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California continued...

After a week in San Francisco, we headed inland and north to Napa Valley for sunshine and wine with a base in Saint Helena. For wheels, we rented a Mustang convertible from Avis in San Francisco. It's easy highway driving and aside from the usual traffic it should take less than two hours.

On the way to Saint Helena, Ross and I stopped in Yountville for a coffee and snack at Bouchon Bakery, one of Thomas Keller's four Yountville properties. It was a butter, sugar, and carb heaven. Salted caramel macaron and an almond croissant, fresh that day and worth the calories. But don't park for more than 24 minutes!

Two of our dearest friends, Jessica and Tyler, were meeting us in Saint Helena for the weekend. They live in Visalia, in Southern California where Tyler heads an irrigation system business that's been in his family for three generations and over 80 years. It just so happened they had access to a house in Saint Helena through a winning bid at their daughter's school charity auction. We were extremely thankful they shared it with us. This was not our first trip together. We met in Australia about twelve years ago, before kids. Our past holidays together have included tours around Australia, Hawaii, hiking in Yosemite, Disneyland, Disneyworld, a luxury dude ranch in Colorado, visits to the Rockies, and the Calgary Stampede. Last summer our families rented a villa in Tuscany together. A weekend in Napa was a perfect place to carry on our tradition of adventures together. We share the same values, a passion for good food, discovering something new, and our daughters get along very well. This time; however, we left our daughters at home.

Now the four of us all together, our long lunch took us to the Farmstead Restaurant at the Long Meadow Ranch, just before the town centre of Saint Helena. Inside everyone was dressed California chic, lots of khaki and linen, designer sunglasses, and smiles everywhere. It was the kind of fresh and healthy fare that California is famous for, also with some BBQ items like grilled chicken, tender, juicy pulled pork sandwiches, and falling-off-the-bone ribs. We also had oysters, grilled corn, grilled artichokes, and light salads. The restaurant receives "a fresh harvest from the gardens of their Rutherford Estate, 90-acres of bench land dedicated to organic fruit and vegetable production, hand-tended beehives, and vineyards."

For the rest of the afternoon, we wandered around the shops in Saint Helena and purveyed some wine, cheeses, and snacks to have for a light dinner at our house that night. It was odd to walk around town for me, the last time I was there was a couple of years ago when I worked for Treasury Wine Estates as the PR Director for Canada, and I was going to Beringer Vineyards for a meeting with the Chief Winemaker then, Laurie Hook. Times and titles have changed, but the wine, beauty and light of Napa Valley still remains special to me.

In the morning we were feeling active, so we took four beach cruise bicycles out for a ride, down the back roads, and past the vineyards. I haven't ridden a bicycle in years, outside of my Spin classes. No instructor was yelling at us to 'tap it back' or 'dial it up' and I found it an adjustment to actually balance on a real bike again. Wind in our hair and sun on our faces felt so liberating. We ended back in Saint Helena for breakfast at a cafe. Not much to write about there, but it held us off until our lunch planned at Brix Restaurant. However first we squeezed in a visit to Robert Sinskey winery. It was a great tasting and included a little snack platter to go along with their beautiful wines.

Next up, lunch at Brix, and the setting is idyllic Napa Valley. A shaded patio right next to the gardens and vineyards. The menu was light, perfect for the hot day and we weren't exactly famished after a late breakfast and snacks at Sinskey. Cold beer for the boys and cocktails for us, then pizza, soup, and salads.

The property is stunning and the wine is true luxury. My San Fran friend jokes that he's told his wife that Opus One closed, because he can't afford to keep buying it. To get an idea of its stature, in 1981 a single case of the wine sold for US$24,000.00 at the first Napa Valley Wine Auction – the highest price ever paid for a California wine. On the Opus One website, they only sell two items, a six pack case of the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon blend for US$2,070.00 or a single bottle for US$345. That's right, this winery only makes and releases one single wine.

Our last winery but not final stop for the day was Alpha Omega. It also happened to be the winery where the owners of our weekend home were partners in. That mention gave us VIP treatment at Opus One, which was a pleasant surprise. Completely without pretensions and very relaxed, everyone sits outside in a courtyard in cushioned couches or tables nearby. Wine tastings are brought to you table-side like a meal in restaurant, a very civilized and relaxed way to enjoy the rest of the afternoon. It was a very nice style to taste wine, a departure from the usual standing-at-a-wine-bar scenario.

After a quick shower and change, were off to dinner at Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Saint Helena. The CIA students working there are in their final semester of study, but the plates presented could be at any top restaurant in the world. My Buffalo mozzerella starter with summer Bing cherries, Marcona almonds, and basil puree was beautifully presented and tasted delicious. Then a perfectly cooked salmon in a mushroom broth, finishing with a vanilla panna cotta. I must confess I would have liked to try the French Laundry, but even when I timed the reservations with an alarm to myself (taken only one month to the calendar date), I still didn't get in. Although the menu starts at US$310 per person not including wine, so maybe I should be happy on how much money we saved.

Our final day and with only time for breakfast took us back to Yountville, for Father's Day at Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bistro. With mimosas and coffees, we started with a fresh pastry basket of scones, croissants, and muffins. I ordered the Croque Madame, and substituted the french fries for a green salad. Had to get some valuable nutrition when indulging in the accompanying mornay sauce. Tyler had the savoury roasted chicken with bacon and chive waffles, Jessica had the banana and toasted walnut waffles, and Ross had the boudin blanc white sausage with scrambled eggs. With some undercooking of the chicken, they quickly replaced it and provided a bag of complimentary pastries from the Bouchon Bakery next door. Superb, and very Parisian.

Goodbye hugs to our forever friends; hopefully we'll see each other again this summer somewhere in Europe. Thank you for a truly wonderful weekend.

This Napa Valley trip and post are dedicated to Gary Bennett, Tyler's father who passed away after a short battle with cancer on September 15, 2015. We know you would have enjoyed this weekend, especially the wine.



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