First, there was the air, consistently devoid of humidity according the locals, and as fresh and crisp as you would imagine the hills and unspoiled land of Northern California to be. Puffs of soft clouds decorated the blue sky as temperatures hovered in the high sixties. Then, there was the scenery. The rolling greens of the mountains lulled you in sweetly, beckoning you to stop what you’re doing, forget your watch, and stay a while. Rows and rows of meticulously placed and aligned grape vines grow upwards on the mountains as striking winery after winery welcome and encourage you to come and taste what has been made on the premises from their own incredible natural resources. The varieties and abundance of roses in almost every shade from passion pink to love-struck red to bright snow white add the cherry-on-top charm to this stunning part of the United States. The breeze wraps its arms around you, and without being totally conscious of just how hypnotized you are, within minutes you are enraptured by wine country.
There is no shortage of winemakers in Napa and Sonoma Valleys. With over 2,400 wineries sprawled across the two counties, there is an abundance of alcohol being created to be shipped to a town near you stamped and branded with labels from California. If you are a movie buff or wine aficionado and have seen the film “Bottle Shock,” starring Alan Rickman and Chris Pine, you may well remember how California wine beat the wine of France in a blind taste test competition that took place in 1976. That singular event, as depicted in the film, catapulted Napa Valley wines to success and proved that French wines were not unbeatable. Additionally, rumor has it that many celebrities own vineyards, and whether they operate a working winery or simply enjoy the peaceful retreat from hectic Hollywood, the area offers much in the way of relaxation, food, wine, and recreation, not to mention the fact that some pretty spectacular homes and resorts are nestled in and among the hills.
One such resort—the resort where my husband and I stayed for three extraordinary nights—is called The Carneros Inn, located on Sonoma Highway in Napa, California. To say it was beyond either of our expectations is an understatement. While the word “inn” may conjure up images of one building with several rooms, The Carneros Inn strays quite far from that traditional and somewhat limited definition. Replete with a gorgeous, state-of-the-art reception building, Farm Restaurant, Hilltop Restaurant, Boon Fly Café, spa, two pools with hot tubs, workout facility, country store, and views and gardens that encourage you to take leisurely strolls while simultaneously asking you to stop and smell the roses, we had never experienced a place quite like it. Our “room,” if you dare to call it that, was a small cottage with contemporary designs and hardwood floors, a dreamy bed, large bathroom, and a private patio with loungers and a table with an umbrella. The front porch, of course, boasted two white rocking chairs and a perfect vantage point for admiring the sweeping gardens that were full of vibrant colors and exotic plants, not to mention unique fountains, bountiful trellises, and bamboo canopies.
As someone who has grown up almost her entire life living near the water—and someone who has regularly stated that living near the water is a must—I have to admit that visiting Napa Valley may have changed my perspective on this notion of mine. The landscape took my breath away—the lush canopy of olive trees, grape vines, green trees on the mountains (including a few Redwoods), and the carpet of lawns in the valley offered a sense of serenity that I did not expect to find. At times, the landscape reminded me of the topography of the Cotswolds in England or the exquisiteness of Tuscany. If you had been blindfolded and dropped there and were asked to “guess” where you were, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have said it was one of the two aforementioned landscapes (although, yes, the architecture in both may have given it away quickly; but if you guessed solely based on the landscape, who knows?).
One of my favorite parts of the trip was taking the bikes the Inn provided and touring through the back roads. While our five mile ride was a bit hilly (only in one part in particular), touring on a bike offers a much different perspective than driving in a car and seeing the sights. My husband and I stopped to take photographs along the way as we attempted to capture the beauty of that morning’s sun, the way it graced the mountains and the vineyards, and the way the greenery glistened as the dew evaporated. I adore riding a bike—this one had a basket for our things—and I often wonder what it would be like to live in a place where you could ride your bike or walk more than you need to drive your car. We passed so many charming things—a house covered in vines with lush gardens, a picturesque barn, and a pond in the valley with views of the mountain—and our bicycle jaunt was by far my favorite part of our stay at the Inn.
Our wine tours were fun and another highlight of the trip, but you must hear me clearly—I am not a wine expert. I like wine, am typically more partial to white wines over reds as the reds can sometimes give me a headache, but I am by no means any sort of a wine intellectual. That said, taking the tours of the wineries interested me because I wanted to learn more about how they make, bottle, store, and market wines. It’s an incredible undertaking and business—and most of the people or companies that own the wineries are not short on cash (if you know what I mean). Our first tour of the day was to Domaine Carneros (pictured below), which specializes in sparkling wines. We were able to see the machines they use to turn the wines in order to remove excess sweetness and sugar from the bottles before they are sent off to stores for purchase. In the early days of sparkling wine manufacturing, these bottles were hand turned; now, with incredible contemporary machinery, the wines are turned and processed all with the switch of a button. This winery was impressive; it sits on the top of the hill with the vineyards all around it, truly a majestic presence. Despite the rain that morning, Domaine Carneros was lovely.
In the afternoon after the sun chased the clouds away, we toured Hall Winery (pictured below), which was a fantastic 90-minute tour of the grounds and facility. Our guide provided the history of the winery, the process of making wine, and at the end of the journey, we enjoyed sampling both red and white wines produced by Hall Wines. Owned by husband and wife Kathryn and Craig Hall, the duo has invested much into the property. In this modern facility, we learned about the incredible journey the grape takes from vine to bottle, as well as the sad turn a bad grape may take into the compost pile. The equipment and engineering of the grapes, from the way they are harvested to the way they are processed, is fascinating, and no detail goes unnoticed. And I’m not kidding about the rejected grape—grape profiling ensues to ensure that only the best grapes possible make it into the bottle.
—END PART ONE—
Look for Part Two in a few days…