Though we wanted to explore some of the Bay area’s wineries, we wanted to avoid renting a car if at all possible – besides taking advantage of public transportation, it would ensure we wouldn’t have to worry about driving after one too many glasses of wine. And, well, our wine palates are not exactly finely tuned, so neither of us were that particular about which wineries to hit. Mack took on the task of researching group tour possibilities.
In his exploration of Napa Valley shuttles, he uncovered a plethora of terrible websites (sure, they may not be directly connected to the tech world, but it was a little ironic given its proximity to the start-up capital of North America). Most seats were priced in the $75 to $100 range, only some of which were “all inclusive” of entry fees and tastings. We eventually settled on the Wine Country Tour Shuttle, which was competitively priced, but more importantly, would pick us up from the centrally-located Ferry Building.
Wine Country Tours (and Tom!)
We met up with our driver and tour guide Tom at 8:30 that morning, and all 38 of us boarded a comfortable bus for the journey. Our fellow passengers spanned age and countries of origin – some were from as far away as South Africa and Switzerland. Tom, a retired schoolteacher, was a fantastic guide, affable, knowledgeable, but light in his delivery. Though not in the same league, after a poor experience with an incompetent Contiki guide in Europe, I knew that the leader would make or break the excursion, so it was particularly comforting to be in good hands.
Our only complaint about the tour was why the organizers didn’t make it an all inclusive tour. I’m certain adding even $25 to the overall price that would help cover entry to and tastings at the first winery wouldn’t have deterred anyone from selecting this company. It just seemed silly that after booking the tickets online that we had to have cash on hand at all for something other than wine purchases.
Besides that, we had a lovely time. Our first stop was V. Sattui, which, curiously, boasts the only deli in Napa Valley (even more curious was the fact that they kept reciting this fact as if it was the biggest selling point of V. Sattui). We had read online that goods in the deli were quite expensive, so being the “clever” travellers we were, we thought to kill two birds with one stone by bringing along the tasting pack we had purchased the day before at Cowgirl Creamery (and thus having the perfect excuse to try their cheese).
Well, it turns out our planning was unnecessary, given the tour provided us each with a $10 credit to spend in the deli. It did bolster our lunch offerings, however, and meant we were able to round out our meal with meat and bread as well. Being a beautiful California day, it was an afternoon made for an outdoor picnic.
After lunch, we headed to the tasting room, where we had to jostle for a spot at the counter. Though the tasting fee wasn’t included with the tour, it was a decent deal – 5 samples for $5. We ended up picking up a bottle of Gamay Rouge – V. Sattui wines aren’t available in stores, and it’s rare that Mack and I find a red that we both like.
Our second stop was probably my favourite of our entire tour, even if the ambassador of Domaine Chandon had the air of a used car salesman – I had to give it to him, the man knew how to make a show of opening pressured bottles.
Ever the showman
Domaine Chandon is known for its sparkling wines, of which we were able to try three. We bought a small bottle of Classic Brut to remember the winery in all its lush, green glory.
Domaine, with its garden-lined paths was what I thought most of Napa would look like. In actuality, the vineyards actually looked quite bleak – sure, the vines themselves were green, but driving past large segments of yellowed grass between wineries that had seen better days, it was a visual reminder of California’s dependence on irrigation.
The vines at Domaine Chandon
Franciscan was our third stop, notable for its bore of a guide, but also for the freedom we had to taste grapes fresh off the vine. It was also the winery with the priciest bottles (in the $60 range), which meant our hands stayed in our pockets.
We also had to take an obligatory photo on the Rutherford Bench – which actually refers not to a literal bench, but the area that Franciscan falls in that is ideal for grape production.
The “Rutherford Bench”
Our last stop was the Whitehall Lane Winery, which helped demonstrate why the Wine Country Tour Shuttle was so popular – it showcased different aspects of the wine-making process, from grape to aging. At Whitehall, we were ushered into the production facility, which included some time in their enormous barrel chilling space, filled from floor to ceiling with 1100 barrels.
So many barrels!
After too many wine samples (with a constant longing for accompanying bread or cheese), our way back to San Francisco was a welcome one – a breezy, refreshing ferry ride from Vallejo across the Bay.
Dinner wasn’t gourmet, and in fact, the grease probably helped with the detox. We crawled back to the Westfield Mall, and dined on overstuffed pizza ($4.99) from Bristol Farms. I am still amazed Mack managed to make his way through his meat lover’s monstrosity.
More meat than you should handle
What would day 5 have in store for us? Well, a Top Chef Masters sighting for starters!