human, being

March 21, 2009, 11:07 pm
Filed under: love and relationships | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Steve knew we were going to Napa for his birthday. When I told him back in January, he was a bit overwhelmed and a little ticked, to be honest. He didn’t want me to spent “that much money” on him. He later confessed the trip puts pressure for him to meet or beat my birthday gift to him with his gift to me on my 40th, in June.

My birthday has always been a big deal to me, especially as an adult. I have never worked on my birthday. I figure that’s one day every year that should be all about me. Steve, on the other hand, has always preferred that his birthday slip by unnoticed. He doesn’t speak to either parent (long, long stories, but suffice it to say that if I had either of them for parents, I would disown them too). His aunt sends him a card. This year my parents dropped off a present and a card. But he doesn’t like a fuss. That’s hard on me because I LIKE birthdays to be a big fuss. After this year, I think I’ve finally convinced him that birthdays are important and should be celebrated.

Last Friday, on his actual birthday, we flew to San Francisco, rented a car, and drove up to Napa. The travel day was uneventful, pleasant. We talked about his job, my job–got all that stuff purged. We ate Einstein’s breakfast sandwiches at DIA. On the plane, we read our books side-by-side, holding hands. I drove, because Steve is such a gawker, especially in a new place, and I wanted him to be able to gawk all he wanted. This weekend, after all, was about him mostly. It was also the first real vacation we had together since 2006–the last time we were in California together for a long weekend, during which he got deathly ill with a stomach virus, threw up on my shoes at Laguna Beach, got us kicked off the plane (Frontier wouldn’t let him fly because he was so feverish), which allowed us to stay in a fleabag hotel at the end of the runway we were sure was about to crumble to the ground. Yet I didn’t break up with him. Love overcomes vomit and all that.

With that in mind, we were quite surprised to find that our low-rent motel, Napa’s Chablis Inn (a steal at $89 a night) was clean and comfortable, if not overly perfumed with air freshener. When I booked our trip, I thought about putting us up at a fancy B&B, but I decided to save the $200 night difference in the room price. Our room was simple: bed with white down comforter, desk, older TV with cable that didn’t work, a wet bar area with mini-fridge (but no mini-bar) and a clean bathroom. Internet was free, albeit slow. The bed was quite comfortable, actually better than some beds I’ve slept in at major chain hotels. The only complaint was traffic noise; the motel’s on a major street. I picked up a box of earplugs at the local Lucky grocery store and that was that.

Before our trip, I had created a fancy itinerary for Saturday and folded it into Steve’s birthday card. I planned to give it to him at our dinner at Celadon. I kept teasing him with it, but he did not want it until dinner. I had bought a new dress for the occasion, and we packed his suit. With his job, he wears a black polo and black slacks every day, and I”ve missed seeing him dressed up. He looked amazingly handsome, with his blue shirt accenting his eyes. We arrived at the restaurant 30 minutes ahead of our reservation, thinking we’d have a drink first. But our table, next to a fireplace on the patio, was ready so we sat down early.

I chose Celadon after reading reviews on, and after I couldn’t get us into French Laundry until 8:30. Built in a warehouse at the south side of Napa’s old town, the restaurant felt country-chic. The ceiling soars about 20 feet overhead on the patio. The brick walls, once painted white, have been cleaned up so the brick is exposed. Brown paper on top of white tablecloths, candles, bright flowers, wine glasses set the table ambiance. The owner came buy and sprinkled glitter confetti in the table and gave us wine advice. We each had a glass of wine with our macadamia-crusted goat cheese, served with figs and crostini (yum). I wrote down what we had, then promptly lost the paper I wrote it on. So much for documenting our wines. Salads (not extremely exciting) came, followed by the main course. Steve ate steak and I had some luscious lamb chops. The food wasn’t mind-blowing. It was above average, and I think, in general it tried too hard. Our meat was perfectly cooked, but the sauces were just so-so. I could have done without the al-dente sweet potatoes, sliced thin, that nestled under my lamb. We had a half-bottle of a Sawyer meritage with our meal, and at $40 for a split, it was a decent restaurant value for an above average wine. Again, nothing extraordinary. Steve was itching to order a bottle of Opus One, but the 2005 was the bottle on the menu, and we figured it was too young.

My favorite moment of the evening came after we ordered and I gave him his card with the itinerary. He smiled as he read the first couple of items. “The class at Cakebread looks cool. Oh, a picnic. That sounds like fun.” Then he got to the third item: a tour and tasting at Opus One and his jaw dropped. His grin broke from ear to ear and had he been standing, I think he would have jumped up and down. “Are you serious?” he asked, incredulous. Then his eyes welled up. “This is the nicest thing anyone has done for me,” he said.

Steve has always hit home runs with Valentines Day and my birthday. He really, really gets me, and no onehas ever done so well with my special days. I wanted to try to match what he does this year, and from his reaction, I did. I was so excited to see him get excited. After dessert (chocolate cheesecake with raspberries and raspberry coulis for him, a fruit cobbler with pears and ginger for me–hands down the best part of dinner), we headed back to the room to continue our celebration. There is nothing quite like falling asleep in his arms, and waking up in his arms.

Saturday morning, we crossed the street to the Vallergas Market, a mini-Whole Foods that the Internet told me was a good place to pick up lunch. The service was amazingly slow at the deli: 7 people behind the counter, all doing everything except wait in the customers. After 15 minutes, someone finally took our order. Ten minutes later we checked out, grabbed coffee and breakfast at Starbucks and headed to Cakebread. The only hitch: I thought the Sensory Experience class started at 10:30. It started at 10.

When we arrived, we got a whirlwind backstage tour as we sought out the rest of our group: two couples who had traveled up from southern California for the weekend. We found them as they sat down in the private tasting room, decked out with a beautiful pine table, an 8-foot mirror, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the vats. Our teacher, Barbara, led us through tasting four wines: a sauvingon blanc, the reserve chardonnay, a pinot noir and a reserve merlot. We each had four shotglasses and a water glass in front of us on a plastic-covered mat: sweet, alcohol, tannin, acidic. Over the next hour, we discovered where each of those tastes hit our tongues. The acidic glass, a mix of citric acid and water, hurt it was so sour. The tannin was all yuck and made me gulp down water; it dried out my mouth so. Then we tasted each wine again and paid attention to the different qualities. Barbara passed around small glasses containing different fruits and foods–clover honey, lemon curd, cranberry–and we tasted the wines again, noting the scent and taste of those food elements in the wine. We also learned that the wine glass is important to how a wine tastes: a narrow mouth makes you purse your lips, delivering the first taste to the tip of your tongue (best for sweet wines, sparkling wines); a wider mouth makes you smile, delivering the first taste to the middle of your tongue (best for dry wines and tannic wines). I didn’t believe it until Barbara had us pour some of the sauvingon blanc into the chardonnay glass and taste from both glasses. They tasted like two different wines, and had I not done the pouring, I would have sworn I had been tricked. At the end of the class, we poured a bit of each of our shot glass contents into an empty glass to see what winemakers try to do to get a balanced wine. It was tricky, and fun, and totally worth the $30 each it cost. I’m not usually a white wine drinker, but I loved the chardonnay. The merlot was delicious too. I think the pinot will be better in a couple of years–it was still pretty acidic.

After our class, Steve pushed me to break the rules and take an unofficial tour. My stomach was in knots for the first few minutes as we ignored the “do not enter” signs and walked around the barn-like winery. There is a beautiful patio with a lovely water feature. The daffodils had just begun to bloom. The vines had just been trimmed back, as the winemakers were expecting buds in the next few weeks. Fluorescent yellow mustard flowers bloomed in the rows and fruit trees were heavy with white and pink blossoms. I went to town with my camera, trying to capture the beauty of the day. With a temperature of about 65 degrees, warm sun and a few clouds, it was perfect weather for our excursion. At one point, Steve and I both realized that our camera batteries were low, and the chargers were back in the room. We decided to go back and have our picnic on our bed–a great choice which only increased the feeling of intimacy we were sharing. The stress of our lives sloughed away as we ate our sandwiches and salads in the middle of the bed.

We were due back up Highway 29 at Opus One for the 1:30 tour, and when we drove up the long road toward the winery, Steve said, “It’s like approaching Mecca.” He was almost bouncing up and down in his seat, and I teased him about taking a “Toyota Moment” photo of him in front of the building (I let him have his dignity). Where Cakebread felt warm and homey, Opus is substantial and intimidating, as a collaboration between Rothschild and Mondavi should be. The architecture is a blend of Italian and French, with a limestone and painted cedar structure sitting at the top of a mound. We took almost 50 pictures during our tour between our two cameras.

Our tour guide directed us to the Salon, an oppulent barrel-ceilinged room filled with a luxurious juxtaposition of modern and classical art and furniture. The light was spectacular. After a brief overview of how Rothschild and Mondavi met, we ventured into the kitchen lab where wine and corks are tested. We learned that Opus only makes one wine–a meritage. We learned that they inspect all of their cork batches for mold using a complicated chemistry process, and as a result they reject about 40% of the corks they receive. Fascinating stuff, really. After a few minutes, our tour group of about 15 went into an enormous room where the grapes are crushed, then fed into the vats from above. Opus uses a gravity process to make its wine. We saw the vats, then finally went into the barrel room. The aroma in that room was wonderful, remarkable, delicious even. The white oak barrels have a beautifully stained centerpiece. The barrel room is a half-circle and seems to go on forever. The private tasting room, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the barrel room, is subtle and warm, reducing the bunker-like feel of the space.

We tasted the 2005, and it was good, but not quite great. We did not regret our decision to forego a bottle at dinner the previous night. After we tasted, we were invited to the public tasting room where they were pouring the 2003 at $35 a taste. Steve looked at me like a kid in a candy shop. The day was on me, and there was no way I could have said no to him. As he sipped the 2003, he had a look of utter bliss on his face. “This is the wine I fell in love with,” he said. We bought a bottle of Overture, a secondary wine made on years when the fruit is abundant and good, but not quite good enough to make it into a bottle of Opus One. We lingered on the rooftop patio, taking in the gorgeous spring views, before meandering over to Domaine Chandon.

I had picked this winery because I had read it had a lovely patio. The space is quite beautiful, with an unusual rock-mushroom garden, lakes, and moss-covered trees. But it’s also a tourist trap, with many people and tour buses and limos. Neither of us are big bubbly fans, but we bought a flight of the prestige wines anyway. We found we quite liked the Etoile Brut, but the others, a rose and a sparkling pinot noir, were boring. After our rather intimate experiences at the previous two wineries, we felt like part of the herd at Chandon and left quickly. We headed into St. Helena for an early dinner.

But first, we stopped at Woodhouse Chocolates. For just $22, we bought a dozen handmade delicacies. Steve chose all wild cherry. I had a mixture of hazelnut, caramel. double chocolate, wild cherry, and an incredible orange ginger cream. We walked up and down the main street, checking out a couple of stories, a gallery, as the shops closed for the night. We ended the night with burgers and fries at Taylor’s Refresher, the legendary roadside burger stand. The burgers were good, but Steve’s not a fan of egg buns and that made him lower his rating. We loved the fact that we could buy wine at a burger stand, even though we didn’t partake. We headed back to the room, where we attempted to watch a movie on Netflix (the Internet connection was too slow) and fell asleep. It had been a long, eventful, fun, wonderful, entertaining, educational day, and the best part of it was that we spent it together.

Sunday dawned rainy, and we headed west in our Pontiac Vibe (a cute, comfortable car that made me reassess my aversion to American cars). We drove through Sonoma and Petaluma to Highway 1, thoroughly enjoying the changing terrain and each other. We rolled down our windows despite the rain to smell the eucalyptus forests. We pulled over a couple of times so I could take photos of the lanscape. We finally reached the ocean and pulled over into what we thought was a good parking lot.

We spied a path down the hill and began to descend. After about 10 feet, we realized that we weren’t on a groomed path. Steve was wearing lace-ups and I was wearing pink flats–not great shoes for hiking down a 15% grade. I am terrified of falling on downhills, and it took all of my concentration to make it down with out having a heart attack. As we neared the bottom, a hiker yelled at us, “That’s not the path! There’s a bunch of poison oak over there!” as if we could do anything about it. Right then, the skies opened up. We didn’t mind it, and spent about 30 minutes listening to the waves crash. Steve climbed up a huge rock (I didn’t dare). We hiked back to our car on the real path and spent the rest of the drive drying out.

When we got to San Francisco, we had about 3.5 hours before our car was due back. We drove over the Golden Gate bridge and made a fortuitous wrong turn that led us to the Presidio (we were aiming for Fisherman’s Warf). We took a bunch of pictures with the bridge–its top cast in fog–then hiked down to the water and an ancient dock. The local wildlife seemed to enjoy posing for our camera, especially a particularly friendly seagull who I didn’t trust at all. We ate a hot dog, took in the wonderful energy of the place, and finally made our way to the airport. We realized that we were on Lombard Street, and Steve wanted to drive down the “crookedest street in the world.” That is, until we were stopped in traffic at a seemingly 45 degree angle. I’ve never seen him scared before, but he was definitely freaked out. Had I been driving, I think I would have been too.  The descent was rather anticlimatic in comparision. We took another fortuitous turn and found ourselves driving through the city on the exact road Google Maps told us to be on to get to the airport. The rest of the trip was uneventful, except for some smooching and hand holding and other romance. We were exhausted by the time our flight arrived in Denver at 11:30 pm, and boy did our bed feel good.

I think that being able to travel well together is a good sign that your relationship is strong. If that’s true, then we are rock solid. It was an incredible trip. I only wish it could have been longer.


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