Ok, this trip was supposed to be a surprise b'day gift for my fiancee, but the weather during the weekend closest to her birthday was so lousy that I had to postpone it. As it turns out, I couldn't be any happier that the trip is postponed till now. The day is a bit longer, the weather is very summer-like. Un-be-liev-able! whoo hoo.
We start the trip early today, but we still don't get to Bale Grist Mill State Park until 11:30 am. The turn to the state park is off highway 29 after you pass St. Helena and the St. Helena outlet. We don't quite know what to expect, but when I planned for this trip, I am looking for something that is also outside of wine or winery. In some way, that's an oxymoron because we are after all going to a wine country, but it's fun to go against the stream sometimes. ;-)
This mill was originally owned by Mr. (Edward?) Bale of England. He was hired as a physician for the Mexican army. He then was given a plot of land north of Napa, and he built a water powered mill that is now known as the Bale Grist Mill that we are visiting today. From the parking lot, we walked down the hill towards the mill. You pay an admission fee inside the mill. When we get there, the tour is just starting, so we just join the flock. The docent tells us how the mill operates and the parts that make up the mill. One thing we learn about this mill is that despite the heavy weight of the stone grinders (over 1500 lbs), the 2 slabs of stones are not supposed to touch each other. If they do, they will cause fire sparks that will produce ozone. The ozone will be absorbed by the flour, and it will give the flour very distinct undesirable smell. If you have heard this saying, "Keep your nose on the grindstone", you will now understand where this saying comes from. Mill workers need to keep their nose to the grindstones lest they need to toss the entire batch away. From the docent, we also learn that there are currently only 10 water powered flour mills in the US. This is one of those.
Although the mill is now a historic state park, it is still in operation, and you can buy flour milled in this location at the gift center. We get 2 bags of 2 lbs pastry flour. Can't wait to try it. This mill also has quite a few scenic locations for your photos. As an alternative to wineries, I would recommend this place for people going to Napa Valley.
From the mill, we go to a branch of C.I.A. to finish our "business" there. ;-) We are so ready to dig out gastronomical secrets. Ok, sounds weird? This CIA has nothing to do with Langley. It is "Culinary Institute of America". The main building looks almost like a castle. The main lobby looks like that Hogwart school of Harry Potter. This is supposedly where the culinary wizards of the future train. We check out their cafes, stores, and demo rooms, and later, we go to the Wine Spectator Greystone restaurant, still within the complex, to have our lunch. We order today's temptations (a set of appetizer sampler), crispy skin fish (halibut) and pork shank. The appetizer sampler consists of consome, carnitas on grilled polenta, crab and potato gratin with tortillas, goose liver pate with mango on crackers, arugala and various citruses. They are all terrific. We also have gewutztraminer and "unpearable". ;-) Unique as it is, "unpearable" is actually just a tea infusion with pear juice and ginger. Having said that, it's a signature drink of CIA. We like the food and drink so much.
From CIA, we go to St. Supery winery. Starting from last year (2007), the art gallery of this venue is the host for Mustard Festival photos. When we come though, most of this year contestants have not submitted their pictures yet. So, the exhibits we see are other paintings and pictures. One interesting exhibit is a display of a grape vine with soil dug out around its root. You can also try two smelling stations where you can smell fragrances that you commonly encounter when tasting wines, like citrus, black cherry, to green olive and redwood. In the winery complex, you can also find a historic house, the Atkinson House. Too bad today it is closed. Another distinctive landmark at St. Supery is a giant oak tree.
On the way to Silverado Resort, where we will be staying overnight, we also make a stop at Oakville Grocery. It's such an antique looking grocery store that when you are inside, you would think that you were in 1940's. Well, I don't have a first time experience on how stores in 1940 look like, but if Hollywood can be trusted, then the look of this place is not too far off from what's in the movie.
Also, on the way, we take local road instead of highway 29. At one point, the mustard yellow color is so tempting that we feel like re-enacting "Crouching tiger, Hidden dragon" and Matrix scene. ;-)
Our suite at Silverado comes with a big living room and full kitchen. We get to Silverado early enough to prepare our dinner, but the eating part will have to wait until after we are done with spa. Off we go to the spa for a Lomi Lomi.
After a relaxing treatment at the spa the night before, waking up is the last thing we have in mind, but hey, we would like to try the tennis court at the resort. So, off we go to play some tennis around 9:30ish. The tennis courts that are closer to the resort are actually for members. Guest courts are by the spa, which is a bit further away, but the tennis court registration attendant is very courteous. Since the courts are not fully occupied when we come, she lets us play on one of the member courts. It is cold in the beginning, but after running around chasing the ball for a while, the weather becomes very pleasant.
After finishing a late breakfast, we go to our first winery of the day, Luna Vineyard, in Napa. This winery is located just at the intersection of Silverado Trail and Hardman Avenue. The winery looks very much like a charming small Tuscan villa, with terra-cotta exterior paint, and sturdy beams. The proprietor claims that the wines here are all rated 90 or above by Wine Spectator. Quite a big claim! So, we are very enthusiastic in tasting the wines. Their 2006 Pinot Gigrio has a 98/100 rating, and it is indeed good. The Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is also good. There are plenty of lemon groves and olive trees to be found surrounding the buildings. At some strategic spots, you could see some giant Roman jugs and statues.
From Luna Vineyard, we drive North along the Silverado Trail to Miner Family Winery. Some friends at work recommended this place, and I couldn't wait to check it out. One caution, the place is quite popular that it can be a circus. Luckily, since we come on Monday (although it is a Monday of a long weekend), the place is not too crowded. The winery is on a hill overlooking the Oakville valley. With the spring coming, and the mustard is in full bloom, the view is definitely something you don't want to miss. The only drawback is that on the day we visit this place, there is still lingering fog that make the distant scenery looks a bit hazy. During wine tasting, we try their new line of wine (voignier, originally from the Rhone valley of France), but the more famous of their wines are the Cabernet Sauvignon and the signature red called the "Oracle".
We take Oakville Crossing to get back to highway 29, and that's when we spot a unique pinkish color building. We cannot resist to check it out, and it turns out to be the "Groth Family Winery". Since we have planned to visit Hess Winery for a wine tasting later on, we decide not to try the wine here. We will keep this place in mind for our next visit in the future though. The winery has a well landscaped courtyard, as well as an antique and imposing dining room.
Driving down south on highway 29, we then turn right towards the West on Redwood Road to get to our final destination, The Hess Family Vineyard. According to the site's website, the winery is also a host to one of the biggest art collection in the wine country. The winery is off the major road, approximately 5 miles from highway 29. Having said that, the scenery is interesting enough that you don't think that it is such a long drive. Caution is advised for first time visitor lest you think that you are lost when in fact you aren't. Throughout the 4 mile drive from highway 29 exit to the junction where you need to make the left turn to Hess Family Vineyard, there is no sign about the winery. Luckily at the T junction, there is a big sign.
When we arrive at the winery, there is nothing in particular that catches our attention. The front building is actually an office, but as you walk down an alley, you start to be greeted by bronze sculptures with increasing frequency. After a minute of walk, we see a fish pond with lots of small Koi fishes, and then you see a big courtyard with lots of bronze sculptures. At one side of the courtyard, you find a chateau like building. You also see 3 different varieties of giant Oak double-doors. The art collection can be found mostly on level 3 and level 2 of the building, although some can be found at the ground floor. The gallery is big enough that it is almost like a museum on its own right. One of the featured artist is Andy Goldsworthy. We were first introduced to his art when we were travelling to Madrid, in Palacio De Crystal. (For more information, see our travel blog on Spain) It appears to me that he likes to use natural objects like mud, tree branches to create his arts. His work at Hess gallery is made of mud. One of the exhibits is a video display of his artwork in process (when the mud is baked), and it looks almost like the eye of Sauron from the LOTR.
After enjoying the gallery, we stop by the wine tasting room to try wines. The wine tasting room has a high ceiling with a few glass windows that show fermentation barrels. The walls are all made of stone. The atmosphere of the room is like that of an old chateau, very appropriate for the occasion. The cabernet franc and the late harvest chardonay are particularly good. The late harvest chardonay tastes a bit like ice wine. In fact, according to the description on the bottle, the grape is harvested when the temperature is 39 degree, and it is fermented at 18 degree. The technique definitely has a lot of resemblance to that used for making ice wine.
On the way back, we stop by at the neighboring Mont La Salle retreat center. In the beginning, we don't know what the place is. We don't even know the name. However, the look from road is so interesting that we decide to check it out. We are glad that we do. From the parking lot, we can see a good view of a pond, valley and distant hills. This place has a Catholic chapel, courtyard, and possibly many other stuffs that we miss. The architecture is quite interesting. If you are visiting Hess, I would definitely recommend stopping by this place for 15-30 minutes to check it out. It is just right next to Hess.