03 June, 2009

Diner's, Drive-Ins and Dives - Taylor's Automatic Refresher

Taylor's Automatic Refresher felt like it was straight out of the 50's except for the modern day twist on classic burger, sandwich and salad choices. The seating was all picnic style with a small bar area and everything was open air. Right in the heart of Napa Valley, Taylor's is one of a kind among all the ritzy winery's and upscale cafes. Despite being seemingly out of place, the crowded tables and long line said otherwise.

You order up at the window and wait until you hear your name called over the loudspeaker. Andy ordered a Western burger which had guacamole, pepper jack cheese, and pickled jalapenos with sweet potato fries. Sean got a Wisconsin Sourdough burger with cheddar, mushrooms, bacon, and regular fries. I had to settle for a Veggie burger, which was probably the most delicious veggie burger I've ever had, with lettuce, pickles, and signature sauce. We hadn't eaten much of a breakfast that morning so the savory burgers at Taylor's were thoroughly enjoyed. Sean also got a chocolate milkshake that was mind blowing in it's delectable simplicity. After all, a 50's style burger joint wouldn't be complete without a selection of shakes. In short, Taylor's Automatic Refresher gets a sincere nod of approval from JAS.

02 June, 2009

From Cabernet to Zinfandel

After sleeping just shy of eleven hours, we prepared to be on the road again. We weren't really in a hurry today, our only goal was to make it to Brannan State Recreation Area just outside of Napa before nightfall. We did have a few via points we wanted to hit along the way, most notably Moaning Caverns in Vallecito, California. I had been to Moaning Caverns with my Mom, brother and Grandma when I was about nine and I vaguely remember my Mom repelling down one hundred and some odd feet into the cavern while we watched. Since then they've added another attraction - a 1500 foot zip line. I wanted to do both the zip line and the repel but for the sake of expediency we opted for the zip line alone.

The coolest part was that it was actually set up as a dual zip line with two of them running parallel to each other. There was info posted about weight limits but I guess they weren't too concerned about it because they let Sean and Andy race each other. The line operator and I thought it looked like Andy won but there's some speculation over who was first to finish. There was another party of three right after us so I went alongside a decently large guy who needless to say made it to the bottom long before me. The ride was really fun and you went really fast; the wind was so intense it made my eyes tear. My only complaint is that it was entirely too short and it seemed like it was over just as quickly as it began.

Upon arriving at Brannan park we once again found ourselves a little concerned about the wind. We placed the tent among some bushes and secured it as well as we could. The guys built an awesome fire and we made grilled cheese and tomato soup before getting ready for bed. Aside from the fact that the bathrooms were infested with ticks the campground was really nice. The wind in combination with my busted thermarest made sleeping difficult, not to mention I had a p-style malfunction during the night the details of which I won't go into.

The next day was spent perusing the winery's of Napa. We went to Berringer where the grounds were immaculate, the flowers were in full bloom, and the historic mansion was impressive. For ten dollars you could taste three wines and we weren't particularly attracted to any we tried. The atmosphere was unwelcoming and stiff; I don't think they appreciated our age or our casual appearance. It did have a certain traditional charm to it that I very much appreciated. Following that we ended up at Sterling Winery where the experience was much more pleasurable. Situated on top of a hill, you had to take a gondola up to the top in order to reach the winery. From there you began your self-guided tour. At the very beginning we sampled our first wine, a pinot gris, before continuing on our leisurely stroll. The second wine, a pleasantly dry riesling, was served on a terrace overlooking the valley. After that we worked our way back around to the tasting room where we had a spicy sangiovese, a rich cabernet sauvignon, and finally a very sweet malvasia bianca. Despite being somewhat impersonal, it was nice to experience the grounds at your own pace and the wines were all very good. We were there for a little under two hours and the whole thing cost twenty dollars.

We had initially planned on camping in Napa that night but we went on a wild goose chase that eventually ended in Lake Sonoma Recreation Area. Unfortunately, the dry weather had led to a dry well and there was no water available which meant no sinks, no toilets, and definitely no showers. At this point I was unconcerned about the lack of water, I was looking forward to sleeping on my new army style cot which I had purchased earlier that day to replace the popped thermarest. I can't even begin to tell you how glorious that cot is.

Our second day in the wine country began bright and earlier at 10:30 in the morning at which time we had our greatest overall tasting experience. The grounds were impressive yet modest, not overly ostentatious, and the folks we met really made it unforgettable. John, our bartender, was absolutely hilarious and filled us in on all sorts of things about wine making, distribution, history, and snobbery. It turns out that Florida is actually the third most wine importing state in the country. We also also met the wine maker, whose name I can't recall, but he was equally as friendly, laid back, and welcoming as John. It was supposed to be five dollars to taste five wines
and another ten to taste two of their reserve wines. Not only did we taste them all, but he offered us refills and revisits, and we didn't pay a cent for the tasting at John's insistence. Sean ended up buying a bottle of Syrah and Andy and I split a bottle of the reserve Zinfandel.

John suggested we stop in the little town of Healdsburg where there were several small winery's and some cute cafes and shops. Here we visited the Williamson Winery which was very attentive to developing wines to compliment specific foods. We tasted about seven or eight wines each of which we enjoyed with little tidbits of cheese, brownie, and other morsels. The ability of each wine to bring out the flavors in the accompanying foods was truly amazing. At this point we opted for lunch at what turned out to be a crowded and overpriced cafe with poor service before making our way to Samuel P. Taylor State Park to camp for the night.

I look forward to returning to the wine country one day when I have more time and more money. I found myself missing my Mom and my brother, continually thinking how much they would enjoy and appreciate the experience. I also think not knowing exactly what to expect or how to approach it made the whole thing a little intimidating; the trick is to just act like you know what you're doing. Aside from the experience itself I take away a better understanding of wine in general as well as a more educated opinion about the type of wine I enjoy the most, and I look forward to the further experimentation I plan to indulge in upon returning home.

01 June, 2009

Yosemite Sam

We left Lake Tahoe in search of Big Bend Campground in the Inyo National Forest. This was our first experience with bear lockers; in addition to the typical fire pit and picnic table, this camp side had a large metal locker designed to keep food and scented products in and bears out. This would also be our first time using the new tent. Throughout the evening threatening clouds were moving in and the wind was picking up; we were all praying that the new tent would be able to handle it. As it turned out, it did rain that night and we remained snug and dry inside the safety of our paper thin home. Although the new tent was a success, I can't say the same for my thermarest; during the night it somehow deflated leaving me to sleep without much padding and I awoke the next morning with aching hips and a grumpy attitude.
Big Bend was located just 10 minutest outside of Yosemite, so the following morning we simply wove our way around Tioga Pass and started exploring. We paused at Tenaya Lake and marveled at how the crystal clear water perfectly reflected the stunning scenery above. From the lookout from Olmsted Point you could see the top of Half Dome in the distance. We carefully edged our way off of the trail and out onto the edge of the smooth, sloping rock face where we encountered a Yellow-Bellied Marmot and took in the the scenery. We briefly stopped at Yosemite Creek before heading to the Tuolumne Grove trail head. We hiked down about a mile to see remnants of a giant sequoia forest. Some impressive trees were still standing tall, but the largest and most incredible were fallen. One was actually completely hollow on the inside and Sean crawled about half way through it before encountering some spiders and turning back. The return hike was a race against time as we rushed to beat the coming thunderstorm that was bellowing overhead. It seemed that we had been outrunning the storm the entire day. It finally caught up with us as we walked to Yosemite Lodge in the pouring rain to eat lunch. Before heading to the condo that would be our home for the next two nights we hiked to the base of Bridalveil Falls and stopped briefly to enjoy a breathtaking scenic overlook of the valley.
The condo suited us perfectly. We were so excited to have a kitchen with a sink, a stove, pots, pans, counters, etc. I prepared black bean burgers, potato wedges, and broccoli that we ended up eating for lunch the following day. I had my first experience with a Murphy bed, which was actually really comfortable, and Sean and Andy each took half of a trundle bed. Right when we got there we noticed there was something wrong with the doorknob; once you closed the door you were essentially locked inside. We had to have a maintenance guy come up and replace the knob otherwise we wouldn't have been able to close our door! There was also a gas fireplace, a balcony, and a resident coyote who seemed to be constantly lurking in the back yard searching for scraps.
Our second day was dedicated to hiking the Mist Trail. Labeled as the best day hike in Yosemite by Backpacker magazine, the Mist Trail was truly incredible. We hiked up from the base of Vernal Falls and got soaked by the dissipating mist amazed at the beauty of the cascading water. The sunshine illuminated the floating mist creating a beautiful rainbow that was so close you could almost reach out and touch it. We rested for awhile at the top of Vernal Falls before continuing up to the top of Nevada Falls. We were all having flashbacks of the Grand Canyon at this point as we passed switch back after switch back on our way up wondering if we would ever make it. We finally completed the four mile ascent and sprawled out across the smooth rocks to regain our energy for the hike back down. It took us about three and a half hours to make it to the top and only an hour and a half to descend the four miles back down to the base of Vernal Falls via a much flatter, tamer trail. In total, we hiked eight miles that day and ascended 2000 feet in elevation.
Initially we had anticipated going back out for a second round of sightseeing after returning to the condo for lunch, but it became obvious after about an hour that we weren't going anywhere. For about three days now it had been nearly impossible to get either cell phone or internet service and Andy and I were getting a little peeved. We drove about 20 minutes to a little town within Yosemite called Wasona hoping to find wireless service but were crushed when we weren't able to connect anywhere. We returned to the condo for dinner which consisted of rice, beans, fish, and a delicious mango salsa that Sean had prepared while we were out on our uneventful search.
I was surprised at how little wildlife we encountered in Yosemite, seeing only the yellow-bellied marmut, a few deer, the occassional bird, and of course of neighborhood coyote. Words can't even describe how dissappointed I am that we didn't get to see a bear; I am truly crushed. My hopes remain high however, that someday, somewhere I am destined to meet a bear, hopefully in a friendly context. Despite the lack of critters, Yosemite was a truly unique and inspirational place. The Mist Trail is by far my favorite hike we have endured to date, and I would dare to say that Sean and Andy agree with me. Although our time in Yosemite was incredible it was also exhausting, but we had to collect ourselves and prepare for the coming attractions; we still had all of California to look forward to.