I was given an interesting opportunity.

A very good friend of mine recently accepted a position as CMO with Jackson Family Wines in Sonoma.  Of course, my first thought was – huh, not me?  As most of you know, Patty loves her wine and food!  What a natural position for me – yes?  Of course, Stephen actually worked to get the job – I just keep dreaming something like this will drop into my lap.  Sigh.  Maybe I should try a different approach.

Anyway – the point of all this is that my friend took off for France and needed someone to watch the house and dogs.  Ten days in Sonoma in a stunning 4,000 square foot house nestled in the vineyards of Matanzas Creek, complete with a beautiful pool, lily pond, a tasting room where everybody knows my name and lavender gardens that scent the air.  Yes, I scored!!!!

Lately, there has been a thought in my head that maybe I should look to transfer my marketing skills into another area that I enjoy – OK, love.  Thanks to a whiny conversation with Margaret where I was lamenting that I did not have a passion like so many other people, she laughed hard and said, “What the hell?  Of course you do!!!!  It’s called wine!”  Duh.  This is why everybody needs a fiery red head in their life.  So, the thinking started.

What a great coincidence (?) that Stephen ended up in the wine business.  I have no clue whether this is where I belong professionally or whether being a passionate consumer  is my destiny.  As always, it’s the journey, not the destination.

So, here I am in gorgeous Sonoma/Napa for 10 days.  The experiment begins and it starts a little rough.  Due to the dead economy, like many people, I have a lot of time on my hands and boredom comes with that small detail.  Ask a few of my friends, I constantly call them to say, “entertain me please!”  The drive up was great (singing John Denver all the way up the 5) but, when I arrived all the time on my hands and boredom came with me.

I was struggling with motivation and focus to begin with – why I thought being here would change that is a mystery.  All the books I’ve been meaning to catch upon  stayed in the car.  The text books to study for the second level of my Sommelier course remained closed.  My first couple of days I spent a lot of time walking up and down the vines trying to think my way out of the situation.  Stephen was right, it can be very meditative – or maybe I was just using it as another distraction.  Whatever!

True to form, I did not sit around and twiddle my thumbs the whole time – for godsakes, I was in the Provence of the US.  Great restaurants and wine are the backbone of the area.  I gave up the thinking/meditation and was off and running.

Thursday night I popped up to charming Healdsburg and wandered the square reminiscing about what childhood used to be like.  Small towns where parks were the central part of life, where people strolled without fear, where kids played until their moms could be heard calling.  A small book shop, ice cream parlor, boutique clothing shops and tasting rooms every other storefront.  Things were rather quiet which is unusual for this time of year (again, the economy).  I decided to try Dry Creek Kitchen for a light supper – it’s located on the main square and had an interesting menu.  It’s a Charlie Palmer restaurant and has a more modern, clean flair as opposed to most of the smaller, homey places you find in town.

Tory took care of me and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation as he too had passed the first level of the Master Sommelier program.  With that connection established, he poured me a variety of tastes as I sampled the menu.  Only one other person joined me at the bar – Anthony, a retired, very fit 60 something who lived just off the square and divided his time between the various eating establishments.  Everybody knows his name!

The chopped Spinach Salad with Black Truffle Vinaigrette and a perfectly runny poached egg – yummy!  Truly phenomenal.  I should have stopped there.  I debated between the Truffle Stuffed Chicken Breast or the Corriander Duck.  I chose the Duck and I have to say it was just OK.   Can’t say I loved this restaurant but I’d be willing to give it another chance.

Friday, I did a very stupid thing and thought a drive over to Yountville (Napa side of the valley) would be a good thing.  From Santa Rosa it’s incredibly windy mountain roads for 21 miles.  Oy!  I kept thinking to myself that I should turn around but after washing and drying my hair I was determined to take it out.  I persevered and found myself on the one road of Yountville.  Everything that is Yountville is on that one road – The General Store, French Laundry, Bouchon, Bistro Jeanty, Bottega. I’ll make it short.  I’ve been to Bouchon in Yountville and Las Vegas a number of times – it has always been a lovely experience.   I debated whether to do it again and my gut was right – I should have been more adventurous.   I think Bouchon has been around too long and doesn’t feel the need to go the extra mile.  It was a disappointing evening with a staff that was less than interested in their guests and food that was lacking inspiration.  It will be my last time there.  The only highlight was a lovely, chatty couple from Napa who came in to Bouchon for an after dinner drink.  All they did was rave about Bottega.  Like I said, I should have been more adventurous. Note to self:  Bottega.

Anyway, you can only spend so much time eating and drinking so I quickly got down to Patty business.  I had a few phone numbers with friends of friends connections.  By Sunday, life in Sonoma flipped around.

Caroline and her husband moved up to Sonoma about 9 months earlier – coincidentally, she also works for the Jackson Family as head of PR.  Caroline popped over on Sunday for an hour to walk through the vines and we connected immediately.  Two successful, ambitous women trying to sort out what’s next and how to do it on our terms.

Caroline was off to watch the Lakers game and I jumped in my car to go to the town of Sonoma.  Like Healdsburg – charming, safe, quaint, lots of wine.  I had dinner at The Girl and The Fig.  It’s a small French Country Bistro with a lively crowd and a great wine selection.  I started with an Albarino as the evening was quite hot and savored a simple Butter Lettuce Salad.  I moved to a tasty Grenache and orderd the mussels.  That’s not the best match in food but I enjoyed both so much that it worked for me.

Caroline had arranged a wine tasting at the Murphy Goode tasting room in Healdsburg.  I arrived at 10:30am as instructed to find that the tasting had been moved to 3:30pm.  But, Murphy Goode’s wine maker, Dave Ready, was there doing a story for the local Fox News.  I became a “taster” in the story – it’s such a hard life I lead.  Dave and I had a nice time talking so when Caroline arrived for lunch Dave joined us.

It was interesting to talk to someone who makes wine and hear his story.  His father  was one of the founders of the winery and so Dave has lived the wine life from day one.  He loves what he does and I see him loving his growing fame as a wine maker – news stories, internet buzz, webisodes – it’s a changing industry where the consumer has more access to wineries and the wine makers due to the internet. Dave is becoming a bit of a celeb and I love how he talks about wine – like a real person and not a wine snob.  We ate at Headlsburg Charcuterie and Cafe. All the food looked fantastic and the place was packed with locals.  Unbelieveable gourment burger!  They insisted I order it and I’m glad that I did.  If you are in Healdsburg – this would be a great restaurant to put on your list.

Dave and Caroline took me to the Kendall Jackson wine tasting room and I enjoyed hearing Dave talk about the wines that we tried.  It just comes down to “what you like”  it’s like art and everyone has different tastes.  I am partial to big reds so we tried a few of the Cabs and Zins – all quite good.  It’s a beautiful tasting room and the folks there really know their stuff.

The highlight of my trip came on Wednesday and it was completely unexpected.  Caroline had set up a wine and food pairing at the Kendall Jackson Wine Center.  As most of you know – I like my wine – but it needs to be GOOD wine.  Which means that I don’t buy my wine at a supermarket and when I think of Kendall Jackson, I think supermarket wines.  Now, I know that every wine maker has good stuff but I think of that as reserved for family, friends, events, etc.

I arrived at the Wine Center and marveled at the beauty of the place.  Most centers are gorgeous – they begin with  long drives through the vineyards that bring you up to the doors of a country estate  – some French, some Italian, some California rustic –  lovely gardens and terraces, large trees for shade and picnics – it’s just as much fun to see the various estates as it is to try the wine.  KJ Wine Center was no different.

The tasting room was enormous – essentially, it was one huge foyer with a curving staircase off to the left and a long bar to the right with a number of friendly people pouring wine.  It was quite busy when I arrived so I stopped for a moment to take it all in.  Of course, there are the obligatory accessories displayed – wine openers, cheese knives, cook books – I’d love to see the numbers on how much wine vs. accessories are sold.

“Are you Patricia?” said a smiling chef.

“Yes, was it obvious?”

“I’m Justin.  We’re all ready for you.  Let’s get you settled in the gazebo and start your tasting.”

I was whisked outside by Caitlin who carried 5 empty glasses on a tray.  The gardens and the view are just lovely and I had the gazebo to myself.  I love five start treatment!  The five glasses were neatly arranged and a list of the wines and the food that would be served was presented.   Justin and Caitlin chatted with me for a bit beofre Justin disappeared to the kitchen.

Moments later he re-appeared with a dish and 5 light bites to match with each wine.  The food was AMAZING!  But, surprisingly, the wine was AMAZING.  This is no supermarket wine.  These wines are serious and outstanding.  I’m sure it’s perfectly fine to just eat a part of the little appetizers and only a sip or two of the wine – but, I wasn’t letting anything go to waste!  This was an unbelievable experience.

Matt, another chef at the Wine Center joined us and the three of talked about where we were from (Justin is a southern boy – Matt, East Coast) and our interest/passion for wine and food.  I need to be dating a chef!!!!!!

Matt and Justin wanted me to try the dessert tasting so more glasses were brought in and another tray of small bites.  Oh, dear.  I’m supposed to be going out to dinner tonight!  The wines were more sweet and luscious to match the sugar delights I was inhaling.  As always, my favorite was the chocolate with some rich port.

Yes, the people were lovely and clearly the chefs are wonderfully talented.  Yes, the place was gorgeous and the service spectacular.  But, I still can’t believe the wines.  I bought three cases before departing.  So much for that unemployment check!  The wines I tasted are:

Seco Highlands Chardonnay

Grand Reserve Chardonnay

Seco Highlands Pinot Noir

Taylor Peak Merlot

Trace Ridge Cabernet

Please, please, please try these wine – I truly think you will love them!

I met up with Caroline and some friends later that night so that we could attend a wine tasting at a local shop – the feature was Spanish Wines that had all received at least 91 points from Robert Parker.  It was a fun hour of trying some new wines and we all walked with a few Rioja’s under our arms.  Linda had lived in the area for about 10 years and knew all the ins and out so she suggested a charming place to eat dinner around the corner.

Estate is an old house  down the street from the Main Square.  Beautiful Gardens, a stunning patio with roaring fireplace and charming rooms throughout the house where amazing food is served with terrific service.  On Wednesday nights they have Pizza and Pinot for $ 10.  A great deal, great food and great environment.

Thursday was to be my last night and I wanted to try a little restaurant I had seen on the square in Healdsburg.  So, I ran back up to Healdsburg one last time and sat at the bar at Scopa.  Charming and quite popular.  Rustic Italian, there were plates of meatballs and pasta rushing by and gorgeous looking pizzas beind delivered to many tables.  I stuck with small bites as my jeans would no longer cooperate with my growing belly.  The griled Peaches with Salad – so yummy.  And the grilled Octopus was perfectly cooked – just melting in my mouth.  I can’t wait to go back and try even more dishes.

So, that was my trip.  Im still not sure where I stand with the idea of moving here.  I am just trying to take it all in.   I love the romance of wine and the lifestyle attached to it which is why I’m not sure I want to know the underbelly of the industry!  Will it dimish my appreciation?  Take away something that is about pleasure?  I dont know the answer but will keep you all posted!

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