Of course no trip to California would be complete without exploring its wine—while I’m not a big wine person (wino?), I do at least know that other people say there’s good wine there. On my recent vacation to the San Francisco Bay area, I had some time to explore the northern regions of the state, heading to Napa and Mendocino for a night each. And that means…wine country!
On our first day in Napa, we stayed at the gorgeous White House Inn, a bed and breakfast downtown. We intended to just stop in and ask for some winery recommendations, but that turned into an early check-in, so we dropped our stuff and headed back out with a Napa Valley winery map in hand.
For the Napa Valley newbie, the road north of town (Silverado Trail) heads right through all the federally-recognized grape growing regions, dubbed American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). And with a winery map, you can see which ones require advance reservations and which ones have tasting available on a walk-in basis. I didn’t want to commit to reservations, so we limited our visits to the tasting rooms with more flexible policies.
Our first stop was Stag’s Leap, and while it wasn’t my favorite, I’m glad we went as it showed us a different style of Napa Valley wineries. We sampled 4 wines for $40 each, with bottle prices ranging from $70 to $245. The wine was good and the view was gorgeous, but I thought at this rate, we’ll be broke fast.
Fortunately, the next recommendation on our list was more up our alley, with a relaxed vibe in the tasting room. We visited Robert Sinskey Vineyards, where we sampled one white and four reds for $45. This tasting came with a cute sampler of housemade treats: delicious gougeres, savory shortbread, Marcona almonds, and some Vermont cheese. Our friendly tasting room guide of course had a connection to Maine, as I tend to find a lot of when I travel.
We liked the POV pinot here, and the prices were much more reasonable here than the first winery, so we left with a bottle. (Note: typically the tasting fee is waived if you buy a bottle of wine.) After our two winery visits, we headed back to the hotel to take a dip in the chilly pool and get ready for dinner.
Earlier in the day we’d spent some time in Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, where I was thrilled to find a local distillery’s tasting room. Napa Valley Distillery makes a lot of fruit-based spirits like brandy and eau de vie. We explored the twee shop, full of bitters, mixers, garnishes, and their spirits, then tried the full line of drinks.
The vodka is technically a neutral brandy and is only twice distilled to retain some of that grapey character. We also tried their Hollywood Ginn, pear brandy, Sidecar cocktail, Grand California (their take on Grand Marnier), and an Ancho chili liqueur.
Several of the spirits we tried were bundled together in their Bar Club boxes, an ingenious idea I hope some of our local distilleries adopt. For $75 a quarter, the distillery sends you a box of their goodies, including spirits, liqueurs, pre-mixed cocktails (like the Sidecar), as well as mixers and garnishes like bitters, cherries, and pickles. I admittedly didn’t love their line of spirits, but I’m still considering signing up anyway just for the idea. Does anyone have any good spirit subscription boxes recommendations?
Before we went out to dinner in Napa, we had a drink at Cadet, an adorable beer and wine bar I fell a little bit in love with. We tried several other places before we stumbled upon this one, but eschewed them because of the cheesy vibe, so when we found a chill place with a good local beer and wine list, we were happy. After all the wine that day, I wanted a sour beer, so I ordered a Flanders red ale from Cismontane Brewing Co. in Santa Ana. We also shared a charcuterie plate with cheese and olives.
Cadet seemed hip and cool, with its vinyl collection and mid-century modern light fixtures. Basically I was in heaven. But I couldn’t tell if this was a spot that just ordered the “hip lounge” decor from a catalog or was legit. When A.’s friends from high school showed up—East Coasters who moved west to run a winery—they asked how we knew to come to Cadet, confirming that it’s a spot for those looking to enjoy some local wine in a low-key spot.
The next day, we packed up and hit the road for more wine en route to Mendocino. On the way (I think where 128 runs into the 101), we drove past a food truck in a really random-seeming spot. Nothing else around, just a freeway ramp and an intersection. Since we were hungry, we pulled over and joined the fair number of cars stopped for this truck. It had no name, no cutesy branding, just a menu of tacos, burritos, and tostadas. I ordered up chorizo and pastor tacos, and we ate standing by the car, leaning over so the red grease dripped onto the ground. Those were some delicious tacos.
After our night in Mendocino, we made our way back to the Bay area, but with plenty of time to explore, we went stopped in Healdsburg for lunch and a beer. My friend recommended Shed to me, and I now recommend it to you—assuming you have a high tolerance for all things bougie or at least a sense of humor. The sleek market/café is a bit over the top. Very Martha-meets-Kinfolk. Lots of bakers’ twine and preposterously expensive candles.
But the food was very good! We loved both the white pizza with nettles, asparagus, Meyer lemon and ricotta and the farro salad with beets, wild mustard, bread crumbs, and sprouting broccoli.
As a parting shot, some ceviche we made the weekend before at A’s brother’s house. We picked up rock shrimp at the farmers’ market and tossed it with lime juice, diced red onion, mango, cilantro, and some chile flake. After an hour or so in the fridge, the shrimp had turned opaque as they were “cooked” by the acidic lime juice. We devoured it with corn tortilla chips. It’d make a nice snack here in Maine the next time you see some local shrimp for sale.