We drove north on highway 29, through scenic switchbacks of lush green grass overlooking fields of wild mustard sprouting under the trellised grapevines. At times, the route wound through open spaces sparkled with grazing livestock and where remarkable old oak trees filled the emptiness and characterized the landscape. We were on our way to Napa Valley, on the open road of Northern California’s wine country: 2 girls, 1 car, 1 tent, 2 days, 312km and a lot of wine in the forecast.
My friend Ashley moved to San Francisco a couple years ago to advance in her career of sommelier. At only 26 years old, she has an impressive and extended knowledge of wine, making her a curious oenophile with a hungry mind. She planned the itinerary, booked visits and tastings at the wineries and pleased me with a tent and sleeping bags consenting on spending the night under the stars. I couldn’t have a better host. DAY 1: US 101-N/ CA-37 E/ CA-29 N
It was a mild, breezy and sunny morning of early March. Summer dresses, tweeting birds and blooming cherry blossoms filled the streets of San Francisco as spring took over the last days of a cool winter. It was surprisingly a fogless day in the city, leaving the sky bright and clear. Freshly baked bagels wrapped in a paper bag rested in the backseat of the SUV between cheeses, wine and camping gear. We traversed the impressive Golden Gate Bridge and stopped at a secret local’s spot. After snapping some photographs of the scenic sight and snaking on delicious bagels, we jumped back in the car and embarked on our journey.
Withing an hour, we arrived to the Legendary Napa Valley, where rows of grapevines and blankets of yellow buds welcomed us under a radiant sun.
Napa Valley is considered one of the premium wine growing regions in the world, ranking first along with France. The valley is located between the Mayacamas Mountain Range and the Vaca Mountains, with the floor of the main valley progressively rising from sea level to 362 feet above sea level. Its geography, Mediterannean climate, and geology blend together to grow quality wine grapes. The rich wine making industry of Napa Valley started well before the Californian gold rush. The first commercial vines planted in the valley was in 1839 by George Yount. Since then, European pioneers came to test their hands at making wine to compete and outrun the ones of their homeland. The industry boomed in the 1860’s and 1870’s as more than 140 wineries blossomed in the valley. However, the arrival of the vine disease phylloxera louse, the Prohibition and the Great Depression affected the wine industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After 14 years of abandon, the viticulture slowly recovered and, thanks to the great results of the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, Napa Valley was recognized as capable of producing the best quality wines. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoS7oxxZR4Y Wine Tastings Tours Napa Valley is home to world-acclaimed wineries. A wine tasting experience is a must. Whether you choose to join a wine tour group, follow a winery cycling circuit, hire a personal chauffeur or opt for a self-guiding visit, this slice of heaven will be sure to give you the ultimate sensory experience. Our first tasting was at Joseph Phelps Vineyards, where we had a very educative private tasting on the terrace. Today, the winery is known as producing important estate-grown wines from the 80 acres of Pinot Noir and 20 acres of Chardonnay. Joseph Phelps’ flagship wine Insignia is recognized as one of the world’s great wines. Our next stop was at Far Niente, where Ashley booked an early afternoon visit and tasting. We entered a tunnel of Autumn Gold ginkgo trees before arriving to the wrought-iron gate entrance.
Founded in 1885, Far Niente is a magnificent historic stone construction built against a hillside in western Oakville. We took a walk through the beautiful and serene landscaped gardens flourished by bloomed tulips. We finished at the Carriage House, home to a collection of classic automobiles.
Then, we visited the impressive 40,000 square foot wine-aging cave.
The tour followed by tastings featuring current releases of Far Niente estate wines each paired with seasonal cheeses. The best part was kept for the end: a taste of Dolce, a liquid gold, late harvest wine.
We were then invited to sit and relax on the porch of the Sullenger House, a restored 1884 Queen Anne-style home. A glass of their 2010 John C. Sullenger Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was poured in front of us. As we enjoyed every taste and every sip, we watched the hummingbirds feeding on the Rhododendrons and, as the sun slowly made its way towards the hills, we admired its setting rays filtering through the Canary Palm trees.
Bubbles Paired With Sunset As we wanted to catch the last sunrays, we drove up to Auberge du Soleil for a glass of bubbles. Sitting on the beautiful terrace overlooking panoramic views of spectacular vistas, we watched the sunlight dim across the vineyards as it tinted the valley of a golden glow and blushed the sky of a purple light. We sat back, relaxed and enjoyed a glass of their sparkling ‘Auberge du Soleil “Reserve” North Coast’. Perfect setting, pleasant company and palate well pleased.
Fine Dining and Camping Napa Valley is North America’s food and wine premier destination. Over 125 exciting restaurants offer outstanding dining by some of the world’s best chefs. With a farm-to-table culinary scene, the region is sure to take you through a remarkable culinary adventure. We chose to go to Bouchon, a fine dining French bistro located in Yountville. Its relaxed and bold atmosphere put us at ease in our Napa-Casual clothing. We sat at the bar amongst wine connoisseurs and aspiring sommelier masters. The wine was beautiful, the food pleasant, the atmosphere vibrant.
While fellow patrons impressed me with their wine and food knowledge, I piqued their curiosity when I informed them of our camping accommodation. “You girls are in one of the wealthiest communities in all of America, drinking fine wine in a world-class restaurant, and you’re telling me you’ll be sleeping in a tent tonight?” And why not? We arrived at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park where we cracked a bottle of wine and, in our long summer dresses, set up the tent in the protected forest. Delicious wines, fine food, pristine sceneries and a night under the stars. Bliss. DAY 2: CA-29 S / CA-12 W/ CA-116 W/ CA-1 S The chilly night turned into a beautiful and sunny morning. The scent of fresh dew balancing on grass and the rays of the rising sun warming up the tent nicely awoke us. We packed the tent, rolled the sleeping bags and hit the road. Breakfast of Bubbles Founded in 1987 by Champage Taittinger, Domaine Carneros is considered a regional landmark.
We sat on the terrace overlooking views of hills covered of endless vineyards. Different tastings are available on the menu, as well as wine and food pairings. We began with the tasting of their sparkling wine trio sampler: Brut Cuvee, Brut Rose and Vermeil Demi-Sec. Other wines were served. At this point, I disconnected myself from the connoisseurs’ exchanges and started a love affair with the bubbles. All of them. Because at the end of the day, I’m not a grape nut. I’m just a wine lover. A big wine lover.
Fresh Oysters, Sparkling Wine and Delicious Cheeses: A Picnic Treat on the Coastal Beach We headed west towards the Pacific coastline. The scenic highway 116 curved through farms, vineyards and tunnels of Redwoods before making its way to the coast.We stopped at the Hog’s Oyster Farm and picked up a tray of fresh oysters and clams from the bar. Along with our bubbles, cheeses and bagels, we rented a picnic table in the beautiful surrounding of Tomales Bay and ventured into a shucking session. It took some effort, but the reward was worth the sweat.
Picturesque Big Sur Coast: The End of the Journey The exhilarating highway 1 is world-known as the best scenic drive. The road, hugging the seaside cliffs, twists and turns as mountains plunge into the Pacific ocean. I admired the astonishing views of Big Sur on my right side, as we drove South back to San Francisco. California’s Pacific Coast highway is a breathtaking drive, the kind that makes you feel alive.
Ashley had one more surprise. She turned left onto Panoramic Highway, and here we were driving up through a forest of Redwood groves and Oak woodlands. We arrived at a spectacular and panoramic view point, a 2,571ft peak in the Mount Tamalpais State Park. I admired the city of San Francisco bustling and hustling down below and marveled at the stunning views of the ocean with a setting sun.
There was no wine here this time, just 2 girls, breathtaking views and blissful smiles. PS: Don’t drink and drive. Have a designated driver or hire a chauffeur. If you decide to drive, avoid afternoon inebriation by spitting the wine. You can still have a good taste of it, just be responsible and wise. Obviously if you are a wine lover like me, don’t drive. Then you can finish the glasses of your driver 😉