My 5K, my way

WordPress hosts my little blog site, and while I don’t understand all the ins & outs of what WP does, I do know that they do it well. Visiting other blogs on other hosts proves it: WP kicks ass.

I often read the updates that come to me from WP, whether it’s to showcase a new theme (the physical look of a blog), or to update users on a new feature, like the new iPad feature that provides those who read blogs via iPad a cool experience. From the gurus at WP: “Our iPad-optimized view is app-like in its functionality, but pure HTML5 goodness on the backend: it supports touch interactions, swiping, rotation, and many other features of the iPad.”

I don’t know exactly what HTML5 is but like the way they refer to its pure goodness.

The Automattic side of WP recently announced a cool idea: let’s have a virtual 5K. This group of 80 hipsters with job titles like “code ninja,” “systems wrangler” and “happiness engineer” are scattered in 62 cities around the globe, but they share a love of fitness, so they knew that getting all the co-workers together on the same day in the same city was crazy talk. Instead, they settled on the idea of having everyone do their own 5K in their own way but on the same day. And then, because they are totally kick-ass, they opened this idea up to WP bloggers, and gave us a week in which to complete this mission.

I’m well-versed in 5Ks from my running days, but with breast cancer and post-mastectomy infection as my sidekicks, my racing days are over. I may be down but not out, and I am definitely on the mend after a long, complicated and downright icky span of nearly a year. I’m officially deeming myself over that mess, however, and ready to tackle the Automattic 5K. Lucky for me, there’s an loophole in this 5K that says it can be “in your own way,” meaning it doesn’t have to be an organized point-to-point or up-and-back race. In fact, the invitation went out to “walk, run, or skip” just do 3.1 miles worth, and it counts. Those Automatticians are so nice.

photo: lonelyplanet.com

Walking through the lush and beautiful Wine Country in Napa Valley counts, right? I didn’t use a pedometer, but I’m pretty sure we walked at least 3 miles over 2 days of wine touring. We walked through lots of wineries, traversing the valley from its  southern end, near Downtown Napa, to Yountsville in the middle, and northward into Rutherford.

No matter where we were, the scenery was spectacular. I never got tired of looking out over the rows of tidy grapevines and seeing the rolling green hills and the majestic mountains rising up toward the azure of the sky. 

Our first stop on my 5K was Chandon in Yountville, where they’ve been making sparkling wines long enough to be household name. Chandon’s wine makers have experimented a lot but settled on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier grapes in the tradition of French champagne. Works for me.

After an hour-long limo ride from San Francisco to Napa, our group of 10 was ready to stretch our collective legs and get our drink on. Chandon was a great place to start.

As we disembarked at the threshold of all things Chandon, the first thing I noticed was this sweet little tableau, at the base of the winery’s entrance. The fountain was bubbling and the calla lilies were blooming. The only way the setting could have been more perfect would be if I had a glass of bubbly in hand. While we were in a rush to get inside and get that bubbly, we did pause at the entrance

to get a group shot of the ladies before we hit the ground running (or strolling, because this is a have-it-your-way 5K). Chandon was the first of at least 4 wineries we were planning to hit that day, so we had our work cut out for us. We needed to get busy.

 

The magnum was sublime. Our group of 10 found a table on the patio and and settled in for our first official taste of Napa. No one had any complaints.

Next stop was V Sattui in St Helena, north of Chandon, for picnic supplies. It was so perfect, we went back the next day, too. Grabbing a variety of picnic items from edamame salad to fancy-pants potato chips suited everyone in our group of hungry travelers. We served up our picnic family-style, passing and sampling our bounty of yummy morsels. 

Doesn’t the sign alone make you want to spend a lazy afternoon there, eating delicious foods and drinking wine in the sunshine?

Yeah, we did too, but we had miles to go before we slept, to quote Robert Frost.

 

Luckily we weren’t stopping by woods on a snowy evening, but instead zipping along southward to Silver Oak in Oakville. Yet another breathtaking view out the vineyard’s doorway made us stop and take it all in. Then we hurried inside in pursuit of some of Silver Oak’s finest.

We found it. We had a lovely chat with Walter, our tastings meister, who got a nice, big dose of our personal brand of Texas revelry. He was great sport, and we enjoyed him and the Silver Oak atmosphere as much as their wines. We could have stayed all day, but alas, we had an appointment with Quintessa, so we moved onward.

Quintessa, in Rutherford, was amazing. It’s a short distance from Oakville to Rutherford, and coming from the wide open spaces of Texas, it struck me how all these little towns seem practically on top of each other, and they certainly blend into each other. You can’t really tell where one ends and the next begins. Rutherford, in fact, is only 6 square miles — for the whole town. Between Oakville and St Helena, this tiny little area bangs out some killer Cabernets. It’s said that in order to make a great Cab, you “must have Rutherford dust.” They are most definitely doing it right at Quintessa

Our first cave tour did not disappoint.

After a tour of the machinery and vats, our delightful guide Lori led us into the cave. The mood in the cave was serene and somber, not in a sad way but more contemplative. Very zen. Until we figured out the cave had terrific echoing acoustics and all started cawing out various animal sounds. Classy.

This fountain stands in the middle of the cave, bubbling away as its water tumbles over jet-black river rocks that appear smooth as glass. It’s a beautiful and peaceful structure in and of itself, but it’s also functional, as it provides humidity in the cave, which is integral in crafting wine. The rooms flanking the fountain are full of barrels of aging wine, which put off a distinctive aroma that I can’t quite capture. I can still smell it in my olfactory memory, but can’t describe it. You’ll just have to go there.

We were intrigued by the reddish stain around the middle of each barrel. We wondered if the wine had leaked and stained the barrels, but then noticed that the stain was contained to just the middle. Lori cleared up the mystery by telling us that Quintessa colors them on purpose, to enhance the aesthetic beauty of their barrels. I had to strike a pose next to these beauties.

We came out of the cave and through these doors into the tasting room, thinking nothing could top the coolness of the cave tour. Then we saw the table that had been laid for us. 

A gorgeous wooden table in a secluded room lit by candles awaited us. Each of us had a place setting, complete with a personalized card surrounded by 3 lovely wines lovingly arranged in order. 

No, I wasn’t too drunk to take a decent photo, but the candlelight and the iPhone camera didn’t think too much of each other, so yes, it’s quite blurry. Next trip to Napa, I will take better photos, I promise.

But I won’t share my Quintessa artisanal cheese plate. Yum. Three cheeses from the region married with the wines so well we thought we’d died and gone to heaven. I’m a fan of cheese, especially with my wine, and these three were outstanding. We could have stayed in that peaceful tasting room for the rest of the day, but we only had it reserved until 5 pm, so we regretfully shuffled out of there, basking in the deliciousness of all things Quintessa.

Our first afternoon of tasting the bounty of Napa Valley’s wines drew to a close, and we headed from Rutherford south to Yountsville, to our hotel, immensely satisfied with the splendor of our first day. I was so happy I didn’t even realize until later that my feet kinda hurt, from my 5K, my way.


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.