Tudal: a lovely setting with some really nice wines

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Just a 20-minute drive from The Inn On First, a romantic Bed and Breakfast inn in Napa, lies Tudal Vineyards.  Now into their 5th decade operating the iconic Tudal Winery in St. Helena, Napa Valley, they proudly grow and produce a Signature (and world-class) wine “Tudal Estate Cabernet Sauvignon” on site from the estate vineyard that was planted in 1972.  Visitors of any age can find something to explore, whether it is the array of Napa Valley wines; our bocce court, the enticing flower and produce gardens or the collection of historic farm tractors, tools and bygone novelties that make up a fascinating agricultural retrospective.  And if they ask if you want to take any produce home during the Summer, just remember that your innkeeper-chef would love it if you wanted to drop something off in his kitchen!

Here we learned a bit more about maloactic fermentation.  We always associated it with “buttery” Chardonnays, but came to find out that it also adds a fullness or roundness to their Chardonnay.  It wasn’t buttery at all but felt fuller on our tongues, and had an aftertaste of warm buttered toast that I really enjoyed.  Their Zinfandel was bright with cherry flavor and a hint of pepper.  They also produce a Super Tuscan blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet that had hints of caramel and dark red berries.  Of course we fell in love with their 100% estate Cabernet that is celebrating its 30 anniversary this year.  This is a lovely spot to do a tasting and to have a picnic afterward surrounded by their vineyards.

Final note: I am not a Rose fan.  They run either too dry or too sweet.  Suddenly I felt like Goldilocks and found that theirs was “just right” for me.  I bought 3 bottles for summer sipping.  Can’t wait for that warm weather to hit!  Prices range from $25 to $75.

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Lunch in the mountain vineyards: a most spectacular event and only $80/pp

As we left for the day from The Inn On First, a luxury Napa Bed and Breakfast, we knew we were in for a real treat with our upcoming vineyard lunch.   You enjoy as much wine as you want from each bottle they open for you to try.  You eat to your heart’s content with incredible food from Ken Frank of La Toque.  You look down upon the beauty of Napa Valley and think: “Oh my!  I’m so lucky to be in Napa!”  You are one of the few who have discovered and enjoyed the uniqueness of Napa Valley at its best.

Chateau Patel-VGS.  Vineyard Lunch. It began with a drive up Mt. Veeder and down a long, dusty road to a gated vineyard.  We met Tony, an affable man with a great smile, and he opened the gates and invited us to follow him.  We traversed the rows of cabernet grapes, and when we spotted the pink flag on one of the stakes he proudly proclaimed: “Pick a row!  Climb the mountain.”  We did.  It wasn’t a long climb, about 50 yards, through the vines ripe with fruit, purple and luscious, hanging, waiting for you to enjoy their bounty.  I can see why tennis shoes or good hiking shoes are a must.

We found a dirt road on top and followed that up another 50 yards until we found the arbor, built specifically for this purpose.  A table, white linen table cloth and napkins, with wine glasses, silverware, and plates awaiting the diner.  As well as a gorgeous view of Napa Valley and the surrounding vineyards.

We started with a salmon spread and toast points served with their VGS Explorer Sauvignon Blanc ($25).  A crisp wine with smells of lightly buttered toast and hints of lemon went well with the salmon.  We followed this with a lovely green salad, blue cheese, candied pecans and a balsamic vinaigrette served with the VGS Chardonnay ($45), with notes of pear, green apple, and honeydew.  A beautiful combination of food and wine.  We also paired this and the next course with their cabernet-zinfandel blend called “Illegitimate” (2009) ($37).  Fruity, with flavors of tart cherries and spice, very fruit forward and big fruit flavors.

Our main course was beef carpaccio, potato salad, and marinated vegetables served with the Illegitimate and their VGS Syrah (2009) ($75) with big fruit flavors, lightly spiced, and extremely delicious.  Of course there was still the cheese course with cranberry nut bread, nuts, and three beautiful cheeses.  All that could be paired with what we already had open.  But then Tony opened a bottle of their late harvest zinfandel, called “Zinie” (2010) ($28).  Low in residual sugar and not at all like many of the dessert wines we’ve had elsewhere, it was an incredible pairing with the cheese and bread.

I have to admit that it wasn’t just the food and the wine and the view that made our day special.  Tony is an incredible host, funny, and willing to engage you in conversation about many things.  He makes you feel comfortable, even about the fact that there are no restrooms: “Just find a nice spot around the bend in the road,” he encouraged as we each took turns finding our private hideaway.  Rustic, yes, but with the views of vineyards and mountains, it didn’t matter.  For $80/pp you would be hard pressed to enjoy such a wonderful experience at any restaurant in the valley with this caliber pairing of wines for anything less.  And remember, you also get all those views on your way down the mountain!  Oh, and don’t forget to ask him: “What does VGS stand for anyway?”

Vine Cliff Winery: great wines to enjoy.

We often call Vine Cliff a great proposal winery because of the private picnic grounds that are hidden under a tree near a pond with a fountain nearby.  Secluded, quiet, and serene it can offer a perfect blend of ambience and privacy to pop that important question.  (If you want to propose we suggest you tell us what you plan to do so we reserve it just for you)

But I don’t want to forget that Vine Cliff is a great Stag’s Leap District winery producing some world-class wines.  The Chardonnay, neither oaky nor buttery nor overly acidic – dare I say it?- is well-balanced!  It is a Chardonnay that I really enjoy.  Their Cabernet, without question, is the quintessential Napa experience that many of our guests look for.   Combined with a small property, a small modern cave, knowledgeable and friendly staff, and a tour of the whole operation as part of the package, we think they offer our guests a great wine-tasting experience.  And for those who want to enjoy a picnic at the winery, even without the proposal, make sure to let us know so we can set aside a picnic table for you.

The chardonnay, neither oakey or buttery or overly acidic; balanced.

The tour of the vineyards, the caves, and the tasting.

Nice place to picnic; tell them ahead of time; sometimes we recommend it for marriage proposals and they allow us to reserve the table by the pond for privacy and beauty.

Carneros: a beautiful place for bicycling near The Inn On First

Get out of the car and onto the bike.  It is a lovely way to see the Napa Valley, and all within reach of The Inn On First.  Napa Valley Adventure Tours rents bicycles out of the Oxbow Market, a 15-20 minute walk from the inn.  While at the Oxbow Market you can pick up sandwiches from The Fatted Calf (love the pulled pork), or go next door to The Model Bakery for a loaf of bread (a huge selection) and head up to the Cheese Merchant in the main building for some olives, cheeses, or other snacks.  While there, visit the wine shop where you can pick up half-bottles of wine for lunch, or walk through the open market and purchase fresh fruit, vegetables, or go to Pica-Pica for some gluten-free items.  Then go to the bike shop, pick up your bike and head right back down First Street, past the inn, over Highway 29 until First Street becomes Browns Valley Road.  Stay on that street until you see the animal farm on the left (about 1/4 mile from Highway 29) and turn left on Thompson Road.  Follow Thompson Avenue to Congress Valley Road (right) and continue to Buhman Road (left) which takes you into the heart of the Carneros Region.  Best place to lunch and wine taste will be Folio Winemaker’s Studio, where you can sit at the picnic table out near the vineyards, or go onto the back porch and enjoy your lunch overlooking the vineyards.  This is the 6-mile marker from the inn.  If you are feeling hearty, head up the hill toward Artesa Winery for a great view (7-mile marker) and then make a decision: more cycling, more wine tasting, or return to the inn.  If you are ready to return, head for Old Sonoma Road, turn left, and follow the directions below for Getting Home.

If you are ready to keep going then head back down the hill away from Artesa Winery toward Domain Carneros Winery (9-mile marker), where you can spend some time enjoying a purchase of their cheese plate with a glass of sparkling wine on their terrace.  Want to go further?  Follow Duhig Road toward Acacia Winery (11.5 mile marker), and then to Cuttings Wharf Road/Carneros Ave to Saintsbury winery (16-mile marker) and then back toward Madonna Estate and Old Sonoma Road (17-mile marker).

Getting Home: Stay on Old Sonoma Road until it crosses back over Highway 29 and you come to Jefferson Avenue.  Turn left on Jefferson and ride down to First Street and turn left. At this point you will have completed a 22-mile loop.  You want a bigger ride than that?  I’ll have to save that info for another blog: think Lake Hennessey and Chiles Valley.

Don’t worry about directions: we’ll have maps for you as well as the bike shop.  There are only a few slight inclines, except for the climb up to Artesa; it is generally a really flat ride with great views of the wineries, vineyard, and the Carneros Region.  And except for a very short (maybe 50 yards) ride along the highway, you are on side streets that keep you away from the hustle and bustle of traffic.

For those who want to see my map, copy and paste the link to a new window:  http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=118210235070811742809.0004863229d0d1cb14f19&z=13&lci=bike

When you want something more than wine in Napa: Skyline Wilderness Park.

We enjoyed a perfect day in Napa.  Lovely blue skies, 75 degree weather, and a lovely hike for an hour to Lake Marie (Lake Marie Road).  It starts in a parking lot, veers around an RV park, and then climbs into the hillsides filled with oak trees, long grasses, and beautiful flowers all over the place.  There we found a bench at the lake, a place to eat lunch, drink some wine, and to enjoy the afternoon.  Then we made the trek back with some really spectacular views of Napa Valley; all the while proclaiming: “Oh my!  And we get to live here.”  It is a five minute drive from The Inn On First and it is called Skyline Wilderness Park.  For a $5.00 day-use fee you have access to picnic grounds and some really wonderful trails in the hills around the city of Napa.  Due to poison oak we stayed with the Lake Marie Road trail, which is pretty much a straight shot to Lake Marie.  There are picnic areas along the trail, as well as picnic tables or benches (okay, only 2) for you to enjoy the view of the lake, the egrets, the hawks, the ducks, the blue herons, etc.  For a Saturday afternoon, when the valley floor is crawling with people and cars and wine-tasting, this was a perfect day in the park and a picnic lunch where there were few people along the trail, and we only saw one other couple at the lake.  When they left we were alone for a good 30 minutes before anyone else showed up.  Wow!  What a perfect day, and right here within city limits.

Oxbow Market: great place to buy picnic foods for a day in Napa Valley.

We wanted the perfect lunch and we thought Oxbow Market, about a two minute drive from the inn, would be the perfect place to get everything we needed.  We started in a store called The Fatted Calf, where they offered only 2 sandwich selections (we bought the pork sandwich with slaw and dressing on a beautiful ciabatta roll), but also offered cold bbq’d ribs and other cooked meats to take with you.  Next door we entered into the Model Bakery for a lovely selection of cookies (and more sandwiches), desserts, and breads.  We followed this up with a walk through the wine store where we picked up a Rhone wine (half-bottle) for our lunch (yes, it’s important to drink non-Napa wine!), and then perused the cheese shop next door for something delicious to take with us on the hike.  We then took a walk through the main Oxbow Market and I was disappointed that I could not take ice cream with us as the ice cream shop was just screaming for attention on this hot day.  I wanted to dally in the spice shop, or at the meat market, or even at Pica-Pica that offers everything gluten-free (made with cornmeal) with lovely tortilla-like sandwiches, and to meander through the veggie-fruit market; but, alas, Jamie called me out of my “shopping haze” to get back outdoors and to enjoy the day.  Want to take a picnic lunch with you?  Start at the Oxbow Market and you can find pretty much whatever you want for the day.  And remember: tell them that Jim and Jamie sent you from The Inn On First!

Saddleback: what a surprise- I liked everything I tried.

I don’t often say that I like everything I tried, but this was an unusual place.  A world-class winemaker producing wines that are reasonably priced.  Now, that is the real surprise of this place.  I won’t drop his name- you’ll have to discover it for yourself; but he is consultant to many wineries here in the Napa Valley because he is one of the few who has produced a 100-point wine out of Napa.  We were encouraged to visit by a friend of ours and finally made our way to this small, unassuming winery with a very small and intimate tasting room.  The pourer, Jim, was just delightful and very informative, and let us also taste the winemaker’s son’s wine.  To be honest, the son has a ways to go, but is making some nice wine; just not as lovely as his father.  Anyway, if you are looking for an unassuming place to drink some really nice wine that is affordable and unpretentious, then this is the place for you.  If you are looking for splash, and pizzazz, and a major tour, please go elsewhere.  The winemaker’s son also produces wine out of Saddleback under a different label.  His wine was good but, in our opinion, not as good as his father’s wine- and, it was more expensive!  And in today’s times, less expensive is good especially when the flavor in your mouth is popping.  By the way, they have some tables and umbrellas outdoors for picnics, and I would highly recommend this as a place to enjoy your lunch.  As with any winery it is common courtesy to buy a bottle of wine when using the picnic grounds.