“The best wines are the ones we drink with friends.”
My alarm went off at 4:15am. This was not a normal thing, especially for a Saturday, but it wasn’t a normal day. I got up, pulled on jeans and a T, eyed the stack of stuff I laid out the night before, and began packing it strategically into my suitcase. I let my husband sleep until the last possible moment when I kissed his cheek and whispered in his ear that it was time for him to take me to the airport.
Two flights and a long layover later, I arrived at Oakland airport. I made my way to First and Last Chance, the airport bar at which my best friend N had already jumpstarted our girls trip. She had arrived an hour earlier than me, having flown in from a different state. I hugged her fiercely and we chuckled at the bartender’s advice to stay out of trouble as we headed off to pick up our rental car. N turned up pop music on the radio as we wound our way out of Oakland, across the bridge, and into the wine country of Napa Valley.
After we settled into our hotel and darkness fell, we walked the mile to downtown Napa. Our route took us through quaint neighborhoods into a charming area full of boutiques, restaurants, and bars. It was hard to choose a restaurant but we finally settled on Velo, a pizza place with local wine on tap. Having our first official glasses of wine in Napa fueled our excitement, so after dinner we went to a wine and tapas bar. The festive atmosphere was a pleasant surprise. Groups of friends silly with drunkenness competitively guzzled wine from Spanish carafes, sometimes spilling it down their faces and clothes. A girl sitting next to us slurred her speech as she pined for the attention of the bartenders. N and I giggled relentlessly, entertained by the liveliness of the place and the people, periodically pausing to stare at the tattooed eye candy in the kitchen and then giggling some more. We stayed until close to closing time.
Most people would spend their first day in Napa visiting wineries. Not us! We had a few days to fill, so we decided to do something we hadn’t done together since junior high. We went to the Six Flags theme park! It was a day of thrill rides, long lines, head rushes, delirium, and boisterous laughter to the point that my stomach muscles ached in protest. The Joker ride was the best! At first glance it appears to be a straightforward wooden rollercoaster. By the time you realize the wooden façade is hiding a steel track that flips you upside down time after time, it’s too late. One of the tough guys riding in the seat behind us struggled not to throw up once it was over. It was fantastic. At dinner that night at the hotel, we shared the day’s activity with our server. He reacted by gasping and bringing his hand to his mouth in near shock at our scandalous lack of Napa refinement. He tried to recover himself but ended up mostly laughing instead, making us laugh, too. I think he was secretly jealous.
The next day our winery adventures began. Wine tasting excursions in other places had converted me into a true wine lover. This was N’s first wine tasting experience, and I hoped it would have the same effect on her as it did me. We joined a day tour along with a handful of strangers from all over the U.S., England, and Australia. Of course, they would no longer feel like strangers after a day of wine tasting. By the end we were cracking jokes and laughing together like good friends.
Late summer is harvest season in Napa, and at our first winery tour, we wandered the rows of grapevines, plucking plump, ripe grapes from their bushels and eating them. We studied the difference in taste, texture, and tartness between the varietals, sipping wine in between. Throughout our excursion we experienced buttery chardonnays, peppery cabernets, velvety pinots, and many more, including some new to me entirely. Our tour guide advised us to drink a full bottle of water after each winery, and we obliged. It was our saving grace along with the mounds of cheese and crackers we devoured as if we hadn’t eaten for days.
Though I had been wine tasting before and already knew quite a bit, I learned some new things such as:
- An easy way to tell when grapes are ready for harvest is to check their seeds. They start out green and gradually change to brown. Once the seeds are fully brown, they are good to go.
- Heat and light are wine’s mortal enemies. Therefore, you should not store your wine in the kitchen or living room where heat and light are common factors. If you do not have a wine fridge, the best place to store your bottles is under your bed.
- The primary difference between corked bottles and screw top bottles is that bottles with screw tops are meant to age only 1-3 years. Corked bottles can age gracefully for much longer.
On our last full day, N and I slept in and then took our time getting ready for the day. We ventured to the opposite end of the valley, enjoying the sights along the way. We had only hit boutique wineries and wanted the experience of something big and ostentatious, so we ended up at Castello di Amorosa, a castle and winery inspired by 13th century Tuscan architecture. We toured the impressive structure, enjoying the views of sprawling Napa Valley and momentarily forgetting we weren’t at a “real” castle. We shopped for souvenirs, and of course tasted plenty of delicious wines.
It is truly challenging to day drink and keep up the energy into the night. We were tired but ventured back to downtown Napa for a nice Italian dinner at Ca’Momi. The restaurant prides itself on its old world authentic menu and does not make dish substitutions or changes. It was not exactly the Italian fare to which I am accustomed, but my mushroom pasta dish was bold and creamy and delish.
Eventually it was time for N and I to travel home and part ways. I missed my husband and furry kids back home, but I didn’t want the adventure with my best friend to end. After four days of talking and laughing, we reluctantly said our goodbyes at the airport as I headed towards Terminal 1, she towards Terminal 2. After multiple flight delays, I finally made it home around midnight.
My hopes for N and her wine country experience panned out. She discovered a newfound appreciation for wine and even took home more bottles than I did! Napa is the enchanted land of big red wines, buttery chardonnays, and some sweet surprises in between, made even sweeter by sharing it all with my best friend.