Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Two Quails Roosting in Wine Country, Part 2

See Part 1 of our adventure here.
Sweet local strawberries and blackberries, local goat cheese, a salmon mousse from Santa Rosa Seafood, and a wedge of Montbriac, a blue-brie cheese. Salut!
We would be remiss not to mention the utterly gorgeous cottage we rented for our trip to California's wine country, nestled in a meadow on the top of a hill outside Calistoga, quaint enough that deer, birds of prey, rabbits, lizards, and wild turkeys were our morning companions, but modern enough to feature a killer outdoor grill and indoor range that we made heavy use of during our five nights. This definitely beat waking up early to catch the end of continental breakfast service at some inn.

In the Napa Valley, venison is delivered right to your door. So fresh!

The drive down the hill to the main road features a number of steep twists and turns, with the incredible payoff of a direct view into Safari West across the road, where (no joke) giraffes roam around all day long. Unfortunately we have no pictures of them, because as you know, giraffes don't show up in photographs, much like vampires. 

The Cottage at Vineyard Springs

Being New Yorkers, we were less excited about traveling to Napa for restaurants* than for cooking the great fresh produce and seafood available, so our little cottage became quickly stocked with food (and beer and wine and just maybe some tequila.)

*translation: We didn't have reservations at The French Laundry.

Bacon-wrapped trout stuffed with thyme - okay, bacon-draped trout. It flared up too much the other way. But the fish came out perfect! (Mrs. Quail swears she will never grill bacon again)

This turned into a surprisingly great bratwurst taco (who knew?). The Sriracha added a certain something. We continue to believe that Johnsonville Brats are magic.
Mrs. Quail even performed a successful experiment with gluten-free flour, making a delectable apple-strawberry pie that we utterly devoured in less than 24 hours.

But not all meals were eaten at home. There were vineyards to tour! On the way to our first tasting, we stopped at a local standard in St. Helena: Gott's Roadside.

Gott's Roadside, formerly known as Taylor's Refresher
Image courtesy of Pure Luxury
This is a burger-and-shake spot at heart, but not just your ordinary; there's wine and champagne on the menu, and a few surprising menu items. We were delighted to see some Hawaiian favorites making an appearance, not only in an Ahi burger, but in the form of Crispy Ahi Poke Tacos. Basically, this is a tuna ceviche taco. You want these. These are very tasty. As you can see, they come topped with scallions, avocado, and sesame seeds, with a bed of cabbage slaw underneath. These are fantastic. And the burger and shake were excellent to boot!

We attempted to drive up Spring Mountain in order to picnic at one of the vineyards there, but found them all closed except for one small, picturesque winery, Sherwin Family Vineyards, that was just about to close. The kind woman there agreed to let us sit and eat outside even though she was just leaving, and as we sat down to our feast she drove off in some sort of golf cart, which honestly only added to the experience. Next time we'll have to go back and try her wine, I think.

After lunch we were off to our first wine tasting of the day, at Chateau Montelena. This is a gorgeous property, and has just the right amount of "old french chateau*" in its design to get us in the mood to try something way out of our price range  to try something earthy and evocative. Anyway, there is a side to vineyards and wine tasting and to the sheer luxury of it all that can seem a bit stiff and uncool and sometimes just too pretty at times, so we were determined to find some places that reminded us of castles, caves, dirt, mold, barrels, and funk. We liked the look of this place.

*not to be confused with this.

The famed Chateau Montelena. Why "famed"? See here
They're known for their Chardonnay, but we were taken with the Riesling. We basically spent the entire trip buying everything other than oaked Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignon.

For good measure, we also stopped in at St. Helena's Merryvale Vineyards (conveniently located across the train tracks from Gott's Roadside.) We asked if we could share one tasting, and the guy said, "We frown on that here, because we think it's cheap." Mrs. Quail was about to storm out in a huff until the guy said he was just pulling our leg. Seriously, this was an Oscar-worthy performance on his part, he totally had us. He ended up being a pretty funny fellow, and originally from New York, so we hit it off well. Merryvale was a highlight of the trip, not just for the wiseacre ex-New Yorker who poured our wines, but because they have a very comfortable little shop with a beautiful cask room and a clear view of their stainless steel production facility. They also apply the cost of any bottle you buy to the cost of the tasting fee, which is a perk we learned to appreciate - these things add up! 

Merryvale Vineyards
We came away from this tasting with a bottle of their dessert wine, a muscat. In general, I found myself drawn to the dessert wines during these tastings, partially because they're fantastic - this one has a refined apple or pear brandy quality - and partially because they're so different from what you'd been tasting before.

Muscat from Merryvale
After these two great tastings, we decided to switch things up and buy some wine. Hm. Noticing a trend here. We popped in to a local store and picked up a Schramsberg sparkling white wine, and a chardonnay to compare with the impressive oak-infused Chateau Montelena Chardonnay we had tried earlier.

Wanting to try a less-oaked chardonnay, we picked this up at a shop in St. Helena.
And there ends vineyard tour day one.

The next morning, after our daily rising with the wild animals, eating granola and drinking coffee on the Adirondack chairs on our porch - I swear, we thought we were in a cereal commercial - we headed out to compare the Schramsberg sparkling wine with another located further south. We drove all the way through Napa on a mission to eat lunch at The Fremont Diner in Sonoma before we got to our destination. Wow, did that ever turn out to be the right decision. This place is OUTSTANDING. I took one bite of my house-smoked pastrami reuben and nearly keeled over, and not just from the hypertension. This is a diner specializing in southern-style comfort food, and they aren't fooling around. I mean, they had a sign outside that said "fried pies", and you know how we feel about that.

The Fremont Diner's Pulled Pork
The Fremont Diner's House-smoked Pastrami Reuben
The Fremont Diner's Nashville Spicy Fried Chicken

After all that food, we about-faced and returned to Napa to try the sparkling wines at Domaine Carneros. The almost-too-suave-and-knowledgeable-not-to-be-a-French-spy "Senior Wine Educator" there poured us a tasting of a cuvee, a sparkling rose, and a demi-sec. I liked the demi-sec, which is a little sweeter, while my companions preferred the dryness of the other two. But we all agreed that the winner was the special pour he gave us of the 200ahem vintage of the somethingorother whateveritwas (okay, I forgot to write down what it was, but trust me, it was a solid sparkling wine.)

Domaine Carneros

A champagne tasting at Domaine Carneros.

From there, we were off to one of the great highlights of the trip, a cave tour at Del Dotto Vineyards in Napa.
Del Dotto Vineyards
As I mentioned before, we wanted to get into some musty caves, and this was just the place for it. In a small group of about ten people, we were led into the dark, mold-encrusted tunnel for a lesson on types of wine barrels and a series of tastings from right out of the barrel. We must admit that our guide was downright bizarre in that he didn't seem quite capable of answering anyone's questions directly, and for someone who said he wasn't going to drink he sure seemed to taste a lot, and I'm pretty sure his answer for how port is made was just south of correct*, but it's hard to beat the experience of carrying our wine glasses around, following the guy in the spooky, candle-lit dark to one of the many wooden barrels where he removed the bung and used a wine thief to draw out a sample so we could taste the difference between this cabernet stored in a French oak barrel and the last cabernet from the American oak barrel, and then tossing the remaining wine against the walls of the cave, as is their custom, and moving on deeper into the dark to try another.

*He said they make port sweet by using less yeast ("underpitching"). In brewing, this is done to encourage more ester production, and could feasibly result in more residual sugars, so I don't doubt that they do it, but since port is fortified with brandy, wouldn't they just get the wine to where the yeast haven't consumed all of the sugars and then dump in the brandy to kill the yeast and stop fermentation before it dries out? Feel free to correct me in the comments if I'm wrong.

Beginning the cave tour at Del Dotto in Napa

The caves at Del Dotto (image courtesy of Del Dotto Vineyards)
 Over the next day we also made stops at White Hall Vineyards, Duckhorn, and another highlight, Plumpjack. And maybe, just maybe there was another quick stop at Gott's Roadside the following day, where we learned that the onion rings are made from the wings of magical faeries. They have the non-greasy ideal crunch with sweet, slightly jammy onion inside that you always hope to get with onion rings, but are so often disappointed. We also had a chili-cheese dog. Is it any wonder that we've been craving fruits and vegetables since we've returned?

Chili cheese dog and the best onion rings ever at Gott's Roadside
Some of the best red wine we tasted was at Plumpjack. We once again left the Cabernet in favor of bringing this bottle of Syrah home for Dame Maggie Smith, the lush.
After a quick trip to see the utterly astounding Muir Woods, we were on our flight from San Francisco back to New York, with a box full of Riesling, Syrah, Chardonnay, Muscat, and (yup) Pliny the Elder in tow. What a trip! Thanks to the good people at The Cottage at Vineyard Springs, who made our vacation into something really memorable.

So long, wine country!


Henry Clarke said...

As a hanger-on for the middle portion of this trip, I can honestly say that I am still full. And I can recommend the Bothe-Napa Valley state park to anyone interested in a little nature and exercise. (CA is threatening to shut down Bothe-Napa Valley SP, so check before you go, and write a letter to your representative.)

Anonymous said...

This all looks so lovely and so delicious, my lowly lunch sandwich will never cut it now. And thanks for posting such a great, detailed post - I feel like I took a vacation vicariously!