Instead of getting in the car and jumping from winery to winery, Lynn and I decided to tackle the Napa Valley in three installments this past weekend, beginning with a morning bike ride, finishing with some grub, and visiting a winemaker or two in between.
After driving to St. Helena, we parked next to Velo Vino, the tasting room run by the Clif Family Winery -- that's Clif, as in Clif Bar. The tasting room is very cozy, decorated with a bicycle theme. We knew the winery had a brochure listing a variety of bike rides through the area, so it was the perfect place to start. We settled on a ride of about 30 miles, with a moderate amount of climbing. Last visit, we did a longer, hillier route (including some extra miles and a very steep climb after getting lost), but this turned out to the perfect choice for this outing, as we had a reservation at Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery at 1:30.
Why ride? For one, you get to see the area in a different way and at a different speed. And when your legs actually have to power you up the hills, you tend to appreciate the terrain a little more. Beyond that, food at the end of a ride always tastes that much better when you've got a pretty decent caloric deficit going. This ride took us along lightly traveled roads this time of year, well away from the tourist gridlock, and we appreciated the smooth asphalt on much of the route. If you're interested in tackling a similar route, stop in at Velo Vino (709 Main St., St. Helena). They also rent bikes and offer custom bike excursions via Calistoga Bikeshop.
After the ride and a change of clothes, we stopped in again to buy some Clif Family wine, including a Riesling and a Cabernet Sauvignon (dubbed the Climber). Right now, the winery has a clearance on the 1.5 litre Climber sold in an environmentally friendly pouch instead of the traditional bottle. This wine is quite good and we were thrilled with the price -- $5 per pouch, which I believe equals two bottles of wine.
We didn't have much time to linger. So we packed up the bikes and headed toward Smith-Madrone, which is 20-minute drive from Main Street, up a very twisty, narrow road. It's always best to call or email ahead before visiting so you can make a reservation for a tour. Charlie Smith was our host. Besides being a skilled winemaker, he is loaded with institutional knowledge about the Napa Valley, as he and brother Stu arrived there in 1972 and started restoring an old vineyard that had been overgrown with brush and trees.
The chat is low-key and informal, and included a tasting of Chardonnay, Riesling and a Cab blend (the current release of the Cab is 2006 and it is very good). Besides the wine, the conversation and the great hillside view, we quickly came to adore the winery's unofficial ambassador, a springer spaniel named Curly, who trotted up to us before we even got out of the car. Curly lives better than many humans, and he certainly has more admirers.
We left with more wine, and we planned to take Charlie's advice and let the Riesling mature a little in the bottle before we opened it in six months to a year. Charlie also talked about making the Chardonnay in French oak barrels instead of American oak, insisting that the results are noticeably better and opining that if you're serious about Chardonnay you pretty much have to invest in French oak. The French oak tends to impart a more subtle spicy flavor in the Chardonnay, while the American oak is known for the cream soda kind of flavoring and the creamy, buttery texture. French oak barrels cost upwards of $1,000 each and are used once, while American oak costs $350 to $450.
By the time we meandered back down the hill, our caloric deficit was beginning to make my head spin. I had been craving pizza, so we stopped in at Pizzeria Tra Vigne, which is a separate place adjacent the well known Tra Vigne restaurant. I ordered a bowl of minestrone and Lynn and I split a large sauceless pizza called the "Vespa," featuring smoked mozzarella, sausage, sweet roasted onions and spinach. The crust was thin, chewy and a crispy, and the overall pizza was above average, though it didn't measure up to some of the better pizzas in Sacramento, including Masullo, Hot Italian, OneSpeed and Giovanni's, among others.
It was a great day, and by the time we made it home, we were already planning our next bike ride and winery visit -- this time it will be in Amador County, where there are plenty of great roads and lots of very good wine.
Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.