The first time I visited the wine country, I wasn't living in the US - I'd won a flight to San Francisco, rented a convertible Mustang and headed north with no real idea of where I was going. I'd managed to get a great rate at a hotel in Yountville and back in 1992, it was the sort of town that shut down at 6pm. I declared that Yountville didn't have any decent restaurants but enjoyed a night in a quiet, picturesque villa, overlooking vines that drew themselves all the way to the foot of misty mountains, behind which a golden sun was creating the sort of sunset that last for seconds but lives forever in memory.
Little did I know then the two things I know now: I would meet my soon-to-be wife ten years later and both find one of our favorite places in the world in the same spot, and Yountville is home to the best restaurant in the United States - and maybe the world - The French Laundry, which is located about a half-mile from the villa I was originally staying at. Wendy and I have since been to wine country dozens of times, and although that damned movie Sideways has increased the traffic, hotel costs and pretentiousness-quotient ten fold, it remains a slice of the best of the South of France without having to get on a plane.
Our first trip together in 2003, we decided we were going to get married at Cline Cellars in Sonoma, about 30 minutes from Napa. Napa is the loud obnoxious husband that's popular with everyone, and Sonoma is the long-suffering, quietly-attractive wife. It also planted the seeds of an idea that, two years later, would translate into the opening of our wine bar in Wendy's home town of San Antonio, Texas.
Most visitors who venture out our way have the idea of basically getting off-their-asses drunk on a pseudo-intellectual adventure of swirling glasses, talking about tasting vanilla or grass, and somehow getting to a soft bed at some point. Especially if they're British, where getting wasted is the official national sport, and somehow wine tasting legitimizes the whole experience of acting like a teenager whose parents are away. I, of course, like to allow this behavior, being English myself, but it's always amusing to me how most attempts at this fail at around 2pm, after a mere 3 hours of 'tasting'.
Basically, if you plan to have a full day of drinking, this takes some planning. First, you absolutely must have a designated driver - this isn't James being all politically correct because he's posting on the Internet and potential employers need to realize how responsible he is; it's actually because two thirds of Napa's tax revenue comes from DUIs, and let's not forget that DUI is a more serious crime than murder in most states. Plus, limos are cheap if you can get six people, hurray.
Second, you need to take it really easy on the early morning drinky drinks. Powering down flights of Chardonnay and verticals of Sparkling Wine at 11am is a sure-fire way to need a nap by the mid-afternoon, or accidentally proposing to the tasting room staff in an attempt to recreate that damned movie Sideways. On that note, I'd also recommend splitting your whites and reds, even though most wineries will attempt to force-feed you both. Mixing both constantly throughout the day will give you a bigger migraine that listening to Miley Cyrus talk about her 'career'.
Finally, the whole experience is quite intoxicating in itself, with some of most extraordinary scenery in the world, and some really interesting wineries and people. There are literally hundreds of places to go, from the big and famous like Mondavi to the little-known and fantastic like Brown Estates, hidden on the Silverado hills. Ultimately, I think you can see 10 wineries in about 6 hours before it's time to find a pool and a nap.
Just as a warning: the following phrases are bound to be uttered at some point in the day by someone, in a brilliantly-inspired moment of unique repetitiveness:
- "It's five o'clock somewhere in the world!" - yes, that's true, in justifying your early morning glass of Riesling. It'll be midnight in that place by the time you need the Tylenol.
- "Did you know the wine at the end of Sideways was actually a merlot?" - yes, every vendor at our wine bar told us at every meeting for a year.
- "I'd really like to get into the wine business." - so did we, and it's a hell of a lot of work so just assume we did it for you.