A California diary… A group of six on tour in 2007
8 days in northern California… day three
Off to Napa in a limo


From the Backpack ~ Strange and Unexpected

Normally when I post something from the archives, it involves bringing back an essay or article or such that had appeared on the In My Backpack web site and was removed during one of the updates or computer issues over the years.


This entry is a bit different though… in addition to appearing on the site, it was part of the Travel Trilogy project… or, more specifically, Strange and Unexpected: Backpack on the Road – Volume Two: California.

And that means a couple of versions exist… somewhat specific, almost definitive versions if you will… the work that was on the site, and the chapter that was edited and potentially revised from that piece and used for the book.

This material was originally posted on January 5, 2008. It was later published in April 2013. Some minor proofreading edits and adjustments may have been made while bringing the material back to the site in this posting.

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Just for your reference… wine tasting.

I am not experienced in tasting wines… and I don’t know that it matters. The simple fact is (and it is a fact), tastes vary from person to person. What you like, I might not. And honestly, with such incredible diversity available, once you get away from the most experienced of pallets, it don’t make no difference.

Good wine… like good food… is to be enjoyed. And, in my humble opinion, how you do so is up to you.

Out here in the very heart of American wine production though, I do want to pass along my thoughts when I have them noted… and the thoughts from others in the group when I have those. I’d like to say I’m doing this for you. Closer to the truth, I’m doing this in part for us (so we know what we did or didn’t like later on).

I’m just not 100% certain it matters in the diary of the day though. So, as I began doing with yesterday’s entry, I’m going to put the wine notes at the end of each daily column, in a separate section. If you want to read them, go ahead. If you don’t, they won’t clutter the events from the day.

Day three, Monday, October 22, 2007

After eating breakfast at the hotel… a fine change of pace as I switched my over medium with cheese and sausage order from yesterday to scrambled with cheese and sausage… we are preparing for a great introduction to California wines…

Beau Wine Tours

We’ve rented their Executive Limo Van to take us around for the day. I’ve been exchanging information with Rose, and she has set up an excursion that should bring us to five or six places. The plan is to sample not only a variety of different wines, but also to see different types of locations… small and large… barrels and caves… vineyards, wineries, and estates… and get a true flavor of the place. And, of course… the bonus of having a designated driver.

Norm arrives… he’s our driver and guide for the day. His wife comes from the Old Saybrook area… so we have once again run into someone with New England connections.

We’ve got a drive of roughly 90-minutes ahead of us to get out into the section of Napa Valley where we’ll be spending our day. So here are some thoughts from the morning drive…

Cows – Ok… this is a reach… but it really started gaining speed today and it lasted for the remainder of our travels. You may have seen some of the “happy cows” commercials. We certainly have. So we started driving by some fields and there were the cows. And Terry started wondering why they weren’t playing soccer. Mike and I started yelling things like “Marco” out the window. Nothing. (Get ready… recurring subject begins here… happy cows.)

BART – Stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit. Never tried it… but saw an interesting billboard at a BART stop. It was a “Be Prepared” sign about earthquakes. Made me wonder if safety preparation posters and disaster plans (like building evacuation and such) are viewed a bit differently, perhaps more seriously, by people living out here.

Highways and freewaysHuge difference between the two out here. See… basically… where we live in the northeast, we don’t consider there to be much of a difference between the two terms. Evidently though, the “free” part refers to being free of stops and such. Something like that. And believe me… as route 101 twists and turns and becomes city streets and then goes over the Golden Gate Bridge and off through the hills and towns… as it switches from six lanes to three lanes to one way… you will see that there is a difference between the two concepts. Looking into it more deeply, as far as what I can find, “freeway” is a California creation, basically designed around the idea of high speeds, controlled access, and being “free” of distractions between the driving and the surrounding properties. Simplistic definition? Absolutely… but more than enough for now.

Winery, vineyard and estate – Might as well bring this up here. (I’m probably showing my limited experience again, but let’s see if I can do this. For those of you that don’t readily know the difference between these terms, like me before I went on this trip, it does actually matter.) A winery is where they make wine. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? The trick is, a winery doesn’t necessarily grow the grapes they use in their wine. In fact, many wineries buy all of the grapes they use and only make the wine. Several grow limited quantities of grapes and purchase the majority of what they use. And some wineries even make different varieties of the same wine classification… say two or three styles of zinfandels… by using grapes from different locations. It all depends on what the wine maker wants to do, and whether or not some blending is done. So where do they buy the grapes? Well… of course… from a vineyard. It is at a vineyard that the grapes are grown, but wine is not necessarily made. Many places are in business solely for growing grapes and selling them to others to make the wine. Which leads us to an estate… which is, by a quite generalized definition, a place that does both… grows the grapes and makes the wine. All of this actually becomes a bit important during our travels, because when we had the opportunity to talk to people and visit places, the name of a facility sometimes offered a clue into how they approached the process.

(Side notes for the group… It is here that my notes mention something that actually happened on day one. I’ve got a different name listed for the Jack in the Box restaurants we were driving past. A perverted and twisted name… full credit going to Mike. These restaurants do not exist out by us in the northeast these days… but they used to. After renaming them, Mike makes some comments about stopping. Also, we put Louise in charge of the group travel fund. The cash we all chipped in to for paying tolls, gas bills, etc., was known as the kitty. Yeah… the kitty. But… umm… it got renamed on this day. I’ll take the credit (or blame) on this one. We also decided that Louise was keeping close tabs on the funds, and was being tight with the finances. Let your mind wander… you’re probably pretty close.)

We cross out of San Rafael and into the San Pablo Bay area… specifically Carneros, and, according to my notes, Sonoma. Instead of seeing cows, we now spot some farms with sheep. Mike comments about how he’d like to start a fire and grill some lamb. Norm, who had been wonderful and very pleasant from the moment we met him, officially joined our group as an accepted associate member by saying: “I’m glad your use for them involves cooking them.”

More cows.

We’ve been discussing our agenda with Norm, and he’s thinking of making a change or two based on our comments and discussions. We had added in the desire to get some olive oil, and he has some thoughts about where we might go. But, he lets us know that the plan is always open for changes, since some of it will be based simply on time, where we are, what’s convenient, and ultimately, what we want to do.

The clock is reading about 10:30am when we arrive at our first stop of the day, Elyse Winery.

A few very interesting things become quickly evident here. An example… a couple of dogs greet us. Awesome… since all of us have dogs and have no problems with them. Head-scratches are offered… friends are quickly made. This is not the last time we’ll see dogs wandering the grounds of a property.

Every place is similar, and yet incredibly different. Some are a bit more formal than others with their tastings, and several are essentially “grab a glass and a place to relax” in nature.

Elyse – According to my list, we tried nine wines at Elyse. And… I can tell you that as a whole, the wine here was as good as any we tried during the trip, if not better. All six of us liked multiple labels, and the majority of our group (three or more people) liked each one we tasted.

Otto was serving us on this day, and he was fine overall. He smiled at the right moments and laughed at our jokes. He answered all of our questions and was, in general, friendly. But… well… we admit it… we’re all amateurs when it comes to wine. Some of us are a bit more educated as far as the process of producing wine or with our pallets. But we are amateurs. So while maybe -- just maybe -- it had something to do with dealing with amateurs, all of us got the feeling that Otto was just a bit too professional. Quiet. Dry. Hard to explain… and while cold and distant might even work as descriptions too, those could be too harsh… but as the day wore on, and our trip continued, we met people that seemed ready to open up the refrigerators and share the contents of their home with us. That didn’t happen here. (And frankly… it doesn’t have to happen. It was simply something we all noticed and all felt.)

We ended up buying six bottles of wine… and the winner when it came to number of bottles bought was a 2006 La Peche aperitif/dessert wine. (Which is hysterical… because the first stop sees half of our purchase as dessert wines, and for about two months Mike has been in non-stop make fun of Bob mode for bread and dessert wine comments. We will come back to this on day four, when he commissions a poem for me. In fairness to Mike… when it comes to purchasing the La Peche… Terry and I bought two bottles, and Ellen and Richard bought one. So he didn’t contribute to the bottles of this style.) A 2005 L’Ingenue was purchased by Mike and Louise, and Terry and I. A single bottle of 2004 Le Corbeau was bought by Ellen and Richard.

(Again… tasting notes as I have them documented can be found at the very end of this essay.)

Havens – Our second stop was literally moments down the road, at Havens Wine Cellars. This was one of our favorite places on the trip… one we likely will return to if given the chance… and only a portion of that was the wine. Most importantly, the people were simply outstanding, and a minor problem actually created a fantastic visit.

We arrived and were introduced to Connie. The tasting room was more of a welcome room… a sitting room if you will. Six wines were poured for us to try… a combination of two different tasting menus. We were about two or three into the visit when Norm came in and asked how we were doing. He then told us to take our time. Evidently the keys were somehow locked in the van. (And the delay would just open up all sorts of stuff.)

We were having a good conversation with Connie, and had been joined by Nicole during our visit. Following the news from Norm, Connie offered to show us around and we began an informal tour of the property. We got to watch them emptying out some of the tanks. Mike and Terry each grabbed a rake and started working. We were offered some wine-soaked oak chips. (Which we were told are great for barbecues, and if there had been any way to get them home we would have grabbed as many as they would have given us.) Outside to where they were filling up some barrels, with Mike and Terry getting their glasses filled straight from the hose… and Richard chiming in that what was going in to the barrel was better than most of what we buy at home in the stores. (He was absolutely correct about that.)

We had just a grand old time at Havens. Ordered 6 bottles of a 2002 Syrah (Napa Valley). And then, doors unlocked, we got ready for lunch…

We get in the van and Norm’s cell phone goes off. Between work and personal phones, he has something like eighty-five things that could be ringing… so Mike offers to help Norm retrieve the phone from his pocket. (We are officially worried that Mike and Norm are having too much fun together up front.)

Our next stop is the Oakville Grocery. Boasting a history of well over a century, the store is hardly the country store they advertise on their web site. Oh… don’t get me wrong… it’s a gorgeous place, would be highly recommended by our entire group and from the outside it does have that little town feel that also captures the region. (I know Mike could have spent hours inside this place, and they actually had to wait for me and the sandwich I purchased.) We found incredible things inside though. When was the last time you wandered into a small country store and ordered a Mediterranean Grilled Chicken sandwich? (I rest my case.) The store features an amazing assortment of items, seemingly geared exactly toward spending a sunny day in wine country… wines, salads, sandwiches, chips, crackers, cheeses and other knick-knacks.

We packed up our purchases and made the first agenda change of the day. The time we spent at Havens put us into a crunch of sorts. We have reservations for a tasting at 2pm, and really don’t have time for a full-blown picnic or a drawn out tasting. Norm is heading over to Saddleback Cellars, which he thinks has picnic tables for our lunch, and might do a tasting for us while we eat.

Saddleback – Interesting visit. They were expecting a large group of bicyclists, and told us we could absolutely eat… and get served a tasting… but that we might not get the 100% attention and service they usually try to offer. The wines we sampled were excellent, including Scarlett’s Rose, which took everyone by surprise. 9 bottles were purchased here… 2 rose and 1 zinfandel for Mike and Louise… 1 pinot and 1 zinfandel for Ellen and Richard… and 2 pinot and 2 roses for Terry and I. I have notes on seven wines being tasted.

Lunch was very good, and the setting was terrific. An interesting thing happened here though… when the tasting fee was cut, but not waived with our purchase. (Neither Elyse or Havens charged us for the tasting when we made our purchases. And yet, at both of these places, we ordered fewer bottles than we did here at Saddleback. Hey… it’s business. I’m not saying they need to charge or not charge anything. I’m just saying it was something we quickly noticed and involved in a few whispers between our group.)

Easily one of the prettiest locations we visited today, Flora Springs Winery and Vineyards was also one of the more confusing. Our visit to this property can be summed up liked this… (and I have been giving this a lot of thought…) Flora Springs is exactly like that stunningly good looking woman that knows quite well how attractive she is.

I’ll pause for a moment.

And now, allow me to explain.

I’m not talking about an ego-driven, shallow, difficult woman that believes everyone should cater to her because she’s beautiful. I’m talking about a friendly woman that you could spend some time with, enjoy being around, and you might even daydream about bringing the relationship to another level… but there is also something off-balance about her that suggests if you ever asked her out on a date she would turn you down because she doesn’t feel you’re good enough for her in a romantic way. Charming and nice… but cool and superficial. Not bad to have lunch with… ok to spend an afternoon with… but never someone that makes you comfortable enough to relax around.

Make sense?

At Flora Springs you can just tell that they know they have a special property here. And it’s a property that we truly enjoyed seeing. The trouble is… there was this feeling underneath everything -- from the way they acted to how they addressed wine tasting fees to the results of how they shipped our order -- that led me to believe they were charging us for the pleasure of their company. In a way I did not experience again on this trip, I felt like they knew they were special, and wanted something extra for the honor of being seen.

Flora Springs – We drive up the property, and wind up at the wrong building. Signs are small and, even if there, seemingly hidden. We ask a few people and eventually get to the main building for our tour.

Upon our arrival, we find out that an old oak tree that had long served as the property’s focal point was blown down overnight by strong winds. We are introduced to Margaret, who is our tour guide and tasting server. We are poured our first wine of the visit… a 2006 chardonnay… and led outside. All of us are suddenly in the position of holding empty glasses. (It will make sense why in a few moments, but in the beginning, it felt awkward.)

Justin and Kirill are visiting as well, and they are part of the group. We walk down into a few rows of grapevines, taste some of the remaining fruit right off the vine, and eventually are led over to the entrance of the property’s cave. We are told we will be tasting from seven different barrels while in the cave (hence the glasses we are still holding), ranging from a 2007 chardonnay to deep reds. The cave area stores about 2,000 barrels.

After a few minutes in the cave, we are brought back outside and to a table, where the tasting is completed with three more samples. As we left, Margaret pointed to a few trees, including a fig tree in a courtyard, and invited Mike to go ahead and pick some fruit. The video of Mike, Ellen and Richard looking over the figs is hysterical.

Ok… three things about Flora Springs to finish up… and perhaps deepen the perspective for our experience…

Number one… the water – We were given bottles of “Flora Springs” water during the tasting. Here’s the message on the bottle: “We invite you, as our guest, to enjoy our bottled water but please remember that it’s the wine that pays the bills around here.”

Number two… the bills… I mean, the tasting fee – We bought five bottles of wine here, including three bottles of the Trilogy. We were considering buying more, but we had bought a fair amount already today, and the bill still had the tasting fee included. So, wondering if buying another bottle or two might waive the fee… an exchange that basically would give us more wine… Terry asked, and Margaret told her that she would have to buy a couple of cases before it would be dropped. Yup… multiple cases. (So maybe it isn’t the wine paying the bills… it’s the tasting fees and visitors.)

Number three… the delivery – Within about ten days of our return home, wine had arrived at our house(s) from virtually every location, and that included everything purchased on the first day… except Flora Springs. So… I called. The gentleman I spoke with on the phone looked for the order record, found it, and mentioned that it was noted not to ship yet. But… Margaret was on vacation, so he couldn’t find out why it said that. He said he would ship it FedEx to us, and asked if someone would be at our house on Wednesday of that week to accept it. Terry was going to be home that day… so I said yes. No shipment arrived on Wednesday. On Thursday night we came home and found the tag on the door… an adult signature was required (and an adult present for the delivery). So, on Friday night, off I went to the FedEx offices during the hours listed for pick-up, waited for the truck to return (because the guy was running late), and picked up our box.

Read these things over and I think you’ll see what I mean. Not waiving a tasting fee? Well… most other places did… but it wasn’t exactly worth complaining over that they didn’t. As I mentioned, this is their business, and it is a business. Respect businesses and professionals… I believe in that. However… they were willing to waive it for an exceptional order. Problems with the delivery. Odds and ends we picked up. Just a bit… well… pompous. (Wonder if Otto ever worked here…)

We started our departure from Napa with one last goal in mind… olive oil. While driving, we asked Norm about a couple of places we wanted to visit or had heard about. Specifically… Sterling Vineyards and Castello di Amorosa. Norm was ok with both of them, and suggested that if we were driving up to Calistoga, we might also want to consider Schramsberg Vineyards.

(We ended up calling on Tuesday to make reservations at Castello di Amorosa (which for many places are recommended (and may be required)). We didn’t go to Schramsberg because of other things (Friday’s tour diary… day 7… will cover that), but wanted to note the referral.)

Jacuzzi – We wind up at the Jacuzzi Family Vineyard… but a funny thing happened. The Jacuzzi property is in Sonoma. So we ended up having a relatively short ride… but still enough time to settle in to our seats and drift off a bit after an active day of walking and drinking. So by the time we arrived, although it remained unspoken, it was fairly evident that none of us were really up to a wine tasting here. We had crashed.

A section of this gorgeous, new property is dedicated to The Olive Press. I’ll be honest… I never thought I would wind up at an olive oil tasting bar. I did… and it was really good. (Thank you Jackie for serving us and taking care of our orders.) The property itself is still being landscaped a bit (or appears to be). Actually, the doors haven’t even been open a year yet.

We drove back to the hotel and Norm dropped us off. Outstanding day, wonderfully chauffeured by Norm.

Too tired to really travel, we went across the street to eat… at La Collina Ristorante Italiano. The meal was very good. The trick was how tired we all were… and while hungry, none of us seemed interested in a full meal.

Mike had a lamb shank that he described as awesome. In fact, he wants to go back, and wishes we had while there just so he could order it again. I know someone ordered the gnocchi al pesto (I think it was Richard), and I ordered a really good pollo battutto al funghi e pignoli. Beyond that… I honestly have no clue. Good food… nice end to the day… all of us worn out.

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Elyse Winery

Did we like it?
2005 L’Ingenue
(Naggiar Vineyard)
Dry white wine… smooth… very nice
Yes… everyone liked this wine.
2005 Chardonnay
(Wild Horse Valley)
Smooth and felt long… nicely developed… good overall
My only note is that I did like it, but I seem to recall most people thought it was simply ok. However, most of the group here prefers reds, and chardonnay is not regularly a particular favorite for any of us, so I’m not 100% certain it was well liked all around.
2004 Le Corbeau
(Hudson Vineyard)
Very light for a red wine… fruity… I sensed cranberries and raspberries
My notes not only said I liked it, but there is a side note saying that I liked it that is separate from the place I noted likes/dislikes. So… I must have really liked it. Richard and Mike both liked this wine. Ellen noted that it was mild, but that she liked it too.
My notes don’t have a year listed, but the Elyse web site says 2005 was the first year, and that would fit the years we tasted.
Excellent aroma… very dry… didn’t find it as pleasant
Terry, Ellen, Richard and Mike all liked it
(Korte Ranch)
Again, my notes don’t have a year listed. The Elyse web site says 2005, and that would fit the years we tasted.
The entire group found this zinfandel to be sweeter than the Couzins label… smooth taste
I thought it was ok overall. Mike and Richard enjoyed it.
2005 Zinfandel
(Morisoli Vineyard)
Everyone except Louise liked this wine. Richard made the comment that to this point (sixth pour of the visit, first place of the day), it was the best wine he had tasted.
2003 Cabernet Sauvignon
(Morisoli Vineyard)
Strong flavors… bitter finish
Terry and I didn’t like it. Richard, Ellen and Mike did.
2005 Petite Sirah
Dry and short
Three of us didn’t like it (Bob, Terry and Louise). But, Mike, Ellen and Richard all enjoyed it. Richard’s comment was that he liked it “quite a bit.” For Mike it was his favorite of the tasting at Elyse.
2006 La Peche
Fruit came from 3 different places… incredible aroma… no, no… “awesome” aroma in my notes… peaches… apricots… tropical fruits… very, very good
Everyone liked this wine.


Havens Wine Cellars
Sad 2012 note… it appears that Havens has gone out of business. I was doing some research for the Strange and Unexpected series when I learned of this. I do not know what happened to the staff… what happened to the property… what happened to the wine. But I will share our thoughts from the tasting…

Did we like it?
2006 Albarino
Nice fragrance
I thought it was ok, but not great.
2003 Merlot
(Napa Valley)
The entire group felt it was a bit mild
Ellen, Richard and Mike – special note with their names about how mild it was.
Terry, Ellen, Richard and Mike all enjoyed it.
2002 Syrah
(Napa Valley)
Terry, Ellen, Richard and Mike all enjoyed this wine, and it showed in the purchases… with all bottles of this label.
2002 Merlot
(Carneros (Reserve))
Seemed a bit short
Terry and I both liked it, but Terry didn’t enjoy it as much as the Syrah (2002 – Napa)
2002 Syrah
(Hudson Vineyard)
Terry liked this wine, and in fact, everyone liked it (Louise and I didn’t try it)
2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
Terry felt it was strong


Saddleback Cellars

Did we like it?
2006 Pinot Grigio
White wine… smooth
Yes. Notes reflect names of Louise, Terry and Bob, with a side note of all listed
2006 Chardonnay
Bob – smooth, good aroma
Terry – good
Louise – liked the scent
Yes, by all
2006 Viognier
Long… sweet… fruity… peaches and honeysuckle
Bob, Terry, Ellen, Richard and Mike
2006 Vine Haven Scarlett’s Rose
Merlot grapes
Louise has a special star next to her name on this one, Bob, Mike, Ellen and Richard are also noted as liking this one
2002 Merlot
(Napa Valley)
Mike – mellow
Bob, Terry and Louise liked it.
2003 Cabernet Sauvignon
Long… smooth
Bob, Terry, Mike, Ellen and Richard all liked it. Louise is noted as not liking this one.
2005 Old Vines Zinfandel
(Napa Valley)
Again Bob, Terry, Mike, Ellen and Richard all liked it. Louise is noted as not liking this one.


Flora Springs

Did we like it?
2006 Chardonnay
(Napa Valley)
Liked by all
Long… smooth… fruity
Liked by all (ordered by all)
Wild Boar Chardonnay
Drier… less fruity aroma
Liked by all
Out of Sight Cabernet Sauvignon
Louise didn’t like this one, but the rest of the group did


The Olive Press
Jacuzzi Family Vineyards

Sherry Balsamic Vinegar
Outstanding… kick at the end
Blood Orange Olive Oil The name implies it… good
Koroneiki Extra Virgin Olive Oil Mild
Arbequima Extra Virgin Olive Oil Also mild
Good, nice lemon/citrus flavor (follow-up note, Terry and I have used it to cook chicken cutlets and it was delicious)

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com