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Philip Barrington


We'd decided, a few days before, that we needed a break but as usual we didn't have much time.  How about San Francisco?  Great shopping and gourmet delights of every kind.  OK, but we've been there; how far is Napa?  The fall colours on the vines and those tasty wines - wouldn't that be lovely?  Sure enough, that was all we needed to stimulate our palates and imagination for our 60-hour getaway.

Some friends had recommended Auberge du Soleil, up on Rutherford Hill fifteen minutes north of Yountville on the Silverado Trail.  Secretly tucked away in a gently sloping 33-acre olive grove and surrounded by the sun-dappled vineyards now in colours of burnt reds and golden yellows, we sat on the terrace and truly thought we were in heaven.

"An Italy without its art", said playwright Oscar Wilde about California - a claim bolstered by rows of vineyards in Sonoma and Napa Valleys, recalling the rolling hills of Tuscany.  More than 200 wineries operate in the two valleys.

As nature's beauty surrounds you and aesthetics predominate - palatable pleasures await you.  A Frogs Leap Sauvignon Blanc danced on our tongues followed by Dungeness Crab Cakes, Rock Shrimp and papaya salsa.  The light in the valley with its long shadows was changing ever so subtly.  For the main course, we changed direction with a '93 Clos du Val Merlot and a '95 Rutherford Hill Cabarnet - the later lay still before us.  As the pan seared Sonoma Fois Gras/thinly sliced duck breast with shaved shallots and tomato, club sandwich jumped at us from the menu.  We thought oh, how rich, how sumptuous - we'll split it as we knew there was more to come in the way of an Oregon Blue Cheese with Carr's water biscuits and its dance partner, a copper coloured 20 year old tawny port.  Something sweet was called for to calm us down.  The most velvety vanilla creme brulee with orange marmalade sauce and a frothy cappuccino led us gently back to earth.  We had fallen instantly in love and did so again this time at Auberge du Soleil (1-800-348-5406 for exquisite accommodation, spa treatments, lunch and dinner reservations).

Maison Fleurie, a Four Sisters French Country Inn, was to be our home for one night.  With its provincial theme fireplace rooms, bicycles and country breakfast, it is ideally situated in Yountville.  These little towns from Napa to Calistoga are quaint as a button and could be European transplants.  Hats off to the Napa Valley Planning Committee and local Mayor's office and town and resort designer.  Our Okanagan cousins could sure learn a lot on how neon is not.

But I digress - off to dinner at Brix (open from 11:30 am - 10 pm for reservations 707-944-2749),  Well, it's true we were still reeling from lunch so we decided, as the waiter so politely pointed out, eat light.  A 1995 Cakebread Chardonnay started our taste buds singing and called for Crispy Panko Calamari with Asian Slaw and Spicy Sambal Sauce and Nori Black and Blue Rare Seared Ahi Tuna with Wasabi Aioli.  The open kitchen added to the soft murmur of a fully booked restaurant with tourists, yes, but a healthy portion of up-scale local residents.  For the next course, the Prosciutto, Pear and Baby Green Tower Salad with Peppered Goat's Cheese defied gravity.  I couldn't resist the Thai Pesto Smoked Rack of Lamb with spicy Peanut Satay and Zinfandel Glaze.  Dessert - are you kidding?  Although we were sorely tempted, it was home to our little French Country Inn covered in ivy, nestled sleepily among Napa's vines.

We awoke with the sun filtering through our window with the morning mist floating gently in the valley.  Our first stop was the Opus One vineyard.  Flying down Hwy. 29 you might miss this extraordinary vineyard, a building that literally looks like a white marble and sandstone flying saucer emerging from the grounds.  A dream of Robert Mondavi and Baron de Rothschild that has culminated into one of the world's top ten wines consistently since the mid-80's.  Combining the old world traditions of French wine-making, today's hi-tech California processing comes a truly magnificent wine and tour not to be missed.  The Mondavi family is soon to give birth to a new wine collaboration with Italy's Frescobaldi wine.  It is called "Luce".  (See October issue of Food & Wine - A Vintner's Dinner in Tuscany).

Next, five minutes towards St. Helena, we savoured the '95 Carmeron Napa Valley Chardonnay and '94 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon of the small Allen family winery known as Sequoia Grove Vineyards.  The hospitality shown by some of these smaller vineyards deserves as much praise as the wines they produce.  Blue sky, a warm 72 degrees with the top down, we headed straight to Tra Vigne, at the southern end of St. Helena.  Napa Valley Italia beckoned us as we sat at the lunch bar making new-found friends from San Diego and Michigan.  A crisp Chardonnay complemented our conversation - baby greens salad with Gorgonzola bruschetta and wild mushroom, Provolone fontina cheese pizza.  A quick espresso and promises of reconnecting with our new-found friends, we stopped briefly at Tra Vigne Cantinetta Delicatessen for some garlic-infused oil and Jacques Pepin's Dijon Tarragon Dressing.  One more stop before heading back to San Francisco.  Friends in Vancouver had set us up for a tour and tasting at Signorello vineyards.  In short, the '95 Zinfandel is superb.

Our choice of Hotels from the Prescott or Monaco or Sir Francis Drake were all full as was our standby Cartwright, so we stayed in Four Sisters French Country Inn, Petite Auberge on Bush between Taylor & Mason.  We had a tip from Pan Pacific's concierge that Shanghi 1930 and its accompanying Guanzi Lounge was "the spot" for the ultimate martini with live jazz quartet (Reservations: 415-896-5680).  With so many restaurants to choose from "Where" magazine makes it easier with its annual Concierge Silver Spoon award winner - 1 Market, down in the Embarcadaro district is this year's winner, although we opted for last year's winner, the Boulevard on Mission and Stuart Street (415-543-6084)..

The Chef's Bar is the place to sit at Boulevard as you have an eagle's eye view of what looks like organized chaos.  Sea of Cortez Sea Scallops served on carmalized salsify and cauliflower with a raisin-cognac vinaigrette.  We shared a glass of '95 Joseph Druhin Rully Blanc with the Lobster, mushroom ravioli and lobster nage.  A glass of Estate Cols du Val and the Fayu Persimmons, baby Spinach, hand-rolled Stilton and toasted pine nuts capped off the evening.

Friday was our shopping day and a trip to San Francisco would not be complete without pit stops into Gumps, Britex (the most wonderful fabric store), Williams & Sononma, Macy's and half a dozen other super shops around Union Square.  We always reserve time and a table at Yank Sing down on Battery Street which boasts "Dim Sum ... any time of day" and quite honestly, the best Dim Sum we've tasted with its 67 selections, anywhere in the world.

We felt we'd been away for a week.  It all seems like a dream, but one anyone can have, if you only have 60 hours ... get away for just two nights and gourmet delights.


The author, Philip Barrington can be contacted at: