Santa Rosa, Petrified Forest, Calistoga, St. Helena and Napa - our great Californian adventure continues
22.08.2011 - 24.08.2011 33 °C
When planning our Californian getaway, Napa Valley was one of the very first places we agreed on. Wine, good food, more wine, champagne, even better food, etc. – you get the idea. After a great, albeit at times foggy weekend in San Francisco, we checked out, paid a fortune for hotel parking for a car we so far only used once and that was to get from the airport to the hotel, and set off across the Golden Gate Bridge towards our wine-fueled adventure.
Having checked the map, there were few places we wanted to stop at along the way to our 3pm champagne tasting booked in Napa. A charming fishing village Sausalito just after the Golden Gate Bridge with colourful floating houses and small aircrafts parked on the water outside front doors was one of them.It promised to be a good place to explore this unusual architecture and provide a welcome change of scene after two days in the city. That was my plan. The reality was The Duke behind the steering wheel of our Ford Escape fearlessly hurling north whilst skillfully avoiding a couple of highway 1 exits to Sausalito until the point of no return. And then there was me longingly looking towards the village disappearing in the back mirror. Our ‘List of places to see on our return to San Francisco area’ just earned another item.
Instead, we pressed on until we reached the Wine county. Feeling sheepish after depriving me of seeing Sausalito close-up, The Duke made a stop in a small town of Santa Rosa where we visited the beautiful garden and old house of one of the key Californian horticulturists – Luther Burbank. Despite being notoriously rubbish at scientifically documenting his work, Mr. Burbank introduced more than 800 new varieties of plants including vegetables, fruits, grains and flowers. Even in late summer, the garden was pleasantly fragrant and colourful, although some of the no longer flowering parts suggested spring is the season to visit. The house was unfortunately closed, so after a stroll through the gardens we continued on our journey to intoxication by champagne.
Next stop was the Petrified Forest on the road to Calistoga. A short half mile or so self guided walk took us past a number Redwood trees that fell and slowly turned into stone following a volcanic eruption some three million years ago. Being the redwoods, these are the largest petrified trees in the world and in an amazingly well preserved state, you can even count the year rings on them. Whilst they lack the color and sparkle of the petrified trees in the Arizona desert, their sheer size and the surroundings woodland made this a pleasant little stop.
Ever since we were in Iceland last year, I am a big fan of geysers. No surprise than I had my mind set on visiting Calistoga with its geyser Old Faithful. Although not as big as its Icelandic counterparts, Old Faithful is set in a nice surrounding of thick bamboo growth and fresh grass, erupting from a shallow pool of water with reassuring regularity. Unlike in Iceland, there are benches and picnic tables arranged in half moon around the geyser, allowing for a nice view of the eruption without the crowds spoiling potential photo shots. We enjoyed this view even more for the time it took us to find it – the redundant signposting in Calistoga meant we got very familiar with the town layout and many of its back streets, before finally finding our way to this sight that is not in Calistoga at all but more like a couple of miles to the north-west from it. The only disappointment was the high entry fee of $10 for very small and not so well maintained site.
With three stops behind us, it was already mid afternoon and making our champagne tour in Domaine Carneros champagnery south of Napa started to look like a challenge. Not that familiar with the road conditions, distances and traffic in Napa Valley, we decided to give it a shot anyway. Despite our best efforts, it was almost half past three when we finally took turn towards the French-style chateau perched on a hill and surrounded by vineyards. The building, a replica of a chateau in France, looked very imposing and elegant with an elaborate staircase leading to the front door from the car park below it. We had missed the tour but a friendly lady at the concierge assured us if we turn up the next day on time we can still take part without pre-booking. After a day of driving and no lunch break, we were easily tempted to a champagne tasting accompanied by a feast of cheeses, nuts and dried fruits served on a terrace overlooking the vineyards. Our hostess kept just the right balance between great customer service supported by sharing her obviously great knowledge of wines and champagnes and giving us enough space to enjoy the surroundings, each other’s company and the champagne. We certainly took our time before we drained our glasses of this delicious drink, polished off last crumbs of cheese and set off towards St. Helena to check-into our temporary home for the next two nights – The Rustridge Ranch and Winery.
To get to St. Helena we drove back partly through some dusty back-roads and partly the same way we came to Napa. This time we were in no hurry and took the opportunity to enjoy views of the great houses along the way and the well-kept vineyards throughout the valley. Rustridge is a Ranch, B&B and a Winery tucked away from the town of St. Helena approximately 25 minutes drive on winding country roads through picturesque landscape. Having booked it via a travel portal based on good ratings and reasonable price, we were not quite sure what to expect but were hopeful we get an authentic and traditional wine-county experience and a good base from which to explore the rest of the valley. We were not disappointed.
Our first impressions after arriving at Rustridge were parking our car outside the B&B / office and being surrounded by barking dogs with noone to check us in in sight. My feelings about dogs are ‘apprehensive’ at best of times so instinct told me to send The Duke first and see if he makes it. As it turned out, Rusty and his champs are the loveliest of creatures and there was something very reassuring about their non-intrusive presence and general tendency to accompany guests on their walks around the grounds. It took only minutes until I was comfortable around them which, those who know me will testify, is quite a compliment.
With the B&B empty, we decided to follow the signs to Winery (naturally with Rusty the dog in tow), a couple of minutes on foot away. Soon we were welcomed by a group of very friendly people engaged in lively conversation, wearing name tags, telling us to sign in and inviting us to join in. Although flattered by this open interested in our company, we couldn’t stop feeling they were mistaking us for someone else. Having explained we booked a room in the B&B, they eventually pointed us in direction of a gentleman surrounded by a number of opened bottles of wine and standing on the right side of the bar for someone ‘in the know’. Right we were and short moments later we found ourselves back at the B&B, marveling at the spacious communal lounge / dining area full of memorabilia, pictures and general Rustridge related bits and pieces, and settling in the compact but comfortable Chiles Valley Room with windows facing a small vegetable garden and not so small vineyard. Having just driven through the valley past some magnificent chateau style properties with immaculate front gardens and long gated tree-lined access roads, Rustridge was refreshingly unpretentious place with cosy family-run feel to it and we could not wait to explore the grounds. But before that could happen, we needed to absolve the drive back to St. Helena to try our luck at getting a table in one of the recommended restaurants. We did not get very far.
To announce our dinner plans and excuse ourselves from joining the wine tasting (at least until after the dinner), we drove back to the Winery (yes, it is lazy but we were in the US!). This was the best move of the night. Only now did we find out the wine tasting was a regular Facebook event, this time sponsored by Rustridge and it came with authentic Mexican food prepared under the sky next to the tasting room. Needles to say it did not take much to persuade us to stay and made to feel very welcome we were soon tasting our way through a number of delicious Rustridge wines, happily chatting to anyone who would listen and nibbling on tasty beef steak, Mexican beans and rice, tangy guacamole and gorgeously-smelly salmon prepared on an open fire grill. Everyone was having a great time, the food and wine were excellent and we met some very interesting people including the lovely couple owning Rustridge, Susan and Jim Fresquez, and Jane and Tom, an Australian couple visiting California just like us and living in Beijing. This went on for a couple of hours until we came under fire from a mosquito squad using the window of opportunity between sunset and us reluctantly leaving the Winery. Whilst I escaped relatively unharmed, The Duke was not so lucky and still bears the scars. Defeated, we retrieved back to the B&B and settled in for a night of sound sleep.
Having missed out on the Domaine Carneros tour the previous day and typically for us having no other bookings, our mission for the day was to find a winery with an open tour, get back to Domaine Carneros to learn about making sparkly (this time on time) and last but not least, secure a dinner table in one of the restaurants in the valley (without booking it beforehand, of course).
Morning at Rustridge is quite a unique experience. Around 8 o’clock in the morning, a delicious smell of fresh coffee filled our room and short while later and plenty of effort on my side no to look to awake, The Duke succumbed to the pressure and fetched a couple of mugs with this liquid alarm clock. With cups of coffee in hand, we finally got a chance to explore the grounds, finding hidden gems like an outdoor swimming pool with vineyard view and plenty of comfy sunbeds all around. Venturing further from the B&B towards the fields bathing in the morning sun we were greeted by horses grazing in fenced off areas, which we found out from Jim the previous night included race horses with some pretty impressive pedigree. The racing legacy of Rustridge is apparent throughout the grounds and in particular B&B where newspaper articles and book publications, as well as photos and parts of horse gear decorate the rooms. Not to mention Jim’s gift to tell the most captivating stories from Susan’s and his life.
Sufficiently awake, we headed back to the house for breakfast, which turned out to be by far the best breakfast of our holiday. The only two other people staying in the B&B were Jane and Tom who we met the previous night and all four of us being seriously impressed with the sheer variety and volume of food on the table, we risen to the challenge with a sole objective to make a noticeable dent in the mountain of delicious food in front of us. This could not be accomplished in a hurry, so we took our time and spent an hour or so willing each other to eat on whilst chatting about our plans for the day and beyond.It transpired Jane and Tom faced the same dilemma about how to combine driving from and to Rustridge with taking advantage of the ample wine tasting opportunities in the valley. Eventually, we came up with a canny plan to share the driving and taxi-ride. We were to drive to St. Helena, split for the day and meet-up in late afternoon for dinner, before leaving the car in town and hitching a taxi ride back. They would then drop us off at our car the next morning. That settled, we had half an hour to prepare and meet outside the B&B.
Staying behind to slowly finish our coffee, Jim joined us in the dining room and we had the chance to hear more fascinating stories about the history of his family, which for us coming from Europe sounded like an exciting Wild West movie screen-play. “Jim, I told you and I mean it: ‘You should definitely write it down!’.”
After dropping Tom and Jane in St. Helena, The Duke and I embarked on a quest to find a winery tour that would have us without booking in advance. First we tried St. Clement Vineyards which turned out to have started half an hour before we arrived, but also half an hour earlier then posted on their website. For a good measure, the lady at the reception assured us without reservation we would not get in anyway. Determined to find somewhere, we eventually came across an imposing looking Beringer Winery estate and our perseverance paid off. Ten minutes to go to a winery tour including wine tasting.
The Beringer Winery tour was very interesting, although it was less about the wine and more about the extensive underground caverns the winery founders carved into the rock hill to store their wine barrels in cool temperatures. The Duke was particularly impressed with the story of the two Beringer brothers, Friedrich and Jacob, who came from Germany. This heritage was apparent throughout the winery from old photographs decorated with magnificent mustaches, imported wine barrels with beautiful wooden carvings from the Mosel and Rhine areas to the name of their house ‘Rhine House’. The Beringer estate is also the proud owner of the largest bottle of wine ever made, which is recorded in the Guinness World Book of Records and replica is on display on site.
During the prohibition when majority of wineries went out of business, Bertha Beringer, the wife of Beringer’s son Charles, saved the winery by devising a scheme for mass production of raisins and focusing on producing wine for clerical use which was a niche legal market. It is always great to hear stories of great women of our past. Feeling pleased we finally succeeded in taking part in a winery tour, we spent a few minutes walking around the grounds including the Victorian style Rhine House with many of its original decorations and furniture including intricate stained glass windows that at the time were imported from Europe and made up almost 20% of the building cost.
Having a couple of hours before our next tour, albeit at the other end of the valley, we took this opportunity to check out Napa, which seemed to be a nice enough town. Much more impressive though was the great taste of local women. My copper red hair has been attracting glances and the occasional comment since we set off from San Francisco, but this was the first time I had a hairdresser running out of her shop after me. Not only did she like my hair colour but also the way I did my hair. You can’t blame her, really. Due to this huge success, I will go against our initial rule not to post pictures of ourselves … I need to point out that at this stage The Duke started to get concerned about the increasing proportions of my head and its growing incompatibility with our ‘compact’ Ford Escape.
After a quick Mexican lunch, we decided to head to Domaine Carneros again. This time we were on time and took part in a very impressive tour through the champagnery and vineyards. Our guide Mike was extremely informative and made the tour not only interesting but also very entertaining, even though he seemed convinced I was French. After hinting at it a few times, I finally put him out of his misery by enlightening him about my origin. He seemed mildly disappointed I was Czech i.e. ‘beer barbarian’, and not a fellow wine connoisseur. You win some, you lose some.
The tour was excellent. It had just the right combination of champagne making techniques in the past and present supported by shows of the storage, bottling, labeling, purifying and other facilities. All this was accompanied by various tasters of champagne and even some normal wine, so much so that at the end of the tour, we both felt in a state of pleasant intoxication. In addition to all that, we met a young couple from Florida who were so excited about their recent visit of the Muir Red Woods National Park just north of San Francisco, we added another item to our ‘List’. For $25, this was great value for money. We even got ourselves a couple of bottles of sparkly to enjoy later on somewhere on our way through California. Thanks to the generous Californian alcohol limit and the Duke’s not so little body mass, we were just about still able to drive back to St. Helena.
Our timing could not have been better and as soon as we got out of the champagnery, our phone rang. Jane and Tom also just finished their exploits and were ready to meet up for dinner. Unlike us, they were prepared and booked four places in one of these stylish restaurants St. Helena has to offer, called Cook. It was nice to finally sit down with some great food and cold glass of water (decided to have a wine break) and exchange war stories with fellow travelers, not to mention I earned another hair compliment from friendly lady behind the bar. We liked Nappa Valley. A lot.
When we arrived at Rustridge, the sun was starting to set and surrounding hills were covered in a warm orange glow. The Duke and I decided to go for a romantic stroll through the vineyards, which was rather short-lived. The always ready mosquito unit must have intercepted our communication and as soon as we were far enough from the B&B to make it hard for us to hide, the quiet buzzing around our ears suggested we were being followed. Whilst I felt safe with the walking mosquito magnet right next to me, The Duke was under fire and eventually we found ourselves running back to the safety of the B&B where we previously spotted a number of wine bottles waiting to be tasted at the kitchen table. Yet another sign of the great hospitability of our hosts.
Jim was already in the kitchen and with Tom and Jane having an early night in an attempt to finally rid of their jet lag, the three of us spent hours sitting at the kitchen bar, drinking more Rustridge wine, including our all time favorite Zinfandel, and talking. Uncharacteristically for many Americans, Jim has a keen interest in travelling and has done his share of touring around Europe, including promotion visits for their wine. This made our discussions even more interesting and by the time we parted, we discussed wine making in Europe, European politics and heard more great stories about Rustridge and their legacy. One of these stories was about the legendary race horse Seabiscuit and its early trainer Buster Millerick, who Jim had the privilege to work with and believed Buster was not given sufficient credit for the role he played in making Seabiscuit the success it had became. With more wine, and later on some of Jim’s homemade margarita, the conversation turned to the neighborly relations in Napa Valley and St. Helena in particular. It was interesting to get a peek into the everyday lives of the locals, as well as hear about the trend of the rich from Silicon Valley and LA flogging to Napa to buy land, build their mansions and add to the competition by establishing new wineries. More than three hours and few wine glasses later, The Duke and I finally decided to call it a day. One last glimpse at the star studded sky with its clearly visible Milky Way and few hours of undisturbed sleep before continuing on our journey towards the Golden County.