I Left My Heart....
Our last day in California could not have ended on a better note (no pun intended). This day was dedicated to wine country, with VIP wine tastings ready and reserved for us at Cline Cellars in Sonoma and Raymond Vineyards in Napa. It was a trip that had us completely giddy with excitement! We hopped into our rented red Volkswagen Jetta and weaved our way through morning San Francisco traffic, ultimately looking to cross the Golden Gate Bridge that would take us over the morning sunrise on the bay and guide us through the green valley hills.
We found Cline Cellars easily and as we drove up their entrance driveway, eyed the many naked but strong vines linked a great distance along the road. From their parking lot we could see the green and rolling hills beyond their property in Sonoma and the wildlife just starting to stir and say their good mornings. We were warmly greeted by the Cline staff and met Connie, our property guide. Happily agreeing to a glass of their sparkling wine for starters, we left the main building and headed outside back to the front of the vineyard. The first thing she pointed out were two huge eucalyptus trees that were flown in decades ago from Australia. The essence of the leaves from the trees steeps itself into the nearby soil which infuses the grapes with that familiar smell from the leaves. It doesn’t affect every vine that is nearby as Cline also has sprawling ancient vineyards a few miles north of the property.
Another fact we learned about the creator of this brand, Fred Cline, was there is also a background of religious inspiration behind the wine. There is a dedicated Mission museum on site that showcases replicas of numerous coastal missions that opened along the state. There was also a large erected wooden cross behind their main building that was supposed to be a mission site, but it moved to Napa instead. Every year there is an Easter service held there which is attended by hundreds of locals. Along with the religious sense of this winery, they also have two donkeys coinciding with the donkeys mentioned in the Bible. Furthermore, this is also a winery that embraces family and traditions. Since part of the Cline family heritage is Italian, they have aviaries as simply entertainment. It is home to unique and colorful pheasants, along with beautiful doves that coo and sing to each other in nearby cages.
After a quick look into their vastly huge barrel room it was time to taste the wines! Because we were VIP’s we were ushered into the Pendulum Room, which is normally only open to case club members. We met another friendly staff member, who was going to guide us through their numerous selections of wine to sample. We were able to try as many varietals as we wanted and we also had the pleasure of munching on provided breadsticks, cheese and nuts. After enjoying Zinfandels, Viogniers, Roses and Mourvedres, we narrowed down our picks to four selections that we could not find anywhere else. They were winery-only picks, which was important to us and we wanted to be inspired by new flavors and creations. We took home 2010 Oakley Eighty-Two Red, a blend of Syrah, Merlot, Barbera, Zinfandel and Alicante Bouschet. This wine took our breath away as we had never tried a red wine such as this. An amazing blend of red grapes and very forward with taste. We also grabbed a bottle of their 2011 Sonoma Zinfandel- layered with flavors of raspberry and caramel; the 2010 Los Carneros Syrah- rich in deep plum and black cherry flavors with a hint of vanilla and coffee; and finally their 2011 Late Harvest Mourvedre- it’s similar to a Port but lighter in weight and juicier!
Our next stop was a drive towards Napa to visit Raymond Vineyards. As we entered into town it was a wine lover’s (me!) dream come true; wineries were nestled right next to each other and right across the street from each other. It was amazing to drive straight through and see the beautiful vineyards at every glance: Robert Mondavi, Nickel and Nickel, BV Coastal, Turning Bull, Chandon and that’s to only scratch the surface! When we arrived at Raymond we could already see the difference between this winery and Cline’s. While Cline Cellars seemed to be more historic and homey, Raymond’s property leaned more towards eclectic, modern and plush. Once inside, we found our VIP guide, Sara, and she gave us a walking glass of Merlot to sip on as we walked around the property.
The winery is definitely trying to stay in line with the winemaking trends as well as coming up with new and innovative ways to produce organic and eco-friendly wine. They have goats and chickens to assist with their practice of composting to enrich the grape soils. Instead of using pesticides to ward away aphids they plant small ground covering flowers to attract lady bugs instead (and they take car of the nasty pests). Like Cline, Raymond was also incorporating solar panels to help with the cost of energy in making the wines. It all creates a great circle of conservation and energy efficiency.
Once we were through with the outside walk we went inside where we could get a glimpse of numerous winery rooms: winemaker for a day, French tasting rooms, the Red Room, the barrel room and even a room that housed big glass jars of all the different soils that are from around Napa Valley. We then took our seats in their Wine Library which was where we were going to have our tasting. It was just off the popular tasting room, but it was quiet, nice, and cool in the room as it was home to a floor to ceiling selection of vintage wines ranging from 1975 to about 2005. Our table had a communal dish of crackers, a variety of cheeses and preset pours of wine. We had the privilege to sample seven wines, four of which were winery- sold only. All but two were Cabernet Sauvignons and all had unique and exquisite flavors. One of the wines we decided to purchase was a 2010 Sommelier Select Cabernet. It was created by a Sommelier that competed against other people of the same profession to create a wine of the season. The winner would then have his or her wine bottled and sold at this winery. And while we don’t know the name of the 2010 winner, it was the winner of the day for us as we snatched up more than one bottle of this stuff! We enjoyed a lengthy conversation and experience with our host and left with a very exciting selection of wine to take home and enjoy....and maybe even share.
As the sun began to sink lower in the Napa sky we decided to stay in this busy town for dinner, to truly end our California journey in the right place. Andy had spotted a restaurant that he had heard about and was eager to try, Michael Chiarello’s Bottega. We were extremely lucky to get a 5:30 reservation right away at this very popular Italian restaurant. Soon after we were seated the place filled immediately. As we got settled we chose a beautiful Chianti from Italy, Folonari. It was light, very little spice with just a hint of leather on the nose. Our server also brought us this incredible olive oil and Parmesan Reggiano and Grana Padano spread for the few warm pieces of bread that was presented to us. If I could have had a bowl of this oil, I would have! The oil was a lovely shade of yellow, garlicky and the cheese were in nice little chunks. A-mazing. Shortly after that elation subsided we were given our appetizers. I had a shaved brussel sprout salad which had whole Meyer lemon dressing, toasted almonds, sieved egg and a dash of Pecorino cheese. It was plated in a haystack formation and was just the right size. The lemon dressing was a bit dominant but it was fresh and helped curb the usual bitterness the vegetable can have. Andy ordered the grilled short rib meatballs. There were three on the plate, covered in a smoky, Sicilian heirloom tomato sauce and accompanied with cool roasted eggplant passata, cucumber, grapes, and housemade ricotta. The meatballs were very rich in flavor and if paired with any other appetizer could prove to be a meal all in itself.
Next were our entree selections and for our last night I decided to shift out of my comfort zone and try the goat milk braised pork orecchiette with chanterelles, cavalo nero pesto, pine nut gremolata, savory spinach and pecorino. I was not prepared for the taste of the goat’s milk as I am not normally a fan of anything goat, but it paired well with the pesto and spinach and made the savory dish quite pleasant! Andy wanted to try the chef’s special of the evening which was a two pound Dungeness crab dish with just a small side of toast with saffron aioli. The crab came served in a covered bowl and came piping hot and steaming. The proper eating tools were awaiting Andy to take the first snap and crack into the crab and away he went! There was plenty of grilled, buttery flesh within the crab and even though I am not a fan of shellfish, I couldn’t help but want to try just a little bit. And you know what, my life changed after that one bite! My impression of crab was always one that was fishy, smelly and not appetizing in the least. This time, the crab was perfectly cooked in a wood fire oven, had the taste of salt and sea and was buttery, smooth and delicious. I am now one big, crabby believer!
To end the night at Bottega, enjoying some of the best Italian fare I have had in many years, I ordered the Tiramisu- of course! I thought, great--a tasty little layered cake was about to come my way and I am sure the ladyfingers will be all I had had before. Chef Chiarello won again as no cake was placed before me, but a glass jar! It was small, clear, and displaying the multi-layers of dream worthy cream inside. It was topped with a chocolate and espresso gelato, a part of the dessert that was like putting satin in your mouth and just letting the cool flavor of it melt away. Once that was gone, it was time to dig into the jar and find the layers of crunchy cake that were separated with mousse and cream. I think the stars aligned by the time I was finished, it was that good.
Our culinary journey through San Francisco has now come to an end. What we found was that this city really is a melting pot of so many cultures and cuisines that it is difficult to label it with one specific food trend. We experienced everything from Japanese, American comfort food, Pacific Rim and Italian. Each moment was special in its own way and opened our eyes to what a big city has to offer. We hope San Francisco will welcome us back again soon, because we know that there are still many more bites to be had..by the city by the bay...