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springtime escape --sonoma/napa --part one

by Jon Rusciano

We had waited long enough. My traveling wine buddies and I decided to return to California wine country, precisely a year since our last trip together.  Our friend, Bob Frank, had been sidelined from the previous journey due some unfortunate family matters, so this was his maiden voyage with the group.  He thus took his share of abuse as the “rookie.”  The first challenge of the journey was finding a suitable place for lodging.  We wanted to base our operation as close as possible to Calistoga, officially because of its proximity to both major vineyard areas we planned to visit, yet the three others knew the real truth, it had to be near Café Sarafornia on Lincoln Ave.  Breakfast in that little downtown storefront establishment is becoming as much a passion as our craving for new winery experiences.


The vrbo.com website was where I found a fascinating spot nestled in the midst of an actual working vineyard.  The place is Chelsea Vineyards, where a lovely 4 bedroom, 4 bath house was available for leasing from owners Dave and Susan DeVries.  Considering the cost of a hotel room for each of 4 guys, the price seemed reasonable.  It might be considered a bit expensive if every bedroom is not utilized by one or more adults, but with our group, it fit like a comfortable glove.  Its address was programmed into my GPS system, and Ms. Garmin’s directions brought us to the front gate, late the first night after the usual dinner with our wine connection Magid (Ludwig’s Fine Wines) in San Anselmo.  We had the combination which allowed our entry and then proceeded down the graveled drive through the vineyard to the well illuminated house, situated right in the center of the property.  As has been our experience with vrbo.com rentals, the dwelling was just like home, furnished with everything that one might expect in a personal vacation hideaway.  Cozy.  Bedrooms were selected without a fuss and everyone drifted to dreamland in a flash.


Coffee began to “percol” before sunlight made the limits of our vineyard home-site visible.  The rows of vines surrounding us took shape as the subtle promise of a new day began to illuminate the hillside.  Breakfast beckoned.  Sarafornia opened at 7.  We were there as the tumblers were turned.  Yum.  The rookie appeared delighted, while vets feigned indifference.


Our first scheduled visit was in the Sebastopol area of Sonoma.  We hoped to visit Merry Edwards Winery in advance of our special 11 am. appointment.   In arranging the trip, Dave indicated a desire to visit some spots in the realm of the Russian River Valley which were known for Pinot Noir.  Merry had some very nice ones available for our sampling, including her fruit-expressive 2009 Meredith Estate Pinot.  Equally impressive was her 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, which included a small percentage of Sémillon, similar to a White Bordeaux. 


We pulled away in plenty of time for our royal treatment at 11 am.  Through “knowing a guy,” Dave wrangled us an appointment at the home of the 2011 Wine Spectator Wine of the YearKosta Browne.  “Mere mortals” (like us) just do not rate such opportunities these days.  We were met by PR Director Tony Lombardi at the leased warehouse building that they utilize for winemaking and barrel storage.  It is located in an old Sebastopol industrial complex occupied by a number of different businesses.  During our visit, both Michael Browne and Dan Kosta wandered up for chats, further enriching the experience.  Of their 2010 Pinot we tasted, the Sonoma Coast  and Russian River offerings were the most savory.  Both were bold fruit-forward treasures which are already completely allocated to mailing-list members.  I brought an emailed copy of my previous request for admittance on “the waiting list to be on the waiting list.”  Dropping to one knee, I begged Tony for earlier consideration.  He responded that the Spring 2013 offerings of 2011 juice will be our first window of opportunity.  And, that’s a colossal break!


Departing, we drove to a local eatery in neighboring Graton called the Willow Wood Market and Cafe, and were seated in an open-air garden setting in back.  It was a small bistro/sandwich shop, and the food was decent (most items garnished with sprouts for the healthy effect).  After a few tall tales and full stomachs, we were back on the road, attempting to squeeze in as many other spots on Dave’s wish-list as possible before another special appointment back in Napa at Meadowood.  There were two spots we were able to visit in advance of a pre-determined departure deadline.  One was Lynmar Estate and the other Gary Farrell Vineyards.  Both had Pinot offerings which were tasty, but none to compare with the morning’s stops.  Two o’clock approached, and we were forced to start our journey back to Napa.


Bob (our rookie) had a client who recently sold his insurance business in Houston and moved to St. Helena to start a winery.  Philip Cabaud and his lovely wife Bonnie invited us to an exclusive setting called The Napa Valley Reserve for tasting his new Cabaud Wines.  The Reserve was like a Country Club, as a part of the Meadowood complex, for vintners, celebrities and others who can afford the eyebrow-raising membership fees.  Twas a beautiful setting, and the Cabauds had arranged a flower-anointed table for us to sample their wines while nibbling on an assortment of delightful snacks.  Another great treat!!


Their 2010 Sauvignon Blanc is called La Brume de la Mer, and I found it light and floral, with the French flair of Sémillon added for the character that pure California S/B’s never seem to achieve.  Mon Hommage is their 2009 Cabernet.  It was full bodied with soft tannins and notes of blueberry mixed with dark fruits.  Both were impressive, for initial efforts to break into the fiercely competitive world of Napa wines.  As they continue gaining exposure into the American marketplace, demand will determine their ultimate price points.


We returned to the vineyard house for a bit of unwinding before our trek to Mustard’s Grill for dinner.  As always it did not fail to impress.  Although, one bold (unnamed) explorer opted for something other than Cindy Pawlcyn’s  famous Mongolian Pork chops.  Goodness knows… it wasn’t me.  The evening was a flawless expression of what a great meal with good friends should be.





Chelsea Vineyards Home (vrbo.com #76114)



Café Sarafornia



Merry Edwards Winery



Kosta Browne Wine



Willow Wood Market and Café



Lynmar Estate



Gary Farrell Vineyards



The Napa Valley Reserve



Cabaud Wines



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.

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