After a 8-year hiatus, we made it back to one of California’s best known winemaking regions, where we enjoyed a fantastic weekend in Napa Valley. We weren’t quite sure if we would actually get there, as on the day before we were due to arrive, following our stay in San Francisco, there was an earthquake in the area, which caused some damage.
We were due to stay at the Westin Napa, but sadly, and as we found out earlier that morning, it was to be closed for a whole week, following burst pipes. That happened to many other hotels – and not to mention the fact that due to the time of the year, the region was booked 100%. So after a few unsuccessful calls, we struck gold: the last room available at the Sheraton Petaluma (a good 20-25 miles from Napa), but at this stage, beggars could not be choosers. It would be that, or nothing and thanks to our Starwood status, we even got upgraded to a suite. Small mercies.
We arrived and weren’t quite sure how to feel. Everyone was acting pretty normal and trying to get back to business. You have to admire the resilience of Americans. Just get up and go. And on they went. And so did we.
We actually had no plans that evening as the restaurant we had booked wasn’t open and as we were staying closer to Sonoma than Napa, we decided to head to this postcard pretty town, and find someplace to eat.
It was funny how after all these years, we remembered where everywhere was, and where we had gone for drinks and dinner all those years ago. We then decided that we would go back to La Salette restaurant, which we loved last time we were in town. And it did not disappoint. Everything was just as we remembered, and the menu, which was (wait for this) modern Portuguese (ha ha), was fantastic. I am not one to go to Portuguese restaurants when I am abroad, namely because there aren’t many, but have to recommend this place.
A meal for two was around $150 with fantastic Portuguese wine (Esporao Reserva, of course). The tapas were yummy, as I had possibly the best gazpacho ever… which came with dungeness crab on top.
On the next day, we were due to go on the Napa Valley Wine Train (who coincidentally were the reason why we were in this part of California. Following my trip on the Belmond British Pullman earlier that summer, the team did not give up until I found some dates to visit this part of the world. You see, wine and trains go very well together, I promise). But because of the earthquake, the train was not running the following day, but was that a problem? Absolutely not. Their team rescheduled us for the day after (and we were happy to delay our departure from Napa), and in hours, organised 3 wine tasting sessions for us. And not just your average tasting sessions – we were to go to 2 of our favourite wineries and… wait for this… the US home of Taittinger champagne (obviously not called as not produced in La France).
So at 10.30am (a tad early for us Europeans to start tasting wine, but apparently very normal locally, where people must be up at 5am!), we made our way to Domaine Carneros, the US home of Taittinger (which as you may gather, is one of my favourite champagnes), who have been in the area since 1987. Sadly, this meant I had been missing out for almost all of my adult life. I came across Domaine Carneros when I visited Newport, in Rhode Island the year before, but not seen it ever since. That shall never happen again, I promise.
I thought the chateau was a bit chateauey for California, but it was quite nice. We were one of the first guests doing a tasting, and judging by the number of tables available, it would be fair to say it gets busy. But we were lucky! We chose the $30 sparkling wine sampler, and tried the estate cuvee, blanc de noir, brut rose and the demi-sec. It was actually quite interesting as they were completely different to the Taittinger versions that we are used to. Obviously the terroir, weather and everything else plays a part. We quite liked the Estate Cuvee ($30) and then asked to try the Ultra Brut ($35), which we thought was fantastic. But our favourite, by a mile, was the $100 Reve, which was sublime. We brought home a combination of these 3, and I am delighted to report that all bottles not consumed within the USA made it safely to Maison O’Reilly.
From Domaine Carneros, we made our way to Grgich Hills, which is not pronounced in any way that one would think. I would say it sounds like ‘guerguish’. We know their Zinfandel quite well and have been trying their wines for the last 5 years every time we visit the USA. I am a great believer in wine miles and I always drink local wine whenever possible. In California, in 2014 (not 10 years ago, in my opinion), one is spoiled for choice.
We had a private tour of the winery, which was very nice (and being a family owned business, you can tell the difference) and a $40 tasting session. If you visit in pairs, I would highly recommend splitting a tasting between two. The pourings are generous and it is a lot of wine to go through in an hour. We had tried the Chardonnay and the Sauvignon Blanc before, but really liked the Fume Blanc (which was a made up name by Mr. Grgich and Robert Mondavi, to come up with something to ‘rival’ France’s Pouilly Fume). Our favourite though, was the Yountville Selection 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. We also managed to buy 6 bottles, but sadly lost 2 on the flight back home.
At this stage, we were quite hungry and had had enough crackers, so it was time for lunch. We were recommended a restaurant called Mustard’s Grill, just a couple of miles away, and I have to say, it was good. Very good. Mr. O went for the Mongolian pork chop and I went for the slow smoked BBQ pork sandwich. Believe it or not, we passed on the wine. And dessert.
From here, we had our final wine visit, and one I had been looking forward to for years: I love Cakebread and its wines, and have been a devoted customer for the past 5 years, when my friend Amanda introduced us to it. We always make sure we bring some home, but when we are in the US, we always have it. I love their Sauvignon Blanc and it was the first American winemaker to make me drink Chardonnay.
I loved the winery and how everything was set up. We actually had a group tasting and mini tour as it was the only possibility with the change of plans (we were originally due to visit the following day and oh boy, they know of my love for them and were expecting Mrs. O). We had a ball and tried a little bit too much wine. It was fantastic and I now like Chardonnay a bit more – especially their Reserve limited edition one. We bought one of these special bottles and it was also broken on a plane. (I have to say in over 15 years travelling long haul, I never had a wine accident. This summer we had one bottle break on the way from Portugal, and 3 on the way from the US. Out of dozens (I will not admit to the exact number), it was not bad. But we missed out on that wine, which was a shame. But that only means one thing… I shall be going back for more.
After this visit, it was time to take a break from wine and meet lovely people! We first made our way to The Carneros Inn (where I am definitely staying next time) to meet Ana, who is a fellow Portuguese and a wine maker. We have been following each other on Instagram for almost two years and it was great!
We then made our way towards Napa, to meet Natalie (who is a loyal blog reader and with whom I chat a lot on Twitter) at Morimoto. It looked fantastic (and very trendy) and we almost stayed for dinner, but we honestly did not fancy sushi on that night.
I knew exactly what I wanted – I wanted cheese and charcuterie. And a glass of Zinfandel. And following Nat’s suggestion, we headed to The Thomas at Faggiani’s (which are like two restaurants in one). We loved the look and feel of the place, and were seriously impressed with what we ate. Mrs. O approved indeed.
After a lovely relaxed evening, we drove back to our hotel, which was 30 mins away and slept for 10 hours. We needed it!
The next morning, bright and early, we checked out and made our wine back to Napa for the last time. We easily found the starting point of The Wine Train – and I have to confess, I did not know what to expect. To be perfectly honest, the boarding area wasn’t the most inspiring – it was tired and does need a refurb. But once we saw the train, we had no worries at all.
When you go on the Wine Train, you basically pick from the various experiences – lunch, dinner, full day, etc. We were due to go on the Ambassador Winery Tour but as we changed the dates and could not go on the train for the whole day, we did the Lunch experience, on the Vista Dome cart.
Priced at $149+tax, I thought it was outstanding value for money. There are other less expensive options, but the difference in the experience is considerable (but the price difference is not). We had a lovely 3-course meal, with a welcome grass of Mumm (American sparkling) included. We then chose to pair each course with an appropriate wine, suggested by the team, and had an outstanding meal. Our train journey took 3 hours, and thanks to it I even got on USA TV that day. If you want to watch the 30′ clip, just click here.
On this journey, there are no real stops – you go from Napa to St. Helena and come back, but there are plenty of other options, with vineyard visits included, so worth having a look.
And before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye to Napa and continue our California road trip . I really enjoyed my time there – it was better than I ever remembered. I loved the two days we spent there and everyone we met. And everything we ate. And all we drank.
Until the next time!
Check out our other California blog posts here:
- California Travel Guide
- Best Things to Do in California
- Best Places to Visit in California
- Best Places to Stay in California
- When to Visit California
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Disclaimer: I was a guest of Napa Valley Wine Train, who also kindly organised the wine tasting sessions at Domaine Carneros, Grgich Hills and Cakebread Cellars. Opinions, as always, are my own. And I loved every minute of it.