Inn, 1137 Warren Street, Napa, CA 94559; (707) 257-1444; www.napainn.com