Who knew that a bike tour through Calistoga would be one of the funnest ways to see wine country?
For me, much of the enjoyment stemmed from not having ridden a bike since (probably) high school. The first wobbly moments back on two wheels made me feel like a kid again. But it’s also just enough off the beaten path to seem magical.
The folks at Calistoga Bike Shop provide bikers out with a map highlighting the back roads and minimizing time spent on the main highways. So it’s pretty much you and the vines as you hop from winery to winery. Though the tour covers several miles, the stops are fairly close together, so it’s not particularly arduous.
The shop also highlights several wineries along the route along with lunch options, allowing you to stop where and when you desire.
Two particular wineries stuck out – and curiously, they are polar opposites.
Sterling Vineyards is a large producer, to understate it slightly. They make about 400,000 cases annually from over 1,000 acres of vines.
There is a long, gracious drive to the winery. The bike shop suggested taking it if we
wanted to add some time to our ride: it’s about ½ mile round trip. It’s nice to take for that reason, but taking the time to go on the aerial tram and winery tour is worthwhile as well.
The first stop is at a kiosk to get tickets for the gondola to the top of the mountain (the feel is Disney-esque) as well as for the tasting. There are several options. The basic covers the five wines presented on the self-guided tour, while the other choices offer the chance to also taste their higher end wines. (Bonus: you get to keep the glasses!)
The ride to the winery – perched 300 feet up the mountain – is expectedly scenic, and arrows guide you to the tour’s start – and the first pour. Glass in hand, the self-guided tour wends through the winery, allowing visitors to see the winemaking process from the sorting station through the barrel room. Video displays stationed along the way serve as a guide.
The path finally ends on a huge patio overlooking Calistoga, with breathtaking views of the Mayacamas and Vaca mountains. This is a lovely chance to bask in the sunshine, enjoy more of their wine (zinfandel and chardonnay were being poured the day we visited) and take in the view.
When ready, head back to the main building, where you are decanted through the gift shop or, in our case, guided to a more intimate patio for table service.
We ordered a cheese plate and began to taste. While we enjoyed the cabernet selections, the highlights for me were the two vintages of their Three Palms merlot.
The wine was named for the vineyard, which has unique rocky, volcanic soil as well as three palm trees growing among the vines. The 2007 vintage had light plum notes, a smooth mouthfeel, and juicy flavor.
Then our hostess offered a special sip of the 1995 Three Palms merlot, poured from a magnum. Oh my.
The nose was still huge, with lots of aroma wafting from the glass. On the palate, the wine was port without the sweetness, and a touch of stewed fruit notes. It was great to taste the relationship between these two wines, and understand how one would evolve into the other.
Interlude over, we hopped back on our bikes and continued touring. Two stops later, we found ourselves at Lava Vine.
No gondolas, ticket takers or even tree-lined drive greeted us.
Instead, we pedal into a dirt driveway and around a small but charming house, following the sounds of a basketball game out back. “If you get a basket, you get a free bottle of rose,” one fellow yells to us, indicating a spot to shoot from. Hubby tries twice, but only comes close. I know my limits and decline.
As it happens, these guys work in the tasting room, located in small barn just off to the side. They are as happy to sit and shoot the breeze as they are to pour your wines. To wit:
They ask where we’re from; have we heard about this YouTube news site (they promptly show us); answer our question about what brought Adam (one of our hosts) to Napa, his girlfriend’s viticultural work, and the wine they make (Gamling & McDuck); describe the
quirkiness of Lava Vines’ owner, who seems happy to keep production small (100 to 150 cases per wine), farms everything organically, and supports Phoebe and Francis, a pair of sheep who serve as the vineyard’s “wolly weeders”; and want to hear about other wineries we’ve visited so far…
So you understand why I have no tasting notes on the wine. As you might suspect, though, there is a lot more here than Cabernet. Among their wines are verdejo (a native Spanish varietal), viognier (French), rose of cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, syrah and charbono (Italian). These wines are unusual, hand crafted and quite good!
By this time, we’ve also been joined by another group of bicyclists, and conversation (and tasting) moves back into the yard, where several chickens wander about, along with several gekkos. We are taken aback at a sudden flurry of feathers as the birds decide it is snack time. Chickens, 2, lizards, 0.
Such a display seemed pretty hard to top so, since we were finished tasting, the time had come to continue on our journey. We climbed once again onto our bikes and pedaled away, if not into the sunset, at least to another winery.