3 Tips to Find Your Wine Spirit Guide in Napa

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For all those not blessed to live in California, this place exists.

This place is Frog’s Leap Winery in Rutherford, just north of Napa.

Currently looking out at a vista of gray snow, I write this about one week after visiting their scenic grounds and I still regret not exploring and staying longer, which only means I will have to go back…permanently. Full disclosure: I did offer to stay and help pick grapes. That offer might have been more valued if there were grapes to be picked.

If you’ve never been to wine country, it should be on your list. Whether you like two buck chuck or are an expert on tannins and terroir, there is always something to be learned from a visit. Plus, the weather is relatively stable all year, making every time a great time to visit. Renting a car is the cheapest option to get to Sonoma and Napa, but if you plan on visiting more than two vineyards, it will be safer to get an Uber or limo for your chariot.

There are two ways to visit wine country:

  1. Responsibly, like a civilized person
  2. Chugging samples like it’s Welch’s and you’re next in line for a liver transplant

My preference is for the former, but I recognize the appeal of wildin’ among the wines.

Much like Walmart bingo, you can modify the game for Napa and Sonoma. Here are six things you’re guaranteed to see while sightseeing and sampling:

  1. Symmetrical rows of vines that disappear in the horizon
  2. Gorgeous vistas of hazy hills
  3. Party buses
  4. Limos
  5. People who have no clue how loud they are talking
  6. People who have no clue they have purple lips

If you are like me and are interested in savoring the experience and the wine, I have one simple tip:

Go early, before the bachelorette buses descend on wine country.

My girlfriend joined me for the trip and we aimed to arrive at Frog’s Leap at 10AM for our tasting. Be sure to setup a tasting beforehand to reserve a spot on their porch. We had a bit of a delay at the car rental place and arrived closer to 10:20. Arriving early ensures tasters aren’t fully tanked when you’re there. Plus, you can aim to avoid the exodus of limos and caravans leaving the wineries as they close for the day.

We called to notify Frog’s Leap we were running a bit behind and they said it wasn’t an issue. Driving to Sonoma or Napa is a scenic drive. Similar to the rolling hills in Florence, you look around and just marvel at the difference in topography from the flat Midwest.

Our GPS guided us along Route 29 to the gravel parking lot at Frog’s Leap. With minimal traffic, you can make the drive in about an hour from downtown San Francisco. Since it was early in the day, the parking lot was devoid of limos and party buses. But Frog’s Leap is also a more intimate winery catering to smaller groups. We walked into the Welcome Center, which looked like a page from a West Elm or Pottery Barn catalog, and were greeted by one of the staff members. She directed us to a table on the back porch and offered my girlfriend a blanket. We came from Chicago, a land of black ice and broken thermometers. The chilly morning on the porch was comparatively an ocean-side resort in the tropics.

Kevin was our wine spirit guide for the morning. He inquired if we had previously been to Frog’s Leap and if we ever had their wine. Potentially making us the worst visitors ever, neither of us had done either. A college friend highly recommended visiting and that’s all I needed. One of my trepidations prior to my first vineyard visit a few years ago was not knowing much about wine. I knew some of my preferences, but not much beyond that as to what makes a wine more full bodied or what sort of weather grapes love.

I feared vineyards would be pretentious. While I’m sure some of them give off that vibe, Frog’s Leap definitely does not. Kevin was approachable and happy to share the story behind their wines. He detailed the four wines we would be sampling as he poured them in the four glasses in front of us. Kevin also acknowledged that people sample at different paces, so he presented and poured the wines, allowing us to drink at our leisure. There was a petite snack plate of cheese, dried fruit and nuts to nimble on as we sipped and swished.

Cabernet sauvignon is my standard choice when selecting a wine to drink, cook with or bring as a gift. Each of the wines sampled was distinct. At other wine tastings, different varietals tend to blur or don’t stand out. Frog’s Leaps offerings all had a different taste and mouth feel. Frog’s Leap uses organic growing methods and is part of the California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF). Their Vineyard House was the first Silver LEED certified winery in California. So, not only is the wine delicious, the vista breathtaking, but the end product is organic.

I seldom drink chardonnay, but theirs was different than others I have had. They don’t age it in oak, preferring to let the flavor of the grapes shine, versus the barrel’s. The zinfandel was again distinct and enjoyable from others I have swished. Kevin suggested that the mild flavors of the zin made it well suited for multiple foods, including spicier options. The merlot was a step up from the zin, as far as body, and led well to the the cabernet.

After we ran out of questions for Kevin, he left us to enjoy the wines and the view. Leann and I looked at each other, gently clinked our glasses together and toasted to the good life. I walked around the garden and took a few pictures.

Come harvest season, if they need another set of hands or someone to supervise, they know who to call.

Yeeeeaaahhh!

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“One down. Four up. This is the clutch. This is the brake. Slowly release the clutch and off you go. You’ll know when to shift gears.”
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That was my 30-second instruction on how to drive an ATV from Tammy, my best friend’s mom who kindly hosted us for a night. This morning was the perfect capper to our pit stop in Wasco/Bakersfield.

After cooking waffles and scrambled eggs–eating them outside, naturally–Tammy asked if we should take the ATVs out and Michelle responded in a baritone growl: YEEEEAAAAHH. We gassed up the four wheelers and hauled ass through rows of almond trees and on deserted roads.

Continue reading Yeeeeaaahhh!

Chilling above the Clouds | Palo Alto

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Trips always look longer on a calendar versus on the ground. Yesterday was our last day in Palo Alto/San Francisco.

This might be unknown to most, but the official word of Palo Alto and the Bay Area is “chill.” It’s used for everything from parties to places to people. If we were having “chill” be the keyword for a drinking game, I would’ve been slurping the last droplets of vino out of the French oak barrels in Sonoma.

My suspicion is that the cool evenings are the root cause for everything being described as “chill.” Yesterday morning I was eating some homemade granola (not pictured) with residents of the Synergy house at Stanford. I’d asked 2 guys for essentials to see in my remaining time. A junior named Matt suggested we see the view from his favorite lookout spot. He said it was really chill.
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The drive up to the park was remarkable. My only regret was that I couldn’t ogle the changing view as we ascended higher and higher. I’d never driven on mountain roads or extremely winding roads. There were a few moments of unadulterated bliss. I may have giggled, which probably didn’t serve to put the passengers at ease about my driving prowess. The two-lane road wiggled around the mountain, narrowing more and more with the altitude. I did my best Jack Lemon impersonation from “The Odd Couple.” This again scared the passengers who aren’t familiar with films produced before 1992.

We emerged from the lush trees and saw the sunset on our right and the city on our left. I pulled off the wider road and we all got out of the Jeep to take in the breathtaking site.

We forged on to race the setting sun. There are several trails but we didn’t have much time to explore. I parked the car, Michelle took off her sandals, and we sprinted up the dirt path. Once over the crest we saw the unrivaled majesty of the sun setting into the clouds, which looked like frozen waves. It was if time was still. The cool breeze was light and my entire sight line was breathtakingly serene and perfect. Lush trees, rust-colored brush, the bluest of skies and the shifting gradient as it all mixed together at the horizon.

This was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. And that includes countless burritos.

Once we got back to the commune we had to return our rental and take the Bart to Caltrain trains to get back to campus. The night ended slowly rocking in a hammock.

After seeing this marvelous, indescribable sight I began to understand the merit of “chill.” Maybe the locals have it right.

San Francisco was a reminder to chill out and let go. Maybe someone put something in the granola, but everything works out. There’s no point in obsessing over control and being efficient. There is no right way or wrong way.

All will be well.

It always is.

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You Doing the Wiggle?

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These days have been full to the brim with non-stop movement. Each morning it becomes more and more difficult to recall what I did the previous day, partially because I have an odd condition where it’s incredibly difficult for me to sleep somewhere other than my home bed.

Each night we’ve slept in a different room. Students are now back on campus and start classes today. Quite a difference from our arrival night where the casa was a ghost town. The Synergy house has some policies that would’ve really changed my collegiate years. Rather than have the housing office choose your roommate (ulcer giver) for you, they have a meeting where everyone shares their bugaboos and you pick your roommate(s) and room. Then, plot twist, you have another meeting next quarter to establish if you want to irritate/live with a new group of people.

Yesterday started with assisting making breakfast for the students in the house. The house is an interesting place. There are elements that I wish I had during my college years: a legit, restaurant-caliber kitchen, gorgeous views, friendly inhabitants, and an attitude that can only be described as Californian. Someone plugged in their iPhone and started bumping some Gretchen Parlato. I was on pancake duty and learned how to use a 12-burner stove. The house has a well-stocked kitchen and several cast iron skillets. It took some time to master the heat and not make “hella burnt” cakes. I confirmed that when I cook for others I become what some call “an ass.” It isn’t my best self. I’m not a perfectionist in many ways in my life, often asking myself “what difference does it make?” But when preparing food for others, whether it’s a date, family or friends, I ditch the niceties and work toward making a stellar product. In the end, the motley crew of five made scrambled eggs, hash browns, and chocolate-nut pancakes. I heard rumors of mimosas.

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After we finished cooking, we met the inhabitants of the commune. Annie, the ever-friendly RA, had sent an email the previous night asking if anyone had bikes Michelle and I could use. A bunch of students volunteered theirs. Two kind kiddos stepped up and gave us keys to their wheels. Loaded up with water and some protein bars we rode off for the Caltrain to San Francisco.

The train dumps you in SoMa (South of Market street). Michelle and I looked around, then at a map near the station. Next thing you knew, we’re cruising along the Embarcadero, pier after pier, stunning vistas of bridges. I stopped a few times to take it all in and snap some pics.

Our first stop was Codmother’s Fish and Chips for a baja fish taco. Pretty tasty snack.

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Next we faced a hill. A very large hill. A hill you wouldn’t see in Chicago. A hill that will haunt your dreams. Staring up towards the heavens I looked at Michelle and she looked at me. Vamos! I’ve never taken spin class. I wish I had, but I dont think any class can prepare you for the hills of San Francisco. They are alive with the screams of the out-of-shape. I managed to make it about half to two-thirds of the way up the hill before waiving the surrender flag. I walked the bike another block closer to heaven before taking a few moments to let my heart come down from humming bird tempo to that of a normal human. The flip side of these monstrous hills is the complete joy of speeding downhill.

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We wound our way through the city, up and down some more hills and made our way to Golden Gate Park for Lindy in the Park. An institution in the Bay area. For the past 17 years, they have had swing dancing every Sunday. The only force that can stop the momentum of swing being heavy rain.

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We caught the tail end of the dance and spotted Jeremy, a man we met while swing dancing in Toronto! He invited us to join him for lunch at the De Young cafe.

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After an espresso, the second in my life, we chatted about the joys of dancing before Jeremy offered us entry to the museum. I’ve seldom turned down checking out a museum. They had an exhibit on Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953–1966. I’d never seen Diebenkorn’s work. His early work leaned toward Modern, while his later works were more portrait and landscape based. His work seemed incredibly solitary. The portraits were of a single woman, often faceless, often wearing horizontal stripes, a common motif in the work on display.

20130923-075605.jpgI wonder if I’d appreciate art more if I viewed it through circular-rimmed spectacles.

Often the people watching at an art museum surpasses the canvases on the wall. After the museum we walked through the Japanese Tea Garden adjacent to De Young.

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Before we parted ways with our lindy-loving friend, he shared “The Wiggle” with us. “The Wiggle” is a route to cut through San Francisco without crushing your quads on the hills. Luckily for us, Jeremy is an artist and always had pens and paper with him. Empowered with some caffeine and culture, we pedaled toward the mission district. As we exited the Haight Ashbury we asked a man on a bike how much farther Pierce Street was. He asked:

You doing the Wiggle?

“Follow the green arrows,” he said as he disappeared into the hills.

Right, left, right, left. We made the 3-mile trip to the Mission area in 15 minutes. Objective today: Find a t-shirt about The Wiggle.

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Our next stop was El Farolito–pitched to me as the best al pastor in San Francisco. This was the only Mexican food I’ve had so far on the trip–not counting the baja tacos–so technically it was the best. However, I wouldn’t say it was the best I’ve ever had. Delicious nonetheless. Perhaps i’ll have my leftovers for breakfast today. You read that correctly. I didn’t finish a burrito.

Michelle popped into an Asian bakery for some treats for the house. We snacked on a cookie before soldiering on toward the train. I promptly spit the cookie onto the street. It was a mixture of sandpaper and cardboard, with an oakey finish.

We made a few wrong turns en route back to the Caltrain, but made it back with time to refuel Michelle on caffeine at Philz. She was in heaven. The coffee shop specializes in pour overs. I’ve had less than 10 cups of coffee in my life. The majority of those coming after I started dating Michelle. Philz has custom blends of beans from all over the world to make a unique flavor creation. Michelle doesn’t often express wanting things, but before we left for the last train out of the city she said of the local coffee chain, “Andrew, I want it.”