After watching Man City win the FA Cup, and full of coffee jitters and beans on toast, Rap and I head out for a visit to Santa Rosa, home to my favourite US brewer, Russian River. There's a hint of rain as we head over the Richmond Bridge into Marin County. We aren't going the direct route up Highway 101, instead we've got a couple of stops to make, which is a good job given the condition of my bladder.
First stop is the spa resort town of Calistoga. Sitting at the top of the Napa Valley, this place is famous for its hot springs and mud baths, though it also has a history as a mining town. It has a long main street and walkable downtown, and we're heading into it for a pint at the Calistoga Inn, a hotel and restaurant with a brewery. I have their English Porter, a pleasant interpretation of a classic London porter with some liquorice detectable. Rap is on the seasonal Oatmeal Stout. There are some early diners and a few other people at the bar, but it feels nicely chilled out, and its a good way to start the trip.
Our next call is at Ridge Winery. I don't do wine. Culturally, socio-economically, I don't understand it. Coming from a country whose wine tradition was, until recently, Concorde 'British' wine (read all about it here), and whose earliest wine experiences were drinking something called EEC 'tafelwein', I've never felt it was 'my' drink. But, Rap is an oenophile, he knows these Sonoma County producers and can converse knowledgeably on all aspects of wine production, terroir, vintage development and all that.
That's all over my head, but I can see how much easier wine is to come to when you're surrounded by it. It's as if the wine culture which has grown in these valleys is absorbed by osmosis. Or maybe wine isn't seen as shorthand for some kind of lifestyle choice. Maybe these people don't drink wine to make a statement. Whatever.
Ridge Winery are having their Spring Release Celebration at their Lytton Springs Estate. There are half a dozen reds being tasted including their exclusive Monte Bello. As Monty Python once noted, "this is not a wine for drinking. This is a wine for laying down and avoiding." Or something like that. The 2007 will set you back $145. I'm into some Syrah, which is warming, a little spicy and full of plums.
Looking at rows of vines stretching out along the undulating landscape, a scene repeated all over Sonoma County as you drive about, sipping wine, is all too mellow. It's beautiful country, all right. And this a county full of producers - food, wine, beer - and they all talk and share. More on that later...
We make our way over to Bear Republic in Healdsburg, where I become Code Name: O'Boggle. I'm sipping the house pilsner while sitting next to a couple from Chicago on their 20th anniversary surprise trip and we get talking, like you do. As usual, I get the accent thing. The guy can't work it out so I tell him I'm Irish. He's delighted, as his background is also Irish. They're going to a big Irish pub in Santa Rosa, maybe we'll see them later...
We head over that way ourselves, and our first stop in a pub called the Toad In The Hole. Very US interpretation of English, very quirky. It's a quick pint and then on to Flavor.
The weather has turned and it's now raining, but the place is packed with family groups and people out for a good Saturday night. Flavor is a bistro whose proposition is local provenance. It's also where you can get half a dozen Moonlight beers on tap, so we settle in at the bar for a pint. Later, we come back to eat. I take on a pizza and lose. Half of it winds up being my breakfast on Sunday, thanks to a microwave oven in the hotel room.
In between Flavor, we hit Russian River. It's packed. A popular band is playing, it's been the Boonville Festival weekend. We find a space at the end of the bar and sup a couple of Eruditions. This is a saison fermented with a yeast strain from Thiriez in France. There's no herbiage added as an adjunct and the result is a clean-drinking golden ale. We put a couple of those away before heading back to Flavor for some dinner. On the morrow, we are to meet with Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo...