What I envisioned for one of our last days in California was a leisurely bike ride through the vineyards of Napa Valley, with random stops sprinkled in along the way at small, off-the-radar wineries. We'd knock on an enormous barn door where the vintner would personally greet us with open arms, and invite us into his barrel room to taste some of Napa Valley's finest. Delighted that someone chose to stop at their little winery, as opposed to the nationally distributed behemoth down the street, they would invite us back for dinner, because Mary makes a meatloaf that'll melt in your mouth.
Yeah, that's not how it works at all.
Apparently the wineries frown upon those that show up unannounced and wander the vineyard in search of their barn. Most, including the off-the-radar ones, not only require advance reservations, but actually charge for the privilege of tasting their wine. This revelation totally shattered my dreams and added yet another entry onto my list of things to plan.
|"And the wine is bottled poetry"...Brilliant|
The folks at Napa Valley Bike Tours made the process a little easier, by providing along with our booking confirmation a map of the area and a few suggested routes. A few of the routes were described as "challenging" or marked with a black X which I assumed translated to "You're kidding, right Deej?" Then there was the 16 mile "Rutherford" loop, which was outlined in a pretty green color, and described as "Flat with a few rolling hills." Yup, that was the one for us...
|Plenty of this along the way...|
Of course, there are no less than 87 wineries on the Rutherford loop, so picking a route didn't exactly narrow things down. There were many names that I recognized, and plenty more that left me clueless. So I figured the best approach was to plan half our stops at wineries we knew we liked, and the other half at some of the lesser known names. That way we were guaranteed some good wine, just in case the smaller guys served grape flavored rubbing alcohol.
|MJ and her expensive taste.|
The morning of our ride was cool and crisp, so we decided to get a little earlier start than originally planned to beat Napa's afternoon heat, which was pretty brutal even for this Florida boy. The shop for Napa Valley Bike Tours was located directly across the street from our hotel, so we walked over and were fitted for our bikes. The shop manager gave us his cell phone number so we could call him just in case we ran into trouble, or more importantly, to pick up any wine purchases we made along the way. After strapping on the always flattering bike helmet, and checking the map one last time, MJ and I were off...
And immediately got lost...
|Yeah...we were lost already.|
No, I'm not kidding. We made a wrong turn on the very first street, and didn't discover our error until a mile or so down the road. Thankfully, MJ has learned to double check my directions and stopped to confirm our route shortly after we left the bike shop. Otherwise, we might still be peddling around in search of our first winery.
|"See..I told you I knew where we were going..."|
Back on track, we made our way up the St. Helena Highway to the first stop on our wine tour....Cakebread Cellars. This was an easy choice for the itinerary, because Cakebread's Cabernet has long been one of my favorites, and they happened to be in the perfect location since I tried to space out our stops equally. Our tasting appointment was at 10am - never too early for wine - and we peddled up the driveway just as the front doors were opened. Nothing like having a great winery all to yourself...
|Great times at Cakebread|
We had a private tasting at Cakebread which was perfect because I didn't feel so embarrassed asking amateur questions. I learned plenty from our host, not only about their wines, but also gained a better understanding of my own palate. This red wine snob discovered there's not much better than a cool glass of white after a few miles of peddling a bicycle.
|Where Cakebread keeps the good stuff...|
Naturally, Cakebread was our first stop, and we were already running behind schedule. That is if it really takes the hour I set aside to ride a bike 3 miles down the road. Turns out, it doesn't. So we ruffled the feathers of our next winery - Round Pond - by showing up about a half hour early. They seemed confused and unsure of what to do with us, but eventually we found ourselves at a table with wine. In the end, that's all that really mattered.
|Looking down the drive at Round Pond|
The setting at Round Pond was simply incredible. Although I had not heard of this winery, it turns out they are one of the largest in Napa in terms of acreage. Their tasting area was on a huge outdoor terrace with a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding landscape. They also offered a few small bites to pair with the different wines, which was a nice touch since the only way to serve great wine is paired with equally great food.
|The terrace at Round Pond|
After discovering that I had allowed way too much time between wineries, when we were finished at Round Pond we backtracked to a corner store to pick up some snacks. Our rental from Napa Valley Bike Tours included a boxed lunch, but our schedule didn't sync up with the wineries to which the shop could deliver. So we asked them to hold the lunch until we returned later that afternoon. This would prove to be a huge mistake...
|The entrance at Caymus|
Following a stellar lunch of Dorito's and Oreos, we continued down Rutherford Road - the top section of our square shaped route - to Caymus Vineyards. This was my second "in case the other wines stink" choice, and like its partner Cakebread, proved to be one of the more informative tastings of our tour. We were taken into a boardroom of sorts and were joined by a few other tasters, one of which was a fellow biker. They poured about a half dozen of the latest offerings, and one of the vintners also joined us in the fun. The only downside was I didn't get the opportunity to ask any questions, thanks to the couple with a wine cellar at home who liked to hear themselves talk...
|Where Caymus keeps the good stuff...|
Right about now was when lunch would have been a great idea. The cool air of the morning was replaced by an oven in the afternoon, and we had about a 7 mile trek down the Silverado Highway - the right side of our square - to the next winery. I gulped down a gallon of water in hopes of offsetting the bottle of wine I'd consumed already, and prepared for what I feared would be 7 miles of hell.
|"Yeah, I'm ready...Let's do this..."|
I was right. My legs were jello, and barely managed to keep moving. The steady wind blowing into my face wasn't helping any, and I was going so slow it was a challenge just to keep the bike upright. MJ was a few hundred yards ahead peddling along like this was some Sunday afternoon stroll, meanwhile I was dying. I figured the vineyards of Napa Valley was as good a place as any...
|"I'm dying...No big deal."|
I caught up with MJ about 6 miles into the stretch, but only because she had stopped to wait for me. It seemed we had reached a 21st century fork in the road. Our map from the bike shop had us continuing up Silverado for another mile before turning, yet the good folks at Google were telling us to make a right on what appeared to be someone's really long driveway. We decided to trust the guys in Palo Alto.
|"Google says go this way...."|
To say we were "off the beaten path" would be an understatement. This unmarked, unpaved path led us through the fields of Behringer vineyards. Farm hands passed by in trucks and waved as if seeing lost tourists on bikes was totally normal. Still, I feared some guy in overalls would eventually come out waving a shotgun, carrying on about trespassers being shot on site. Eventually, the path turned out of the vineyard, became a paved road once more, and led us straight to Goosecross, our final winery. Never doubt the guys in Palo Alto.
|The vineyards at Goosecross|
Goosecross turned out to be the most unique stop of the day. They are a small winery owned by two college buddies, and the atmosphere in the tasting room is totally laid back. It was late in the day, and clearly most of the other guests had made far more than three stops in their own tasting adventures. This made for a fun time, and the miserable 7 mile ride was quickly forgotten.
|Where Goosecross keeps the good stuff...|
Unfortunately, our snails pace ride to Goosecross actually did put us behind by this point, meaning my legs were put back to work far too soon. Thankfully, it was only a mile or so back to the shop in Yountville, where our wine purchases, lunch and the hotel pool were patiently waiting. I have never been so excited for a ham sandwich in my life...
For the better part of our two week California adventure, I lost all contact with my travel comfort zone. Our trips usually consist of some sightseeing, nice hotels and restaurants, and plenty of time in the lobby with a book and an adult beverage. What they don't include is physical exertion. Although I contemplated waving the white flag many times, in the end our two-wheeled adventure through Napa Valley was one of the most fulfilling days of my traveling career. Of course, that could be the wine talking...
If you go...
- Take a backpack to carry lunch and other provisions.
- Be prepared for lots of wine club sales pitches.
- Have a smartphone with Google Maps.
- Use it.
Enjoy Your Stay