It's quarter past one and I've stopped in Napa on a trip north. I'd wandered around "Napa Town Center," a pretty shopping mall district in the center of town, but it was a little too much like Centro Ybor and every other pretty new shopping mall districts; a bit of exploration took me to "Cafe Lucy," a small place just off the beaten path. It's cheerfully eclectic and for what it is, very low-priced: a full "Napa spirit" restaurant with seat-yourself service. Definitely one of those "local hangout" joints--and it's Zagat rated. I've just finished a wonderful, ratatouille-like tomato vegetable soup and have a plate of good bread with great olive oil and balsamic vinegar (with the vinegar in a pool at the bottom of the olive oil, so it doesn't actually overpower the oil), and a waldorf salad of smoked chicken and stilton, field greens, grapes and apples. It may be the best salad I've had, period. Everything tastes field fresh and the flavors are in perfect balance--no small feat for a salad with stilton in it.
I left sometime a bit after ten, with no clear destination other than "north on 680," although I knew that was in Napa's direction. I've been through the Napa-Sonoma area twice before, but both times literally through, not to. By the time I was passing Danville, I figured I'd have lunch in Napa, then maybe drive back through Sonoma.
Before I made it to Napa, I'd noticed a sign off CA 12 for "Hakusan Sake Gardens." I knew there was a sake brewer or two in the area, but I hadn't expected to trip over one like that. Naturally, I had to stop. Their tasting fee was a very reasonable $3 for five sakes: two chilled ("Napa Sake" and "Premium Sake," which I suspect--but forgot to ask--corresponds to ginjo), one warm (simply "Hakusan Sake") and two dessert sakes, plum and raspberry. They also make a draft sake and possibly one or two others. All of them were pretty good; it was even one of the better warm sakes I've had--I tend to find most warm sake to have an overbearing sharp sweetness. I'd be tempted to get some of the plum sake on another trip, but instead I bought a bottle of the Napa Sake.
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I made it back home around 8:00. The path back turned out to be fortuitously wandering.
Heading north from Napa, I stopped briefly in Yountville, a very pretty town that didn't seem to have anything to recommend it other than being pretty--not that being pretty isn't a virtue in itself. I stopped heading back out of town to take a shot of a vista which looked quintessentially Napa Valley, and noticed a man standing in the field surveying it. He looked something like a chef, wearing the traditional white vest. We exchanged pleasant, if monosyllabic, greetings and I went on my way. As I pulled away, I realized the field was opposite The French Laundry, a nationally-famous restaurant. (It's not even on my list of restaurants to eventually go to for the simple reason that their prices are astronomical. At any rate, I suspect I was briefly standing in a field with an award-winning chef.
I also stopped briefly at the original Oakville Grocery. There's a "branch" of them at the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto; the original one is a cramped place that looks, inside and out, like an old general store. Just a really gourmet one. And insanely crowded. I went on my way--not realizing that the road I'd intended to take was in fact the crossroad I'd just passed.
So I went on a few miles and then realized my error; I turned around in the parking lot of a Dean & DeLuca. If you don't know the name, this is basically a Williams-Sonoma turned into a full grocery store. Naturally, I had to go in. I wandered around marvelling at their selection of everything from exotic teas to "reserve" Reggiano Parmagiano (a serious cheese, with a serious $25-a-pound price to match), then had someone come up to me and say, "Excuse me, do you work at There?" As it turned out, it was the company's founder, Will Harvey. We talked for a bit (exchanging more pleasantries than I did with the chef), and then I got an espresso mocha shake at the espresso bar and headed back south.
Will had asked if I'd stopped at any wineries, and while I mentioned the sake brewery, I figured I should indeed stop at one more. I picked Neibaum-Coppola. The "Coppola" is Francis Ford, the filmmaker; "Neibaum" is the man who started that vineyard, originally known as Inglenook. Inglenook is, evidently, the vineyard that, at the turn of the 20th century, pushed Napa onto the world stage of winemaking by winning a gold medal at an exposition in Paris.
Perhaps surprisingly, I didn't do a wine tasting there; instead I just wandered around with the camera. One thing became absolutely clear to me playing with the A70: I have no idea how to exposure lock on it. It's a beautiful place inside and out, and had what amounted to an easter egg: a Tucker. (This was on the second floor, along with other flotsam from Coppola movies.)
Then it was a drive back through Sonoma toward home. Sonoma itself seemed to be having a downtown festival, just winding down: too late for me to see what the festival was about, but with enough traffic to keep me away from downtown itself. I ended up stopping on the outskirts of town to get a drink and then headed back onto US 101.
It occurred to me driving back that I still hadn't actually been to Sonoma itself: I see references to businesses and restaurants "on the plaza," which I've never even seen.
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A fountain outside Neibaum-Coppola.
Barrels aging at the Neibaum-Coppola cellars. (Shot with natural light, so excuse the graininess.)