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Friday, April 11, 2008

The Weekend I Got Sick of Wine (in a good way)

Out trip has come and gone, and now it seems almost ages ago, we were tired messes, stumbling off the connecting tunnel in IAH, ready to sleep for weeks.

San Francisco is a destination I have always felt would not live up to all the hype, and would become a let down for me. In general, all I ever heard about San Francisco was how rad a place it was, what with all the hippiness and left-wing love. I found SF to live up to all the hype, but in a totally different way than I imagined. I have a rather blatantly-admitted insecurity of not being able to blend with the uber hip. I have no qualms with the fact that I'm not trendy per se, I just wonder if they can smell the yuppy-boring when I enter the room, like soured milk left on the counter. These are my own issues, I realize that. I will not make this a therapy session, promise.



What I loved most was the general vibe. It wasn't liberal pretentious as I had shaped it in my mind to be. It was relaxed, the general aura of acceptance laid there, lingering with the thick morning fog, which oddly didn't bother me. I wanted to give St. Francis a big hug. We arrive last Wednesday morning, just Andrew and I, and I was pleasantly surprised to not have arctic winds biting my face the moment I stepped off the plane. Another thing you hear about SF, the bitter COLD.

Wait, let me digress for a second.

Yao Ming was on our flight. All gigantic proportions of him, crammed into a first class seat that made luxury look like elf-quarters. With broken foot, his crutches were taller than Andrew.

Once we pick up our luggage, we head toward the taxi line. I am commenting on how my jacket is so unnecessary, look at me being a badass in my thin shirt. We step outside the terminal, and a limo pulls up and the driver steps out. He offers to give us a ride to our hotel for $45, which is cheaper and faster than any taxi or shuttle would provide. We happily agree, and I'm giddy at the good fortune we have. This is a good omen! (You can tell I have been reading The Alchemist on the plane.) The limo was on a dry run on the way back to the city to pick someone up, so why not make a little cash on the way in? Good timing I suppose. We feel like royalty, arriving at our hotel in Fisherman's Wharf - the Hyatt.

We check in, throw our bags down, and the need for lunch is urgent. We walk outside, me in just a sweater over my thin shirt (just in case right), and head to Boudin's for clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. I'm ballsy, we're near the bay, let's sit outside! PSHA! Who needs these heaters? After twenty minutes of sitting outside, enjoying the yummy goodness of the soup, I am chattering. And my throat is tingling and chilly. I surrender to the weather gods, and admit that I need a scarf. Which I did not bring. Perfect excuse for shopping! A soft, green pashmina makes my life all the more worth living.

Next, we must figure out public transportation, as we are without vehicle for the day. Of course I want to ride the cable cars, so we walk to Ghirardelli Square, (Which is pretty anti-climactic. Woohoo! Chocolate I can buy at the grocery store!) and jump on a car to take us toward Lombard Street. We take the cable car past Lombard, all the way to Union Square, where we walk around window-shopping, people-watching, and flower-smelling. I am in awe of all the beautiful kinds of flowers in bloom in Northern California this time of year. I took so many pictures of plants and trees and flowers, I am creating my own flickr folder (too come!) just to share my obsession.

After checking out the art exhibits in the center of the square, we are starting to get tired quickly, mostly because we got up so darn early. But we don't want to fall asleep, so we decide to hop into a nice cafe in the square for coffee and hot chocolate. It was a fancy cafe I suppose, because the hot chocolate was like none I had ever experienced before, with a layer of frothy milk on top of the cocoa. As we're walking around, I'm commenting that the hills don't seem that bad. Andrew is giving me comments like "you haven't seen anything yet" and I'm retorting with a lot of "BRING IT. BRING ME YOUR LARGEST HILL. I WILL RUN UP IT." We walk past Union, and take another cable car toward Lombard, where we get off to take some pictures. We walk down the steps on Lombard (so far, only really walking mildly up, usually down hills) and decide to walk the rest of the way, winding through the town, back to the hotel.

Once we get changed, and lounge for a few minutes, it's close to dinner time. We made reservations at a restaurant called The Stinking Rose, who's menu consists entirely of items made with garlic. Heaven. We take a cable car to Chinatown, walk to Little Italy for dinner, where we enjoy all matters of garlicness and vino, but stop short of the garlic ice cream. We decide to walk back to the hotel, again, enjoying the city, taking different routes. So many people run downtown in SF! Multiple training groups would pass us as we made our way. I am still waiting for these hills, these unbearable hills I have heard all about.

Thursday morning, we get up early, because we know that Logan and Jason's flight gets in around noon, and I wanted to go to Pacific Heights and hang out on Filmore Street before meeting up with them. We take the cable cars (like pros!) to the end of California Street, and proceed to walk the rest of the way. THERE are the hills. It was about 7 blocks, but I'm pretty sure it took us half an hour to walk it. There was little running, as I was trying to NOT get sweaty. (Right.) We had breakfast at a cafe on Filmore St, delicious breakfast panninis. We did some shopping out there when around 10:30am, Logan calls saying they're on their way to pick us up at the hotel. Wuh? I apparently had misread the time they were arriving, so we had to hurry back. Hurry back UP the hills to make it to the hotel. It seemed like forever, and we were a sweaty mess by the time we met them. We meet them and take a cable car to a Vietnamese restaurant off The Embarcadero, The Slanted Door - very tasty suggestion from Logan's guide books. The 1950's tram/train/thingy takes us back to the rented SUV we are all sharing for the weekend in Napa Valley. But first, we must drive over the Golden Gate Bridge! And take numerous photos! Hello tourists!
Logan and I have both been bridge engineers at some point in our careers, so it's some form of mecca on a certain [nerdy] level. Parked across from the peninsula downtown SF sits on, the Golden Gate Vista Point, we check out the view, absorbing the scale of everything. We're itching to start tasting wines, so we get back on the 101, and head north.

Before we had even found our B&B in downtown Yountville, we decide to make a stop at BV (Beaulieu Vineyards). Most tastings are scheduled between 10am and 4pm, but it was the end of the afternoon, so it was slow, and the older gentleman in charge was talkative and informative. It always helps to be in a intimate setting, it's more enjoyable for this kind of event, and I would say that our favorite tastings tended to be the ones where there was more personal conversations with the vineyard employees. Plus, it's just great to have your schedule be nothing but "let's drink several wines and talk to strangers all day!" every once in a while.

After BV, we went to check into the Petit Logis, which was charming and well located, right next door to a cozy little bakery and restaurant, Bouchon. Breakfast every morning consisted of Andrew running to the bakery, before I'd even gotten out of bed, buying a baguette, croissants, tea, and a sticky bun. He can be a dear sometimes. That evening, we take a walk to a market down the street and buy the essentials: a couple bottles of wine, different cheeses, peanut brittle, a deck of cards, a lighter, and two Jesus candles. We decide to head to a restaurant in town for dinner, as we hadn't made any reservations for the evening, at a place called Mustard's Grill. Once again recommended by Logan's guide book, it was excellent food and wine alike. apparently it is Michelin rated, which I didn't know was a big deal, but apparently it was because Jason and Andrew (the foodie's) kept going back and forth over OMG IT'S MICHELIN RATED, while Logan and I (the wino's) just kind of looked the other way like, where's the bar? When we came back that evening, we were all pretty tired, but we drank a bottle of Row Eleven Pinot Noir and played a couple [Jesus] candle-lit games of Gin on our patio in front of our rooms, before turning in. I think I loved the fireplaces in the rooms most.

Friday morning, there was a schedule! Well sort of. Because when you have type A personalities all enclosed in one space, there has to be order! Lest we forget we're on vacation and all. So what usually happens in these type of situations, is I tend to take a back seat (literally and figuratively) to those who have specific wants, and just kind of go with the flow. Shocking I know. My contribution at this points becomes calling and making appointments at the various wineries that seem interesting, but we hadn't arranged ahead of time. I.E. the vineyards that Jason has tried wines from and wants to tour. The more the merrier, right? First stop is Silver Oak, which in all fairness, it was under construction, so while the wine was alright, so much of drinking wine at 10am is about the ambiance for me, and a double-wide trailer with fluorescent lighting just doesn't say "Good Morning! Let's be jolly, shall we?!" Also, it wasn't the personal kind of tasting, more the pour yourself a glass kind, so there was little to learn about. You know me, all about the LEARNING on a vacation. Just ask my parents how well I responded to that tactic when we vacationed in Turkey at the age of twelve. I was a DE-LIGHT at twelve.

Next stop was Paraduxx. We arrive to this beautiful building, and even better wrapping porch. Soon after arriving, the tasting manager figures out (by my name) that I'm Polish (as is he - through way of Boston), and proceeds to make conversation with us, which turned out to be quite informative and helpful (as well as loaded with a few freebies, can I hear it for the mafia?!). The benefit of this vineyard is that they have the licensing to do outside tastings, and we couldn't have asked for more perfect weather. This is the one "wine club" we joined while in Napa, and I look forward to trying their coming releases!

After Paraduxx, we headed to a tour and tasting at Domaine Chandon, makers of sparkling wine. Champagne is a different process than wine, and it ended with a refreshing tasting of different varieties, paired with raw oysters and some kind of cilantro/jalapeno/red onion/pico de gallo concoction. The best thing that came from our tour guide Meredith, was that champagne goes with any food that beers goes with. That, and that big bubbles=big headaches, small bubbles=small headaches. Pizza and champagne? Popcorn and champagne? I resolved to drink champagne at least once a week from now on.

We had reservations to eat at the Domaine Chandon restaurant etoile that evening, so we made our way back to the B&B to play more cards, drink more wine (i.e. continue the general merriment) and get dressed up. The meal consisted of 5 to 7 courses, and I can't even recant all of what we enjoyed, but it was a LONG meal spanning 3 hours, lots of strange French-style food and ornately decorated plates. Each course came with a paired champagne. I do have to say that Andrew arranged ahead of time for the chef to make a dessert he had enjoyed 10 years before at the restaurant (no longer on the menu) - the raspberry shake in a dark chocolate bag, which was really tasty and playfully plated. Let's just say, that the whole experience set us back half a mortgage payment, but I was glad to try it once in my life. I won't be making a habit of meals like that.

Saturday morning, once again an early morning (there is a drinking schedule!), we head to Caymus in the Rutherford District. They're known for their excellent wines (with matching excellent price tags) and we were warned several times, not to be late, or they would lock the doors, and we would be left outside to bang on the doors like angry villagers. The tasting director was an older gentleman, who informed us that wine was his life, and already, before we had arrived at 9:45am, he had tried 14 glasses of wine. How he was still standing, I can only guess. We went through the 5 different flights, and received a little more information on the 4 different types of vineyards: family, lifestyle, technician, and corporate.

While we were trying high end wines, we took a turn at Opus One, which is a building that makes quite an impression as you drive up. It was not so much a tasting, as it was buying a glass of Opus One at $30 a pop. Basically, we'll call this expense account wine - only order it if you're on a company's expense account. Plus, in restaurant, you would never be able to order just a glass, you would be required to buy a bottle, and how many mortgage payments that would be, I shall never know. Unless of course, I find a really generous expense account to abuse some time soon.

For lunch we stopped at the Dean & Deluca market in town. It's like Central Market meets Whole Foods, and we picked up food to make a little picnic, enjoyed outside by the fountains. I always thought that D&D was a coffee shop in New York (hello, anyone watch Felicity?), but I was mistaken. When you take Andrew to this kind of market, it's like overload - an adult candy shop, and he gets overzealous, which usually ends up with me saying "how did we spend this much ON LUNCH?"

We headed out to Sterling vineyards to ride the gondola up the hillside and take in the view. We didn't spend a whole lot of time here, but there is a self-guided tour that is somewhat informative. Across from the vineyard was a view of a huge castle that was built using actual stones from the Habsburg Dynasty castles in Europe. The wine isn't the draw here, at least not comparatively, and after we saw the bells of St. Dunstan, we were on our way back to the B&B for more games of "Bullshit" and Gin.

Dinner was at the famous Greystone, home of the CIA graduate school. The kitchen was open, so you could watch your food being prepared, and we enjoyed a great meal, even though I had quite a toothache that day (I had putting off getting this looked at, which of course BIT me in the butt -ha. ha. ha.). Aleve + wine to the rescue!

Sunday morning, before we headed off to the airport, we wanted to squeeze in one more winery - Duckhorn. The house was what I picture a New England sea-side cottage would look like, kind of Pottery Barn meets shabby chic, with wooden ducks every where. I took a lot of pictures outside while I was there, trying to fit in all the last shots I could manage. I couldn't get enough of the amazing weather. The bonus was that this tasting was FREE! because we had signed up for the Paraduxx wine club, and they, along with Goldeneye, are owned by the same parent company. Before heading back into SF for the airport, we took one last round at Taylor's Refresher for burgers and sweet potato fries. Oh, and milkshakes, because calories don't count of vacation.

On our plane ride back, we had the joy of sitting in front of two deliriously drunk Polish people. It was amusing for me to sit and listen to them, mostly cursing in good humor, and the typical action of the way Polish people can be, which is pushy. This is a universal truth it turns out, not just relegated to the mafia in Houston. As with most vacations, you enjoy the time off, but it's always sweet, sweet relief to crawl into your own bed at the end of the day.

** For a collection of photos from our trip, visit my flickr. **

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