Sunday, March 3, 2013

San Francisco & Napa

I kind of fell in love with San Francisco on this visit.  I'd been there several times before this trip but had always just used it as a stopping off point before heading to Napa.  We would land in the city in the afternoon, go to dinner and then head across the bay first thing the next morning, never spending any time exploring the city itself.

This time we made the city our home base and just day-tripped to Napa and I really enjoyed it.  First of all, I loved the location of Exclusive Resorts residences at the Fairmont Ghiradelli Square.  Its near the port and within walking distance of so many things.  One of the great perks of the Fairmont is the availability of the hotel's SUV.  On a first-come, first-served basis, they'll drive you anywhere within a two mile radius of the hotel.  That doesn't sound like very far, but it got us to all of our restaurant reservations so it totally eliminated the need for a rental car.   

If you're an Exclusive Resorts member, we were in Unit #212 Cocoa which had a large private balcony and great bay views.  While it was a tad chilly to sit out there this time, I can imagine enjoying a glass of wine or two in warmer weather.

ER concierge, Jeff, was fabulous as was the rest of the hotel staff, with the minor exception of a rather rude dude named Tito.  I have to admit that one of my favorite perks of the Fairmont was the unending supply of the little squares of Ghiradelli chocolates.  I might have OD'd on the dark chocolate ones.

We, along with our friends, the Rose's, arrived at the hotel on Wednesday and after checking in immediately took advantage of that aforementioned courtesy car and headed to a San Francisco institution for lunch.  Not only is Tadich Grill the oldest SF restaurant, it the oldest restaurant in California.  They don't take reservations and chances are you're going to have to wait for a table, but the place is so historical and charming you won't mind.  And it's well worth it.  Quite possibly the best crab I've ever had

image via

Since we needed to walk off lunch (and a bottle of Champagne!) we headed a couple blocks up the street to the Ferry Building.  Have y'all been watching the new episodes of Barefoot Contessa where Ina and Jeffrey are in Napa?  Jeffrey mostly sits on his butt the entire day under the guise of "finishing his book" while Ina does all the hard work, but whatever.  On one of the episodes she does some shopping at the Ferry Building so I wanted to act like Ina and shop there too.  Plus one of the reasons we love traveling with the Rose's so much is that we both prefer a balance of dining out and dining in.  We were full from lunch and tired from traveling and planned to pick up some wine, cheese and pork products and have a great night in!

This place was so much fun.  You can eat, drink, shop, people watch, drink, eat and shop some more!  We picked up some "tasty, salty, pig parts" at Boccalone, some stinky and not so stinky cheese at Cowgirl Creamery, a few French Macarons at miette and a few loaves of bread.  Oh.  And wine.  We may have bought some wine.  Details.

We called up the courtesy car from the Fairmont to pick us up and headed back home to put on some yoga pants and tennis shoes and head out for a walk.  Hey, we knew what we were going to be eating for dinner.....calories needed to be burned!

As I mentioned earlier, I love the location of the Fairmont.  If you head out the front door and make a right and then another immediate right, you'll be walking directly toward the water.  Once you're near the water, hop on the walking path, which is the Golden Gate Promenade and head left and that will take you to Fort Mason Green and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

This is the perfect place to get a little exercise and the park and views are fabulous.  There are hills and stairs to climb, dogs to pet, people to watch (and wonder about!) and stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Everything you want from San Francisco.

The next morning we woke up early (still operating in Central Time Zone!) to rain and headed down to the Fairmont gym.  It's small but nice with two treadmills, elipticals and bikes along with some free weights and a small cable system.  Joni and I were the only ones in there EVERY morning!  They also offer a complimentary buffet breakfast every morning and we definitely took full advantage of that.

It cleared up about 11:00 so we headed down the the Pier to catch the boat to Sausalito and on our way we ran into this guy!  Hehe.

Manti Te'o riding bikes with his girlfriend
The Pier is where you catch the boats for things like tours of Alcatraz or, like us,  a ferry over to Sausalito (check with Jeff the concierge for a ferry schedule) for a burger!  

It's also where tons of Japanese tourists gather to get a look at the seals.  I was told that if you head up there early in the morning, you can get some great shots of the seals without all the tourist action!  We were there in the off-season and it was busy so I can't imagine it in the summer!

This was our ride.  Even though it was a tad chilly we still grabbed a seat on the top.  It's worth it for some great views of SF as you're leaving and also of the GGB and Alcatraz.

See what I mean.....

When you get off the ferry in Sausalito, you'll see a parking lot directly across the street.  Just across the street from that lot is a small (only two tables in the back) hamburger place called.....Hamburgers!  You'll recognize it by the circular grill in the front window and the line out the door!   Nothing fancy but I think it's a great burger and fries.  Check them out.

Sausalito is the perfect place to do a little souvenir shopping if you're into the tchotchke scene.  Lots of small shops and lots of local these guys!

When we got back we headed out for another short walk before dinner.  Again head toward the water from the hotel but this time take a right on Jefferson and that will take you down to the San Francisco Maritime Museum.  They were just about to close when we got there so we didn't get to go on to any of the ships but there were still tons of kids there doing school things.  If you've got kids, this would be a really cool place to spend a couple of hours.

This was a going out night and we were lucky enough to have a reservation at Boulevard.  This was the first recommendation of everyone I talked to and everyone Joni had talked to about the "one place you must eat in SF".   We all looooved it!  Plus our waiter was fabulous and recommended the perfect bottle of Chassagne-Montrachet.   Bonus!!

With the help of Destination Cellars (a partner company of Exclusive Resorts) the next two days were dedicated to Napa.  Actually, I couldn't have arranged this WITHOUT Destination Cellars.  We have travelled all over the world with ER visiting wineries and I'm ashamed to admit I've never taken advantage of their services.  To be completely honest I wasn't sure exactly what  they offered and we've always seemed to manage on our own.  We know what and who we want to visit when we get to a particular wine region.  We're not wine rookies and we've always managed with the help of some great friendships/business relationships I've built over the year with retailers and distributers.

That being said, these guys know what they're doing.  I literally didn't have to lift a finger....well other than the email get four unique wine experiences....three to producers I'd never heard of.   Destination Cellars has invested the time to develop deep business and personal relationships with some of the best small vineyards in the Napa Valley and we get to reap those rewards.  Two of the visits involved food pairings along with the tastings and while the other two did not, the owners of those two vineyards took time out of their busy days to spend some time entertaining and getting to know us and introduce us to some fabulous wines.  These are all places that you can't just "stop in".  They only do private tours and DC can arrange those for you.

They not only arrange the winery visits, they also made our lunch reservations at two really great spots and arranged all of our transportation.  Because the last thing you want to do is drive to Napa on your own.....taste wine all day....then drive yourself back to San Francisco.  Dumb!

So the limo picked us up at the hotel at 10:30 and can I just say that this may be my only complaint in the entire experience.  The limo.  We did have six adults and a baby so an SUV was not going to cut it, however, limo's are very uncomfortable and I think a van or one of those Mercedes Sprinter thingys would have been much more comfortable.  Lesson learned and I'll request that next time.

Catherine with DC had arranged two visits on our first day but started with lunch (good idea to get a little something in the belly first!) at Oenotri in Napa.  And I have to admit that NONE of us had been to the actual town of Napa before.  We have all been to the valley several times and one couple even lives near San Francisco but none of us had ever been there.  Strange.  Oenotri is a reason to go back.  Great laid back, cool, Napa atmosphere with a wood fired oven and the best pizza (other than out of my own wood fired oven!!) ever. And the service was outstanding.   Perfect place to start.

Our first visit was to Palmaz Vineyards.  This is a beautiful estate that was originally the property of the Cedar Knoll Vineyard and Winery founded by Henry Hagen in 1881.  Henry produced award winning wines at Cedar Knoll until prohibition eventually put him out of business and the winery sat in shambles for nearly 80 years until it was purchased and restored by Julio and Amalia Palmaz in 1997.  Julio Palmaz is actually multi-millionaire Doctor Julio Palmaz and in his life before becoming a winemaker he he invented that little life-saving device known as the coronary stent, which he patent and later sold to Johnson & Johnson for $500 million.  So yeah.  There's that.

This has to be the most spectacular winery that none of us had ever heard of!!  Not that it's easy to find either, located off a back country road on the outskirts of Napa.  But once you find it, it's pretty damn amazing.  The winery is 100,00 square feet, the equivalent of 18 stories...almost all underground, with the piece de resistance being the 54-foot-high by 72-foot-wide dome that houses the gravity driven winemaking process.  They claim the wine never touches a pump the entire journey from vine to bottle but at one point during the tour Jordon showed us this massive pump, so that was confusing.  I was going to ask, but then we started tasting, and well.......

After the tour we got to taste their Cabernet Sauvignon, Gaston Cab Sauv, Chardonnay (which was Mary Clair's favorite!!) and also their desert wine, Muscat Canelli.   The Cabernets are both big bold wines that are surprisingly smooth.  They're both almost 15% alcohol, which is a little much for me but that seems to be the trend these days.

The cute thing in the bottom left of the above picture is our friend's daughter, Allyson (the one with the adorable toddler below) and this was her first winery visit.  We warned her that they weren't all quite like this one!

Winery baby!!

Which brings us to our second visit on Friday.....Gamble which was the antithesis of Palmaz, but only in production facility.  Tom Gamble, the owner of the certified organic Gamble Family Vineyards, is a Napa farmer by birthright who has been growing grapes for places like Beringer for years but finally made the transition into putting his own name on the label and is now in the process of building his own winery on his Napa Valley property.   And we were lucky enough to get a personal tour from Tom himself.  

This is small production at its finest only producing a total of four thousand cases per year of a Bordeaux blend, Sauvignon Blanc (Wine and Spirits Magazine named the 2009 SB the year's best!), Old Vine Syrah, and two Cabernet Sauvignons.....the Family Home Cab and the more hedonistic Cairo Cab, named after the family dog.  These are hard to find, member-only wines and if you want to buy them you'll need to visit the appointment only!  Call DC.....they'll hook you up!

We were all exhausted after finishing up at Gamble so we headed back to the city for another night in with some great local pizza.  I wasn't responsible for the ordering so don't ask from where it came!!  Just know it tasted so much better since I was eating it on my couch in my stretchy yoga pants.

We were up bright and early the next morning heading to our first appointment at Vineyard 29.  I mentioned earlier that I had only heard of one of the wineries DC had scheduled for us and this was it.  I belong to a few premier wine clubs (shocker!) and Vineyard 29 showed up in one of my quarterly shipments a few years ago.  It was love at first glass.  Then I found out it's one of those "cult" wines and I was going to have to wait my turn.  Yeah, not so good at that.

When I found out that the vines for this wine came from cuttings offered up by Dick Grace it all made sense.  Grace Family Vineyards is another one of those elusive "cult" wines that I have been fortunate enough to collect over the years and it's always a special occasion when you pop the cork on one of those.  

When asked where the name Vineyard 29 came from we were referred to the address.....2929 Hwy 29. Didn't have to go out on a limb there.  

Theresa Norton and Tom Paine acquired the property in 1989 hoping to retire but soon realized they were sitting on prime Cabernet Sauvignon real estate which is where those Grace cuttings came in to play.  With prestigious vines, you better employ prestigious winemakers and boy did they....from Gary Galleron (Chateau Montelena, Grace) to Heidi Barrett (Grace, Screaming Eagle) to Phillipe Melka (Dominus, Chateau Haut-Brion, Petrus).  The vineyard was acquired in 2000 by Chuck and Anne McMinn who turned the property into a full-scale winery with Phillipe Melka still consulting.

After touring their 13,000 square foot facility we were led into this beautiful cave tasting room for a library tasting with food pairings.  And lets just get this out there right now..... as good as their winemaker is, their chef is just as accomplished.  OMG, there was a mashed potato and short rib bite that I was willing to knock my husband OUT for so I could steal his.  I didn't, but it was touch and go.

We had the pleasure of tasting their Estate Cabernet Franc, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Aida Cabernet Sauvignon and their more affordable Cru.  In a word......smooth.  These are also alcohol bombs with the Aida and Estate Cabs topping out at 15.2%, but for some reason I didn't get that throat burn I do with others.  Could have been because I was in a state of bliss from the mashed potatoes.  Whatever it was didn't stop me for buying my way onto that allocation list.  Hubs not so happy about that, btw......until I pour him a glass!!

Mashed potatoes or not we still had lunch to eat.  Yes, lunch with wine.  So we headed into St. Helena for lunch at Cook.  If you've not been to St. Helena, make sure you schedule an afternoon to just walk around.  It's one of my favorite places to spend an afternoon shopping when I'm all tasted out.  It's rare, but it happens!  

Lunch at Cook was fabulous....make sure you get the Brussels Sprouts appetizer.  OMG.  Oh and the burger.  But could we just take and minute and talk about their light fixtures.  I die.  They were so busy I didn't ask about them but if anyone knows where I can get these, do tell.

After lunch it was off to Crocker & Starr.  Charlie Crocker purchased the old Dowdell and Sons Winery in 1971 and began growing Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon between 1978 and 1989. In 1997 Charlie teamed up with winemaker Pam Starr to establish Crocker & Starr.  They took the estate from conventional to organic farming.   The 1997 vintage Cab Franc and Cab Sauvignon were their first releases and are now producing those along with an award winning Sauvignon Blanc and a Cabernet blend.

This is a charming St. Helena estate and the mustard growing between the dormant vines was absolutely beautiful.  I've never had the pleasure of visiting wine country during mustard season but have long seen pictures so this was a thrill for me.  It doesn't take much.

There was also this guy keeping everything in check.  For the life of me, I can't remember his name, but  one of my favorite things about visiting wineries all over the world are the dogs.  They're always roaming around and are always super friendly.....especially if there's a food pairing along with the tasting.  I've had more than one park themselves at my feet under a tasting table hoping for a nibble.

This says it all!!

Midway through our visit, Charlie showed up driving his prized possession, a 1966 Ford F250, which absolutely thrilled my vintage car loving husband to death.  Let's just say they bonded!!  Charlie also took some time to sit and taste with us.  Really nice guy making some really great wine....particularly that "Stone Place" Cabernet.  

So, I'd call that a successful two days in California wine country, wouldn't you?  The perfect amount of time in my book.  Two day trips every couple of years works for me.....and hubs wallet!!

We were done early enough on Saturday to head back to the city, take a short walk to shake off the  limo ride (and a few wine cobwebs) and go to dinner at A16.  I have both of their cookbooks, A16 and the recently released SPQR, so I was really looking forward to eating here.  Maybe because I'm approaching 50 (like seriously approaching) and I'm just not that into the "see and be seen" scene, but this was a huge disappointment.  I get that it was Saturday night in San Francisco, but this place was packed....can stand or move your chair packed, and LOUD.  It made me crazy.  Plus the food was average and the service slow.....probably because it was packed.  Did I mention that?  We also had an issue with one person's dinner not coming out with the rest of them.  Had to wait another 10 minutes with no explanation.  I'll give them credit for comping us the meal after we complained but still.  I'd like to say I'd give them another try the next time I'm in SF on a Wednesday night because all those people there can't be idiots, but there are so many other great places to dine there that I doubt it.

We woke up Sunday morning to sunshine and fairly warm temps so we set out to find our friend Marty's grandmother's old house.  She lived in Pacific Heights at the corner of Broadway and Buchanan for over 30 years and Marty used to come up from Santa Monica in the summers to visit.  Its a beautiful five-story Victorian that used to be all hers, but has since been subdivided into several apartments and is currently being renovated.  That bottom right pic above is the view down the street.  Not bad, huh!!

That's Marty and his daughter, Allyson, on the front porch.  Allyson had never been to the house before so it was fun for her to experience that with her dad.

Sunday brunch was at 25 Lusk.  What a cool place.  We ate upstairs but the bar (which was closed) downstairs is sooooo chic.  I would love to have a glass of wine down there sometime.  The place is not easy to find, its down an alley, but it's worth the hunt.  I highly recommend the swordfish BLT.

image via

The Rose's headed back to Dallas on Monday morning so hubs and I lounged around until it warmed up and then headed out to a few SF tourist traps....which if you can hit them on Monday is a much less crowded option!  

We walked up to Coit Tower to get some great views of the city and then walked over to Lombard Street which we quickly ditched because it doesn't matter to Japanese tourists that it's Monday, apparently!!  

image via RN74 website

Our last night was dinner at RN74 which is part of the Michael Mina restaurant empire.  We've been to his restaurants in Laguna Beach, Las Vegas and a previously owned one in San Francisco and have never been disappointed.  This is another beautiful space and I especially loved the train station style wine listing on the wall.

So, that's it.  It was a perfect little getaway with all that's important in life.....great friends, great food and great wine.  What more is there?

If you're heading the San Francisco anytime soon, check out this link and also this one!


  1. Thanks for all the great info, I noticed that you did not like the limo and your husband LOVES classic cars, next time let us take you on a wine tour in one of our 1947 convertible Packard Clipper limousines. We know all the little boutique wineries and the big ones, too, we have worked with Destination Cellars occasionally when they want a unique limo experience for their clients. Check out the Classic Packards at

  2. The dog from Crocker & Starr, his name is Sully, aka Mr. Sullivan. He and the winemaker's dog, Griffon, will be featured in next year's Winery Dogs Napa Valley calendar. Thanks for sharing his love with your readers!

    Sully's dad

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