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

The small town of Calistoga, California, located in the famous Napa Valley, specializes in everything from wineries to mud baths.
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.

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