Personal Opinion on Airports: Sacramento is best, Oakland is 2nd, San Francisco is 3rd

The 3 main airports that are utilized for traveling to Napa Valley are Sacramento, Oakland, and San Francisco.  Of the three we think that Sacramento is the easiest to get in and out of and that you’ll face less traffic.  The information we provide here is purely subjective and is personal opinion and should not be taken as the last word on arriving here to Napa.


Sacramento International Airport (SMF)

Distance from Inn: 68 miles

Time to Airport: 1 Hour, 15 minutes (no traffic), 2 hours (with traffic)


Oakland International Airport (OAK)

Distance from Inn: 51 miles

Time to Airport: 1 hour (no traffic), 3 hours (with traffic)


San Francisco Airport (SFO)

Distance from Inn: 59 miles


There are actually two routes to San Francisco International Airport.  The fastest route is US-80 through Berkeley and takes you over the Bay Bridge.  The more scenic route is US-101 and takes you over the Golden Gate Bridge and includes some driving time through San Francisco city streets.

Time: 1 Hour 15 minutes (no traffic), 3-4 hours (with traffic)

What is deceiving is the distance.  When it says “no traffic”, that is a rarity to San Francisco or Oakland.  If you are traveling during the non-rush-hour times, then those times are pretty close, yet those windows are very narrow.  As you can see, even with traffic, Sacramento is the best.  In terms of size, Sacramento is also the smallest and thus the easiest to get in and out of on your trip.    No matter what airport you choose, always plan on arriving at the airport 1.5 – 2 hours ahead of your departure time (depending on time of day, accounting for crowds) to allow time for dropping off your rental car.





Swanson Vineyards: not a tasting room but a salon.

Swanson is a small family owned winery in Napa Valley that has a most unusual set-up.  The tasting salon sits in the middle of vineyards they do not own (their vineyards are behind Brix Restaurant), and the decor in the salon is really unique.  Painted in bold colors, with large whimsical portraits of people and grapes and wine, it is bright and cheery as you enter the room and find yourself greeted by Cidy or Sean who immediately invite you to sip a little Pinot Grigio and stand by the open fire.  Since it was a cool Napa day it was a wonderful greeting.  This was a hospitality event to introduce us to their salon and how they do tastings, and Cidy took responsibility for each person at the door to invite them to enjoy the food that was being paired with the wine.  The Pinot Grigio with deviled eggs and caviar (my mouth still waters) and the salmon crostini with a housemade ricotta-like cheese, the Merlot was paired with pork sandwiches as well as cheese and crackers, and finally the Alexis (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon) blend with homemade chocolate truffles dusted with curry powder.  They all worked beautifully.  Alexis Swanson works closely with the chef to create this pairing and it creates a great time for everyone.  Normally guests will sit at the tasting table (only 10-12 allowed per session) and will enjoy about 90 minutes of tasting wine and eating food and receiving a great education on wine and food pairing.  They only do a few sessions per day and to make reservations you need to call weeks in advance, especially during the summer.  Although we haven’t done the tasting experience…yet!…we were really impressed by what we saw and experienced.  Other guests have gone throughout the past year and have really enjoyed their time at the salon.  The cost is $30-$55, depending on the number of wines and foods you pair with during your tasting.  For a small boutique winery, this really works well for guests to have a different kind of experience in Napa.

Bleaux Magnolia: 2 new dishes to try.

Yes, I know we need to expand our universe in terms of eating out but we couldn’t resist the two new dishes that Matt, the chef, had told us that he added onto the menu recently.  The first, Escolar (whitefish) marinated with homemade voodoo sauce (a southern bbq sauce), seared and served with a marmalade.  Quite a dish and what great flavor.  I usually offer bites to others who have ordered something different, but after my first bite I changed my mind.  I know, a bit selfish, but it was really tasty.  The second dish was dessert, panko-encrusted butterscotch pudding that was deep-fried, with a green apple salad with a vanilla vinaigrette (it really works!), and a sour apple sorbet.  We said we were stuffed and really couldn’t eat another bite, but ten minutes later the plate was empty.  First you wanted to try each on their own, then with each other, and soon it was hard to say which of all of those bites were better, so you had to start over.  I’ve never had deep-fried pudding for dessert and it was worth the extra calories to enjoy those flavors.


Diamond Oaks: another great place to picnic in Napa Valley.

We had friends visiting and decided to take a ride up the Valley and to try one of the recommended places for a picnic. Stopping off at the Oakville Grocery we picked up sandwiches, chips, and something to drink. Despite its busyness, it amazed me how quickly they got food to the consumer. Jamie had the curried chicken salad sandwich (his favorite) and I went with the smoked turkey on foccacia with pesto (I love that sandwich). As you pull out of the parking lot of the Grocery you make a quick left, then right up the Oakville Grade Road. Drive for about 1/2 mile and you will see the Diamond Oaks winery entrance on the left. The picnic grounds are visible as you pull into the parking lot, and sit under a stand of oak trees. Imagine a hot summer day, a chilled bottle of Chardonnay or a lovely Pinot Noir as you nibble on your sandwich from the Oakville Grocery. It really is a lovely place to picnic. They require that you register in the tasting room, which really means that you should buy a bottle of wine and tell them you are going to use a picnic table. It’s just common courtesy at any winery to do so. The views from the picnic ground are beautiful. The vineyards, the mountains, and at this time of year, the light pall of smoke coming from the wineries that are burning the pruned branches off the vines. This is really a great time in Napa. Spring is here and that sweet smell of smoke is like incense, singing the praises of the wine yet to come.   All the fruit trees are in full bloom and when a breeze picks up the white blossoms fly off into the air creating a symphony of snowfall without all the cold and wetness of winter.  I love it!


Robert Sinskey Winery: a nice change of pace.

We found ourselves with an afternoon free and decided to head up to Mumm Napa to pick up more sparkling wine, as we now put a split bottle of their Brut Prestige in the rooms for a guest’s arrival.  On the way back we decided to stop at a winery we haven’t visited yet and we chose Robert Sinskey as we have heard so many positive reviews from guests this past year.  Driving up the short hillside we parked the car and walked into a spacious and airy tasting room that had a full kitchen on the far side for cooking classes and demonstrations.   The fee for the tasting is $20, includes 4 pours and a pairing with food for each wine.  Small little bites of a crostini with cheese, ham and cheese puffs, and a lovely duck pate.  Included were some nuts and olives to be eaten along the way.  We soon learned that the winery is all organic, and that the wife of the winemaker is the one who creates the menus for the wines.  In the course of conversation the employee mentioned her name…Maria Helm Sinskey.  ”Maria Helm?” I asked.  ”As in the Sherman House and Squaw Valley Maria Helm?”  ”One and the same,” he replied.  Oh my.  I know her.  She was the first chef I worked with in San Francisco when I was first out of the culinary academy.  She wasn’t there that day, but I left a note and hope to reconnect with her in the months ahead.  As we ate and sipped, we were encouraged to see what happened to the wine- first on its own, and then with a bite of food.  These are the kinds of lessons we love as it really helps to understand how acids balance out creaminess, how tannins works with fats, and how flavors of the wine are softened or enhanced with each bite.  The experience itself was great, and the wine was even better!  Of course I fell in love with one Pinot Noir from the Vandal Vineyard in the Carneros region of Napa Valley, which just happens to be one of their more expensive wines.  How did I end up with champagne tastes on a beer budget?  Sinskey not only offers this food and wine pairing, but you can order a Bento Box lunch on the weekends, and enjoy eating on a lovely patio and picnic area that overlooks the Silverado Trail and the surrounding vineyards.  A great place to have lunch (you can bring your own); the only caveat (and this is true of any winery where you want to have a picnic) is that you come into the tasting room and buy a bottle of wine.  They have picnic tables, shaded areas, and lots of space to spread out and enjoy your afternoon.  They also have culinary tours and cave and cellar tours on a limited basis for those who plan ahead.


CIA Greystone Restaurant: what a nice place to lunch!

One of the perq’s of living in Napa and working in the hospitality industry is that we are invited to different events throughout the year. This past week we were invited to dine at the Wine Spectator CIA Greystone Restaurant with others in the hotel and BnB industry. Having eaten there twice before we knew we were in for a great meal. It started with a selection of “small bites”, an assortment of small tapas-style plates served at the table: pea mousse with tortilla strips, spelt with a sun-dried tomato and pepper sauce, duck pate on brioche, and a selection of olives. Although looking at something bright green on the plate (pea mousse) is not always appetizing, it surprised us with its freshness of flavor. Spring is here, it said to me. The spelt was a bit “fishy” for others at the table, but Jamie and I both enjoyed it. The duck pate was excellent…but then again, in my book, anything on brioche is excellent! For the main course I enjoyed a grilled Angus hanger steak with Sunchokes, king trumpet mushrooms, and watercress puree. Jamie ordered the crispy skinned grouper with baby arugula, fingerling potatoes, fennel, Picholine olives, roasted pimiento peppers and a blood orange gastrique. Both dishes were well-presented and the flavors came together nicely. The chef, Polly, came out at the end of the meal as we were finishing our creme brulee with biscotti and the molten chocolate lava cake. She offered her recipes for anyone who wanted them, and we found out that if you dine at the restaurant you can submit a request for the recipe to be sent to you. What a nice touch to the meal. We were also offered a full tour of the school, and I was really impressed with the student kitchen on the 3rd floor where the latest generation of chefs is being trained in the culinary arts. It reminded me of my days at the CCA in San Francisco and how much fun it was to be learning so much so quickly every day. That same energy was there as I peered at all the students working hard at their stations. Although you can see the chef’s working in the open kitchen in the restaurant, the student kitchen was even more spacious and open and afforded you a view of everything going on in the kitchen, and thus it was a bit more exciting and happening. I did ask if guests were allowed to see all of this and we were assured that if the concierge knows ahead of time that you want a tour that someone at the school would show you around all the kitchens, the cork collection of the departed Christian Brother who collected them, as well as the old Christian Brother’s Barrel room. It is a beautiful location and the surrounding countryside is gorgeous right now. During the summer the restaurant provides outdoor seating which would really add to the experience of dining there. It’s a great place to eat and well worth the 30 minute drive up the valley to get there. One other special note: we found out that Robert Parker does his famous blind wine tasting there at the CIA in November, a sold out event for 120 lucky people to experience this wine expert drink wine blindly, tell you where it is from, even down to the vineyard, and why certain wines are doing so well. You may not remember that he is the one who came up with the 100-point system that everyone uses today in wine-tasting. And event for the future. Mark it in the calendar! We are planning to attend.


Happy Anniversary, Bleaux Magnolia!

The restaurant Bleaux Magnolia celebrated their one year anniversary this past weekend and we were glad to be a part of that delicious celebration.  With chicken gumbo, red beans and rice, and all the spicy crawfish you could eat, it was a great party.  Okay, so the sangria helped, too!  Of course they served their yummy (Jamie’s words) cornbread and finished it with a bourbon-chocolate bread pudding.  It was another reminder of the great food we’ve enjoyed this past year and of all the wonderful comments guests have made about that particular restaurant.   Phillip, one of the owners, is from Louisiana and many of the dishes are from his family.  Matt, the chef, takes those recipes of southern Creole cooking and brings to them a contemporary flair.  Some of our favorite dishes: seafood gumbo with great spiciness, duck jambalaya with its rich tomato base, osso bucco that falls off the bone over the sweet potato fries, and the drunken skirt steak with a port/bleu cheese bonbon that you crack open and it oozes over the meat.  My mouth is watering even as I write.  The atmosphere is casual and on Sundays they have a jazz band playing during brunch (not that you would want to go there for brunch and miss out on my cooking here at the Inn!).  We wish them continued success in the year ahead.  Go, Bleaux!