A Different Kind of Trip, to

Napa, California Wine Country

August 2012

Setting the Stage

About mid-August the garden was starting to wind down and we figured that we would have some time toward the end of the month to get away and do something different. We looked around and considered several alternatives and ended up deciding to take a short trip to wine country, in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, California. As frequently happened when making plans to a popular destintation on short notice, some of our options were a little limited.

Before leaving home we did some research and I had made reservations for a couple of activities for our first few days. On our day of arrival we would do the Nava Valley Wine Train, then the next day take a “off-road” bike tour of some vineyards/wineries, and the third day take a kayak trip down the Russian River. The last two days were to be days of “rest” and open to last minute decisions. Everything worked out well except for the "rest" part.

A nice view of Atlanta as we were leaving.

Transportation and Loddging

We were able to make use of a free Delta “Companion certificate” to get us to Sacramento, where we picked up a Hertz car and drove to Napa. Going through Sacramento was much easier than either San Francisco or Oakland would have been. As we were picking up our typical rental car (Corolla, or something such), Hertz had a sign saying you could upgrade to a number of “premium” cars for only $100 more per day. One of the possible upgrades was a Corvette: I was tempted… I was really tempted.

I tried to find a nice B&B, thinking that would be more in keeping with a relaxed wine trip, but since the end of our trip overlapped a bit with the Labor Day weekend, nothing was available. Instead I settled for the Embassy Suites hotel in Napa. The hotel was running a special rate which included a better room location, internet (otherwise $10 per day) and a free bottle of wine.

A view of the courtyard at the Embassy Suites hotel.

On the third day we were there, I stopped by the front desk to ask about our bottle of wine for that day and the person said, “But you got your bottle of wine yesterday”. (I had actually gotten bottles of wine both previous two days.) Turns out that they intended for it to mean one bottle of wine for the entire stay. I pointed out that I was paying the same higher rate every day, so I expected a bottle of wine every day. They relented and handed me a bottle, but I figured I would not push the issue and didn’t try for the 4th or 5th bottles on the next couple of days. Other than the disagreement (“misunderstanding”?) about the wine, the Embassy Suites was comfortable and served our purposes well. It was convenient driving distance to about everything and within walking distance to many of the downtown Napa sights. We took advantage of the included breakfast each morning and on most afternoons we visited the "manager's reeception" for a glass of wine (or two) and snacks.

Downtown Napa riverfront, along the Napa River

We arrived in Sacramento in late morning and got to Napa and checked in by early afternoon. Since it was early and the day was nice and sunny, we decided to walk in to Napa and look around. We only got slightly lost walking around the city (more like a town) but did find and identify several landmarks.

Since this was to be a wine tasting visit, it was appropriate that we passed the home of the “Wine Spectator” on the way into Napa. From the front of the building it looked very nice and well-kept but if you walked around the rear of the building it appeared to need significant maintenance. The front reminded me of, say, Mondavi wines while the backside was more like “Two-Buck Chuck”.

The Wine Spectator Building (fromt side).

The Wine Train

As mentioned, we had made reservations for a ride and dinner on the wine train the first evening we were in town. At the appointed time, we found the train depot and checked in at the desk, then waited for departure time.

The Nape Wine Train waiting for passengers to board.

Passengers such as us were divided into two groups. Some would have dinner first, in the dining car on the outbound part of the trip, then have dessert in the coach cars on the return trip. The others, including us, would have appetizers in the coach cars on the way out, then move to the dining car for dinner on the way back.

Susan is in the coach car prior to having appetizers.

The wine train was a very interesting and nice experience. We had some interesting "entertainment" from some of the other passengers and got a good view of much of the valley. We were initially in the very rear car and it had a nice platform on the rear where you could go outside and stand and watch the valley go by.

Some of the valley vineyards, as seen from the Wine Train.

The train only goes about 14 miles north, up to the town of St. Helena and traveled at a maximum speed of 18 mph, so it was not exactly a high-speed express trip. At the turnaround point, we got a nice little surprise. We had stopped in St. Helena and I was on the rear platform when I noticed the locomotives coming down a parallel track. They had unhooked from the (old) front of the train and were coming around to latch onto our end of the train to head south. Watching a very large locomotive coming straight at you only a couple of feet away is a rather memorable experience!

The locomotive as it comes around our end of the train, prior to coupling to our car.

After one failed attempt at coupling up to our car, the connection was completed and the train headed back south, retracing its path back to Napa. We headed to the dining car for our dinner and enjoyed a surprisingly good meal for such a environment. I would recommend taking the Nape Wine Train to anyone visiting Napa. If you go, just make sure you are on the rear platform when the train gets to St. Helena.

Susan is in the dining car, awaiting dinner.

An "Off-Road" bicycle vineyard tour

The next day we had arranged to participate in a vineyard tour riding off-road bicycles. The bike/tour shop was just up the road a little from Napa and we arrived there rather early, so we took a walk around the neighborhood. We found what appeared to be a very nice and large vegetable garden with lots of different vegetables growing in well maintained beds. It must have been 2 or 3 acres in total size. While we were looking at it, two young fellows in chef type outfits appeared and started going through the garden. The picked a few things and then left, crossing the street to a somewhat nondescript building. We were leaving about then and walked by the building and saw the sign for the French Laundry Restaurant. It is one of the most exclusive restaurants around.

Part of the French Laundry garden.

Our bike guide later told us that you have to make reservations 3 - 6 months in advance and you should plan on meals costing in the $500 per person range. We figured there probably wasn't much use in trying to make reservations for that night. The bike tour ended up consisting of our guide, a trainee guide, the two of us, and a mother/son couple. The guides took us and the bikes in a van to the first winery where we met up with the mother and son. From the beginning, the mother was convinced she would not be able to ride the bikes on the tour, although the riding was actually rather mild. She eventually got through the tour reasonably well, with a lot of help and encouragement from the guides. It turned out that having, in effect, two guides, worked out well.

We took this van to our first winery, Bourchaine (see sign).

We started at one winery (Bouchaine) as they were opening the tasting room and started off with a quick tasting of a few of their wines. Obviously, there was a plan to avoid drinking too much wine too early in the tour; too much wine and off-road biking would not go together well. After that tasting, the bike part of the tour began. We went through some of the adjoining vineyards, stopping for our (very knowledgeable) guide to explain some interesting aspects of growing and harvesting wine grapes. It was especially interesting because the grapes were beginning to ripen, so we were able to taste lots of grapes straight off the vines during our entire trip.

Susan was usually out in front, leading the bikers.

This tour was at the very southern end of the Napa Valley, in the Carneros appellation and this area was largely Chardonnay grapes and the Chardonnay in this area are some of the first to ripen. This part of the valley consists or rolling hills which made for interesting biking and we climbed the highest hill in the vicinity for a better view. We stopped here a few minutes for sightseeing and picture taking.

Some of the many rows of vines in the Carneros appelation.

We then road downhill to a section of lowlands which were effectively the very northern end of the San Francisco Bay. From here we rode back to Bouchaine Winery where we used their picnic tables to spread out our lunch. The tour company provided a very nice meal, and plenty of it.

A rather suspicious looking pair!

After lunch we rode to another winery, McKenzie Mueller Winery, a relatively small one, where one of the owners/vintners hosted us. The smaller winery was interesting as we could get a closer look at some aspects of wine making. All of our biking after lunch was on paved roads and distances between stopping points were only a mile or two, so it was not very challenging. One more stop at Ceja winery for a tasting and the ride back to our starting point completed the tour.

We would have preferred a bit more biking than we got, but the guide was pleasant and knowledgeable and it made for a very pleasant day. That evening we made our way to Napa's Oxbow market and had some good Pizza at an Italian restaurant, Ca'Momi.

Kayaking on the Russian River

The next day we had scheduled to take a kayak tour down the Russian River. The starting point was just outside of Healdsburg, about an hour's drive from Napa but we found the park along the river and parking lot somewhat early. There was a breakdown in communications and we had some trouble meeting up with our guide (we were the only people on this tour) but finally did find each other and headed down the river.

Susan and our guide (in a canoe) on the Russian River.

There were high banks along both sides of the river so you could only see vineyards very occasionally, but the view along the river was nice. Our guide, a very nice young man, gave us very good descriptions of the general area and the vineyards that were out of sight. There were frequent birds of many kinds, some of which would let you get up rather close to them.

These waterbirds did not want to move as we drifted by.

About noon we stopped on a wide riverbank and broke out lunch…. and what a lunch it was! Our guide had prepared some of it and had picked up some at a local deli. It included fresh fruit, sandwiches, salads, snacks, cookies and cake, as well as a selection of drinks. About the only thing it did not include was wine, which is probably a good thing, considering we still had to paddle a ways.

As usual, I'm bringing up the tail end.

It was a very gentle paddle, with the river current doing much of the work and nothing more robust than perhaps a class 1 rapid. We took out at a little park next to a bridge and loaded up our kayaks and headed back to where we had left the car.

While we were paddling we had asked our guide about good wineries to visit and he said that we should definitely visit Robert Young Winery, just the other side of Healdsburg. He gave us verbal directions on how to find the winery, but I had serious doubts that we could find it based on those directions. Somehow we did find the winery with only one minor "detour". It was indeed an interesting little winery and vineyard and they had some very good wines to taste.

The residence part of Robert Young Winery. Looks almost like a southern plantation.

When we were on the Wine Train we noticed one very busy restaurant as we passed by and figured it must be good if it had that many customers on a Monday night so, after recovering from kayaking, we headed up the road from Napa to the Rutherford Grill. It was good and they had, surprise, a very complete wine list. We had stopped by the Embassy Suites Manager's Reception earlier, so took some leftovers back to the hotel with us.

Taking a relaxing hike

After a day of traveling and two days of activities we decided a day of rest would be a good idea. Susan found a interesting looking park that we could take a walk in and look around, so we headed just east of Napa to the "Skyline Wilderness Park". The little garden they had was not very interesting, so we headed up a trail into the main part of the park. We headed up, then up some more, then up yet more....

A view of the surrounding area from part way up the ridge trail.

The trail was a little rough, apparently used mainly by very serious off-road bikers. It meandered around and up and down. We had a map of the park and the trails, but it was difficult to read and harder yet to estimate distances. We tried to follow a trail that appeared to go up to and along a ridge line to get a better view. I'm not sure exactly how much we climbed, but I think the ridge was probably over 1000 feet above the valley floor where we started and we went up and down enough to have climbed that height at least two or three times.

Another view, loking toward the Carnerous area, where we biked the first day.

Finally we got most of the way to the other end of the park and made our way to a gravel road. We decided that the bikers would probably ride up the road, then take the various little trails on the way down. We took the road back to our starting point and, thank goodness, it was downhill most of the way. We saw some rather different vegetation and animals along the way.

On the walk back to the car, we came across some wild turkeys.

All together, we were hiking and climbing almost 3 hours by the time we got back to our car. So much for a relaxing walk! We headed back to the Embassy Suites for a light (and cool) lunch then we did relax for the rest of the day.

Another Biking + wine tour

We had one more full day in Napa so we had to decide how to spend it: we certainly didn't need to take another relaxing hike! We decided to try one of the normal (on road) bike tours. The same company that did our first day bike tour also offered an on-road tour that started at their location in Yountville. Since it was too late to make reservations, we just showed up a little early at the company location and asked if a tour was available. As it turned out, there was a tour that was scheduled for two other couples that we could join. Susan and I headed out with our tour guide, a middle aged woman from Australia, to the first winery a couple of miles north of Yountville, Sawyer Cellars, which was a fairly small winery.

Susan is at the entrance to Sawyer Cellars.

About the time we pulled up in the parking lot the tour company van pulled in with the other tour participants and their bikes. They were running late because they had done an early morning hot-air balloon ride and were a little late getting back from that. We had a nice tasting here then went on to the next winery, Whitehall Lane. This was a much larger operation and they had a large production area. Here we got a full tour of the entire operation, hearing about the receiving and crushing operation, the fermenting area, the barrel storage rooms, and even the bottling room. It was a nice complete tour and was followed by a tasting of some of their wines.

Inside the barrel storage room at Whitehouse Lane.

After the tour and tasting we went to a nice picnic area at the rear of the winery and had lunch. Again, the tour company put on a very good spread of sandwiches, salad, an olive mix, and drinks. After lunch we mounted up again and headed to the next winery, WM Harrison Vineyards and Winery. To get there we crossed over from US 29, the main road through the middle of the valley, to the Silverado Trail that runs up the eastern edge of the valley. Here we took time to wander through the vineyard some. The grapes were almost ripe and almost half of the clusters had just been pruned off to allow the remaining grapes to ripen better. This left lots of clusters of ripe wine grapes just lying on the ground for us to taste. Both the winery and tasting was very low-key but interesting and they had several nice wines to enjoy.

In the vineyard at WM Harrison. The grapes are small but tasty.

We then headed south along the Silverado Trail toward the tour company base and end of the tour. This was actually one of the best parts of the ride as the road was not as busy and it offered better views of the valley. Our only problem was that the other couples were not regular riders so the tour guide held the pace down such that Susan and I were having problems going so slow. But it was a nice ride and a pleasent end to the tour.


The next morning we took our time packing up and headed to Sacramento to catch our flight home. The flight was on time and about as pleasent as a 5 hour flight in the "Coach Cabin" can be. We had bought several bottles of wine and a special padded carrying case for it, so we brought 6 bottles of Napa wine home with us to enjoy in the future.