Cruising California Wine Country
by Sharon McDonnell
If there's anything more delicious than a gourmet cruise in wine country, it's one with lots of art, so you get a strong dose of culture amid all that sipping and savoring.
That's how I found myself agape in a Palladian villa where two-story-high Renaissance-style frescoes of Hercules, the Titans and Com-media dell'Arte harlequins adorned the living room walls. I was on a private tour of muralist Carlo Marchiori's home in Calistoga, Ca' Toga, where it seemed watching TV would be a sacrilege - sort of like goofing off in the Sistine Chapel.
The Venetian-born artist slyly pointed out his painting of Venice, where the figures of the doge greeting an Asian ambassador were unmistakably modeled after Marchiori and a close friend. In his Pompeiian Room, what looked like a floor mosaic of Medusa with her snaky hair turned out to be a painting. Fantasy continued outside, where grotesque faces grinned from archways, and faux Doric temple ruins and a Trojan horse lay in casual disarray. Lined with abalone shells and candles, a grotto where the artist dines with friends cast special enchantment.
"I like ruins because the madness has surrendered," said Marchiori with a smile.
My visit came as part of a four-night "Essence of the Wine Country" tour with American Safari Cruises, which features small, upscale tours and tastings at artisan wineries in Sonoma and Napa valleys. Itineraries emphasize insider experiences, such as meeting local artists and dining in wine caves. Even better, guests travel in high style aboard a 120-foot yacht with room for 22 passengers that cruises the Petaluma and Napa Rivers.
Leaving San Francisco on a sunny November day, we had a foretaste of the adventures ahead. Our yacht, the Safari Quest, sailed into the sunset towards, and then under, the Golden Gate Bridge, as lights sparkled in the dusk. Glass of wine in hand, we chatted with Captain Tom Johnson in the wheelhouse as we drank in the view.
At cocktail hour in the bar, a lavish spread awaited us: prawns, cheeses, Thai spring rolls, vegetable frittatas, dates and other fruit. For dinner, we enjoyed cumin-cured duck, plus port crme brle for dessert - accompanied with California wines, of course. Every night in the tiny kitchen, our chef managed to create an amazing meal, with entrees such as cioppino and roasted lobster tails. All 11 of us guests dined at one table - a honeymoon couple included - and our conviviality bubbled over into after-dinner drinks.
Views and Vintages
After docking for the night in San Pablo Bay, we arrived the next morning in Petaluma, where a private motorcoach took us to Artesa Winery. Crowning a hilltop in an avant-garde building that resembles an upside-down pyramid, it affords panoramic views of the Napa Valley and Carneros, a wine region that includes the southern tips of both Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Abstract works by artist-in-residence Gordon Huether fill the interior.
In the fermentation room, we heard the hushed sound of monks chanting as a CD played. "Monks in Spain pray over the fermentation process, so the wine, like a child, will grow up and do well," said our guide, explaining that Artesa belongs to Barcelona's Codorniu family, winemakers since 1551.
After swirling our glasses of Pinot Noir, Merlot and Chardonnay, we drove to the town of Sonoma for a picnic in the shady park across from the adobe-style Mission San Francisco Solano, the northernmost of California's missions. As we munched on curried chicken sandwiches and cheese, we sampled selections from the Vintners' Collective, a cooperative of 10 small Napa Valley wineries.
"Wine is durable art, a wine-maker's interpretation of the grape. Look at Monet, Picasso and Seurat - they all used the same paint and produced different art," said Debbie Klimeck, the direct sales manager from the Vintners' Collective, as she poured. Afterwards, we had time to stroll the galleries and gift shops near Sonoma Plaza for a few hours before returning to our yacht in San Pablo Bay.
I soon settled into the contentment of shipboard life. After dinner, and nibbling on the chocolates always found by the bar, I'd usually flop on my queen-size bed in the robe provided in my cabin, and watch a movie from the yacht's video collection. One night, we all received complimentary shoulder and neck massages from a masseuse.(All that wine-tasting and dining can be strenuous!) A hot tub on the top deck also offered tempting relaxation.
Being a night owl, I'd skip the generous breakfast buffet of delectables like raspberry white chocolate muffins and pumpkin bread for early risers. Instead, I opted for a cooked breakfast, which featured bay shrimp scrambles and sausage and red frittatas.
On our second morning, a private motorcoach drove us to Clos Pegase in Calistoga, a postmodernist showplace designed by architect Michael Graves to be a "temple of the history of mankind, wine and art," our guide said. A sculpture garden features works ranging from Henry Moore's "Mother Earth" to a marble statue of Bacchus from a palace in Turin. Art by Dali, Miro, Kandinsky and Ernst even appears on labels for the "Hommage" series of high-end wines. Clos Pegase's owners, Jan and Mitsuko Shrem, incorporate works from their modern art collection into the designs.
We enjoyed a three-course lunch that included mesquite-grilled chicken with Cabernet glac in the wine caves of Clos Pegase, lined with classical statue replicas in wall niches. As we sipped Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, we felt as if we had been transported to the Roman catacombs.
The Fine Art of Wine Making
We learned how barrel fermentation can shape wines at Del Dotto Estate Wines. Inside caves hand-dug over a century ago by Chinese laborers, we compared the differences in flavor between wines aged in oak barrels from France, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
"If you change one element, you change everything in the wine," our guide said. Earlier, we learned how the terroir ("a fancy word for dirt," a guide at Keller Estate Winery called it) - which means nuances of soil and climate where the grapes are grown - also accounts for taste differences among wines from the same region.
We then raised our wine and food I.Q. further at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa. Vintner Robert Mondavi and his wife, Margrit Biever Mondavi, donated $20 million and 12 acres of land to launch the facility, which opened in 2001. Thanks to the entertaining interactive exhibits, we learned tomatoes aren't native to Italy nor potatoes to Ireland, and delved into cooking traditions ranging from Chinese to Polish to Southern Black.
"Back to the real world," one yacht passenger muttered the next day as we sailed back San Francisco. OK, true confessions - I was the one who said it.
American Safari Cruises offers three- and four-night California wine cruises in October and November. Rates are $1,695 to $2,295 for a three-night cruise, $2,195 to $2,795 for four nights - including all meals, wines and premium spirits; transfers from San Francisco International Airport to San Francisco's Pier 40; deluxe onboard lodgings; tours and motorcoach transport. For details: Tel: 888-862-8881; Website:www.amsafari.com. The Safari Quest can also be chartered for groups for $38,995 (three days) or $47,995 (four days).
American Safari Cruises offers the only passenger vessels to navigate small harbors in California wine country such as downtown Napa and Petaluma.
Fall harvest makes a perfect time to visit Napa and Sonoma. October temperatures can rise into the 70s and 80s, while November averages in the 50s and 60s with more chance of rain. Morning fog usually burns off.
Dress is casual. A medium-weight jacket is needed since it can be breezy onboard, and comfortable walking shoes are a must.
Recommended reading includes California's Napa Valley: 160 Years of Wine Making by William Heintz, Wine for Dummies by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing Mulligan, and The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley by James Conaway.