Weekly Travel Guide with Alison: Napa Valley for Wine Experts

As my palate has matured, I have acquired an interest in learning more about wine, the traditional compliment to a fabulous meal.  When people ask me if I have an extensive wine knowledge, my current response is often the charming, "I know a decent amount...or at least I pretend to..."  Well, in my defense, I am working towards this goal.

In last week's column, I described my San Francisco journey, but that was only half of my Northern California vacation.  I also voyaged an hour outside of the city to sample the exciting gourmet cuisine and New World wines of the Napa Valley region.  My first evening in the beautiful countryside began in Yountville, the culinary capital of the area.  Renowned chefs such as Thomas Keller and Michael Chiarello have put this tiny town on the map with their delicious menu offerings and regional ingredients.  Though I did not make reservations at the celebrated French Laundry, I did have brunch at Chef Keller's unique and casual establishment, Ad Hoc.  The concept behind this restaurant is basically putting yourself at the mercy of the chef, arriving to a pre-planned meal courtesy of his daily ambition.  My three-course brunch menu revolved around the amusing Southern alliance of fried chicken and waffles.  With imaginative notions like that, you can expect to be awed with a unique experience on each visit, because even this leading global chef needs to get in touch with his playful side every now and again.

While I enjoyed my hearty brunch, nothing could top my dinner at Chef Chiarello's Bottega.  His garganelli with Sonoma rabbit ragu was the most amazing pasta I have ever had the pleasure to eat, and the dish has become my answer to the famous foodie question of, "What would you choose as your last meal?"  The noodles were perfectly cooked - not too mushy nor overly al dente.  The moist rabbit meat was encased in a divine savory broth that came alive with an earthy mushroom essence.  The rustic dish defined Italian comfort food.

Also, who could forget what brought me to the region in the first place - the wineries.  While the larger, more mainstream vineyards, such as Robert Mondavi, offered longer visiting hours, they tended to provide less personal experiences.  Luckily, my stay at the fabulous Napa Valley Lodge came complete with an accommodating staff that scheduled private appointments and recommended the most efficient itineraries.  We enjoyed excursions such as a one-on-one instructional tasting at the Honig Vineyard & Winery; an extensive sampling atop the picturesque hills of the Joseph Phelps Vineyards; and many more.  However, our most pleasing experience was shockingly at a small shop called Jessup Cellars on the non-descript main drag in Yountville.  The relaxed tasting room presented me with my first rewarding sips of merlot and chardonnay, two grapes I seldom prefer.  I literally loved each of the five varietals that I sampled.  Plus, since their wines were produced in limited quantities and could only be purchased directly through their wine club, I appreciated the experience even more.

Whether you decide to build your entire vacation around Napa Valley or you simply incorporate it into a San Francisco itinerary, visiting this beautiful region is a must for foodies, winos, or even those just searching for an introduction to that lifestyle.  The air is fresh, the cuisine is inspired, and the wine is plentiful - How could you go wrong...!