“It’s spring. Let’s go to Napa!” we said. “Let’s taste some wine, take a hike, pack a picnic, book a balloon flight! It’ll be great!”
But GeekSlacker caught a nasty cold. And then it began to rain – again. And the deadline for canceling our reservation at the charming El Bonita Motel in St. Helena had passed. What were two Coastside Slackers to do? Particularly with a blog to feed.
We doubled down! That’s what we did. Booked a couple of tastings. Secured a table for lunch at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and scoped out some indoor activities. It’s not all about the wine, ya know!
Well, it’s mostly about the wine. But there are many ways to enjoy Napa when the reds and whites all have a Halls Mentho-Lyptus nose, the overpowering taste of phlegm with light honey-lemon Ricola undertones, and a long cherry cough-syrup finish.
Here are a few:
Ya Gotta Eat, Even if You Can’t Taste The Food
We discovered three secrets to dining satisfaction while battling a cold – spicy entrées, comfort food and artful presentation.
Spice: The wine at Cindy’s Back Street Kitchen in St. Helena could have been Two Buck Chuck for all the Geek’s nose and palate could discern, but the chili marinated chicken — “pollo loco,” indeed — managed to break through the complex tangle of snot and sticky cough drops at the back of her throat. It was the first meal she’d tasted in a week. And it was superb. (Thanks to our gregarious and thoughtful waiter, Hugo, for the recommendation!)
Comfort: Feed that cold with good ol’ ‘merican comfort food. Try coffee, scrambled eggs, hash browns and biscuits and gravy at Gillwood’s Café. Sample burgers at the Calistoga Inn restaurant and brewery, where the M-Man enjoyed a beer in the heart of wine country, dang-it. If it feels good, eat it.
Presentation: The food at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Gatehouse Restaurant in St. Helena was wildly artistic as well as tasty. Who’d of thought of slicing carrot cake into dainty medallion-sized morsels? Not us. And we stealthily turned our three-course lunch into a six-course meal by swapping plates half way through each. Each course involved many yummy syllables*, and the meal also came with surprise mini-appetizers plus dessert nibbles to accompany our post-lunch coffee. Bonus points!
*See a rundown of our Gatehouse lunch choices in the “notes” at the end of the blog.
Go shopping; We bought a hat!
MontaraManDan has been parading around in his Chicago Cubs World Champions baseball cap all winter, including during a brief but panoramic hike in Calistoga between raindrops. It inspires plenty of conversation on the Coastside but doubtless annoys at least some of the native San Francisco Giants loyalists. And it doesn’t provide much sun protection. So with a new season of baseball at hand and his birthday rapidly approaching, he asked the Geek to find a birthday hat to keep the sun off of his face on his daily walks around the neighborhood in Montara.
“Nothing geeky,” M-Man insisted. “Nothing too country clubby. And not too cowboy, please.” With her most pleasant eye roll, the Geek suggested we go shopping together while in Napa. We occupied part of a morning searching for said hat in Yountville at the delightful Montecristi Panama Hat store, and a bit of the afternoon in Calistoga at the supremely manly man A Man’s Supply store. Close, but no luck. We finally tasted success the next day on literally the last stop of the adventure — at Boot Barn, over the hill in Sonoma County where we were stopping for dinner with The Kid and her boys. Yes. A Western wear store. OK, the brown felt slouch hat is a bit cowboyish, but it has just enough “Indiana Jones” savoir faire to make it sing.
Chat Up the Locals; Politics is Inevitable
At Gillwoods we sat next to a former Beverly Hills fire chief. He told us about the day President Reagan invited him to climb aboard Air Force One for a conversation. Fun! Breakfast ended before the conversation became too overtly political. Outside we met a mail carrier who told us how he had rescued his antique leather mail bag from the Postal Service bureaucracy and lovingly restored it.
At the Calistoga Inn, M-Man chatted up a marijuana entrepreneur who was sipping wine while bouncing his beautiful 6-month-old daughter in his arms. He’s worried about the business implications of the political climate in Washington. Meanwhile, the Geek was talking philosophy and politics with a 90-something German immigrant who, we were told, has been a bar-stool regular at the Inn for some 60 years. Perhaps the head-cold induced Marlene Dietrich husk in the Geek’s voice added to her conversational appeal.
Most fun of all was chatting over coffee and Danish in the lobby of the still charming El Bonita Motel with the mothers of Culinary Institute students who were preparing for commencement ceremonies. One CIA Mom from Ohio was excited to see her daughter graduate, excited to be in California and, oddly, excited to meet us. She was still floating when we spotted her during lunch at the Gatehouse Restaurant.
Visit a Museum; Classic Literature and Left Coast Art
When rain washed out our Day 2 hike, we decided to stop by the one-room museum adjacent to the St. Helena library dedicated to the life and writings of Robert Louis Stevenson (“Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped,” “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”). Yes, Stevenson is Scottish. So why the Napa Valley? It seems he and Fanny, his somewhat scandalous wife, honeymooned here. Also, the wealthy founder of the museum and collector of all things RLS and was from the Napa Valley. There’s that. We learned a few things.
The guided 90-minute tour of the Rene di Rosa Gatehouse Gallery, in Napa proper, and its collection of modern Northern California art was a kick. Housed and presented as displayed when di Rosa lived on the property, the collection covers 60 years of the region’s art scene beginning in the late 1950s. Our knowledgeable guides, who lived the era were passionate about the collection.
M-Man particularly enjoyed the bright colors and cartoonish quality of Roy De Forest’s “40 Miles West of Rabbit Corner.” It reminded him of Robert Crumb’s hippy-dippy style and humor. (Think “Keep on Truckin’.“) Not surprisingly, the Geek enjoyed the bowling ball filled shower.
A time-lapse video of a cathedral window reflecting the light of each moment adorned the concrete wall of a bunker-like walkway from the gallery to the garden. Outside, an aged hatchback – the entire car – dangled from a tree limb from a chain attached to the bumper. And in the distance an installation that doubles as the world’s tallest filing cabinet soared toward the first patch of blue sky we’d seen in two days.
Whimsical. Witty. Weird. And all of it just screaming “California.”
Sip Wine Anyway; It’s Napa Valley, for Cripes Sake
If the wine-lover in the party has a non-functional nose, what’s the fun of tasting wine? We decided to consider tasting-room ambiance.
Clos Pegase, now sans its trademark art collection, provided the standard “belly-up to the bar” tasting – probably best for sipping with a crowd rather than as a couple. Still, our hostess was great, and M-Man – the beer lover who did not have a cold – kind of liked the long pear finish on the 2016 Sauvignon blanc.
The Charles Krug experience was very mellow. We loved it. Tastings are held in the original barrel room and carriage house, where they’ve nicely melded modern flourishes into the historic building. The daylight dappled mood lighting works, and we particularly enjoyed sipping wine sitting across a table from each other rather than standing on a quiet morning in the Valley. (C’mon. It was late morning!)
We’ll be Back
We plan to return this summer. Check back then. We’ll taste some wine, take a hike, pack a picnic, book a balloon flight! It’ll be great!
Our Lunch Selections at the Culinary Institute of America Gatehouse Restaurant on Wednesday, April 12, 2017
- Housemade straus milk ricotta – Spring vegetables, olive oil powder, poached quail egg, watercress sauce (M-Man left the quail egg for the Geek. <3)
- Fillo wrapped black cod – Squash soubise, honey lemon chickpeas, sweet and sour chard (The crispy Fillo wrap was amazing. Texture, texture, texture.)
- Pork tenderloin – Sunchoke puree, pickled kumquats, Romanesco, pistachios, honey bourbon jus (Anything but pedestrian.)
- Squab breast – Carrot flan, morel mushrooms, asparagus, green beans, madeira jus (Tiny but tasty.)
- Ginger carrot cake – Coconut milk, orange carrot gel, spiced crumble, cream cheese, mousse (Colorful and in the shape of carrot medallions. Very cute.)
- Buttermilk panna cotta – Raspberry curd, brown butter powder, white chocolate pearls (Cool, smooth, sweet. The best medicine the Geek had tried all week.)