Pietra Santa Winery outside of San Juan Bautista
Several people have asked us where our favorite places are in the Bay Area and our suggestions of places to visit either for themselves or for ideas as to where to take visitors. Recently my daughter Lizzie and her husband Ric visited from England for a couple of weeks. We thought it would be a good idea to write about where they went while they were here to give some ideas to those people.
(Click the photos for larger versions)
They arrived at the tail end of an extremely wet period on a Friday night. The next day rain was forecast and in fact it poured with rain for most of the day. We could have gone into San Jose and paid a visit to The Tech Museum or taken them to the Monterey Bay Aquarium but we decided on a trip to San Juan Bautista. Our first stop there was at Vertigo Coffee at 81 Fourth Street in San Juan, where we all enjoyed a cup of their speciality hot chocolates. If you like hot chocolate you have to try their Marilyn Monroe with coconut or their Charlie Brown with peanut butter. Neither Tom nor I like peanut butter but Lizzie chose the Charlie Brown and we had to taste it just to see what it was like. To me it tasted more like a Snickers Bar, and therefore I liked it, though I will stick to the Marilyn Monroe in future. Also they have started carrying Bistro Blends Balsamic vinegar which is the best balsamic we have ever tasted and can thoroughly recommend it.
We would have liked to take a walk around the shops in San Juan and the Mission but it was raining too hard. Lizzie and Ric have been here before and know a whole day can be spent here enjoying the sights. Instead we drove into the foothills to visit our favorite winery Pietra Santa. After tasting their selection we bought a couple of bottles of their Signature Chardonnay (my particular favorite), one bottle of Pinot Grigio and one of their Sangiovese.
The next day we took a trip to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The weather was better than the day before bit still a little chilly and overcast. We had breakfast at Bab’s Delta Diner in Suisun City before taking tour favorite route to the old Chinese town of Locke via the ferry to Ryer Island, the ferry to Grand Island and drive across Grand Island to Walnut Grove. In Locke we visited the restored boarding house, the Dai Loy Museum and the old schoolroom followed by a walk around the residential area. Of course, every visit to the area finishes up with a vanilla malt in Mel’s Mocha and Ice Cream in Walnut Grove.
Liz at Crissy Field during their bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito
On the Monday Lizzie and Ric travelled on the train to San Francisco where they stayed for three nights at the Villa Florence on Powell. They spent one day shopping in Union Square; one day cycling and one day walking. For the cycle adventure they rented bikes from Blazing Saddles and rode around the bay, through Crissy Field, over the Golden Gate Bridge, into Sausalito and back to the city by ferry. The walking tour took in Chinatown, Coit Tower, North Beach, the Marina, the Wave Organ near the the Golden Gate Yacht Club, Fort Mason, Giradelli Square and the Hyde Street cable car back to Powell.
I picked them up, plus all their shopping bags, from the San Jose Caltrain Station on the Thursday evening. The following day I wasn’t working so the three of us took a trip to the coast. As they have never visited Franklin Point, it was the obvious place to head for. It was an interesting day. First of all the 10 foot high tree stump which marks the beginning of the trail to Franklin Point was gone. We found it lying on the ground and noticed the bottom was rotted through. Then we had to wade through 2 feet of water because part of the trail was flooded. It didn’t end there. We had to take a detour to get to the bench because the tide was too high; Lizzie found a necklace partially buried in the sand; I met up again with the guy Tom and I met on our last visit; when we tried walking back along the beach we got soaked when a wave came in much higher than we expected and finally we had a difficult climb to get back to the trail. It was a wonderful day though and we finished our visit by having lunch in Duartes Tavern in Pescadero.
Liz and Ric admiring the view from the top of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.
The next day was Saturday so the four of us drove to San Francisco to cover some of the sights that Lizzie and Ric didn’t get to see during the week including Golden Gate Park – where we visited the De Young – and Haight/Ashbury.
On the Sunday we drove up to Healdsburg in the Sonoma Valley. It was a beautiful day and what could be better than a trip to Healdsburg and to visit a couple of wineries. Lizzie and Ric have never been to Healdsburg so we knew they were in for a treat. The drive up was magnificent and, being early on a Sunday morning, traffic was light. At 8:30 we were driving over the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco sparkled in the sunlight.
We stopped for breakfast at The Lighthouse Cafe in Sausalito where we had a short wait but it was pleasant standing outside in the sunshine and playing with a puppy which was tied to a lamp post a table became available. Our table was in the window so we enjoyed the view. Afterwards, on our way back to 101, we stopped to look at the houseboats juste to the north of Sausalito.
The drive up to Healdsburg, though pleasant, was not exciting. In Healdsburg it was nice to get out of the car and stretch our legs. I love strolling around the cute little town, with its shady tree lined square, irresistible boutiquey shops and inviting restaurants. Lizzie bought a bag, Tom bought a birthday card for his grandson and I pounced on an old sign for my son.
The vineyard outside of Johnson's Alexander Valley Wines. Kind of a funky laid back winery with lucious Zinfandels.
It was time to head for the wineries. First we drove to Alexander Valley and our favorite winery - Johnson’s Alexander Valley Wines at 8333 Highway 128. Johnson’s is a small, family run winery set some way back from the road. We were greeted by Comet, a yellow lab who led us to the tasting room. In his mouth he carried an extremely well chewed tennis ball which he dropped in front of us and looked up at Ric with imploring eyes. Ric responded by kicking the ball so Comet could chase after it. We were told Comet would happily play that game all day long. Leaving Ric to amuse the dog, we retired into the cool tasting room to sample the wines. There were only three to sample and they were all reds. We ended buying two bottle of their late harvest Zinfandel before heading off to the next winery. If you like your wineries high class and a bit over the top then Johnson’s isn’t the place for you. Some of the reviews in Yelp are pretty bad but we think those reviewers just don’t get it. This is a laid back winery down a dirt road through a vineyard with some great Zinfandels. Our next stop was the Hop Kiln in Dry Creek Valley, another favorite or ours. Since our last visit they have redesigned the tasting room with more space for displaying their mustards, sauces, and dips which were produced locally. As there was no space at the counters to taste any wines, we sampled the other goods for sale and bought a jar of their Sweet Garlic Mustard. Later we drifted over to taste the wine when a gap appeared and came away with two bottles pf their Pinot Noir. To round off our visit, we walked to the lake and sat at one of the picnic benches where we contemplated the beautiful view and enjoyed the warmth of the sun before heading back home.
There were only a couple of days left of Lizzie and Ric’s vacation and they spent it getting around our neighborhood by walking and shopping. All to soon it was time to take them back to the airport for their flight home and it was sad waving them off. Next time they visit there will be a host of new places for them to discover.
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May 16 2011 | Neighborhoods and Special Places | No Comments »
Vineyard along the San Benito Wine Trail.
Another trip to San Juan Bautista, goody, goody. Once again we stayed overnight in the ‘Little House’. The day started very well. We planned to drive to San Juan, buy coffee at Vertigo and go to the house for breakfast. Our plans had a set back though. As we were approaching San Juan, we suddenly realized we did not have the key to the house so had to turn back home to pick it up. The journey which normally takes 40 minutes took us two hours.
Make sure you click on the photos for larger versions.
We were so hungry on the return trip we stopped in Gilroy at the Black Bear Diner for breakfast. We have eaten here many times before but it had always been early in the morning when few customers were around. On this occasion, it was gone 9 and the place was crowded. We had to wait fifteen minutes for a table. By the the time we were shown to our table, Tom was more than ready for his coffee and after twenty minutes he managed to snag a server and ask for coffee. Our order was not taken for another ten minutes. We were also a bit disappointed with our breakfasts when they finally arrived. Tom always asks for his hash browns to be extra crispy and this time they certainly weren’t. I, as usual, had oatmeal. The oatmeal was a bit runny. Not only that, the fruit and nuts came in little packets which were difficult to open. Must make a note to only go to the Black Bear Diner before 8 am.
After settling into the Little House, we set off to take the wine tour. I’d looked online for the names and addresses of the wineries and the times they opened. Our plan was to visit four today. To get there we drove along Highway 156 towards Hollister and then right onto Union Road. Before reaching Highway 25, we turned right on Cienega Road. Soon we were driving along a scenic road lined with nice houses, most of them with paddocks and horses. Along the way Tom spotted a derelict wooden barn in a field and just had to stop and take some photographs. As we drove along the road Tom began to get a little worried. Pleasant though the scenery was, it just did not look like wine country. I assured him we were on the right road and that we would eventually fine the wineries.
Tarantula crossing the road. A cute little guy (actually not so little).
We did find the wineries but before we reached our first winery we saw a lot of wildlife. First of all we saw several hawks , sitting on the top of fence posts or high up on telegraph wires. Then we saw a flock of wild turkeys. But our most interesting find was a tarantula. It was crossing the road in front of us. We stopped the car and Tom was able to take quite a few photos of it before it slowly made its made into the thick undergrowth. It seemed completely unaware of our presence.
The first winery we reached was DeRose Vineyards. According to their website, not only has it the world’s largest covered wine cellar but is also the oldest existing winery in California. It is situated right on the road and is not your normal winery. At first it was difficult to find anywhere to park as most places were occupied by Ford Mustangs. The entrance to the tasting room took us into a large warehouse with an intriguing musty smell. There were several other people tasting wine – obviously the owners of the mustangs – but we were greeted warmly and given a couple of glasses. We spent a very pleasant half an hour sampling quite a few wines. First we sampled the whites, starting with a Chardonnay and progressing to a Viognier and an Argentinian wine called Sur de Los Andes. The first two I liked but not so keen on the third. Tom tried the reds, starting with a Cabernet and carrying on to the Sangiovese, the Zin and the Hollywood Red blend. He liked them all except the Zin. We finished up with the a late harvest Viognier, which I really liked. A sign behind the counter took my attention. It said “Squeeze me, stomp me, make we wine” which I thought very amusing. We didn’t buy any wine because it was our first stop and we wanted to try the rest before we decided.
Just as we were walking out of the tasting room we heard two small planes roar past just overhead. We learned that the two pilots were on their way to the winery for a special BBQ they were holding and that was their signal they were about to land at Hollister airport. Someone from the winery would then make their way to the airport to pick them up. Just as we got outside they flew past again and it was amazing to see them pass so close.
Mustang day at the Pietra Santa Winery
We carried on driving down Cienega Road looking for the Pietra Santa winery but we missed it completely, instead finding the third on our list which was the Calera Wine Company. We drove up a steep slope to the winery. From the car park we stopped to admire the view. Just off the car park were picnic tables. It looked like a marvelous place to have a picnic whilst drinking a bottle of wine. We arrived just after they opened and were the first customers. Inside their tasting room were a couple of wine servers who were very friendly. A charge was levied to sample the better wines but four of the cheaper wines were complimentary. We went for the cheaper option. We noticed that the wine bottles did not have corks but glass stoppers and so asked why. Apparently all their wines are sold with the glass stoppers as they consider them to be better than corks. Of the four complimentary wines we sampled we liked two and bought a Chardonnay Central Coast and a Pinot Noir Central Coast. As we were leaving they gave us a glass stopper which can be used on any wine bottle, which we thought was very nice of them.
Pietra Santa Winery along the San Benito Wine Trail.
We drove back the way we came, looking for the winery we missed. We thought we missed it again as we approached DeRose Vineyards. Then we saw the Pietra Santa Winery sign. It was up a side road immediately next to the DeRose Vineyards. As soon as we started driving up the long road to it, passing through lots of vines, we knew we were finally into wine growing country. The leaves on the vines were starting to turn a lovely reddish brown and there were still grapes growing on the vines. One last turn and we saw the winery in front of us and the whole setting was perfect. What a surprise to find a beautiful winery almost on our doorstep. The car park was large and in each direction we could see vines growing on the gently sloping hills. In the car park were a large number of Ford Mustangs and when we got inside we realized why as there was a big group having a meal.
The tasting room we found at the top of a flight to stairs and once again we were warmly welcomed. We didn’t know at the time but we were in for a wonderful treat. There was a $5 wine tasting fee but it would be deducted from any wine we bought. Well we tried lots of different wines. Starting with the whites we tried the Gewurztraminer 2005 to kick off with and it was good. The Signature Collection Amore Pinot Grigio was next which was OK. My favorite was the Signature Collection Chardonnay, aged in French oak barrels. It was sublime with a hint of vanilla. Tom tried the reds – the 2006 Sangiovese, the 2006 Dolcetto, the 2006 Cabernet and finished up with a couple of the Signature Collection wines, the 2004 Vache Red Blend and the Cabernet Sauvignon. He was impressed with them all. In fact we were so impressed with everything that we joined their Wine Club there and then. We bought four bottles to take home with us – the Gewurztraminer, the Signature Collection Chardonnay, the Sangiovese and the Dolcetto. For good measure they threw in a bottle of their olive oil
We were all wined out so didn’t make it to the fourth winery. Instead we drove back to San Juan Bautista feeling very happy with ourselves for finding such a wonderful gem so close to home. We will be regular visitors to the Pietra Santa Winery.
December 28 2010 | Special Places | 2 Comments »
Lovely spring day outside of Gilroy
We have explored wine areas in distant parts of California but there are some much nearer to home. Today we took the short ride to Gilroy, first having breakfast at OD’s Kitchen in the center of town.
Before we left home we made a list of the wineries which were a bit off the beaten track. After breakfast we drove north on Monterey Highway, turning left onto Day Road. Soon we were out in the country heading for the hills. It was a nice sunny day and we passed large houses, small ranches and vineyards. This is a favorite route for cyclists. Yellow and pink blossom was everywhere and the grass was green. Spring has arrived.
We stopped along the way to take photos. It was quiet and peaceful, with cattle grazing nearly and the odd cyclist whizzed past. To both and left and right were small rounded hills – on the one side they were almost bare of everything except grass and on the other they were covered with trees. One huge tree dominated the road ahead.
Our first stop was Kirigin Cellars on Watsonville Road because it opened at 10. We drove up the short drive way, following the signs for the Tasting Room. The car park is hemmed in by large, slightly shabby buildings and there were no other cars around. The tasting room is very unusual. It doesn’t look very big on the outside and the front is covered entirely with greenery. The entrance is through a huge wine vat. Inside was a lady who made us very welcome. She chatted as she finished setting everything up and explained that all the buildings are historic and they appear run down because they are not allowed to do much to them. In the course of conversation, as she was telling us about the different wines, mention of made of the fact that Kirigin Cellars also sell vinegar. I was very surprised to hear that.
We started off tasting two white wines, followed by six reds. While we were there a couple and their two children came specially to buy a case of
vinegar. I asked what was so special about the vinegar and he waxed lyrical for several minutes on how wonderful the vinegar was. We bought two bottles of red wine – a 2005 Syrah a 2005 Zinfandel and they were both reasonably priced. The server asked if we had ever tried their ‘Kissing Wine’ and we had to admit we had never heard of it. It is a port style dessert wine called Vino de Mocca. We tried some and it tasted of chocolate and was delicious. I asked why it was called that and was told that the original owner started making it many years ago and it gained the reputation for being responsible for a lot of babies to be born nine months after drinking this wine.
Our next stop of Sarah’s Vineyard which was a short drive away on Highway 152 – Hecker Pass which opened at 11 am. It was in a beautiful setting and already there were a couple of other cars there. Everything looked very neat and had obviously been refurbished. The tasting room was new and a bit up market for the area. We didn’t stay long at all when we noticed that there was a charge of $5 each to taste the wine. We made a quick exit.
The last winery we wanted to visit was Martin Ranch Winery on Redwood Retreat Road. It opened at 12 and we were way too early. We passed Martin Ranch Winery and carried on to the end of the road. We knew it was a dead end road but we decided to see what was at the end. It turned out to be another small winery which is only open one weekend a month. We turned round and drove back down the road, turning right onto Mt Madonna Road. According to the map, the road goes into Watsonville and one of the turnings leads to Mt Madonna County Park and another is Summit Road, which eventually joins up with Highway 17. Soon the road became narrow then it turned into a track and got even narrower. We passed through a redwood forest and we began to wonder how far we would be able to go before the road ran out. On one side there was a hillside and on the other a steep drop. We decided to turn back but there were no stopping places and the road was not really wide enough to turn around in but Tom managed to to it without going over the edge (I kept my eyes closed). Two minutes later a truck passed us so the road obviously does lead to somewhere.
We arrived at Martin Ranch Winery just a few minutes after 12. There was a signboard outside saying the Crushpad was open. A short drive brought us to a car park and once again we were the first customers of the day. As we got out of the car somebody waved and called out a welcome. We sauntered over to the crushpad but stopped to admire the vineyard and the view. While we stood there enjoying what we were looking at, a man came over to talk to us. He introduced himself as Dan Martin, the owner of the winery. He spoke to us for fifteen minutes explaining the fermentation process and how he produces the wine. It was all very interesting. His wife. Therese, is also a winemaker but uses a completely different process. They produce and sell their wine under two labels – J.D. Hurley and Therese Vineyards.
Hoping to catch the big one at Martin Ranch Winery
Today they are holding a Barrel Tasting event. To sample the wine there was a charge of $10 per glass. The price also included food. We just bought one glass between us. The wine was ready to sample so we got to it. I sampled the Sauvignon Blanc and it was great. I wandered off to get a bite to eat. Snacks were on offer at all the tables and on a separate table was a cheese board. I just can’t resist cheese so I tried a little bit of each one on offer. Everybody was very friendly and I even got to chat with Therese. She told me all about the wine club and the events which are held during the year. Every summer they hold a fishing derby and she pointed out to me a young boy who was last year’s winner. Towards the end of summer they host a BBQ for the members of the wine club. She also told me to make sure I used the restroom because the wall was covered with photos of their different events over the years. Sometimes she said that people take so much time looking at the photos a long line forms outside waiting to get in.
When I found Tom again he was in the middle of buying six bottles of wine, including a bottle of the Sauvignon Blanc. He then went on the barrel tasting group tour. I decided to take a walk around. The first stop was at the vegetable garden. Therese told me that it was an organic garden and everything growing there was for members of the wine club to help themselves to. It is mostly tended by one of the members. Further on I came across the lake. It was very quiet and peaceful up there. At the other end, the young fisherman, who had been pointed out to me, was fishing with his father and younger brother. I left them in peace.
We had a great time today at the two wineries and have a few bottles of wine to keep us going for a while. It is nice to know that we have some very good wineries within easy distance of home and we will be back.
April 09 2010 | Special Places | No Comments »
Old gas station where gas was showing at $.40 a gallon
We waddled out of Zachary Jacques and continued on Pleasant Valley Road. It was indeed a very pleasant valley. Shady pine trees line the road with an occasional redwood. Every so often we passed nice houses nestled amongst the trees or perched on small rises with pastures surrounding them. Goats and horses grazed in the fields.
We saw an old gas station on our right. Tom pulled in, unable to resist this photo op. While Tom pottered around the outside and even ventured inside the old building, I sat in the car with the windows down and studied my surroundings. Next door to the gas station is a property set some way back with a long drive leading to it. The sign at the roadside said ‘Four Seasons’. I watched as a quad bike, driven by a man with his small daughter sitting beside him, drove down from the house. There as a trailer attached with a re-cycling bin inside. The bike stopped and the man and his daughter opened their mail box and the little girl ran back to the vehicle clutching a pile of letters. All very pastoral and idyllic. When no cars drove past, I could hear muted birdsong around me. It was very pleasant sitting there, feeling the soft breeze blowing through the windows and enjoying the moment.
(click on the photos for larger versions)
We were in the El Dorado Wine Country and on the lookout for our first winery – Narrow Gate. Once past Newton Road,we looked for the sign and before too long we spotted it and turned right, through a gate and up a steep slope to the car park. There were a few other cars in the car park so we knew we weren’t the first. Inside the light was quite dim and we could see lots of wine barrels. Before we made our way to the counter we looked at the paintings and one photograph which were on sale.
We managed to find a space at the counter and the winemaker’s wife, Teena Hildebrand, greeted us. She was very friendly and soon we were tasting our first wine – Chardonnay El Dorado. Then we sampled the Mourverde, which was a varietal we had never heard of. Tom’s favorite was the 2007 Petite Curvee at $17 a bottle but we didn’t buy any. It was getting really crowded at the counter and twice we had to squeeze up to allow more people to sample the wine.
I do not have a head for wine at all so I just limited myself to one small mouthful of each wine. In the past I have been quite merry after trying just half a dozen wines. Also I prefer white so tend to stay away from the reds altogether. Note from Tom: The trick is to only take a small sip or two, slosh it around your mouth to get a good idea of what the wine is about and then dump the rest. Otherwise you’d be sloshed in a short time.
We moved on to our next winery. Studying the map we saw that there were two not far away on the same side road. We turned onto Leisure Lane and
A rose bush was planted at the beginning of each row.
drove about a mile. On the way we passed under a power cable and I noticed an owl perched on the wire. Unfortunately Tom didn’t catch sight of it. Maybe it will still be there on our way back.
Our second winery - Holly’s Hill - was in a beautiful setting. They were in the middle of building works and a sign apologized for the dust during the remodeling. A tent had been set up outside the tasting room and we found out when we went into the tasting room that they were holding their Patriarche Verital Tasting where, for $5, you could sample their flagship wine from 2002-2008. The 2007-2008 are not on sale yet but they could be bought as ‘futures’. The entrance fee also included appetizers.
The tasting room at Holly’s Hill was bright and uncluttered. Wine barrels supported the counter and,as it was not very crowded, there was plenty of space and we didn’t feel cramped at all. The two guys pouring the wines gave us a lot of information about the Rhone grapes grown in this area. It is a European grape originating from the Rhone region of France. We sampled the 2008 Viognier ($18), the 2005 Hill Top Syrah ($20), the 2007 Grenarche Noir ($20) and their 2006 Patriarche ($20). I particularly like the Viognier so we bought two bottles plus one bottle of 2006 Patriarche. We were recommended to leave the Patiarche for a couple of years in a cool dark place before we drank it.
Outside again, I went to the small picnic area and drank in the wonderful view over the Cosumnes River Canyons. I could have stayed there admiring the view but there were more wineries to visit.
A stone’s throw away is the Sierra Vista Vineyard and Winery which is at the top of a steep hill. They also had and tent and an event going on but this was called a Barrel Tasting. Entrance fee the same as Holly’s Hill. Once again we only went into the tasting room. Here was another counter supported by wine barrels behind which was a very nice lady who chatted away about the winery and the Barrel Tasting. There were over ten wines to taste but we restricted ourselves to only seven of them. I won’t list all the ones we tried but I will tell you that we bought three bottles – one of the 2006 Reeves Vineyard Zinfandel ($18), one of the 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($22) and a late harvest 2006 Viognier Doux. The last one was not on the tasting list and we can’t remember how much it cost – I just know it tasted great.
Vineyard at the Sierra Vista Vineyard and Winery
We spent some time outside where there was a lawn area complete with picnic tables. Another spectacular view greeted us – the Crystal Range of the Sierra Nevada Mountains as a backdrop, with rows of ripening grapes in the middle and flower beds in the foreground. It was very peaceful up there, sitting at a picnic table in the shade of an oak tree, writing my journal and breathing in the fresh air, listening to the drone of conversations from surrounding tables and enjoying the view. Tom, of course, was wandering round the vineyard taking photos.
The three wineries we have visited so far have been similar in many ways – small family run and friendly. We have learnt a lot about the Rhone grapes that are prevalent to this area and enjoyed tasting many different wines. I think we only have the stamina to try one more winery so we made our way back to the car and drove back down Leisure Lane. I did look out for the owl but he was gone. There was a Red Kite though sitting on the very same power cable.
Our fourth and last winery in Pleasant Valley was the Miraflores Winery on Four Springs Trail. There were quite a few people up at the counter so we were prepared to wait but there was a bench counter where we were invited to stand and sample the wines. The wines on offer were written up on a blackboard and once again there were a lot of them. By this time I was all wined out so declined to try any of them but Tom masterfully sampled eight of them. There were not that many up on the board but he was encouraged to taste some which were not listed. Tom liked the Syrah best of all and we added another two bottles to the six we have already bought – a 2005 Syrah ($30) and a 2005 Syrah ($25).
It was time to find our bed and breakfast accommodation for the night. We thoroughly enjoyed our day of wine tasting in Pleasant Valley and recommend everyone to visit this little gem in the El Dorado Wine Country.
August 17 2009 | Special Places | 2 Comments »