It has occurred to me in the past that we might have some cosmic force following us across the country, something that uncannily puts us in the perfect place at the perfect time. It reared its head back in Boston
, when the Yankees just happened to be visiting Fenway on the night of our visit. Likewise, our swing through Denver
just happened to coincide with a Dark Star Orchestra show, one of our favorite bands to see live. Our fortune has been very, very good thus far for these and numerous other events.
Well, the hits just keep coming. While we stayed overnight in Sonoma a few miles back, I happened to visit BeerAdvocate
and took a curious look at the list
of their highest rated beers in America. First and fourth place both belonged to a place called Russian River Brewing Company
in Santa Rosa, Calif., which I immediately looked up to see if we were anywhere close. As it turned out, we were about 40 minutes away.
We walked in the door at about 11:15 a.m., which seems insanely early to get a drink after two solid days of wine tasting. But we're troopers, Joey and I - we had some extreme drinking situations during our freshman year as roommates (which I'll tell you about in person sometime), and we've turned out okay so far.
The guys behind the bar were happy to have a conversation about the house brew. I quickly inquired about Pliny the Younger, their creation which holds the #1 spot on the BeerAdvocate list mentioned above. As it turns out, Pliny the Younger is a seasonal, and only available for a short time in February.
Their other champion beer, Pliny the Elder, was on tap and ready to go. It lived up to every bit of its reputation. It was sharp, full of hop flavor, and one of the most perfectly balanced beers I've ever tasted.
My eyes drooped shut with every delicious sip. This would be a dangerous place for an IPA lover like me to work. Wisely, we ordered up some pizza to insulate our stomachs for the afternoon, which was pretty delicious in its own right.
On our way out we bought a six pack or so for wherever we stayed for the night. We had two days in which to conquer the Pacific Coastal Highway, so we had time to be leisurely.
Thank goodness for that. Once we reached the coast and hopped onto Highway 1, it wasn't five minutes before we were out of the car, in awe of the scenery. I can't describe it was well as the photos below can. Click on any of them for a larger view.
Our good friend Joe
told me a good deal about what to expect of the Pacific Coastal Highway's culinary offerings: Mexican, more Mexican, and the occasional gas station hot dog. But he said that along the highway we'd run into more than a few taquerias and other small operations, and find some of the best Mexican food we'll ever have.
Joey and I made a point of following his advice, and got these three astounding creations from two different, unassuming little places we ran into on our way north. The first were chicken tacos with a delicious green sauce; below that, you'll see a beef taco overflowing with fresh vegetables and salsa; and finally, the avocado-covered morsel was made with juicy, chilled white tuna and tomato. This was nothing like the "Mexican" food from the East Coast, and equally dissimilar to the numerous Tex-Mex meals we'd eaten recently. Once again, Joe was right.
After a little more driving, we found ourselves a Motel 6 and laid our heads to rest for the night. The next day we'd be seeing more of the same, and we couldn't have been more excited.
If everyone doesn’t mind, I am going to break the “fourth wall” of blogging past events. Today, I am writing about the day Tom and I shared in Napa Valley, the wine capital of America. As I write this, Tom, Sarah, and I are currently enjoying a day in Oregon wine country in real time. Right now we are driving towards a bunch of wineries on a wine trail. Tom located it by plugging the word “winery” into the GPS, finding a cluster of close results, and picking the closest of them to drive towards. We had Mimosas this morning to kick off the day, as well as fried, flat cut home fries in a cereal bowl with tender, delicious sausage links, thick cut bacon done to perfection, two over-easy eggs, and quick-fried, cherry-sized heirloom tomatoes on top.
* * *
In Napa, Tom and I started our day off with Jack in the Box burgers. They had some good, thick cut veggies, but overall they were a little dry and pretty boring. Carl’s Jr. remains at the top of the West Coast burger chains for now.
We then headed to a winery called Stonehedge in downtown Napa, and ordered a tasting of several wines for three or four bucks; we each enjoyed five tastings of our first on-site Napa Valley wine. We liked them all, again with Tom accepting the dryer wine and the fact that he would, indeed, have varying levels of heartburn all day. The man was very talkative and friendly, and he told us about something that some of the later wineries maybe hoped that he hadn’t. It was the Napa Downtown Wine Tasting Card.
We immediately went downtown and purchased one at the Tourism Center. Unlike any wine region we had visited thus far, the wine card guaranteed us free tastings at each of the downtown tasting storefronts. Napa has a sleepy little town center, which was fine with us — especially because it is small enough that we would both be walking all day. This meant that Tom and I could both drink as much wine as we wanted, as long as one of us took a break at the end of the day to drive back to our hotel.
We parked the car on the side of the street and ventured to our second wine-tasting location, “The Wineries of Napa Valley.” Here, they had a cool tap system, with each bottle hooked up to a hose that pressurized and preserved (but not carbonated) each bottle. We didn’t do the full five wine tasting that was suggested, but instead had our two free tastes and moved on.
* * *
Today, we are traveling by car with our new humane society dog, Delilah. We just stopped on the top of a mountain for Tom to take a picture of the fog-filled valley below. We are continuing on gravel and paved roads, and just got to Adelsheim Vineyards. I’ll let you know how they were when I get back. The wine was light and clean if not a little watery and boring, even to Tom’s taste. It was fifteen dollars for a tasting. We just arrived at Arbor Brook. BRB. Arbor Brook was similar but better, I think I am noticing a style. Oregon wine is crisp, not as sweet as upstate New York, and not as gloriously bitter as Napa and Sonoma Valleys. We just arrived at Bergstrom, these wineries are like one mile apart each, and I am not getting much typing done. And I’m off!
Bergstrom was good, depending on whom you ask, just a little better or worse than Arbor Brook. The wines, again, were refreshing and clean-tasting. They had a big German Shepherd hanging out in the Winery. We just passed some llamas and sheep.
* * *
After we visited the “Wineries of Napa Valley,” we started hitting actual… well... not wineries, but downtown tasting storefronts. Ceja Vineyards had a different menu for tastings, again, but we weren’t worried. We took whatever we could get for free, the drier for me and the sweeter (not much sweeter) for Tom. We walked a bit to Trahan Winery, where they also had a dog which which was featured in a “Dogs of Napa Valley” coffee table book that focused on wineries. We went to another winery on the Napa Card, and found that a few wineries were closed…
* * *
Their wine was very good, more flavor and small batch. All the grapes that they grew on their own vineyard were Pinot Noirs, and they seemed to me to be aged in the perfect barrels and made from the perfect grape. When we paid we picked up some French truffles, which are delicious and unique chocolate. They look like they have a dusting of cocoa powder on the outside, almost like they are going to be dry before you take a bite, but they are smooth and rich. Sarah is sleeping now and it is only 4:38. It doesn’t require a long day on the wine trail to get a little tired.
* * *
We continued to the Napa General Store. This place was indeed a general store, but it was also geared for tourists, as evidenced by the touristy trinkets and wine bar. The latter is what concerned us most. We were served by a very helpful lady who gave us some free wines; it was one of the longer walks of the day to get here and would be another longer jaunt back. We continued to Bounty hunter wine bar and restaurant, which had a bunch of local wines, a great pub atmosphere and big pours, an experience we were happy to have. The Copia Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts was closed, and we headed towards Oxbow Tasting Room, which was shared between two friends, Waterstone Wineries and Mahoney Vineyards. Again, we tasted some great wines. The partial owner of the store explained that for him, wine making was not an extremely profitable business, but a passion of love. I can appreciate that. We continued to another store that also shared the name “Oxbow,” this time the Oxbow Cheese Merchant. We tasted our wines and bought eight kinds of Cheese, each a generous portion, for thirty dollars or so. These included Caprino Cramosa, a goat cheese, Prefere des Montagnes, a cow milk cheese and Salametto Fra’Mani, a handcrafted Italian sausage, and some mixed Italian Olives. See the picture to get an idea of the variety that we were eating.
We walked back to Stonehedge, our first stop of the day, and got the free tastings that the card allowed. The friendly man that was there earlier was still present. He appreciated that we enjoyed the wine enough to come back. We told him about our day, he gave us what would be considered big pours for tastings, and about a half dozen cork screws/wine keys. We chatted and drank a bit more and headed back to our hotel room, where we ate as much cheese as we could. Rich, unique cheese was a poor choice as the only item eaten for dinner after a day of wine drinking, but it was verifiably delicious. We ate as much as we could enjoy, which was most of each kind and all of the meat and olives, and went to bed.
* * *
Right now, we are heading back to Portland. We are going to wake Sarah as soon as we get to Pastini Pastaria, a restaurant where Tom has been working for several weeks and we had not visited as patrons yet, and where Tom gets fifty percent off on parties of four or less, a welcome respite after spending ten to fifteen dollars each for tastings today. Wine tasting days are the best days, whether in the greater Portland area, Upstate New York, or Napa Valley. Plan a wine tour right now. I insist.
So now that I have a little more time to dedicate to the blog, I've used the last week or so to upload a large portion of this summer's photos to Flickr. This has not been a modest endeavor. Before they're uploaded, I sort through them to eliminate the worthless ones, of which there are very, very many. But in taking such a ludicrous amount of photos all over the country, it's turned into a massive collection of marginally decent to quite impressive artwork.
I know a lot of you need something to help you kill time at work. So far I've uploaded my photos through day 53, and we've got nearly 10,000 pictures to sort through - most of which you've never seen before, like this gem from Wrigley Field on the right. Best of all, they're all licensed in a way that allows anyone to use them (with attribution) for non-commercial purposes. Sharing is caring.
Anyway, all you have to do is click on the "Flickr" logo on the right, and you'll be taken to our Photostream. From there you can peruse to your heart's delight, and drive your productivity at work into the ground.
It never quite occurred to us that our troupe of three could possibly be cut down to two for any foreseeable reason, as it was when Sarah had to fly home for her family emergency. As it were, Joey and I were on our own for the rest of the road trip, about to leave San Francisco and tour through California's wine country for the next few days. I think a few people back home had a few chuckles at our expense.
Regardless, we paused on the way out for a Hemcher shot with the Golden Gate Bridge, and continued into Sonoma for the day, leaving the fog in our wake.
The drive from San Fran to Sonoma was a walk in the park, only an hour drive north on nice quiet roads. I do't think we even had to drive that far - all we had to do was plug the words "winery" and "vineyard" into the GPS and see which one popped up closer. In this case, "vineyard" won.
First stop was the Jacuzzi Family Vineyards
, which was set in a beautiful building and an even more beautiful location. The guy behind the bar was not exactly exploding with personality, as I believe I captured very well in this picture. I tried to get across the point that I prefer sweet wines to dry wines, and he kind of rolled his eyes at me in disdain for even my lack of understanding as to the terms "sweet" and "dry" in reference to wine. People like him are why I drink beer.
The other side of the building from the tasting room was the other half of the family's business, featuring assorted artisan foods with a heavy emphasis on olive oil. They had something like 12 or 13 different types of oil free for tasting, and Joey proceeded to throw back a taste of every one of them. We bought some cheese and hit the road.
Needless to say, finding the next winery in the Sonoma Valley is a lot like finding a casino in Vegas. A short drive brought us to Cline Cellars
, another gorgeous vista in these lovely parts. The building had a backwoods feel to it and was pretty busy with guffawing visitors. Here, our bartender (for lack of a better term for what these folks do) was a lovely woman named Suzy, who totally made up for the last guy's utter lack of personality. These wines were clearly more complex than I was used to sampling, and I felt somewhat insignificant in the face of all that I didn't know about the wine I was drinking.
Next up the road was a much larger winery called Sebastiani
. The facility was decadent and roomy, and our bartender was a little fellow who reminded me of Bilbo Baggins. One thing we couldn't help noticing was the higher price of tastings here, as opposed to other parts of the country like Texas and upstate New York. But you get what you pay for - and it's not like price was going to keep us from experiencing this part of the trip.
The next stop added some color to the day, at Buena Vista Carneros Winery
. We had to walk down a long driveway to get to the tasting room, and when we settled into our spots, someone mentioned the company "Whole Foods" between Joey and I, the bartender, and the husband and wife standing to Joey's right. Joey mentioned his disdain toward Whole Foods, for having a very vocal CEO whose views on health care reform were ridiculous and utterly unintelligent.
The woman standing to Joey's right chimed in, voicing her own disapproval for health care reform in America. She asked Joey, "What about personal responsibility?" as her argument against the need for a public health insurance option. Joey's face twisted into a dark spiral of hatred and scorn, but held his tongue. It's not like the Joey I know to hold his tongue, but after four wine tastings he was a little slower to formulate an appropriate retort. I heard about it from him for the rest of the day - he really wished he had been on his game.
With Joey still fuming, we stopped next at Nicholson Ranch Winery
, where the crowd was thin and the people were very friendly. By then it was getting on in the day and our still-open options were growing limited. One of them, Domaine Carneros
, specialized in sparkling wine, which we opted into for a change of pace. This place was the most expensive of the whole day, and I think technically falls into Napa more than Sonoma. But it was fancy, ornate, and the kind of experience that frankly would have been better shared with my girlfriend.
Finally, after snacking on nothing but cheese and french bread all day, we brought our day of tastings to a close with a heavy meal at a spot in Napa called Downtown Joe's
. They brewed all their own beers, which was a nice change of pace from the day's grape consumption. I wolfed down the magnificent burger shown in the photo, and when I got up to use the restroom near the end of the meal, Joey knocked his beer over onto the booth and we hastily made our way for the exit.
The next day was our day in Napa, which Joey will be covering. Look forward to that coming very soon.
By our third day in San Francisco, we'd kept ourselves inside the festival in Golden Gate Park for nearly all of our time, and it was time to get out on the town. This town was, after all, the matriculating grounds for some of my musical heroes - most notably the Grateful Dead. Way back in the 1960s, the band lived at 710 Ashbury St., as well as a few other assorted friends and individuals. Nowadays it's just a house, with a silver sedan in the driveway and nothing distinguishing it from the rest of the neighborhood. Call me a tourist, but I think the place should be a museum.
Joey and I walked down Ashbury and strolled down Haight Street to soak up some of the vibe. Just about every third or fourth store was a head shop, brimming with artfully crafted glass bongs (oops, I mean water pipes) and other assorted paraphernalia. It was certainly an interesting theme for an area that sees so many visitors.
We came to a good place to stop for a bite to eat (and a beer) at the Magnolia Pub and Brewery
, where the only open spots were at the bar and the staff was really hustling. For some reason everyone besides Joey and me was ordering Mimosas (champagne and orange juice), but we were happy as usual with a couple of IPAs.
A short drive away, a trip to Fisherman's Wharf came next, where we had foggy views of the city and Alcatraz Island. This spot was the setting for one of the most beautiful Grateful Dead songs ever written, called Wharf Rat, about a poor blind man named August West who wasted his life drinking and rotting in prison, but who affirms that brighter days await him in the future. If you have 15 minutes to spare, check out this concert from Boston in 1977
, and scroll the player on the right down to Wharf Rat. You'll understand why this place made me feel the way I did.
And before trekking back off to the festival, Joey is always a sucker for seafood - as am I after tasting such delicious morsels as I have throughout the summer. We sat down at a place called Fishermen's Grotto
, where we drank Anchor Steam beer and ate halibut and Dungeness crab. This wasn't an inexpensive meal, but nothing in San Francisco was cheap. Our hotel room cost us about twice as much as anywhere else in the country. Regardless, our bellies were full and it was time to get back to the music.
Upon our arrival in Golden Gate Park, I noticed the security guards having a more difficult time with keeping the grounds secure than they'd had the first two days. There were numerous groups of people in a few different spots, all of whom were moving around the trees in intent fashion, slowly edging toward the fence only to be chased off by the guards or the cops.
I moved us closer to the fence to get some shots of the miscreants, a few of which were successful in getting in - to which I payed far more attention than I did to the band on stage.
We were quick to revisit the wine tent, as we were gearing up to spend the next two days frolicking around wine country and wanted to get into the spirit. Afterward we walked to the stage where M.I.A. was playing, which was probably the least entertaining moment of the entire three day stint. Thumbs down.
The last day of this festival was unusual, first and foremost for the fact that the headlining band was absent. The Beastie Boys were supposed to be the final act, but one of the three guys in the band was diagnosed with cancer in July and the band had to cancel. Instead, the last act would be Tenacious D, an awesome band led by Jack Black with some of the more hilarious songs I've ever heard. But while Tenacious D took the stage, nobody else was playing on any of the other five stages, which meant that the field in front of the stage was too crowded to get anywhere close.
Still, they put on an awesome show that stayed pretty true to their albums, even if I could only see it on the giant TV screens next to the stage. They played classics like "Wonderboy" and "Tribute," and added theatrics to the performance when Jack's bandmate Kyle "quit" the band onstage and Jack sang a song about it.
Joey had driven us to the show tonight, so the trip home was quick and thankfully uneventful. With a night's rest, we'd be ready for a trip to the Sonoma Valley tomorrow. Look for that post very soon.