Several years ago I took a course at the West Coast campus of the CIA in America. No it wasn’t what you are thinking, no cloak-and-dagger stuff – the CIA was the Culinary Institute of America and the course was an Introduction to Californian Wines J J Now I don’t remember anything much from the course, just that it was great fun and that I loved all the winery visits. So when the chance came to re-visit the Napa Valley with my daughter Tarini, who was a fledgling wine enthusiast, I didn’t hesitate for a minute.
The next step was to decide on what wineries to visit and where to stay. With over 400 wineries to choose from, this was no easy task and the friends we asked all had their firmly stated and contradictory opinions. Complicating the decision was the fact that the Napa Valley was no longer the easy-on-the-pocket destination it was in the 80’s when I was a penniless grad student in the US. Long gone were the days of the free wine tastings and decent hotel rooms now went for upwards of $200. So we decided on a selection of vineyards that would fit our modest budget and found an AirBNB listing with Superhosts Resa and Sam Shore who turned out to be every bit as charming as and hospitable as they sounded on paper.
Our first stop was the Robert Mondavi vineyards whose founder was a trailblazer in the history of American wine-growing and an outstanding example of the classic rags-to-riches story. Wine snobs may turn up their noses at the mass-market appeal of his Woodbridge label wines but that would be a mistake since the chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons that I enjoyed in the To Kalon tasting room were nothing short of spectacular. Tarini took the wine basics course and promptly corrected me on pH values – goes to show how a little knowledge can go a long way !
Next we found our way to the Silverado Trail, the classic Napa wine route which stretches 30 Kms from the town of Napa to Calistoga and is a wonderful scenic drive lined with shady oaks and great wineries. Making stops at Duckhorn, an elegant winery known for its merlots and Mumm Napa where we enjoyed some excellent champagnes on the sunny patio, we decided it was time to take a breather from the drinking.
Art and wine make a perfect pairing and their convergence was to be found at the Di Rosa Galleries which has a fascinating collection of contemporary Bay Area art. This is the former home of Rene di Rosa, one of the larger-than-life characters in the California wine story who sold part of his vineyards to fund his art collection. It is quite an eclectic collection of art full of idiosyncrasies and just as devoid of labels so you are dependent on the docent and your imagination to make of it what you can. The buggy ride to the Main Gallery and the walk through the Sculpture Meadow where we were treated to a full frontal by a peacock were quite memorable !
One of the very best things about America is the free music and the casual party scene during the long hot summer nights. We were lucky enough to be in Napa on a Friday night when the Twice As Good band were playing in the waterfront Veteran’s Park as part of the summer concert series Napa City Nights. A father-and-son combination of Native American origin, their combination of a soulful vocals and driving blues rhythm was infectious and totally had the crowd on their feet. After polishing off a bottle of Pinot Noir it was easy enough for the two of us to join in with all the other generations on the floor. Secretly I was delighted to be dancing with Tarini and from the whimsical smile on her face, she seemed to be enjoying it too !
But the night was still young and we found ourselves next at a neighbourhood bar called Downtown Joe’s where they served excellent local craft beer. It was the usual weekend bar scene in America and we soon got talking to people, many of whom seemed to be in town for a wedding. I was also thrilled to see yet another live band with one of those All-American names The Humdingers in performance. The lead singer Marie-Louise reminded me of Stevie Nicks and during the break we chatted with her and her partner Denis who was the drummer. And in the way that sometimes you can become close to perfect strangers, M-L and I have become friends and shared deeply personal experiences of how we lost our fathers, both gone too soon and too tragically.
That’s what travel does. It changes you in ways that you cannot begin to imagine, breaks down barriers and makes lifelong friends in the most unexpected of places. The iconic American writer Henry Miller said it perfectly:“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”