Trip Report – Napa Road Trip – Throwback Thursday

It’s Throwback Thursday and time for another retro trip report.  This one takes us back to early August  2008.

That was a big change year for me… I was eight months into owning the house I had at this point dubbed “the money pit”.  My (then) business partner had a 9-month old little girl at home and we were together trying to run both a national-scope consulting firm and a manufacturing firm with distribution on six continents.  My trip reports from that era convey a bit of desperation – to say we were both burning the candle at both ends would be an understatement.  So when either of us got a weekend off, we were in work hard, play harder mode!

Still, this report from 2008 was a fun re-read.  I’d still do a lot of the same things on a Napa road trip today – and have even linked some of the spots we visited.

You’ll also see a few editorial notes at the end for things that might have changed since as well as a couple related things to report!  I have lots of wine country trip reports so I’ll continue to roll more out in the future.


One of the benefits of consulting is the travel.

Seriously.

While one often times gets to spend a week at a time in some of the most obscure rural locales early in our careers (and some of us even beyond that depending on what type of work you end up being good at!), you also get to visit some great cities. And even when you travel to the off-the-beaten path spots, you may have to go through somewhere “desirable” to get there.

A lot of young consultants take great advantage of this when starting out – its like a “see the world for free” plan. At the Evil Empire back in the days when Saturday night stay airfares were much less expensive than traveling during the week, they would even PAY for us to stay gone for the weekend (hotel, car, meals) thus funding our mini-vacations that most of us took at least once a month. In my early days, any city I had to fly into or through that sounded remotely interesting got a weekend visit from me – and often my friends and I, particularly my colleague (now business partner) Brandy and I would try to coordinate our project travel so we could connect in the same places (Los Angeles, New York, Asheville NC, Las Vegas, Washington DC, Seattle, Paris… just a few of the places we managed to make work around our weekend plans).

Neither of us do that as much any more. As you progress more in a consulting career, you get fewer of those “long” stretches on the road where a weekend has to be forced somehow. Plus we have grown up into responsibilities like houses and children. And we no longer rely on the “see the world for free” plan – if we want to visit somewhere, we go. And so Brandy and I had talked about trying to do another of those fun girl weekends for a while (our last one was in London almost two years ago!) and then lo and behold, we BOTH had to be on the west coast at the same time both wrapping up on a Friday morning.

The Napa road trip escape plan was born.

So yesterday I landed in San Francisco (after a brief client visit to Portland which was followed by a fantastic dinner with my friends), grabbed a nice Sebring convertible from the Executive Aisle at the rental car company (National), and cruised into downtown San Francisco (where poor Brandy was forced to survive like normal city people do – without a car – all week).

We cruised north, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge (and like the cheesy tourist girls we can be, stopping to take some photos for our scrapbooks).

A crowded day at the viewing area for the Golden Gate Bridge (on the Marin side).

A crowded day at the viewing area for the Golden Gate Bridge (on the Marin side).

It drives me crazy every time that we do this that we’ll be taking a photo that we’ve spent time waiting on people to clear a bit out of the way and are ready to hit click (and its clear that someone is posing for a photo) and some random person will just walk into your shot and try to do the same thing themselves. It reminds me of how impressed I was at Tokyo Disney that everyone LINED UP to take turns getting a photo in front of the castle without other people stepping up to just do their own thing. Politeness and all that!

Our first stop was the girl and the fig in Sonoma which is my “traditional” Friday lunch spot when I go to wine country. (I’m kind of set in my ways and while I’ll venture out to try new and different spots for dinners, I’m fixated on my same few places for lunch.) Both of us have been eating healthy lately and I’m determined to still eat “good for me” stuff – just maybe a bit more of it than I might at home – while we drink a lot of wine. We started with lovely cheese and sausage plate.

A small but satisfying cheese plate.

A small but satisfying cheese plate.

This was followed by a burger/frites for Brandy and mussels/frites for me. We couldn’t resist dessert – after all, the all-Rhone varietals that the waitress had picked out for us with the first two courses so we went for a flight of Viognier dessert wines along with small plates of creme brulee for Bran and profiteroles for me.

From there, the next two stops were B.R. Cohn to sample their latest releases and then to Domaine Carneros to kick back a bit and try some bubbles. At this point, I think Brandy was thinking a NAP might be good, but I convinced her to POWER THROUGH.

So power through we did, straight to the patio at Domaine Chandon where we parked until they threw us out at closing. Our lovely host poured sip after sip of various treats until we finally decided on Etoile Rose. I had hoped to have a dozen Hog Island Oysters  but alas, we got there too late and the last of them were shucked before I ordered. Maybe tomorrow? I think they will allow us back.

Me... in the garden at Domaine Chandon after a long afternoon of tasting.  I'm lucky I didn't fall into the pond.

Me… in the garden at Domaine Chandon after a long afternoon of tasting. I’m lucky I didn’t fall into the pond.

We realized at this point (a bit after 7 pm) that the ONLY way we were going to survive until our 9:30 reservations at Bouchon (another Thomas Keller joint) was to (you guessed it) – POWER THROUGH – so we headed to the bar at Ad Hoc .

Now I *love* Ad Hoc – in fact, originally made our reservation for the night for there – but its not everyone’s cup of tea. One menu per night, no choices, served family style. Brandy was a wee bit worried that the nightly menu wouldn’t be anything she would eat.

Well, last night’s menu turned out to be fantastic and we know that for a fact because our barfrienders (a totally Jen word) called over to Bouchon and then they served that yumminess up.

Since the menu changes daily, here is what we had:

  • Salad of Frisee and Watercress – prosciutto di san daniele, red radishes, laura chenel goat cheese, pine nuts, roasted pepper vinaigrette
  • Midwestern Beef Hanger Steak – brentwood sweet corn, romano beans, olive oil poached cherry tomatoes, yukon gold potatoes
  • The Cheese Board – pink lady apples, marcona almonds, marshall’s farm wildflower honey
  • Chilled Summer Melon Soup – whipped creme fraiche, tondo balsamic, shortbread cookies

Pretty darned good stuff… and I like that the portions are NOT supersized. Lots of veggies though and appropriate doses of everything else. The melon soup wasn’t my favorite (not really my thing) but everything else was divine.

I think we got a bit silly at the end of the evening – Brandy’s OCD was getting to her and she insisted on making the bartenders remove the one lone red bottle from their wall display as it was making her twitchy.

For me, it wasn’t disordered behavior – it was definitely the Tokaji that was hitting me hard… long day with too much high sugar content and I was FLYING.

And so every good night must eventually end. We bit farewell to the barfrienders and headed to our hotel to crash hard so we could rest up for the rest of the weekend’s adventures.

Got up nice and decently early on Saturday morning. We had a 10 am tasting appointment at Cakebread out on the patio and needed to get a move on. Lovely tasting… lingered about an hour chatting with the host as there was no one else there until the end of our visit.

Had a bit of time to kill when we got to St. Helena before our lunch reservation so on a whim, I called Charbay. Its up toward the winding part of Spring Mountain so not something to attempt except early on a tasting day – and they don’t let the big vehicles up there. Plus its appointment only so I was tickled when Mark told us to come on up.

We got there about 15 minutes later and spent a delightful hour learning the history of this quirky little distillery/winery. I became familiar with their vodkas about eight years ago on my travels in California and think they are the best infused ones around. They also do vanilla rum, dessert wines, port, and pomegranate wine among other things.

We sipped a bit (enough to make us late for lunch as we paced ourselves) and then hustled back down the hill to Martini House.

Martini House is my other favorite and must-do wine country lunch stop.

I love (no CRAVE their mushroom soup). In fact, its entirely possible for me to go entirely vegetarian there… everything is just darned good.   (editorial note – Martini House is now closed, but I have included new info on where to find the mushroom soup in the notes at the end of this post)

We popped a bottle of bubbles and I quenched my mushroom craving with a cup of goodness along with a nice light sized portion of truffled beef carpaccio that I split with Brandy. My entree was two pieces of cheese filled ravioli accompanied by a huge portion of mushrooms. No room for dessert although we did try a cheese plate with some dessert wine.

Alas, we were on the patio and dying from heat exposure (it was soooo humid there by the Koi pond). I enjoy that patio much more in the spring/fall.

Next stop was Merryvale, our last appointment of the day, to do a vertical tasting of Profile. I’ve got a pretty good cellar collection of Profile I’ve amassed and so its nice to stop by the winery when I’m in and taste them all in sequence so I know which bottles are drinking nicely right now.

At this point it was almost 6 pm and we had 7:30 dinner reservations so we decided to (yes, you guessed it) power through – back to Domaine Chandon we went for a glass of sparkling red.

Then it was off to FARM at The Carneros Inn. What a cute and hip hotel concept – I want to stay here the next time I’m out.

FARM was my favorite meal of the weekend.  Sustainable locally sourced ingredients, organic focus, and all in a hip W Hotel-meets-country inn concept.

I switched over to a ginger beer cocktail (gotta love the Bundaberg) and then we settled in for some healthy goodness.

I started with the corn chowder – a small bowl filled with nice hunks of crab. Then on to a great roasted beet salad. And then a mushroom risotto. All relatively small (but nourishing) portions but all absolutely delicious.

Off to bed we went from there.

Sunday we decided we’d had enough of wine country for one weekend (time to get back on the wagon, so to speak!) so we hopped in the convertible and headed for Berkeley where we visited a couple of our clients (and did quite a bit of retail damage) and then grabbed a nice brunch at Cafe Rouge.

I had a delicious cucumber and fennel salad with nice pieces of baby shrimp followed by scrambled eggs accompanied by a lovely selection of vegetables and corn fritters.

From there we decided to go see Mamma Mia… total chick flick but SO much fun.

Then we met up with some of my friends for a quick salad and beer at Jupiter before heading west back to SFO to catch our respective flights (Brandy back to Dallas, me on to Long Beach for a retail show).

All in all, a very fun weekend.


A few editorial notes, six years later:

  • Ad Hoc now also has a side joint called Addendum that serves up box lunches Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays – you can pick from fried chicken, barbeque ribs, or pulled pork.  You need to pre-order but you can pick up your boxes any time between 11 am and 2 pm and they also have a nice garden courtyard where you can eat.  This is a great way to grab a quick lunch and particularly handy if you are visiting any of the tasting rooms in Yountville.  (I love Jessup Cellars myself!)
  • Martini House closed in 2010 but her chef Todd Humphries is co-founder of Kitchen Door located at Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa.  Opened in 2011, Kitchen Door serves the mushroom soup of my dreams along with wood-fired flatbreads and globally inspired comfort food.
  • Oxbow Public Market is another favorite stop of mine now on Napa trips – they offer regional favorites like Hog Island Oyster Co., Three Twins Ice Cream (founded by a former American Airlines Road Warrior contest winner!), and over a dozen other gourmet specialty restaurants or purveyors.

I’ve got dozens more favorite Napa and Sonoma County spots to highlight in the future… but I hope you’ve enjoyed this walk down memory lane!

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