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Wine and dine in Napa Valley

In 2008 when I was visiting MJ in my first trip to San Francisco we had plans to go up to Napa Valley. Given the distance and crowds, the driver MJ hired for the day made an alternate suggestion: “How about Sonoma Valley instead?” That day was the beginning of us being Sonoma Valley fans. Tastings weren’t over-crowded, the wine was excellent, at the time traffic was tolerable even coming back to the city. We visited a winery with a wine cave, where we’d get engaged three years later. Last year we joined a wine club, sealing our fate to visit regularly.

We never did make it to Napa, until a couple weeks ago.

For MJ’s birthday last year I promised him a meal at the most coveted restaurant in California, The French Laundry. I worked with a concierge to complete the herculean effort to get reservations, and then rescheduled a couple of times to work around our shifting travel schedules. Finally they were firmed up for Sunday, March 13th. The timing worked out, with all our travel lately we hadn’t seen much of each other, so it was a nice excuse to get out of town and spend the weekend together. We drove up Friday night and checked into the Harvest Inn, catching a late dinner at the lovely restaurant there, Harvest Table.


Dinner at Harvest Table

Saturday morning we began our wine trail. We didn’t have a lot of time to plan this trip, so we depended upon the recommendations of my recent house guest, George Mulak (and remotely, his wife Vicki), who supplied us with a list of their favorites. Their recommendations were spot on. Our first stop was Heitz Cellar which was conveniently almost across the street from where we were staying. They have a relatively small tasting area, and sadly when we arrived the skies had opened up to give us piles of rain, so there was no enjoying the grounds. They did have a couple things I really liked though. The first was a bit surprise, I don’t typically care for Zinfandels, but we bought a bottle of theirs, it was very good. Two bottles of their port also came home with us. Next on our list was one of several Rutherford <Noun> wineries, and we ended up at the wrong one, in what was a lovely mistake. We found ourselves at Rutherford Hill. a famous winery known for their Merlots, and I love Merlot. They also had wine caves and did tours! On the rainy day that it ended up being, a wine cave tour was a fantastic shelter from the weather. Our bartender and tour guide was super friendly and inviting and there’s a reason they are world-renowned: their wines are wonderful. We even joined their club.


Drinking wine in the Rutherford Hills wine caves

For lunch we went to Rutherford Grill, which we quickly noticed looked a lot like one of our Silicon Valley favorites, Los Altos Grill, and San Francisco haunt Hillstone. Turns out they’re all related. The familiarity was a welcome surprise, and an enjoyable lunch.

Wine adventures continued in the same parking lot as the grill when we made our way across to Beaulieu Vineyard (BV). I think planning ahead would have served us better here, we just did the basic tasting which was pretty run of the mill. A day with better weather and a planned historic wine tour would have been a better experience, maybe next time. From there we made our final stop of the day back near our hotel at Franciscan Estate Winery. We had a lovely time chatting with the Philadelphia-native pouring our wines and did a couple flights covering their range of types and qualities. A fine way to round out our afternoon. We picked up some snacks and water (time to hydrate!) at the lovely Dean & DeLuca shop (purveyors of fine food) and went back to the hotel to spend some time relaxing before dinner.


Final tasting of the day at Franciscan

In preparation for our exciting French Laundry reservation the following day, we booked late (9:45PM) dinner reservations at a related restaurant, Bouchon. Another French restaurant by Thomas Keller, the meal was delicious and the atmosphere was both fancy and casual, a lovely mix of how at home a really nice Napa Valley restaurant can make you feel. Highly recommended, and quite a bit easier to get reservations at than The French Laundry, though I still did need to plan a couple weeks ahead.


Appetizers at Bouchon

Sunday morning concluded our stay at the Harvest Inn. In spite of the rainy weekend, I did get to enjoy walking through their grounds a bit and appreciated the spacious room we had and the real wood fireplace. The location was great too, giving us a nice home base for the loop of wineries we visited. We’d stay here again. Check out was quick and then we were dressed up and on our way to the gem of our Napa adventure: Tasting menu lunch at The French Laundry!

In case I haven’t drilled this home enough, The French Laundry was named the Best Restaurant in the World multiple times. Even when it’s not at the top, looking at pretty much any top 10 lists for the past decade will see it listed as well. Going here was a really big, once in a lifetime, kind of deal.

The rainy weekend continued as we were seated downstairs and settled in with a glass of champagne to start our meal. A half bottle of red wine later joined us mid-meal. What struck me first about the meal there was the environment. French restaurants I’ve been to are either very modern or very stuffy, neither of which I’m a huge fan of. The French Laundry was a lovely mix of the two, much like Bouchon of the previous night, it seemed to reflect its home in Napa Valley. The restaurant was truly laundry themed in a very classy way, with a clothes pin as their logo and the lamps on the walls tastefully boasting clothes laundry symbols. The staff was professional, charming and witty. The food was spectacular, quickly making it into one of the top three meals I’ve ever had. The meal took about three hours, with small plates coming at a nice pace to keep us satisfied but also relaxed so we could enjoy the time there. I was definitely full at the end, especially after the stream of beautiful and delicious desserts that filled our table at the end. At the conclusion of the meal we were given a copy of the menu and gifted the wooden clothes pins that were at our table upon arrival. In all, it was an exceptional experience.


Meal at The French Laundry

With some time on our hands following our long lunch at The French Laundry we decided to add one more winery to our itinerary before driving home, Hagafen Cellars. Their wines are Kosher, even for Passover, which makes them great for us during that no-bread time and a star at the White House during major Jewish and Israeli-focused events. Best of all, their wines are wonderful. Having not grown up Jewish, I was not aware of the disappointment found with the standard Manischewitz wine until a couple years ago, so it was refreshing to learn we have other options during Passover! We were pretty close to joining their wine club, but in the end preferred making our own selections, and with a trunk full of wine we figured we’d had enough for now.


Final stop, Hagafen Cellars

With that, our fairy tale weekend together in Napa Valley came to a close. MJ flew out to Seattle that night for work. My trip to Singapore had me leaving the next morning.

More photos from our weekend in Napa Valley here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pleia2/albums/72157665313725990

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