A Little Less Wine – Spotlight on San Francisco, Santa Rosa, & Other Observations (Jan 2015)

We are still playing ‘catch up’ on our Jan adventures. You will see a lot less wine coverage in this post which focuses on our Fri evening in San Francisco, our day in Santa Rosa, our favorite tasting to-date at Pride Vineyards, and some general observation of our CA lifestyle to-date!

San Francisco – Fri 1/9

Dave and I headed into San Francisco on a Fri afternoon to do a little touring around before our dinner at Gary Danko. It was a bit of a historic day for the city because they were closing down the Golden Gate for Sat and Sun to install movable barriers down the middle to help avoid collisions when they change the number of inbound and outbound lanes based on rush hour traffic schedules. We crossed over the Golden Gate, located hard-to-find parking in the park, and enjoyed a pre sunset view of the Golden Gate on a rare day of crystal clear views of Alcatraz and the city!

We drove around different areas of the city marveling at the huge hills and wondering how the locals navigate them on foot everyday! We made our way to Fisherman’s Wharf and happened upon The Buena Vista which is famous for inventing the Irish Coffee in the 50s. We enjoyed a few and ended up sharing our table with some people from Wisconsin. Then it was off to an amazing dinner at Gary Danko – the wine list was spectacular (we are starting to really know our way around these CA wine lists!!), the selection was wide and hard to choose from, and the service over the top! We should’ve asked about portion sizes because they were much bigger than what you’d expect from a gourmet prix-fixe restaurant! I commented in my reservation that we were celebrating a birthday and they brought out a cake on the house. We would definitely go back there! Interestingly enough, numerous people have mentioned this restaurant to us after we went there or we’ve overheard it being mentioned in conversations.

Santa Rosa & Calistoga – Sun 1/11 (Dave’s Birthday!)

Went shopping and visited the downtown area and Russian River Brewing Company to try their famous Pliny the Elder, known as one of the best IPAs in the world. I have to agree though I still hold Three Flloyd’s Gumballhead up as my favorite brew! I was under instructions to bring back some beer for my friend Rolo and that I did when I went back for work later that week!  We met a fun couple from Glen Ellyn who turned us on to Truett Hurst winery in northern Sonoma (on our list) and another friendly crew next to us recommended that we check out Healdsburg. Perhaps it was us carrying our Northern California guidebook that flagged us as ‘tourists’ and people wanted to help us out with recommendations – we’ll take it!  We’ll be back in Santa Rosa to go to Costco, Chase, visit a major mall, etc.

 

Petrified Forest – Calistoga

On our way back from Santa Rosa we stopped here for a visit. We joined a tour and found it interesting.  Some notables:

  • Home to the world’s largest petrified redwood Sequoia trees
  • Fossilized 3.4 million years ago by a local volcano (what is now Mount St Helena)
  • This scenic grove is also home to a variety of live oaks, manzanitas (native to CA), madrone, and wildflowers
  • If you look closely at a few of the pics you can see sparkles which are quartz crystals – the quartz makes these trees stronger than steel!
  • 1880 – Famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson visits the Petrified Forest and recounts his visit in his booklet, The Silverado Squatters

Return to Chicago!  – 1/13-1/19

I captured these pics from the car on my way to SFO to go to Chicago for work.   I extended my stay and had a great time catching up with multiple groups of friends and hitting a few old favorite haunts (Trattoria Sapori and Pequods) as well as some new options (Bread and Wine and finally getting to experience Mon Ami Gabi’s beef wellington special!) It really feels like I still live there – like I never left – and I suppose that’s how home makes you feel!  I did spend some time in my old hood and ran into my neighbor Ed who said all is going great with the new owner! Very happy to hear that! I also walked down Cambridge to check out the building and I was hoping to see the adorable Australian shepherd Stella who lives across the street, but no such luck!

Lisa was a wonderful host who made me feel right at home – she should be careful as I’ll be knocking on the door again for another stay! He he! I helped Jamie prepare for her upcoming move along with Nancy and Gina, and can’t wait to stay with her at her new luxury pad in the West Loop, complete with an incredible panoramic city view!  Dave and I will be back in Chicago and St Louis for work again at the end of Feb for about a week. I have a work trip planned to Dallas at the end of April, right before we pack up shop in Napa!

 

Pride Vineyards – 1/28

I broke away early from work on a Wed afternoon to visit Pride Vineyards – we targeted this winery after seeing a couple bring in a bottle at Mustard’s Grill (we try to take note of this as we assume that they are ‘locals in the know’ – he he.)  Pride may be our favorite wine tasting experience to date!

  • Pride is a well-respected winery, been in business since the 80s
  • Among ~20 small wineries on Spring Mountain Rd which is a unique mountainside community close to the house.  Many believe this area produces some of the highest quality and powerful-tasting wines (due to combination of cooler temps and a lot of sun)
  • Produces ~ 15K cases (small but not boutique by Napa standards)
  • 80% of their wine is sold at the winery and through their mailing list – others distributed to CA restaurants and some retail
  • Owned by a dentist’s family (he has passed), similar to Spottswoode in that they started selling their grapes to nearby vineyards (started with Mondavi – the first year they sold cab to Mondavi, the wine created from the fruit received many accolades) this lead them to start making wine on their own
  • Known for their merlot which had an incredible nose!  (not featured in the movie Sideways)
  • Because this winery covers both Sonoma and Napa counties, they have to follow strict labeling standards, down to the % sourced in each – whew!

Our guide/attendant Nikki was fantastic!  She took us on an amazing cave tour, poured us chardonnay, merlot, and a few different cabs in the cave which were lit by real candlelight.  The first cab was from a single barrel from the Hidden area of the estate – drank it right out of the barrel!  Then we moved onto a blended cab from a variety of different areas in the vineyard.  Nikki treated us to a taste of the reserve claret (as they opened up a bottle for a big spender in the house!) as well as a sweeter wine (grape juice with brandy.) Nikki also dispelled a rumor that we heard at Trefethen that most of the hillside soil is volcanic rock – that is true of Howell Mountain (which was created by the eruption of Mount St Helena), but not the case of Spring Mountain which was formed the typical way, uplift.  Nikki also has been to Africa multiple times and we enjoyed chatting about our safari and seeing some of her spectacular gorilla and chimp trekking pics from Uganda!  Time to start planning our next trip!  ha ha!

We will need to return in April to try their Viognier (which I became a fan of after buying it in South Africa!)

Update – Wed 4/8 and Tues 4/28

We had the pleasure of revisiting Pride on Wed 4/8 with our friends the Lunns.  Alison was our host this visit and we also had a group of about 6 others with us.  The experience was similar as last time, but not as intimate.

Some additional tidbits we picked up:

  • Since 1890 the property has had about 20 different owners
  • 85 acres planted2200 ft elevation above the fog line, full sun, longer hang time on vines due to cooler temps (10 degrees cooler than valley), grapes have darker thicker skins, higher skin to juice ratio
  • Reservoirs on site used for irrigation – Volcanic, denser soil doesn’t need as much water, some of their vines need no add’l irrigation

Tasting:  Started with Chardonnay, then had a few barrel tastings (merlot, Rocky Top 2013 cab, Hidden lot cab)

Unfortunately they didn’t have their Viognier in yet, so we paid another visit on one of our last days in Napa to pick up a bottle of that and their Syrah.  They were actually closed for tastings that day but they were kind to let us up for a nip and a purchase!

 

About our Place & St Helena:

  • What a difference higher rent makes! Ha ha! Seriously, the house is very nice, more than what we need. We are in a craftsmen style home with 2 beds/1 bath, formal dining area, a nice large deck off the back with a view of the mountains. We have oranges growing in the back yard and lemons and ginger in the front. The location is great, less than a 10 min walk to the small downtown area with a nice selection of restaurants, shops, a large Safeway, etc.
  • St Helena reminds me of a smaller Sag Harbor – those of you from my hometown are thinking “WHAT?…..” St Helena’s population is just over 5000 as well, but has to swell to multiples of that during the busy wine season (May-Oct), and is a treasured tourist destination. Many locals know each other and they may even start recognizing us as ‘temporary locals’ – again, not unlike the very special place where I grew up!  We are really enjoying the special treatment we appear to be getting when we mention that we are locals for the winter months!
  • Dave and I joined the local gym 2 weeks ago and we’ve been pretty good about going as regularly as possible.  It is no FFC for sure, but it will serve its purpose during our limited time here!

 

Some initial CA observations based on our experiences to-date:

  • Restaurant and winery patrons – We have met many warm and friendly people during our wine tasting and hanging out in restaurants.   They are intrigued and very positive about our new traveling lifestyle and have provided us with a variety of restaurant and winery recommendations.
  • Restaurant host staff – Mixed reactions here. There is definitely ‘room for improvement’ for customer service. Some examples – a restaurant right up the street called Archetype is half empty and because we don’t have a reservation we get seated at the SAME table as another couple – instead of at another table that is empty. I can appreciate doing this if your restaurant is located in Europe where shared tables are very common, or if your restaurant is nearly full to capacity, but during the off-season in Napa and when you ask about other available tables? I think not! Maybe it’s the demand outstripping supply and a California attitude, I’m not sure – but I haven’t really experienced some of these attitudes in New York or Paris…..
  • Drivers – very impatient to get wherever they are going in wine country, but very courteous to pedestrians.
  • Food – you all know by now that dining is a major hobby for us – so far we are not overly impressed!   I think we were very spoiled in Charleston (the food there truly is world class!) and used to fine eats in Chicago as well. We have had some fantastic dinners at a few restaurants in the Napa area (Mustard’s Grill, Rutherford Grill, Bistro Jeanty, and St Helena Bistro) as well as at Gary Danko in San Francisco, but in general the cuisine is not all that inspiring (and I have pretty simple tastes – I don’t like when wait staff have to EXPLAIN what you are about to eat and I don’t need to know the name or genealogy of the free-range chicken I’m about to devour – thanks to Paul C for making me think of that one!) and for the price I can often cook a better meal at home! Unfortunately we won’t be able to try French Laundry as it is closed until September! They also just had a huge wine theft there and most of the stolen wines have been tracked down via the embedded RFID chip. I swear it wasn’t us! He he! We are going to keep an open mind, and potentially shift our spending from dining out to adding to the wine collection J
  • Weather – we’ve been spoiled as Jan has been one of the driest and warmest on record. The temps are about to turn to cooler/rainy for a few days in early Feb, but we can handle it!
  • Work – similar to Charleston, my work hasn’t really skipped a beat.  My schedule is much more condensed and busy in the mornings (calls can start at 6:30 or 7:00am), leaving a fair amount of time available for fun or working out in the afternoon.  I am biting the bullet and installing a landline since the VoIP connection isn’t always good and the firm won’t like $250 cell phone bills!  In general I think I prefer working on Central time zone, but I’m not complaining!

Some pics from our recent dinner at Press – beautiful space, great food, server had an attitude…..

Next posting will feature our weekend trip to Big Sur, Monterey, Carmel, and Sausalito!

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