Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Anniversary Trip to Calistoga

My husband gave me a trip to Calistoga last weekend for our ninth wedding anniversary. He already went over what he wouldn't like me to discuss in the blog. I assured him that I would be limiting my comments mostly to the businesses we frequented. I'm pretty sure cougars were not on the forbidden list. And besides, I forgot my camera, so there is no actual documentation.

Grandma and Grandpa were quiet when we dropped off the kids, including our dog, who collided with their puppy in a barking frenzy. I felt a sliver of guilt when we left my parents surveying the chaos at their feet. But I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the break . . . if there was a time I needed a break more than now, I can’t remember. But that’s probably due to stress-induced memory loss.

We stopped at Pyramid Brewery in Berkeley to watch World Cup on the way to Calistoga. It was a good stop. The restaurant is bright and spacious with lots of parking. There’s wireless. I was as comfortable working as my husband was watching the game (I like World Cup but don't have the attention span for soccer on TV – actually, for TV in general these days). Our lunch was fine but forgettable. I had grilled salmon tacos and a side salad. The “handmade” tortillas obviously came from a bag with “handmade” on the label. My husband went with the Smoked Tri Tip Sandwich. The habanero barbecue sauce was a little too spicy for me, but the thinly sliced tri-tip was nice and tender. I also had a blonde ale. I’m sure my husband had an IPA, and I don’t know what he thought of it. I’m careful to avoid conversations about beer with the homebrewer in this household, known to launch into lengthy beer seminars without warning. It’s really best not to ask.

In the late afternoon, we arrived at the The Euro Spa Inn. For $200 a night, it seemed overpriced but welcome to Calistoga. The room was clean and comfortable. I heard no one else the entire time, and though my husband is one of those people whose volume is always jacked up to high, we received no complaints . . . not even a rapid knock from our neighbors on the other side of the wall. I didn’t open the pamphlet of spa services because I was too busy taking in the rarefied air of order and no children. There was a pool and hot tub, but what I did for relaxation was lay on the bed with a stack of magazines and announce we were having quiet time. My next favorite part was the complimentary breakfast . . . I NEVER HAD SCRAMBLED EGG AND CHEESE STRUDEL BEFORE and hope I don’t come across it again anytime soon because I liked it. My husband gave his compliments to the proprietor during checkout and received vouchers for an $89 rate during the cooler months.

We had a couple hours before the wineries closed. Clos Pegase was our first stop. The winery was designed by Michael Graves in 1987 with the purpose of displaying the owners’ modern art collection, such as a large metal thumb sculpture near grapevines. The owner made his money by importing technical books in English to Japan while living there. I liked the concept and story, but my overall impression of the place was that it needed fresh energy. The employees in the tasting room, though pleasant, spoke around us – seeming more interested in their conversations about candy or people rushing home to meth labs, than in speaking to the few customers milling about. We paid $10 each to taste the whites – I have an almost allergic reaction to red – and nothing stood out except the high bottle price. We asked about wineries with good whites and heard about Rombauer and its so-called “Cougar Chardonnay.” I didn’t really get it.

But I figured it out when we got to Rombauer. It was packed. We walked into a booming tasting room. Most of the wine counter was blocked by small groups of women - 40ish to 50ish - in a sparkling sea of highlights, jewelry, lip gloss, white teeth and good shoes. It was refreshing to see women on the prowl and owning the place. I enjoyed watching my husband awkwardly approach the counter to refill the glass we were sharing. One woman asked if she could help him and when he declined, she asked him if he was sure. Let me clarify that she was not an employee of the tasting room. I don’t think he minded, and he finished the tasting in the Cougar Room while I enjoyed the pretty grounds from the veranda. There was only one white wine being poured, so we shared the $10 tasting. I didn’t notice what the cougars were drinking but that Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay is my new very favorite. We decided against the $32 bottle – it’s apparently available where I live for less and service in the tasting room was lackluster for us - though they obviously had their hands full with the ladies so no worries.

Cuvaison was our last winery stop and the only one we left with wine in hand. The customer service was above and beyond. An employee from the tasting room saw us walking up from the parking lot and was welcoming, even holding the door. They were about as busy as Close Pegase, and she never left our side. She gave a little presentation using a map of Napa Valley. When she found out what I liked, she changed the tasting menu so that it was all stuff I wanted to try and even gave an extra taste of red to my husband. The tasting was $15. I found a chardonnay I liked, and my husband bought a couple bottles for around $20 a piece.

When we got back to the room, my husband told me about Hydro, a bar his buddy recommended for having a good beer selection, in downtown Calistoga – a mere block away. I said sure, let’s go . . . but first I will read about 10 magazines. Please don’t talk to me. Can you open that chardonnay? You’re free to watch TV. Good times. A couple hours later, we walked to Hydro Bar and Grill. We got beers - blonde for me and IPA for him - and split one of their $5 hot dogs (there was an entire hot dog menu). The hot dog was wrapped in bacon and came with fries, though we subbed coleslaw. It was cheap and tasty. The beers were the best of the trip. If it wasn’t our anniversary, we would have probably called that dinner.

We walked around downtown, considering our options for dinner. Going out to dinner is a rarity for me these days, and without children, it’s a miracle. Environment is as important as food. I chose The Calistoga Inn, which has outdoor seating and music. We ate brunch here before with the kids, and all I remember is telling my kids over and over again not to play with their flatware and continuously walking back and forth between the table and restroom for staggered spills and pees, while hipsters drinking Bloody Marys at the next table over cringed at the sight of us. This time, I thoroughly enjoyed sitting outside among the flowers and candlelight. We shared oysters, flatiron steak with mashed potatoes, and chocolate mousse. It was all good . . . not amazing but relaxing and fun and entertaining. I had a glass of wine with dinner but noticed a table of cougars taking advantage of no corkage fees, the restaurant providing standing ice buckets around their table. Those cougars are so smart.

We made a couple stops on our way out of town the next morning. First, we went by the Wine Garage. It opened in 2001 after the owners noticed a lack of affordable wine in the area. All the bottles are $25 and under. We were looking for something that might ease the grandparents’ nerves after a rowdy sleepover. We went with the Wine Garage burgundy blend, sold by the half-gallon jug and filled with a gas station-like nozzle. There was a 20% sale on all the Wine Garage labels, so jugs were about $25.

Finally, we stopped at the Silverado Brewing Company to watch the World Cup Final on the way home. This was recommended as the best place to watch the game in the area, but it wasn’t as comfortable as Pyramid. There were fewer TVs and it was a little cramped in the bar. However, the food was much better. We split a cheeseburger, side salad and salmon chowder. It was everything you want pub food to be – fresh, simple and cooked well. One reviewer on Yelp described the burgers as the best in California. I’m not sure about that, but . . . very good. Despite being slammed, the sweaty server made an effort to talk beer with my husband when he could. We stuck to the usual blonde and IPA. The beer was not the best. I got some more work done in the midst of the crowd - I was certainly sucking a few fun vibes out of the room - and took a walk around the neighboring winery during the game that wouldn’t quit. Then it was time to head back to the monkey children.

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