San Francisco diary – Day 10: 10 Feb 2014


We spent today on a bus tour of the Sonoma and Napa Valley wine regions, and just got back to our hotel a while ago. We got up at 07:30 because we needed to have breakfast and be dressed and ready in the lobby at 08:10. We made it right on time, and had time to withdraw a bit of extra cash before a driver arrived to pick us up. A light rain was sprinkling outside, but it looked like it might clear up.

The bus dropped us off at the Greyline tour company office near Fisherman’s Wharf, where we paid for the tour we’d booked and then went out to board a different bus. We climbed into the seat directly behind the driver, where we had a good view out the front windows. The driver went to check how many were in our tour group, and returned with one straggler, making a total of 22 passengers in the bus.

The driver was in his sixties and named Gordy, and kept up a non-stop patter on the microphone while driving. He started with a history of San Francisco as we drove through the streets towards the Golden Gate Bridge, pointing out various landmarks along the way, including the house Joe DiMaggio bought for Marilyn Monroe, and a bunch of fancy restaurants. He mixed it up with some chatter about wine, talking about different grapes and growing regions around the world and so on. He had the odd speech pattern that he almost never added the “s” when forming plurals or possessives: “They bought a hundred acre and planted six different grape vine.”

We stopped briefly at Vista Point on the north side of the bridge for a view, but the fog was thick over the bridge, so Gordy herded us back on to the bus fairly quickly and continued the drive north and over east into Sonoma.


As we entered wine country, Gordy turned the topic of his commentary to the ways and means of growing grapes, talking about the annual process of growth and harvesting and trimming back. He pointed out the hibernating vines on the hillsides, saying this was the time when they cut back the stalks to about three inches in length. He noted some were longer, because the growers elected to cut them back in stages, first to about nine inches, then a later cutting back to three inches.

This is the life
Wine tasting at Nicholson Ranch.

The first winery we stopped at was a place called Nicholson Ranch. It was halfway up a small hillside and the place next door had an alpaca in a pen right nearby. There was a large pond out the back with water running down the hill in a small waterfall into it. The lady in the winery told us the waterfall had only started running for the first time in a year a couple of days ago, with all the recent rain. They let us taste three of their wines: an unwooded Chardonnay, an oaked Chardonnay, and then a Pinot Noir. The unwooded was the nicest of the three, with a slightly unusual flavour I don’t recall having in a Chardonnay before. They had a reserve red of some sort for sale at $50 a bottle, but not offered for tasting, which displeased one of the ladies on the tour with us. She wanted to know how she was supposed to know if she wanted to buy any if they wouldn’t let her taste it. We wandered up the hill a little, getting a view of the vines and a bit of the valley, though the view was spoiled a bit by the busy road cutting through it.

After leaving here, we travelled across to the parallel Napa Valley, where we stopped at our second winery, Madonna Estate. Here the staff were more eager to have us taste wines, and offered nine or ten different varieties. We didn’t try them all, but selected ones that sounded interesting to us. The Pinot Noir here was nicer and they had an interesting Cabernet Sauvignon with some hints of grassiness reminiscent of a Sauvignon Blanc. They also had a Gewürztraminer which I had to try; it was okay, but I’ve had better. I tried a couple of others, including a slightly sweet moscato, as well. I might have considered buying something, but they said that unfortunately they didn’t ship overseas, so it was moot.

Wine tasting at Madonna Estate.

The next stop was the small town of Yountville for lunch. This was a very pretty looking town, which seemed to have been built for day trippers from San Francisco, with lots of restaurants, boutiques, and arty shops. Lunch was at everyone’s own discretion, and our group scattered in different directions. We got lunch from the Bouchon bakery. M. had a lemon and poppy seed scone and a small brioche with salt on it, while I had a tuna nicoise sandwich on a ciabatta roll. We ate sitting in the open courtyard by the bakery, and the weather was pleasant enough that I took my coat off and just had my short sleeved polo shirt.

After eating we took a quick look at some of the shops housed in a picturesque old two storey wine cellaring building. One was a chocolate shop called Kollar Chocolates, which had exquisite looking hand made chocolates as well as a selection of gelati. I wanted to try the chocolate and the lemon cookie gelati, but was wary of mixing them. The woman behind the counter said the lemon cookie was “wild” and recommended it, and M. said I should just mix lemon and chocolate. So I got a small cup with a bit of both flavours, and both of them were really good. M. bought some boxes of the chocolates for her parents and brother. Then we went upstairs and browsed around. I looked in a photography place which had large frames prints of photos of vineyards and other local scenery. Some of them were amazingly beautiful. M. had me try on a hat, of the flat cap style.

Yountville shops
Old wine cellaring building turned into shops, Yountville.

We used the toilets there and then went back to the bus to rejoin the rest of our group. We had a bit of a wait as Gordy rounded up a straggler, who was a woman who we’d learnt had come to San Francisco from somewhere near Philadelphia for a horror film festival. She had said that she was into action and adventure, bungee jumping, zip-lining, rock climbing and so on.

But we were soon on our way to the third and final winery. This was Sutter Home, which Gordy told us was one of the biggest wineries in California and owned several brands and labels. The tasting room was next door to a lovely old wooden home with a huge tulip magnolia tree out the front in full flower, making it pretty as a picture. Here we tried their white Zinfandel, which is actually a pink colour, making it technically a rosé wine. It was very nice. Then we tried a red Zinfandel, and then a slightly sweet white, possibly a moscato. After the woman had given us these and explained a bit about them, she ushered us all into the main bar area where we could try five other varieties of wine they made, which included a couple of dry styles, a Gewürztraminer, a bubbly pink Moscato which was very sweet, and a port. Altogether we had the impression that these wines were sweeter in general, and Gordy commented that Sutter Home became popular because they made sweeter wines that appealed to Americans with limited experience with wines. M. and I agreed the best wines of the day were at Madonna Estate.

By now we were two hours from San Francisco and it was about 15:00, so it was a non-stop trip back to the city to drop us off at our respective hotels. Gordy dropped the bungee woman near but not exactly right in front of her hotel and she said, “Oh! Are you leaving me here?!” When she’d disembarked, Gordy commented that she did bungee jumping and jumping out of planes and stuff, but she didn’t want to walk six car lengths to her hotel. Gordy dropped us at the corner of Sutter and Powell, just a short walk from our hotel.

The drive back to San Francisco.

We rested for a while, then went out a bit after 18:00 for dinner. We walked down to the King of Thai Noodle House, since we’d enjoyed the dinner there a week ago. We got a table right away, near the front door this time. M. ordered a pad thai, while I opted for the chicken and pumpkin curry. We also got a serve of egg rolls. The whole lot came at once. The curry was delicious and quite hot with chilies while the pad thai was made with thinner noodles than at home and had a slightly different taste, but was still recognisably similar.

On the way home we stopped at Walgreens to get more milk and Grape Nuts for breakfasts, hopefully enough to last us until we leave. I also wanted to get a tub of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream, but they didn’t have any of that flavour. So we dropped the food off in our room and went out again to the other Walgreens on our own block and found it there. We took it back to our room for dessert while we relaxed into the evening before bed time.

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