Napa Valley Loop Ride
So I'm standing in line at the Groth winery with my tongue jammed down the throat of a beautiful...
...bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. A sensual bottle, a sumptuous bottle, a a heart-breakingly empty bottle.
I had merely intended to sniff at the fading remnants of its subtle bouquet before it was to be unceremoniously discarded by the tasting room's sommelier, but my baser instincts suddenly kicked in and I found myself overcome in a moment of unbridled lust. Which seems to happen a lot.
I suppose all of this would make more sense if I had started this tale from the beginning rather than the end, but hey, what fun would that be? So let us flashback now to a phone call a long long time ago in a garage far far away in which intrepid MOron and incorrigible oenophile, EBass learns that ...
"Woo Hoo! I'm goin' to Napa Valley! There's gonna be Chardonnay, and Cabernet, and Merlot, and Pinot. Mondavi, and Coppola, I'll drink all their vino!"
Uh, but wait a minute here. I seem to vaguely recall reading a passage that covered just this topic in the best selling tome, "101 Surefire Ways For A Motojournalist To Get His Ass Fired or Damn Nearly Fired", by John Burns. Ahhh, here it is, "If less subtle attempts to infuriate your employer fail, such as fornicating with their wife in the broom closet at the company Holiday Party, or breaking into their home and leaving their pet rabbit boiling in a pot on the stove, you can always ensure the ignominious demise of your motojournalism career by returning from a road trip with the twisted handlebars of an OEM test bike in one hand and a DUI citation in the other". Hmm, yup, that's what I thought it said. Well, the Road King does have ample saddlebags. I suppose it wouldn't kill me to delay my gustatorial gratification until I get back home (or at least to the hotel). But this ain't gonna be easy.
I had heard good things about the riding opportunities in the Napa region and I was looking forward to serenading some of the world's tastiest grapes with the Road King's famous V-Twin "potatoes" as I ambled along the valley roads. It should be noted that the twin straightaways of Napa Valley's main wine trails, Route 29 and Silverado Trail, don't really provide much in the way of riding excitement. This, however, is for the best, as the logical assumption would be that these routes are trafficked primarily by wine tourists who may not be in a state of mind to appreciate the sublime pleasures of a decreasing-radius cliffside pincher. The good news for the rest of us is that once off the well-beaten and wine-stained path, the surrounding mountains offer a twisty curve for every delectable bottle in the estate cellars.
My strategy was to start the morning with a hearty breakfast and get my canyon carving in bright and early. As it turned out, a local deli/café called Nest made for a good starting point. At first glance from the parking lot, Nest appears to be just an ordinary delicatessen. Like a typical deli, you enter into a cold case area and form a queue at the counter to order your food. Upon further inspection though, the cases contain various upscale gourmet salads, cakes and confections that cry out, "You ain't leavin' town till you try us all"! These are complemented by a menu of breakfast fare in the $4 to $7 range, and deluxe sandwiches that will run you $6 or $7.
The service was down home warm and neighborly. I was embarrassed to realize that I had left my wallet in the H-D's hard bags, but the gal at the register insisted that I have a seat, enjoy my meal and that we'd settle up afterwards. "Well thank you Ma'am, and I'll have a side order of that country hospitality to go, please". I selected a prime outdoor table that afforded a view of Route 29 as well as the vineyard across the street, rustically framed by green mountains in the background. The homemade hash I ordered offered finely diced pieces of corned beef, potato, and onion with a modest smattering of shaved jack cheese melted evenly throughout and 2 fried eggs on top. A blue jay stopped by to visit as I ate, and while I don't claim to have Dr. Doolittle-like animal telepathy, I could have sworn I heard a high pitched little voice say, "You gonna lick the plate there fat boy, or can I have that last piece of hash?".
Leaving the Nest (hey, I couldn't resist) I headed north on Route. 29, which is the main wine trail through Napa Valley. After just a few hundred feet, I turned right onto Oakville Cross Rd., which passes bucolically between a planted row of evenly-spaced trees ornamenting premium vineyards as it traverses east to the other side of the valley.
On the north side of Oakville Cross Rd. you will notice two of the most esteemed marques in California, as first the earthy pyramid-shaped structure of Opus One (http://www.opusonewinery.com/ )and then the pale pink-balconied minaret of the Groth estate ( http://www.grothwines.com/ ) appear. These elite wineries schedule tastings by appointment only. Take my advice, you're going to want to make those appointments. Several years ago I tasted a glass of Groth cabernet sauvignon at a swank steak house in New York City. I loved it so much that despite its $40 price tag, I later bought several bottles to give to friends and family as gifts. Less than a year later, those bottles were selling for over $200. These aren't beverages so much as bottles of liquid love, and I'd be willing to bet that if you got invited to a dinner party on Mount Olympus, you'd find Hera pouring Zeus a glass while Thor carved away at a nice rare filet mignon.
As I rode soberly past what I knew to be the world's single largest cache of my favorite nectar, I told myself that if I was a very good boy and resisted temptation until the end of my journey that I would splurge on a bottle of Groth when I finished my loop. So I sighed deeply and continued along Oakville Cross Road, to the secondary wine tasting route, Silverado Trail. Paralleling Route 29 along the opposite side of Napa Valley, Silverado Trail offers gentle 45 mph bends as it hugs the long north-south corridor of mountains, and takes you past a parade of vineyards nurturing some of the world's finest grapes.
Be wary that vehicles are frequently turning into and out of entranceways here and that drivers are likely to be at least somewhat impaired by the local libations. One should always treat cagers as if they're all blind, but along the wine trails, it's best to treat them as if they're all blind drunk.
Three miles ahead, you'll reach a turnoff onto Rte. 128 East. About two miles pass uneventfully, but not to worry, the fun is about to begin as a sneaky blind curve is rapidly followed by a peg-grinding sweeper. As if this weren't enough to put the day's first smile on your face, the sweeper's exit reveals an oasis-like view of Lake Hennessy, which you'll then wrap around as Route 128 meanders along its shores. The lake is surrounded by lush green hills, and a few anglers were casting lines that day in hopes of catching a fresh fish dinner to go with that bottle of sauvignon blanc chilling in the fridge. I'm guessing Norman Rockwell probably could have turned the scene into a pretty darn good painting.
Four miles up Route 128, stay to the left as you reach the intersection with Chiles Pope Valley Road. Heading NW, three signs will warn sequentially of a 25 mph speed limit, a narrow twisty road, and a slide area. This may sound alarming, but in fact the slide areas were well marked, and the beautiful two-lane road flows alongside a ravine between forested hills on either side. While the surface was well-paved, I did encounter several patches of canyon crud so don't let the overall good conditions tempt you into getting too throttle happy. At the end of this stretch the road straightens and offers a pleasant cruise past several small vineyards and an olive ranch nestled into a serene valley. The asphalt soon leads you into a dense tunnel of trees, and a mile of curvy forest blitz ensues before emerging again into the valley. Lake, river, valley, forest if variety is the spice of life, then Chiles Pope Valley Road is one spicy bowl of gumbo. "Mmm, gumbo. That sure would go good with a bold glass of Pinot Noir. Spicy gumbo, bold Pinot. Grrr, try not to think about it EBass. You're only torturing yourself".
When you reach the fork of Howell Mountain Road, head south. You'll soon be revelling in four miles of inclined forest twisties before the road crests, opens up some, and begins its descent, eventually arriving at the tiny town of Anguin and an opportunity for gas if you need it. About two miles past Anguin, a stellar view of the valley emerges to the south and there is a viewpoint turnoff offered for those wishing to linger. About this time, I was ready for a break, and I couldn't resist the chance to soak in the scenery for awhile. "Just look at all of those grapes, all of those wineries, all of those tourists happily sampling that delicious wine. My delicious wine! The bastards!"
Having exhausted my tantrum, I returned to Howell Mountain Road, which eventually turns into Deer Park Road, and a mile later plunges into a fun sweeping hairpin with an open view of the exit that offers ample opportunity to shave down those chicken strips if you're feeling feisty. A few curves later, you'll cross over Silverado Trail to reach a T-bone with Route 29. Turn SE past the Culinary Institute of America, (http://www.ciachef.edu/greystone/ ) or better still, stop and have a bite. You may need a reservation, but the food, err "cuisine" is spectacular. I once had a seared foie gras appetizer there served with a slice of fresh peach and a drizzle of framboise, complimented in delightful fashion by a glass of Mondavi Reserve. Mmm, Mondavi Reserve. I've heard tales of turning water into wine. Wonder if it'll work on saliva?
Continue along Route 29 for about a mile to Madrona Avenue. This street is poorly marked and easy to miss, but if you find it, you'll head SW for three uneventful blocks through a residential area. If you haven't taken a break yet to stretch and relax a bit, I would do so now, because once you turn NW onto Spring Mountain Road the adventure begins anew big time! No sooner do you make the turn, then you are immediately plunged into a super-twisty two-lane road that lasts for no less than 13 grin-inducing miles. The canopied forest creates a seemingly endless green tube of hairpins, switchbacks, and anything but straightaways. I'm here to tell you that this is one long anaconda of a road. The relentless video game-like ride will find you ecstatic, but relieved to arrive finally at a T-bone intersection where you'll head south onto Calistoga Road.
This will lead you into a downhill serpentine twisty section with canyon wall on one side and sheer drops exposing a terrific view of Santa Rosa on the other. I have a love/hate relationship with roads like this because I keep going back and forth between focusing on the challenging corners and taking in the stellar view. It's a good problem to have, but there's always something disconcerting about coming around a corner to find yourself face to face with a 3D postcard, then returning your attention to the corner to find that you've drifted to within inches of the shoulder. They need to invent a road sign for hazards like this.
Perhaps: "Warning: absurdly breathtaking view ahead" or something similar would do the trick.
After three miles you'll T-bone with Route 12 and continue south. The 12 is a 4-lane road that offers a break from the peg-scraping curves, and winds along gently to your turnoff at Trinity Road where you'll head east. Pale green moss covers every inch of the trees here and hangs down off of the branches like a bayou swamp. The asphalt is cracked and patched along this two-laner but I found no major potholes to be concerned with. If wicked, relentless switchbacks are your pleasure, then as the road climbs steadily in elevation you'll feel as jubilant as if you were corkscrewing your way into a bottle of Prager's (http://www.pragerport.com/home.html ) Ruby Port. Mmmm, with a piece of artisan dark chocolate. Nnnng! Must keep mind on motorcycleswillpower getting weaker sobriety sucking worse and worse!
Three miles up, Trinity Road bends left at the fire station and turns into Dry Creek Road. A stand of tall redwood-like trees gives way to a lovely valley as you cross the Napa County line marked plainly across the road. Descending into the forest you'll reach a series of hair-raisingly steep and tight downhill hairpins. I'm not joking lads, I went into 'em bald and came out with an afro! Suddenly, sobriety didn't seem like such a bad thing anymore. As I caught my breath, the road crossed over a small bridge, bent right and flattened out into pleasant winding curves with open sky.
Continuing straight onto Oakville Grade, the asphalt becomes choppy again, so speeds need to be adjusted accordingly. Two miles further, a sign warns of a downhill grade and it is in fact thrillingly severe and twisty. It's nice to have the extra downward force on your front tire, but be aware that you'll pick up speed in a hurry if you crack the throttle, so try not to get too carried away with the roller coaster ride. The view soon opens up to reveal a stunning panorama of Napa Valley. All those plump, succulent grapes! A veritable ocean of purple gems. For Baccus' sake, just how much temptation can one man be expected to take!
As you descend the last mile or so to reach the intersection with Route 29, you will have completed our loop and returned to the Nest. And that is where prudence would dictate that this tale concludes. But since my loop ride for the day was now complete, the only thing left to do was to swing back to Groth and pick up a few bottles to bring home to L.A. (and maybe one to share with some profoundly lucky lass back at the hotel hot tub).
I had been riding through Napa Valley for the entire day and was finally entering a tasting room for the very first time. It would be safe to say that I was the only one present who could make that claim. Shiny happy people surrounded me, sipping at their tasting glasses full of rich, bold, endlessly complex and nuanced Groth cabernet sauvignon. I told myself to remain calm, that I was just here to buy a few bottles, and that I still had seat time ahead of me on the Road King. Libations would have to be postponed until safely back at the hotel's confines.
I told myself to keep cool, as my left eye began to twitch, my right foot began to tap impatiently, and a thin string of drool began to make it's way from my lips to the collar of my jacket. I told myself to maintain, as I watched the sommelier pour the last precious drops of a bottle of 2001 cab into the tasting glass of an august gentleman standing in front of me and, WHAP!!! My demonically possessed left hand shot out, snatched the bottle from his grip, and everything seemingly went black for awhile.
When I regained consciousness and squintingly opened my eyes, I found myself standing alone in the center of a very large and opulent room with my face pointed to the ceiling and an upturned (and sadly quite empty) bottle of cab impaled upon my tongue. As I brought my chin back down parallel to earth, I realized that in fact I wasn't alone at all. The room was still quite full of patrons. They were just all huddled into small groups tightly pressed against the walls, trembling with fear.
Realizing that I had left my "Complete Idiot's Guide To Being A Complete Idiot" in the RK's hard bags, I began profusely apologizing for causing such alarm, while slowly backing my way towards the door. As I reached slowly for the enormous brass knob, I sternly warned the sommelier that he better not call the cops or I'd be back to errrsuck the dregs out of another bottle! Yeah! Then I busted out of there like Michael Vick tweaking on a six-pack of Sparks.
As I made my break and sprinted towards the Hog, I realized that knowing when to say when doesn't just pertain to drinking, it pertains to alcoholic abstinence as well. Next time I come to Napa, it's gonna be half a day of riding, and then make a beeline for that hotel hot tub with my bottle of Groth before I reach the point of urge overkill. DUI's suck, but getting locked up in the Napa Valley loony bin has gotta suck even worse. Hmmm, unless of course, I could barter my way into the "Girl Interrupted" wing. Me, Winona, Angelina, a stealthily smuggled bottle of Groth, and a vast and far-reaching array of professional-grade restraining devices. Think of the possibilities! Mmmm!
"Hey sommelier! I changed my mind! Call the cops! Call the cops"!
7787 St. Helena Hwy.
Napa, CA 94558
Owned by Kate & Mardi Schma
Open Mon-Sat 7am - 6pm; Sunday 8am - 4pm
Credit cards accepted
24 hour notice for large groups
Trip distance: 85 miles
Time: 4-5 hours plus dining time.