Napa Wine Tasting

by Alicia Bien

“I want wine for lunch,” my brother announced.
“But we’ve only just finished breakfast,” I said following him through the maze of carpeted hallways.
“In Napa,” he said unlocking the hotel suite door, “You have to plan ahead.”

My brother, his wife, my husband and I were vacationing in Napa Valley together. I never thought I’d string those words together in a sentence, but there we were. My older brother Mike lived in the Midwestern town I grew up in with his wife Eileen (whose brown hair was cut in a sensible bob) and their five children. After 15 years of marriage, kids’ diapers, chicken pox and soccer games, my brother and Eileen were finally taking a vacation—just the two of them. And they wanted my husband and I to tag along.

Crazy Midwesterners.

We drove up from Los Angeles; they flew into SFO. I’d insisted on reserving a separate room for my husband and I.

“Can’t,” Mike said. “Hotel’s booked. You’ll have to stay with us in our suite. It’ll be like the old days, crammed into that couch on wheels.”

He meant our family’s cross-country motorhome “space deprivation” vacation where we shared a bunk feet-to-feet, which was a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Several years older than me, Mike moved away to college about the time I was learning to read books without pictures. Our age difference meant he looked out for me, like a second father.

“We’ll meet you at the first winery!” Mike said as he and Eileen jumped into their rented Mustang and roared off. Since they drove a minivan at home, Mike was planning on cutting lose with this sports car. We followed them down highway 29, which narrows north of Yountville and becomes a quaint country road, albeit a well-paved one lined with sun-kissed rows of vines, grand oak trees and the stony Mayacama Mountains.

We started at Robert Mondavi, a beautiful winery with an engaging tour so full of Napa Valley history and wine tasting pointers that my husband and I lingered with the docent to learn more.

Finding us still in the wine shop, Mike approached quickly. “Hurry up,” he said, snapping his fingers. “We have to hit another winery before lunch,” before bee-lining for the exit.

“My brother just…finger-snapped me,” I said to my husband in shock. I felt like I was seven years-old all over again.

Even as adults, with family it’s easy to revert to old roles: Mike as the parent, me as the kid. Without a doubt, Mike and I were different. He lived in a small town; I lived in Hollywood. He had five busy kids; I adopted one cat with issues. He liked plans; I liked accepting what came and rejoicing in happy accidents.

“Finger-snapping at me like I’m some naughty kid is too much,” I said, stamping my foot.

My husband tried to defuse the situation saying Mike was my brother so we needed to accept Mike’s differences and follow his plans.

“Besides,” he added, “We’re bunking in their suite.”

I hate it when he’s right.

The four of us crossed the street to Opus One, the chic winery created by Robert Mondavi and Baron de Rothschild designed to unite the best of California and French winemaking. The building’s bold but tasteful architectural style matched the flavor of their Cabernet Sauvignon.

“I’ll try the white wine now,” my brother said emptying his red wine glass.
“We’re currently only offering the Cab for tasting,” the suited pourer said.
“But I’d planned on tasting a white wine, too.”
The pourer shrugged.
“Then I’ll get white wine over lunch,” Mike said jingling the car keys. “Let’s go to the restaurant.”

At the restaurant every tablecloth-clad table was full. The wait time for a free table was two hours.

“Let’s wait,” Mike said. “I planned on us eating here, so we have to eat here.” My stomach rumbled. I couldn’t wait two hours to eat. Eileen’s stomach growled; she couldn’t wait either.

“Let’s just go to a deli and get sandwiches,” I said.

“In Napa?” he said. “No way!” Eileen pulled him aside for a few choice words, which convinced him. Midwestern girls can be spunky.

At the Oakville Grocery, we bought gourmet sandwiches and organic cherries the color of rubies. “Now what?” Mike asked. My husband found a shady spot. I pulled a plaid blanket out of our trunk. Eileen grabbed a wine bottle from the case they bought at Robert Mondavi and all four of us picnicked.

It was a happy accident. We discussed tannins, the flavor differences between raspberries and mulberries and debated whether you can really get clean in a Calistoga mud bath. We opened another bottle. Surrounded by the vines, the grand oaks and the Mayacama Mountains, the sun kissed us that afternoon in Napa. And each successive day.

Five days in Napa brought us closer together than any cross-country RV trip. Yes, my brother and I were vastly different but I also saw how similar we were: we both married well, enjoyed good wine, shared a personal history and—despite everythingloved each other.

In Napa, Mike learned that happy accidents can lead to happier memories. And as for me and plans, I’ve started making them, especially a return trip to the Valley to see Mike and Eileen.

To Napa! To next year! To brothers and sisters! Cheers!

© Alicia Bien

Mondavi view
Napa Valley view
Opus One
Opus One
Opus One
Opus One view
Opus One view
Opus One barrels
fermentation tank

More by Alicia Bien on CCFoodie

Alicia Bien is a comedy writer and wine drinker who lives in Los Angeles with her director husband and adopted cat. You can catch more Alicia at her New House Girl blog ( and follow her at Twitter @aliciabienShe also writes sketch comedy as a Head Writer for Top Story! Weekly

photos: David Thompson for Napa Wine Project

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