A California diary… A group of six on tour in 2007
8 days in northern California… day seven
Napa on our own


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 April 8, 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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Day seven, Friday, October 26, 2007

A very interesting day is set in front of us. We have an appointment at Castello di Amorosa… a castle-themed location in Calistoga. It just so happens that the property is directly across the street from a spot Ellen and Richard want to head to, Sterling Vineyards. And as if that wasn’t enough, Mike has been working on the details for a visit to Dutch Henry Winery… a place he contacted over the summer that seems to be barely a block or two away from the other stops.

We’ll be heading north… up into Napa… and we’ve got two definites already lined up and a third looking pretty good. So how do we start the day?

Of course… with a horrible breakfast.

IHOP folks… doesn’t get any weaker than that.

We drive about five minutes from the hotel to the International House Of Pancakes. We had spotted the location earlier in the week, had kept it in mind, and finally decided to head over and give it a shot.

As we sit down, we ask the waitress for separate checks. We never did receive an explanation of why it wouldn’t be possible, or even something that just sounded like a remotely valid reason of why. Say, maybe something like because we were sitting at a big table… because our three couples were all over the place and not really lined up for easy deciphering of what order would go with which check… that the waitress just didn’t want to prepare three checks… anything -- but we are told she can’t do separate checks.

Now, to be fair, I’ve gone out and been told they couldn’t do separate checks before. No problem. That’s fine. And I’ve been told no separate checks before without an explanation. That’s fine. But this morning, there’s something in the way the waitress is answering that’s just off. And while I don’t want to pretend to speak for her, in retrospect this was clue number one.

As we go around the table ordering, Richard asks what the difference is between the senior pancakes and the regular pancakes. He’s told two dollars.

Just like that… straight and simple… in fact, she didn’t just not miss a beat, she kind of cut Richard off…

Richard: “Can you tell me the difference between the senior pancakes and the regular pan”

Waitress: “Two dollars”

Richard: “cakes?”

And with clue number two offered, we find Richard ordering the senior pancakes and Mike asking for the senior French toast.

We were joking around, sharing some orange juice from a pitcher we ordered and splitting dishes, but it really gets funny when the check arrives. Six people… two ordering from the “senior” menu of similar servings with lower prices… everyone ordering specials… and we’re eating breakfast. Seriously… basic order. Pancakes or some eggs, juice and coffee. We even combined our juice order because a pitcher was less expensive than six glasses.

How much would you guess?

(I’ll give you a second.)

(In fact… I’ll give you two seconds. This is pretty good.)

Seventy-one dollars and change later (not including the tip), we leave. (Mike decides that on Saturday if he sees the girls at the grill of the hotel, he’s going to kiss them. $71+ -- that’s more than $12 per person, for pancakes and eggs, and… it bears repeating… two people ordering the less expensive plates -- for breakfast. Holy crap.)

We’re on route 29 cruising toward Calistoga when we pass a holy site… the CIA at Greystone. (That’s the Culinary Institute of America folks… and Mike is wiping tears away from his eyes. I’m pretty sure if I had offered to pull over, Mike would have walked inside and approached a grill, fallen to his knees, lit a burner, and recited his personal “mise en place” list ten times to cleanse his soul.)

Castello di Amorosa – Our tour is scheduled for 10:45am and we’re a bit early. Sure enough, Sterling is within our sight, on the top of a hill across the road. We start meandering around a bit and… do I need to tell you?

Mike is gone.

He arrives back just in time to snap a quick picture and head into the church where our tour is set to begin. Bryce is our guide… and we’re off.

The property is very impressive. Based on an Italian style, the design was updated several times during the initial development process as the scope, intent and purpose grew larger and larger. Most of the building was brought to the United States in pieces, with many artists arriving from Europe to work on the design, construction and decorating.

Wine production here involves hand picking their fruit, packing in smaller boxes to move it, a manual punch-down during fermentation, and using gravity to assist in the flow to the aging cellar. (At least that’s what my notes say Bryce said.) French barrels are used to store the wine in their caves.

We are led through a torture chamber… a rack, a chair, a cage and an iron maiden… and then into the Grand Barrel Room. Here we get to taste a cabernet that is two weeks old. (Nope… I didn’t like it.)

At one end of this huge room is a bar, and it is here that we will conduct our full tasting. Overall, we aren’t thrilled with the wines. As you’ll see in the chart… some we liked… and some we didn’t. The big thing though was that, during a group discussion, we all found the wines overall tasted a bit immature and weaker than many of the others we had tasted in other places. The flavors and development were missing. So manual punch-down and gravity flow or not… keep doing what you do Elyse because your wines were amazing. (Day three, first stop)

Quick side note…

One of the things we have discovered on our journey through wine country is this… whatever you do, don’t ever feel obligated to buy some wine. Sure, they may offer you fancy discounts… like refunds on tasting or tour fees… and other stuff like that. The fact of the matter is… if you aren’t falling over on the ground crazy in love with the wine… it probably isn’t worth it. Oh good lord did we learn this one from those folks at Flora Springs. They have a beautiful property, certainly seemed nice enough in general during our visit, and we enjoyed seeing their operations. In the end, I wasn’t impressed with the taste of the wines, regardless of how impressed I was with the property.

Suffice to say, as the visit there moved along, we learned they wanted a “major” purchase in return for considering a tasting fee rebate. We had already spent a couple of hundred when we asked… but that wasn’t quite “major” in their eyes. Now before you think I’m going crazy about simply not getting a discount, you need to remember, they also never shipped our wine. We called to find out where it was and found out it had been marked “do not ship” by our hostess of the day… who then went on her vacation. When they did send it, it arrived a day after they promised, forcing me to drive to pick it up because of the combination of work, delivery attempt limits, and a required adult signature.

If you want to take a tour… do it. If you like the wine and want to buy some… do it. You will be amazed at how many great memories a single bottle can bring back when opened a few months later. So if there is some combination that makes your purchases for the day slightly less expensive… great. But… if you don’t listen to me, and buy on impulse, eventually you’ll figure out on your own that you really aren’t putting any money into your wallet with these great deals.

You don’t finish the tour you paid for and, unexpectedly and for no reason at all, get handed a bottle of your favorite from the tasting on the house. You don’t get a twenty placed on the table in front of you when you decide to get something shipped. And, most importantly… the wine is so good at almost every stop, that if you’re on a wine trip -- like we were… multiple properties over multiple days -- if you don’t pay attention you are going to buy two bottles here, perhaps five there, and then three more, and eventually lose count. (Just wait until they begin to arrive.)

The point is this… you don’t have to buy a bottle of wine. You can enjoy a tasting. You can sample some wines and take a tour. But don’t get swayed about having a $10 tasting fee waived for buying a bottle for $20 or more… don’t add three more bottles to get a discount on a case. Just enjoy it. These are great people and wonderful experiences… but they are also businesses, in an industry that has grown rapidly over about three decades or so. Buy it if you want it, not because it seems to save you money.

At this location, part of the tour gave each person a specific number of tastes to make from a large selection of wines. It didn’t take us long to figure out that if we split our sips, we could taste more. (In other words… I might pick a Pinot and Terry would pick a Chardonnay. That counted as one of my selections and one of hers. But, by tasting only half of the pour and exchanging glasses, we each got to taste two wines.)

And since we’re mentioning a bit of advice… never be afraid to ask questions. There are ways to alter tasting lists and make it even more worthwhile for you. Maybe you prefer red wines… so don’t spend as much time on whites if they offer you choices. Maybe, as you could here, you can exchange glasses with your friends and have a chance to add samples to your list. By asking questions, you’re going to learn that most of these people are dying to talk about their wines. And… especially for the novices, first time visitors, and just plain curious folks out there… asking questions gets answers.

We had a good time here. We were all happy we saw it. We didn’t order wine though, because as I noted, we all felt we had tasted better wine in other places, had recognized our tendency to go a bit overboard in purchases once we had returned to the hotel and looked back on the ordering from limo day, and knew we had more tastings and tours coming up. We did find something very interesting in the gift shop though… for lack of a better expression, an antiqued case that held 6 bottles. Each couple ended up buying one.

After wrapping up a few things, we get ready to head over to Sterling Vineyards. Remember how I’ve been making fun of our strange scheduling from day to day? You know… as one example, no set concept of meals? Well… we’re stuck in the wilderness of indecision again. We absolutely want to go to Sterling… and we will go to Sterling… and heck, it’s right across the street. But Mike is waiting to hear back from Dutch Henry Winery about a possible picnic. Their property is fairly close as well. Now closing in on 1pm… we are facing the decision of Sterling and catching the gondola run (and pushing lunch back into the mid-afternoon), or just heading over to Dutch Henry.

Mike makes a phone call and leaves a voice mail.

Sterling it is…

Sterling Vineyards – Castello di Amorosa and Flora Springs proved to be quite an example when compared to some of other the properties we visited. Basically… there are vineyards and wineries that know they are gorgeous, and there is generally more to them than the wine. (In some other cases, there is more to them and a lot less to the wine.) In fact, you will get the feeling that these places probably run quite a profitable business just from getting people to tour the property. And now we arrive at Sterling…

It may not have been the prettiest property we visited… and it may not have been the best property we visited… and it may not have even been the most wonderful wine we tasted…

Sterling Vineyards is striking, and doesn’t disappoint as far as setting and looks on any level.

Turning the van onto a beautifully landscaped property, we drive a decent length trail into a parking lot. An incredible fragrance of roses settles over us as we walk to the ticket counter to purchase our passes for the gondola ride and the tour/tasting. There’s a line waiting to board the gondolas and it’s going to be a while.

Tigg mumbles something about lunch. Thinking quickly and acting upon hunger, I head back to the car. I grab a bag of chips and bring it to the group. We made a friend in that line… a young boy behind us that enjoyed some chips as well.

The tour almost certainly would have been pretty good if we hadn’t experienced so many interesting ones already. At Havens Wine Cellars, we were brought all around the area by our host, Connie… seeing and tasting some incredible things. Flora Springs… for all the headaches and jokes… provided us with a terrific guided tour of a cave storage area. Castello di Amorosa… well… a unique property and another guided tour.


Sterling Vineyards issues you a glass at the beginning of the tour… and your first pour. (We got… according to my notes, more on it later… a 2006 Pinot Gris.) Then we were wondering why we were holding these glasses as we started following signs and television prompts and such. It’s a self-paced tour with no guide.

So we started walking around and reading signs and turning corners and saying things about the big tanks or the wooden barrels… often comparisons to what we had heard at other properties from our guides.

It was, honestly, a pretty boring tour. But some of that boring concept is simply because we saw more or did more in another place, and often had a better ability to interact and ask questions.

But it was very pretty…

We found our way out onto a terrace where the view around the property was brilliant. I had stopped tasting by this point… driving don’t you know… but the rest of our gang had pour number two… a 2006 Viognier. Soon Mike and Louise were leaning against a railing… resting against each other… blissfully gazing across a field of vines below us. The castle was set off in the distance against a hill.

Back on the follow-me-this-way path, eventually we arrived in a tasting club room where we were given the remaining choices of tastings for our visit. A great woman (Charlie) came over
and began assisting us. The group ranged in votes from liked to loved to “awesome” from Mike (for a 2001 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon).

We left the property and took some pictures. Dutch Henry had called back… and we had plans to swing over to see them. First, a quick stop for some bread… and we became very worried we had made a horrible mistake. We stopped at a local market and, without thinking it over, sent Mike in… alone… with no one watching him… to get the bread. He stunned us by returning in about five minutes.

Dutch Henry Winery – It’s cradled inside a few main roads, which do a fantastic job of setting the property up to be easily accessible and convenient, and yet wonderfully hidden. Gary, Wil and Aniko took great care of us. We set up our picnic and made two wonderful friends. While Buggsy came over to investigate, it was Sadie that set up shop with us… checking out our meal and supervising the unloading of goodies. Unfortunately for her, we were asked not to share our picnic with her. (Too bad. Feeding friendly puppies is a specialty of our group.)

We spent a fair amount of time talking with Wil during our meal. The property has about 400 barrels right now, and they’re working on getting a cellar built into a nearby hill. He explained quite a few differences between their approach and, as an example, what we had heard that very morning at Castello di Amorosa.

Dutch Henry was the eighth property we had visited this week. And while each one was a bit different, the best part of this visit was just relaxing, enjoying the food, and spending time talking to Wil and Anika (she poured the tasting for us). I would love to tell you we toured the property or their building… but we didn’t really. It was just a casual hour or so in a very low key setting.

We began our drive back in and I asked about stopping at the Golden Gate Bridge. If not for sunset (which I wanted to make, but wasn’t sure if we would), I was hoping to get some pictures of the city and bridge at night. (Even had my tripod ready to go.) It was after dark when we reached the edge of the bridge, so we pulled into the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point area and set up shop.

The pictures were looking pretty good… but by this point a discussion about eating was taking place. As I changed between my camera and Terry’s on the tripod, and moved back and forth between the bridge (surprisingly not really lit up as far as the structure itself… the pictures show the glow of the lights along the road), the group was discussing where to go for dinner.

(Disclaimer time -- To date, no one will claim responsibility for the end result. And no one ever will.)

As we left the parking area, the headlights caught a few reflections and I stopped the car. Raccoons. Mike opened his window and almost recreated the Yosemite bear incident. (No… he never learned. And we never were able to control his access to a window.) I got in trouble with Terry for not changing the settings on her camera back (almost costing her pictures of the raccoons when the manual settings weren’t snapping the shutter quickly enough).

This day ends with a story about dinner though… and that means…

Fat Wong’s Kitchen

It’s located on El Camino Real… down the road from our hotel. We had seen it earlier in the week and laughed at it. But now, after finding a few places too packed to wait, we pulled in and decided to give it a shot.

The problem?

Well… realistically the problem may have been nothing more than simply this -- we were having trouble with the menu. All of us were having difficulty identifying what some dishes really were.

Several dilemmas extended from that. For instance, everything Louise and I wanted to order they didn’t seem to have. Mike and Ellen, looking to be a bit more adventurous, were disappointed by their meals. Terry wasn’t thrilled with hers either. And Richard… well… he ordered a fried rice that he says he enjoyed.

Hey… it wasn’t expensive. The staff was actually very friendly. And… we won’t be going back. In the back of my mind though, the experience reminded of something I heard years ago. (Ok… decades ago…)

I love Chinese food. And, as most of you are probably aware… the Chinese food you get in a Chinese restaurant here in the United States isn’t really authentic Chinese food. Still… I love it. The basic concept for this particular story is that you almost always get Americanized food when you walk into Chinese restaurants in the United States. (Same deal for Italian food… and Mexican… and so on.)

Well… we’re pretty certain Fat Wong’s served authentic Chinese food. The end result is that I have this feeling that part of the problem with the place was us. Not completely… but partly. We weren’t 100% certain what we were ordering. And we weren’t 100% certain what we got. Does that qualify us to say the food wasn’t good? Of course not.

Back to the hotel. One more day to go. Tomorrow… we leave. But our flight is at 11pm… and we still have a very full day ahead of us.

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Just a reminder… the “thoughts” section on the charts below reflect one of three things: (1) my specific thoughts about the wine we tasted, (2) something special you should know (for instance, maybe we’ve found that the web site for the place says that bottle is sold out), and/or (3) a group note I can identify to a specific person that isn’t really a like or dislike notation. When in doubt, go with thinking the notes and thoughts are mine.

Castello di Amorosa

Did we like it?
2005 Pinot Grigio
Napa Valley
Not bitter… long with good depth
Bob, Terry and Mike – No
Ellen and Richard – Ok
2005 Chardonnay
Napa Valley
It was long and smooth
Bob and Terry – No
Mike – Ok
2005 Gewurztraminer
Sonoma Valley
Bob and Louise felt this was one of the best wines we tasted at the property
Bob, Terry and Louise – Yes
Ellen and Richard – No
2003 Merlot
Napa Valley
Dry and short
Bob – No
Terry – Yes
Ellen, Richard and Mike – Ok
2003 Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley
Dry… didn’t like
Bob and Louise – No
Terry, Ellen, Richard and Mike – Yes
2005 Il Raggio Di Sole
Moscato Canelli
Wonderful fruity aroma, dessert wine
Bob, Terry and Louise – Yes
Mike – Ok
2006 Gewurztraminer
Late Harvest
Anderson Valley
Very sweet and my pick for the best wine we tasted here, Terry referred to it as “juicy”
Bob – Loved it
Terry and Mike – Liked it
Louise – No (too sweet)
2004 Sangiovese
Napa Valley
Too dry
Bob – No
Terry, Ellen and Richard – Ok
2005 Pinot Bianco
Napa Valley
Bob – No
Terry – Ok
Ellen and Richard – Good


Sterling Vineyards

Did we like it?
2006 Pinot Gris
Bob – No
Terry and Mike – Ok
Ellen and Richard – Liked it
2006 Cellar Club Viognier

Terry, Ellen, Richard, Mike and Louise – Yes
2005 Cellar Club Pinot Noir
Oak Knoll
Terry – Ok
Mike – Liked
Ellen and Richard – Good
2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
Terry, Ellen, Richard, Mike and Louise – Liked
2006 Cellar Club Malvasia Bianca
Nice aroma
Bob – No
Terry, Ellen, Richard, Mike and Louise – Loved it
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon
Terry and Louise – Yes
Ellen and Richard – Delicious
Mike – “Awesome”


Dutch Henry Winery
I hate to do this to Dutch Henry, but I made absolutely no notes of the tasting here. I do have a copy of the tasting menu for the wines, but I didn’t try any of them. What I can tell you is that Ellen, Richard, Mike and Louise bought a few bottles, and all five of them (Terry, Ellen, Richard, Mike and Louise) did enjoy the wines they were trying.

2003 Los Carneros Chardonnay
2006 Napa Valley Pinot Noir
2003 Napa Valley Argos
2002 Napa Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2005 Rutherford Zinfandel


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