Pics, as promised

I really missed my easy access to photos and images while posting from the road. Even though I had several tech-savvy traveling companions, there wasn’t time to set up a functional blogging station (or at least, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice wine-drinking time to getting techy). I had to make do with the cranky iPad, but now that I’m home and plugged in, I no longer have to rely solely on my words to portray the utter fabulousness of our trip to Napa.

The trip got off to a great start with an upgrade and Vueve Cliquot while awaiting our flight out of Houston. I love, love, love my seat assignment of row 1. And if there’s anything I love more than drinking Vueve at 8:00 in the morning at the airport, I can’t think what it is. Some of you who know me well have asked if both of those glasses were for me, and sadly, no one was Trevor’s but he was taking the picture so I didn’t try to steal his glass. Thought about it, though.

Before we got to Napa, we spent some time in San Francisco. Trevor and I arrived before the group gathered at the hotel, so after we checked in we explored the wharf area. A very reliable foodie couple recommended we eat at the Tadich Grill in the Financial District. It’s the oldest restaurant in all of San Francisco, which has no shortage of eateries.

Been in business since 1849, when it started as a coffeeshop. A Croatian immigrant named John Tadich worked at the coffeeshop after coming to San Fran in 1872, and he bought the place in 1887 and renamed it. It’s said to be the first restaurant to grill seafood over mesquite wood, starting that yummy tradition in the 1920s. So glad they thought of it, and that the practice made its way to The Lone Star State.

We walked to Tadich Grill, which I mentioned in a post last week, to find out if they truly do have the best cioppino in the city. The answer: yes. 

Hell, yes.

I could devote an entire blog to this bowl of stew. But I won’t.

This was by far the best ever. Especially after a long plane ride that started early. Especially after a 1.5 mile walk in cold, windy weather. Especially with some hot, fresh, crusty sourdough bread. San Francisco is known for its sourdough, and I tried it everywhere we went. Never had a bad piece, but this was some of the best. So good it didn’t even need butter. 

This scallop and its twin were floating in the tomato-based broth, minding their own business and likely oblivious to the fact that scallops are perhaps my all-time favorite food. I spied the two beauties and saved them for last. After the shrimps big & small, the whitefish, the mussels, the clams, and the crabs. Saved the best for last. And they did not disappoint. I’ve eaten a bunch of their friends over the years, and I can easily say they were the cream of the crop. I miss them. A lot.

Trevor had another yummy dish: shrimp and avocado mixed with rice and covered in a creamy sauce then broiled to a cheesy, bubbly state of bliss. The shrimp and avocado combined with the creaminess of the sauce made for one scrumptious combination. It didn’t sound all the special on the menu, but it came together to be pretty spectacular. Too bad the photo isn’t all that spectacular. It’s probably blurry because I couldn’t wait to tuck back into my cioppino.

On the walk to Tadich, we passed many restaurants, including one that claims to be the best Indian food in San Francisco (a ballsy claim, I’d say), and lots of shops. It’s always interesting to get to know a bustling, pedestrian-friendly urban area, since it’s very different from the life we lead in our SUV-driven suburbs. Pun intended. One shop we passed caught our attention because of the smell wafting out of its doors: buttery, brown-sugary, and mouthwatering. Ahh, a candy shop. Trevor vowed to hit it after lunch, and I’m glad he did. He chose some handmade fudge and we picked up some stuff for the kids, then noticed the source of the amazing smell: homemade caramel corn.

In an old-fashioned popcorn popper. Popcorn is one of the few snacks I can take or leave, but this stuff was of a whole different order. We weren’t going to buy any because we’d already ordered the fudge and were stuffed from lunch, but the heavily-inked salesman threw in a gratis bag, probably because I asked him a lot of questions about his tattoos and he assumed they were of the admiring sort of inquiry. I was really just curious to learn if the tattoo on his lip hurt when he got it. Yes, in fact, it did.

Candy in hand, we said adios to the tattooed candy man and headed back to the wharf. The caramel corn made it a few blocks.

After a short respite, The Birthday Girl arrived, so we hoofed it down to the wharf to meet her and Thad at The Franciscan, a huge, white boat-shaped restaurant overlooking Fisherman’s Wharf and sporting the best view of the water.  

We arrived before the crowds so were able to get a table with a view, and we soaked it in. Diana and Celeste, two more of our group, were already there enjoying the view and a snack. It was time for wine! We ordered a yummy bottle of Sauvginon Blanc and toasted our safe arrival and our good fortune to be in the Bay City, drinking wine and watching the maritime world go by.

Trevor and I were the only ones who had eaten, so the other 4 ordered some good stuff: a sizzling plate of crab legs, mussels and shrimp all perfectly seasoned on their cast-iron platter. It was similar to the sizzling fajitas platter that we all know & love in Texas — the sizzle gets the other diners’ attention, and the smell makes them think they ordered the wrong thing.

Once Lisa & Larry arrived, our group was almost complete, but since Jill & Keith weren’t landing until 10 pm, we went on to dinner without them. We needed 2 cabs to get from the wharf to the restaurant, and the girls all piled in the first cab to stop. That poor cabby was overwhelmed. At first he said he could only take 4, but we had 5 and didn’t want to split up, so we talked him into it. We “buddy buckled” 4 of us in the back, with Celeste in front to keep the driver company. We crested some of the city’s highest hills and squealed all the way down as if we were on a roller coaster. Our driver did not regret picking us up one bit, I’m sure; probably the wildest ride of his night. Sushi at the hip & happening Ryoko was delicious, and the place itself was unusual. Kind of a cross between a bedouin palace and a Japanese tea house, with funky music and chill people. We sat on cushions and ate at a low table. They serve sushi and beer until 2 a.m. but we had to get back to the hotel and drink champagne and await the arrival of Team Cremer.

The Birthday Girl had a conference room adjoining her hotel room, so with sushi-filled bellies we gathered there, ready to party. The bubbly was chilled and the music was loud. I’m sure the neighboring guests smiled happily at our raucous celebration. If anyone called to complain, we didn’t hear them. Once Team Cremer arrived, the party was complete. Because we had an early start to Napa in the morning, we shut it down around midnight.

Saying good-bye to San Francisco wasn’t too hard because we were on to bigger & better. Well, smaller & better. Or maybe equally good but different.

We checked into our Napa hotel and were greeted with the most friendly of things: a champagne cocktail. They must have heard I was coming. Yum! Normally, I like my champagne straight, and will even ask for my mimosas without the OJ. But this was delicious. A hint of lime syrup to complement, not overwhelm, the bubbly and a flower-shaped lime-peel garnish made for a perfect start to our visit to Napa. I meant to ask the bartender to tell me exactly how it is made, but we got busy heading to our first winery, and then I realized that even if I had the recipe, it wouldn’t be the same at home so I need to leave it where it is: in the rolodex section of my brain reserved for the fondest memories.

The flower-shaped lime-peel garnish was a harbinger of things to come: there were flowers everywhere in Napa. As we drove into town, I noticed huge hanging baskets of flowers on the streetlamps. I always love seeing that as it lends such beauty and serene feelings to a city street.

Our hotel had gorgeous gardens, from perfectly composed splashes of colorful perennials to lush greenery and everything in between. The poppies were my favorite. I’ve tried to grow them in my garden, but they don’t like the Texas heat as much as the Napa dappled sunshine. The Villagio had poppies in the most beautiful colors: yolky yellow, coral, delicate pink, and bold red.

I’m a sucker for flowers.

The wisteria-covered walkways were gorgeous, too. Walking underneath a canopy of green and smelling the unique scent of those fun purple flowers never got old. Reminded Trevor and me of the old Schlumberger building in Austin.

Most of the wineries had beautiful arrangements inside, too. This was my favorite, from Quintessa. The size was impressive, and the colors spoke to me. The forsythia was the best, though, because it reminds me of Big Ed, who loved that flowering shrub, because it screams “springtime!” and because of a funny story.

My Aunt Sophia’s sister Polly, may she rest in peace, was at our house a few years ago when we had received a gorgeous cut flower arrangement. It had tall branches of blooming forsythia and Polly told me that once the cut flowers were dead, I could stick the forsythia branches in the ground and they would grow. I thought that sounded kinda dubious, but decided to try it. What’s the worst that could happen — they didn’t take and I had a dead plant in the ground? 

Well, Polly was right. Here’s what those few ornamental branches look like now.

If she were here now, she would have every right to say “I told you so!”

That handful of branches turned into a full-blown tree. It anchors the far right corner of our back fence, near where the pool floats are stored. That tree provides some shade in our little backyard oasis, and its delicate foliage sways gracefully in the breezes. We have to hack it back every year, as it grows quite forcefully. I guess it likes its new home.

But back to the flowers of Napa. This was our first view of our hotel and its beautiful grounds. The fountain out front is ringed with colorful flowers: the poppies I love, tulips, daffodils, dianthus, and primrose in every color.

Such a lovely site, and I never got tired of seeing it. We were sometimes rushing to and from the hotel, to hop in the limo to start the day, or staggering out of it at the end of our tastings, but I savored the site of those flowers nonetheless.

The rest of the hotel grounds were equally stunning, and not just the flowers; there were some cool sculpture pieces. This was my favorite. She looks likes she found just the right spot in the soft grass just off the beaten path between rooms. She was about halfway between our room and Thad & Yvonne’s room, so we passed her several times and she was peaceful yet full of presence every time. I can really understand why she likes hanging around this place so much.

Bye-bye, Napa

“Jeffrey Schlossanoggle, please return to United Airlines gate 32.” That’s what I’m overhearing at the San Francisco airport, awaiting our flight home to Houston. I’m ready to taxi away from the gate of wonderfulness that was our weekend in CA, but am guessing it’s gonna be a bumpy ride back to reality. What do you mean I have to pour my own wine tonight? What, no high tea & finger sandwiches from 3:00 to 5:00 every day? No happy hour from 5:00 to 7:00 each evening, followed by fantastic dinners at the hottest hotspots? I’ve gotten pretty used to the different bottles of bubbly that preceded the multitude of interesting wines that graced our tables each night. And are you really telling me that the Russian limo drivers have shuttered our fine rides in the garage? Who’s gonna drive the kids’ carpool??? I’m going to miss the fresh figs & creamy cheeses that I ate at practically every meal. Something tells me they just taste better in Napa.

Last night’s dinner at the chef’s table at Bottega was one of the most memorable meals ever. And not just because the food was amazing, which it was. The staff was interesting and full of amusement, and being amid the hustle & bustle of one of the most popular eateries carried a certain excitement in and of itself, and being at the only marble-topped table in the place lent a nice cache to our festivities. The chef himself uses that same table to make his signature gnocci, so we were in the presence of culinary greatness, for sure. Our waiter, Murph, has worked with owner Michael Ciarello for nearly 2 decades and had lots of stories to tell. The ladies in our party kept a sharp eye out for the chef, and I can tell you for certain that he’s even better-looking in person. He greeted our table and spent a few minutes with the Birthday Girl, signing her copy of his latest cookbook and posing for photos. Which I can’t load right now on the cranky iPad, and certainly not within the short window of free wifi offered at this airport. No matter, I will regale you with tales accompanied by photos in the very near future. Nape Valley is also more good-looking in person, but we can still enjoy the photos. Later.

Highlights of dinner at Bottega: punched tin water glasses; the very best wines handpicked from our tours; toasting the Birthday Girl with champagne; deciphering the more unusual terms on the expansive menu; verbal sparring with the waiters; my roasted beet salad and the sublime seafood stew; and keeping pace with Team Cremer in the glass-lifting marathon. Our chef’s table gave us a bird’s-eye view of the revelers last night.

But the very best thing in a night full of wonderful things was being there. Just being there. Because my presence on this momentous trip was very much in question even up to the departure date, the fact that my body cooperated–for the first time in a long time–was such a luxury. If I’d had to stay home, missing yet another trip because of the stupid cancer or the even stupider infection(s), I would have been one unhappy girl. I bet I would have consumed even more wine at home than we did on this trip, because I’m a big believer in drowning one’s sorrows. So glad that wasn’t an issue.

A weekend in Wine Country might not be grand enough or elaborate enough in most people’s book to qualify as the trip of a lifetime. That designation seems to be applied more to multiple-week sojourns to faraway tropical beaches or European cities in centuries-old castles or super posh B&Bs. But this weekend in Wine Country was a trip of a lifetime for me because of the uncertainty that surrounded it and because the medical-disasters-from-Hell that preceded it qualify it as such. There will likely be more exotic destinations in the future, and hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to go on more trips in this life of mine. But the future isn’t something that cancer patients like to think about. And cancer patients whose path contains some serious twists & turns certainly don’t look too far down the road because the here & now is so fraught with all-consuming and messy things. For the weekend in Wine Country, though, I was just an ordinary tourist who happened to be celebrating just being there.

Heading to Napa

The party into the night was pretty tame last night. If you ask Trevor, the tameness (not lameness, but restraint) was because of the utter lack of tequila. I’d say it’s also because of the fact that we are pacing ourselves in this long, luxurious bath in all things grape. We’ve got a lotta wine to drink, and the day is young.

We said adios to San Fran after a scrumptious breakfast at Pat’s Place, a short walk from our hotel in the brisk, sunny California morning. A crepe filled with mushrooms, avocado and cheese alongside a perfectly foam-sculpted cappuccino laid the right base for the wine-consumption that is to come.

Now, lest you think it’s all about catching a buzz and staying sloppy all weekend, let me remind you that this trip isn’t just about the cheap high. It’s a celebration. Of Yvonne’s 40 years of good living. Of good friends reconnecting, new and old. Of time away from work and home (and darling children). Of carefully-laid and at-long-last executed plans.

And of me finally getting out from under the overreaching arch of cancer and infection, to remember for more than a moment that before the #%*¥ hit the fan, I used to have a life that was full of sunshine, laugher, love, and friends.

It’s so good to be back.