Overnight to the Napa Valley

Many months ago, Tom's brother Peter gave us a gift certificate for a hot air balloon ride over the Napa Valley. In anticipation of my birthday, I made a reservation - but we had a looooong time to wait. Today finally arrived! And we had an excellent time.

My folks agreed to take the kids and dog, so Tom and I left in the late afternoon on Friday and made it to Calistoga (about 20 miles north of Napa) by 5:30. We walked the streets and found a place for dinner (carnitas, yum) and strolled along window shopping on the main street. Calistoga is famous for spa treatments, such as mud baths and massages, but we had other plans.

We enjoyed our overnight stay at Christopher's Inn, though we didn't spend much time there, as we left at 6:30 in the morning in search of good coffee (found at the local roastery) and to meet our balloon pilot. He took us (and 13 other folks) to a nearby field, and released a regular standard balloon. He watched it float skyward, noting the wind patterns, and then determined that the field was a 'go' for launch. All the other people stayed in the warm vans (it was below freezing), but Tom and I stayed out with the crew and watched the whole process, asking a lot of questions and generally getting in the way ("Are you sure we can't help?"). The sun came up as the balloon inflated.

We were finally allowed to climb in, rather ungracefully. After rising, we could see the entire Napa valley to the Southeast, laid out before us. The fog was spectacular.

There were several peaks and plenty of forest to look at, but mostly we saw large estates and acre after acre of ubiquitous vineyards.

Finally looking North, we could see all the way to Healdsburg.

After about an hour, we started to descend, and thought we might have a pokey landing into grapevines. (The only safety information we got was what to do in the case of a windy landing. Thankfully, today was quite calm. However, we hadn't been told what to do when landing in vertical branches. I think we were all quite 'clenched' at that point.)

Thankfully, we landed precisely in the parking lot of a very surprised vintner, who promptly recovered and opened the doors to her tasting room, where we sampled some delicious Sauvignon Blanc (thanks, Envy Wines!). Of course we bought a bottle.

By the time we got back to our car, it was only 9:30, so we went in search of more adventure. We ended up at Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park. I recently saw this mill on an episode of A Moveable Feast - the host had visited the mill to procure cornmeal for a farm dinner. We were the only ones there for quite a while and our tour was private until the very end. What a cool place. We learned so much about how grain was milled in the 1800's. You'd think this would be a really dry subject, but it was fascinating. A good docent really makes all the difference, wouldn't you agree?

We bought four of the eight flours that they sell there. So much for grain-free eating, at least for a while!

As we were finishing up in the Mill store, one of the docents was trying her hand at flapjacks on a wood-burning oven. Suddenly we were starving. We went in search of a good farm-to-table lunch, which is pretty much like shooting fish in a barrel in Napa Valley. But we found a particularly good place, Farmstead Restaurant, which is part of Long Meadow Ranch - they have gardens, vineyards, olive groves, and grass-fed cattle and lamb, along with farm chickens, in a location several miles from the restaurant. We had some delicious food, including a cabbage and apple coleslaw that we couldn't eat fast enough, and wild mushrooms over grits with greens, a slow-cooked egg, and crispy ham. It was a wonderful lunch. We wandered around the kitchen garden afterward, though they get most of their produce from the ranch. We'll make a reservation in the future to have a tour of that, and enjoy a farm dinner on the premises. When's the next birthday???