A friend of mine from New York, Eric, called me the other day. He was coming out to California for a meeting in San Francisco and planned to spend the weekend visiting the Napa Valley. Eric told me he’d recently divorced and met a new woman, and he wanted to show her “the best of what the Napa Valley has to offer.”
“She loves wine,” he said.
“What kind?” I asked.
There was a long pause.
“Red, I think. Maybe white,” he said.
It was my turn to pause.
Everyone who lives in the Napa Valley has probably gotten a similar call at one time or another. Friends, family and even brief acquaintances from around the country — or globe — call, asking for advice about what to see and do in the valley. If you’re like me, you love getting these calls and being able to share those elements of the valley that you find wonderful.
However, also if you’re like me you’ve become a little cautious when it comes to answering the inevitable question: “Why don’t you join us?” That can sometimes result in days of driving around the valley like an Uber-taxi.
Sometimes, the way people talk it seems they believe that those of us fortunate enough to live here basically spend our days lounging in the vineyard with a glass of small-lot, handcrafted wine in one hand while enjoying a nibble of artisanal locally made cheese in the other, all while we use our sandal-clad feet to nudge an occasional bocce ball or two. And while some of that may go on, most of us have things to do and lives to lead. And anyway, how much cheese can one person eat?
But back to the dilemma at hand. My friend and his new girlfriend were looking for the quintessential Napa Valley experience.
“So what are you two into when you travel?” I asked.
In the background, a barrage of New York traffic had suddenly merged with what sounded like an army of jackhammers. “Oh, you know, the normal stuff,” Eric yelled into the phone.
“The normal stuff?” I asked.
“Yeah, you know, like exploring cool places, shopping at the best shops, eating at the hottest new restaurants and generally feeling like we are welcomed as locals everywhere we go,” he said. Then, as if it were an afterthought, he added: “By the way, can you and your wife join us?”
“Well, I think we’re busy that weekend,” I said, immediately realizing my error.
“But I haven’t told you the dates yet,” Eric said, and added, undeterred, “We’ll be there this coming weekend.”
The fact is that Eric is actually more of an acquaintance than a friend. We’ve met a few times when I’ve gone to New York to sell wine. He’s a stockbroker and has lots of contacts who are big fans of small-production wines from the Napa Valley. Through his friends, especially one named Bob, I’ve sold quite a bit of our wine.
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“Oh, sorry, but this weekend is completely —” I started.
“Bob’s going to join us,” he interrupted, his voice suddenly gaining a stronger New York accent. “He was hoping that you could join us, too.”
I was stuck. My wife and I had not enjoyed a weekend alone together for months, and for the three previous weekends we’d gone to wine events. We had promised each other to stay at home this coming weekend, work together in the garden, eat simple meals and watch lots of movies. But Bob bought about two cases of wine a year. And this was the good stuff, paying us about $95 a bottle, or $2,280 a year. Not only that, Bob was a great advocate of our wine, getting many of his friends to purchase some of their own.
“Oh, you mean this weekend,” I said, almost choking on my own words. “We are completely free this weekend. It will be great to see you all.”
Eric’s voice softened. “That’s great,” he said and added: “Can you drive us around and get us reservations at The French Laundry?”
“You want reservations at The French Laundry this weekend?” I asked. “That’s not going to happen. I’m not even sure Obama could pull that one off.”
“That’s fine then, you pick the spot, and thanks for driving,” he said.
I wasn’t really listening. All I could picture was telling my wife that we would be busy again this weekend. “It’s business,” I’d explain and she’d look at me like she does sometimes. I knew what she’d say because she’d said it to me only the night before: “Business is important, but time is even more important.”
I paused for a long time.
“Tim, you still there?” Eric finally asked.
“I’m here,” I said, “but you know what, Eric, I’m really sorry about this, but my wife and I already have plans for this weekend.”
There was a long pause before the sound of jackhammers was joined by a chorus of car horns.
“Bob is going to be disappointed,” he said, his accent returning.
“I am, too,” I said, but I don’t think I could hide the relief in my voice.
“Don’t worry,” I quickly added. “I’ll write up a suggested itinerary for your weekend with my top suggestions for spur-of-the-moment travelers, which will include dinner at Angele in Napa, where you will eat exceptional, but not fussy, food, and certainly be welcomed like family when you enter. I’ll probably also suggest you head up to Chateau Montelena in Calistoga, as they don’t require reservations and the winery helped usher in today’s ‘Napa Valley’ by winning the 1976 Paris Tasting with their 1973 Chardonnay. Plus, their winery and grounds are spectacular.”
There was a long pause. “We were really hoping you could join us.”
“Look, you guys are going to have a wonderful time,” I reassured him. “It’s tough to go wrong this time of year in the Napa Valley. The next time just give us a little bit more lead time so we can take you for an early-morning hike around Lake Hennessey before visiting one of the fantastic array of Pritchard Hill wineries, like Chappellet. For lunch, we’ll head to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena followed by heading back to Napa to view art at the Hess Collection Winery. And next time, given enough lead time,” I added, “we might also be able to get you reservations at The French Laundry.”