It's been exactly four months since we started living under the "shelter in place" order... Fortunately, the "place" now is not limited to one's home, so one can jump into the car and push the pedal to the metal. Without breaking the speed limit, of course!
One of my favorite places for a day trip or weekend outing is Napa Valley. With its beautiful scenery so reminiscent of Tuscany (in spring, when the whole countryside is a strong, fresh green) or sunburnt Greece (in May and later months), with a great variety of wineries built in different styles, with the abundance of tasting rooms and gardens and wedding halls full of brides and grooms, it looks and feels very different from the rest of California. Well, very similar to nearby Sonoma Valley though.
However, in the past few years it’s become incredibly crowded with a permanent traffic jam on hwy 29 between Napa and Calistoga. Even Silverado Trail is normally very busy on weekends and quite noisy during the week. Last time we went biking there a couple of years ago, and we liked everything except for the gritty roaring of cars passing by every couple of minutes.
Napa Valley in 2020 is different. More quiet, more spacious, more personal, if you would.
On our way to Calistoga we stopped by at the famous Oxbow Market in Napa (first surprise: easy parking, no scouting for a spot). In front of the entrance we got a mandatory temperature check at the mask-selling stand. Nowadays, face coverings are a very popular item indeed. All stores inside were open, except for a coffee shop, but we did not see many customers. Maybe a couple dozen or so. It used to be much more crowded.
We had our espresso around the corner, at Model Bakery. A good roast and great brew, by the way! For now, only four customers are allowed inside at any one time. Fortunately, their outdoor seating is spaced out enough for a few people to sit down and enjoy the fresh air. Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t call the 100°F heat ‘fresh air’? We were ‘lucky’ to catch the hottest day of the month...
We took hwy 29 to Calistoga, and for a beautiful Sunday afternoon it was shockingly empty. In Calistoga, however, things were more lively, with people walking around in the downtown and restaurants spilling onto the sidewalks and terraces.
We had a very smart plan to stay in a mid-range hotel and buy $50 day passes for a mineral pool at the Indian Springs resort. This plan ended in failure: due to current Covid-19 regulations, those pools are for use of resort patrons only... But at least we had fifty bucks more per person to spend on wine!
It turned out that the pool, and the hot tubs, in our EuroSpa Inn, despite not being of the mineral kind, were good enough to spend some time lazing around in them in the evening.
Another lesson we learned during this trip was that you have to call all the places you plan to visit in advance. We were naive enough to trust their websites’ info. What wishful thinking! Wineries and restaurants there rarely keep their websites up to date, especially with all the changes that come very often and very suddenly these days. So opening hours, menus, available tastings and so on may very well differ from those listed online.
On the second day we went to hike in a petrified forest. It was very interesting to see petrified trees dating back as much as 3.4 million years – that was when the St. Helena volcano erupted, knocking down the trees in the nearby forest and covering them in a thick layer of ash and volcanic debris, preventing the wood from decomposing. Over the millennia, water gradually penetrated the ash layer, bringing minerals through the cell membranes of the trees, starting the long process of petrification. The forest is private property with paid entry.
Another difference from "normal" times is that all wine tastings are now by appointment only. In most cases, in order to schedule an appointment you have to fill out a request form through the winery’s website and wait for a call back. Note that most of the wineries charge you in advance. And most of them now do not allow minors under the age of 21 on the premises at all. So if you travel with children, make sure to ask whether you can bring them along with you before scheduling a tasting.
We were lucky to find a nice little winery on the outskirts of Calistoga, called Hans Fahden Wineyards. They allow you to bring family members under 21 and charge you after the tasting, not before. We had a wonderful time there, enjoying the wines, the very warm and friendly presentation and the nice garden and wine cave.
In fact, the seated, semi-private wine tasting was much more enjoyable than the usual standing in line in a crowd, so this was a welcome change for us customers. I suspect, though, that the winemakers have a different opinion on that matter!
Yes, I cannot skip this matter: good coffee is my weakness (or strength?). I’m probably spoiled by Italian baristas... But you do not have to travel far for a good cup of espresso or a tasty cappuccino. I should write a separate post about Bay Area coffee places, and hopefully I will. Everywhere I go, good coffee is on my list.
Obviously, the beverage poured from the hotel's thermos wasn't the real deal in any way. Instead, just around the corner, on the main street of Calistoga we ran across a nice-looking place called "Calistoga Roastery". Usually places that roast their own coffee beans are good at brewing them as well. Usually, but alas, not necessarily. After trying the coffee at Calistoga Roastery, we came to the conclusion that it is slightly better than Starbucks, but nowhere near what we normally have at artisan roasteries. And so we typed "coffee" into Google maps and found another place within a 5-minute drive, on the corner of hwy 128 and Petrified Forest Road, on a little plaza. It is called "Soul Rebel Coffee". Finally, a happy morning! The place is very small, but who cares, you can only sit outside anyway. It's on the back side of the plaza, so it can't be seen from the road. The outside tables are mostly in the shade, the espresso, cappuccino, and latte are brewed to perfection, and the Belgian waffles are served with fresh strawberries and a generous scoop of our beloved Nutella. This place had definitely made our day!
Another place to get a good espresso is Model Bakery in St. Helena. They brew beans from Temple Coffee Roasters, and brew them well. On our second day we had breakfast there. Cappuccino, avocado toast (we are in California, after all!), bread, fluffy pastries: everything you need to start the day. A good place to stop by on your way to the winery, to avoid tasting wine on an empty stomach.
We will definitely come to Napa Valley again this year in September or October, when the temperatures go down, and then we'll gather up our strength to bike through the rolling hills of the wine country.