What a glorious day! Bright and beautiful from sunup till sundown. My body is still on Texas time, so I awake at 5am Napa-time and enjoy a good cuppa joe and watch Napa come to life out my window.
The morning breakfast ritual at RTI is a bit slower today, more crowded - I assume due to folks ramping up for the Mustard Festival weekend. But everyone is in a good mood, and the food is great, so people chat and visit and gossip and the sun has warmed things up enough for several adventurous souls to brave the chilly morning air on the patio to scarf down their morning repaste.
Camara arrives just on time at 9:30am, and we're 'loaded up and truckin' as Jerry Reed would have said. We only have two appointments for today, and I think Camara is struggling a bit in trying to figure out what wineries we have NOT seen and might impress us. Our first appointment is at Pine Ridge, a beautifully scenic place along the Silverado trail where my wife had stopped once some years back to simply enjoy the scenery while eating lunch with friends. Their tour takes us into the vineyard for some background on wine growing, then into the tank room for an insight into fermentation, and finally into their extensive cave system where they age their wines in French Oak barrels. We sample their wares, and although I like their Stags Leap cab immensely, I just can't bring myself to fork over the $75 when I've already sampled great wines in the valley for fewer bucks. Nice wines, great folks, but we don't join their wine club cause we're not in the area enough to benefit from their event schedule and their wine selection just doesn't blow us away.
Our next appointment isn't until 2:30pm, so it's Camara's turn in the drivers seat. He takes us to Kelham Vineyards on Zinfandel Lane where Susannah Kelham herself sits us down in her beautifully decorated living room to talk to us about the area, the wine business, her family's spot in the landscape, and her son's adventures as the family's winemakers. She asks what sort of wines we like, and I tell her Sauvignon Blanc for the lady, and the heartier Cabs for myself. She smiles that knowing smile and it's a match made in heaven as she trots out their Sauvignon Blanc, Cabs, and Merlots. I tasted NOTHING that I didn't just ADORE, and we wind up ordering a case for shipment home. Susannah even offers to sign one of the books she sells named "Winery Dogs" with pictures of, yes - dogs from local vineyards. We're big dog fans with 4 of our own, so there goes another 30 minutes of swapping dog-mom stories between my wife and Susannah. Son Ron strolls in and out of the picture during our visit, stoking the fireplace or carting food to guests picnicing on the patio. He wanders over near the end of our stay to introduce himself and we realize he's one of the winemakers, a tall good looking young man with a great personality and friendly air. We take a few pictures and head off to the next adventure. Rumor mill has it that Ron was even on The Bachelorette in one distant season.
Next Camara asks for our aid in sampling some wine. A driver can't drink, and can't make it to all the local wineries for tastings, but is expected to know all about the 400 wineries in the area. He drops us off at Sullivan Vineyards and asks for our opinion. Although the gentleman conducting the tasting is nice enough, he admits up front that this is not his 'real job' and that he's only there for the season, and although he drops the tried and true buzzwords of the industry, he doesn't seem to know their wines. What he does stress is that 'these wines will be good to drink in 5 or 6 years'... and since none just knock my socks off, we shake his hand, pay him the $20 tasting fee he reminds us about, pet the yellow Labs and report back to Camara. But hey, remember that everybody has their own opinion, and only you can decide on the right wine for you.
In payment for our aid, Camara takes us up the road to Pina Vineyards... a tiny spot that we would have NEVER stopped at if not for our local guide. The young man running the forklift out front smiles as he hops down and says 'hey folks, let me pour you some wine'. It turns out to be Ted, the winemaker at Pina who seems to do it all there, from 'soup to nuts' as my Dad used to say. Now Pina doesn't have a huge list of wines, but Ted lets us sample the 2003 Cab which is simply superb. We're so enthusiastic that he steals some 2004, not due to be bottled until next month, right out of the barrel for us and it's a knockout too. By this point we're old friends, and he actually uncorks a 2005 barrel and steals a sip for us. It's all good and we fork over more $ for Ted to ship us a case later in the year when he feels it's ready for us to drink. We talk about winemaking for a while and then, regretfully, head out.
By now it's 2:30 and we're starving, and you really need sustenance to make it through a day of chauffered wine tastings.. I mean that'll sap your energy like nobody's business. So we make a quick stop at Oakville Grocery for more sandwiches and head on up the road.
OK, so everybody has favorite wineries in Napa, places you've either been to before and love, or wines you've sampled and just have to go see where they originate. Cakebread and Phelps are those places for us, planned destinations each year in our visit to Napa. Phelps is my personal favorite, and I don't think I've ever tasted one of their wines that I didn't like. Heck, I even chug down a bottle of their Ovation Chardonnay once in a while when we're grilling fish just so I can tell my wife how 'secure I am in my masculinity'. Our final appointment for the day is at Phelps for a short class on wine appreciation, and retail manager Mike walks a half-dozen or so of us through the taste-wheel and how to cleanse your palate and all the myriad of questions that come up with folks from Texas to North Carolina. My personal favorite is their landmark Insignia wine, the wine that got me hooked on reds about a decade ago. I buy it every year and have to admit - it doesn't last long in my house. Mike says the average shelf life of a bottle of wine in America is 3 hours.. the time it takes to get from the store to your house. In my case with Insignia - it's true. Phelps is always a people pleaser, and this trip is no exception. I walk away feeling very happy to have visited with folks and friends, both human and bottled.
Camara drops us off at RTI at precisely 4:30pm, just as promised and we're sad to see him go. He even takes the individual bottles of wine we've accumulated and offers to have them shipped home for us, removing the need for us to make a run to Stagecoach Shippers over the coming weekend to take care of just that issue. Folks I can't stress strongly enough my opinion that hiring a local know-it-all is a great investment, not only in your money but time. Without his guidance we would have missed the gems that we'll now go back to year after year at Kelham and Pina. I have no doubt that we would have been blown away at his suggestions if we'd given him the full two days to plan for us. Check out California Wine Tours and Idriss Camara for a truly great time.
Friday night’s treat was Celadon right here in downtown Napa. Advertised as global comfort food (whatever that means) it’s someplace we enjoyed on our 2004 honeymoon and we wanted to drop in for a bite. Manager Eric took great care of us, and the Fiddlehead Pinot Noir he suggested went great with both her seared scallops and garlic mashed potatoes and my own pasta with mushrooms and thinly sliced steak. As always, dessert is a real treat at Celadon, and we splurged on two of them, the warm gingerbread with banana sorbet and huckleberry sauce and my wife’s berry covered chocolate mousse in a hazelnut shell. The food was great, and the service prompt and friendly. Eric stood and chatted with us for quite a while about baseball, food, and wine. A great experience.