Napa Valley: Uncensored & Uncorked

Napa, you're an evil woman. You're too curvy and tender to be a man, so you must be a bittersweet woman.  How you lure us in, calling out to us with your supple fertile vineyards like sirens singing out to our wine hooked souls and at the end of the day dropping us flat on our drunken asses, taking our money with you. There's a reason good old Dionysus, the god of harvesting wine, is also the god of fertility and hedonism. Let's face it, we all want to get drunk and Napa ain't a bad way to enjoy that wonderful age old privilege.

^^ From a good spot, the Napa Valley looks like it's on fire ^^

Pop has lived here for more than a decade and he will always happily oblige to be my chauffeur to any new wineries opening up in town.  He's my dad but everyone he knows calls him 'Pop'. He almost always wears a wine printed shirt on our Napa outings and he loves dairy. He loves it and he always gives his disclaimer before downing a latte or ice cream, "oof...the doctor says I shouldn't do this, but a little is ok" even though it makes him clear his throat every few minutes. Cheers Pop, keep lickin' those Dilly Bars!

^^ In case Pop gets lost, he's got his sweet wine map shirt! ^^

Pop's good for a laugh but there's another, more compassionate, side to him. Since he has moved here, he's been a major champion of the migrant farm worker. As a Spanish and ESL teacher, he teaches farm workers English. For a day trip, Pop brings his suburban Prep School students out to the vineyards with the workers to see what a "day-in-the-life" looks like. It's not easy work and Pop believes there's a gap to bridge between the hardworking migrant workers and those of us enjoying the benefit and privilege of all their labor.  When this cohesion of cultures and worlds truly come together, it becomes much less about us vs. them (illegal or not) and more about us all working together.  Caesar Chavez comes to mind.  This is a Napa most people don't get to see, yet a very important side.  Without them, it would be pretty damn hard to fill a glass, much less The Napa Valley's 9 million annual cases.

There are so many darn options (more than 450 wineries) it can be quite choosy to plan a perfect tasting day around The Valley without getting either too mashed, sunburnt and tired to enjoy, or too broke doing things you didn't actually plan out yourself. Don't be that poor soul hiding behind those unfulfilled, blurry, tired eyes trying to pick out the subtle tannins and aromas from your glass at Sutter Home.  There's a way to do it without spending a whole lot of money and having the best time while at it. 

Tips and Tricks

Go to Napa in the Fall if you can.  It's hard to explain, but when you're here walking around during the harvest, that funky sour smell in the air amongst the wildflowers, there's just this raw human connection you feel. Take the Silverado Trail (instead of Highway 29) and avoid going on the weekends. You'll have to cut over to get to the wineries and the good food but the trail is worth it and much more backroadsy and way less crowded. Keep it intimate, keep it scenic and don't worry about spending a whole lot.  Here is a 'Best Off The Beaten Path' list of good wineries from my last trip plus some others from over the years, a few secrets and a few classics.

Pack yourself some smartwater and take sips in between stops. Also pack a bottle opener, a few nice plastic cups, a bread knife, a small portable cooler, and some food to graze on to soak up all that sauce. You'll get the nods of approval when you pull out all the goods for your midday picnic.


The Wineries

1. V. Sattui 

Sattui's a Napa classic.  For $15 you'll taste some of the best wines in town and I'm not positive but if you want a bottle, you'll have to get it here because they don't export. Buy a bottle of the Gamay Rose, walk around to the deli and grab a baguette, salami, some chutney, and a good cheese and either eat outside on a picnic table by the vineyards or pack it up on ice and take it with you to Nichelini's.

2. Nichelini Winery

This is the godfather of the group and my favorite spot to visit when I'm home. It's the oldest family run and operated winery in Napa Valley that shut down for a few years because of prohibition, which it very much resembles, and then reopened soon after. It's a stone distillery tucked into the Napa Hillside surrounded by gnarly oak trees and is just so inviting. I picture that bootlegger, George Remus, hiding his bottles in a place like this. Buy a bottle or two of the Roman Press Red or White, head down the hill and you'll see a few bocce ball courts. Break open one of your bottles and have a picnic on the bench while you play bocce ball. It's the best time. I can't help but feel like an old Italian man out there in the woods, drinking Fernet over ice with my close family and friends.

  ^^ Pop and my sister, Margaret ^^                                                                     ^^  "My doctor says I need glasses" ^^

 ^^ Margaret and the Nichelini mascot 'Henry' ^^

3. Castello di Amorosa

Talk about a Renaissance Fair junky's wet dream.  Castello is basically part medieval castle and part fairy tale, straight out of the 12th and 13th century, plopped down in Calistoga. Inside and out the architecture is insane, done by hand with old world masonry techniques using varieties of stone salvaged from Austria to mimic the castles of Europe over the centuries.  Pay $20 for a tasting, take a looksie around and check out the medieval art and the 'torture chamber' where the owner Dario Sattui (sound familiar?) put in a sweet 300 year old iron maiden. The wine is good, nothing to write home about but even just a walk around the place is worth the admission. Don't bother with the $35 tour and tasting unless you have a few hours.

^^ 2 acres of underground passageways below your feet ^^

^^ Alicia makes the wine taste even sweeter ^^

^^ Don't forget to visit the livestock ^^

4. Del Dotto Vineyard

Take Versace's palace and stick it inside a crypt-like candle lit monastery and you have Del Dotto. Pop took me here a few years back and I felt like a VIP on some secret wine mission. Do a barrel tasting and tour through the caves. Pop's friend Gerard Zonzonico is a winemaker here and you can tell by his excitement and passion for wine that he loves his job. Gerard's wife was close friends with Pop and his siblings growing up in San Mateo, CA and her brother Gerry even went to Seminary school with Pop to become a priest. (Pop, thanks for not becoming a priest and having us 8 kids instead). Gerard walked us through the candle lit caves with his 'wine thief', which resembled a large glass turkey baster slash dildo used to steal wine straight from the barrel to your glass. We probably tried at least 20 different barrels of aging wines.

5.  Chateau Montelena

This is Pop's ultimate favorite.  In the 70's, long after Chateau Montelena had been making wine and after it shut down during prohibition, a massive 'grand tasting' was held in Paris to pinpoint where the best wine in the world was made. Montelena is not only rated the highest but put Napa Valley on the world map. Boom baby, boom!!

In case you get inspired or too tired, bring something to doodle on. Margaret brings her pencils and pastels with her almost everywhere and they always come in handy.

^^ Lucy, my sweet niece and Margaret ^^

6. Artesa Winery

Artesa is the sleeper of the group but worth the trip just for the drive up to this removed spot. Once you're up there overlooking the valley, it feels like the rolling plains of southern Idaho. The wine is on point but the 360 degree views are even better. Squint and you might see the Golden Gate Bridge.  Inside with its funky modern art, it looks more like a hotel lobby than a winery but again, you're here for the wine and the killer views. 

5. Prager Portworks

I have to put this place on the list. Its great. It's different. People don't like Port because its sweet thick taste can be a little jarring.  But if you like Ports or Sherrys and you want an original old timer experience inside a rustic clapboard 2 story house, you'll be into Pragers. Try the classic Vintage, Tawny, and White Ports and you somehow feel you have come full circle on the Napa experience.

^^ The Belton family at Spiriterra Vineyards. L to R clocklise: Ella (niece), Margaret (sister), Patrick (brother), Me, Sean (brother), Tim (brother),

Trina (sister-in-law), Mary (sister), Lucy (niece) and Teigen (nephew) ^^


The Food

Oxbow Public Market

Keep it simple. At some point (or even on this trip) you should visit Yountville and experience Chef Thomas Kellers' restaurant The French Laundry but until then, save your money, come to Oxbow and call it a day.

                                                                                                                                                                      ^^ Let's eat! ^^

Hog Island Oyster Co. 

Hog Island Oysters is a great first stop. Margaret's friend Trevor will most likely be shucking oysters. Say hello from Margy and grub on some sweetwater oysters and move over to Pica Pica Arepa Kitchen.

Pica Pica Arepa Kitchen

The 'Pabellon' Arepa at Pica Pica. I don't get why the arepa hasn't blown up into more kitchens. This sweet and salty Venezuelan treat might be my favorite pocket street food (other than a pork bun). It's a corn cake, everything is gluten free, crispy on the outside and steamy moist on the inside stuffed with barbacoa-like and not-too-fatty beef (pabellon), sweet plantains, black bean spread and queso fresco. Get the yuca fries with aoili. 

The Napa Wine Train

And if you want to treat yourself to some fine food and wine and don't want to worry about being a sober driver, take the Wine Train and hop on and off at your own pace. I have never done it but Pop swears by it.

Stay tuned...

Up next is Guernville CA, home of the tallest 'Armstrong' redwoods, the Russian River, and my new friend Crista Luedtke who because of her insatiable appetite to please the town, has already opened 2 eateries, a bar, a resort, and isn't stopping anytime soon. Margaret and Crista became quick friends and Margy now comes up here twice a week to massage the 'Rivuh' into her clients at Crista's 'Boon Resort'.  Margy swears the wines in Guernville are better than Napa so what do I know!?