I should start with a few words about the hotel, because if I didn’t know America well I wouldn’t believe it. We are staying in an Embassy Suites hotel, which means that for less that $150/night we get a large bedroom, a large living room with sofa-bed, fridge and microwave, and a bathroom. There are two TVs, and enough pillows to give John Scalzi a phobia. You could fit at least 3 standard British hotel rooms into the space we’ve got. It is a nice setting too. The hotel is built around a big atrium with a pool and fresh sushi swimming around in it. The only drawback is that the rooms are ideal for families with children, so it gets very loud at times, and you have to watch out for fast-moving small people underfoot.
Anyway, the wine country. Napa is pretty much all vineyards these days, and driving into the area it looks like all of the hills have had their hair braided. There’s no way you can visit more than a small fraction of the available wineries, and I know very little about the region, so we picked places either because they were famous or on Gigi’s recommendation.
We began at a vineyard owned by one of the USA’s greatest motor racing drivers, Mario Andretti. He’s someone whose career I followed when I was a kid, and I was keen to see if they had any memorabilia of his racing days on show. Sadly they were catering exclusively for American visitors – people who think that motor racing means driving round and round in circles for hours on end. There was no sign of the famous Black and Gold. But they did have a very nice Zinfandel, which kind of made up for it.
Before our next winery we stopped at the original Oakville Grocery. Bay Area residents may know the shop in the Stanford Mall. Well the original store is still in Oakville, and it is very much the same although with a less extensive range. The store is a bit like the TARDIS, except that it is smaller on the inside than on the outside, and contains half of the population of Northern California. After much squeezing around and excuse-me-ing we had fixings for lunch and moved on.
Our next stop was at Rubicon, a vineyard owned by Francis Ford Coppola. Kevin had been there before [when it was called Niebaum-Coppola], and had been very impressed. Sadly, a lot had changed. Initially they tried to charge us $25 each just to get in, though when we explained that Kevin and Nickita were designated drivers they got in free. Still, $25 was more than twice what any other vineyard we visited was charging for a tasting. Much of the Coppola movie museum has gone too. Apparently the company is setting up a new, “lower class” vineyard elsewhere and is moving all of the non-wine-related material there. Rubicon is apparently to become a venue only for serious wine buffs, which is odd because their wines – aside from the $155/bottle Rubicon itself – were the poorest we tasted all day (the fact that they appeared to be serving their reds chilled may have had something to do with this). It really was quite a snooty place, including "free" but obligatory valet parking. Kevin says the parkers have to check vehicles for dents before they drive them, for liability reasons, but the way our van got looked over sure made it seem like the staff didn’t think we were good enough to visit the place.
One thing Rubicon did very well, however, was to match their gift shop to their image. Naturally that meant we could not afford much in it, but I did discover Artel Glass. Click Crystal on the main menu and select the Sealife range. If I’m ever very, very rich I shall buy some of that. (Sorry I can’t deep link, their web site designers are idiots.) Also the café had a rather nice cabernet & chocolate sauce about which they claimed, "Resistance is useless." They were right; I didn’t even bother to try.
Time now for a lunch break, for which we stopped at Rutherford Hill, a place that kindly provides picnic tables in their extensive and beautiful grounds. They had some nice wines too. I bought a bottle of their Sauvignon Blanc, and was very tempted by their Zinfandel Port (which, in the tasting, came with complimentary chocolate-covered blueberries – a masterstroke of marketing).
Our final stop (because you can’t keep on tasting wine all day without falling over) was Clos Pegase. This place is worth visiting without the wine. They have a lot of interesting sculptures in the grounds, and a fondness for Greek mythology. They also had the best gift shop of any of the locations we visited: useful things at reasonable prices (as opposed to ugly crockery at exorbitant prices).
Having said goodbye to Gigi and Nickita, Kevin and I drove slowly back through Napa. We stopped off briefly at the Robert Mondavi winery, but left quickly because we felt like meat in a sausage factory. (It reminded me of visiting Glenfiddich, except there was no possibility of a glass of Balvenie at the end.)
We arrived in Napa city at around 5:00pm, at which time the place is pretty much closed. The tourist shops don’t seem to open late, and the restaurants have not yet got going. So there we headed back to San Rafael where I wrote this. And now, if you will excuse me, we need to get dinner.
And after returning to San Rafael, we had a nice seafood dinner at The Seafood Peddler. After going back to the hotel, I thought about going for a swim, but the pool was still mobbed with kids even after 10 PM, so we retired to the room to watch rugby.