Monday, April 29, 2013

A Trip to Wine Country - Napa Valley (Part 2)

Picking up where part 1 ended after our first vineyard tour and tasting, we headed up to Calistoga for a couple of more tastings that day.
Stop 1 in Calistoga was Chateau Montelena:

Montelena earned a reputation for "putting Napa on the map" when its Chardonnay won in a French wine tasting competition in 1976. Personally, I think they've let this go to their heads, because I didn't feel particularly welcomed here, nor do I recall their wines being very special. This is the one winery we did not buy a bottle from... But we did enjoy walking around their beautiful grounds:

After strolling around a bit, we headed into downtown Calistoga for some lunch. We didn't have any particular destination in mind, but stumbled on a cute little bistro (All Seasons Bistro) that fit the "need to soak up some wine" bill perfectly. We split a pulled pork sandwich and a chicken caprese sandwich - both were very tasty and elevated a bit beyond the typical "sandwich joint."

Then we headed off to our last tasting of the day - at a real, live castle!

Castello di Amorosa translates, appropriately enough for an anniversary trip, to "castle of love." Though it looks perfectly medieval, the castle was actually built in the 1990s by the owner of another local winery, V. Sattui. Castello di Amorosa has its own vineyards and wine label, with wines only sold here at the castle itself. Fortunately, we enjoyed by the scenery and the wines at this stop.

Much less stuffy than the last tasting - we just enjoyed ourselves here and even hammed it up a bit:

Though I had originally planned on 4 wineries per day of our visit, we had our fill at 3 and headed back to the inn  to enjoy a couple of hours at the pool before dinner. Dinner was back up in Calistoga at the Michelin-starred Solbar. When I made our reservation, they asked if we were celebrating anything, so I mentioned it was our 5th anniversary. And when we arrived for dinner, they greeted us with champagne - a lovely surprise!

The chef at Solbar focuses on fresh, seasonal choices - with as many local ingredients as possible. There's even a garden on the restaurant grounds. We enjoyed every bite we had at Solbar - from the tangle of raw spring vegetables to the steamed halibut and roast duck and finally to the amazing tamarind semi froddo. All of the food was very fresh and flavorful - served in just the right portions to allow you to try (or at least share) something from each course. The staff was very attentive and helpful with menu suggestions, and the atmosphere was warm and romantic. It was the perfect choice for our anniversary dinner, and a great ending to a great day.

Stay tuned for 3 more wineries, a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge and more!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Trip to Wine Country - Napa Valley (Part 1)

Last weekend the hubby and I flew up to Napa Valley for a long weekend to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary.

                                       April 20, 2013 - St. Helena (Napa Valley), CA

April 20, 2008 - Key West, FL

It was a gorgeous weekend packed with gorgeous sights, great food and even better wine - and I can't wait to share some of it with you! I feel the need to say right up front that this is not a sponsored post - I just want to share some great finds with those who might be headed to Napa themselves someday (and you should! it's awesome!).

Our trip started bright and early on Friday 4/19, when we flew into San Francisco and rented a car to continue the rest of the way to Napa Valley. Just after passing over the Golden Gate Bridge (which was surrounded in fog that day - so no good pics), we stopped in Sausalito for lunch at a tiny family-run placed called Avatars. Their speciality is Indian-Mexican fusion. One of the owners was our server and encouraged us to let him create something for us, rather than ordering off the menu. We went for it - and weren't disappointed! We had an amazing red curry with grilled vegetables and a yummy "Punjab" curried enchilada. I know, curry enchilada sounds strange - but it was really delicious!

After fortifying ourselves, we set back out on the road. We took the 101 to the 37 to the 29. It's really a nice drive, in my opinion - passing through farm lands and the vineyards of Sonoma, and finally into Napa Valley:

The first town in Napa Valley is Napa, CA itself. Hundreds of wineries, restaurants and hotels/bed & breakfasts are situated along the 25 mile stretch from Napa north to Calistoga. Our home for the weekend was The Harvest Inn in St. Helena:

A cross between a bed & breakfast and a hotel, The Harvest Inn had beautiful buildings and gardens, and amazing vineyard and mountain views, which we enjoyed every morning while we ate breakfast on the patio:

We arrived after most wineries had finished their tastings for the evening (most are only open until 5pm), so we had a quiet night in, enjoying the wine bar at the inn and our beautiful fireplace room. But the next day, our anniversary - it was wine-tasting on! Our first stop was Schweiger Vineyards, a small, by-appointment-only vineyard on Spring Mountain.

There we enjoyed a wine & cheese tasting, along with a tour of the vineyard and barrel cellar (where the picture above of us standing in front of wine barrels was taken).

This ended up being one of our favorite wine tasting experiences of the weekend. Since it was by-appointment only, there was only 1 other couple there during our tour and tasting, so it felt very private and personalized. We enjoyed hearing about the history of the family-owned and operated vineyard and about how they produce their wines. Best of all - the wines we tasted were great, too! We ended up taking home 2 bottles - the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and the X Port.

Stay tuned for Part 2 - when we head to 2 wineries and an amazing dinner spot in Calistoga!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Healthy Cranberry-Oat Muffins

I love muffins for breakfast, but rarely splurge on those sold at coffee shops and bakeries because of the high sugar, fat and calorie count. In my view, bakery muffins are more like glorified cupcakes. Which is fine for a treat now and then, but not something my waistline can afford very often. So, I often experiment on the weekends with making healthier muffins by reducing the sugar and fat, adding whole grains, etc. I admit that sometimes my experiments are duds - hard or flat muffins that don't have a lot of flavor. But this weekend I found a winner!

These Cranberry-Oat Muffins are lower in sugar and fat than your typical muffin, and they have whole grain in 2 forms - whole wheat flour & whole grain oats. Best of all, they bake up fluffy and oh-so-yummy!

These are a definite keeper. Here's the recipe if you want to give them a try yourself:

Cranberry-Oat Muffins
(Makes about 9 small or 6 large muffins)

2 ripe bananas, mashed
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 egg
4 Tbsp. vanilla coffee creamer (I used Natural Bliss because it doesn't have any artificial ingredients--and no, this isn't a sponsored post!)
2 Tbsp. water
3/4 c. white flour
1/4 c. whole wheat flour
3/4 c. old-fashioned oats
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. dried cranberries

Topping (optional):
1 Tbsp. oats
1 tsp. brown sugar

Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease a muffin pan well with oil.
Combine bananas, oil, egg, coffee creamer and water in a small bowl. Beat until smooth.
In a separate bowl, mix together white flour, wheat flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Add liquid ingredients to flour mixture and stir just until all ingredients are evenly moistened. Stir in dried cranberries.
Fill greased muffin cups about 2/3 full with batter.
In a small bowl, combine 1 Tbsp. oats and 1 tsp. brown sugar for topping (if desired). Sprinkle evenly over muffin tins.
Bake at 400°F for 15-20 minutes depending on muffin tin size (less for smaller, cupcake-size muffins, longer for larger muffins) or until toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Cool for at least 10 minutes before removing from tins.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Things to do in Southern California: San Diego Zoo Safari Park

It had been a while since the hubby and I played tourist in our backyard, so this weekend we decided to go on another one of our little mini-adventures. We are members of the San Diego Zoo near downtown San Diego, but had never been to the sister Safari Park in Escondido. Since our membership includes free entry into both, we headed over to Escondido to check it out.

The biggest difference between the downtown zoo and the Safari Park is that the park has a lot more free-range enclosures for its animals. They have different villages and sections - from a Gorilla Forest to Nairobi Village to an African plains section. This last section was my absolute favorite. The African plains area houses lions, giraffes, antelopes, cranes, deer, rhinos and more--almost all free-roaming amongst the gentle sloping hills of the San Pasqual Valley. (They do have to keep some more aggressive animals sequestered - I was surprised to learn this includes the zebras!)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I'm going to let my camera do the talking for a bit:

Lion nap time
Mama cheetah on high alert
Curious giraffe coming to check out our tram
 Giraffe snack time... and antelopes looking like "hey, wheres mine?"
They look too cute to be aggressive! (must be the stripes... deceivingly playful...)
Beautiful views
We only stayed a couple of hours and barely scratched the surface of what the park has to offer. There are tons of presentations and exhibits to explore--and we're looking forward to going back!