Wild Wild West

This poison oak is healing so slowly I think we might have our next vacation right around the corner before it’s all gone. Seriously – I can barely bend my arm because my skin is tight and swollen, not to mention blister-laden. But I continue to nurse the wounds by applying calamine lotion liberally a few times each day, wrapping it in bandages, and staring at it constantly – but like watching a pot of water and willing it to boil, it doesn’t help. Slow and steady wins the race, this time.

Fortunately I have the Hubs around to help out with the things that seem really easy but are much harder when you only have one arm that works in its entirety – doing extra dish duty, cleaning up after me, fastening bra straps, etc. Good times.

But just look at him and that cute little smirk on his face. I am very lucky to have him around 360 out of 365 days of the year. The 9 that we recently spent together on the west coast will probably go down as some of my favorites. So, let’s talk about that vacation. And no worries – there’s food involved, at least a little of it! Ok, a lot.

It all started with a flight to Portland, Oregon. But let’s not forget the nice crotch shot that Hubs got in the Denver airport while waiting for our connecting flight. Nothing starts vacation like a crotch shot. However, I prefer to think of nice, green forests and beautiful blue skies like this here. Once we got into Tillamook State Park, we knew we were in for a treat on this vacay, and we’d only driven an hour.

Of course, it’s no vacation without a few culinary excursions, and to kick that off in style, we stopped by the Tillamook Cheese Factory for a quick tour, a sampling of cheese via a toasted sandwich, and shot of a supposedly dead hairstyle – the rat-tail. Only in Tillamook, folks.

Following some bird-watching, cookie-eating, and various sight-seeing, we made our way to Yachats for lodging and the freshest fish & chips on earth. Day 1 was none-too-bad.

A very zealous someone had the nerve to plan a day starting at 6 am in order to catch the sunrise at glorious Cape Perpetua, which we had all to ourselves. After complaining only a little, I decided it wasn’t such a bad idea after all. By the way, does my hair look especially orange there or what? Must be the purple… Or maybe I’m trying to distract you from thinking that I look extra sleepy… which would be true. Remember – 6 a.m.

Afterwards we checked out a lighthouse, listened to the barking of sea lions, and drove.

We drove a little more after that. Good thing we like driving so much.

The ocean views were in and out for most of the drive. But thanks to this trusty sign painted in the road, we were able to find a secluded area in a small Oregon town that had hidden away this jewel of a view:

Of course, this is a road trip, so we did have to get back to driving, and we made our way into California. It was then that we came upon the first of many forests. Redwood trees reaching far, far into the sky, clovers the size of your fist, and quiet aside from an occasional bird or shuffle of a foot, or perhaps the wind blowing through the leaves of the ferns at our feet. Look how tiny those people look!

It was here, Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park, that we were finally able to harness our Jedi powers, and successfully lifted many a tree blocking the civilians’ way. It’s too bad said Force couldn’t prevent poison oak, speeding tickets, or an iPhone 4 from shattering. Maybe with a little more training…

Using all those powers made us dizzy, an apparent side-effect we did not read about:

Then we cut loose: I got to touch Babe’s balls (and Hubs didn’t even mind!), and Hubs got himself a little bit crunk. Klamath folk don’t mess around with their beverages, that’s for sure.

Day 3 was touch and go. A 4-mile hike, which included a significant, treacherous hike up the same hill we’d speeded down the hour before, left us sweaty, hungry, and in need of a change of clothes. But after a granola bar, some mountain scenery, and a conversation with tipsy bikers, we made like lightening, and bolted.

And by bolted, I mean I bolted. Somewhere along the lines I was graced with the presence of California’s finest at my car-side and handed a nice thin sheet of pink yellow paper. “G’day ma’am”. What a loser. Anyway, it was nothing a burger and a banana shake couldn’t fix. Thank you, Ferndale.

[Look at Hubs, all suave.]

A burger and a shake, and one of the most beautiful areas of coastline I’ve ever seen, The Lost Coast. A-mazing. I’ll stop talking for a moment and show you a few pictures:

Needless to say, we could have stopped there and called it vacation. But instead, we continued on south through Mendocino, caught a gorgeous sunset, and made our way through winding curve after winding curve, to Healdsburg.

You’ve probably heard me say this before (and don’t judge), but is it really vacation without a little wine tasting? Of course, we just had to choose the hottest day of the year in Healdsburg (ok, maybe it’s an exaggeration, but it might not be) to rent bikes, but after a bunch of sweating (and yes, one time we even stopped and walked the bikes up the big ass hill) we met our reward(s). We finished off the day in Napa with a milkshake, a meal at Bottega (sadly, one of my chef-crushes, Michael Chiarello, was not there), and a good night’s sleep.

We awoke to another hot day and managed to keep the top down for about 45 minutes. Following a trip to the Oxbow Public Market, thanks to a recommendation by my new friend, Brenda, we headed out, breakfast and fresh fruit in hand, for more wine. You didn’t think we’d taste wine for just one day, did ya? Shame on you!

Of course, the wineries were great and all, but the highlight of the day was yet to come. Said friend, Brenda, managed to procure a French Laundry reservation for Hubs and I (!!!!), which I’ve probably thought about every day for the last two months, and needless to say, I was like a kid in a candy store. Don’t worry, I kept it together.

Well, sorta…

Did I mention we also hit up Morimoto’s new digs for drinks and an appetizer? As if we needed it, but we couldn’t resist checking out the space. In short, both were just lovely. Don’t let this picture of Hubs fool you – he was annoyed at the couple next to us at FL; they’d just gotten engaged and she talked incessantly about the wedding she’d already planned. It’s gonna take place on the east coast, just so ya know…

We’d left Wednesday open, and good thing. Turns out, my new buddy has a pretty cool boyfriend who offered to show us a few of Napa’s more private wineries while she worked. We grabbed some great wine, checked out a chicken coop and some very tasty balsamic vinegar, and even got a behind the scenes glance at the fancy new Trinchero kitchen. But even more importantly, we had an awesome day hanging out with Ted, meeting their friends (also, learning about his upcoming, now past, trip to Burning Man) and learning about life in Napa. Both of them seemed like people we’d known forever, and I can’t wait to head back to visit again – thanks again, Brenda & Ted!

The rest of the day wasn’t bad, either. We ended the day in ultra-foggy San Francisco, grabbed some Bi-Rite, and made our way to Berkeley where we had one of the freshest, most down-to-earth dinners I’ve ever consumed – Chez Panisse. I doubt I’ll ever have an heirloom tomato as good as the ones I had there. We both agreed – cost, hype, and quantity aside – this was the best meal of the trip. Hands down.

It seemed like this vacation would never end, and I mean that in a totally good way. Something about driving down the country, doing our own thing, on our own schedule, was very relaxing. But after leaving SF, I realized we only had two full days left! And there was plenty left to see and do – first stop was Pescadero Point, where we checked out another lighthouse (apparently one that’s photographed often), and then we made our way on to Santa Cruz.

The boardwalk was like something out of a kids’ movie – a miniature fair on the beach, with fried twinkies, giant donuts, and a roller coaster! We couldn’t leave without a roller coaster ride and a quick walk to the ocean. Oh, and a pretzel. We are Wetzels, after all…

After tossing some money away at the Mystery Spot, we left Santa Cruz behind and headed for Monterey. If you’ve never been there, you have to check out the 17-mile drive – a gorgeous private scenic drive, lots of cypress trees and rich people, and gorgeous views.

It was a strange day – it seemed the sun only visited Santa Cruz that day, as the rest of the day was dreary and overcast. Speaking of dreary, do you like my creepy dead tree picture? I was playing with the editing features on my camera – I’m a little addicted to the “retro” button.

Anyway, we were so excited to have a “fancy hotel room” that we really just chilled out in it for most of our time there. Plus, they gave us fresh-baked oatmeal chocolate chip cookies when we checked in, so we had to eat those pronto. We did make it out for a ‘just ok’ dinner on the Wharf, caught some shots of some ‘coons, and then lounged on the ultra fluffy bed and watched a little tv. Unfortunately, Hubs was unable to find ‘Bad Girls’ Club’, his new favorite show. I was ok with that.

The term “go out with a bang” is relevant here. Our final day was a day we knew’d be full of cool stuff. And aside from the seemingly homeless person  yelling at me in McDonalds and the car crash in Big Sur, it was. Our first stop was immediately south of Monterey, the Point Lobos State Reserve in Carmel. The park ranger was so proud of this place, shaking his head with wonder and delight after describing each stopping point to us. Now that’s a guy who loves his job :). We don’t blame him.

The sun had peeked through the clouds when we left the park, and we made our way to Big Sur, a 90-mile drive of rugged coastline, and some of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see. I couldn’t get over the disparities between the east and west coasts of the US; having grown up on the east coast, I’m accustomed to crowded beaches, houses on stilts, and windows boarded up during hurricane season. I remember surf shops and Dairy Queens on every corner, and piers lined up and down the beaches, full of fishing poles. You don’t see that here – you see rocks, cliffs, and water. It is remarkable, to say the least.

We ran into some more of what we kept calling “lucky cows” – the ones who get to live their lives on a beach, roaming the countryside. I bet that, even if they knew they’d be slaughtered and fed to us months later, they wouldn’t mind. If you got to live here day in and day out, would you?

p.s. this is the gorgeous stop that I’m close to certain housed that poison oak bush that lovingly caressed my arm. I crept down a little ‘unmarked’ hill on the left to take some pictures. gggrrrrr.

The Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park wasn’t bad either. This is the only natural waterfall that flows directly into the Pacific. I bet they’ll film an episode of The Bachelorette down there, eh? Or maybe they already have…

We thought about going to Hearst Castle, but seeing as how the indoor tours were sold out, we took it as a sign that it wasn’t worth the trip up. I mean, who needs to see a castle when you have a coastline like that? So we zoomed in to take a shot, called it a day, and drove south a bit. Oh, but we did get one last night of fine dining – Olive Garden! I couldn’t resist once I got that salad and breadsticks idea in my head, and plus, we hadn’t eaten there in 6 years. Yumtown.

To wrap up the trip, we started the morning with a food fight (long story) and cruised on into Santa Barbara.

Which, by the way, is a beautiful city. Donned with terra cotta-roofed Spanish style houses, the city is nestled between the ocean and the Santa Ynez mountains, and the downtown area is cute as can be. Had our flight not been in a few hours, I would have stayed there a little longer, but maybe one day we’ll head back, if only for the horchata that I heard was to die for.

We didn’t see any famous people in Malibu, but we did find one last stop for fresh fish and chips, where we sat to eat while gazing at the Pacific Ocean for one final time before heading into Los Angeles.

Ironically enough (or maybe Hubs planned it this way), his favorite band, Rush, just happened to get a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood not too long ago. We had just enough time to drive over, nail a $2 parking spot on Hollywood Blvd, and locate it. If The French Laundry is my candy store, then this would have been his.

And with that, friends, this trip to the Wild Wild West has come to a close. Just like last year’s trip out to Napa, I am once again in love with this place, especially after driving down some of the most breathtaking coastlines I’ve ever seen. It’s humbling, calming even, to see how pure, how untouched some areas of the world are. And while being home from vacation is certainly no walk in the park, that work we do week after week makes the days we don’t so much more special.

So special, and so so wild.

Not enough pictures for ya? There’s plenty more right here. Have at it!

Vacation Links:

Tillamook Cheese Factory, Tillamook, OR
Luna Sea Fish House, Yachats, OR

Bear Republic Brewery, Healdsburg, CA
Ridge Winery, Healdsburg, CA
Seghesio Winery, Healdsburg, CA
Summers Winery, Calistoga, CA
Artesa Winery, Napa, CA
Deerfield Winery, Kenwood, CA
Terra Valentine Winery, St Helena, CA
The Terraces Winery, St Helena, CA

No Brand Burger Stand, Ferndale, CA
Morimoto Napa, Napa, CA
Bottega, Yountville, CA
Bouchon Bakery, Yountville, CA
The French Laundry,  Yountville, CA
Bi-Rite Creamery, San Francisco, CA
Chez Panisse, Berkeley, CA
Cafe Campesino, Santa Cruz, CA
Old Fisherman’s Grotto, Monterey, CA
Nepenthe, Big Sur, CA
Malibu Seafood, Malibu, CA

Sommelier on the Rise in the Golden State

wine tasting class glasses

We awoke to the last full day of our trip. In addition to listening to Chris singing in the shower, I was also guessing what might be for breakfast downstairs. I have never been a skilled guesser. Oh well.

One of my favorite things about staying at a B&B is meeting all the other guests. In general, there tends to be a fairly good mix of clientele. You get your older couple, your fellow younger couple, the group of friends, the mother/daughter, the family, and that’s the large bulk. We actually had all of the above this morning. It’s really fun to hear everyone chat about their adventures, as they are all really different. But enough about that. Let’s get to eatin’. Breakfast this morning was really unique and you’re in luck because I brought the camera this time. I can only imagine what people say when I take pictures of food, but I honestly don’t care too much, or at least not enough to not do it! So this morning, we had fresh herbed and breaded pasta with asparagus and bacon served underneath a poached egg and lemon zest. I can’t say I’ve ever eaten pasta for breakfast, but this won’t be the last time now that I have. Very yummy – the pasta and egg filled us up for most of the day.

B&B breakfast

Prior to getting to Napa, we decided we’d stick to doing one or two actual winery tours. And as usual, some of them need to be arranged ahead of time so we couldn’t wait until the last minute which is typically how a vacation should be. A B&B recommendation for tours was the Mondavi winery, which most people who know the slightest about wine have heard the name Mondavi. They have a HUGE winery and are really into wine education, hence the plethora of tours to choose from. We booked a tour called “essence” which included a basic winery tour followed by a tasting/sniffing lesson. Sounded like loads of fun and something a little different than the other generic tours. Contrary to our usual Saturday, we were drinking wine by 11 AM. It’s vacation – remember? So don’t judge :).

The tour was really neat and our guide, most of the time, was on point. We saw an educational vineyard and got to look closely at the vines. It would be interesting to come back during the latter part of the summer when the vines are jam-packed with grapes and greenery – this time the vines were barren and if you ask me, they looked a little bit freaky. But cool, nonetheless. We also visited the cellars. I wondered if theirs was just prettier for show and thought about what some of the smaller wineries might look like instead of the high-class ones. Any insight into this is much appreciated – do they all look this nice and pristine? They already spilled the beans that they dyed the barrels so you couldn’t see how much spills. Ha!

Mondavi winerygrapevine

Once we finished the tour, the really cool part started. We went into a smaller room (there were only 4 of us on this tour, by the way) where you saw a beautiful table stocked with wine glasses, each with something to smell in it. All different colors and tons of different items. Our sniffing proceeded in three steps, and we started the tasting with the white wines and worked our way to the reds. Going to the table, I was thinking I was going to be really good at this. I was able to at least recognize the glass contents by sight or at least by smell, which gave me an unwarranted sense of confidence. I thought for sure I’d be able to use my sniffer and taste buds to figure out all of the scents and aromas of these wines. Wrong answer!! The tour lady, you could tell she’d been doing this for a long time. It was a little creepy – how quickly she stuck her little nose in the glass and popped her head up triumphantly, belting out things like “orange blossom” and “tarragon” and even “boxwood”. What the hell is boxwood anyway?! With how strong it smelled in the glass I thought for sure I’d notice that one! In addition to the sheer difficulty of smelling that stuff in the wine, let alone tasting it, I kept having to stifle the urge to grab one of those graham crackers that kept reminding me of a cheesecake crust. Sure looked better than those stale-tasting wafers they give you to “cleanse your palate”. Apparently my palate was uncleansable, if that’s a word.

One time Chris and I did smell what we were “supposed” to smell. After the wines had been sitting out, getting air for a few minutes, we went back and smelled. One of them smelled just like cream soda. And another, I really truly smelled boxwood! Yippeeee!!! Finally… sigh of relief.

wine barrelstasting glass - vanillascorecard

We were also given little souvenir laminated tasting groups that listed various qualities/aromas/tastes by category. You’d think it would help to have a cheat sheet AND be able to get up and sniff as needed. Nope! I must say though, and I am not bragging, but I did do a little better than Chris. He looked like a lost puppy. At least I was good at pretending. His sheet was just BLANK. Too funny.

All in all though, the tour was really fun. We learned a lot about wine, and the process of harvesting grapes and turning out the finished product. I must say, I really did have high hopes of coming out of that lesson being the next sommelier. Maybe just because the name is cool, but no one has to know that. It’s quite unfortunate that professional wine tasting is not in my future. I just know, if I could get past the lack of smelling and lack of tasting those things, that I’d be great. 🙂

Summers Vineyard

We realized as we left Mondavi that we’d achieved an impossible milestone – we left without purchasing 1 bottle of wine! What, you say?! I know! I would have loved the reserve cab, especially since we got 20% off, but we just didn’t want to pay $100 buckaroos for a bottle of wine today. We had plenty as it was. So we left emptyhanded. Well not really – we had our laminated score sheets. North it was – no matter what – today.

That traffic was no match for our determination to get to Summers Estate. The B&B had recommended this one in their Napa blog. They produce a wine called Charbono, and we got to hear the story about it. Apparently there are only about 80 acres of Charbono, and half are here. Only 16 wineries in the world make this wine. We had to check it out, and good thing! You can’t like it too much though because they won’t let you buy more than 4 bottles, as they only produce about 2000 cases/year. We bought two, which was also a first for the trip. They also had a great petit syrah port – and port is usually too similar to drinking maple syrup to us. Just too thick. But this one, this one is something else. The service is great too – very small and family-run. Right up our alley. You can see Old Faithful in the backyard too, and in one of the pictures I’ve posted if you look really closely. WBT 3(24).

Mosaic vineyard

Our next winery was a decent trip up north into Alexander Valley. I had found another wine with Malbec up that way, and they also had Meritage which I tend to like. We had a few others on our list as well, but since we’d been to so many we planned to go to this one and one more on the way back down. This one was called Mosaic, which also spoke to my nerdy genetic side. This place was definitely more crowded than it looked, and while we liked their wines, we weren’t as excited about them like the others. We did buy 3 wines though. An oddity of this place was the kiddie bday party they were having. This little one had a HUGE blow up thing that you jump in. Like the stuff at the theme parks or something. What a brat!! ha ha. WBT 3(27).

We did get a great recommendation for lunch, and this was late lunch cause it was already after 2. We drove a little further north to Diavola which is in Geyserville. GREAT pizza with sausage on it, and fantastic root beer.

Diavola for lunchDiavola sausage pizza

After lunch it was pretty late and we ended up running outta time to go to the other wineries. Plus we’d bought enough – so we called it a day and headed back.

And now, for the big event, the last supper. You may wonder how we mustered up the appetite to go eat seeing as how we’d just eaten lunch a few hours ago. Well really 5 hours, so it’s possible. We did it because I’d been looking forward to this dinner for weeks – checking their website repeatedly to see when their menu changed. Napa is well known for their top notch restaurants and award-winning chefs. Believe me, I did some reading to find the places I wanted to go to. Although we tried to get in at the French Laundry, they book out 2 months in advance, and are booked within 15 minutes of the same day. We made our reservations and booked our trip in late January, so we’d missed the mark by a matter of days. My next choice was a little less cash out of the wallet, and I’d guess the quality and creativity of the food might be similar. So La Toque it was.

La Toque entryway

By the way, do you know what a toque is? I’ll tell you. I’m informative, remember? Its the hats the chefs wear. We have to wear them in culinary school. They look a little goofy, but you get used to it. They have a big ol’ toque hanging in their walkway. I want one just like it to hang in my house. In case people don’t know that I like to cook, they’d see the toque hanging and then they’d figure it out. I like it. La Toque has a prix fixe menu, but you get to choose your number of courses – two, three, or four. And you get to choose if you want to add the wine pairings. We both went for the kill and got the four course, but truth be told we weren’t game for the pairings as we’d planned initially. I had one glass of wine and barely finished it. A beer might have been better, looking back – but not as classy unless I got one of those fancy imports in the goblets. We made sure to choose different courses from one another so we could taste each other’s. Sorry for the picture quality – I was not bold enough to take all of these pictures with my flash on. I may have been politely escorted out.

First Course:
Chris: Green & white asparagus with sauce gribiche and a phyllo mimolette chip.
Chris 1st courseme 1st course

Me: Creekstone Angus beef tenderloin carpacchio with smoky aioli. The meat was sliced thinner than you’d think a meat slicer could do. And so tender. Chris even liked it and he didn’t think he’d like carpacchio.

Second Course:
Chris: Alaskan halibut with manila clams & “fines herbes”
Chris 2nd courseme 2nd course

Me: warm Maine lobster and sweet potato salad. The clams were good, but this lobster salad was amazing.

Third Course:

Chris: ricotta edamame ravioli in a parmesan wild mushroom broth
Chris 3rd courseme 3rd course

Me: slow roasted bacon wrapped pork tenderloin with English peas, cheddared pearl tapioca, and pommery mustard sauce. I think this is one of the best dishes I’ve ever had. The pork was so soft and moist and the textures of this dish were outstanding. I’ve only had tapioca in things like bubble tea and those fruit smoothies at the Chinese take-out. It was absolutely amazing how well the tapioca worked in this dish and how biting into one felt like a burst of that cheddar flavor. I thought the last course was going to be my favorite, but this was won, hands down. I’m gonna go buy some tapioca and play. I mean, just look at. Oh my oh my.

Fourth Course:
Chris: prime Angus ribeye served rare, leek and black trumpet potato terrine & Rutherford wine sauce. Ribeye can’t get much better than this.
Chris 4th courseme 4th course

Me: boneless lamb loin with cumin scented carrot puree and chickpea fries. Yeah that’s right – chickpea fries. They smush them up, shape them, and bread them, and then they fry them. Then they plate them like tic tac toe. Again, on ordering this was the one I was most looking forward to. I think I could eat lamb every day. Plus I love pureed veggies and anything with the word fry in it. I ate every little bit (except the one bite I allowed Chris to have).

Last but not least, we had to try a dessert. You would think that, of 4 courses, one would have been dessert eh? Well that’s the awesome part – there was a fifth course lurking behind the curtain. I cannot for the life of me remember what they called this (and they don’t post dessert menus on their site), but it was something like a “dark chocolate cookie with mango cardamom sorbet”. It had a dark chocolate almost paste or butter like textured filling in the cookies. Again – good good good. Did I ever eat anything I didn’t like? Well yea – I didn’t like that terrine in Chris’ last dish. But I’ve seen enough of those in culinary school where my hopes weren’t too high for that anyway.

La Toque dessert

We probably spent three hours at La Toque. They definitely don’t rush you outta there. They shouldn’t for the money you’re paying. It is without a doubt the best meal I’ve eaten that I can remember at this moment. Places like La Toque & French Laundry definitely aren’t restaurants I’d be able to go to every week (let alone every year), but if you do get the chance to head out to Napa, try to go to one of these, even if it means you eat at McDonalds one night. It’s worth it for the food and the experience. Promise. Although, if you aren’t a “foodie”, or if you aren’t married to one…. I just can’t answer that!

See ya tomorrow for the last day! It will be much shorter I promise. And then back to normal.