Wine Travel Adventure

A tasty wine, food and travel blog

Share the fantasy adventure at Castello di Amorosa


Here we are, in a darkened dungeon deep underground, watching as our tour guide shines a flashlight on various torture devices and explains how they were used to spike, stretch, suffocate and inflict pain on sufferers in the Middle Ages. Not your typical Napa Valley winery tour, I’ll say.

Then again there is nothing typical or ho-hum about Castello di Amorosa, a spectacular $40 million Calistoga winery built in the style of a medieval Tuscan castle. Besides the dungeon it has 106 other rooms, a chapel, church, farmhouse, dry moat, drawbridge, hidden passageways, courtyards, massive stone walls and towers that rise in the center of picturesque hills and acres of grapevines.

It is not mandatory to take a tour of the castle when you go, if you go, although there are so many wonders and curiosities about the place you really don’t want to miss any of them. We are there as part of the Napa Valley Wine Train’s “Castle Winery Tour,” and our guide greets us in the chapel with an introduction you don’t hear every day.

“Hi,” he says. “I’m Mark. I’ll be your tour guide and bartender.”

The bartending would take place later, at the end of the tour, in a private tasting room. As Mark explains, Castello di Amorosa makes lots of wine in addition to hosting tourists from Italy to Indiana. (Word to the wise: The castle can be shoulder to shoulder with people on busy weekends. Best to go midweek if you can.)

Seated in the chapel listening to his introduction, we have a chance to admire a lovely fresco depicting Mary and Joseph set back into the sanctuary behind an arch. Perhaps surprisingly, given the castle’s Imax-sized scale and scope, attention and care are given to the details. Outside the chapel, tucked into a recess in a stone wall—8,000 tons of imported stone and a million bricks went into the making of the castle—is a figurine of St. Catherine of Siena, holding flowers and a Bible.

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Meet you at the Grape Crusher, gateway to Napa Valley

One of the unexpected pleasures of a visit to wine country is how much art there is to see, and these pleasures include the Grape Crusher Statue, a landmark monument at Vista Point in Napa Valley.

Since its erection in the 1980s millions of cars have driven by it and hundreds of thousands of people have stopped to see it. In this sense it is like the “Welcome to Napa Valley” signs on Highway 29—a place to meet up and shoot selfies and have pictures to show the folks back home that you were there, you really were in the land of wine.

At least one couple has gotten married at the Grape Crusher. And its creator, sculptor Gino Miles, jokes that one or two babies may have been made up there too. There is a small parking lot there, a perfect spot for having lunch, enjoying the views, and apparently doing other things as well.

“I’m not from around here,” a woman visitor told this writer as she was trying to find the right angle to take a picture of the Grape Crusher. “But I saw it driving by the other night when I was going to a concert, and I had to come back and see it.”

Those who do what she did—stop and get a closer look at the Grape Crusher—are rewarded by picturesque views of the surrounding hills, Napa River and the wetlands of San Francisco Bay. It is not called Vista Point for nothing.

As for the Grape Crusher himself, he is more impressive up close than when you buzz by him on the highway. Reports sometimes peg him at 20 feet high; in fact he is considerably bigger than that because of the base that lifts him high above ground, out of reach of any children who might be tempted to climb him. In bare feet, with his cuffs rolled up, wearing a hat but with his face turned down and mostly hidden from the curious eyes of visitors staring up at him, the Grape Crusher uses muscle power and both his hands to turn the crank on an old school (very old school) grape press.

In addition to welcoming visitors to the valley, the Grape Crusher helps publicize what some call the “Grape Crusher District,” the wineries and businesses in this southern section of Napa near the junctions of Highways 29 and 12. But Miles turned it into something more—an honest, non-kitschy tribute to the men and women whose work in the vineyards and the wineries provides such idle pleasures for the rest of us.

The Grape Crusher Statue is above the Meritage Resort and Spa, itself an attractive place to stay, have a soak and a bite to eat. If you’re there for brunch, try the Eggs Benedict ($15) at the Siena restaurant; it’s tasty and ample.

5 things you must do at Domaine Carneros winery in Napa


Many Napa Valley travelers begin their day with a stop at Domaine Carneros winery in Napa. Many travelers also end their day there. One reason for this is the winery’s strategic location almost equidistant between the twin capitals of northern California wine country—four miles from Napa and five miles from Sonoma.

There are, of course, many other reasons to stop at this lovely hillside winery built in the style of an ancient French chateau. Only the state’s second-smallest volume producer of champagne, Domaine Carneros nonetheless has a giant reputation in the world of quality sparkling wines, winning many awards for its products. For those who love Marilyn Monroe’s favorite drink, here are five things you must do when you visit Domaine Carneros:

The hilltop chateau of Domaine Carneros.

The hilltop chateau of Domaine Carneros.

  1. Take in the views

There is not just one view to be seen at Domaine, there are many. There is that moment when you spot it at the top of the hill when you’re driving the Sonoma Highway (also highways 12 and 121), and there is the view of it as you turn off the highway and drive up Duhig Road into the parking area. Once out of your car, walk to the base of the steps and look up to the chateau. At the top of the terrace, after you climb the steps, look back down across vineyards and the mountain ridges that flank Napa Valley to the east. The terrace and lawn on the north side of the chateau offers still more views of the diRosa preserve and lake and surrounding landscape.   Continue reading

A review of Vertical, the sequel to Sideways

VerticalVertical, by Rex Pickett, is a funny, sad, sexy, depressing, curious and at times bravely comic novel tailored especially for men and women who like to drink wine. The novel, published originally some years ago but updated and released in a new edition in 2016 by Loose Gravel Press, is the sequel to Sideways, Pickett’s first novel upon which the 2004 hit movie was based.

Sideways, both the novel and film, followed the comic misadventures of Miles and Jack, who drank and screwed their way around the Santa Ynez Valley in California’s Central Coast wine region. Fans of Sideways will be pleased to learn that Miles and Jack are back at it in Vertical, drinking and screwing aplenty. Although the novel’s subtitle suggests that the twosome do all their carousing on “the Oregon Wine Trail,” this is somewhat deceiving. While they do tarry, a bit, at a pinot festival in the Willamette Valley, they also pass through such places as (naturally) Santa Ynez Valley, Fresno, Clear Lake, and on the road to Wisconsin, a state better known for its cheese than its wine. Continue reading

Tribute to Margrit Mondavi at blessing of the grapes


Robert and Margrit Mondavi.

Robert and Margrit Mondavi.

They held the annual blessing of the grapes at Robert Mondavi Winery Wednesday, and it turned into a tribute in words and song to Margrit Mondavi, who died in early September at age 91.

Margrit was the wife of Robert Mondavi, the late founder of the landmark Napa Valley winery, an artist, and a cultural and artistic ambassador for Mondavi wines and Napa Valley for decades. Her passing added a special poignancy to the formal ceremony that marks the beginning of harvest.

Employees at the Oakville winery, the media and others gathered in the To Kalon Cellar as Mondavi’s General Manager Glenn Workman began the ceremony with a toast to her, noting how this was the first harvest in nearly a half-century in which Margrit did not participate.

“While it does bring sadness that she’s not here, we know how she loved to celebrate,” he said as he and the 75 other people who were there raised glasses in her memory. Small tastes of Fumé Blanc, Mondavi’s trademark version of Sauvignon Blanc, were handed out to celebrants as they arrived for the ceremony.

The ceremony took place near a sorting machine used to clean twigs and other unwelcome material from the grapes before they go into tanks for fermentation. The machine was turned off for the moment, and a half-dozen Mondavi workers in neon green vests and white gloves stood by watching and listening as Director of Winemaking Genevieve Janssens also spoke about the woman who was such a presence at the winery that she even advised Janssens on when it was time to pick the grapes for harvest.

Genevieve Janssens talks with a journalist at the ceremony.

Genevieve Janssens talks with a journalist at the ceremony.

“Margrit is everywhere with us in the vineyard,” said the French-born winemaker who has been at Mondavi since the late 1970s, the decade after Margrit arrived at the winery, starting in public relations before eventually marrying Robert and rising to prominence in Napa Valley and the wine world. “She was the first person to tell us when to pick. Margrit, you are with us in our hearts. You were incredible.”

Janssens added glowing words about the 2016 vintage to date, saying that the relatively cool August and September—which changed dramatically over the weekend with the onset of hot weather—had made for an ideal growing climate especially for chardonnay. “Just superb,” she said.

“It’s been cool, beautiful foggy weather. Exactly what we want to bring in the grapes in a fresh condition,” she added.

Father Gordon blesses the grapes as the media films the moment.

Father Gordon blesses the grapes as the media films the moment.

Father Gordon Kalil, pastor of the St. Helena Catholic Church, performed the ritual blessing of the grapes, sprinkling holy water on bins of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that had been picked in the To Kalon vineyard that day. He lightly sprinkled more holy water on some of the employees and media, saying how “it is a blessing to remember Margrit and Bob. In remembrance of their great love of the land, the beauty of nature and her love of art, how grateful we are to have known them.”

An artist and a great supporter of the visual arts, Margrit founded in the 1960s the winery’s summer musical festival that helped turn Napa Valley into a travel destination not just for wine, but for music as well. The Mondavi summer festival, which continues to this day, became a model for other wineries to import musical acts and performers to the area.

Winery workers at the sorting machine.

Winery workers at the sorting machine.

Bob Thiesen, a Mondavi employee who sings at local churches, delivered a stirring a cappella rendition of “How Great Thou Art.” His singing seemed to have particular feeling, perhaps he also had the Mondavis in mind. Someone gave the word, and the sorting machine started up. A man flicked grapes from a bin onto the conveyor belt, and the workers in vests and gloves started whisking away stems and leaves as the vibrating grapes passed by them.

Afterwards the celebrants gathered for lunch at the Margrit Mondavi Vineyard Room, a bright and sunny gathering spot in the winery that was named after her last year. A plaque devoted to her hangs at the entrance with one of her paintings, and there are photos of her and Robert Mondavi in the room.

The Margrit Mondavi Vineyard Room, filled with celebrants.

The Margrit Mondavi Vineyard Room, filled with celebrants.

Many tributes to Margrit have appeared in recent days; here is a remembrance of her by the English wine critic Jancis Robinson. Meritage Resort in Napa is holding a celebration of Margrit’s life at its winemaker dinner Oct. 7 featuring Robert Mondavi Winery; a portion of the proceeds will go to the Oxbow School in Napa, which Margrit co-founded. See here for more details on the event.—KEVIN NELSON


Hidden treasures of Napa Valley

Today the very popular international travel site, Dave’s Travel Corner, published a wine and travel piece of mine entitled, “7 Hidden Treasures of Napa Valley.” The treasures include the Bufano statues at Robert Mondavi Winery, a surprising find near the deli counter at Oakville Grocery, a leafy tribute to a wine master, a unique Abraham Lincoln bust, a schoolteacher’s legacy roses near the French Laundry in Yountville, and more. Click over here to the site if you’d care to learn more.

Read, drink wine: 2 wine books you may enjoy


Being a wine and food writer and author—my two latest books, Foodie Snob and Running Snob, will be published by Lyons Press in 2017—I am always on the look for a good wine book to settle down with while enjoying a good glass of wine. Here are two recent ones I’ve read:Sideways

  • Sideways, Rex Pickett, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004.

Not exactly recent, is it? Oh well, I was inspired to go back and read this comic novel—confession: I never did, when it first came out a dozen years ago—upon hearing the news that Pickett, whose day job is as a Hollywood screenwriter, has released a new sequel, which came out this summer. It’s called Vertical: Passion and Pinot on the Oregon Wine Trail, and it catches us up on the lives of Miles and Jack all these years later, no doubt chronicling many more wine-soaked adventures and misadventures in the process. An earlier version of the book was released years ago; this is a newly edited and revised edition, says the publisher. Continue reading

6 things you must know about Paso Robles wine

Paso Robles is probably the hippest wine scene in California at the moment. Sunset, LA Weekly, Chicago Tribune and Wine Enthusiast have all recently blessed it with major raves. One reason for its appeal is that compared to say, Napa Valley, the gold standard of California winemaking, it’s relatively new and still being discovered. There’s an edgy, pioneering quality to Paso Robles wine and the people involved in it that adds to the hip vibe.

There’s also a cowboy and Western ranch feel to the place because, in fact, there are cowboys (the modern California version of them anyhow, gunning around in giant Chevy pickups) and Western ranches with horses grazing in pastures alongside acres of hillsides devoted to Bacchus’s favorite fruit.

One local we spoke to said that all the changes occurring in the central coast basically started about ten years ago. Google and Facebook millionaires from Silicon Valley are weekending in the area and buying up property, so you can expect more big changes to come over the next ten years. And wine—the allure and mystique and business of it—is the engine driving all these changes. Here are six things you need to know about Paso wine now:

1. Paso Robles is the next Healdsburg. Like Healdsburg and Sonoma, Paso has an historic downtown plaza. Its central area is a wide grass lawn with oak trees and other trees that provide benevolent shade on hot days. Nice spot for a picnic. Paso Robles Continue reading

How a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc is like a Doris Day song

DecoyWhen you go to a wine tasting, typically they start you out with something light and refreshing, like a Sauvignon Blanc. It is the welcoming drink, the one that primes you (and your palate) for the sips of other whites and big reds to come.

Doris Day

Doris Day.

       With summer nearing an end (the kids soon to go back to school!) and the dance of the 2016 harvest about to begin or already beginning in some areas, we thought we’d try something light, refreshing and welcoming. This 2015 Decoy Sauvignon Blanc (under $20) fits the bill on all three of those counts, in our view. Light but not weightless and bland, with the flavor of a nectarine or to my taste, even a hint of orange. Refreshing and vivacious, with some nice tang to it but no harsh bite. And welcoming, like the smile of a pretty woman in a summer dress who greets you at the front door inviting you into a party. Continue reading

6 superstar athletes (and a coach!) who make wine


Owning a vineyard and making your own wine is a dream shared by people in all walks of life, including professional athletes and coaches.

Here are six sports superstars and one coach—a Formula One world driving champion, Heisman Trophy-winning Pro Bowl NFL cornerback, four-time NASCAR Cup champion, Hall of Fame pitcher who led the New York Mets to their first World Series title, a Rose Bowl and Super Bowl-winning coach, another race car driver and an elite PGA golfer once ranked No. 1 in the world—that have turned their dreams into a reality by establishing wineries or wine brands.

Despite their varied backgrounds, all share one thing in common: a love of wine. Known mainly for their sports achievements, they would also like to be known as the makers of excellent Cabernets, Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs.

Mario Andretti


Mario Andretti looks every inch the consummate winemaker: hale, hearty, in robust good health. If you did not know better you would not suspect he was one of the fastest men to ever drive a racing car, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 and Formula One world racing crown, among many other titles. Long retired from racing, the 76-year-old oversees a Napa Valley winery that goes by his name. Andretti Winery’s Montona Reserve wines are named after the area in Italy where he was born and raised before immigrating to the U.S. as a teenager. Continue reading

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