Day 3: Napa/Sonoma Trip - St. Helena Wine Merchants, Woodhouse Chocolate, The Girl & the Fig, Gundlach Bundschu, Schug, Domaine Carneros
Day 1 report:
Day 2 report:
Sorry this conclusion to my trip has been delayed…
I awoke on our third day feeling a little sad that it would be our last. We had planned on solely exploring Sonoma, but there was some unfinished business in Napa Valley (namely Woodhouse Chocolate) that needed attention. Since the traffic had been so good, we decided to head north on the 29 and then cut down to Sonoma via Calistoga Rd. to connect to Hwy 12. Y also wanted to visit the Petrified Forest just west of Calistoga.
Once again, we had a light but satisfying breakfast at our hotel before packing up and checking out. First stop of the day was a gas station along the 29 to gas up and get some ice for our cooler. We noticed St. Helena Wine Merchants across the street so decided to peek in since we hadn’t yet stopped in one of the many local wine shops. The manager came out of his office to see if we needed help and then offered some tastes at the wine counter. We obliged and he poured us a few local reds that he was fond of. Seeing as Napa is known for its cabernet sauvignon, we thought the 2004 Ladera would make a great gift for two people we know so purchased a couple of bottles.
While it’s nice to visit wineries directly, it’s difficult to cover them in a short amount of time, so these retail stores can be useful. What are the better ones for selection and value? How is the Wine Garage in Calistoga? Ladera is located off the beaten path, but they do offer tastings and tours by appointment. Has anyone been?
We then headed to Woodhouse Chocolate in St. Helena. The heat was picking up already and inside the shop, the cool, controlled climate was a welcomed retreat. The counter clerks matched that coolness with their demeanor, but it didn’t bother me because the handmade chocolate was the main attraction. Nestled like prized jewels under an impeccably clean glass case, the flavors sounded amazing. On shelves were other treats like salted caramels and truffles. It was a bit early for me to sample a handful of chocolates, so I opted to buy their box of 12 for $20. Given that other chocolatiers of this caliber seem to charge high prices, I thought this was pretty reasonable. I was uneasy about keeping the box in our car all day, but we secured them as best we could in our cooler and hoped for the best. We went a few doors down to Model Bakery but didn’t see much of interest so quickly exited. Did we miss anything exceptional?
We had intentionally avoided all the mega-wineries up to this point, but decided that we should at least stop in at nearby Beringer to check out their grounds. We poked around their gift shop, used their restroom (BTW, I have not seen cleaner public restrooms than what I witnessed in this area!), and took a few photos before getting back on the road. How is the formal tour here?
Just north of Calistoga, we turned left on to Petrified Forest Rd. to see what else but the Petrified Forest. This is a privately-owned site. Husband who has a science background found it interesting enough, although I thought it was a little boring and cheesy in presentation. I truly am capable of enjoying natural sites and non-food activities, but this one just didn’t do much for me.
We then headed south into Sonoma via scenic Calistoga Rd. which linked us to Hwy 12. On the main highway, we passed some major wineries that marked the gateway into Sonoma. As the afternoon was wearing on, we were getting hungry and wanted to scope the plaza area for late lunch eats. I was intrigued by some unexpected Thai and ethnic restaurants outside of the city, but I had my sights on downtown.
We rolled into the plaza area around 2:30pm. I knew that Y would threaten to leave me in Sonoma if I did my usual “let’s walk around and check out all the menus first”, so we efficiently opted to eat at The Girl and the Fig. Wanting to have a quick bite in order to explore the area, we grabbed a couple of stools at the bar. We shared their signature salad of arugula, dried figs, pancetta, Laura Chenel goat cheese with a fig-port vinaigrette as well as a sandwich of salami, brie, red onion confit, and sherry mustard w/ a small side of celery root remoulade.
The arugula salad was very good with a nice array of flavors, although fresh figs in season would be even better. The sandwich was alright, but not as enjoyable since I found the onion confit to overpower the thin amount of salami and brie. The whole caper berries were a nice touch though. I would definitely come back to sample more of the menu, although I see it as more of a lunch than dinner place. Total before tip with an iced tea was around $25. We strolled around the area for reconnaissance, and I’m going to keep La Salette and El Dorado Kitchen (along w/ General’s Daughter) in mind for future visits. Also hope to check out The Fig Pantry store.
Our bellies were filled, so we were ready for a little wine tasting and decided to hit up Gundlach Bundschu and Schug. Compared to the ostentatious showrooms looming all over Napa Valley, these tasting rooms were relatively modest—what we have been used to in other wine regions. For a Monday afternoon, GB was pretty crowded. We shared a flight and generally liked their wines. Like at Sinskey, we both agreed upon buying a bottle of their merlot (Sideways be damned!). We tasted their Cab Franc which was an uncommon varietal throughout our tastings; it had potential but was a bit too tannic and young for me.
Schug’s tasting room looked cute from the outside but was pretty tight inside. I tried to make conversation with the wine clerk, but he was curt and a little cranky. Regardless, we ended up buying two bottles that we liked, a sauvignon blanc and a pinot noir. No tasting fee as I recall. Even though buying wine directly from the tasting rooms may not be the best value, we enjoy having these as souvenirs to be savored later and supporting producers in this way. Maybe I’m not that discriminating, but I generally liked the wines we tasted during our trip. While these may not be the exceptional wines of the region, there seems to be a lot of good wine for everyday drinking out there. Cheers to that!
The afternoon was transitioning to evening, and we hoped to make it to Domaine Carneros and Artesa back in Napa before heading home. DC looked just like it did in the ads, although the up-close details weren’t as impressive as the gestalt. Tastings are poured at private tables on their terrace which can be a very leisurely and less pressured way to sample wine. We shared their flight of three sparkling wines (I think for $15) which included a little dish of roasted almonds. My favorite among the trio was the yeasty late disgorged brut. The pours and service were generous, and the views of wine country as the sun began to descend were certainly worth the $15.
Having lingered too long at DC, we were disappointed to find Artesa closed by the time we reached its gates. Ah well, next time. We could have squeezed in one last dinner in Napa before driving home, but we thought it best to get on the road since we both had work the next day. Y did have the brilliant idea to stop in San Jose at Dakao to pick up some banh mi for home. San Jose jerked us back to reality, but one bite of that banh mi made me realize how I was missing some of the pungent ethnic flavors I’m accustomed to. I feel lucky to have such range of experience and cuisine in California.
Back home, I opened the box of Woodhouse chocolates. A few had softened from the heat, but overall they fared pretty well. Their quality shined (I especially liked the bananas foster, gianduja, quatre espices, and pistachio), and I will return for more every time I’m back in Napa Valley or will order online if I can't wait that long. Sweet endings to a swell getaway. Thanks for reliving it w/ me...
A few photos from Day 3:
re: Ruth Lafler
The chocolates were fantastic! There was not one of the bunch that we didn't like. I usually don't like fruit or spice that much in chocolate, but they had just the right elegant balance so as to enhance the silky chocolate. I also appreciated that they were on the smallish side since I don't care for big pieces.
Has anyone tried their salted caramels or anything outside of the chocolate case? Have hounds had good experiences w/ mail order?
re: Carb Lover
I've had excellent experiences with their mail order. The chocolates are carefully packed to keep cool and sent overnight.
The last time I brought friends in there we met John Anderson, who owns Woodhouse with his wife. His family owned S. Anderson (now Cliff Lede). When he and his wife got out of the wine business, they looked around for something else to do. They landed on chocolate and spent a few years researching, learning and planning. John was very kind and quickly invited us into the back for a short tour. The working surfaces were covered with decorated chocolate stilletos which were going to be included in goodie bags for some schmancy Hollywood awards show. I got the sense that his wife is the chocolate maker. She does all the window displays, which are entirely made out of chocolate. The turkey's football game window last Thanksgiving was really funny.
I am not a chocoholic, but I think Woodhouse's chocolates are breathtaking. And for the uninitiated, they don't use any preservatives, so the chocolates need to be consumed within 7 days of purchase.
re: Ruby Louise
Thanks so much for sharing this. I may have to place a mail order for myself or future gift recipients! The owners' backgrounds are also covered on their nice website. I'll take this opportunity to try the new linking feature...
1367 Main St, St Helena, CA 94574
re: Carb Lover