A road trip through the Golden State yields fine wine and scenic views
Story and Photos by Michelle Lyn
September in Southern California means sunny skies, warm weather and less crowded beaches since the kids are back in school and the tourists have all gone home. Track season has come to a close and you’re still itching to take one more vacation.
Lucky for you, our Golden State shines in more ways than one this month. Not only is September California Wine Month, but it is also harvest time, which makes it a fine time to enjoy a glass of California wine and a visit to wine country.
As the fourth largest wine producer in the world, California has some of the most coveted wine regions. .. and they are just a short drive up our coast.
In an attempt to enjoy one last indulgent vacation before summer’s end, my husband and I recently embarked on a memorable road trip with stops along the Central Coast and Napa Valley.
Once you get past Los Angeles’ tangled web of freeways and traffic jams, you hop on Highway 1, roll down the windows, inhale the salty sea air and exhale a sigh of relief. You’ve broken free from the city strife and made it to the water’s edge with undulating waves, throngs of surfers at Malibu’s infamous break, and hopefully, a deserted stretch of road.
On this particular trip, we decided to make our first stop in the Central Coast. Eight miles east of the Pacific Ocean in San Luis Obispo County, Arroyo Grande is home to Talley Vineyards. Makers of some of the most delicious pinot noirs I’ve ever tasted, they offer the “Pinot Noir Experience,” a September event that delivers a tour of the vineyard, a winery tour with barrel tastings and a vertical tasting with artisan cheese pairings.
If that doesn’t quench your thirst for pinots, continue north to Wild Horse Winery & Vineyards, in Templeton. Named after the wild mustangs that roamed the hills east of the vineyard estate, the mustangs represent a free and noble spirit that embodies the winery’s commitment to spirited winemaking.
This month, you can stop by for their “Popcorn & Pinot” movie nights under the stars, or learn the art of blending wine and create your own unique blend to bottle and take home!
A slight detour from the shoreline, Paso Robles was the perfect midway point to spend our first night, and we stayed at Hotel Cheval, the town’s finest boutique luxury hotel. The equestrian-themed, 16-room hotel is cozy and emanates Old World charm. Located in the heart of downtown Paso Robles, it is in walking distance from several restaurants and quaint shops like We Olive, where they specialize in hand-crafted tapenades, mustards, pestos, balsamic vinegars and olive oils, of course.
Before leaving Paso Robles, make sure you stop by Bianchi Winery. Their tasting room offers a sensorial wine-tasting experience, blending modern elements with earthen materials. Framed by a sweeping vineyard with coastal mountain views, the tasting room patio is the perfect place to sip their Signature Refosco or Barbera, while overlooking a serene lake.
Heading back to the coast, we continued our drive up the Cabrillo Highway, as fields gave way to a rugged coastline where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. The most stunning part of the drive, there are several opportunities to pull over and take in the views, including the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge that introduced automobile travel to Big Sur by connecting the remote coastal towns to each other.
As the sun began to set on our second day, we pulled up to the secluded Ventana Inn and Spa. Situated on 243 acres, 1,200 feet above the ocean, this Big Sur gem is renowned for its tranquil setting and rustic sophistication.
We were welcomed with a fireside wine and cheese reception before retreating to our room that had a private balcony with a distant ocean view. A fireplace and giant soaking tub were exactly what we needed to soak our road trip-weary limbs.
The remoteness is what we relished most about Ventana Inn and Spa. With a world class spa and dining onsite, there was no need to leave the property. The Restaurant at Ventana, is nestled deep within the property, and reachable by a redwood-studded path that provides for a romantic walk home under the stars.
Refreshed by our luxe accommodations, we started the next morning with a hike around the property. Weaving in and out of the buildings constructed from weathered cedar, latticed against the sun, we explored the mountain meadow encircled by redwood, oak and bay laurel trees. The views are stunning and rumor has it that during migration season, you can even spot whales from vantage points on the property.
Continuing on our way to wine country, we passed through Sonoma for a bite to eat. Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Sonoma is a self-proclaimed “Wine Wonderland,” designed for people of all ages to enjoy food, wine, music, dancing, games, swimming and performances of all types.
Sundays in September, you can experience the 2011 harvest with the Italian Harvest Experience. Pick grapes as the morning mist rises over the vineyard for brix sampling, test barrel and tank samples, punch down grapes in open-top fermentors and sample fermenting juice. Afterwards, enjoy an exclusive, five-course, family-style lunch.
Arguably the most acclaimed origination of wine in the world, Napa Valley’s namesake Napa city is enjoying a resurgence with sleek hotels and urban restaurants, like Oenetri, with menus driven by fresh, local and seasonal ingredients.
The AVIA Napa hotel was our base as we explored the southern end of the valley. Sleek and modern, AVIA is centrally located and offers the ambience and amenities akin to trendy city lodging.
The perfect day in Napa starts out at the Oxbow Public Market, where you’ll find 21 permanent upscale shops and restaurants and a farmer’s market twice a week. I’m still craving another latte from Ritual Coffee, flavor enhanced perhaps by their uncompromising sustainable roots.
Sunday afternoons in September offer market patrons live jazz while enjoying fresh oysters and crisp wines from Hog Island Oyster Co. as well as delicious pairings from Oxbow Wine and Cheese Merchant.
In the same vein of celebrating food, wine and community, Revival Vineyards is the newest winery to perpetuate the reinvigoration of Napa Valley’s image.
In their blood long before it became a bottle of wine, Revival is the passion project of Winemakers Sean and Lindsay Garvey. Born into winemaking families, Flora Springs and Buehler, respectively, Revival is a reflection of who they are and what they hope to share.
An homage to the spirit of their parents who settled in Napa Valley in the 1970s, Revival celebrates the value of the handmade and the importance of time spent around the dinner table.
Their inaugural release is a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from four rows of the most pristine fruit. A single varietal, created in an effort to stop time, so that the laughter, stories and songs that emerge when gathered among loved ones might carry you long into the night, and lift your days with a sense of connection, joy and gratitude.
If you contact the Garveys (firstname.lastname@example.org), they just might walk you through the rows to check the progress of the vintage and pull the cork on a bottle of Revival right there in the dust!
If you want to visit some of the long-established Napa wineries, Grgich Hills holds the annual “Blessing of the Grapes” on the first day of harvest. Mike Grgich first stomped grapes when he was 3 years old growing up in Croatia and he says his feet itch to stomp grapes every harvest. That’s why Grgich Hills Estate is the only Napa winery to offer customers a “feet-on,” traditional approach to making wine by offering grape stomping at the winery daily during harvest.
Known for their sustainable and biodynamic farming, mainstay Joseph Phelps Vineyards offers an informal tasting on the terrace. The six wine flight includes the flagship Insignia, an iconic blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot that has been produced since 1974.
Venturing further north, Calistoga is the charming, small town “up-valley” that began its history in the 1860s and has retained the feel of the “old” Napa Valley while offering visitors the pleasures of the “new.”
Tucked into a private canyon in the Upper Napa Valley on a 157-acre site marked by ancient oaks, majestic hills, a rock-hewn stream and private lake lies Calistoga Ranch. The luxury lodges boast stunning indoor and outdoor space that offer the utmost privacy, while you relax in the open air.
Our lodge was nestled amongst 100-year old oaks along a seasonal creek. A private sanctum with a master bedroom suite, separate living room, outdoor living area with a fireplace and hot tub on th deck overlooking the creek, I thought I had finally found my perfect compromise to camping that would appease my husband.
Complete privacy prevails, which makes sense because it is very likely that you might rub elbows with celebrities at their Lakehouse restaurant, as we sat next to a two-time Academy Award winning actress over breakfast.
When in Calistoga, you would be remiss to forgo a visit to Chateau Montelena. Established in 1882, Chateau Montelena’s stunning castle is one of Calistoga’s gems. If you’ve seen the movie “Bottle Shock,” you might be familiar with the tale of the infamous 1976 Paris Tasting. Chateau Montelena put California wine on the map when it stunned the wine world by winning the title of top-ranking white wine with their 1973 Chardonnay.
To round out your whirlwind of California wine tasting, spend an afternoon at the gracious Twomey Cellars estate. Founded by the Duncan family, also at the helm of Silver Oak, they focus on food-friendly wines that are deliciously drinkable upon release. After decades of only making Cabernet Sauvignon at Silver Oak, they took their experience and resources and poured them into making handcrafted Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.
Surrounded by landscaped gardens and lush vineyards, the courtyard with sweeping views of the Calistoga foothills is the perfect place to wind down and reflect on your travels. With terroir steeped in history, picturesque highways and world class wines, raise a glass to California’s diversity and be thankful we can call it our home.