Friday, December 5, 2014

Thanksgiving in Wine Country

About 3 weeks before IMAZ Shane & I were chatting over some wine on a Sunday... Isn't this how all plans start? Shane needed to spend some time working in N. California, and with Ironman creeping up just didn't seem to be a good time until, well Thanksgiving week. Thinking I wouldn't be happy with that travel, I surprised Shane by saying something along the lines of, "wine, holiday, I'm IN!"

Everyone who knows me knows that I am a planner! I love to have the logistics all figured out, and organized so that when the actual vacation comes, it's just that. No thinking, no stress and how it's supposed to be, VACATION.  I dug through my files and found my wine country folder with my special maps that a wine maker gave me once and I always take with me! It has the smaller roads and more boutique wineries that aren't always located on the map. I started looking up new places to visit, some of our old favorites, and had one special trip in mind that I wanted to make over on the Napa side. This was our 4th trip to the Sonoma/Healdsburg area, but we've yet to head over to Napa. I prefer the smaller, less commercial more inviting and welcoming wineries on the Sonoma side. I realize that not all of the Napa wineries are so intimidating, in fact, as we head through this post you will see that I found my new favorite home on the Napa side!

Within about 10 days I had a VRBO picked out and paid for, a car rented, plane ticket purchased, dinner reservations for Thanksgiving and a tentative itinerary for tastings! In the midst of all the planning and Ironman Prep I was having a text conversation with our good friend Karen who had just moved to Seattle. We were talking about the holidays and if she was coming home, and I don't know, something like 24hours later she she and her boyfriend Casey had decided to make the trek down to wine country and join us.  SO EXCITING!  Friendsgiving AND wine....

Shane headed out to California earlier in the week and I flew in Thursday morning. Honestly, the hardest part about this trip was finding someone to stay with my dogs.  They are ~13 now and need more attention. While they are still very healthy and active, they are used to me being home all day every day and leaving them for hours on end just isn't ideal.  Juliette has really bad separation anxiety (ugh, who wouldn't when they are turned into the pound at 8 years old?) so we crate her, and Baxter well.. he just wants company.  He is fine alone, but I hate leaving him for more than about 4-6 hours at a time. Thanks to a wonderful friend who agreed to come stay with them, even on a holiday, I was relieved that they would be well cared for.

I digress. Back to wine country (even though it really IS all about the dogs)! Since my arrival was around noon, I did a little research to see if any wineries were open on Thanksgiving. Surprised, I actually found a couple. Our dinner reservations weren't until 6:15 and we couldn't check into our rental until 3 so we had some time to kill.  Cline Cellars was the very first winery we visited on our first trip years ago and it just happens to be on the 121 just as you enter Sonoma. I was completely shocked as we pulled into the winery. Cars were parked along the entire road to the tasting room and people were swarming. Clearly we weren't the only people looking for a way to kick off the holiday weekend. To our surprise, even though the tasting bar(s) (they set up an additional one outside) actually had lines of people, we had a wonderful person sharing the wines with us and still had a great experience. We bought a bottle of sparking and a cheese plate and were quickly on our way to the vrbo.

I have really lucked out with our VRBO rentals. This place was tucked away about 2 miles from the Sonoma square. Quiet, spacious and cute! We sat outside and had our bubbles and snack and before we knew it it was time to head to dinner. I found a holiday menu at the very well known Girl and the Fig. Our friends who were married several years ago used them to cater their reception and I remembered the food being outstanding, so it was an easy choice. The place was incredibly packed, but we were seated outside in their "covered" patio. The ambiance was festive and it was a perfect place to catch up with Karen & Casey, and in fact... I'm pretty sure that we were the last people to leave (sorry, staff)! My meal was great, and the service was really good, but our only complaint or less than perfect part was the dessert (I wasn't complaining but the rest of the group really wanted pumpkin pie and the cheesecake just wasn't the same). We still had a great time, and I'm sure if we went back to the restaurant on a non national holiday we would enjoy it a bit more...

 The next morning we got up to burn off some of the 4 course meal and wine we consumed. It was a gorgeous cool morning, but boy was my body stiff!  I'd really only been swimming since Ironman with one 30min jog a couple days prior. We had a challenge getting out of the house (Shane climbed the fence to open the gate for us) then headed on our way. We actually ran into Karen and Boots so jogged with them for a bit.  Oh how I miss running with my dogs!!!

Now off to the really fun part! A friend had referred us to a family owned company that you hire, by the hour to drive you around to the wineries. They use your vehicle and it's as simple as that. We ended up hiring them to drive us both Saturday and Sunday and we couldn't be more happy. Karen and Casey had their little sprinter that they drove down from Seattle and the drivers were happy to drive us around in it. It was perfect. Boots got to be our token winery dog and between wineries we could sit at the dining table and snack and hydrate for the next stop! I would highly recommend Wine Tour Drivers for anyone in town!

Stop 1 - Robledo Family. I've talked about this place before and anyone who has been to our house in the last couple of years has enjoyed their lovely wines. Shane & I happened in the tasting room on one of our visits and immediately fell in love. The story of the immigrant Mexican worker who started out making ~$1/hr growing into an award winning family winery touched our hearts and palettes. We joined the wine club and have been enjoying all of their wines ever since. In typical Mexican fashion the tastings were plentiful and we spent a bit more time there than planned. We actually had to cut ourselves off and pick and choose which wines we wanted so that we could leave and head to the next stop. To be honest, I could have stayed there all day long!

We had a tentative itinerary for Day 1, because I was waiting to hear back from one of our favorite wine maker and friend Guy at Collin Lee. We found this place a few years ago, he's not on the map, he does his tastings out of his home and even more fun, he is an ex pro endurance athlete who retired and moved to wine country when he became very sick (and later found out it was lime disease).  We've spent a lot of time in his outdoor kitchen enjoying his amazing Syrahs and Cabs, and in turn spent a lot of money there over the years... I called him a few weeks back and he told me his Texas crew was heading over shortly so to call him when I was in town because he might not having any wine left! As we were leaving Robledo I got a call from Guy and we were able to head to his house for our last stop of the day... His home is in Kenwood so we had to detour our plans to head to Healdsburg and found a few more fun places to visit in the area.

Arista was our next stop. I've been there once before and enjoyed the visit, but this time was a little disappointing.  The tasting room was overpacked and they were only pouring 1 pinot noir. I think the person pouring for us could tell we were looking for a bit more and he brought a new pinot out for us to taste. It had yest to be available for purchase, but he was spot on. We loved it and were each able to walk away with a bottle.

We had enough time to visit one more place before heading to Colin Lee so we picked one I had read about and was close by, Porter Creek. We had a blast! The tasting room was laid back and unique. There were chickens outside for Boots to check out and the wines were delicious! I would definitely recommend this place, and go back!

Last, but not least on day 1 we headed to Colin Lee. We enjoyed a couple bottles of Guy's last bottled wine until the spring and walked away with every last one he had available. I always enjoy these visits, and can't wait to taste what he's bottling next. Shane will be spending some time in California and offered to come help him next summer with the harvest. How cool would that be? Boots had a pretty good time checking out the property as well ;)

We finished up our day with some good old fashioned pizza at Mary's pizza.  It was the perfect way to soak up some of the wine and fill our bellies!

Day 2 was a day I had really been looking forward to. I had made us a couple of reservations on the Napa side and well, couldn't wait to try them! First a stop at a place Shane & I found on our first visit to the area several years ago, Nicholson Ranch. The property is absolutely stunning and the wines are beautiful. We thought Casey and Karen might enjoy it, and we were right, they are now club members! We purchased a couple of their new release Pinot's and will be laying one down to enjoy at the recommended time (2017-18!!)

 I had a friend, and previous co-worker from my years with Four Seasons post a bunch of pictures on social media from her girls trip to Napa. I had contacted her looking for suggestions and decided to try and make a reservation at a place she highly recommended called Relic.  Relic is a very small winery and they do their tastings on top of Spring Mountain out of an old old trailer.  I have to say as we were taking the 30min trek through the fog and the clouds in the sprinter up the mountain I was a bit worried. But, it was worth it. The wines were great (a bit pricey though) and the views were absolutely stunning. I think the experience was definitely worth the long haul, but I'm not totally sure I would go back? Nothing negative about the wines, and the tasting inside the trailer was honestly really cool, it just didn't have that wow factor, in my opinion.

Next up is probably the highlight (for me) of our trip. Many years ago over a Sunday Dinner at the Angelones we shared a bottle of B Cellars Wine. B Cellars was the creation of a former Four Seasons executive whom Melisa (who I worked with for 7 years at Four Seasons and we both now work for the same database company we worked with in those 7 years, we make a great team!) met when she was with a different marketing company pitching for the FS business. I remembered the wine literally melting in my mouth, and I've been dying to visit the winery for years! While I had never met or worked with Duffy, one of the co-founders, he was so accommodating and welcoming helping us get a reservation on such short notice.

From the second we approached the tasting room I was excited. There was a hostess outside who knew my name as we approached,  handed us all waters infused with basil and invited us inside. As soon as we walked in the ambiance was set. There were several tables beautifully set and arranged for the tastings and food pairings and all of this centered around the chef's kitchen. The aromas of fresh herbs and spices made you feel like you were at someone's home. Our host of the afternoon approached us and said that we were going to have another group joining us, but they hadn't arrived. She didn't want to see us without wine so she brought us our first tasting with an appetizer (see menu). Both the wine and the bite were an explosion of flavor and the perfect way to start out day. The second group didn't show up so we began our tour.  We were taken through the entire property, inside and out. The gardens where all of the food on the menu comes from, the chickens and their Four Seasons accommodations and the new home being built on the property for a key investor. Inside the caves we got to taste some future wine from the barrel and see the expansion being built.

 This place is going to be big and I'm so happy we got to be a part of the early stages. Absolutely everything about this visit was top notch.  Our host was informative and inviting. The food and wine parings were 5 star and quite honestly we could have stayed there all day and night. Shane & I had decided early on we would probably join their wine club, and after the 90min visit we were confirmed. I'm so excited to be a part of this winery, and the best part is with each of our club shipments we will receive invites to the winery to share with friends. So, if you are heading to the area, let me know! 
 Note the different menus.  When we made our reservations I was asked for any dietary restrictions. I said that I did not eat meat, and Shane didn't eat pork, but we didn't want the food limited because of us. They presented with our individual menus and as you can see, they were very accommodating!

We finished up the day at the Mount Veeder Tasting Room (on the Franciscan property).  I don't know if we were bias after the B Cellars experience, but we were a bit underwhelmed.  After a day of tasting at smaller wineries perhaps we were just spoiled?

The final stop of the day was a bit indulgent at an Italian Restaurant in the Square. This is the first time I have indulged in full GLUTEN pasta and bread since I had my food sensitivity testing a year and a half ago. Not gonna lie, it was totally worth it, and thankfully it really just made me a bit puffy the next day, but really, after all this wine... who wouldn't be! I would definitely recommend Della Santina's.

I realize that this post is becoming longer than my Ironman race recap, so I'll keep the final day short and sweet. Karen and Casey had to head home so it was just Shane & I for our final day. I hadn't made a plan as I wanted to see how the previous days had gone and be open to visit anything we heard of or missed on the two previous days. Since we weren't able to make it up to Healdsburg, we decided to venture up that way and work our way back down to Sonoma. We started out again with a little jog in the rain and were quickly on our way.  I had decided it would be fun to start with a champagne (or sparkling in California language), but we were not wanting to go out of our way.  Shockingly, as we headed out on highway 12 to take the scenic route to Healdsburg I just happened to see a big sign for it at a small tasting room.  To be honest, I don't even remember the tasting room (it was a combination of 3 different lables) name, but we had a good time there, and while the bubbles weren't our favorite we did walk away with a case of Cuttings Warf Chardonnay.  The taste was delicious and the case deal was unbeatable.

I had been trying to get us an appointment at A Rafanelli, but it hadn't worked out.  I took a chance and called them to see if they had any cancellations and sure enough they had one at 1:30.  It was just 11:30 and we were heading to get some lunch at the Dry Creek General Store (best little road side deli!) so the timing was perfect. After a quick bite we had more time to spare so we headed to Bella.  Our friend Jen is a club member there and I've wanted to visit for a while. The tastings are done in their wine caves where it's dark, cozy and inviting. As soon as we walked in we knew were going to love it. We were asked if we had been there before, and I told them no but a good friend of ours was a member. They looked her up and said they were bored so invited us to join them in the members only section for some reserve tastings (thank you Jen)!  Unfortunately we were on a time restriction with the 1:30 appointment so while we tasted some delicious wines and walked away with a couple of bottles, I'm pretty sure we could have spent a lot more time, and money there!  Next time...

 Next up, A Rafanelli! The grounds of this place are just as perfect as the wines. Smaller production, family owned winery specializing in Zins and Cabs. We were given a tour of both the caves, the grounds and provided some history of the winery and family. It was just the two of us and a very nice gentleman who has worked with the family for 22 years. I was hoping they would have the merlot I tasted on our last visit (melted in your mouth), but they were completely sold out.

Our next stop was a recommendation from our driver, Mazzocco.  They specialize in Zins.  I was pretty excited about this stop as we hadn't had our normal amount of Zinfandel tastings for the area.  Unfortunately the tone for this stop was set when we walked in the door and were greeted by a very young man who seemed more hipster, not sure he's old enough to even drink than wine connoisseur.  I'm not sure if that made our pallet less welcoming, or if we truly just didn't prefer the wines. They were definitely more fruit forward than big and spicy like we prefer. I'm not saying don't visit, the tasting room was packed with people stocking up by the case, so it may be that it just wasn't our taste. 

Our last and final stop of the day is another suggestion, or fault rather of our friend Jen. The night before I left she invited me over for some wine. We shared two bottles (hey, I was in training for vacation!) from another boutique winery, Stephen and Walker Trust Wines.  She shared a cab and a zin that were just how I liked them. Big, bold, dark fruit, slight oak and makes you want to curl up with a fire and blanket and enjoy. After the disapointing visit before, we were so happy to be here.  The wines were exceptional and we walked away with several including, yet another wine club membership! I would highly recommend this tasting room to anyone who enjoys big bold red wines!

Our very very last stop was for a very tasty meal back in Sonoma Square. The menu is below and I'll let it speak for itself.  This was by far (aside from the tastings at B Cellars) the best meal of the trip!

We walked around the square for a bit to get some air and burn off some of the food and wine consumed then headed home for out last night.

This trip was so much fun. We visited some very cool places, and everything just fell into place perfectly. I'm so thankful that Casey and Karen were able to join us, it made the trip even better. We came home with enough wine to keep us busy for a while... I fact, I think I need to go look for a second wine fridge to store it all. 

I love triathlon and training and coaching and everything about the sport, but I do truly believe that there needs to be some balance. While it might not appear that I take many breaks, when I do take them it's to experience things I enjoy with people I love. And as lets be honest.. life really is too short to drink bad wine. Ok, and to really be honest, really good wine = no hangover ;)  Cheers!

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

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