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Getaways: Northern California (Part 3)

Welcome! You’re reading part 3 of my round-up from our vacation to Northern California. Need to catch up? Read Part 1 and Part 2.

From the land of waterfalls and wildflowers, D and I drove north, past Carmel and straight by the Bay Area, and sojourned into the land of grapevines, wine country. No sooner had we passed San Francisco, the topography started to change. Fewer buildings, more sprawl, and — importantly — no fog. I tell you, the clouds hug that little city nice and tight. When you’re in SF, you pretty much forget there is a sun. Then you go 15 minutes outside the city and, oh, right, there it is. Wine country was sunny, beautiful, and full of the good stuff.

This is the part where you’d hear two different stories if D had a blog. For me, wine country was, you know, about wine. For D, not as much. She’s a beer drinker, and a serious one at that. Wine is less her thing, and I got a real kick out of watching her eyes glaze over as winemakers talked of caramel and spice, cherry and blueberry, barnyard funk, and long finishes.

Wine jargon aside, it’s hard not to love this place. Everywhere you look, grapevines abound. Driving past wineries in Healdsburg on our first day in town, I couldn’t stop staring at the rows upon rows of them. Grapevines look really young. They’re so delicate; it’s almost hard to believe they can stay upright. Most of the time, they’re bound together in rows, held between two lines of string or wire. Their branches sprawl outward, and driving by a row of vines, it looks like the branches are holding hands. Clearly, I was mesmerized.

Our first stop was Michel Schlumberger, a biodynamic vineyard in Healdsburg with a sprawling, beautiful estate. Before settling on the portico for a tasting, we roamed their vineyard, stopped by the lake, and watched some sheep lazing in the shade.

The tasting at Schlumberger — $10, a steal compared to the wineries in Napa — was great, and we left with a bottle of Chardonnay and one of Merlot. (It’s worth mentioning that we got several talking-tos about the redeeming qualities of Merlot. It seems “Sideways” has had a debilitating effect on Merlot sales that, despite Americans’ goldfish-sized memories, somehow persists. We had some great Merlot while we were in town; don’t believe Paul Giamatti, cute as he is.) There were a few other Healdsburg wineries, including Ridge, where we had some truly awesome Zinfandels, but Schlumberger was definitely our favorite. File it in the “don’t miss” category.

The next day we played our cards a bit differently. The day started at Bouchon Bakery, where — let’s be honest here — we totally pigged out on Thomas Keller’s creations. Standing in line, we had planned to get 1 pastry each, and a coffee. But as we got closer to the ordering counter — beneath which sits a display case full of delicious, delicious things — we secretly decided to get two. Each. Plus a bag of bouchons, obviously — how could I go to Bouchon Bakery and not get a bag of bouchons? Those dense, chocolatey cakes are to die for.

Armed with the good stuff, we strapped on our helmets and set out on bikes to explore the valley without the nuisance of a car. You guys? Highly recommended. Seriously. It’s a beautiful ride through all those vineyards, it’s easier to spot the ones you want to hit when you’re only riding 15 miles an hour, and you work up enough of a sweat that you’re ready, no, entitled, to have a few glasses of vino.

My favorite stop in Napa was Prager, a port winery that’ll do a number on an empty stomach. (Maybe I should’ve bought more sweets from Bouchon.) Their royal port is one of the best glasses of sweet wine I’ve ever had, a close second to that glass of Tokaji I had at Komi a couple years ago. If the stuff weren’t 100 smackeroos per bottle, I’d have bought some.

A 40 mile bike ride earns a girl some food. D and I stopped at Paninoteca Ottimo, Michael Chiarello’s sandwich shop, for lunch. I’ve never been a fan of the guy — his Food Network show is supremely annoying and he wears way too much make up — but we had some pretty tasty sandwiches, so I’ll lay off the criticism.

Three posts later, it’s probably quite clear that our trip was out of this world. There’s more from the vacation that I didn’t share, so if you have questions about specific spots, recommendations, or whatever, please pretty please either leave a comment or shoot me an email. To the rest of y’all — especially you NorCal experts out there — what are the 1-2 places folks coming to town shouldn’t miss? Leave’em in the comments.

I’m working like a dog, but I’ll be back soon with a recipe for something so easy and quick, even a girl with a crazy work schedule can whip it together. Stay tuned.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ciaochowlinda August 30, 2010,

    Wow, what gorgeous photos. Northern California, including the wine country is such a beautiful place. Glad you had such a nice time and shared it with your readers.

  • Aliza S. September 3, 2010,

    Love that there is a Part III and love the Prager’s shout out!

  • home improvement September 10, 2010,

    Pictures are just fantastic! So beautiful… California is a state of my dreams…