Northern California… known for sunshine, scenery, the seaside and a relaxed, bohemian lifestyle full of red wine and gourmet eats! Who wouldn’t want to visit? Besides our love for exploring the unknown throughout Europe and South America (and soon to be Asia!), we find it so important to also know where you come from. America’s sheer size promises an array of landscapes, cultures and traditions just dying to be discovered.
As New Yorkers, we can be jaded as to what a city should be like and how things should operate, often assuming that New York IS America and that this is just how we ALL do it. But the truth is that the more we travel both domestically and abroad, the more we realize that nothing is’ just like’ New York and venturing out to other stateside cities can be just as interesting as a visit to a foreign land.
On this adventure A+L are hitting up San Francisco and the world renowned wine region of Napa and Sonoma Valley. We have been quite busy exploring the wines of the world lately with trips to Chile and Southern France this year alone. During each of these visits we were questioned about what similarities we noticed as compared to California’s wine region, however, we had to sadly admit that we had never experienced it and couldn’t comment.
We must admit… this was on purpose. Often containing far more sulfates than their Italian, French and South American counterparts, L’s sensitivity to the added preservatives has always lead us to choose anything but Californian wine. Wine culture around the United States as a whole is quite different than in European countries were wine is always consumed with dinner, usually found accompanying lunch and often served with breakfast. It is just what you drink.
However in the US, a bottle of wine is more often thought of as something drank on a special occasion, while a single glass may be had after a ‘rough day at the office’. This one-glass-a-day approach has lead to the need for a more preserved bottle that can be consumed over the course of a couple of days once opened. For someone with no allergy to sulfides, the often added amounts will make no difference to you, but either way, this scenario has influenced our bias. Our goal for this trip? Experience the magic that always accompanies a good wine region and find some new Californian ‘go-to’ favorites. Learn more. And use our 13th anniversary as an excuse…
As a convenient formality, Napa is most easily reached through San Francisco, one of L’s (many) dream destinations (that boy has quite a few!). With a history rich in a love for the sea, this watery peninsula is flanked by the vast Pacific Ocean and the serene San Francisco Bay. The mixture of plenty of fresh seafood, a plethora of military boys in blue, plus all of the offerings of a true cosmopolitan city are the makings of a trip set to stimulate!
The smells of the fresh baked bread at the Boudin Bakery famous for its sourdough. The sounds of the trolley car bells and the serenade of a sax in Union Square. The feel of the cool, sea air on your skin while exploring the wharf or on a boat ride in the bay. The flavors of endless restaurant offerings like the delectable Michael Mina and Tyler Florence’s Wayfare Tavern. The epic views of the city and the crescent beaches from the mountainous Marin Headlands. The energy of people… going… moving… bustling, as only those who love a good city can appreciate. Thinking back on the trip, very vivid, distinct imagery appears… the tell tale sign that a trip was one for the books. Now where do we begin…
Day 1: Tourists for a day
As a true California tourist, no trip to the West coast would be complete without renting a convertible… or at least that’s what we think! Our brand new Camaro was killer and set the tone for the relaxed nature of the whole trip. We arrived on a clear night, and the short 20 minute drive to the hotel provided a great first peek at San Francisco through its colorful skyline. To our amazement it was clear that this was truly a city, and not just a denser collection of people as some ‘cities’ can often be disguised as. After some midnight snacks at the hotel bar, we hit the sheets at the Parc 55 Hotel, our business style, contemporary high-rise, a mere two blocks from the happening Union Square.
Our corner room on the 26th floor provided a 180 degree look at the grid lines below. Upon awaking the next morning, the soaring bird’s eye view with hanging clouds throughout the blue-blue sky was the perfect way to start a morning. Alcatraz, the infamous prison affectionately referred to as ‘The Rock’ (insert Sean Connery joke here), was our first stop. Located on a small rocky island, a ten minute ferry ride out of Pier 33, the (approximately) three hour excursion also doubles as a boat trip on the water and a perfect spot for views of the San Fran shoreline and the epic Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay Bridges. Get your cameras ready!
As probably the most popular tourist attraction in the city, we heeded the recommendation to purchase tickets in advance, and we were glad. Even at 9 am, the place was mobbed. After grabbing a quick bite and some body-warming coffee at the Alcatraz Café (Dress warm!), we got in line. Luckily they have a flawless system, and we boarded our 9:30 am boat right on time. Perfecto.
The island is quite impressive as craggy cliffs emerge from the calm bay with the ominous penitentiary atop the steep hill. This place housed the worst of the worst and it was fascinating. Included with the ticket, we picked up our audio tour (available in many languages) and explored the prison cells and rooms. Step into ‘the Hole’. Imagine what it must have been like to play baseball in ‘the yard’ and stare enviously at the beautiful views of San Francisco every day. Envision the desperation and tension of the attempted escapes. A visit is an ideal mixture of beauty (the island is full of flowers, trees and birds) and history.
Back on the mainland, we strolled along the piers to the main Fisherman’s Wharf area, the town’s most famous section of town. To our surprise and excitement, our visit (October 7-9) was during their annual Fleet Week (see our review of New York’s Fleet Week here), and the city was packed with sailor’s, Navy bands playing in the streets and the screeching noises of military jets breaking the sound barrier right above our heads. We perused the touristy strip of shops (think key chains and souvenirs) and restaurants (like Bubba Gump Shrimp and Hard Rock), listened to the boys in blue blast out some patriotic tunes and rounded the end of the pier for a look at the hundreds of sea-lions that call the docks their home.
Although starving, we were looking for a more authentic meal and continued on to Pier 45 for the fresh-off-the-boat crab and seafood stands. After quickly devouring a crab sandwich, we made sure to save room in our bellies for some more San Francisco favorites. We had begun an eating tour… sigh. The Boudin Bakery has been a staple since 1849 pumping out the original sourdough bread (from the same ‘mother yeast’) for over 160 years. L returned to our table with a large ‘round’ (~10” in diameter) for just two people! I am sorry to say that we downed nearly the whole thing. We are still hanging our heads in shame.
Back on our feet, we continued along the water to view the many historic naval ships and a submarine, and finish up in Ghirardelli Square. The waterfront park is framed by bike paths and a beach on one side and the beautiful brick Ghirardelli building, complete with shops, on the other. The park has stadium-style concrete seating facing the water, so we planted ourselves down with the other spectators and viewed the air show… to our surprise we had arrived just in time! Supersonic Marine and Naval jets, the ‘Blue Angels’, corkscrewing biplanes, the part helicopter part plane Osperey and even a soaring, massive United 747 joined in the dare devil performance executed right above the water line. An exhilarating spectacle. After two hours of entertainment, we headed inside the factory for one of the famed Ghirardelli sundaes. Our ‘Gold Rush’ was a chocolate and peanut butter overload! We left in a food coma.
In an effort to burn some calories, we tackled the ten block uphill walk to Lombard Street, the extraordinary block with eight switchbacks and a 27% degree grade. Tons of photographers gathered at the top and bottom of the street, as passengers in cars descending the steep incline hung out of windows and sunroofs trying to get the perfect shot. There was even a crazy person on a skateboard speeding down the street slalom style! After taking our pictures we realized that there was still one stereotypical San Francisco activity we had to partake in… a ride on a cable car.
Set up as the main mode of transportation around the city, electric lines weave throughout the streets almost everywhere you go. While most are essentially electric buses, they’ve preserved the nostalgia on the two most touristy routes. Either hop on an open air “Rice-a-Roni” style model if you’re heading south, or take the scenic route along the water and down Market Street on any of the 1950’s vintage F-Line cars obtained from cities around the country. After our fun ride on the F-Line, we hopped off at the Ferry Terminal (which also houses lots of area shopping) and strolled through the Financial District down Market Street. Full of big city buildings and business suits, you would think you were in Midtown Manhattan.
After a quick change at the hotel, the day held one more task… dinner. Although we were exhausted and couldn’t fathom eating one more thing, it was only night one and we couldn’t give up so soon! Good thing too because it was fabulous. Michael Mina on California Street was our first amazing meal of the trip. The dimly lit, modern but elegant establishment features a multiple course tasting menu or a la carte selections. We seriously considered the tasting menu, but thinking of the state of our stomachs we just couldn’t do it.
Starting with stellar custom cocktails and a mini grilled cheese and tomato soup amuse bouche, we were instantly in love. Devouring perfectly finessed dishes like the Cherry Blossom Cured Hamachi and the Kurobuta Pork ‘Cassoulet’ with Herb Crust, the supreme talent of the chef was clear. Finishing with the dessert tasting menu (the only option), the originality shined through with a menagerie of bite sized tastes. Combined with attentive and fun service and the thoughtfulness of a hand written ‘Happy Anniversary’ card, the detail oriented approach was well appreciated. We wish we lived closer!
Having checked most of the tourist attractions off our list, we planned for Day Two to be more our style… exploring the region by car. After a delicious French brunch at the Grand Café, complete with majestic Parisian décor, we hopped in our convertible and cruised through Golden Gate Park. The long, rectangular, 55 acre park is much like New York’s Central Park in that it houses winding bike and running paths, picnic areas along the lake and plenty of attractions for the public to tour.
Stroll through the lush San Francisco Botanical Gardens. Take plenty of pictures of the lovely, historic white conservatory building housing the vibrant collection of 2,000 different plant species in the Conservatory of Flowers. Experience the wonders of the Academy of Sciences, a natural history museum exploring the realms of history, archeology, geology and astronomy. The park needs a full day just by itself! If you can make it all the way to the western end, you will find yourself staring right at the Pacific Ocean and the lovely public beach.
After an end to end drive through the center of the park, we ventured north to the impressive Golden Gate Bridge. The sky was a crisp cerulean and provided a perfect backdrop for the skyline photos. Just over the bridge lies another world… Marin Headlands. Russet, mountainous terrain ends abruptly with cliff-sides heading straight into the sea. The result is perfect look out points for the surrounding beauty, and in this case, another installment of the air show. Cars were bumper to bumper looking to secure a spot in Vista Point, right over the Golden Gate. Looking to break away from crowds, we headed further into the mountains.
Passing the infamous Nike Missile Site, we ascended up narrow, gravel roads to the Bird Island Overlook at the crest of the Headlands. Breathtaking views surrounded us, in particular of the grand Rodeo Beach below. We had to get closer! Situated next to Fort Cronkhite, this black sand beach was straight out of a calendar of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Powerful waves smash into the rocky cliffs as dogs ran along the water of the crescent shaped shoreline. Steps from the ocean, the Rodeo Lagoon is home to a plethora of wild life and plants. During winter months, the Pacific floods the beach and joins with the lagoon for one massive body of water. It is a ‘must-see’ spot and should be at the top of your list!
If a car isn’t a part of your exploration plans, bike rentals are a perfect way to venture to this region. Any of the city’s bike rental shops advertise mapped out trails over the Golden Gate Bridge. True athletic types can continue on into the Headlands for a sweaty ride to any of the perfect view points mentioned above. Pack a picnic and lots of water, and start peddling. The terrain is perfect for hiking and camping too.
No trip to the California shoreline is complete without a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway. Back over the Golden Gate Bridge, we took the historic, scenic route for about an hour through Pacifica to Half Moon Bay State Park ($10 entrance fee), an enormous curved beach complete with campgrounds and picnic areas. Starving, all the campers’ BBQs were making us drool, so after a round of pictures, we left in pursuit of some eats.
After only a short stint in the car, we found a diamond in the rough… Gorilla BBQ, a roadside trailer with the sweet smells of smokin’ meats emanating from its rough exterior. As per our usual, we went overboard and picked up a smoked brisket sandwich and a beef rib platter with all the country fixings. We didn’t get too far before we hit a roadblock and couldn’t eat another bite. The food was absurdly good. This is one hell of a ‘Diner, Drive-in and Dive’! Guy Fieri was right.
Arriving back at the hotel, we decided to walk it out, and tackle the busy streets of Union Square before dinner. Just a couple of short blocks from our hotel, you essential ascend on Fifth Avenue mixed with 34th Street surrounding Madison Square Park. The small scale plaza complete with people-watching-seats and street performers, is immediately flanked by the big names we all know. Besides all of the major label department stores like Saks and Barneys, boutiques like Chanel, Louis Vuitton and the like are all nearby as well. Stretch out in a one block radius around the park and touch on H&M, Forever 21, and the rest of the mall offerings. For those looking to drop some cash, San Fran makes it oh-too-easy.
Night two held dinner reservations at Tyler Florence’s Wayfare Tavern, L’s favorite chef. Sadly we were so full of brisket sandwiches that we weren’t even hungry… what a sin! A tried to order light eating only bites of her super rich, rustic tomato soup and delicate and delicious Lobster Salad (think salad-salad, not mayonnaise style salad) with avocado and walnuts. L went for the bruschetta special and the Fried Chicken… although definitely not light, the few tastes he was able to consume left him very happy. Plus the decadent chocolate dessert we devoured was worth the trip alone. Although we paid for it physically, we were so glad we came!
Although we never actually made it, Bourbon and Branch, and Wilson and Wilson were on our list for both nights of our stay. These two neighboring speakeasies on Jones Street require a reservation and a secret password for entry. We eat that kind of stuff up! We will definitely indulge during our next visit to this vibrant and eclectic city.
- Parc 55 Hotel (Lovely business style hotel in perfect location only two blocks from Union Square and one block from Market Street, 55 Cyril Magnin Street, San Francisco, www.Parc55Hotel.com)
- Recommendation: When selecting a hotel, stay near the bustling Union Square area
- Fisherman’s Wharf (Pier 39 Tourist Restaurants and Shops, Pier 39 Sealions, Pier 45 Seafood Stands and Naval History. www.VisitFishermansWharf.com)
- Ghirardelli Square (A waterside park complete with a lovely bike path and plenty of seating to view the Blue Angel’s Airshow during Fleet Week. Taste chocolate at the factory and build your own massive sundae, plus shopping at some of the boutiques in the square. 900 North Point Street, San Francisco, www.GhirardelliSq.com)
- Ferry Building and Farmer’s Market (Waterfront bohemian square plus a fresh foods market! 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, www.FerryBuildingMarketplace.com)
- Embarcadero Center (Shopping, shopping, shopping!, Eastern waterfront on Embarcadero, www.EmbarcaderoCenter.com)
- Market Street and the Financial District (Polished big city buildings for the town’s major businesses, Market Street from the water to Union Square)
- Union Square (A shopping mecca with high end boutiques, all the major luxury department stores and a main square with plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy the serenading sax player, www.UnionSquareShop.com)
- Golden Gate Park (A public green space a la Central Park complete with paths for biking and running, a carousel, gardens, museums and much more! www.Golden-Gate-Park.com)
- Alcatraz Prison (Cruise out of Pier 33 to the infamous prison out in the San Fran Bay! Tour ‘The Rock’ for an inside look into penitentiary life in the early 1900′s, plus great views of the city skyline. Often sells out; purchase tickets in advance. $26-33 Adults, $58 combined with Angel Island , www.AlcatrazExcursions.com)
- Angel Island (San Fran’s version of Ellis Island, www.AngelIsland.com)
- Lombard Street (The famous twisting, steep section of street between Hyde and Leavenworth.)
- Boudin Bakery and Cafe (The original sourdough bread factory! Bare hand a loaf today. Pier 39, Space 5-Q. www.BoudinBakery.com)
- Anchor Beer Brewing Company (The original San Franciscan craft beer, 1705 Mariosa Street, San Francisco, www.AnchorBrewing.com)
- San Francisco Chocolate Factory (286 12th Street, www.BridgeBrands.com)
- Aquarium of the Bay (Check out the local sea life! Pier 39 at Embarcadero and Beach Street. www.AquariumOfTheBay.org)
- Naval History- Maritime National Historic Park and Historic Ships (Balclutha built in 1886 and CA Thayer a 3 Masted Schooner. Hyde Street Pier); SS Jeremiah O’Brien and USS Pampanito Submarine Museum (Pier 45)
- Vintage Cable Car- Powell & Hyde and Powell & Mason Lines (Hop on, hop off vintage style a la the ‘Rice-a-Roni’ commercial, $6 CASH per ride); Historic F Line (Featuring vintage cars from across the country running along the waterfront and down Market Street, $2 CASH per ride)- Exact change required
- Conservatory of Flowers (Inside Golden Gate Park, www.ConservatoryOfFlowers.org)
- San Francisco Botanical Gardens (Mediterranean gardens at Strybing Arboretum inside Golden Gate Park, www.SFBotanicalGarden.org)
- Golden Gate Park with Carousel, Japanese Tea Garden, Stow Lake and Boathouse, Polo Fields, Dutch and Murphy Windwills, California Academy of Sciences
- Golden Gate Bridge ($6 Southbound Toll)
- San Francisco Bay Bridge ($6 Westbound Toll)
- Ocean Beach @ Golden Gate National Recreation Area
- AT&T Baseball Park home of the San Francisco Giants (24 Willie Mays Plaza)
- Maritime Museum (A collection of submarines and exhibits, www.Maritime.org)
- Cartoon Art Museum (Exhibits on the history of cartoons, www.CartoonArt.org)
- San Francisco MOMA (Modern art, www.SFMOMA.com)
- Walt Disney Family Museum (Disney exhibits, 104 Montgomery Street, www.Disney.com)
- de Young Museum (Fine art museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in Golden Gate Park, www.DeYoung.famsf.org)
Drives/ Bike Paths with a View
- Marin Headlands- Vista Point (overlooking San Francisco, Bridge and Horseshoe Bay), Nike Missile Site, Bird Island Overlook, Rodeo Beach (black sand, Rodeo Lagoon, Fort Cronkhite), biking paths (rent bikes in city, bike over GG), hiking trails (park in many spots, public bathrooms), camping
- Pacific Coast Highway through Pacifica to Half Moon Bay State Park ($10 entrance fee)
- Golden Gate Bridge and San Fran Bay Bridge- Iconic American bridges
- Vespa and Motorcycle Rentals- Eaglerider San Francisco (www.Eaglerider.com)
- Bicycle Rentals- Bay City Bikes (Tours and rentals, www.BayCityBike.com); Blazing Saddles (6 locations, No reservations required, Also offers Electric Bikes, www.BlazingSaddles.com); Bike and Roll (Tours and rentals, www.BicycleRental.com)
- Go Car Tours (GPS guided tour within a personal mini car, www.GoCarTours.com)
- Segway Tours- Electric Tour Company (www.ElectricTourCompany.com)
- Kayak Rentals- City Kayak (www.CityKayak.com)
- Boat Rides- Ride the Duck (Land and sea tour aboard a boat that is also a car!, www.SanFranciscoDucks.com); Blue & Gold Fleet (Bay Cruises, Ferries, Rocketboats, www.BlueAndGoldFleet.com); Red & White Fleet (Scenic cruises, www.RedAndWhite.com); Hornblower Dinner Cruises (www.Hornblower.com)
Food and Drinks
- Wayfare Tavern by Tyler Florence (Flagship for Food Network star, 558 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, www.WayfareTavern.com)
- Michael Mina by Michael Mina (252 California Street, San Francisco, www.MichaelMina.com)
- Grand Café (Parisian style French restaurant, 501 Geary Street, www.GrandCafe-SF.com)
- Dottie’s True Blue Cafe (Famous, classic greasy spoon diner, 522 Jones Street, San Francisco)
- Fisherman’s Wharf Crab and Seafood Stands (Waterfront crab sandwiches and fried shrimp at Pier 45, www.VisitFishermansWharf.com)
- Boudin Bakery and Cafe (The original sourdough bread factory! Bare hand a loaf today. Pier 39, Space 5-Q. www.BoudinBakery.com)
- Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory (Taste chocolate at the factory and build your own massive sundae. 900 North Point Street, San Francisco, www.GhirardelliSq.com)
- Gorilla BBQ (Amazing roadside BBQ, 2145 Coast Highway, Pacifica, www.GorillaBBQ.com)
- Bourbon and Branch/ Wilson and Wilson (Speakeasy!!! Email for reservations. Secret password required for entry, 505 Jones Street, San Francisco, www.BourbonAndBranch.com)
Napa and Sonoma Valleys
Hoping to get a jump on the day, we left late morning on the one hour drive to the Napa Valley wine country. Over the massive San Francisco Bay Bridge and due North, we enjoyed the drive with the top down. Our hotel for this leg was the Best Western Ivy Premier Hotel in Napa. Although not a typical choice for us, we searched tons of hotels in the area, but because of our lax approach, watched them all book up without making a final decision (they book fast!!). In the end, I admit we settled on the Best Western which seemed way more appealing than the motels that were left, but were thoroughly impressed once we arrived! A blessing in disguise.
Scoring a top review on TripAdvisor, it goes to show that big names aren’t everything. Our beautiful, brand new room had everything and was only a five minute drive to the restaurant mecca of Yountville and from the start of the vineyards in the valley. We would definitely return. After dropping off our bags, we bee-lined it for Rubicon Estate, a vineyard owned by Francis Ford Coppola, the famous director of flicks like The Godfather. The long, tree-lined entrance, reflecting pools and opulent, ivy covered manor house set a scene that you didn’t want to leave. Hosting an invitation only event beneath white tents in the hilltop section of vineyards, we wished we could have attended!
Within the tasting room, sample a flight of five wines for $25 and browse cookbooks, wine accessories and other fun items. We surprisingly really liked the offerings here, and purchased a bottle of the 2008 CASK Cabernet Sauvignon [$65]. The tastings here are open to the public and do not require a reservation making this the perfect first stop on your way into the valley. We would have stayed for longer, but there was more wine to drink!
After a 30 minute drive through St. Helena, our second venue was Viader, located up a mountainous road. Requiring reservations, we rang the bell and were buzzed in for our private tasting. The estate is the home of the Viader family, where Argentinean born Delia Viader makes her deep red wines utilizing a Bordeaux influence. Seated at our own table in an outside deck overlooking the breathtaking valley floor and vineyards below, we were walked though the wine making process and influences of the wine maker by our hostess.
Tasting is $45 per person and includes five wines, however, pours are generous, additional wines are also offered up for tasting and one fee is waived for every $100 purchase. We chatted and watch the hawks soar over head for two hours, and ultimately thought the fee was well worth it. Leaving with another three bottles, we started contemplating how we would fit all of these bottles in our luggage!
It was vineyard closing time so on our way back to the hotel we stopped at Gott’s Roadside, an almost 50’s style burger and snack shop located right on the main road. The parking lot was mobbed on our drive past earlier in the day, so it was worth a stop. With a throw back ordering window, pick up a shake, or in our case, pork tacos and soup! Sit bar style and wait for your order to be ready, or snag one of the 20+ picnic tables on the green lawn out back. Gott’s is a relaxed, California eatery perfect for a tasty lunch or low key dinner.
Day 3 ended with a late dinner at Bottega by celebrity chef Michael Chiarello from Food Network fame. Our first night of Italian and we were looking forward to some perfectly cooked homemade pasta. The service and dishes did not disappoint! Besides the above and beyond ‘Happy Anniversary’ card by the staff (must be a California thing?), our waitress was lovely and attentive. Yountville is known for its high end dining, also hosting three Thomas Keller classics including the three Michelin star (and ranked best restaurant in the world), The French Laundry. Competition is tough and Bottega delivered. With an overly reasonable wine list (most far under $100 bucks!) and mouth watering dishes like Black Truffle Ravioli (with an uncooked egg yolk inside covered in brown sage butter), we left thoroughly impressed with the entire experience.
Day 4: Reaching Maximum Capacity
Although the plan was to simply pick up our favorite chocolate almond croissant from Bouchon Bakery on the way to the day’s vineyards, the gloomy weather made us realize we wanted nothing more than a full, cozy brunch at Bouchon (the restaurant) itself. We’ve visited the Vegas location almost ten times, so when there is one close by we literally fiend for it.
The food is French bistro, so expect all the classics, just executed to perfection and full of butter. I can still taste the creamy, rich and rustic mushroom soup special and the fluffy quiche du’jour with eggplant. L’s rabbit terrine stole the show, as well as the traditional Croque Madame (ham and cheese on brioche, topped with a fried egg and béchamel sauce), which we have a hard time not ordering on every visit. From the custom, creative cocktail offerings, the completely unpretentious but spot-on staff, and the to-die-for menu items, Bouchon can do no wrong. It was the best meal of the trip.
The on and off unexpected rain made the thought of walking around the grounds of a vineyard undesirable; inside was where we wanted to be. Our initial destination was Sterling Vineyards with a mountaintop tasting room reached by aerial tram (how fun!). Unfortunately the mud and muck outside changed our plans. After a quick stop at Castello di Amorosa, a vineyard housed in a replica Tuscan ‘castle’ (pretty cheesy), we decided on taking the 45 minute drive to Sonoma County instead.
Francis Ford Coppola’s namesake vineyard boasted shopping and plenty of movie memorabilia… seemingly a perfect destination for a rainy day. It was our next stop. Please note, that prior to visiting California wine country we had no particular affinity to Coppola wines, but after visiting both of his vineyards, it’s clear that this man knows how to create an experience.
While Rubicon Estate focused on an elitist, rich vintage, Coppola wines ranged the full gamut, with his standard ‘Diamond Series’ offerings, artistic reserves and his highest quality ‘Director’s Cut’ series. Tastings are a steal at $5 or $10 depending upon the flight chosen. We found the staff extremely accommodating and knowledgeable and eager to continue to share additional tastes depending upon your interests.
Upon entering the impressive main building, we started our look around with the revolving gorgeous, red, classic car the Tucker from Coppola’s movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Scattered throughout the building view The Godfather’s desk, Apocolypse Now props and costumes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, among other things. Mixed with the memorabilia peruse adorable home merchandise like glasses, serving ware and specialty foods. If it’s a beautiful sunny day, make an advance reservation to reserve a cabana or lounge chair poolside in his large patio area overlooking the vines and band shell. Then head inside for a meal at the on-site restaurant. They’ve thought of everything.
On our ride home, we made a quick stop into V. Sattui, a vineyard with picturesque, vine covered buildings and a large picnic area beneath a ceiling of massive tree branches. Inside select some snacks from their gourmet market, as well as a bottle of wine and grab a table outside for a serene afternoon in the valley.
For our last night, we decided to save the best for last. The second of Thomas Keller’s three restaurants in Yountville is Ad Hoc, a venue focused on the family meal. Following suit to his third establishment (the world renown French Laundry) but in a less formal way, meals are arranged in a tasting menu. While The French Laundry offers many small tastes for the cost of several hundred dollars (depending upon if its lunch or dinner), Ad Hoc has four courses for a highly reasonable ~$50.
It seemed to be the perfect second best since French Laundry reservations are nearly impossible to come by. Featuring only sixteen tables and taking reservations only 2 months (to the date) in advance, we called for days with nothing but a busy signal. Who even gets a busy signal anymore?! When someone finally answered, we were put on a waiting list… they were booked in one day.
Sadly, after all that hype, we never made it to dinner that final night. We had reached maximum wine and food capacity and had to throw in the towel. It was all quite devastating. L was not a happy camper. But, it leaves us a perfect reason to return! While most people visit Napa Valley for the wine, we visit for fabulous French fare at Thomas Keller restaurants.
On the concluding day of our tour through northern California, we wanted so badly to do more, but knew that laying low was our best option if we didn’t want to spend a cross country plane ride feeling like stuffed sausages! Requesting a recommendation from the hotel for the best locals breakfast around, we arrived at Gillwoods for some home cooking. The casual venue in the quaint town of St. Helena is a quiet spot where residents read the paper and sip coffee for hours. It made you realize that when the tourists head home after the weekend is over, Napa Valley remains as just a cozy, country town a la Main Street USA.
The hardy and delicious breakfast and no frills coffee were the perfect way to end our gourmet eating extravaganza. In the end, the key to a mouthwatering meal is the ingredients. Simple preparation and the right combination of components can be just as satisfying as fine dining… who doesn’t love thick French Toast covered in berries and powdered sugar!
After a stroll through the blocks of adorable boutiques in St. Helena, we made a quick stop off in Yountville before the ride to the airport. We still hadn’t hit up the Bouchon Bakery and it was a must! Filling our carry-on bags with decadent chocolate bouchons (a brownie like mini cupcake), croissants and berry muffins, we felt like we had nearly conquered Napa. Our next trip would require reservations at the French Laundry… otherwise we weren’t coming! With our lunch of mind-blowing carbohydrates in tow, we hit the highway for the one hour ride back.
On the drive we had to reflect that the American’s always know how to do it right! We had doubted them in this instance… been bratty. But there is some impressive wine in those splendid hills. Plus there is no doubt that the experience is unparalleled. Every angle has been thought through thoroughly. People also want beauty… build a majestic manor house. People may get hungry… tack on some of the best dining in the world. What if they want to enjoy the outdoors… incorporate a giant pool complex or an aerial tram. And of course… spas, shopping and more shopping. Besides more red wine than you can possibly drink, head to these valleys for a perfectly rounded, luxurious vacation! Plus with a couple of days in San Francisco, you can’t beat the blend of bustling metropolis with Napa’s quaint country charm.
- Best Western Premier Ivy Hotel Napa (The best budget hotel we have ever set eyes on! Get passed the Best Western sign because this is a great spot with brand new, beautiful furnishings. 4195 Solano Avenue, Napa, www.BestWestern.com)
- St. Helena (Napa Valley’s quaint Main Street with gourmet shops and specialty boutiques, www.StHelena.com)
- Healdsburg (The major town of the Sonoma Valley, www.Healdsburg.com)
- Francis Coppola Winery (A gorgeous, vast estate with awesome memorabilia from the director’s epic movies, $5-10 Tasting Fee, 300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville, www.FrancisCoppolaWinery.com); Wine Recommendations: 2008 Director’s Cut Cinema [$32], 2008 Director’s Cut Zinfandel [$28], Muscato [$12], 2008 FC Reserve Pinot Noir Russian River Valley [$36]
- Rubicon Estate (Gorgeous manor house and grounds also owned by Francis Ford Coppola, $25 Tasting Fee, 1991 St. Helena Hwy, Rutherford, www.RubiconEstate.com); Wine Recommendations: 2008 CASK Cabernet Sauvignon [$65], 2007 Rubicon [$145]
- Viader Winery (Mounside winery with personal service and EPIC views, Argentinian owner with Bordeaux influences, $45 private tasting fee waived with each purchase of $100, 1120 Deer Park Road, Deer Park, www.Viader.com); Wine Recommendations: 2008 Viader [$100], 2007 Viader “V” [$125], 2009 Viader “Black Label” [$50]
- Sterling Vineyards (Mountain top winery reached by an aerial tram through the trees, $25 Tasting Fee, 1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga, www.SterlingVineyards.com)
- V. Sattui (Featuring vast shaded picnic grounds and a Italian market to build your lunch, White Lane at Hwy 29, St. Helena, www.VSattui.com)
- Domaine Chandon (Sparkling wine makers, 1 California Drive, Yountville, www.Chandon.com)
- Hess Collection (Includes a modern art gallery, 4411 Redwood Road, Napa, www.HessCollection.com)
- Castello di Amorosa (A replica of a 12th century Tuscan castle with 107 rooms, 8 levels, underground caves and a torture chamber [eck!], $18 Admission, 4045 North St. Helena Hwy, Calistoga, www.CastelloDiAmorosa.com)
- Charbay Winery and Distillery (Makers of the #1 handcrafted vodka, plus rum, tequila, whiskey and port, 4001 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, www.Charbay.com)
- Safari West (African wildlife preserve with over 800 animals, 3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa, www.SafariWest.com)
- Old Faithful Geyser of California (One of the 3 in the US erupting every 30 minutes, 1299 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga, www.OldFaithfulGeyser.com)
Food and Drinks
- The French Laundry by Thomas Keller (Considered the best restaurant in the United States, and at one time, the World! The 3 Michelin star gem famous the world over. 6640 Washington Street, Yountville, www.FrenchLaundry.com)
- Bouchon by Thomas Keller (The epitome of the French bistro. Fantastic! 6534 Washington Street, Yountville, www.BouchonBistro.com)
- Bouchon Bakery by Thomas Keller (The Original! Delectable baked goods filled with butter!, 6528 Washington Street, Yountville, www.BouchonBakery.com)
- Ad Hoc by Thomas Keller (Family style four course French meal, 6476 Washingon Street, Yountville, www.AdHocRestaurant.com)
- Bottega by Michael Chiarello (Gourmet, rustic Italian, 6525 Washington Street, Suite A9, Yountville, www.BottegaNapaValley.com)
- Gott’s Roadside (A classic roadside joint with burgers and milkshakes straight out of the movies, 933 Main Street, St. Helena, www.GottsRoadside.com)
- Gillwoods Cafe (A local, country diner serving up yummy omelets and French toast, 1313 Main Street, St. Helena, www.GillwoodsCafe.com)