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.

A Year of Moments

I could get used to hiking here.

I couldn’t stop staring at it.

There I was, Jan. 1, 2013, 3:24 a.m., watching Goonies on the couch of a girl I’d met earlier in the evening. She was witty and cute, but I failed to ascertain her stance on tacos–a mistake I would repeat in 2013. But in the glow of her Christmas tree I noticed something I hadn’t spotted previously. There was some sort of growth on the corner of her mouth. Is that a cold sore? Why did I blackout everything from sex ed? Can I avoid kissing that side of her mouth? Will I go immediately to hell when I die?

“I should head home,” I said after the movie ended. I put my shoes back on, thanked her and gave her a hug. Then I picked up my gym bag, the very bag I stared at for at least a minute while debating whether or not to bring it with me. It functions as a sleepover party bag, replete with sexy items like flannel pajama pants, contact solution, and a toothbrush. With my bag slung over my shoulder, I headed down the stairs and into the frigid morning air.

When you start a year driving home alone at 3:30 a.m., you know you’re in store for a special year.

I’ve never been one for resolutions. Instead I opt for more ambiguous goals. The kind that aren’t specific or measurable. This year’s goal was simple: Do more of what I love, and less of what I don’t. There will always be things we don’t want to do, but have to anyway. Dishes ranks highly on this list. (Note: I will wed someone solely for their willingness to always do the dishes.) Looking back at all the food I made and ate, all the places I visited, and all the things I achieved and learned, 2013 was a fine year.

Food

Overall, there were a ton of great moments and a slew of firsts. A few days after fleeing in the early morning, I was featured in the Daily Herald not for jerk of the week, but as Cook of the Week. Naturally, I shared that on every social network ever created. Once the press requests simmered down, I returned to normalcy. But that week gave me a glimpse of what it must be like for all my friends with kids when they post a picture of their baby.

In other food news, a rep from Plated, a New York-based food delivery company, found my blog and contacted me about trying out their service. After a few emails and conversations, I got two boxes of food for my first dinner party. The menu: BBQ Chicken Burgers with zucchini fries and Shrimp & Grits. I had won a wine tasting earlier in the year and combined the two for a great night of food, wine and stories with friends.

Kale safely wins new ingredient of the year. I started buying it this summer and there was no turning back. I tried several new dishes; coq au vin may be my favorite. I also became a roux master, turning fond into phenomenal pan sauces. Thanksgiving was my responsibility this year, and short of needing salt, the smoked turkey was delicious and the mashed potatoes whipped to perfection. According to the photographic evidence, I consumed/inhaled a burrito a week.

Frolicking

I was fortunate to be able to travel to a lot of new places, and revisit some favorites. I spent my birthday running up a sand dune in Michigan, sunning myself like an iguana, and racing back to the beach to see the sun dissolve into Lake Michigan. Shortly after that, I left the U.S. for the first time! Somehow I managed to visit our incredibly friendly neighbors to the north in Canada and the welcoming folks in Mexico. I already wrote about most of these adventures, but after reflecting, some of my favorite moments were hiking in the unrivaled beauty of Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. It was someplace I likely would never have known about or gone to, were it not for my friend Rebecca. That leg of the trip also included staying in a yurt and canoeing, both firsts. I also saw the awe-inspiring Niagara Falls. Both places reminded me of how much beauty there is in this world. No matter how much I love cities, I have always found being near water incredibly restorative.

In September, I packed my bags for another getaway, heading west with my girlfriend. We managed to cover 550 miles in one week from Napa, Calif., all the way south to Rosarito, Mexico. Thanks to a tip from a Stanford student, I witnessed the most breathtaking vista I’ve ever seen, and that includes driving through Indiana. I thought Niagara and Canada were beautiful, but this spot, high on a hill 30 minutes from Palo Alto was nirvana. Stunningly gorgeous. And we sprinted up a trail just in time to see the sun descend into the clouds and Pacific Ocean. Those are moments I hope never to forget.

Fitness

This was also a great year for physical fitness. According to RunKeeper, I logged 133 miles of physical activity–running, cycling, hiking. I entered my first race–the BigTen 5k/10k. My shins were still bothering me from my training, so I opted to walk the 5k and finished in just a tad more than 40 minutes. I ran the fastest mile of my life (7:40ish). Then I doubled over and questioned the meaning of life. Strength-wise I worked up to being able to do 10 wide-grip pull-ups, as well as adding weight in all other muscle groups. I can bench press about 70% of my weight with dumbbells. All of this is a credit to persistence and sugar-laced protein bars.

I also danced a ton, improving my lindyhop and adding balboa to my swing dance repertoire. Sadly, fitness apps don’t track dancing.

I’ve been on vacation the past few weeks and spent an intensive week doing hot yoga before Christmas. Intense seems too weak an adjective. I wish they had a scale so I would know how much water weight I left on the mat. How much does dignity weigh? All that quiet time coupled with reading articles on self-improvement enabled me to deeply reflect on some events in 2013 and in my life. Normally I avoid looking back or looking ahead. I strongly believe that all we have is now, and dwelling on what was and what could be are a waste of thought. Inevitably as the remaining days on the calendar dwindle, I cannot quiet the urge to reflect.

Feelings

There were two main learning opportunities this year, and, with time, I have become grateful for both. The first was purchasing a condo. I have been looking for a residence, be it a hovel, condo, or house, for the past three years. At long last, I found a spacious one bedroom in an area of town where I wouldn’t be shot. I was excited at the prospect of increased independence and decorating my own place (clothes and magazines everywhere). The property was bank-owned and the bank was in no rush to unload it. I grew impatient and ended up rescinding my offer. Doing so meant forfeiting a decent sum of money. I read an article in Harvard Business Review about how successful leaders view and deal with loss. Those that cut their losses and move forward, saw it not as a loss, but as a chance to capitalize on another opportunity. That’s how I chose to view my situation. Later in the summer, I saw another condo that I loved. I felt much differently about this place than the one that was “good enough.” I liked it so much, I ended up putting an offer on it twice. My first offer wasn’t accepted and the person they picked wasn’t able to secure financing. Since my life isn’t yet a movie, neither of my offers were accepted. But I learned the value of not settling. If nothing else, I discovered what it felt like to really love a place.

The second big lesson was a variation on my first, but instead of a place it involved a person. After a few months of dating and our trip to California, my girlfriend decided to see someone else. Much like the condo situation, I learned what it felt like to truly love someone. Shortly thereafter, I discovered what it felt like to be deeply disappointed with someone. I had hoped for a different future for the two of us, but we weren’t meant to be.

In most of my relationships, I have the tendency of suppressing or not expressing my needs or wants. When asked what I needed, I simply responded to either be accepted or loved. In retrospect, I skipped over the easier fundamental needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. At this stage of my life, I’m self-sufficient. I don’t need food or housing (unless you know about a condo). What I’m after are those more elusive qualities like unconditional acceptance. That takes time and isn’t as easy as cooking someone dinner.

My takeaway was more introspection and resolving to be more vocal about boundaries. Much like Harry’s line in When Harry Met Sally:

You’re the worst kind; you’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance.

Often I get disappointed with friends or loved ones when they don’t do as I hoped. But the flaw in this setup is that I don’t communicate expectations. If I don’t tell someone what I expect, I shouldn’t be disappointed if they aren’t psychic. This serves as a self-defense mechanism. I can dismiss people who act counter to how I would’ve liked them to act. This leads to a false sense of superiority and empowerment. I feel in control by deeming someone not my friend or unimportant to me because they didn’t act like I would or how I would like them to act.

In 2014, I would like to improve a few things. I want to be more accepting of people; to take them as they are and not to be upset if they don’t act as I would like. Second, to share my expectations. My best friend shared the old adage, “People treat you how you allow them to.” To continue to build on this year’s goal of doing more of what I love, that includes developing existing relationships.

It’s been a year.

I declare 2014 the year of MORE. While others are looking to scale back, I will be ramping up. More dancing. More traveling. More cooking. More new experiences. And more living!