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  • Writer's pictureJTF

California Dreaming Within Wine Country

The city awakens to a brisk morning. The streets slowly begin to crowd as the clock reaches closer to its 9:00 am mark. Fortunately, I am leaving the city and not entering it, as the backlogged traffic is more cartoon-like than one could have ever imagined. Traffic and weather aside, little does that matter for someone who decided to take a moment to live in a fantasy. Hood down, sunglasses on, and wine country within sight. I make my way across the bridge, the golden gate bridge that is, and the red arches frame the scene. It is a beautiful day, even when I only make it across Sausalito before I pull to the side to bring the convertible hood back up, a highway in the morning chill of Northern California is not the place for romantic dream drives.

Driving off the 101, route 37 connects me to a variety of single-lane winding roads where the hills begin to turn gold and red and are filled with vineyards. By the time I make it to the hotel, the day and the area's landscape has warmed up, creating a beautiful and balmy enclosure. The town of St. Helena appears to have no more than a handful of street lights, it is charming, and quintessential California with shops and restaurants inviting people to stroll up and down its main street.

I drive down the street with the hood off again, and I park near Gillwoods Cafe, where I receive a warm cup of coffee but even friendlier service from a town that appears frozen in time. It is a moment of contemplation; Still, the schedule its tight, and the GPS beckons on my phone with the directions to my first appointment. Regulars are welcome with a smile and taken to 'their' tables with more frequency than transients appear to stumble into the location as I did myself.

On the road again, and I crave for 50s classics from golden age of automobiles, the day has warmed up. After getting a taste of the beauty of the vineyards through the Silverado trail, I cannot wait to drive its winding path to the first appointment of the day. Wineries are romantic for many reasons; winemaking even in its most commercial iterations is still a labor of love.

ZD is my first stop. The winery is a family dream with a desire for excellence, one that has gifted us Abacus, whose solera style production has created some of the most delectable and recognizable styles of wine within the region. The entire facility has gone over a renovation, just in time for my arrival. The remodel is beautiful, modern, yet warm and accessible. A large art display of a vine with its roots showcased above the reception counter, and behind a glass wall, barrels including the priced Abacus pyramid delight the eye. Up the stairs and across a warm hallway, pictures of the winery history and the family founders hang like they would on someone's home. It should come as no surprise as this is indeed their dream home. Off to a brand new deck complete with an expansive view verandah, the beauty of the valley shines in glimmering gold.

The host will pour four wines to start, as a large group of about 12 is caged behind the glass allowing for quiet contemplation of both the wine and the landscape. ZD wines are warm and accessible. Much more delicate and balanced than some of the behemoth counterparts with which they share the valley. Savoring an image in my mind that hopefully would last a lifetime, I thank my host and make my way down the stairs and through the trellised walkway to the next visit of the day, Chateau Montelena.

There is no shortage of picturesque settings both on the drive and in the many wineries within the area. Yet, Chateau Montelena has not only a beautiful estate but a pedigree and audacious story to support their heritage. One of the two winners featured in the Judgement of Paris, its story lives on in Bottle shock The Movie. Today, Bo Barrett oversees production and brings life to an estate built prior prohibition. The wines at Chateau Montelena are accessible, but not to be confused with thin or simplistic. A clear vision delivers a distinctive palate that has become a staple to many who are fond of their wines.

My host is warm and welcoming, previously in the jewelry business, I manage to steal a smile when I said her line of work hasn't changed much, just different jewels for sale this time. It is enough to break the ice and enjoy a variety of wines from their library vintages that are sure to delight everyone who stops by the property. In between appointments, I cannot help but to awe at the peaceful timelessness of the features, Chateau Montelena includes a beautiful Asian garden, legacy of the family that maintained the property after its demise during prohibition and before the Barret's took over the estate.

The last stop of the day is Inglenook, another beautiful Chateau devastated by the prohibition. With even grander dreams initially, the property is undervalued by most. Yet, it is likely soon to be discovered by the industry, and the world as ambitious development and expansion plans are underway to restore the winery name to its former glory. A famous name owns the winery, Francis Ford Coppola. Yet, Inglenook has decided to distance itself from its more retail-oriented owner portfolio to become a flagship and boutique label. The Coppola family still resides behind the winery plots at the back of the Chateau. Coppola's touch is present in every piece that has been restored, including a vintage car displays from some of its most famous movies.

My host is a lovely gentleman who fits the motive of the estate to an eerie perfection. Walking behind him through corridors and cellars, and into the different rooms is worthy of a scene of cinematographic genius that would make the winery owner proud. The wines tasted are delightful and way above in quality than the price the winery commands at the moment. I also receive education on both the estate, wine history, and the winery in general. I try profusely to express my gratitude to my host, but I do not think it measures up to the impact the visit has had on me.

I drive in the warmth of the valley, up a single-lane road, and back to Las Alcobas, where I will reside for the night. A beautiful tree house oasis awaits in what has to be the fanciest 'motel' I ever stayed. Of course, that is a ridiculous statement, as the property is part of formerly Starwood and now Marriott's luxury collection. The hotel possesses all the distinct characteristics and upscale finishes that belong to the brand, including a distinct identity that includes outdoor corridors, complete with faux grass outdoor foyers.

The desk agent insisted on both walking me to the room and providing a tour, despite declining on the invitation, I am at the end happy she asked. The only thing rustic about the property is the natural landscape. Complete with canopy trees overlooking the Beringer estate, the room is a cluster of technological 'upgrades' complete with a Japanese toilet that the agent jokingly 'warns me about.'

Upon her departure, the outdoor tub and fire pit are too tempting for a somewhat boozed version of myself not to jump in for a soak before dinner. It is genuinely a delightful mix of upmost decadence, with the quirk and ingenuity of what feels like a tree fort. I lose myself in the warm water and the music playing through my headphones.

Napa Valley is known for some of the best cuisines in the region. Already wined, the search for 'food porn' begins and culminates in a delightful yet straightforward locale where their specialty 'mozzarella al minute' delivers the money shot.

I culminate the night in what appears to be the only gay bar in the town, which is to my surprise located on Main Street and not one of the side alleys to which most establishments are generally relegated to. Inside, I meet two San Francisco residents who, after just a few minutes of conversation, appear to be more like old friends than strangers, I met a few minutes ago. Laughs and fun times, I say goodnight and we promise to stay in touch, which to my surprise we will end up honoring.


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