Friday, December 30, 2011

Chateau Montelena - An iconic Winery

We really enjoyed our visit to the iconic Chateau Montelena winery ( & in the Calistoga area of the Napa Valley during our October trip to California. As I mentioned in an earlier posting about Grgich Hills Estate, Chateau Montelena played a major role in improving the reputation of California wines.

Our drive to the winery was also very nice. We were staying in St. Helena, about 9 miles to the south. Instead of taking Highway 29 up the center of the valley, we took the Silverado Trail.

The drive along the Silverado Trail was very pretty. The trail runs along the eastern side of the Napa Valley at the base of the Vaca Mountains. It runs parallel to the main road, California 29, which runs up the center of the valley. The Silverado Trail was built in 1852. It curves a lot in places and is often bordered by hills. Sometimes the hills are far enough from the road that they provide nice views. We passed a number of vineyards on either side of the road. In other areas, there were woods alongside the road.

At the northern end of the trail we passed the Calistoga Mineral Water Company. Near the entrance is a huge sculpture of the 1926 truck that the founder of the company used to deliver his water. The sculpture has the back of the truck filled with cases of water bottles, some of which appear to be tumbling out the back.

We followed Lake County Hwy about a mile and a half to Tubbs Lane, where we turned left. We drove about 800 feet and turned right into the winery property.

Chateau Montelena was established by Alfred Loving Tubbs when he purchased the property and built a stone chateau in 1882. The chateau was designed by a French architect.

By 1896, Chateau Montelena was the 7th largest winery in the Napa Valley. However, with the onset of Prohibition in 1920, the winery ceased production. In 1958, the property was purchased by a Chinese-American family to serve as a retirement home. They created beautiful Jade Lake below the chateau.

In 1972, Jim Barrett purchased the property and resumed commercial wine production. He brought in Mike Grgich as the winemaker. The Chardonnay Mike produced the following year won the 1976 Paris tasting.

Shortly after the Paris tasting, Grgich left Chateau Montelena to establish his own winery. The winemaker who replaced him left in 1981. At that time, Jim Barrett offered the job of winemaker to his son Bo, who is still the winemaker.

The winery was on a hill above the parking lot. Along one side of the parking lot were some tall and majestic redwood trees. From the lot, there were nice views across the vineyards to the nearby hills.

View from the Parking Lot

We walked up a long set of steps to the winery. At the top of the stairs, we came to the front of the chateau, with a courtyard in front of the building. The walls were partially covered with vines, and there were a number of barrels on low racks. Since the skies were covered by gray clouds and the stone walls of the chateau were grayish, the whole scene looked a bit gloomy.

The Chateau

In the courtyard, we saw a large truck full of grapes being unloaded. The grapes were being unloaded by a young woman standing on the high bed of the truck. She was kind enough to take my camera and photograph a large bin of grapes for me.

We then walked around to the opposite side of the chateau and entered the tasting room. The tasting room had a cheery interior, with bright stone walls, a nice wooden bar, and wood floors.

In the Tasting Room

The young man who served us was very friendly and helpful. The tasting fee was $20, but it was well worth it. We tasted six wines - three whites and three reds. One wine was spectacular, three were excellent, and two were very nice. Prices below are the retail prices:
- 2010 Potter Valley Riesling from Mendocino County - excellent - $25
- 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay - excellent - $50. This wine is made in the style of the 1973 Chard that won the Paris tasting. Unlike most Chardonnays, it can age because it is produced without malolactic fermentation (
- 2007 Montelena Estate Zinfandel - very nice - $30
- 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc - very nice $49
- 2007 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, 99% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Cabernet Franc - excellent - $135
- 1991 Napa Valley Chardonnay - spectacular. The winery had opened one case of this wine. It was incredible. I’m not a great fan of whites, but I loved this one. I should have asked the price.

After finishing in the tasting room, we walked back down the stairs to Jade Lake. The lake was very pretty. It was surrounded by lawns and trees, including weeping willows. It had an island with a red, Chinese-style pavilion. There was a red Chinese-style bridge crossing out to the island.

Jade Lake

Louis M. Martini Winery - Nice Wines & Excellent Service

Another of the wineries that we enjoyed visiting during our October trip to California was Louis M. Martini winery ( on California Highway 29 on the south side of St. Helena.
The winery was opened by Louis M. Martini as Prohibition came to an end in 1933. Today, the winemaker is Michael Martini, the grandson of Louis M. Martini. Michael has been the winemaker since 1977. The winery is now owned by the Gallo family, which has been friends with the Martini family for three generations.

When Gallo bought the winery, it invested in a micro-winery at the St. Helena winery. This winery within a winery allows the winemaker to make specially crafted small lots of wine.

Martini has four vineyards - three in the Napa Valley and one in the Sonoma Valley. One of the three in the Sonoma Valley is right at the St. Helena winery we visited. Another, the Monte Rosso (Red Mountain) vineyard in Sonoma Country, is on the hills of the Mayacamas Range. Some of its vines dating back to the 1880s are still producing Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel grapes. These are some of the oldest Cab & Zin vines in the country. The 2008 Gnarly Vine Zinfandel that we tasted was produced with grapes from that vineyard. It was superb.

Unlike the Castello, this winery tasting room’s external appearance was very ordinary. However, the inside of the tasting room was very nice. We were greeted by Whitney, who was very friendly and knowledgeable.

We shared a tasting for $15. We tried five red wines. One was excellent and four were very nice. Prices below are the retail and wine club prices:
- 2008 Gnarly Vine Zinfandel, 93% Zinfandel, 7% Petite Sirah - excellent - $50/$37.50
- 2009 Sonoma Country Cabernet Sauvignon, 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petite Sirah, 4% Merlot, 6% other - very nice - $18/$13.50
- 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 3% Syrah, 1% Petit Verdot - very nice - $30/$22.50
- 2008 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot,1% Petite Sirah - very nice - $35/$26.25
- 2008 Merlot - very nice

When we told Whitney that we were going to Charles Krug, she recommended that we ask for Art and let him know that she had recommended him. We did that and were grateful for her suggestion. Art was terrific.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Wine Country Inn - A Nice Splurge in the Napa Valley

Since we were celebrating an upcoming anniversary during our trip to California, I decided to splurge on a stay at the Wine Country Inn ( in St. Helena. I chose the inn because of what had I read about its comfort, ambience, customer service, and  great location. It turned out the reputation was very well deserved.

In addition to the customer-focus of the people who worked there, the Inn provided the following:
- An extensive complimentary breakfast buffet. One can eat breakfast on the outdoor patio, in the indoor dining room, or take it to one’s room.
- Complimentary afternoon wine and appetizers
- A complimentary shuttle to local restaurants (7 days per week in season, and weekends only off season)
- Complimentary concierge service with lots of good advice about local sights and dining.
- Complimentary wi-fi service. This service never worked for us because the wi-fi signal was never strong enough to use in our room. I had to take my laptop to the main building to use the wi-fi. I was told that the service would soon be upgraded.

The rooms do not have televisions in order “to encourage romantic behavior.”

The inn has rooms in two separate buildings. It also has five separate luxury cottages.

The grounds were beautifully landscaped with lawns, flowers, and trees. The entrance was tastefully decorated with heaps of pumpkins and gourds in fall colors.

Walking Path on the Grounds

The Wine Country Inn has been owned and operated by the same family since it opend 36 years ago.

We received a very pleasant surprise at check-in. When I had made our reservations a month and a half earlier, I had reserved room 11, which had a queen-size bed and a balcony with view of the vineyards. However, when we checked in, they said they would give us a free upgrade as an anniversary present if we were interested. They knew it was our anniversary because when I had made the reservation, they had asked if we were celebrating any special event.

The upgrade they offered was room 20, which was their most luxurious room, aside from their cottages. It had a king-size antique bed, fireplace, great vineyard views, and was very large and nicely furnished. It had a huge bathroom with heated tile floors, heated mirrors that don’t fog up, a huge jetted tub for two, walk-in shower for two, etc. Its normal cost was $120 more per night than room 11.

Two-Person Tub with a Vineyard View

A woman who worked at the front dest took us to the room to see if we wanted it. The room was wonderful and we accepted the offer.

I imagine the reason room 20 was available was that our stay was on Sunday and Monday nights, probably very slow nights.

I had originally tried to make the reservations for Friday night through Wednesday night. However, Saturday night was unavailable, so we spent Friday and Saturday night in Napa. I discovered that it's important to make reservations long in advance for weekends in October. I checked out several interesting places in St. Helena and Napa. Not one had a Saturday night vacancy.

The inn offers discounts for stays of 3 nights or longer. When I originally made the reservation, I had made it for 3 nights. However, I subsequently discovered that I had made a mistake because our flight reservation involved a red-eye return flight on the third night. Even though I cancelled the reservation for the third night, they still gave us a discount for the second night. The cost for the first night was $450.30 including tax. The cost for the second night was $382.75, including tax.

When we settled into our room, we were not only delighted with the room, but with the splendid views of vineyards and hills.

View from Our Room

Zoom Lens View from Our Room

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Grgich Hills Winery - Worth a Visit

Mike Grgich ( is an  iconic figure in California winemaking. As part of our Napa Valley Wine Train trip, we really enjoyed a visit to Grgich Hills Estate (, which he cofounded.

Grgich was born to a winemaking family in Yugoslavia, and grew up there. After studying viticulture and oenology at the University of Zagreb, he left communist Yugoslavia and ended up in California, via West Germany and Canada.

He worked in a number of California wineries before going to work as the winemaker at Chateau Montelena in the Napa Valley. One of the wines he produced there was a 1973 chardonnay.

In 1976, Steven Spurrier, the British owner of a fine wine shop in London organized a blind tasting of French and American wines in Paris. The judges in the tasting were among the best French judges. In the morning, there was a tasting of white wines, and in the afternoon, a tasting of red wines.

The French wines in both tastings were among the best in France. The French whites were some of the best offerings of Burgundy - 1973 Meursault-Charmes, a 1973 Beaune Clos des Mouches, a 1973 Bâtard-Montrachet, and a 1972 Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles. To the surprise of everyone, especially the French judges, Mike Grgich’s 1973 chardonnay received the highest score of the entire competition, including the reds. Mike did not even know that his wine had been taken to the competition.

Another California wine, a Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon scored higher than any of the great Bordeaux red wines entered in the tasting.

The following year, Mike partnered with Austin Hills of Hills Bros. Coffee to open Grgich Hills Estate. It now owns 366 acres in five Napa Valley vineyards.

Our guide for the tour of the winery was a fellow named Michael. He was very knowledgeable, very funny, and very animated. He constantly kept us laughing while informing us. We think he may have been inspired by the grape.

We first saw grapes being brought to the winery. Michael told us that the grapes are picked between 2 am and 4 am. He also mentioned that only people who were local and who had a membership card from the local grange could participate in the grape harvest.

He explained that Grgich Hills uses wild yeast for the fermentation of its wines. Wild yeast is the yeast that occurs naturally on the skin of the grapes. Other winemakers add yeast to their grapes.

He also explained that Grgich Hills prunes its vines so that the fruit hangs low. There is an interesting YouTube video in which the Grgich Hills vineyard manager explains how Grgich Hills does its pruning - . Since all the pruning is done by hand, this involves a great deal of work.

When I asked about the yellow flowers I had seen between the rows of grape vines, he said they were mustard plants. I learned later that they help control nematodes, a type of worm that can destroy grape vines.

In subsequent research, I learned that biodynamic farming is used in all five Grgich Hills vineyards. They use no herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers. They enrich their soils through their own compost. See - and

Michael said that Grgich Hills produces 50,000 cases of wine per year, which he compared to Mondavi’s production of 1.5 million cases per year.

Michael mentioned that Grgich Hills uses its wooden barrels only five times for aging wines.

When we were inside the winery, we encountered Mike Grgich, who is now 88. He spoke to our group for a while, but I was too far from him to catch what he was saying. I could see a range of expressions on his face, from very serious to very light and smiling.

Mike Grgich

The wines we tasted at Grgich Hills were excellent to very nice :
- 2008 Carneros Selection Chardonnay - excellent
- 2009 Napa Valley Fumé Blanc, made with 100% Sauvignon Blanc grapes - very nice
- 2008 Napa Valley Zinfandel, 97% Zinfandel, 3% Petite Sirah - very nice
- 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon - excellent ( a couple of wine critics have rated this wine at 96 points)

With Michael in the Tasting Room

I noticed that there were lots of limousines in the parking lot. These may have been from some of th Napa Valley limousine winery tours.

Beringer Vineyards, Part of a Global Conglomerate, But with Great Wines

When we visited Beringer Vineyards and Winery in October, I knew the company was a large producer, but I had no idea that it was part of a huge global conglomerate and that it produced some really incredible wines. 

Beringer Vineyards and Winery ( were founded by brothers Jacob and Frederick Beringer, who were German immigrants. They purchased the land in 1875 and founded the winery in 1876. They hired Chinese workers to hand-chisel 1,200 feet of rock tunnels in the side of Spring Mountain to use for storing and aging wines.

In 1884, a magnificent house, known as Rhine House, was built as Frederick Beringer’s residence. It’s style was Victorian, with gables and turrets. It had magnificent stone work, stained-glass windows, and wood paneling. The 17-room mansion was completely refurbished in 2006-2008 (

Rhine House

Today, Beringer is part of a huge global wine conglomerate called Treasury Wine Estates. Treasury Wine Estates was split off from the Foster’s Group (Formerly Foster’s Brewing Group) of Australia in May of 2011. Treasury Wine Estates owns such companies as Stag’s Leap, Lindemans, Penfolds, Rosemount, Chateau St. Jean, and Etude.  

Beringer was owned by the Beringer family until 1971, when it sold the business to the Nestlé Company ( Under Nestlé ownership, the business expanded significantly. In 1996, Another group bought Beringer in a leveraged buyout. The business continued to expand, acquiring wineries such as Chateau St. Jean and Stag’s Leap. In 2000, it was acquired by Foster’s.

Beringer owns and manages 14 vineyards in a variety of microclimates, with different soils, and at different altitudes. They are all in Napa County or at the edge of the county. (

Beringer is the oldest continuous operating winery in the Napa Valley.

Beringer produces wines at many different price points - from $7 per bottle to $270 per bottle.

We did two tastings in two different buildings at Beringer. The first was while we were seated at a table on the porch of the Rhine House. The temperature was perfect outside. The man who served us was Eric, a real gentleman, who was very knowledgeable. That tasting was the Beringer Reserve Experience which cost $25 for any four wines selected from a menu of nine wines - one white, six reds, and two dessert wines. The menu also offered several food pairing snacks.


My wife and I shared a tasting, and also ordered a plate of mixed olives for $4 and a LaBrea Bakery demi-baguette for $2.

We tasted four cabernet sauvignons, all of which we rated excellent. They were among the best wines we tasted at any wineries on our trip. I can only imagine what these cabs would be like with a few more years of aging. The retail bottle prices and wine club discounted prices are listed below:
- 2008 St. Helena Home Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon - excellent - $90/$72, rated 90 points by Robert Parker.
- 2007 Bancroft Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon from Howell Mountain, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon - excellent - $90/$72, rated 94 points by Robert Parker.
- 2006 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, 97% Cabernet Sauvignon from 7 vineyards, and 3% Cabernet Franc - excellent - $115/$92, rated 93+ points by Robert Parker
- 2007 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, 97% Cabernet Sauvignon from 6 vineyards, and 3% Cabernet Franc - excellent - $115/$92, rated 97 points by Robert Parker.

The olives and baguette paired very nicely with these wines.

After finishing the reserve tasting, we walked out of the Rhine house and through a small plaza with a fountain toward the right rear of the house. We then walked up a few stairs to the Old Winery Tasting Room, which also had a shop. There, we did a second tasting - a Wine & Chocolate Tasting - for $26.94. We tasted four more reds. They were very nice to nice, but did not begin to compare to the reserve wines we had just tasted.

Plaza and Fountain Behind Rhine House

We tasted the following wines. Retail prices were only available for two of the four wines.:
- 2007 Napa Valley Merlot - very nice
- 2007 Knights Valley Meritage, 52% Merlot, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 1% Malbec - nice
- 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 97% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc - very nice - $40
- 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot - very nice - $27, rated 91 points by Wine Spectator

The Hess Collection, Napa

The Hess Collection ( winery is an unusual combination of winery and art museum. It was established in 1978 by Swiss entrepreneur Donald Hess.

It is probably worth a visit to the art museum, which we did not explore. Its white wines might also merit a visit. However, I would not go for the reds, which we tasted. The winery is mostly highly rated in and reviews.

It is located at 4411 Redwood Rd. a couple of miles northwest of the town of Napa.

It is right next door to the Mont La Salle Christian Brothers Retreat and Conference Center, which owns the winery property and once produced wine there.

The winery was originally established by Colonel Theodore Gier in 1903. His arrest and steep fines for illegal wine production during prohibition brought his business to an end in 1929. He sold the winery on Redwood Rd to the Christian Brothers. They produced Mont La Salle wines there until 1986, when Donald Hess leased the winery from the Christian Brothers.

Colonel Gier ( appears to have been a very interesting character. He was born in Hanover, Germany in 1860 and immigrated to the U.S. about 1880. He was involved in a variety of businesses. He eventually ended up in the wine business, purchasing vineyards in Alameda County, Livermore, and the Napa Valley.

After immigrating to the U.S., he maintained strong ties with Germany, and even received a medal from Kaiser Wilhelm. He was briefly arrested during World War I for singing patriotic German songs about our German enemy.

During prohibition, he illegally produced wine. He was arrested, jailed, and steeply fined.

Donald Hess, the Swiss entrepreneur, who leases the winery is also very interesting. He has eight wineries ( in four countries - the U.S., Argentina, Australia, and South Africa. His four U.S. wineries - Artezin, the Hess Collection, MacPhail Wines, and Sequana - are in northern California.

Hess began collecting art in 1966. His extensive collection  originally focused on modern European and American artists, but is now international in scope. The collection comprises 1,000 works of art by 65 artists. He focuses on living artists and follows works throughout their careers.

The collection is displayed at three of his museums, with a fourth under construction. The existing three museums are collocated with three of his wineries - the one at the Hess Collection winery, one in Argentina, and one in South Africa. The fourth is under construction at his winery in Australia.

The Hess Collection has four vineyards totaling 635 acres. Two are on Mt. Veeder near the winery. The vineyards are in very different microclimates at altitudes ranging from 50 ft to 2,000 ft above sea level. They grow 14 different types of grapes.

The tasting room and museum are both in the old stone winery built by Colonel Gier. The atmosphere was nice. The tasting room was relatively quiet, but it was still early on Sunday afternoon.

The Tasting Room

The charge for a Hess Collection tasting was $10 for four wines, and $5 for a dessert tasting of one wine. The menu offered six white wines, five red wines, and one dessert wine. We shared a tasting of four red wines. They ranged in taste from very nice to nice. We did not judge any of them to be excellent. Retail and club prices are listed with each wine:
- 2009 Hess Small Block Syrah - nice - $36/$28.80
- 2008 Hess Allomi Petite Sirah - very nice - $36/$28.80
- 2008 Hess Collection Mount Veeder 19 Block Cuvée, 69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Malbec, 8% Merlot, 8% Syrah, 1% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petit Verdot - nice - $36/$28.80
- 2007 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon, 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec, 7% Merlot - very nice - $48/$38.4

We did not visit the art museum.

As we walked out in the parking lot after the tasting, I enjoyed the beauty of a tree with its leaves color in bright autumn red - something I missed seeing at home in Florida.

Bistro Jeanty, Yountville, Napa Valley - A Very Enjoyable Dinner

Our dinner at Bistro Jeanty ( in Yountville, Napa Valley is one more example of the delightful dining experiences my wife and I had during our October trip to California. Bistro Jeanty, which is owned by chef Phillipe Jeanty, is a true French bistro. The cuisine, the decor, and the ambience are all French, but the ingredients are wonderful, locally-produced foods. The restaurant has been awarded one Michelin star for each of the past three years. (It is very difficult to get one Michelin star. The highest Michelin rating is 3 stars.)

Phillipe Jeanty was born and raised in the Champagne region of France. His father worked for the Moet & Chandon Champagne House. He came to California in 1977 with a team that established the Chandon restaurant at the Domaine Chandon winery in Yountville. He opened Bistro Jeanty in 1998. It deservedly has an excellent reputation.

The interior is decorated with lots of genuine French antique posters, signs, and other antiques, which Jeanty acquires during trips to France. One of the antiques close to our table was a metal horse head sculpture hanging over our fireplace. I commented to Kathy, our server, that such horse heads used to hang outside French eateries that specialized in serving horse meat. She explained that this horse head had been used in France for just such a purpose.

Since the restaurant was busy and we were early, we had to wait a few minutes for our table. We were seated at a table near the fireplace.

We both started out with Tomato Soup in Puff Pastry (Crème de Tomate en Croute) for $10.50. Before coming to the bistro, I had read Internet reviews stating that this tomato soup was superb. That assessment was right on the mark. The recipe for this dish can be found at

Tomato Soup in Puff Pastry

As her main course, my wife had Ham and Leek Quiche (Quiche aux Poireaux) with butter lettuce salad for $17.50. She thought this dish was decent, but unexciting.

I had the Mussels Steamed in Red Wine with Grilled Bread (Moules au Vin Rouge) for $18.50. The dish was wonderful.

As you might expect, the baguette served with our dinner was great.

For dessert, my wife had the Lemon Meringue Tart with Candied Orange Sauce (Tarte au Citron) for $8.50. The meringue was really high. It was delicious.

Lemon Merignue Pie

I had the Creamy Rice Pudding with Brandied Cherries “Griotines” (Riz au Lait) for $8.50. It was good, but not great.

For our wine, we each had a glass of 2009 Venge “Muhlner Steps Vineyard” Napa Valley syrah for $12 per glass. It was very nice, but it was a big wine that took a while to open up.

The wine list offered a nice mix of California and French wines with quite a range of prices - starting at $25 per bottle and going up to $5,000 per bottle for a 1918 (yes - 1918) Château Latour Pauillac 1er Grand Cru.

I finished with an espresso for $3.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Domaine Carneros, Napa - Well Worth A Visit

Another of the Napa Valley wineries that we enjoyed visiting was Domaine Carneros (, which is located about 6 miles southwest of the town of Napa. It was originally established to make sparkling wines. It now produces several still red wines - Pinot Noirs and a small amount of old-vine Merlot. The sparkling wines are produced in the traditional méthode champenoise (champagne method).

Domaine Carneros was founded in 1987 by a partnership of the renowned Taittinger Champagne House of Reims, Champagne, France, and the Kobrand Corporation, a major wine and spirits merchant. The estate comprises four vineyards with a total of 350 acres. Farming practices are all organic.

The architectural style of the imposing Domaine Carneros building was inspired by Taittinger’s 18th-Century Château de la Marquetterie in Champagne, France. The building is nicely situated on a hill above the surrounding countryside.
 The Chateau

To reach the tasting area from the parking lot, we climbed lots of stairs in the large, multi-level, stone staircase leading up to the building. The staircase was flanked on either side by grapevines.

There was both an indoor salon and a large outdoor terrace in the front and on the right side of the building. Since the temperature outside was perfect, we sat at a table on the terrace in front of the building. The views from the terrace were terrific. They included hills carpeted with vineyards, and mountains in the distance. I think the mountains we could see were the Mayacamas Range to the north and the Vaca Range to the east.

 The Terrace
A Terrace View

Another Terrace View

A Third Terrace View

The Domaine Carneros tasting menu was one of the nicest combinations of wine and food pairings we saw during our California trip. It included a sparkling wine sampler for $16, a red wine sampler for $16, and a Grande Tasting for $25. There were also wines by the glass or bottle.

The menu offered a variety of food pairing plates, including :
- Sparkling wine cheese plate
- Red wine cheese plate
- Charcuterie plate
- Caviar & Smoked Salmon
- Pastry plate

We sat at our table for perhaps 5 minutes without being waited on. When I finally caught the attention of a person who appeared to be a supervisor, she was very apologetic.

We shared both the Sparkling Wine Sampler and the Red Wine Sampler. The wines were very nice to nice :
1. Sparkling Wine Sampler
- 2007 Brut Cuvée, 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay - very nice
- 2007 Brut Rosé, 58% Pinot Noir, 42% Chardonnay - nice
- 2007 Verméil Demi-Sec, 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay - very nice
2. Red Wine Sampler
- Red Wine Sampler
- 2008 Avant-Garde Pino Noir, made with 12 Pinot Noir clones - very nice
- 2009 Estate Pinot Noir, made with their four best Pinot Noir clones - nice
- 2007 Avant-Garde Merlot - very nice

In addition to tastings, the winery offers tours three times per day. The tours cost $25 and include a tour of the vineyards, the wine making process in the chateau, and tastings of the sparkling wines and the red wines. ( I wish we'd had the opportunity to take one of the tours.

During our visit, the parking lot was almost completely full. It took a bit of searching to find a parking spot.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Napa Valley Wine Train - A Very Pleasant Experience

One very pleasant experience we had during our October trip to California was a ride and lunch on the Napa Valley Wine Train (

We had learned about the wine train from several couples in our wine club. They had really enjoyed their experiences on the train and had recommended it to us. We are grateful for their recommendation, without which we would not have known about the train in time to make reservations.

The Napa Valley Wine Train travels through the heart of the Napa Valley between the towns of Napa and St. Helena. The rail line on which the train travels was established in 1864. In the 1980s, Southern Pacific, which owned the right of way and the line, planned to abandon the line and sell the property. However, various efforts to preserve the line led to the creation of the wine train. The most important financial player in the effort was Vincent DeDomenico, who had created Rice-a-Roni and who had owned Ghirardelli Chocolates and Golden Grain Pasta. A detailed history of the line can be found at:

There is a single train with two engines and nine beautiful, early 20th century rail cars. The train makes two trips per day:
1. A mid-day trip that departs at 11:30 am and returns at 2:30 pm.
2. An evening trip that departs at 6:30 pm and returns at 9:30 pm.

There are a variety of options one can choose for the train experience, including:
- A trip with lunch
- A trip with lunch and a visit to a winery
- A trip with dinner
- A trip with dinner and a winery tour

There are also special trips such as a Murder Mystery trip and a New Year’s Eve Ball trip.

In our opinion, it is best to take the mid-day trip in order to get a nice view of the Napa Valley.

It is important to make advance reservations because the train is very popular.

I made our reservations on the train’s web site about a month in advance. I wanted to take the mid-day trip without the winery tour. However, that option was sold out, so I reserved the lunch with winery tour at Grgich Hills Winery. I’m glad I did, because we had a very interesting tour and had the opportunity to meet Mike Grgich, a very historic figure in the California wine industry. (His Chateau Montelena chardonnay won a world-class blind tasting against French competition in 1972.) Our ticket cost for the train trip, lunch, and the winery tour was $124 per person. I understand that prices are to increase in 2012.

Check-in at the train station was an hour before departure. Prior to departure, there was a presentation on wine tasting, including the tasting of a wine. The wine we tasted was a 2009 Vino d’Angelo Rescue Red - a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Merlot. It is produced by veteran Napa Valley firefighter Dan D’Angelo and sells for $11 per bottle in the train station’s wine store. It was decent, and no more.

When we boarded the train, we were seated in Car B, a dining car. The car had tables for four separated by an aisle. Our table was on the left side of the car, giving us a good view toward the west side of the valley after we left the town of Napa. The car was nicely appointed and the tables were beautifully set. We were seated across from two nice younger women, with whom we enjoyed chatting.

Dining Car B

There are three different types of dining cars, each with its own kitchen and its own menu. Our luncheon menu was entitled the Gourmet Express Lunch. The first course was a choice of one salad or the soup du jour. There were five choices for a main course, including a vegetarian dish. There were at least two dessert choices. All beverages except coffee and water were extra.

My wife and I had the same first two courses:
- Baby lettuce salad with candied walnuts and smoked goat cheese in a honey cider vinaigrette
- Grilled & roasted beef tenderloin with sautéed potato topped with roasted mozzarella & artichoke hearts

For dessert, my wife had Tiramisu Truffle and I had Vanilla Bean Crème Brulée with Blueberries.

Both of our meals were very tasty.

Wine was not included with the lunch, but was available for purchase.

Our server was Meredith. She did a good job.

As we ate our lunch, we enjoyed beautiful views of the Napa Valley and its vineyards.

Near Rutherford, about 14 miles north of the Napa train station, the train stopped, and those of us who were going on the Grgich Hills winery tour got off the train. Then the train continued north about 4 miles north to the end of the line at St. Helena. It would return to pick us up en route back to Napa.

(I will discuss our tasting at Grgich Hills in a separate posting.)

When we reboarded the train about 1:30 pm, we were seated in easy chairs in a lounge car. The chairs faced the windows and were very comfortable. This car was also nicely appointed. We were seated on the same side of the train. Since it was now going in the opposite direction, we enjoyed views of the east side of the Napa Valley as we returned to Napa.

The Lounge Car

 A View of the East Side of the Valley

Another View of the East Side

While in the lounge car, we were served our dessert and coffee. The dessert was great, but the coffee was cold.