Note: This is a ridiculously long post. I wanted to share all the details, but feel free to skip to the photo report at the bottom for the abbreviated version.
After a good night’s sleep, we were excited to have a full day of wine country exploration ahead. The only set appointments we had were facials in Calistoga at 4:30pm and dinner at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena at 8:00pm. Y and I have never really been breakfast people, but we knew we needed something in our bellies to absorb the wine tastes throughout the day. I’ve never become accustomed to spitting out wine in front of people, and if I like a wine, by golly, I’m going to swallow it.
We wandered down to the hotel lobby to check out their continental breakfast included with the room rate. Most of the time, these scenes are pretty ugly and uninspired, but the River Terrrace Inn’s spread is one of the better continental breakfasts that I’ve seen. Their morning pastries were the standard, but they had items like bagels w/ smoked salmon, cherry tomato and fresh mozzarella salad, pillowy and slightly creamy scrambled eggs, bacon, well-seasoned potatoes, and fruit that actually tasted like fruit. Coffee, tea, and a selection of fruit juices were also offered. We enjoyed our breakfast out on their patio abutting the Napa River and trail while reading about the millions of dollars that were raised during the weekend’s annual wine auction detailed in the Napa Valley Register.
The whole thing sounded so surreal but I guess a part of wine country subculture: http://www.napavalleyregister.com/art...
We got ready and headed towards the Silverado Trail for what we hoped to be a scenic drive w/ breaks for wine tasting and stretching our legs. This driving trail is very accessible and essentially runs parallel to Hwy 29. There are a number of crossover roads so that one can zigzag between the two roads easily. The weather was gorgeous, but in the low 70’s around 10:00am, we knew the heat would pick up. Most tasting rooms seem to open around 10:00 or 10:30am.
Our first stop was at Pine Ridge since I had read in one directory that the Wall St. Journal ranked it as one of the top five wineries to visit in the area. The place was just waking up as we wandered their gardens and saw their caves nearby. We were met w/ a very warm welcome by the staff but decided against tasting so early. How are the wines here?
Back on the Silverado Trail, we headed north to Robert Sinskey, by far our favorite winery visit of the trip. I loved the rows of lavender bushes heading toward their tasting room. We were the only car in the guest lot, which made me feel triumphant in avoiding the crowds. I liked their grounds alot w/ a lovely terrace, koi pond, and tranquil garden filled w/ herbs and fruit trees. Having just viewed their website to link in this post, I just learned that Maria Helm Sinskey is the culinary director there! I’ve made a few wonderful recipes from her cookbook, The Vineyard Kitchen. I like this place even more now!
The tasting room was open and modern in design. We were a little worried that sharing one tasting flight might be frowned upon, but all the tasting rooms we visited were very gracious about us sharing and gave us generous pours. Sinskey’s featured “gluttonous flight” consisted of four wines for $20 ($15 refunded w/ two bottle purchase). This is definitely on the pricey side, but we were truly interested in their wines. A nice touch is that they include bite-sized food pairings made from their kitchen. Mushroom tartlet w/ pinot noir; gougeres w/ merlot; pecan shortbread w/ late harvest pinot gris; olives and almonds w/ rosemary and sage from the garden. The nibbles were very tasty, actually.
We both immediately hit it off w/ our wine clerk (or whatever the correct term is). He was down-to-earth and clearly passionate about wine and food. We felt like instant friends, feverishly exchanging food and travel tips. He explained the biodynamic philosophy of the vineyard and ways in which they foster a self-contained ecosystem. And how did we like the wine? I honestly liked each and every one of them. The one that stood out as most unique that we ended up purchasing was the 2003 Los Carneros Napa Valley Merlot for $28. The clerk gave us a bonus pour of some aged cabernet sauvignon that was incredible, but I’m not even sure if it was for sale. After a leisurely hour of tasting and chatting, we headed out back on the trail, happy to have stopped in and received such personalized attention in a Zen-like setting.
We decided to cross over to Yountville since the wine guy raved about the caramel macarons at Bouchon Bakery. Along the way we stopped at Cliff Lede, but they were fairly crowded and Y isn’t so much into bubblies so we made a quick departure. In no time, we reached the bakery. We went w/ one caramel macaron and one TKO (aka “the oreo”). The macaron was alright, but the meringue was too dense and heavy and the flavor was too one-note for me. The TKO was about the same—not bad but not worth the calories or cash at around $3 per cookie. Y liked the cookies better than me so I let him have at them. What do people like here?
After this sugar rush, we thought about picking up some deli items for lunch from Oakville Grocery so pulled off the 29 when it was in sight. Upon entering the small market, we were hit w/ a wave of people inching their way through the tight perimeter of the store. The sandwiches sounded promising but there were just too many warm bodies for us to feel comfortable waiting, so we inched our way out knowing that Taylor’s Refresher was up the road.
In Rutherford, we stopped in at Elizabeth Spencer, located in an old post office building. A charming space with a low-key vibe, we decided to share a taste of their flight of about five wines. Another couple was raving about the syrah, but that turned out to be our least favorite. In fact, I didn’t care much for any of the wines, but their unoaked chardonnay grew on me after a few sips. We were told that they source all of their grapes from other growers. We paid our $10 tasting tab and left empty-handed.
We were curious about the area around Lake Hennessey and drove east to see if Kuleto was open to the public. It was a nice drive, but Kuleto’s gates were shut tight upon arrival so we backtracked and headed towards St. Helena for a late lunch. Even though it was around 2:30pm, Taylor’s Refresher had a decent line. Right off the highway, it is popular because it has a relatively big parking lot, a grassy lawn dotted w/ clean picnic tables, and gourmet fast food to please the entire family.
The line moved quickly. We ordered the bacon cheeseburger ($7.99) and ahi burger ($13.99). I had my fill of fries the night before so chose to abstain from adding those on. I was tempted to try their special blueberry shake for around $5 but the heat suppressed my appetite, and I opted for a refreshing iced tea instead. We easily snagged a table out back and waited for about 10-15 min. before our name was called.
To be honest, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. A place this popular w/ a prime location can easily sit back and not work too hard or care too much. Thankfully, I was wrong. Both burgers were scrumptious w/ one of the best buns I’ve ever had for a burger--soft but w/ structure and flavor. The beef patty was cooked to medium-well (as stated on their menu) and not pink inside at all, but I didn’t mind since it was very flavorful and still juicy. The ahi burger was kinda pricey, but the tuna was very fresh and I was absolutely giddy over the ginger wasabi mayo and asian slaw combo inside. Everything was so perfectly balanced and cohesive. Gourmet but not overwrought. Tummy was happy.
We wanted a change of pace and decided to visit the Bale Grist Mill before heading towards Calistoga for our facials. Out of all the tourist literature I gathered, I only saw it briefly mentioned in one publication. It’s a couple of miles north of St. Helena on the west side of the highway. The water-powered mill was originally built in 1846 and was restored to be functional again in 1988. Upon seeing it, I was immediately transported to the days of Little House on the Prairie. There is a small admission fee (something like $2), and there was an attendant who provided a demonstration of the milling process and spoke to the history of the place. Really quite amazing to witness the process powered entirely by water. He was milling Giusto’s brand grains, and we were happy to learn that they sell their milled products next door. Bought a nice bag of stoneground cornmeal for $4. Definitely worth a stop.
Following our facials in Calistoga, we wandered around the town a bit but many shops were closing or closed. Not knowing where else to go with all tasting rooms closed for the day, we decided to head back south since we had dinner reservations at Cindy’s in St. Helena. Having a good amount of time to kill, we stopped at the CIA and checked out their grounds. The building has quite a presence w/ old walls that must hold many a tale. The corkscrew collection was interesting, and I checked out their class schedule. I picked up their alumni magazine, “Mise En Place,” and found it kind of ironic how it featured fast food innovations and alumni who are in upper level positions within fast food or quick service restaurant chains. I guess this shows that their training leads to diverse careers.
We then walked around on Main St. in St. Helena where all the little shops are clustered. Unfortunately, Woodhouse Chocolates had already closed. Peering through the window made me want to return the next day. If we didn’t already have reservations at Cindy’s, I would have definitely considered eating dinner at Market or Cook. I’ve read a bit about Market here, but what do people think about Cook?
We headed to Cindy’s about half an hour early since we were hungry and didn’t know what else to do. Being Monday, the place was not full and looked to harbor many locals. We were promptly seated in the room past the bar area that is bright and “very white” as Y put it. The décor exuded a Southern elegance but was casual at the same time. Cindy Pawlcyn was in the house and made rounds to a couple of tables; it was nice to see her there given that she owns other establishments.
We ordered the wood-fired oven roasted artichoke w/ lemon-caper aioli to start. Y was worried it would be boring (vegetarian = boring to him), but it turned out to be wonderful if not on the small side. The artichoke was sweet and earthy, and the housemade aioli matched it perfectly. For mains, Y ordered the wood oven duck w/ crispy potato croquettes and citrus sauce. Wanting something lighter, I went w/ the special appetizer highly recommended by our waitress, buffalo empanada w/ slaw.
Y’s duck was a huge portion consisting of an entire meaty breast and leg/thigh. The skin was deeply bronzed and moderately crispy. While I liked the fire-roasted flavor, I found the meat to be a tad overcooked w/ a livery hint and the orange glaze overpowering. The croquettes, however, were heavenly. My empanada was not really to my liking. While buffalo is lean, this had a good amount of flavor and a nice chunky texture to the filling; however, the dough didn’t have much character and was sort of soggy near the filling. The slaw and tomato condiment was sloppy and didn’t integrate well w/ the dish. At that point, I wish that I had ordered the rabbit tostada or tomato and bread soup instead. In need of a break from wine, Y drank a Scrimshaw ale while I sipped on a well-made mojito. We considered getting the campfire pie for dessert but were full and not inspired. Total pre-tip was around $55. Service was good.
Having been out all day, it was nice to return to the comfort of our hotel. We had a great day though and really lucked out w/ traffic. The Silverado Trail was fairly deserted, and it only took about 10 minutes between each town. The Sinskey guy said that June is their second slowest month after January. I had so many more wineries circled on my map, but there were time constraints and I can only taste so much wine. What wineries should we not miss in Napa Valley next time?
If I were to do anything differently, I would try to schedule a spa treatment in the morning or evening when shops and tasting rooms are closed. Sonoma was on the schedule for tomorrow, although I knew I had to get back to Woodhouse…stay tuned for Day 3.
Some photos from Day 2: