Stags’ Leap Winery manor tour and tasting

Our first wine tasting in Napa was at Stags’ Leap Winery, not to be confused with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars down the road.  Little did we know that our first introduction into this larger world of sniffing bouquets, describing varietals and learning about brix would begin at such an extraordinarily historic location.

The beautiful stone manor at Stags’ Leap was built in 1892 by Horace Chase and his family who were drawn to Northern California’s rich land from Chicago thanks to news of the “gold rush.”   Thanks to Napa Valley’s perfect geographical conditions, wine-making soon became a mainstay in the late 1800’s.  Though the business was not always easy (especially when Prohibition came into being in the 1920’s followed closely behind with the Great Depression), life, and wine-making at Stags’ Leap continued.

After Chase’s death, his wife turned the manor into turned a resort, adding a basement speakeasy and a third floor to the property.  But after a few decades, the resort fell into ruin and was boarded shut for some time.  (Rick, our host for the tasting, told us that there are apparently more than one ghost haunting the property today, though he has had no personal experiences to share.)   Eventually, in the 1970’s, the property was purchased by another family who sought to reinvigorate the vineyard.  The grapes in this valley soon would be awarded top honors by the “Judgment of Paris” in 1976 - but that’s a different Stag’s Leap altogether!

At any rate, the wines here were fantastic!   We sat amongst a group of eight, sniffing and sipping five different robust reds and cleansing our palate with addictive Italian crackers.

While sipping on the final varietal of the afternoon from the edge of the majestic Stags’ Leap vineyards, we half-expected to see Vickie Gioberti run by, her fiery red hair contrasting so well against that early ‘80s turquoise two-piece short-set and matching headband.  Vickie who?  Yes, it is a somewhat hidden fact that the manor at Stags’ Leap also stepped in for Chase Gioberti’s family estate in the long-running night time soap Falcon Crest.  (Wonder where they got that name “Chase?”)  Our guide Rick mentioned the filming only after we asked about it, but he did take our group to the best spot to grab photos out front from a similar vantage point as was used often in the show. 

Set of Drifters tip:
  The front entrance way, lined in oak trees, was also used in the filming of the 1980’s sudser.   This was the fictional gated entrance to the "Falcon Crest Estate," the mansion of which is actually located at Spring Mountain Vineyards in St. Helena (see below.)

Tastings and tours of the grounds are available Mondays through Fridays at either 10:00 AM or 2:30 PM, but, thanks to their liquor license, you need to book in advance with space limited to only eight patrons each sitting.  The cost is a little high at $45 USD, however, you will taste the difference in the wines.  Two-buck chuck from Trader Joe’s this is not!

Stags’ Leap Winery - 6150 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA  94558, (800) 395-2441

“Old Faithful” Geyser (Calistoga)

Most people have heard of “Old Faithful,” the Hot Spring geyser located in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.  It’s a little known fact that there’s another “Old Faithful” in California, just north of Calistoga.  We love long-lost kitschy vintage tourist attractions, so we followed the signs along Hwy 29 that lead to the geyser.  We soon found ourselves at a small parking lot and entrance to the geyser.   Once inside the gift shop, a sweet Russian woman sold us entrance tickets and actually asked us if we had a AAA card (which entitled us to a small discount)!  We then headed out to the geyser to see “Old Faithful” do it’s thing.   The grounds of the attraction are covered in thick swaths of bamboo.  From the onset, the place reminded us of Chak Wak Park in Tozeur.   The shared vibe makes sense considering the geological histories of both locations.   The somewhat eerie desolate setting here is easily described as something right out of the Jurassic Period.

So, you may be wondering, what is actually going on here?  Well, the town of Calistoga is geographically located near Mount St. Helena, at one time an active volcano.  Today, water from an underground river travels over hot magma deep in the earth and when the underground caves are situated just right... voila, you have yourself a geyser!  There are only seven or eight other locations in the world where geysers are as dependable as they are here in Calistoga!

Of course, you can bet your bottom dollar that “Old Faithful” decided to first erupt just when Brady was in the bathroom!  No worries though; the timely geyser shoots 350-degree sulphuric water 60 feet up into the air about every five minutes or so.  Signs posted at the site warn of getting too close to the gurgling waters.  (Nobody wants to get burned by groundwater on their rest-and-relaxation tour of Northern California!  A weird old-fashioned hot spring tub made out of stone joins the geyser to the right.  Apparently it was in use all the way up until an unfortunate scalding accident the 1970's!  Ouch!

After about the third geothermal display, we decided to check out the rest of the park’s somewhat hokey scenery, ideally catered towards children.   Numerous four-horn sheep, a few Guard Llamas and baby Tennessee Fainting goats populate the grounds, alongside two obligatory puppies who were wrestling with each other near the exit.  “Old Faithful” geyser is a cute spot to check out if you have a spare half hour before your next wine tasting!  The park is open daily from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM with ticket prices $10 USD for adults and $3 USD for children 6-12 years old.  Children under 6 are FREE.

“Old Faithful” Hot Springs geyser - 1299 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga, CA 94515, (707) 942-6463

Hot Air Balloon ride above Napa Valley

All that we could think about before going on our first hot air balloon ride was the song “Up, Up and Away” by The 5th Dimension. (Well, that and Doug’s fear of heights and wide open spaces!)

Thankfully, waking up at the crack of dawn and attempting to function without coffee kind of conquered any fear that we had. You see, there was a bit of confusion as to what time we were being picked up. Our reservation with Balloons Above The Valley said that they would be by at 7:15 AM and that we should call 45 minutes ahead of time to verify that we would be flying (weather conditions permitting.) As we made the call at 6:30 AM from our cell phone, we got a call at the exact same time from the front desk of our hotel saying that the van was already there! That meant we had to get ready in under 10 minutes! Oh joy!

Once aboard the van we were taken to Yountville to pick up another couple and then brought to the balloon take-off spot right on the west side of the busy Hwy 29. There were already two hot air balloons in the sky and our group was going to be one of five lucky teams that would be flying that sunny, but chilly, Wednesday morning. Our balloon group consisted of 12 fliers and one pilot. This was surprising as we had always thought when you head up into a hot air balloon it would be just like a Pippi Longstocking movie. You just jump in the balloon and untie the rope and let the wind take you up and away. This was definitely a much more involved endeavor, and actually a very well-oiled machine, complete with radios, multiple technicians, and several vans with drivers/ handlers.

Watching the team get the balloons unfolded and and blown up with large fans and then brought upright was quite fascinating.  Who knew so much care and attention to detail went into providing what ended up being such a carefree and pleasant balloon ride experience?  While gliding along for about an hour or so we watched as the emerald green hills unfolded themselves onto the floor of the valley, some of them hidden by the low-lying mist of the early morning.  In the distance lay the mighty Mount St. Helena, still capped with snow in late February!  Our pilot Scott was quite a character.  He regaled us with stories about the local Napa residents who actually resented the balloonists, their noise pollution, and sometimes unexpected landings!  We also heard a story of a couple that ruined the day for everyone in the balloon when the man asked for his girlfriend’s hand in marriage and she turned him down!

As the relaxing balloon ride came to close, we managed to have a little excitement in the form of a glide-in landing on the side of a hill that almost resulted in a mild collision with fellow balloonists in another vessel!  No worries however, as these people know exactly what they are doing!  They had every movement of the balloon adjusted so slightly depending on the whims of Mother’s Nature’s wind currents.

From our landing point at Alston Park, we then boarded another van and were soon whisked off to downtown Napa, and specifically the Napa General Store, for our inclusive Champagne Buffet Brunch.  We were not expecting much, and were pleasantly surprised by some very tasty food indeed!  And who can complain about never ending Mimosas?  We even made two new friends at our table named Jan and Nancy.  The two sisters make a point of taking an annual excursion with their mother to escape the “doldrums of winter,” and their husbands and children!  We had a great time sharing winery information and restaurant recommendations, and of course, our other experiences with travel.  (We even met up with them the next evening for dinner at Bottega; see “eats.")

We ended up talking for so long with Jan and Nancy that we actually lost out on browsing through the Napa General Store, and almost missed our ride back!  Thankfully, our driver, who like the balloon itself was seemingly lighter than air, waited for us.  We enjoyed our drive back to St. Helena, listening to him tell us about different points of interest throughout the valley.  Perhaps most interesting was that, upon returning to our hotel, we were given the key to a new reality!  Our driver asked us if we had heard of “Easy World.”  Apparently, “Easy World” is a concept his friend had created, an alternate reality that anyone can enter at any time in efforts of alleviating stress in their lives. When you are feeling stressed, all you have to do is repeat the mantra, "I live in ‘Easy World,’ where everything is easy."  Then you just sit back and watch the magic happen! So far, we have to say we think it working!  Check it out at

So where this tale started, is where it ends.  “Up, Up and Away in my Beautiful   Balloon!”

Balloons Above The Valley (Office Location) - 603 California Boulevard, Napa CA  94559, (800) 464-6824 or (707) 253-2222,

The charming Napa General Store is open daily from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM and is your one-stop-shop for creating that special gourmet meal!

Napa General Store - 540 Main Street, Napa, CA  94559, (707) 259-0762,

Spring Mountain Vineyard cave tour and tasting

We joked on our third day in Napa that we would be having mid-afternoon tea with “Angela Channing,” the hard-boiled matriarch of Falcon Crest, portrayed steadfastly by the incomparable Jane Wyman throughout the 1980’s.  Unfortunately, that was not meant to be.

While we did make it out the secluded hillside vineyard that stepped in for the fictional Tuscany Valley winery, the manor house (called La Villa Miravalle) was off-limits since it was currently being occupied by the visiting French co-owners, in town for the prestigious annual “Premiere Event” held each February in Napa.

With an appointment already set, our group of six met first in the greenhouse at 2:30.  It was a rainy afternoon so we were soon ushered right into the winery itself (the stand-in for the fictional winery building in Falcon Crest.)  Once inside, a traditional 1885 wooden-slat cave opened up into a voluminous series of connecting tunnels bored directly into the mountain in more recent times.  (It’s curved walls allllllmost reminded me of being back in Matmata in Tunisia.)  The aromas inside the caves were absolutely intense, but if you love red wine like we do, its somewhat intoxicating, both figuratively and literally.

Because Spring Mountain Vineyards was hosting a “Premiere” event for 13 other nearby wineries the following day, the interior caves were dotted with numerous tables and benches for thirsty sippers!  In fact, we were somewhat taken aback by the elegant display set up solely for our tasting that afternoon.  After sitting down, we were treated to a really nice series of wines, starting with a zesty Sauvingon Blanc that we just had to take home with us!   Our host was a little cloying.  (How many times did he have to use the phrase “chewy tannins?”)  He must have been an actor, or even worse, a comedian in a former life!  The upside was that, because we had a member of the Spring Mountain Wine Club in our midst, we got to taste some better, older vintages of wines.  (She had probably already tasted everything on the regular tasting menu!)

After the tasting, he traveled over to the Spring House to use the loo, and to try to grab even a slight glimpse of the majestic Victorian manor on the premises, but alas, it was not meant to be.  So instead, we traveled up a winding path on the other side of the road to get a glimpse of the edifice.  Even from afar, the architecture was stunning.  In fact, from across this reservoir, the Spring Mountain Vineyard landscape looked like something right out of the Austrian Alps!

Set of Drifters tip:  If you arrive a little early (or buy a bottle or two of wine), you most likely will be able to walk around the grounds undisturbed.  If so, make sure you check out the pasture of vines adjacent to the winery building.   Here you will find a cozy group of sheep grazing on the undergrowth.  The nearby horse stables may also look familiar to fans of Falcon Crest as they were used in scenes from time to time as well.

Spring Mountain Vineyard - 2805 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA   94574,      (877) 769-4637 or (707) 967-4188

Cave tour and barrel tasting at Eagles Trace Winery

On our last day in Napa, we actually received a great present from our friend Eric who lives in San Francisco.  He purchased had a “Living Social” coupon for the little-known Eagles Trace Winery cave tour and tasting.  The only information that we had was that it was a smaller, private winery and we had to follow some pretty extensive directions to get there from Calistoga along the Silverado Trail.  Once in St. Helena, we made a quick left up a private road and proceeded into the Conn Valley, a neighboring series of lush green landscapes and endless vineyards.

Eventually after about ten minutes of driving (and chowing down on our BLT’s from Gott’s Roadside; see “eats”), we spotted a small road and a babbling brook with what appeared to be a small wine cave just beyond.  We were were soon greeted by a young woman who explained that the owner and winemaker himself would be with us in a moment.  The pungent aroma of fermenting wine could be sensed even before we entered the cave.  Barrel after barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir were racked up inside maturing ever so slowly and just waiting for us to take a taste!  Mmmmmmmmmmmmm.

We had a quick tour of the cave by Gus Anderson, owner and winemaker of Eagles Trace.  This was truly the best wine tour of the trip as we were the only two guests on the tour aside from Gus’s sweet wife Phyllis, and his brother and sister-in-law who were visiting from Michigan.  Talk about exclusive access!  We soon sat down and discussed Gus’s different wines and also had the opportunity to ask many questions that we had previously been too shy to ask.  “Why do vineyardists grow mustard plants in between the vines?”  “What percentage of grape reserve makes a wine a particular type?”  “Is there really any point to everyone swirling their wine in the glass?”  “What’s with those damned legs?!”

Gus is truly a real wine purist.  He told us about how his passion for wine-making brought him to Paris and to Italy, where he met so many friends and colleagues along the way.  He explained why the grapes produced in Conn Valley were so flavorful and why they produced such great results in his underground cave, the tenth to be built in all of Napa.  Our favorite anecdote revolved around the fact that Gus had actually retired from the business in his Seventies and handed over his Anderson’s Conn Valley wine business to his son, only to realize a few years later that we loved wine-making so much that he had to return to it, starting up a whole new label, all in efforts of perfecting that perfect vintage!

During the tour, we managed to taste young wine extracted from several different barrels using a strange type of glass syringe that is inserted into the top of the barrel where they bung is normally placed.  Surprisingly, even the 2009 wine in the barrel had a smooth taste to it with hardly any astringency.  We then moved on to a series of older vintages as part of the official tasting.  (Word of caution:  Please remember to eat a full meal before these wine tastings.  You are liable to get tipsy pretty quick unless you use that spit bucket; see "essentials.") 

Overall, we felt that Eagles Trace had the best wines, and it was the only place on the whole trip where we ended up purchasing red wine!  (Upon returning home, we called back within a week to order some of the 2005 Cabernet Sauvingon to be shipped to New Jersey in honor of my brother's 50th Birthday!)  Cave tours of Eagles Trace are by appointment only with the two-hour winemaker’s tour costing $45 USD.  Trust here, this place is special, and a couple of hours with Gus and his lovely family is well worth the price of admission!

Eagles Trace - 680 Rossi Road, St. Helena, CA  94574, (866) 963-4412

The Petrified Forest (Calistoga)

As if the “Old Faithful” geyser wasn’t enough (see above), we also took the scenic drive to the nearby “Petrified Forest” just north of Calistoga.  It was raining pretty steadily so we knew we would be probably the only ones making the trek through the damp woods out back.   Still, with umbrellas-a-plenty out back, we certainly could not have been the only ones braving the slippery paths that day.

The main hook of a “petrified forest” (and there are others in the United States) is that the wooden trees have somehow “turned to stone."  Actually, it is no mystery. About 3.4 million years ago, a nearby volcano erupted sending lava flows down the sides of the mountain, and bombs of ash that enveloped everything in their path.  The lava, ashes and soot hardened, cooled by the streams and rivers which flowed from the tops of other nearby mountains.  Throughout the thousands and thousands of years that followed, the wood molecules of the buried redwood trees were replaced by, one by one, with silica, turning the mighty trees into fallen logs of quartz stone.  Sounds impressive, huh?

The unfortunate thing is that, for the most part, the trees still look like trees.   Making the 30-minute trek through the “Petrified Forest” is somewhat like waiting in line for a popular ride at Disneyland where the tree stump you may be leaning on looks like wood, but is really "Disneyodron Semperflorens Grandis," the Disney “Imagineers” species of faux wood.  There are some cool spots along the way.  One of the petrified trees is actually a thin, spindly pine, which when slickened by an afternoon rain, looks even more unusual than it probably normally would.  We also liked the extraordinary beauty produced by the live oaks, madrones, douglas-firs, and manzanitas.  (One tree was even growing from a nook in between to fallen pieces of petrified wood!)

While “petrified wood” ultimately sounds a lot more interesting than it really is, this quick forest stroll does offers some beautiful scenic options for the nature lover in you, and if you have kiddies afoot, they will love this!  The Petrified Forest is open daily from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.  Ticket prices range from $5 USD for children 6-11 years old to $10 for adults (which, in our opinion, is a bit steep for a self-guided trek that does not include llamas!)  Set of Drifters tip:  If you are into geodes, gems and other rocks, the “nature store” gift shop has some really nice specimens of all shapes, sizes and price-points.
The Petrified Forest - 4100 Petrified Forest Road, Calistoga, CA  94515, (707) 942-6667

Robert Mondavi Winery Tour and Tasting

Aside from some good old fashioned relaxation, one treasured thing that we came away with after visiting Napa Valley was more insight into the art of wine making.  And no place offered an education like the Robert Mondavi winery, a tour that was part of a package deal with our hotel room at the Harvest Inn (see “digs.”)  Brady and myself are in agreement on this one that, even though the quality of the wines tasted was not ideal, the tour here was an invaluable learning experience that we wished we had visited first before attending some of the more “high-brow wineries” that we had booked appointments for in advance.

Robert Mondavi has been in existence in Napa Valley since 1966 and, thanks to his wine-making expertise and business savvy, had produced one of the better known brands in the United States.  It is no accident that the “Robert Mondavi business model” was one of the first to allow visitors behind-the-scenes access to view the fascinating process of wine production from start to finish.  Today, some 55 years later, that concept has certainly paid off, inspiring many other wineries to follow suit.  (You know this place is popular when you stumble upon tasting room after tasting room along your the ever-winding path of the winery tour.)

The property itself is truly beautiful, with a bounty of artwork, sculpture, and well-manicured landscape design.  We arrived at the property at 2:00 PM and were soon joined by 12 others from all over the planet!  Our energetic tour guide Arliss was a groovy ex-San Franciscan who delightfully showcased her passion for educating others about the activities at Robert Mondavi and beyond.  Over the next hour and 45 minutes, she led us through every nook and cranny of the winery, from the vineyards to the fermenting vats, from the wine caves and all the way to the gift shop!  After the tour proper, we proceeded to taste many different wines, the last of which was partnered with some small chocolate/ cherry brownies!  Arliss was very knowledgeable and seemed a bit of a “foodie” herself, offering advice about pairing particular wines with certain dishes. 

The Robert Mondavi Winery offers a great tour through we wish we could say the the same for the wines.  We were pleasantly surprised with the Moscato d'Oro, a sweet dessert wine that Arliss promised would be well paired with some spicy Thai food as well.  We picked up a bottle for $20 USD on her recommendation.

Later, after the rest of our tour had vacated, we spoke to Arliss for another 10 minutes about art, music, Hawaii and life up north.  She was truly a gem; try to ask for her as your guide if you can!

Tours are available every hour on the hour at the “pack ‘em in” Robert Mondavi winery.  The day’s first tour starts at 10:00 AM with the final tour heading out around 4:00 PM.  The experience will set you back $25 USD for adults.  (For more information on wine tasting, see "essentials.")

Robert Mondavi Winery - 7801 St. Helena Highway, Oakville, CA  94562