Getting a Taste for the Fine LIfe of Wine and Mud in Calistoga, Calif.

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009

It's not that I don't like wine; quite the contrary. No, my problem is with tasting rooms: I never know what to say. I don't know if it's performance anxiety, an ignorant palate or some combination of both, but when I belly up to a tasting bar, the best I can do is, "nice." I sound like a dope.

I know what you're thinking: Just don't go to wine country, jerk.

Well, it's not that easy. I was going to San Francisco with my boyfriend, and we love a good road trip, and I figured there must be lots more to wine country than wine. With a little searching, I came up with a great itinerary: a couples' mud bath, a cute hotel room in Calistoga, a little history, a little shopping. . . . Wait, what does that sign say?

"Larson Family Winery, Tasting 10-5 Daily, Bocce & Picnic Area."

Hmm; a winery is one thing, but a winery with bocce and a picnic area? That's totally different. Who cares if we're just an hour outside San Francisco? Let's stop.

It's raining lightly when we head down a wooded lane past a series of handwritten signs nailed to trees ("WINE TASTING .412793685 MILE AHEAD," "WATCH OUT FOR KAMIKAZE SQUIRRELS," "YOU'RE ALMOST THERE" and "KEEP GOING"), at last arriving at the Larson tasting room, a converted barn across from a pen of goats and a peahen pecking the grass.

Then the rain starts to fall steadily, whereupon it becomes obvious that bocce, not to mention a picnic, is not happening. There's nowhere to go but the tasting room, so I try to bluff my way through a pinot noir, a chardonnay and a Gewurztraminer. Behind the bar, a mural alludes to the winery's past: The land was formerly a ranch that hosted the Sonoma Rodeo from 1929 to the early 1950s, and before that it was the farthest navigable point of the Sonoma River, where steamboats would dock and unload their northbound cargo.

"Not too sweet, right?" I say to my boyfriend about the Gewurztraminer. I don't even try to pronounce Gewurztraminer.

"Yeah, they're usually too sweet," he replies.

"Yep, this one's pretty dry for a Gewurztraminer," says the pourer, as I think, "Right, dry. Why didn't I say that?"

And so it goes as I stumble through the reds, and it's becoming clear why I'd planned to avoid the wineries of Napa. After buying two bottles of Gewurztraminer (which I have my boyfriend ask for), we hit the road, vowing to stick to a subject we know something about. Like history.

We head toward the tiny town of Sonoma to see the last mission built by the Spanish in California. Turns out the San Francisco Solano Mission wasn't constructed just for the conversion of Native Americans. The one-story adobe structure was also designed to repel invading Russians.

Wait, Russians? Toto, I don't think we're in Washington anymore.

In the 1820s, according to an exhibit at the mission, Russian traders were making their way south from Alaska while the Spanish were fortifying the coast from the south. Mix in some Native American revolts, Mexican independence, Manifest Destiny and gold miners, and Solano had seen plenty of action by the time it crumbled in the 1906 earthquake. The reconstructed buildings are part of the California state park system; the day we visit, the chapel's courtyard is filled with schoolkids in old-timey costumes weaving straw baskets in the drizzle.

Crossing over to Napa Valley from Sonoma, we start seeing rows of vines covering every hillside. This is Big Wine country, with mega-producers such as Beringer, Robert Mondavi and Sutter Home. No need to stop; I've sampled their wines already, thanks to my neighborhood Giant. Plus, we've got a mud bath waiting. Turning onto Calistoga's main street, Lincoln Avenue, we're struck by the way the town feels cozy, nestled between mountains at either end.

Calistoga is best known for its hot springs and how it got its name: In the 1860s, millionaire Samuel Brannan wanted to develop the area into California's version of the New York spa town Saratoga Springs. Reportedly, one time he got tipsy and accidentally called the town the "Calistoga of Sarafornia," and the malapropism stuck.

We check into the Golden Haven Hot Springs, where the '50s, motel-style exterior belies the simple but elegant rooms. I had chosen Golden Haven in part because of those couples' mud baths. A picture on its Web site of a smiling man and woman submerged to their necks in vats of brown goop was so gross/funny, I signed us up right away.

First, though, a walk through the tiny town leads us to the Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery, where we pick a table in the casual bar area and sample some of the house beer and a plate of heavenly steamed mussels and clams with a chorizo sauce.

Then it's time for the mud bath.

Golden Haven is one of 10 hotel-spas in Calistoga, all of which offer such treatments. The most common mud experience goes like this: You soak in a tub full of peat moss and mineral water, then you get a shower, next a mineral water bath and, finally, a warm blanket wrap and a rest.

Somehow, I hadn't considered how ridiculous I'd feel lying naked in a vat of muck next to my boyfriend, having clay painted onto my face by a tattooed, ponytailed guy named Jimmy. The spongy mud creeps into every wrinkle and crevice. First I'm sweating bullets in the Jacuzzi tub, then I'm bundled like a tamale in the blanket wrap room. It's all incredibly unromantic, but it's also really fun, and it sure beats a crowded tasting room. Then again, you don't get mud in your ears at a wine tasting.

The next morning, after a big breakfast at the hopping Cafe Sarafornia, we amble up the main street, past boutiques, galleries and cafes just opening their doors, till Lincoln Avenue ends at Route 128. On the far side of the road, there's already a line at Buster's Southern Barbeque, and a guy is eating tacos in his car right outside Vallarta Market, where the Mexican pastries mock me for overeating at breakfast.

Nearby at Calistoga Pottery, peppy potter Sally Manfredi, who runs the shop with her husband, Jeff, gives us advice as we buy a spoon rest. She says there's a hiking trail nearby with an unusual mix of trees. We're intrigued and hit the road.

We get about a mile outside Calistoga when I see it on the left: a sign for Sterling Vineyards, where visitors take aerial trams to the winery. I make a hard left.

What can I say? I'm an aerial tram fan.

After a short but bracing ride to the Greek-villa-style winery, a brief self-guided tour and a few minutes on the terrace looking out on the mountains, we get to the tasting part. Thankfully, it's the sit-down kind, where a pourer comes around and gives you a splash, then leaves before you make your assessment.

My boyfriend and I practice analyzing the wines, covering up the descriptions on the tasting list while we offer our thoughts.

"This one's bitey," I say, sipping a white.

"I don't think that's a word," he says, "but yeah, it's got some kick."

We conjure up "watermelon," "honey," "apple cobbler" and "hamburgers." It's ruled that "tastes like grapes" doesn't count as a description.

On our way down in the tram, I fill out a survey about wine-buying habits, including the average price I pay for a bottle. When I circle "Under $5," my boyfriend points out that sometimes we spend more, like when we go to the corner store instead of Trader Joe's, so I circle "$5 to $7" instead.

As I drop my survey in the basket at the front gate, I notice that the other surveys list Charles Shaw as the wine bought most frequently. I feel a little bad for these wineries, forced to compete with Two Buck Chuck.

Finally on our hike, we march purposefully along a narrow trail in Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park, past tall redwoods, moss-draped black oaks, shiny-barked manzanita trees and open heaths of ferns and wild grasses. A couple of boulders make good seats for a picnic. We don't have a knife, but we have a corkscrew, so we use it to slice the cheese and salami we brought. Somewhere nearby, turkeys are gobbling. Alone in the woods, we practice our turkey calls. (It's all in the top lip: Ba-loo-da-loo-da-loo!)

When we get back to the car, it's already past four. I realize that all the tasting rooms are going to be closed.

But as we're cruising through St. Helena, I see a sign on the left saying, "Merryvale, Tasting 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m." I think, Why not?

Maybe I've become more laid-back after my trip to wine country, a little more Californian. Or maybe it's just that, after lying naked in a mud vat in front of Jimmy and my boyfriend, sounding clueless in a tasting room isn't such a big deal.

So at Merryvale, when the pourer asks me how I like the merlot, I just smile and tell him, "It's nice."

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