Sometimes, there’s just nothing better than spending a summer week on Chesapeake Bay. That was exactly our plan for vacation this summer: taking the week surrounding 4th of July and cruising aboard Calypso around the Bay. Last year, we’d spent 4 perfect days anchored in Still Pond on the Eastern Shore almost directly across the bay from Aberdeen, Maryland – an only slightly brackish creek (hence, largely immune from jellyfish infestations) with sandy beaches and very little civilization. Aside from a wicked thunderstorm on arrival day, we had perfect weather. All we did was swim, paddle, eat, swim, paddle, read … well, you get the idea. We were looking for a reprise this year, just for a longer visit. The provisioning lists were made, menus planned, boat readied, and several friends were planning to go out the same week.
But as I cleared my desk on Friday, the weather forecast looked absolutely miserable. Suffocating heat and humidity. I can handle that during the day, since we can always jump in the water. But there was to be no relief at night either, and a sleepless week is no vacation at all. So, as I am wont to do, I started formulating Plan L. First, plugging in alternative destinations to use frequent flier miles. Then, once availability is established, finding places I might want to stay. Finally – and perhaps most importantly — checking the weather! Rick was traveling for business on Friday, so I outlined my plan in an email to him and put tickets on hold. Decision time was Saturday morning: either go to the marina, or start making reservations. We went with Plan L: flying to San Francisco, 3 nights in the Napa Valley, a final night in San Jose, then going home. (I don’t know that going to wine country in July is optimal, in terms of weather, but we got a lucky week.)
Our American Airlines flights went off without a hitch, and we arrived at SFO and were on the road by about 1:00 p.m. I’ve only spent time in San Diego, and had no idea what to expect of Napa. As we got past the city bustle and approached the town of Napa, things did not look promising. It just looked like extended suburbia with horribly un-synchronized traffic lights. But things looked better as we stopped at the Oxbow Public Market, right on the Napa River, to have a late lunch. The market is nirvana for locally-sourced artisan foods – from flavored olive oils and vinegars, to cheeses made from unpasteurized milk. We went to a sit-down restaurant – the Kitchen Door – for a late lunch, where we ordered a bottle of Napa sauvignon blanc and I enjoyed the first of several remarkable pasta dishes (this one with mushrooms).
Given the late lunch, and expecting that jet lag would catch up with us, we wandered around the market to gather the makings of a casual, al fresco dinner. A baguette, pate, cheese, sausage, chocolate. And wine.
The drive up the Silverado Trail, up to St. Helena where we were staying at The Wine Country Inn, took us past one vineyard after another, with names well-known and obscure. Grapes, grapes, grapes everywhere! The temperature was in the low 80s with low humidity, with honeyed sunlight drenching the camel-colored hills. At last, we turned off the Silverado Trail and drove up a hill to the Inn. What an oasis! A collection of woodsy buildings and cottages spilled over a hillside, nestled among olive trees and flowers in bloom, right between the Duckhorn and Freemark Abbey vineyards.
I’d booked one of the cottages, and it came complete with comfortable seating, a fireplace, a huge bathroom with walk-in shower and jetted tub, and a fridge and sink for our wine country finds. As well, we had a private courtyard surrounded by foliage and containing a fountain. We spent the rest of the day exploring and enjoying our wine and edibles, and congratulating ourselves for escaping the oppressive Maryland heat. Especially when it dropped into the 50s every night.
Beautiful scenery at The Wine Country Inn.
The intense sky was partially caused by a fire about 10 miles east of where we were staying.
All of this was prelude to what we came to Napa for: wine. I’d called the inn before flying out and got some recommendations for a driver/guide who could take us around on Monday. We were lucky enough to book a tour with Robert Sherman (Winery Tours Napa Valley — https://www.winerytoursnapavalley.com/wordpress/ ), and he delivered exactly what we wanted: private tours at boutique wineries.
The beauty of the Napa Valley is revealed once you get off the main road. Each winery we visited was unique – and uniquely gorgeous — but they were all similar in the passion they exhibited for making quality wine. Not really having had a chance to do much research on the wines in the region (which account for only 4% of California’s wine production), we soon learned that Cab is King. This was something of a challenge for me and Rick, as we are both Cab Skeptics – not really having enough experience or appreciation for these rather pricey wines. But our hosts helped us learn to appreciate cabernets by explaining their process, answering our endless questions, helping us hone in on what kinds of wines we liked, and showing us foods to pair them with to taste them at their best advantage. (Not just breadsticks on these tours! But carefully paired bites that helped us get the most out of the wines – including the stunning combination of bleu cheese and a late harvest port-like zinfandel – Yowza!)
The science behind growing grapes is complex. For example, the winemakers go to such levels of minutiae that they trim off extra leaves so that a bunch of grapes is shaded by not 12, not 14, but 13 leaves so as to have the perfect balance of sun and shade. And everything on their properties, including the amazing caves painstakingly bored through the mountains – some of the older ones by hand, and others by machine; some reinforced with gunnite, and some naturally supported, are purpose-built. Yes, pomegranates are nice, pretty when blooming, and loaded with anti-oxidants, but they also attract hummingbirds which eat pest-y bugs.
And so, on Monday, Robert drove us around St. Helena and Calistoga, taking us to wineries that included Kelly Fleming, Joseph Cellars, and Titus Vineyards. We explored not only cabernets, but also other wines, including sauvignon blancs that were an absolute revelation; beautifully balanced with lots of fruit flavors and crispness (I’ve been disappointed with some of the mass market sauv blancs because they smell wonderful, but taste like lemon or grapefruit juice). But by the end of the day, we were over-stimulated and found that the spit bucket was our friend. Nevertheless, we ended up buying quite a bit of wine to have shipped home; none of the tastings was free, but the purchase of wine typically results in a waiver of the fee. Besides, very few of these wines are available at home – we checked! We couldn’t have had wine shipped home 10 years ago.
We ventured to Yountville for dinner. It’s an absolutely gorgeous little town, but with restaurants that rival any in a big city, much less the world (French Laundry, anyone?). We had dinner at Bottega, where I was bowled over by another amazing pasta (rigatoni with rabbit and mushrooms), and we washed it down with a local sparkling rose.
The next day, we were on our own. We visited Tres Sabores on the recommendation of friends and were not disappointed. The vineyard is certified organic and dry farmed (i.e. no irrigation); they have their own cave as well as bottling equipment, so they are entitled to label their wines “estate” wines. We were accompanied on our tour there by 3 friendly golden retrievers; the puppy followed us into the cave and wanted lots of attention. After the tour, we sat in the olive grove tasting their offerings, including a dangerously drinkable blend they call Por Que No? which varies from year to year at the winemaker’s whim.
Tres Sabores, and one of the friendly doggies.
Interestingly, the most vaunted tour – and most expensive (fee not waivable) – was the most disappointing to us. (Granted, we’d been mightily spoiled by this point with our private, exclusive visits.) Though by no means a bad tour, the Schramsberg Vineyards tour was a bit too polished and pat for our tastes; as well, there were – gasp! – 12 of us on the tour. Schramsberg is the oldest maker of sparkling wines in the valley, following the methode champenoise and undertaking the many processes required of it largely by hand. The pours were generous, and the wines lovely, so we didn’t suffer too much.
Schramsberg’s beautifully manicured grounds.
Sparkling wine everywhere!
On the recommendation of several residents, we had dinner at a winery called Brasswood in St. Helena. Definitely off the tourist path. We knew to order the off-menu appetizer of hand-pulled, hand-folded to order, warm mozzarella (how can something so simple be so perfect?!) We had a Brasswood-made rose (Ladera) with out dinner. Mine was yet another exceptional pasta. Indeed, the look and feel of Napa’s natural environment – right down to weather – took my imagination right to the Med, so eating terrific Italian-inspired food was not surprising.
We didn’t have enough time to hit all of the high spots of the San Francisco Bay area, so for our last day we chose to visit Monterey. It sounded like a nice place to go, and though we missed her, our niece will be attending graduate school for the Navy there. I had no idea what to expect beyond a vision inspired by one of my cousin’s paintings, with windblown Monterey cypresses clinging to cliffs overlooking a roiling sea. While I was prepared for how chilly it was, I wasn’t prepared for how dune-y it was, with road signs warning of drifting sands. Beautiful beaches, though with lots of kelp and COLD water (judging from the number of swimmers, Canadians go to California as well as Florida….)
We ventured to Fisherman’s Wharf, and concluded that it’s definitely NOT our scene. Very crowded and tourist-y, with little to offer beyond generally uninspired restaurants and tacky shops. The one offering a whole red snapper for lunch (Scales) drew us in, and rewarded us with relative quiet, water views (they have seals!), and Duckhorn sauvignon blanc, so it wasn’t a total bust.
I’m sure there’s more to Monterey that what we saw, but we decided to drive further down the coast to Carmel, stopping along the way to check out Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove, where I got my expected rocky and wind-washed ocean view. Once we arrived in Carmel – which is admittedly beautiful – we didn’t even leave the car, since the town was packed chock-a-block with 4th of July mobs. Not that we’d have been able to park anyway. Jet lag and wine overload soon caught up with us, so we drove to San Jose where we were staying at the Hotel De Anza in the business district to catch our early flight the next morning.
This is what I expected to see on the California coast.
Seals lounging on the rocks.
San Jose is a major American city, a hub of technology business. And yet, on the 4th of July, downtown was totally dead. In fact, we had to call around to find a nearby restaurant to have dinner, but found one around the corner. Amidst all of this, Rick got a call from American Airlines bumping us from our seats the next morning. Rick calmly negotiated us onto later flights AND cash vouchers. So we got to sleep in and have our next trip paid for.
We came home to the oppressive heat and humidity that we’d been fortunate to escape, but after having Friday to re-orient ourselves, the weather finally broke. Saturday was sunny, crisp, and breezy, which meant we got to have a short sailing cruise, if only for one night. We sailed to the Rhode River, rafted up with some of our usual partners in crime, and spend Saturday night bobbing around in the miraculously nettle-free water, drinking wine and telling tales.
I am notorious for having bad travel karma, especially when it comes to weather. But for this one week in July, my past experiences with bad weather taught me how to re-plan a vacation on the fly, and karma came around for me.