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COLD TURKEY, WARM DUCK
26 January 2006
"It looks like you'll have to house all to yourselves," Jenna said, indicating that everyone else would be staying in the unit behind the main house. There were three bedrooms, a dining room and a living room in the main house and we were to be its only occupants.
We had come to meet our college friends for what was at one time going to be "annual wine tasting trip," though I think it has been 3 years since we had the last one of these trips.
Pat had arranged for us to stay at The Shady Oaks Country Inn in St. Helena. Figuring that at a B&B, unlike a hotel or motel, I would not be able to easily hook up the computer, I decided to go cold turkey and leave it at home.
So what was the very first thing I saw when I entered the living room? A computer desk and information for how to connect to the Internet. Owell. I decided it would do me good to be keyboard-less for a day. I only twitched a little while we were gone.
The day had started much earlier, with our creeping down to Dixon through almost white-out fog to drop Sheila off at the kennel (which she seems to have enjoyed...at least she came home and immediately passed out, so she must have had a lot of activity while she was there!).
Then we drove on up to St. Helena, where we were all meeting for lunch and, after a lovely repast, we set off for our first wine tasting experience. (For someone who has all but given up drinking, I have probably had more alcohol in the past day and a half than I have had in the past year and a half!)
Char had made all the wine tasting plans, since she and Mike, her kids and their spouses, come to the valley frequently and she really knows where to go. We visited small, family-run wineries, usually by appointment, so we had private tours, which made it much more fun.
We were starting at Stony Hill. This is not a winery you visit on the spur of the moment. For one thing, the sign for it is tiny and you pretty much need to know where it is to see it. For another, to get there you go up a tiny winding road and through a very big iron gate, which swings open as you approach, until you get to the very top of the mountain, where the view is breathtaking. It occurred to me on the ride up that if you tasted too much wine, navigating the twists and turns on the ride down might be a real challenge.
This is a small winery--and I've already forgotten all the statistics, but it seems to me that we were told that 85% of their wine is through direct order, people who know the wine and may order on line or by mail. Mary, the customer service person, took us down to the winery itself, where we tasted some wine fresh from the barrel...
and then took us back up to the deck overlooking the valley, where we sat around a wooden table and tasted several types of aged wines.
We talked alot about the things that affect the quality of the wine, high on the list of which is the cork and the air that gets into the bottle (in fact, she opened two extra bottles of wine because she didn't like the smell of the first ones she opened). Interestingly, we learned that many wineries are now trying out the new plastic corks and though the white wines, for example, can be easily stored for 8 years, the platic cork begins to change after a year and a half. Char remembered some bottles of wine with plastic corks which absolutely would. not. budge and she had to cut the cork out to get to the wine inside. (So if your wine has a plastic cork--drink it quickly!)
When we had finished there, and had all purchased some wine, we drove down to the shed, where we picked up our purchases, accompanied by "Rascally Ralph," Mary's dog, whom she adopted from the streets of Georgia just weeks before Katrina hit.
(Everywhere we went, we found winery dogs and discovered that there is actually a "Dogs of the Napa Valley Wineries" book out, which we didn't purchase, though we had met two of its "stars.")
Next stop was the Vincent Arroyo Winery. Vince went to school with a guy we all knew from UC Berkeley, and Char and Mike have been coming to this winery for a very long time.
Vince was telling us about the recent floods in the Napa Valley. He had been here at night at 3 a.m., in his upstairs office. When he looked out the window, he could see water splashing over the stone fence just beyond the door to the winery itself and by the time he got downstairs, he was standing in 8" of water. But it's all dried out now, and, since the barrels are up off of the floor, the water did no damage to the wine.
The winery dog here is J.J., whose trick is climbing up on top of a stack of barrels and catching tennis balls. He's very good at it!
This winery also makes olive oil and a dipping mix which was delicious, so naturally we bought some to add to the wine we had purchased at Stony Hill.
By now we were all pretty full of wine "tastes," and decided to head back to the B&B to sign in and drop our stuff off. We met Jenna, the "innkeeper," who showed us all everybody's rooms. Pat took the opportunity to try out the swing that hung from the old tree in back.
Jenna served us all more wine (one of which they bottle themselves) along with cheese and crackers and we relaxed and discussed where we were going to dinner.
We had reservations for Martini House in St. Helena, a gorgeous, warm old restaurant...
...with wooden panels in the dining room and decorations of old metal spigots from wine barrels and metal French bocci balls. The dinner menu was amazing. I chose the Sonoma duck breast with roasted root vegetables, and citrus zest, crisp polenta cake and Hibiscus sauce.
I ordered it because it sounded intriguing and "different" and learned, when it came, what all those chefs on the Food Nework mean when they say that with the intense flavors and blends you don't need large portions. By the standards of the cheap places that we frequent, when we do go out to dinner, this portion looked like just a couple of mouthfuls, but oh man, was it delicious--and satisfying.
They also gave us, compliments of the house, a mushroom appeteizer which was so tiny that if you blinked you would miss it. It was about the dimension of a die (singular of "dice") and was a bit of puff pastry with mushroom mousse pipped on that and then topped off with a bit of something that was no larger than a polka dot, but man was that flavorful!
After dinner we waddled back to the B&B. The idea had been to sit up and play a rousing game of Apples to Apples, which I'd never played before, but Char, Walt and I sat in the main house waiting for the others, who never arrived. I suspect they all passed out in their rooms.
This was day 1 of a 2½ day wine-tasting trip
but because I had to review a show in Sacramento, we had to leave after lunch the second
day. Tomorrow I will report on how our second day went.
PHOTO OF THE DAY