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Napa Valley – Back with a Vengeance

by Jon Rusciano

I was told by several of my friends who had taken the trip during the fall to travel to Napa Valley during Harvest.   With my aversion to crowds of people, I decided to push this trip back to the point in time when most of the grapes had been picked… November.   Fall colors would be dominating the scenic views, which for me (a late October baby) is the time when God dazzles best with his glorious paint brush.

I invited my son (knowing that shopping was far from his agenda).  His Med-School schedule would almost allow for this long weekend, yet he would succeed, accompanied by a little “white lie” about an ailing relative and a promise to his superiors to make up the time during the Christmas holidays.  We departed late on a Friday afternoon (allowing our arrival in San Anselmo, just before closing time of Ludwig’s Fine Wines).   The evening was wonderful, as previously described (“My Napa Connection” article), and we later arrived at our almost affordable Napa Travelodge hotel (basic accommodations for two guys who sought no luxuries).

Our body clocks still on Houston time, we awoke early and walked to Napa Town Center where we paced back and forth, awaiting the opening of Gillwood’s Café.  The food was reasonably priced, the selections plentiful and tasty (even for someone like me who tries to avert cholesterol intake).   After breakfast, I waved a sad goodbye to those heavenly looking cinnamon rolls at the bakery counter, and then we were off.

I had taken time before the trip to pre-arrange our winery visits, assuring the maximum amount of exposure and tasting possible.  The Rudd Winery in Oakville was first.  We took the tour of the facility, and our guide was very informative about their grape growing process of minimizing the amount of watering of the vines during the growing season forcing a struggle to survive, and thus yielding the most flavorful fruit possible for their wine.  The journey through the wine caves was impressive, especially the part where we were allowed to enter and “oogle” all of the Owner’s personal stash (cleverly isolated by a solid glass partition).  The guy had some real treasures, most I preferred not to touch, fearing my fumbling fingers would greatly increase the price of this excursion.   Rudd’s Cabernet was very good, and it remains one that I will continue to purchase through “my man Magid.”

Following the tour, it was lunchtime, and we wondered over to the nearby Oakville Grocery, for a pricey sandwich.   They were labeled “Gourmet,” so that made them worth the expense… right?  After ordering, we proceeded across the store to the side where you picked-up your self-styled creation.   Walking through the front door was a group of young girls, one of whom looked very familiar.   Being “out of context” it took me a while to place her.  Then “ZAP!!” it hit me.  It was Tessa Horst from the 2007 episodes of the television series The Bachelor.   She (the last girl standing) was without her beau (no surprise) and walking through those doors for the same reason as everyone else… hunger (with no other convenient places to go).   OK, OK, I admit I watch the show.   My wife Cathy loves it and we both sit around the tube yelling out how stupid the guy is for offering one of the foul-mouthed, grossly tattooed girls a rose.  That seems like a harmless release, on a Monday night when the stresses of the beginning of the week at the office are still pressing in the mind.   Tessa (in person) was very nice and agreed to let my son take a picture of us together. It depressed me as I realized she was young enough to be my daughter.

Joseph Phelps Vineyard was next on the list.  This place was very impressive, with scenic views of the hillside vineyards from the wine tasting porches.  Their standard Cabernet and the premium Insignia were good wines, but more costly than I had hoped.  In this case, my taste appeared to be in the minority, because it was apparent that they were making numerous sales of all their offerings.  Marketing is obviously their strong suit.

Next was a scenic trip up the slopes of Mt. Veeder to the Hess Collection Winery.  This facility reminds me (in appearance) of the Beaulieu Vineard facility with ivy covered walls.  November yielded an array of beautiful fall colors on their leaves.  The interior was well appointed with a very large oval wooden bar at which hordes of people gathered for the reasonably priced tasting.   There was an art gallery to admire and a balcony access view of many of the oak barrels in which wine was aging.   Their premium Cabernet was indeed worthy of drinking, and was offered at a more reasonable price (even less through Magid), making it one which could be consumed on a regular basis, without breaking the “piggy bank.”

That evening we had dinner reservations at Cole’s Chop House in Napa.  It was a convenient walk from our hotel, and proved to be a treat.   The place is completely opened to the roof structure, with exposed trusses and ductwork clad in a fashion which offered an appearance of designed intent.   The look was “loft-like” and very inviting.   The steaks and chops were wonderful.  It is definitely on the “come back again” list.

Following our Gillwood’s ritual on Sunday morning, we set out for the V. Sattui Winery, south of St. Helena.   This place offers picnic grounds, daily Barbeques and a tasting room which reminded me of a rough-sawn, wood-clad General Store, with tasting bars conveniently situated.  Sattui management is very retail savvy.   You must walk through various displays of wine on your way to and from the tasting experience.  The whole store is intensely illuminated with Halogen lighting (the kind you see in jewelry stores to make the watches and diamonds sparkle).  It does help their displays stand out nicely.   The wines were not bad either.   I was concerned, because on my previous visit to Sattui’s Castello di Amorosa, their standard label Cabernet was to me, unworthy.   Yet, his two offerings of Preston Vineyard and Morisoli Vineyard  Cabernets, were quite good.  Considering my previous accolades for Amorosa’s Il Barone Cabernet, they both seemed worthy of the price points offered.  My son consumed all of the wine he was offered, and all that I would not sample.   I knew the day was going to get lively very soon.   And, we had another winery to hit before lunch.

Next stop… Far Niente Winery.  This establishment is a first class facility, from the tree lined entrance drive to beautifully constructed hospitality house and wine caves, there is no doubt that there would be a hefty price tag on their product.   I was right.   My only regret was that the Cabernet, although very good, was just not in the same ballpark as some we had sampled and loved, for less.   Again, this is in my humble opinion.   By now, however, I do feel like I am developing somewhat of a taste for superior value.   Their vintage car museum was impressive.   It added even more to their expertly designed, beautiful tour of the facility.

After a quick sandwich from a less noteworthy market, we were off to Cliff Lede Vineyards.   I had booked the expensive Poetry Cabernet tasting, since Magid had supplied me with several bottles of their standard Cabernet.  “Bang for the Buck” on that wine was very good, so I was hoping for the best with our tasting their premium offering.   Poetry was indeed “poetic.”  It was a wine I am certain will benefit with aging (as most do), but the ’05 out of a bottle which had been opened earlier in the day, was terrific.  Three of these are now residing in my cellar.

By this time of the day, the music playing on the car’s radio was being accompanied by my son’s beating on the dashboard as if he were the drummer of each respective tune’s band.   Typically tight lipped about many of his feelings and viewpoints about life, he became an open book.  I listened and tossed in a comment or two when solicited. And that’s all I can say about that.  The afternoon was quite interesting.

A beautiful ride up Spring Mountain to the Barnett Winery was the final stop of the day.   The late afternoon views of terraced vineyards on the mountain slopes, the autumn splendor of the trees and the wondrous outlooks onto Napa’s valley floor might have contributed somewhat to the attitude about the wines eventually sampled there.   Or, it could have been the lovely Jacquelyn St. Martin (our private host, reared in Texas) that aroused our pleasant spirits.   For my son (of course by now) it was lust at first sight and first taste.   I tried to remain impartial to all these influences, but I admit their Cabernet offerings were really very nice.  Their Spring Mountain and Cyrus Ryan Cabs were both quite “approachable” (great wine word).  They were offered at affordable price points.  The best, of course, was their premium Rattlesnake Hill.   For the “mountainous” price of their “top of the line” bottle, I would not have been inclined to make the purchase.   However, since our host offered to discount any bottle by the price of both our tasting fees, I did walk away with a bottle of it.   The sun had set as we were perched on Barnett’s wooden decked outlook over the Valley, so the ride home down the winding roadway was a nighttime experience.   It was a good thing I was the driver.   My son had entered the realm of alcohol-assisted slumber as we made the long journey back.

I ushered him into his room and eased him down on his bed for a “sleep it off” nap, before our dinner reservation that night.   It was quite the chore, rousting him awake to get dressed at the time to go.   We had reservations at Mustard’s Grill, and I was not to be denied.   He came along, more out of obligation than hunger.  I ordered the famous Mongolian Pork Chop, and this (along with their masterful vegetable accompaniments) was KILLER.   I am not sure that I have ever savored a meat dish so deliciously prepared in my life.  The awful thing about such an experience for me is when I return (and I will), I will not be able to pull away from this signature masterpiece to delve into other offerings which are no doubt quite memorable as well.  It is just one of my little quirks.

We were up early the next morning (a Monday), finding a Starbuck’s to satisfy my son’s caffeine craving and being assisted by the lovely British lady inside my Garmin GPS for the ride back to the San Francisco Airport, via Oakland.   I thought we would arrive for our return flight (scheduled just after noon) with plenty of time to spare.  Half-way between Napa and our destination, we encountered the traffic jam from Hell (and I thought Houston was bad).   We arrived at the Airport just in time to make it to the gate for boarding.  I still wonder how the people who reside in the Bay Area ever get to work on-time.

The trip had given us great opportunities to converse about many important life subjects of which we might not otherwise have explored.  My son has always been a lover of wine, but now he had been exposed to the finer tastes, making it difficult to return to those labels he can afford on his student budget.   Hopefully this will serve to lure him over to the house for dinner more often, and bolster his ambition to succeed in his chosen field of work, because as we all know, “the Good Stuff doesn’t come cheap.” 

So, did this adventure finally quench my desire for exposure to America’s Cabernet Capitol?   Not at all.   Tales of the trip have been heard by several of my friends and clients.  Some have expressed a desire to go with me next time.  Of course, I will be obliged to accommodate.   The next adventure with a very good friend is already in the works.




Rudd Winery

Gillwood’s Café

Ludwig’s Fine Wines

Joseph Phelps Winery

Hess Collection Winery

Cole’s Chop House

V. Sattui Winery

Far Niente Winery

Cliff Lede Vineyards

Barnett Vineyards

Mustard’s Grill


Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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