Napa Valley Stories and Tips

In Search of "The Big Cab"

After our massages we showered in the spa's luxurious locker room and went back to our cottage to change for dinner. We had a lovely dinner at Terra Restaurant on St. Helena's Railroad Avenue.

Located 'across the tracks' from the railroad that gives the street its name, Terra welcomes immediately with its warm, beautifully lit stone façade. The interior is no less disappointing, with simple earth-toned banquettes and chairs around intimate tables that seem to curl up cozily against the massive stone walls of the interior.

The menu spices up the region's typical French-Californian style with the addition of an Asian influence, no doubt that of the Japanese chef, who is also the owner's husband. We chose Terra for it's carefully selected wine list, which highlights the best of the Valley's smaller vineyards.

We splurged on a truly great wine: a Stag's Leap Cabernet, which was hands down the oenophilic highlight of the trip. (Yes, I just made that word up.)

Before I wax rhapsodic about the wine, though, I have to clear up a point of confusion. There are two Stag's Leap vineyards in Napa. One is the Stag's Leap Winery, in existence since the 1800s and now owned by Beringer. Their label is suspiciously similar to that of the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. Both feature a stag, as you might imagine, and their shapes and coloring are nearly identical. Though only in existence since 1972, the latter vineyard has the superior Cabernets. The former is known for its Petite Syrahs, which we didn't sample. How can you tell them apart? The Stag's Leap Winery label is a basic rectangle, and the Stag is actually leaping. On the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars label, the Stag is standing in front of what appears to be a small tree, and the corners of the rectangle are cut off.

A quick survey of the New York Times "Wine Today" archives shows that every Stag's Leap Wine Cellar's Cabernet they have reviewed has received at least three stars, averaging more like 4.5 for the better vintages. I can't argue with the experts – the hunt for a "Big Cab" was over. It wasn't cheap – but we hardly cared as the first whiff of allspice and cedar wafted to our noses. Powerful without being overwhelming, it was as full and satisfying a wine-drinking experience as I have ever encountered. The salad and entree seemed superfluous.

I suppose it was inevitable that we'd spend the next morning lolling around the cottage and reading the Sunday Times instead of going out for a run or visiting the exercise room as we had originally planned. But at 10am we were showered, dressed, packed, and eating brunch at the Meadowood dining room. What a brunch! In addition to a groaning buffet table covered with fruits, salads, bagels, pastries, desserts, and cheeses, we also had our choice of five or six entrees and as many side dishes as we could fit on our plates. Several of us sampled the Bloody Marys, with their exquisite seasoning, along with fresh-squeezed juices and coffee. The only sour note was a large, ravenous bee who was determined to profit from the dining room's "all you can eat" policy at our table. But the waiters gallantly chased it away into a corner and swatted it. What else could you ask for?

An hour later we finally summoned the energy to leave our table overlooking the grounds, and packed into my rental car. We were off to Rombauer vineyard to pick up the sublime Chardonnay we had the day before at the Auberge. We learned that the Rombauer vineyard, a three-level affair built right into a hillside, is run by a relative of Irma Rombauer, of 'Joy of Cooking' fame. We were nearly out of time, but before leaving for San Francisco, we stopped at Stag's Leap, picked up the incomparable Cabernet, and were on our way, the trunk crammed with luggage and bottles of wine filling every crevice.

Monday morning, as I pulled into the parking lot at work and took a look around, I discovered the only bad thing about the Napa Valley. You see, I was driving a white car. New car white. Rental car white. And Napa Valley was not kind to it. It had become more of a beige/white combination, with Napa Valley Grape-friendly dirt streaks behind each wheel well. Somehow my rented Buick Century, which had remained spotless for four weeks, had become an eyesore! The BMWs and Jaguars in the parking lot slunk away when I parked next to them! The Porsche convertibles rolled up their tops at the sight of me! It was a disaster. Fortunately Silicon Valley has as many car washes as the Napa Valley has vineyards. I can't wait to go back!

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