Editor’s note: shockingly, given how many articles I’ve written about wine tastings in California, I’ve never been to Napa. Now, thanks to Reina’s beautiful story, I have another reason to make that trip. For more of Reina’s writing, click here to visit her index page.
When people think Napa Valley, they obviously think of wine. For me, though, I also think of chocolate.
In November 2011 I was on my four-year wedding anniversary trip. The evening we rolled into Napa we decided to walk around downtown, the chill in the air making us dart into a little chocolate shop called Annette’s. There they would take the leftovers from their chocolate truffles and melt them down with milk to make their hot chocolate; you could even order milk hot chocolate or dark hot chocolate. It was easily the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.
That whole trip made me fall in love with the Napa Valley. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, less than two months later my marriage would explode in a big giant fiery ball. In the single girl years following, I visited Napa several times, but only as brief day trips with friends. My horizons were growing, my travels expanding. Yet no matter where I go, something always draws me to vineyards. Whether on the central coast closer to home or further away in Arizona, there is a sense of calm for me in the vines, twisting their way to somehow thrive above the dirt.
September 2022 ended a summer of responsibilities and anxieties, and I was looking forward to October when my office would shut down for the Jewish holidays. Since I am no longer religious, I was planning all sorts of dream vacations to fly away from Los Angeles, but life got in the way and it became too late to book. Although it had been less than six months since my eventful road trip journey to Sedona, I didn’t mind hitting the road again… but to where?
One of my friends suggested Napa, and something clicked. I briefly went up in July 2021 when I was in San Francisco, but it was crowded and time there was limited. October is the end of the harvest, the perfect time to visit. Not to mention my friend Alyssa lives in nearby Sacramento, and she LOVES wine.
I shot Alyssa a text asking if she would want to join me in Napa. However, her response was, “I’ll book the wineries, I have two wine clubs. And you can stay with me in Sacramento!” As the first time I ever met Alyssa was picking her up at LAX for our mutual friend’s bachelorette weekend and giving her impromptu tours around Los Angeles, this was not as alarming as you would think.
After a surprisingly short drive, I arrived in Sacramento around 630pm on a Thursday night, complete with a bottle of Japanese whiskey for my hostess. Alyssa and I spent hours gabbing about our lives: the soon-to-be home renovations on her stunning 100-year-old house; the promising first date I would have upon my return to Los Angeles on Monday; our mutual friends and all the drama that ensued during both that bachelorette weekend and the wedding that followed. The excitement of being so close to Napa was contagious, so much so that my body refused to sleep that night.
The next morning we hit I-80, passing rivers and farmland before arriving at the exit for Napa Valley. The fog was heavy and cold, and my lack of sleep was making me nauseous. Still, we pulled in for our first wine appointment at 1030, located at Truchard Vineyards. While most wineries are off the east side of Highway 29 that runs through the Valley, this was located on the west, past the residential homes of the people that make this place what it is.
While some wineries pride themselves in fancy grounds and posh tasting rooms for world-traveling tourists, it was clear this one was focused on the wine itself. The harvest was still happening, from the workers milling about to huge basins full of tiny green grapes which would later be made into Roussanne, a white varietal. There was a small farmhouse, and the sounds of various animals, from goats to sheep, filled the cold air.
After pouring us a few samples of their Roussanne and chardonnay, our hostess took us up into the vineyard, walking through the dirt and sampling each type of grape. A small pond greeted us, with fruit trees she encouraged us to also pick from. As we headed into the wine cave full of seasoned oak barrels, she explained to us how the family still lived on the grounds and that they are one of the main sources of grapes for a lot of the bigger vintners in the Valley. I breathed deeply with a wide grin on my face; this is the Napa I fell in love with all those years ago.
At the end of our tour, we sat on a picnic bench outside the caves. Alyssa and I started engaging our hostess in conversation, where she talked about being an actress but enjoying how she could share her love of the Napa Valley since she moved here. I told her about my first visit to Napa, and of course, The Best Hot Chocolate Ever, which I wasn’t even sure existed anymore due to the pandemic.
“Wait, are you talking about Annette’s?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s it!” I exclaimed. “You know it?”
“Are you kidding? That hot chocolate is amazing. And they’re still in town!”
By the time we left Truchard the sun was finally out, and the sky bright blue. Our next stop was for lunch at my suggestion – the Oxbow Public Market, which despite Alyssa’s affinity for Napa she had never visited. It is often referred to as the sister of the Ferry Building in San Francisco, but it really is its own animal, one filled with artisanal groceries, stunning sweets, delicious bites, and of course tastings. We wandered through the aisles, and I pointed out Annette’s stand, and moped about how they don’t serve The Best Hot Chocolate Ever at that location.
Instead Alyssa and I bellied up to Napa Valley Distillery’s booth for a brandy tasting, which was their only liquor offered outside their main location in downtown Napa (the Oxbow only allows wine products, and brandy is made from grapes). In between sips, Alyssa proclaimed I had a “perfect palate” after being able to identify the herbs in one of their brandies, which was supposed to mimic a gin. By the end, both of us were plastered, but luckily Hog Island Oyster Co. was there with a dozen oysters and delicious clam chowder to enjoy on the patio alongside the Napa River.
After our joyous lunch we headed to Domaine Carneros, located away from the main drag of Napa on the way to Sonoma. Its tasting room is the opposite of Truchard’s unassumed rustic nature, modeled to look like a French chateau, and while Truchard focuses on classic wines, Domaine Carneros’ specialty is sparkling. I had visited it years ago during springtime, when the trees were blossoming and the vines were green. Today it was golden light and turning leaves, but no season could diminish its beauty. But by 330pm, after a full day of tasting, we were tired, so we headed back towards Sacramento.
The next morning I said goodbye to Alyssa to start heading towards my AirBnb in Oakland, where I would be staying while I visited my cousins in San Leandro and friend in Alameda. As I was driving on I-80, I thought about The Best Hot Chocolate Ever. The last time I had it was almost 11 years ago. I had a whole afternoon to myself. Maybe I wasn’t done with Napa quite yet.
I turned up Highway 29 and headed up to Yountville, grabbing a sandwich at Ranch Market Too for lunch while enjoying the bright blue skies and turning leaves in the nearby courtyard outside of Bottega. I strolled by some grapevines and texted a few pictures of me with them to the guy I would be going out with on Monday, before driving past vineyards singing to David Bowie.
Pulling into downtown Napa and parking, I remembered my ex and me being here together. Although there was the veneer of love, there were little things that hinted at the rot underneath. The ability to only eat and drink without being guilted while on vacations like this. How I did all the hard work to make our time in Napa great, not unlike how in our marriage I was the one holding it up behind the scenes while he was the “wife guy” in front of others. The fact I had even driven here was a miracle, as he refused to let me drive when we were in the car together because he claimed I was a bad driver.
I walked over to Annette’s, stunned at the change. I remembered a tiny storefront half the size of the place where I stood that only had a small counter. It was now huge and filled with all sorts of chocolate treats, although the honey-colored wood floor was still warm and inviting. Between their stand at the Oxbow and the expansion of this storefront, business was booming. These past 11 years had been exceedingly good for them; in the end, they had for me, too.
I went up to the counter practically dancing, ordering a milk hot chocolate in a satisfied voice. I told the lady at the counter how long I had waited for The Best Hot Chocolate Ever. She warned me that it may not taste as good as I remembered it. Maybe it wasn’t, but the most important thing was to taste it for myself to find out.
After paying, I walked out of the store and immediately took a sip. It was warm and inviting, full of flavor and cheer. Whether or not it was just as good as I remembered didn’t really matter. What was important was that I found happiness in it.
I decided to spend the afternoon walking in the sunshine, taking in the Napa River. A lot had changed – more luxury businesses and infrastructure around the riverside – but a lot of it was familiar and sweet, bringing comfort as the wind whipped through my hair. And as I finished my delicious Best Hot Chocolate Ever with vineyards overlooking the valley, there was bliss knowing that our stories shared several common chapters.
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