Trying to take time away for a vacation can be a daunting task, especially as we move into busy season here in Napa Valley. So the best way to work around this is a "working vacation"; thank you Wine Bloggers Conference for providing this much needed excuse and escape!
Earlier this year when it came time to make plans to attend the conference, a small group of us realized we had better figure out a way to make the trip more cost effective, or we wouldn't be able to go. Ideas started floating around about road trips and renting houses, and little did we know they would come to fruition to create one of the best vacations I have experienced to date! My partners in crime for the road trip were sommelier micro-blogger Seth Johnson (@sommlife) and Beaulieu Vineyard's social media guru Jill Dever (@jilldever).
Our journey started Wednesday night right after work... we piled our things in the car and hit the road by 6pm en route from Napa, CA to Medford, OR. The three of us were so excited we could barely stand it! Music was blasting, Chipotle was being eaten, and we basked in one of the most florescent fucshia sunsets we'd ever seen. Our digs for the night were of the classiest kind, at the Shiloh Inn. We were actually pretty excited to find out that Belgian waffles were included in our free continental breakfast: score! Nothing of note was consumed in the wine and beer category this evening other than some frosty cans of generic beer from the local Food 4 Less. We were saving our palates for the good stuff to come.
The next morning we mapped out a detour to Crater Lake on our way to Bend, OR. Jill had never been and Seth and I only had faint childhood memories to rely on. As we climbed up the windy road, we noticed snow on the ground, more and more the higher we got. At the top we were greeted by the still and serene blue lake. The weather was warm and the clouds scattered the sky just enough to create beautiful
reflections on the mirror surface of the water. It truly looked like an optical illusion or a painting, nearly unreal. I rolled up my pant legs and enjoyed playing in the snow for a few minutes while capturing some great shots.
Back on the road... destination: Deschutes Brewery! Neither of my crewmates had ever been to Bend, OR before so I was excited to show off one of my favorite small cities, and of course one of my favorite breweries! What would a wine road trip be without several brewery stops along the way anyhow? We rolled into downtown Bend on a perfect, sunny, Thursday afternoon, ready to fill our bellies with great food and even better beer. Time to put our game faces on:
Serious time and consideration was given to selecting the 6 beers that would comprise our tasting sampler. We each made an effort to select something different and try each other's; clearly we had our priorities straight. The one that caught my eye was the "McAyelah Scotch Ale" since it's basically my name spelled differently. What tribute, I was so honored! Not only is this one of my favorite styles of beer because of the rich caramel flavors and it was a brewery exclusive which made it even more elusive. The food selection was an easy one for Seth and I: Elk burgers! It's not often that I get to indulge in this delicious, tender meat. The food was seasoned just right and all 6 of the beers I sampled paired perfectly with it! It was so good I couldn't slow down to take a picture!
Next leg of the trip was to Walla Walla. This is where the scenery changed quite a bit. Where we had previously surrounded by greenery, mountains, snow and rolling hills, we were now in the desert. With less to gaze out the windows at, car games ensued and our minds were challenged with Seth's game of 20 questions: Animal, Vegetable or Varietal? During this brain buster we had one unfortunate casualty... a suicidal pheasant lost his life, but we do thank him for the colorful display of feathers that appeared after my car finished the job. Thankfully I was not driving at this point. Hitting the Columbia River Gorge was a site for sore eyes, and it meant we were that much closer to our destination!
Upon arrival to the house, we joined forces with a group that had collectively decided it would be better to rent a house rather than each pay for individual hotel rooms. Wine Soiree creator and friend Andrew Lazorochak (@winesoiree) managed to organize 7 of us into a 1900's house near Whitman College, (The Haven House) fully loaded with fire pit, gardens, porch swings, and a sound system!
We immediately unpacked and headed over to a Twitter tasting live (#ttl) to sample the latest from Cornerstone Cellars (@cornerstonenapa). The Corallina Rose and Sauvignon Blanc were the perfect welcoming wines to Walla Walla's warm weather. This informal tasting was also a great chance to see all my blogger and twitter friends, and meet some new friendly folks in person. It's always nice to put a face to a twitter handle :) We moved from the cool wines into the big reds, and the Howell Mountain Cab rocked my world! Small production wine with absolutely massive ripe fruit flavors made this wine a perfect substitute for dinner. Somehow in the midst of this tasting, we managed to score a couple cruiser bikes for the weekend, so half the group piled in the car, and @winesoiree and @cork_dork decided to suit up with helmets and whistles and ride back to the house.
A small household gathering formed at the Haven where we cooked up some cauliflower freshly picked from the garden, and a few other cuisine items we found stocked in the cabinets, left behind from prior visitors. We also had the pleasure to try the wine courtesy of Hardy Wallace from The NPA (@dirtysouthwine)- seriously cool stuff! I'd like to say it was early to bed, since it was early to rise the next morning, but we had important housemate bonding to do!
Day one of #WBC10 coming up next, including dance party, worm wine, slappy cakes and more...
A few weeks ago I made an impulse decision to drive into SF for dinner, which is never a poor decision when looking to liven things up in the midst of a slow week. The problem is I can never decide where to eat! When it comes to trying something new, I get overwhelmed with the options and then slink back to the same old fall-backs (which are nothing to scoff at by any means). But this time I was venturing out with someone that expected me to know the trendy spots in the city and pick something exciting and different. While I have visited Absinthe Brasserie and Bar before, its been a few years, so I felt comfortable choosing to revisit and re-experience this unique eatery.
Decorated in dark French decor and pictures of the little green fairy (or devil) covering the wall, the restaurant was bustling with a high energy crowd when we arrived around 8pm. Tables were scattered throughout the bar area, and we weaved in and out of the diners to get to our table that was located in a separated area just slightly elevated from the bar floor. Absinthe, while being known to serve the obvious choice drink, is also known for their extensive cocktail list that features historic drinks accompanied by an explanation of where in history they have roots. I definitely recommend checking this list out online before visiting, because the choices are detailed and in a face paced environment like this, its good to know your drink of choice right away so you can spend you time drooling and deciding amoungst the food selections.
My drink of choice for the evening was the French '75, a gin based cocktail with a splash of champagne and brandied cherries, named after a WWI piece of artillery. My date's choice was the Daedalus, made mostly of Jameson Irish Whiskey and created by an Irish bartender after he was hit by a Guinness truck. Both drinks were well made and strong in force and flavor. They were the perfect palate teasers to enjoy while we awaited our meal, which began with the Winter pumpkin soup, made with vanilla creme, ginger and topped with toasted pepitas. It was rich and warm with a special combination of flavors that strayed away from your average Winter squash soup. The citrus flavors from the drinks also worked nicely with the vanilla creme in the soup and the combination danced around nicely on the inside of my cheeks. We also shared a wedge of Brillat Savarin, a triple cream from Normandy that has always been a close personal favorite. Combined with the cold, crisp red grapes, this cheese was a special treat, especially watching someone else enjoy and fall in love with it for the first time.
The main courses we chose were the Vaudovan-scented carrot risotto with English and sugar snap peas, along with Machego and Chorizo stuffed Mary's chicken with shelling beans and grilled shisito peppers. The instant attack of zip was fantastic and fun, and the dish's characteristics fit the ambiance of the brasserie perfectly. The risotto was cooked perfectly with just a hint of the al dente crunch and the chicken, cooked with the skin on (and stuffed to the brim) was juicy and soaked through with the essence of chorizo.
The evening's combination of lively flavors and an even more lively crowd left us both quite pleased with the experience and both eager to return again! Suppose when you find places this good, its easy to just keep going back. My favorite part about this restaurant was its proximity to Hotel Biron, favorite wine bar in SF, which made it the perfect choice since walking to the bar was necessary after the cocktails Absinthe serves up! Look out for that green devil!
at 11:52 AM
As a fairly new resident to Napa, I have had my work cut out for me when it comes to visiting all of the fine dining establishments the valley has to offer. A little apprehensive at first regarding where to even begin, I asked the more established locals where they choose to dine on a special evening out. I expected answers such as The French Laundry, Bouchon, or Bottega, those being the highly reputable places one hears about when not actually living as a local. But instead, the answer across the board was Zuzu, a funky, easy going, no reservations tapas restaurant located in downtown Napa right on the river. I was told when it comes to choosing a birthday dinner spot or just a casual night out with friends, this is the top choice; I was sold.
My first visit was with an old friend that had also become a new resident of Napa, so we were eager to become cool "locals" as soon as possible. We sauntered in on a Thursday night with no reservations at about 6:30pm and were immediately seated in their cozy dining room that is filled with unique artwork and a lively buzz of people all happily engaged in their food. We ordered a pitcher of their house sangria straight away, which came full of fresh fruits and rich in color; this started the meal off right. The menu selections left no room for disappointment, and narrowing down choices was a difficult task. The nice surprise however was that we would order 6 or 7 different tapas plus wine and still not come close to breaking the bank (almost all the tapas are under $11 each!) The owners insist on using local organic ingredients as much as possible, and try to incorporate several different styles of dishes from around the globe. The wine list reflects an eclectic taste as well, highlighting several smaller regions of Spain that are as unique as the food.
As our meal commenced, we were served our dishes one by one and allowed adequate time to savor each one along with our sangria that went down all too smoothly. We started with salad of pears and arugula, a Spanish pastry with tuna and a fried egg in the middle, and (my favorite) the Bacalao salt cod with white truffle oil. Each dish had its own mix of unique flavors and fresh ingredients to fit the season. We moved along to the lamb dish and sweet corn with bacon only to feel more and more satisfied with every bite. It was a relatively quiet dinner for two girls that usually can't stop chatting when they get together, but we were so impressed and focused in on the food, that we only looked up occasionally to exchange glances of pure bliss.
I have now been back three times in the past 2 months with different groups of people and had the chance to try several different dishes that have been added to the menu as the seasons change. Some of those current favorites are the lima beans with chorizo and saffron, and the queso frito with manchego cheese and roasted poblano chiles. They also offer a different fresh ceviche and paella dish each night that are well worth adding to the mix.
The true highlight of that first evening however was the dessert: Tres Leches with tequila lime sauce paired with a glass of late harvest Garnacha blanca from Priorat, a delectable finish to a perfect meal that literally left me speechless. Zuzu quickly proved to be a spot that is not only a must visit, but a must return, as much as possible!
at 10:46 AM
What a great local find! This "hotel" is not actually a hotel at all; its an underground, back alley, dimly lit hole in the wall wine bar, and one of the best wine bars I've experienced in the city thus far! A good friend and SF native guided me to this sheek sounding little place, and I was surprised to find the atmosphere to be dark, comfortable, and surprisingly welcoming! Unlike many trendy, urban wine bars, this place had a warmth to it that invited you right in. The tables and chairs were a mishmash of different heights and styles, and to be served you had to order at the small, unassuming bar hidden in the corner. The art changes monthly, allowing the bar to evolve with whichever artists are being represented at the time. During my visit, the walls were covered with some of the most different art I had ever seen (video images of what appeared to be human blood cells and other anatomy magnified to enhance details and shapes). It was unique and memorizing, and left me excited for upcoming artists in the future. (New artists featured the 1st Thursday of every month)
The most impressive feature of this bar, however, was the wine list! Not often is this the case I feel, being that some wine bars try to hide their shortcomings with fancy furniture and "low prices". Hotel Biron on the other hand had a diverse selection of wines from all around the world, and showed no bias toward one region or style over another. They seemed to embrace the foreign styles as well as local favorites, without overcrowding the list with overpriced Napa options. They also offered a great selection of beers and cheeses to complement the wines, which in my opinion is a must!
My selection for the evening consisted of the Serra de Estrella cheese, a Portugese washed rind sheep’s milk, raw walnuts, and a glass of Taltarni Brut Rosé "Tache". The ripeness of the cheese paired perfectly with the dry, crisp flavors of the sparkling wine. This is most definitely going to become a frequented, favorite spot, but hopefully it stays fairly undiscovered and underground, since that attributed to most of its charm! Its a good thing the entrance is hidden in a dark alley behind the neighboring late night, trendy, hot spot wine bar...
at 7:19 PM