Sep 052012

Let the Wine Country birthday celebration begin!

In 1960, John Steinbeck set out to reconnect with America accompanied by one companion, an “intuitive” standard poodle named Charley. The tale was recounted in the now classic book “Travels with Charley.” Steinbeck met the idea of the expedition with both excitement and trepidation. In July of 2012, I set out with my daughter, Whitney, to reconnect with the teenager turned young woman who had so matured, since leaving home for college three years earlier. My stated objectives were to celebrate her 21st birthday and introduce Whitney to the wonders of wine country. This father/daughter excursion was one I met, much like Steinbeck, with both excitement and trepidation.

When our eldest son turned 21, two years ago, we took a father/son trip to Napa. He had recently changed college majors to viticulture/enology (winemaking) at Texas Tech University and I thought it was my duty as a good wine-fearing (puns intended) father to introduce him to the place where I had fallen in love with wine long before his birth, Napa Valley. Upon our return, we regaled the family with our wine-stained tales. Whitney mentioned that she wanted to experience Napa Valley in the same way when she turned 21. Frankly, I didn’t pay much attention, assuming that at 21 she would have found something much more fun to do than share a hotel room, traipse through vineyards and drink wine with dad for a few days.

Imagine my surprise, pleasant surprise, to find that I had totally misjudged Whitney’s desire to spend some quality time with the old man. Since her birthday fell close to spring finals at Texas Tech, the trip had to be delayed until the summer and of course we had to work around the boyfriend’s schedule too, as not to be apart too long. But this was all a small price to pay because I was still surprised she wanted to take this dad trip. I was also concerned that 21 years of repeated wine country tales and fading photos may have created an illusion so big that even my beloved Napa and Sonoma could not live up to her expectations.

As our departure date approached our shared enthusiasm was noticeably building. Fun posts on Facebook and Twitter were commonplace and excited phone calls became more frequent. Still I was a little apprehensive. Though we had always been a close family, our time with the kids had diminished once they headed off to college. Summer jobs and internships in other cities had limited our time together. Whitney had left for college a bubbly teenager and was now a strong young woman and successful student. What secrets would I learn about this child I had sent off into the world? There would be no mother or brother buffers; just Whitney and me…mano e mono.

The details of the trip were kept secret to add a little daily anticipation. Each morning Whitney received a beautifully crafted itinerary her mother had artfully created, describing the day’s activities. The trip was not only designed to fortify Whitney’s wine knowledge but also to satisfy her interest in the culinary arts and boost her academic studies in Restaurant and Hotel Management (Hospitality). We boarded a Southwest Airlines 737 in Denver at 8AM on a sunny July Thursday…There was no looking back.

Touring San Francisco

Our first day was spent simply touring San Francisco. We did all the silly tourist things, a champagne brunch at Café de la Presse, stroll through Chinatown, Ghirardelli Square, photos on the cable car, gazing at the Golden Gate. The highlight event was a Champagne toast at sunset from the Top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel with a view of the bay. When my baby then ordered a martini, I smiled as I took in the young lady across my table. We spent the rest of the evening walking through the city, remembering tales of a childhood not long past and finished a very successful first day with Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista. My intrepidation began to wane.

The next morning was my first time to share a bathroom with a 21-year-old girl since I was in college. The potential logistical issues seemed daunting. Memories of her teenage girl nuclear disaster bathroom are still etched in my brain. But to my surprise, Whitney was up and ready to head out again at 8AM for Napa Valley. This was not the teenager that thought noon on Saturday was akin to a boot camp revelry call. Our first stop was at Caymus Vineyards, where I had fallen in love with Napa Valley in 1983. On that day, I spent a rainy afternoon in the muddy vineyards with founder, Charlie Wagner. Whitney spent a sunny morning in the same vineyards with Joe Wagner, Charlie’s grandson. In her eyes, I saw the same wonder and excitement that surely showed in mine, 29 years earlier. It was then I became confident, we were in for an amazing few days. Confirmation came in the form of her Facebook post “Who goes to Vegas for their 21st? I go to San Francisco and Napa.”

Our days were filled with winery visits and vineyard tours. The nights were filled with acclaimed Napa Valley restaurants, hip wine bars and flashy wine release parties.  Whitney experienced a level of passion and hospitality found in few places on this earth. She was intrigued as John Truchard (John Anthony Vineyards) poured his Church Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc as we stood amongst those very vines. James MacPhail (MacPhail Family Vineyards) offered lessons in “Pinot 101.” Jordan Vineyards surprised us with a bottle of 1991 Cabernet, Whitney’s birth year. We blended our own Cabernets at Raymond Vineyards.

Whitney at the CIA

Amelia Ceja with her daughter Dalia of Ceja Vineyards even had us to their home on our final afternoon for a wonderful winery anniversary fiesta. A heart-felt conversation with Dalia was just the encouragement Whitney needed to start the baking blog, Appleton, she’d been dreaming of creating. A photo was taken with Whitney’s chef idol Michael Chiraello and sweet dreams were conceived as she toured the Chocolate Laboratory in the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

I watched my baby girl, now a confident young woman; comfortably interact with total strangers who all shared a passion for wine and the wine country life. I did have to learn to keep my mouth shut and let her speak for herself; something Whitney had become quite capable of doing while away at college.

During our final evening we enjoyed a glass of wine with the winery owners who had so graciously allowed us to share their vineyard home. I listened with pride as Whitney shared her dreams, plans and aspirations. The father/daughter excursion I had met with excitement and trepidation had been a success. Our relationship, which had always been close, now seems closer in a more adult kind of way. Our conversations now have less of a parent/child tone and more mutual understanding of the hearts and passions that dwell within us.

Do I still worry about my little girl as she moves into her final year of college? Of course. Now however, I embrace her future with more excitement and a bit less trepidation than before my travels with Whitney.

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