So, Ben announced about a month ago he was going to kidnap me for a full day for a birthday surprise, and asked which Sunday (before or after my actual Aug. 15th birthday)…. so, my choices were Aug. 12th or Aug.19. At this point I was still in the midst of messing about playing landlady with the latest disasters over at my old house in Benicia, and also trying to set a date to list my birthday ride, and also mentally planning either a small dinner with friends or a big 60th BDay bash (the former won out, partly due to inertia and partly due to too many conflicts and commitments with the work in Benicia). So I told him “Aug.12” and submitted my bike ride to our GPC ride coordinator for the following weekend.
He wouldn’t say what he had up his sleeve, and I didn’t ask or try to guess…. better to just let it happen so i don’t psych myself up too much for a disappointment if my guess was better than the actual deal (…. in retrospect, knowing Ben and his general thoughtfulness and thoroughness, and his past and proven track record for coming up constantly and consistently with ideas and surprises that just put the “WOW!!” into my heart for all the ways this man cares for me, the notion that my guess will be better than the reality kind of won’t happen, but i tend to have an active and obsessive imagination, so best let well enough alone…)
The only thing i knew was that I was instructed to plan on a full day, that we’d be leaving the house before dawn, to wear casual clothes with a warm layer for the cool morning but light layers underneath as the day got warmer, and also to bring something nicer to wear for the afternoon. OK, it’s mid-August and we’re in California. That narrows it down a lot… NOT!!
Anyway, I rode the AS&R on Saturday (Aug.11th), and I was very happy that so did Ben (first real ride in months for him, 50-T/TM for me and 23-LT course on the Bears for Ben), and then came home, did the grocery errands, cleaned house a bit, cooked dinner, then we watched one of our DVR’d mush movies (honestly, i can’t remember what that was, just now), and then headed early to bed for a VERY early wake-up alarm next morning.
Sunday morning NPR starts droning at 4:00 a.m., probably another military coup in South Asia… at the 2nd repeat in about 2 minutes, I got up and showered. Made our oatmeal, maybe i had coffee…. brain is mush now, and i’m coming out of an REM stupor then. Footware: Ben has confirmed I just need some closed-toe shoes, “tennies will be fine, not hiking boots…. and bring some lighter sandals, too” to wear with my dress later. And definitely not bike shoes or helmet.
We leave the house at 4:30 a.m. and Ben activates the Navigation app in his Droid. The lady tells us to turn onto “Maaarin Avenue” but we ignore her and the car turns onto Solano instead. At San Pablo, she tells us to turn left, again we blow off her advice, sticking to our “local knowledge”… and a few turns later arrive on “Buukannan Evaneue”, heading westward to the freeways.
At the top of Buchanan, we follow the lady’s directions, turning RIGHT (northbound… OK, so we’re not going to a Quakes game or to the southern Sierra Foothills, although Amador County — where we know some favorite wineries, some having special events lately — is still a possibility; that would involve, I-80 to I-50 to Folsom, then southbound to Plymouth…. you get the idea)
However in the next instant, as we keep heading northbound on I-80 (rather than getting into the 2 left-hand lanes for I-580 toward Marin/Sonoma Counties), I deduce that there will be no boating involved, nor wind-swept coastal hiking adventures such as Point Reyes Lighthouse or Bear Valley trail.
In fact, our mechanical lady tells me “stay on I-80 for 27 miles.” Uh Huh…. well, of course that means we connect to Hwy 37, and likely not southbound….. so what could possibly be so very COOL and necessitating closed-toe shoes and a lightly layered, but not too warm, clothing requirement and also such a ridiculously early pre-dawn start time? AHA!
“I know what it is,” i say to myself, silently, slyly.
So we continue up I-80, past El Cerrito, Richmond, San Pablo, El Sobrante, Pinole, Hercules, etc., cross the Zampa bridge toward Vallejo and keep on going…. a mile before Columbus Parkway (Hwy 37), we are instructed to take “exit xx westbound”, and sure enough, that is Hwy 37. so, if we were going to Sonoma, we would have taken I-580 across the Richmond/San Rafael bridge, and I don’t think he’s that interested in the races at Infineon, so it’s got to be Napa/Calistoga…. and he doesn’t like spas.
As we approach Hwy 37, I tell Ben… “yup, i know, but I can’t — won’t — say” (… because what i’ve guessed is so extraordinary and dreamlike that i know if i speak it and it turns out to be wrong, now i REALLY will be disappointed…).
On Hwy 37, we pass the turnoff at Six Flaggs, and the roller coasters loom big and imposingly “thrilling” off to our left, and I comment “remember when it was called “Marine World” and it was just animals, I really liked going there, then?” Ben sez, “they still have the animals…” and i retort, “yes, but now the animals are disturbed and terrified of the incessant and overwhelming mechanical noise!” OK, maybe i’m transferring too much, what’s that word? Humanizing? No, anthropomorphizing. Ah yes, that’s it!
We make the turn northward onto Hwy 29… the daylight is still barely trying to peak through the dawn, and i’ve never been here this early in the morning. In Napa, we pull over into the parking lot of the Marriott. It’s about 5:30 a.m… There are a few other people scattered about in the lobby, mostly couples, a few families… pretty much we’re all dressed in light layers: slacks, tennis shoes, sweatshirt/fleece jackets. There’s a coffee station set up with self-serve thermos Starbucks and another station with assorted baked goods: muffins, scones, croisants… mostly bleached white flour fare, but welcome and reasonably tasty all the same. I help myself to a cuppa Joe and augment it with powdered hot cocoa mix, honey and cinnamon. I make Ben a tea.
Ben is now sitting on one of the lobby sofas with a clipboard and paperwork. He hands me the clipboard, instructing me to put my initials on the dotted line (“waiver”). It is then that i look up and see, across the room, at the “check-in” table, several young, athletic-looking dudes wearing heather-grey sweatshirts with a carnival-hued hot-air balloon graphic on the front, and that unmistakeable aire of “crew” (how do i know that? remember, i spent 10 years as an “air goddess” for World Airways (1979-1989).
Wahoo! The man has arranged a Hot Air Balloon Ride (the company is Balloons Above the Valley, which I do believe I’d recommend to anyone). I’d guessed correctly, and now it’s confirmed! “Hot Air Balloon!” Cool!!! Thanks, sweatie!!! And he tells me our Pilot is “Rollie” and asks me to walk the clipboard back over to the check-in desk. I hand in the clipboard/waiver sheet, and the hostess asks me if I know who my “pilot” is. Yes, i say. It’s “Rollie.”
Back on the sofa, Ben asks me if i’ve ever been ballooning, and I ask the same of him… it’s a first for both of us, so i’m thrilled that we get to share this experience as “newbies” together….
After a while one of the “hostesses” starts making announcements, we’re just waiting to hear from the pilots about takeoff conditions. There’s still a light fog over the valley floor, and apparently we have to wait for that to clear to be able to take off. Later we learn that sometimes, when the fog is too thick, at worst there is no flight that day…. or at best, there’s a 45 minute drive over into the next valley, i.e.. last week they had to drive over to Winters!!!
Well, as it turns out, it’s our lucky day. About 1/2 hour later, the announcement is made that we’re set to go, and we pile into a group of 10-passenger vans in assembled in the Marriott’s parking lot. In the hotel, we’ve had a short briefing, so we know that when we arrive at the takeoff area, we will need to find our group and our pilot… and this over the considerable roar of the fans that will be utilized to fill the balloons. The other instruction is that we will be landing likely in the vineyards, which belong to the wineries/vineyards, and not to the balloon company, so please don’t go into the rows and start snacking on the grapes!
We arrive at a large brown field just south of the Veterans’ Home in Yountville. Here we see an assortment of enormous patchwork balloons being unfurled and in various stages of inflation, the huge generator-powered fans working their magic. Occasionally, a large flare will burst sideways toward the bottom opening of the balloon, and the sail areas of each balloon begins to take shape. The huge rectangular baskets are mostly lying on their sides as the balloon fills with air. Then, when there is enough air for some lift, the baskets rotate to the upright position and we are called over to become “ballast”. Each basket is large enough for 16 passengers, except for one smaller balloon which has a basket large enough for 3 people (2 passengers & 1 pilot) or 4 bodies, tops. And the pilots want the basket to be full, not just for weight distribution, but also for safety…. close-knit pods of bodies don’t thrash side to side as much…. i suppose as important during flight as during the landings. The balloon is only about 300 cubic feet, as opposed to the ones the rest of us will experience, with about 800 cubic feet of air. All of the baskets will be full of passengers this day (4 people per each quadrant, plus the pilot’s “single” cubby in the center, along with the controls. At various points, our groups are called, by pilot’s name… and we follow the leader to our respective balloons. I’m feeling like a kid on Christmas morning – grinning ear to ear, and indeed it’s only about 6 or 6:30 a.m. still, the dawn still breaking.
The baskets have two hand/foot-holds in each quadrant, and stand more than 4 ft tall. I’m just under 5′-1/2″, so the top of the basket hits me approximately at my collarbone. Still the hand/footholds are nicely spaced, and it’s an easy heave-ho climb up and over the rim and then down into the basket. Since i’m the first one into the basket on our side, i realize that i will be on the inside, not on the outside corner as i’d hoped (for better all-around visibility. This vantage point does give us immediate access to good conversion and Q&A with our pilot, Rollie.
Rollie is a 22-year veteran in the occupation as a hot-air balloon pilot. Age-wise, i’m guessing about 40-50. Somehow I always find it comforting to have an adult in control! The pilots all have ham-radios and there’s an agreeable amount of chatter amongst them and the crew in the chase vehicles. The other piece of equipment the pilots have is a portable electronic compass which also doubles as a “wind-current” finder. Between these two instruments, and — in our balloon — the three separately controlled “burners/coils” and levers to either flare additional hot air into the balloon, or conversely a control to let excess air out of the top of the balloon (think of a 30-ft diameter “parachute” section in the top, which is fastened to the main portion of the balloon with a network of nylon cords… ). So, if the pilot wants to chase a current at a higher elevation, he flares more hot air (and a huge flare emits from the coil upward in a deafening roar); if he wants to go lower into the valley floor, the pilot pulls on some other lever, which lets air out through the top of the balloon.
We travel southeastward a bit, over Trefethen Family Vineyards, situated on Oak Knoll Avenue, and it’s one of Napa Valley’s vineyards which does it’s business as a totally organic, sustainable-energy, solar-powered farm and wine producer, and is a Designated National Historic Landmark (and Rollie admits, he likes going over the place and pointing it out, mainly because he just likes saying the name!). Up this high (alternately from about 300 ft to 1000 ft over the valley), one is surprised and appreciative of the large number of ponds and reservoirs in the farms and vineyards, not usually obvious when just driving or cycling through…. Also, there’s a striking, stunning patchwork in the arrangement of the vineyards, some diagonal, some squared.
This time of year, mid-summer, the grapes are getting ripe for the picking, and the vines are fully green and leafy. A perfect time of year to experience this birds-eye view. Between the occasional bursts of fuel flares, we are suspended gently and silently over the valley. Simply heavenly!
As the morning turns to daylight, i am reminded of my trips up Mount Veeder on the Tour of Napa Century, with what i call the “onion-layer” blankets of fog lifting out of the valley as one climbs the mountain, gazing eastward. Our group (Balloons Above the Valley) comprises about 8 balloons; the other company, the competitor, is Napa Valley Balloon, Inc., and they are taking off/landing a few notches north of us; slightly different patterns in the patchwork on the balloons ( balloons tend to have more squared patterns, Napa Valley Balloons are more “swirled.” Altogether, we are about 15 bright, beautiful cloth lightbulbs at various elevations spread out over the valley. Peaceful, stunning. I’m no novice to the concept or experience of flight, whether experiencing it from a jumbo jet or a DC-3 or a Piper Cub or even the occasional sea-plane, but THIS is a different brand of crystalized time-space bliss than i’ve ever known.
The flight lasts about an approximately an hour, sometimes a bit less, sometimes up t about 1h 20 min. It sort of all depends on the winds. The pilot controls UP/DOWN and hopefully catches the currents to take the balloon in any of the horizontal directions. Today we circle southward to about mid-town Napa, then back up toward Yountville. Our “landing pad” field ends up being a field just opposite Hwy 29 from where we took off. I ask Rollie, since he can’t control exactly “WHERE” the balloon will end up… all dependent upon the wind currents and the skill of the pilot to outguess what elevation will have a certain current at a certain speed at a certain elevation, how common is it to land close to the takeoff point? he sez, that’s what the chase vehicles are for… and yet one time (in 22 years) he has set down in the exact spot from where he’d taken off… but that is obviously a real rarity!
There’s a certain amount of excitement and conversation amongst the pilots and chase crew regarding where the vehicles will be able to access the fields, which dirt roads can be used, etc. Also, the chase vehicles (equipment trucks and also passenger vans) can’t be too close to where the balloons need to land, although the landing crews need to be ready in the field to assist with the landing and deflation process. After some chatter, we set down about 3 feet from the northern-outside row of grapevines next to a brown field. We have been instructed to “brace” and use the rope hand-holds for each hand placed at about waist-level inside each portion of the basket, one set for each passenger. We alight gently on the rocklike (huge dirt-clods of previously plowed dirt/weeds) field, hardly a bump. Considering the enormous forces up above, in the still-inflated balloon, it’s an impressive feat! We look up, just before and just after the landing, to see the black inner-parachute portion of the balloon separate, jellyfish-like, from the main balloon, allowing the air to escape out the hole in the top. Huh, who woulda thunk it? But it all makes sense. The ground crew have also been busying themselves with unfolding and positioning a huge blue tarp over the rocky soil, where they will stage and then eventually fold up the balloon so they can later hoist the heavy package onto the truck and take it back “home” ready for the following week’s adventure. There’s a long halyard line from the top of the balloon that the ground crew grab hold of, to pull the balloon down toward the ground as it begins to deflate. The balloon will extend about 100 yards northward from where we stand in the basket. Then we climb out, one by one, and when we and Rollie have “deboarded”, the basket is rotated onto its side, and the ground crew resume their careful and painstaking work of stretching and then folding the balloon.
I grew up sailing, and on a relatively large boat (80-ft mast, 35 ft boom… i.e., a LOT of sail area), so am used to large expanses of nylon and canvas, but THIS is one heck of a spinnaker!!!
We locate and pile into the passenger vans, a somewhat random process… as it happens, Rollie drives ours, and we return to the Marriott where the balloon company has arranged a bountiful hot/cold buffet champagne brunch. The inner courtyard of the hotel grounds is arranged with a food station and many 8-top round tables, each table with place settings and individualized “framed” 6 x 8″ photos of each of us (couples; plus one of a generic ballon over valley shot). We find ours and then hit the buffet line, while the serving staff come around and pour champagne, orange juice and/or mimosas. As usual, my eyes are bigger than my stomach, and I have chosen a bit of EVERYTHING (except i pass on the link sausage, which is one of the few foods i’ve never liked, even as a kid… not just the grease factor, but the weird, salt but not much flavor taste): yoghurt/granola, fresh fruit, scrambled eggs with chanterels and cheese, several strips of meaty bacon – cooked just the way i like it, crisp but not burnt – and one small 1/4th of a waffle with whipped cream, fresh sliced strawberries and maple syrup, and of course a large cuppa Peet’s mixed with hot cocoa powder and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Ben looks at my plate and just shakes his head…. one of those moments his mind is visually churning, comparing me to our former-stray cat Nzambi who can’t get it through her head — even after 4 years — that she doesn’t have to compete for food anymore in the wild outdoors. His nicknames for her are interchangeably “Dumb-Sh**” and “Fatso.” He knows well enough to hold his tongue with regards to my over-eating habit!
I finished it all, the over-riding guilt about wasting food drilled into me at an early age working its evil but powerful magic….. bloat, gag, aaarrghhhhhh!
After brunch, we take a walk around the neighborhood, killing time (and walking off some of the huge breakfast) until the next part of the day’s adventures…. for Ben has also arranged a limo-driven wine-tasting tour.
The Marriott is hosting the Oakland Raiders for their spring training sessions, and during our walk we hear them going through their manuveurs in the field of the junior high school that is adjacent to the hotel. A large camera is mounted on an accordian-crane above the action, shooting the plays.
We arrive back at the Marriott with plenty of time for us to clean up….. Ben has worn his “afternoon” clothes, but I am going to change into my little sun dress… as I have been advised to do. Our pickup will be around 10:30 a.m., so we have about 1/2 hour to go.
A few minutes after 10:30, a dapperly clad, crisply ironed gentleman about age 40 comes to fetch us. Robert, who I believe owns the tour company/limo. He explains that we are the last party to be picked up in our group, and we follow him to a large black box-shaped bus with semi-black windows. We climb up into the van and meet the others in our party: Mark and Carol from South Carolina (Mark is a retired Air Force colonel), Kyle and Sue (from Indiana), and finally Herbert (from the Burgundy region of France) and his wife Jackie (from Cornwall, England). It’s an interesting mix, and I think we are all relieved that although we come from different and diverse backgrounds, geographies and cultures, we are all more or less the same age…. give or take 20 years (turns out we are also celebrating Jackie’s birthday, but she is turning 40. Mark & Carol are about 65 or 70, i’m guessing, both vibrant and outgoing. It’s a great group and this is a nice way to spend a day with folks you’ve just met….all sharing the same activity. We are all wine lovers in our own right, and Ben & I are the “locals” but Herbert brings the international, French-expertise to the party! Mark’s conversation tends to center on military subjects and golf, and Herbert shares a keen interest in the latter, and has worked somehow amongst the celebrities and pros in that sport, both as a player and I believe also connected to the food/catering aspects of it.
Our first stop is Jessup Cellars, in downtown Yountville, where Robert has arranged a private seating for our party. The dining room table is set for 10 or 12, with a platter of cheeses, crackers and chocolate discs for each couple. Each place we visit will have a tasting fee, typically $10-$20 per person, waived for each bottle purchased. The wines are brilliant. We leave with a few bottles.
Next we go to Grgich Hills Estate Winery on Hwy 29 in Rutherford. The winery was founded in 1977 by young Miljenko “Mike” Grgich from Slovakia whose Chardonnay (at another winery where he was winemaker) beat the best of France at the famed 1976 Paris Tasting with his 1973 Chateau Montelena, allowing Mike to partner with Austin Hills (of the Hills Bros Coffee Company family in San Francisco). Grgich Hills is therefore named after the two founders (and has nothing to do with “hills” in the geological or topographical sense, as one might presume). Mike is 89 and still actively running the winery. These days, the winery is a fully bio-dynamic certified (solar, sustainable, organic, 0-waste) producer, highly regarded in the industry as one of the fore-runners of “green” winemaking. Our tour guide/winery host today is Steve, who used to train orangutans at Marine World in a former career… and reminded me somewhat of my good friend and dive instructor, Eldon…. gregarious, witty, holding forth with a knowledgable but approachable next-door-neighbor manner. We left that place also with several bottles and a complimentary pair of engraved stemware, the glasses we’d tasted the wines in.
Our third stop is Rutherford Grove Winery and Vineyards (the Pestoni Family winery) in St. Helena, another small winery with a long-standing reputation in the community. Our hosts are Roger and a female colleague… and in conversation we learn that Roger is one of the growers. Rutherford Grove produces wines under two labels, its namesake and “Quackenbush Cellars.” Both labels have delightful and affordable offerings! A few 6-paks came home with us from here, too! Meanwhile, our tour-guide/driver Robert had prepared a picnic lunch which he served to us in the arbor of the winery, next to a beautiful lawn. Jackie got the idea she wanted to do cartwheels on her birthday, and Kyle followed …. well, here they are, tumbling around having a grand time but somewhat ineptly… so I just have to show them how it’s done….. only i’m wearing my little knee-length sundress…. but hey, at winery #3 we’re now in the company of friends, and besides, i’m wearing opaque panties and hose, so i’m somewhat decent.
The lunch is simple but yummy, prepared by Robert’s wife. Meat/cheese/sandwiches on brioche, a pasta salad with pesto, fresh cut fruit, some other delicacies I forget at the moment, some tirimisu, and the piece de’ resistance, chocolate-dipped strawberries. The entire experience at Rutherford Grove is lovely. A few days later, we received a personalized, hand-written thank-you card from Roger for visiting the winery. Now THAT’s a touch i’ve never seen in over 35 years of wine-tasting/touring!
Last of the day was a visit to Domaine Chandon… I had visited this winery noted for its sparkling wines about 30 years ago with good friends, and loved the expansive, well-tended gardens… also at that time enjoying a small meal in the dining room to accompany the tastings. Today for some reason, we went directly to the “bar” which now has gone fully electro-tech commercial… LED advertisement flashing on multiple flat-screens throughout the tasting room, and loud, ear-popping rock music blaring… definitely geared toward the young and yuppy market…. the feeling is highly impersonal and a sharp contrast to the three old-style family wineries we’ve visited earlier in the day. This vibe is also reflected (i see now when pulling up their URL) at the younger and flashier set. Also, at 3:00 p.m., they had “run out” of the complimentary signature, monogramed flutes that are supposed to be part of the deal with the $18-$20 tasting fee. We had our tastings and then the eight of us retreated to one of the outside tables in the afternoon sun, where Mark & Carol treated us to tastes from two bottles they’d purchased at 50% discount for “joining” the winery that day.
Without any snacks to accompany the bubbly, i’m feeling the effects of a full day of wine-wasting…. foggy head and slightly queasy, which lasts through the evening and into the next day.
Still, my sweet, thoughtful, interesting husband has arranged an extraordinary day for my big Six-O, a day i will cherish for many moons to come. Sweatie, you da man!! Thanks… so much….. extraordinary, i’m feeling lucky!