The last day of any big trip is always the hardest. A dark storm cloud forms in the distance within the mind, and is sure to bring with it the rain of post-trip depression. On this day, cracking a smile is painful, tears are shed by the hundreds, and the most amazing of experiences lack their usual luster. For the final 24 hours of our California adventure, I resolved to change all of that. There would be plenty of days to let the clouds in once we were back home, but this wouldn't be one of them. Today, the sun would shine brightly on the fields of Sonoma County, for one last hurrah before returning to the grips of reality.
|The fields of Sonoma County|
We set off for Sonoma while the morning air was still cool and crisp, but after three days in Yountville we knew that the comfortable temperatures would be short lived. The journey north was simply to stop by the tasting room for Meeker Vineyards, one of our favorite wines to drink back home. It wasn't until we hit the St. Helena Highway, however, that we realized the drive up to the tiny town of Geyserville was close to 100 miles round trip. A long way to go just to "stop by."
|Miles and miles of vines...|
If nothing else, the longer than expected drive gave us a good reason to put the top down and enjoy our last full day with the convertible. Once we got past St. Helena, there was basically zero traffic on the highway, which allowed us to putz along and enjoy the scenery like a couple of "Sunday Drivers." The further north we drove, the more that scenery started to change.
Compared to the ones in Napa, the vineyards in Sonoma County are downright enormous. The day before, we visited one of the larger wineries in Napa - Round Pond - but even it seemed to be miniscule when compared to their neighbors to the north. There were vines as far as the eye could see, and it went on like that for miles and miles...
|The road to Geyserville. Yes sign has a tractor on it...|
We wound our way past the historic - read: tourist trap - hot springs of Calistoga, across the border of Sonoma County, and eventually into the tiny town of Geyserville. In comparison to this speck on the map, Yountville was a booming metropolis, but as the home of Meeker's tasting room, we knew it held plenty of good wine. Which is good, because there isn't much else to be found...
Since it was barely 10am, the bustling streets of Geyserville were still empty, as was the tasting room for Meeker. It took me a while to notice that the room is actually the remnants of an old bank, complete with the teller window which now doubles as the serving bar, and the vault which stores wine instead of family valuables. Come to think of it, since Meeker is a family operation, it may very well do both.
|Where they keep the good stuff...|
The benefit of arriving at tasting rooms while breakfast is still being served at McDonalds, is you beat the bus loads of tourists debating who found the best holiday deals out of the bunch. Although our original plan was to "stop by," having driven an hour to get to Meeker, I wasn't in a big hurry to leave. We added several bottles to our box for shipping home, and before finally moving on, I stopped in the bathroom to leave my mark on the walls.
|What did you think I meant?|
As the top on the convertible slowly went back, I turned to MJ and asked..."what's next?" It seemed silly to drive over an hour to visit one tasting room and simply return to Yountville. She pulled out the trusty Google Maps to see what we might find along the way back, and as luck would have it, another of our favorite wineries was located just a short drive out of the way.
Chateau Montelena is famous for several reasons. First, they make awesome wine. OK, so that part is a given, but there's far more to the story. In 1976, a panel of French wine snobs - I mean experts - gathered for a tasting in Paris. The event pitted several French wines against their counterparts from California, and each was scored by the judges. In the end, to the shock and dismay of the French, the highest scoring wine wasn't one of their own, but the 1973 Chardonnay by Chateau Montelena.
|The winning vintage.|
The "Judgement in Paris" not only put Chateau Montelena on the map, but the entire California wine producing region. The event was chronicled in the movie Bottle Shock, which of course had the effect of making Chateau Montelena one of the most visited wineries in Napa Valley.
|The Chinese Garden|
The winery is housed in a French Chateau, which I found ironic considering their history in Paris. The grounds, on the other hand, are a sprawling Chinese garden which surrounds a small lake that borders the vineyards. We visited more than our fair share of wineries while in California, and Chateau Montelena was easily the most beautiful of them all.
|The fields of Chateau Montelena|
A more memorable treat was found inside at the tasting room. We bellied up to the crowded bar, and swirled our way through Montelena's Cabernet and famous Chardonnay, while enjoying the expertise that the gentleman helping us was all too willing to share. When we reached the end of our tasting, he asked us to sit tight for a moment, while he went and dug around in the back. It turned that earlier in the day they had a "VIP Tasting" which had left behind a some of their 2003 and 2004 Cabernet. At over $200 a bottle, MJ and I were more than willing to assist in polishing it off...
|Needless to say, it was a good time...|
After a full morning on the road, we decided to make one more unscheduled stop for some much needed food. On our way up to Sonoma, we passed a dive which had previously caught my eye while aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train...Gott's Roadside. I had no idea what the story was behind Gott's, I just saw "Burgers...Shakes" on the side of the building, an enormous line, and knew that a visit was in my destiny. The double cheeseburger and chocolate shake provided the perfect amount of gluttony, to offset the frustration my stomach faced from being nourished all morning with different variations of old grape juice.
|Love at first sight.|
As soon as I turned the car onto Yountville's Washington Street, it was like a switch had been flicked inside of me. Our road trip to Sonoma County was over, and so was our California adventure. While I was sad on the one hand, on the other I was proud that for the first time in recent memory, I was able to enjoy the last day of a trip without the shadow of an imaginary storm cloud overhead. Of course, when the last day is filled with incredible wine and gluppy cheeseburgers, the task of being happy isn't all that difficult.
If you go...
- Visit the Culinary Institute of America's campus in St. Helena
- Stop by Meeker and take home a bottle of the Handprint Merlot
- Skip the hot springs