Before I let you embark on this very personal journal of a great trip with friends, I’d like to set the scene. The Oaxacan Wonders was a label we gave to a group of us who met in Oaxaca on a National Geographic photography workshop several years ago. We’ve stayed in touch and traveled together to other interesting places since (San Miguel de Allende, Puerto Rico, and Portugal among the more noteworthy). There is an interesting dynamic on a trip with a bunch of photography enthusiasts – a lot of everything is about taking pictures! So you are going to see pictures of people taking pictures. Slowly but surely our group is developing a website where we showcase the pictures we take – and you can see that here. But naturally, “Jetsy” is going to focus on what she did and saw, and let you in on her recommendations. I am especially hoping for your comments on this one, because I know this is a really popular trip. (Jetsy, 2013)
Famous comments included “Lemon dung” – by Gerry (I am sure we laughed a lot over this but I can’t remember now what the context was!) and “I was flashing in the vineyards” – by David (No mystery here : He’s talking about using his flash to take pictures. More fun to imagine something else was going on!).
The fun times begin! We are 11 this trip: Gerry, me, Annie, David, Vancene, John, Jill, Cindy, Greg, Tom, Becky. We are staying at the Wine Country Inn in Saint Helena. Annie planned the trip.
This trip to California is not my first, but it seems like it since I remember almost nothing from when I was here before. For sure, I was here on a trip with Gerry and the kids years ago – but I was involved in a conference for work and can claim only fond memories from their photos.
The first three days we spent in Palo Alto.
Friday night, our first night, we met Cindy and Greg, and Vancene and John at the Westin in Palo Alto and started off right away with a reunion in the bar. That night we drove to Annie and David’s where we also found Jill. We had cocktail hour with delicious guacamole and got a tour of Annie and David’s house, yard and office (which is in the back).
I loved their house. I guess it is bungalow style – hard wood floors, nice woodwork throughout, simple clean lines, earthy colors. Living and dining are the main rooms as you enter – walking straight through to a patio. The kitchen has a nifty old stove. Again the clean, uncluttered style that I really like. The master bedroom and bath were added. On the other side, the old master bedroom is the guestroom and the smaller room is Annie’s study, especially for photography.
Beyond the patio is the building where they house their office and behind that a small pool for dipping – all surrounded by trees and flowers. That evening, we went to a Mexican place for dinner – shrimp in garlic sauce was the big hit – I had mole.
Saturday morning started with an hour long deli run, and then we loaded up again and headed for Big Basin State Park to hike and see the redwoods. Such magnificent trees they are!
We had a lot of laughs as we ambled through the forest taking pictures. We did stop at one point and play with the reflector/diffuser alternately modeling for each other and shooting the “models”. A friendly park ranger, who earlier in the day had taken a group shot for us, posed for us in her costume of an old-time photographer with a box camera.
Cindy and Greg left early for a family dinner. Later, when we all return to Palo Alto, we headed out to a potluck dinner and dance.
That party was a scene! So many different kinds of people, young and old, preppy and kinky. There was some of everything and all seemed to be enjoying the music, the dancing and the food. Except Jill – who really wasn’t feeling well. We ended up leaving early and we’re back at the hotel bar by 8:45 PM. We sat around and talked. Gerry went to bed early.
Sunday, Gerry and I took a walk to the Stanford campus, our hotel was right across the street. We could see a large park-like (but dry and dead) space before the manicured areas of the campus. We didn’t see much of interest, and what I saw wasn’t enough to send me back again. Afterwards, we met our group and drove to Annie and David’s to pick up Jill. Annie and David stayed behind. along the way we saw (literally) a pumpkin patch! Do you think a bunch of photography enthusiasts would pass up an opportunity like that? We did, indeed entertain ourselves taking pictures!
We drove southward to a place called Half Moon Bay. It was raining, so we had a very good lunch at the Ritz and waited for the sky to clear. From there. we headed to a park to see the elephant seals but arrived too late to make the trek to where they were. We contented ourselves with shooting the beach and the coastline, and we were rewarded with the ephemeral appearance of a seal (sea lion) who allowed brief silhouettes.
Sunday night we had a really nice evening with Helene and Andrew. Their house is beautiful – in many ways. First, the front of the house doesn’t face the street. It is hidden, facing a beautiful garden with a Buddhist statue. As you walk around the house, inside or out, each view has a different garden; each with a different style, different plants, different feeling. Inside, the house really reflects a personality all its own (or better said – really reflects the personality that Helene and Andrew have given it) – rooms filled with personal treasures from their travels that have been artfully collected and displayed. The kitchen is phenomenal – with an enormous island that Helene says “caterers love!” Not hard to see why. We had a delicious tomato sauce based pasta dish, all made from scratch, belying Helene’s seeming lack of domestic skills.
Monday we left the hotel and started our drive up to Napa. Gerry and I, in our car, followed Cindy and Greg. John and Vancene, and Annie, David and Jill were in two additional cars. Cindy, Gerry, Greg and I stopped in the city of Napa at the General Store for lunch and had our first real glass of Napa wine. John and Vancene weren’t far behind us so we all had lunch together. We saw a little bit of the town as we walk to and from our parking spot but didn’t stop for any tasting. Greg and Cindy bought some cool kitchen stuff at the shop by Taylor Kellor, a chef from TV.
We drove up the Napa Valley on the Silverado Trail to about Yountville and then up US 29 to St. Helena and our hotel, the Wine Country Inn. Once checked in, we found our group – now including Tom – on the patio for wine tasting. After that, now joined by Becky too (her first introduction to the group) we went to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen (not our Cindy!) and a private room for our first dinner together. The chef at Cindy’s is the same as Mustard Grill. This is a pattern we’ll see several times while we’re here…the big chefs have two restaurants, one super up-scale, the other for the rest of us!
We had a very good dinner; pretty quiet group though – I think the wine in the afternoon and at lunch left everyone pretty tired (certainly true in my case).
The next couple days were partially organized leaving everyone free to do their own things but also to come together and do things together. Tuesday,G and I got up early and went chasing the sunrise, somewhat unsuccessfully. We drove first eastward, up on Mount Howell but the sun had not come up over the mountains yet. Then we headed south on the Silverado Trail, eventually crossing towards US 29, chasing hot air balloons we could see rising in the distance. Once on that side of the valley we ended up on Dry Creek Road and took a winding drive in the mountains on the west side of the valley. The light was perfect starting at about 7:30 AM and the sun was perfect 8:30 to 9:00. Met the group back at the Inn over breakfast and, once cleaned up and fed, we were off to visit the Hess Winery.
Annie had arranged a wine and cheese pairings for us at Hess but there was a mix-up. The Hess people behaved badly and messed up the opportunity to have 11 people at the pairing. Eventually, eight of us got to do it. It was lovely (and hot=drowsy) under the grape arbor where our tables were set up. Despite the $80 we paid for the wine tasting we each got just two drops of three wines – very stingy!
Before the tasting we wandered around the art collection which was quite interesting. Vancene bought a MT. Veeder Chardonnay that we tried on Wednesday evening – I will try to find that again. After Hess, Gerry and I went to the Turnbull Winery to see a collection of photos – some good names – one I wanted to look up – Weston – father and son, I think. Late afternoon brought us to another tasting at our inn (daily with hors d’oeuvres each evening, too).
Later we drove to Auberge du Soleil for some flash shooting. What fun! I felt like I was part of some fancy professional shoot. I learned a lot working on the flash set ups – Gerry modeled – but I could see that my real contribution was as the stylist. When Cindy was working the flash with Greg as her model, I helped position Greg to avoid the football neck syndrome men have when they puff out their chests and pull in their chins. Unfortunately, Cindy had trouble focusing because of the darkness and none of the pictures came out. After our shoot we went out for pizza at Tra Vigne Pizzeria, another little brother restaurant, this time to the Tra Vigne.
Wednesday morning, I wasn’t going to get up and go out early to shoot but after Gerry left I couldn’t fall back asleep so I got up and wandered around the inn property taking pictures. At breakfast later, Gerry came in with Cindy. They had gone balloon-chasing and had some very nice pictures. For Wednesday’s group activity we drove to Sonoma and had lunch in town on the square at El Dorado Kitchen. (Vancene and John were stuck at the hotel on business.) We had a delicious lunch. Jill and I shared a corn soup that was outstanding (cold). The group had watermelon margaritas about which everyone raved. After lunch, we drove to Domaine Carneros for a sampling of their sparkling wines. Our pourer was good! Sales resulted! Jill came with us afterwards and we stopped at the Chimney Rock Winery on the way back to the Inn.
During tasting time back at the Inn, we had a group parley on our next destination. Lots of good ideas and possibilities – definitely not enough time – we could make plans for the next several years. Gerry and I are to research Cuba trips; Jill and Cindy – Strabo Tours abroad, i.e. Turkey; and two more (who ?) Yellowstone.
Tonight’s dinner was everyone for him/herself. Fortunately, we got to go to a restaurant called Market in St. Helena with Annie and David. Becky and Tom were off on a reservation of their own. Jill, Vancene, Greg and John went back for more pizza and Cindy decided to skip dinner.
Drama! Long story short: Cindy lost her balance in the parking lot and fell and hit her face on the rocks; Tom and Becky found her; she had to go to the hospital; fortunately, no stitches. We were on one end of the telephone chain doing our dinner but once Greg was located she took over and we just try to keep on top of things. We were very worried!
Thursday morning, we got up way before dawn for our own hot air balloon ride. It was worth every minute and ever cent. I thought I would be petrified (not crazy about heights) but it wasn’t frightening at all – Probably because of the slow speed. We had to drive northward from the Inn, to what I think is the most interesting of all the towns in Napa – Callistoga. We met up with our operators and drove out to the launch site. Watching them fill up roll the balloons and fill them with hot air was fascinating, but definitely the best part is rising up in the early morning, crispy air, seeing the sun reveal the valley below us as the shadows shorten and the glow increases. Because we had seen the balloons earlier in the week, doing exactly what we were doing, we had the experience of ballooning from both sides of the basket. Once back on the ground, the balloons are rolled up and stored again – quite an operation. We also got to see hot springs – where steam was coming up right out of the ground and condensing on the pre-sun-warmed plants. (Click any image to see them larger.)
Thursday afternoon we visited the Sterling Vineyards. Now we can see the damage Cindy did to her face. Huge lump where she hit her cheek and lots of bruising. She and Greg are leaving today to go to Chelsea’s Parents Weekend in Colorado. Vancene and John also left suddenly today. Same business reasons that kept them from joining much of the activity these last days.
Thursday was also our last night together. Now we were just Annie, David, Becky, Tom, Jill, Gerry and me. We had a delicious Italian dinner at Don Giovanni.
In the morning, we said good-bye to Tom and Becky, and Gerry and I followed Annie, David and Jill back to San Francisco. Before abandoning this wonderful part of the country, Gerry and I stopped in town to visit a place that sold olive oil as if it were fine wine! That was fun! We got to sample the oils in little paper cups, and could even mix our own bottles to take home.
Once again on the road, following our friends, but before we completely left the wine country, we stopped at the Schug Winery in Sonoma. Schug was a wine we were familiar with and liked a lot from a bottle we had received in a auction lot at the Wayland Gala. Our hostess at the winery was a lot of fun, and we ended up purchasing a case of wine which we had shipped to Milwaukee. Somehow we timed that drive to arrive at the Golden Gate Bridge at sundown, so we had a final picture taking frenzy (it was cold and windy) before we jumped on our plan and headed home.
As I always do, I had to reconstruct the end of the trip after the fact. My journaling always seems to end before the trip does. Some of the last details are sketchy, but perhaps as I put the pictures together I will remember which winery is which, what we did at each one and who was there with us!
It was a repeatable trip! I am not so sure about all the wine drinking during the day – that really took a toll on our energy level. The wineries all seem to compete with additional things to do – tours, art exhibits, concerts, etc. so I am sure you can entertain yourself on multiple visits. The place is also quite relaxing and I think that if you were to stay in an Inn like the one we stayed in, just relaxing and gazing at the vineyards with a good book and of course, your glass of wine, you could have a wonderful vacation.