We drove a little bit more, and poof, we were in the wine country.

At first it's weird to see all the grapes and wineries. After a few days though, you adjust to it. It's amazing how quickly and easily we are able to stop looking at things and just take them for granted.

As we drive up to Calistoga, we stopped in St. Helena at the CIA to make a dinner reservation for the next evening. It's a really neat building, but you'll have to go see it yourself, because when I took the photo, the camera focused on the SUV, not the building. I first ate here a few years ago when me, Joshua, Sang, and Kim flew up here in Joshua's plane and hung around for an afternoon. I really owe Joshua big time for this, because 1) this is a great restaurant, and 2) every time someone asked us on this trip if we'd been to Napa before, Lorin would say no, and I'd say in a real non-chalant way while picking a piece of lint of my sleeve or something, "Only once, and just for an afternoon. We flew in in my friend's plane and just sort of checked the place out."

I let them assume that Joshua is a big shot with a jet, amd that we just fly around "checking stuff out."

There were brazillians of roses in bloom all over Napa. It was amazing. It was also funny - anywhere else this many roses would be a tourist attraction, but here, they are ignored in favor of the wineries. Basically, these roses know what baby's breath feels like.

Lorin seems happy to be there.

Zoom! We hightailed it to the hotel.

We got a bottle of this and sat out on our patio to drink it. We liked the name more than the wine so we didn't have very much of it. This is the last lousy bottle of wine we've had in a long time, thanks to JT, who'll you'll meet in a minute.

Here's the entrance to the Peju winery. Both Dan and Joshua like this place. When we, ahem, flew up that time in Joshua's plane (I hope he reads this...) he bought a case of their juice.

We got up the next day and looked at a big map of all the wineries around there. Our goal was go to some small ones and visit the ones where the wines that we like are made. We didnt really research the trip that well, and it turns out that most of the wines we like are made over in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma. But one wine we really really like is Honig's Sauvignon Blanc. We've been drinking it for years ever since a dude at the Grapevine Market here in Austin turned us on to it and the price hasn't really gone up, but it's an excellent wine. This is a small winery that requires an appt to taste, and we were worried we wouldnt be able to visit. I called over around 11:30am and talked to a girl named Kelly (that's her back there on the phone) I told her we loved the wines and that we were hoping to visit. She said, "Sure, when?" and I said, "Well, we're up in Calistoga and we're getting ready to leave out hotel. We could be there in ten or fifteen minutes." She said, "Cool, come right over!" and I thanked her and hung up thinking that it was more like calling a friend than a stodgy winery. This trend continued.

Here is the driveway coming in. It's all very unassuming and understated, but really nice, which I find really attractive.

A girl named Olivia spent some time with us and poured some of their wines. We sipped them and talked about them a little and she was giving us the usual boring information like, "We keep it in French oak barrels for 8 months, then put it in bottle for a year." To me that seems dumb, like something I could do. I wanted to hear about how wine is REALLY made. So I started asking her questions about the plants, the climate, and the way things are farmed and harvested. She said, "Well, you better talk to JT about all that stuff." So JT comes over and I ask him my questions about farming and that kind of thing, and he says, "Well, the best way to really talk about all this is to go out and walk around in the fields." I was sitting there thinking, "Wow. This is really nice!"

So JT grabbed a bottle of some $80 wine they sell (it was our final wine to taste), opened it, and grabbed two glasses and said, "Let's go!"

Here are Lorin and JT ready to head out. To the right you can see olive trees.

We got out there and JT answered every one of our questions. We had a lot, and it was really rewarding to be able to learn so much from someone so quickly. So many times you ask people questions and they don't know the answers, (or don't make one up!) but JT was quick on his feet and was a pleasure to talk to. Here he was explaining to us how they "drop fruit."

Each year the vines are pruned back. New sprouts come out (see how the stems are green, and new looking?) and they usually will get 2-3 little sprigs from the base vine. Part way through the summer they go walk through the vineyard and look at them like JT is doing and DECIDE which one to keep. This is fascinating. He says they can tell by the way they are growing - the angle they shoot out at - and how strong they look, whether they're keepers or going to get cut. So they'll drop something like half the fruit from the vines. You can see the little baby grapes in there.

There are a lot of grapes in there.

The Honig vines are to the left. To the right are some other winery's. What you're looking at here is Gypsum powder. Apparently one of the real tricks to good fruit crop yield is controlling moisture on and around the fruit. All sorts of molds and mildewy critters want to release spores and grow after it rains. Spreading hygroscopic materials like gypsum is a nice way to absorb the moisture and keep it off the fruit. Also, sulphur is dusted to kill some molds and mildews.

Insect control is also a big deal of course. At Honig they don't like to use chemical pesticides - instead they have set up lots of bluebird bird houses at the end of the rows. Since they are not in a migratory pattern in this part of the valley, they can attract specifc birds. These blue birds eat up all the insects that want to munch on the vines and ruin our wine. Using birds for pest control? We were liking Honig more and more as time went on.

Then we saw this. They just installed solar panels last fall. Energy-wise they are now a neutral operation - these panels collect enough energy to run the winery. I think they actually generate more power and dump it back into the grid for others to use. It is really important to stop and think about this for a minute. These solar panels are sitting on what looks to be at least half an acre of land, probably closer to a full acre. In the Napa Valley, land sells for 500,000 an acre. So they made a choice here. They could sell the land and pocket 500k. They could plant it with grapes and sell a few more bottle of wine. Or, they could reduce their impact on the environment, and they could make themselves self-sufficient and independent of the power grid. As a person who devotes some of his time to the Austin Clean Energy Incubator, and who really wants the US to be energy independent, and energy wise, this had a huge impact on me. My admiration for this winery soared.

I saw this written on the wall and wondered what it meant...

Then I saw this. How cool is this? These folks also also support planned parenthood. This place is like the winery in my head.

Thank Honig, and thanks to JT, Olivia, and Kelly for making our visit excellent. We liked the wine before, but now we like the winery too. We're like cult-converts - we walk around zombie-like extolling the virtues of Honig.

We jumped in the car and headed down to St. Helena for some lunch. (We stopped at Frog's Leap as well, but they treated us poorly. While they had awesome gardens, it was nothing close to being at Honig. And get this - I had left my credit card at Honig, and Olivia drove it over to us at Frog's Leap. How nice is that?)

We stopped at a place called "cook" for lunch.

We had a little bread.

And some oil with balsamic vinegar in it. We had entrees but somehow did not take a photo of them. Sorry! Lorin had some amazing pasta I think. We recommend cook.

We headed south and along the way saw this sign and screeched to a halt.

Mmmmm, cherries.

We headed down to the Hess winery. This was to be our mega-winery visit. We drink a lot of Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon. Lorin really likes it. This winery is more set up for visitors and also <barf> tour buses.

But check this out, you can step inside their cellar and take photos of some of the barrels.

They were pretty.

They had a really big and fancy tasting room. It was like being in a castle. And the lady they had working the bar was a piece of work. She was one of those people that you find amusing, but if someone told you that you had to ride in a car with them for a while, you'd just opt to kill yourself.

She was pretty pushy. We agreed to taste four wines for ten bucks, their standard "tour." I said, "Well we have the Cab all the time, so I think we want to try some of the others. We might like to try the whites." She says, "Hmmmm. Well I'll give you the ones I think you should drink." Lorin and I exchanged glances that said, "No matter what happens here, we'll have a story to tell." This lady did not disappoint. She ended up pouring us six wines, not the alloted four, which was fine with us. She was very pushy and suggestive though when we would drink. "Oh this one is better than that one, right?!" And we'd humor her. She was also pouring wine for herself, and it became obvious that since it was almost 5pm, quitting time, she was having one for the road. She started going on about how much she loved her job (mercifully she spent most of her time talking to those people behind Lorin there) and then she launched into her wine club sales pitch, which we think she earns commission on. She went to work on the couple first. Now, keep in mind that they are TWO FEET away from us. She says to them, "You should really join the wine club. You get two wines shipped to you per month. These wines are not available in stores, only here at the winery or through the club. I reallt recommend it. When you have someone over to your house, you can open a bottle. When they have some, they'll say, 'Oh this is very nice wine. Where can I get some?' and you will be able to tell them, 'You can't get it, I get it from the wine club. It's the only way to get it.'" She said this last part in a really snobby way, like being in the wine club was soooooo prestigious. Obviously, anyone with a credit card can join.

We giggled and laughed at her pitch, and were finishing up our last taste of wine. Then this lady started coming toward us. This next photo is perfect, look at the lady, and look at Lorin...

So the lady came in and gave us the SAME EXACT SALES PITCH, VERBATIM that she gave the two other people. Look, they are still sitting right there! It was amazing! We managed to keep a straight face through the whole thing, and then politely declined and got the hell out of there. There was also some art there, but you couldn't photograph it, so I won't describe it either.

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