A Trip To Wine Country

This week we’re celebrating the holidays the same way all of you are, by popping some corks and celebrating the wonderful world of wine. Every day this week we’ll be bringing you posts about tasting all around California. The past few months have given us lots of opportunities to explore our local vineyards, grocery stores, and palates.

I’m from a wine family. I thought everyone had a dedicated kitchen space for racks of bottles from all around the world, to be opened on a special occasion or on any day that you wanted to make special. From a very young age I was allowed to dip my finger in and taste what my parents had in their glasses. I would start with a sniff, and they would ask me to identify what I found. At first everything just tasted and smelled like stinky grapes. As I grew up I could start picking up different notes. It’s sweet, it’s sour, it’s chocolatey. And as time passed they would encourage me to try to identify more subtle flavors. My dad would say, “it doesn’t have to be the ‘right’ answer, just tell me what you taste.”

“Apple?”

“Interesting. I don’t find any apple in here at all, but good job!”

As I wanted to be better at finding the flavors, I would start reading the bottle on the counter behind my parents first and then trying to find the berry, the leather, the tobacco smoke in the glass as I sucked on a finger with my eyes closed in concentration.

We are a wine family, but we are not wine snobs. My parents loved to journey to Napa and travel up the skyline to the prestigious vineyards, but we also will pick up a boxed Sangria form Aldi for an afternoon by the pool, or a strawberry wine from a roadside stand in Arkansas. In my adult years I love a Barefoot Moscato just as much as the $50 bottles in my cabinets. There’s an occasion for each. Wrapping Christmas presents on the floor with my puppy walking all over the paper and bows? That’s a Barefoot occasion! That was also last night!

My mom always promised that after I turned 21 we would visit Wine Country and spend a whole day wandering through the wineries and sampling the best of their best. This year we finally made that promise a reality, even if it was not in the way we always imagined it. My parents have been to Napa many times on work retreats or personal vacations, and they love the spontaneity of being able to drive down the winding road until something catches your eye, and hop in for a taste. This August our trip was very different with more structure than they’re used to.

Nathaniel and I were camp hosting in the Bay Area, about a 45 minute drive from Napa Valley. I never imagined myself living in California, nonetheless so close to the promised land of fermentation that sits so close by. My parents luckily found themselves with a day in town to visit and we decided to explore Napa since we had no idea when the timing and circumstances would line up so perfectly again. This time, to be safe, reservations were required for any tasting and typically had to be made about three weeks in advance. All tastings were outdoors and patios that normally hold dozens of people were limited to two groups at a time, so the free-flowing nature of the area was far more restricted, but it’s possible to enjoy it all the same with the right amount of planning beforehand.


My mom had made a reservation for us at her favorite winery, Sterling, and thought we would just wander the area until we found another place that could host us. This would prove to be a little bit harder than we imagined, but we found a spot all the same. Just up the mountain we found free street parking and decided to hop out to have a look around. The bad news is most places were full, the good news is I have a long list of spots to try when we return! The one that looked the most intriguing was a combination oil change center and tasting hub, that lets you schedule a time to have a flight or two while your service is being performed. What an incredible niche in the market they’ve carved out for themselves! Just make sure you bring a friend to be a designated driver for your ride home!


Our designated driver is always, and reliably, Nathaniel. He’s really not a wine lover. In fact, to add a new perspective to this Wine Week extravaganza, later in the week he has a post coming explaining what it’s like to tag along to all these tastings if you’re not a “wine guy” like him. In lack of an open tasting room, we decided to visit a local restaurant, the Calistoga, for lunch. Being in the Napa community, they offer flights of red or white wine with your meal. My mom opted for white, me for red, and my dad had one glass of Pinot. He’s a big fan of pacing yourself. Nathaniel had a cocktail, a whiskey sidecar with a punch of citrus. Our appetizers paired well with our refreshments, and we relaxed while we waited for our appointment at Sterling down the road. We walked through the town to admire the dollhouses lining the perfectly landscaped streets. I thought about possible work-camping opportunities in the area… maybe one day we would be parking our RV beside a vineyard and acting as a host during the day, while sleeping next to the vines and barrels at night. I’ve been looking in to it. There’s so many jobs available for seasonal employees who can help out in the historic centers and breeze through tastings with the thousands of visitors who flock to the area each year. Maybe next summer we’ll find our home in Napa.


The time came to make our way down the mountain to the Sterling grounds. I say down to the grounds because there’s quite an elaborate process to get to the tasting room up at the top. A skyliner, ski lift, or gondola, whatever you want to call it, breezes you up the mountain with a stunning panorama of the vistas below you. Perfectly fit for our group of four. We spent a few minutes in the air and arrived at the top. All stone, with water features, greenery, and large potted plants spilling out of their containers. It looked like California, through and through. The entrance is magnificent, the waiting room is gorgeous, and the whole feel is one of luxury and taste. It was fun escaping the campground momentarily, trading in my work boots for ballet flats, and getting a reminder of what my daily life was like before we embarked on this wilderness adventure.


Our tasting took place outside on a mostly private patio with sprawling vineyards below us. This took place well before this blog was even an idea in our heads, so I didn’t prepare as well photographically as I should have. I wish I had a list of the wines we tried or had written down our servers name, but I’ll tell you instead about the parts that stick out in my memory. Those are the important pieces anyway. Our server was young and bubbly, she was knew to the winery but her passion was clear and she helped us all, even Nathaniel, discover something we loved. After a few sips of the whites and one or two reds, I had been downing double pours since Nathaniel can’t seem to find a wine he wants to finish, and constantly empties his glass into mine. I was desperate to remain coherent and that meant he would need to love one enough to keep it to himself. I asked him what he really likes to drink. He’s spent a few summers in Tennessee where he developed an appreciation for whiskey, and he said he liked his sidecar earlier that day. She brightened up and said “I have the perfect thing!” She brought out a bottle of a pale yellowish white, with a bright citrusy scent. It was an un-oaked Chardonnay, fermented in stainless steel instead of the wooden barrels that give Chardonnay its signature buttery finish.

I’ve learned in the past few months that Chardonnay gets a bad rap in the wine world, with some consumers subscribing to an “anything but Chardonnay” idea. I’m not sure why! Not being very picky, and not really having an idea of which opinions are right or wrong in the world of wine has let me taste blindly and develop opinions based solely on what I like or don’t like. I’ll give anything a try, and this un-oaked Chardonnay was a hit for me and Nathaniel. He finished his and I let him have mine too, to even the playing field a little bit. We were all happy that we had managed to find one that didn’t make his nose wrinkle. I marked down a bottle of that on my order sheet so we could save our pricier bottle for a special occasion. Christmas is coming up and it’s still sitting around… Maybe it’s time to pop the cork on that one.


We had a lovely charcuterie board, too! Not too full from lunch, we felt snackish and it was nice to have some salty meat and creamy cheeses to accompany the flavorful pours in front of us. I love playing pairing games where I try wines with different cheeses, chocolates, or nuts to see how the flavors change. I think with some chocolate to accompany it, Nathaniel might find himself more drawn to reds instead of just the bright, sipping whites.


We took home our bottle, and were gifted two glasses and the board from our platter as well. that board will actually make an appearance later this week when we retell the story of our most recent double date with my family, tasting in Northern California where we’re currently stationed. It was around four in the afternoon when we finished, and we happily stumbled out of the patio loaded up with our souvenirs and bottles tucked safely into our bags. The trip down the mountain showed off gorgeous golden sunlight illuminating the grounds that grew what we had just sampled, and I was so grateful to be sharing this experience with my mom, finally, crossing off a bucket list trip that was entirely unexpected. Short as it may have been, our day in Napa glows in my memories and I can’t wait to reminisce over our Chardonnay later this week.

The variation is what is so astounding to me. From certified premium vineyards who hand select their best grapes for their world renowned blends, to small restaurants who showcase hobby wine makers and hyper local bottles, there’s something for everyone in Napa and time to try it all! If you plan ahead, that is. One year I want to visit in the springtime, when reservations are no longer required and you can laze your way through whatever entices you. I want to spend more time tasting with Nathaniel, and getting him to enjoy and appreciate the experience as much as I do. Throughout this week we’ll be sharing stories of our wine tasting adventures in all the places we’ve lived, and the wonderful times we’ve spent in pursuit of the perfect pour.

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