« September 2006 | Main | November 2006 »

October 23, 2006

The Color and Beauty of Harvest

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- It takes a bit of practice: getting inured with the beauty and ever changing scenery of the Napa and Sonoma counties. I haven’t gotten there yet, and hope that I retain enough youthful enthusiasm for my entire life to be delighted by what my eyes bring me each day.

This morning had that remarkable October Harvest weather that is *perfect.* A full compliment of hot air balloons had lifted lazily off from their launching pads, like a bubble expressed by Mother Nature herself. They drifted one-by-one into the morning sky that was almost more colorful than the ornamental flying machines.

The air itself smells of wine, and you can see (and I giggle at it) smashed grapes that have lost their balance and fallen into street intersections from the gondola trucks traversing the Valley. I have been visiting wineries lately, and have stepped over many a man-made mud puddle that is the color burgundy. Dusty, dirty, and grape-stained workers are everywhere bearing a look of fatigue that is offset with a glint and a tired smile that lets you know they are on the home-stretch.

Tasting rooms are packed, at least on the weekend, and traffic is slow along the major wine roads as awe-struck tourists stop every few feet to photograph the vines which undulate fall colors like moiré fabric.

I am not irritated by them. I myself uttered “wow” audibly three times during a commute to Calistoga -- even though I was alone in my car. Today, anything that slows me down, keeps me looking and experiencing, is a blessing. The alternative is sitting here in front of this computer.

October 15, 2006

Like the Vines, I am Getting Ready for Winter

by M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- I am sitting in front of my computer in comfort clothes. The day has turned achromatic, and though not cold, the overcast drives away any feeling of warmth.

Yesterday and the day before, we enjoyed a luminous headlong descent into autumn – leaves shouting out from trees and vines in a riot of colorful expression. It’s the last party before winter’s dormancy and it looks, and feels, amazing.

I have spent my last two weeks eating my way through some of Napa and Sonoma’s most interesting restaurants, diving into tasting rooms and drinking mostly pinot noirs and sparkling wines. My waste line and flagging muscles say I need to stop, but the autumn keeps nudging me on: Enjoy us, enjoy us – winter is coming soon. Like my years, with senior-citizenship right around the corner, I am feeling camaraderie with the leaves: unwilling to be bound by anything other than the inevitable march of time.

During the early part of October, I have celebrated new friendships and new opportunities across the Napa and Sonoma wine country. We started our culinary party in one of my favorite places – Della Santina’s just off the Sonoma square; enjoying also Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg; Angele in Napa, and Friday’s meal at Zare was colorful, complex in its flavors, and we were attended by a most engaging server.

Breakfasts (because once you embark on eating well, why stop at dinner?): Of course Gordon’s Café in Yountville, a really great Sunday Brunch at Brix (also Yountville) and the BEST oatmeal I have ever eaten at Costeaux French Bakery & Café in Healdsburg.

In between that all? Life would not be fully worth living without several trips to Bouchon Bakery in Yountville. Sometimes the services gets a bit, well French, but you can overlook that once you have selected, and are enjoying, your sandwich or treat.

If perchance you bump into me in the next week or two, and I look a bit distracted, give me some quarter – it is more likely that I am just satiated and bulking up (perhaps emotionally) for the long, cold trip through winter.

October 6, 2006

Virginia is For (Wine) Lovers

By ML Hilton

(VIRGINA) -- The journey to Virginia wine country (with a side, sightseeing trip to Washington DC) certainly started in a rather early and mundane fashion late last week: a trip through Oakland airport at o’dark thirty. But getting into Virginia turned out to be more rollin’ and rockin’ than most of the passengers cared to enjoy. We hit the tail end of a hurricane, and ended up diverting to Richmond after the pilot decided the ride down to Dulles was getting bumpier than even he cared for.

Starved and airsick, I was game for bailing out and driving the two hours from Richmond toward that evening’s destination, the incomparable Goodstone Inn. I felt mildly guilty, because leaving the plane had the feeling of rats departing a sinking ship. In truth, I was just ready to start my adventure and get off my butt and out of the airplane seat.

Admittedly, I use the word adventure loosely. But, it really does apply. There is always something you take home from your travels beyond what you learn about a place – whether it’s your first visit, or one of many.

It’s not just adventures, it is the surprises as well. My first was that evening over an incredible steak served at your basically garish truck stop. Even in top restaurants in Napa, I have not tasted a more tender or flavorful cut of meat. Liberally marbled with fat (which probably was part of the trick), this was the type of steak that you pick the bone up and gnaw on. Of course, there was not a flick of green on the plate – just a nice white baked potato, no veggies within miles. I guess you can’t have everything, especially for $13.99.

My other surprise was the nonchalance with which the vintners and growers viewed the rain. While final harvest at the beginning of October was still up to four weeks away for several Virginia wineries, many people only mildly reacted to the cool drizzle. In Napa, rain at harvest makes headlines.

Because of the year-round precipitation, dry-farming was something that was not overly discussed with the vineyard managers, though soil types did get a more enthusiastic, and interesting exchange.

History was everywhere; neither of my accommodations for the nights spent in Virginia were younger than 250 years old. Many wine tasting rooms were converted barns or homes from the 1700’s and it was easy to see that the entire building(s) were put together by hand, and without the benefit of electric tools.

Beyond the testaments to both the Revolutionary and Civil wars, local and current politics was not overlooked, and was heatedly discussed in a few tasting rooms. Many boutique wineries are not, or will not, ship or sell wines outside the state of Virginia. So, be prepared to make your own arrangements for getting your wine home if you live outside the state. If you are interested in which side of the issue the wineries are on, just drop into a tasting room and get the local scoop yourself. They won’t be shy in telling you what they think.

The juxtaposition of the old history: an intimate part in the birth of our nation; and the new history: an emerging wine industry was a refreshing experience. Virginian’s seem to take things a bit in stride. A sort of (not to) hasty pudding philosophy.

Go to Virginia.winecountry.com to get tips and information to help you enjoy your trip to Virginia Wine Country.