My first visit to the wine country was for a weekend of corporate planning, goal setting, team building; a typical work retreat with my first job out of college. What I
remember most from that trip was the team building – a bike ride through sun-soaked vineyards, with frequent stops for tasting the region’s top export. There’s nothing like a little wine to help timid office mates connect. As my fellow coworkers and I rode along, our adventure took an interesting turn when my boss realized that none of us were fit to ride back to the hotel. Sensing the frustration and fatigue of her troops, she called a few cabs to safely return us to the welcoming embrace of our blush-hued resort, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa.
Since then, my occasional trips to the wine country have been just as memorable. My cousin’s wedding, a dinner at French Laundry with a friend who lost a bet, and most recently my visit to the Napa Valley Film Festival.
The film festival, now in its sixth year, is the brainchild of a dynamic duo, Marc and Brenda Lhormer. Beyond bringing their extensive experience in event planning to the festival, the Lhormers produced Bottle Shock, a film about the Judgement of Paris, a controversial wine competition that put Napa Valley on the map. When I spoke with Marc about how their movie production background informs the energy and focus of this festival, he replied, “we have tremendous empathy for the filmmakers who come through every year. We know what it’s like in the trenches and what they go through – we are supportive of the producers.”
And what is produced every year here in Napa Valley is not just a film festival. It is a feast for your senses. The calendar is filled with events and tastings featuring award-winning restaurants and vineyards from the region. “What makes Napa Valley Film Festival unique is that it’s epicurean, it’s sensual. You’re not just seeing great films – you’re eating and drinking the best stuff! We really weave that into the experience.” I’d definitely have to agree with Marc’s words. At the opening night party, we were treated to an epic feast hosted by Chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega. His delectable bites floated among wines from Quixote Winery, an array of sweets from Kollar Chocolates, and late-night nibbles, my favorite being the mozzarella bar: two words that should always be together.
One thing’s for sure when traveling through the wine country: you will have the opportunity to taste delicious wine and food at every turn. I was reminded of this when I returned to my hotel, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, only to be greeted by turn-down service that included champagne and truffles. Sinking into my jacuzzi bathtub, I thought back to the first time I visited this resort during the aforementioned team building weekend and how much had changed in my life since.
Still digesting the powerful and heart wrenching scenes from the film festival premier of Lion, I sat back amidst the bubbles and thought about Saroo’s quest for his identity, his past, and a piece of his genetic history that would complete him. Amongst many memorable scenes, I replayed the scene where Saroo tears up the maps, the guide, and the outline in his frustration. Only after doing this does his quest open up to divine guidance – literally. Then I thought about my own quest and how I’ve tossed the map aside many times, only to be guided by a special energy leading me along.
There’s not many things that will lead me out of bed early in the morning, but a short walk to the spa was well worth it. Fairmont’s Willow Stream Spa, which was recently awarded “Best Hot Springs” by Wellness Travel, is a sanctuary unto itself. I started my day with a restorative yoga session surrounded by large windows that looked out at wispy shoots of green bamboo. After realigning my spine, chakras, and perspective, I thought, why not more of this, and took in the water yoga class at the Watsu pool below.
Luckily for my body, and my skin, the resort is one of the few luxury spas in the country with its own source of thermal mineral water, which is found in all of the pools at Fairmont Sonoma. As I slid into the warm water, our instructor shared some of the minerals that were present: manganese, potassium, zinc, calcium, and copper, just to name a few. Dipping my head back into the water for savasana pose, I was led to even further relaxation with the sounds of soft pipe music melting my muscles into the water. When wrapped up in a blissful state such as this, it’s hard to leave the oasis of Willow Stream Spa. But when your afternoon agenda includes a visit to an award-winning vineyard, it’s just the push you need.
Tucked in the Carneros region of Napa Valley, Ceja Vineyards is a family run vineyard, where I instantly felt at home as I was greeted by Dalia Ceja, who shared a little of the vineyard’s history. “This land, which used to have horses, rams, and sheep roaming freely, is my childhood home. The house, which is surrounded by 15 acres of pinot noir, was built by my father in 1985. It is here where I first learned about the labors of wine-making.”
Since then Dalia has gone on to earn her MBA in wine business, perfecting the knowledge that she learned in the fields with her father and siblings. Leading me through the front part of the property, which is surrounded by the fields growing their chardonnay grapes, we were joined by Amelia Ceja, founder of the vineyard and former California “Woman of the Year”, an honor she earned for breaking glass ceilings in a very competitive industry. Hearing Amelia, who is a living encyclopedia, share the history of this region is reason enough to visit the vineyard. “The indigenous Guapo Indians used to live on these lands, so when building our vineyard, we consulted with experts who understood the history and the topography of these lands. We are in the southernmost part of Napa Valley with the Napa River running throughout and creating this fluvial soil due to the River. If you’re a grape, this is Eden.”
Amelia, who recently gave a guest lecture at Stanford’s Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative, guided our tour toward the “capilla”, the small chapel that sits at the edge of the vines. As Dalia and Amelia highlighted the custom artwork and stained glass windows that adorned the walls of the capilla, it was clear that I had been led to a special place. “There is nothing like this in the wine country. We want to be inclusive of all religions, we want everyone to feel welcome here. There’s a sense of spiritual energy that’s welcoming. Nuestra casa es su casa”, said Dalia with a warm smile that can put anyone at ease.
I could definitely feel the embrace of this place as I looked up at colorful glass images of Moses, Buddha, the Black Madonna, and of course the Virgen de Guadalupe. Walking around the back of the capilla, which has a private dining area perfect for an intimate tasting or team meeting, Amelia provided some more background on the decor. “A gift from the foundry, this bell at the top of the tower is a genuine El Camino Real bell like the ones you’ll see at the missions and along the side of the road. It’s the same technology that was used many years ago to design these historical bells.” Acknowledging the controversial history of the missions, Amelia gave me a short lesson about the land, talked about the art that they had commissioned for this space, and walked us around to their symbolic cemetery. “Nobody is buried here. But everything that should be dead is buried here: bigotry, discrimination, sexism.”
As this regal mother and daughter duo wandered back to the tasting room, I stayed behind to take in the meditative energy of this space. What a beautiful homage to everything that had come before: the indigenous that had lived off of these lands centuries before, the farmers that had plowed and picked the fields of the wine country, and the contributions of Latino artists to the diverse fabric of California’s landscape.
Catching up with Dalia at the edge of the bocce ball courts that her father, Pedro built, I learned a bit more about the Ceja family. “Here we have Bacchus and Dionysus battling each other, with the color of the balls representing our pinot noir and chardonnay. We want people to have fun – it’s an experience here at Ceja!”
To continue my experience, I began my tasting of Ceja’s prized wines while the aroma of fresh chiles came wafting from the kitchen. Listening intently to Dalia describe the fermentation process, the climate differences between Napa, Sonoma, and Calistoga, and other nuances of the wine region, I decided that my favorite was their vintage Sauvignon Blanc. “This wine is grown at our Sonoma Coast adobe vineyard about 45 minutes west of this tasting room. We use French oak judiciously, and this one has some grapefruit and guava characteristics.” With each sip, I began to understand more of Dalia’s explanation and made a mental note to take home a bottle.
As I finished my tasting, Amelia graciously served me quesadillas with arugula and Spanish chorizo, piled high with her salsa made fresh from those chiles I had inhaled only a bit ago. This impromptu feast was paired with their award-winning Cabernet that was also served during the Napa Valley Film Fest Saturday gala. Savoring each bite of this sumptuous meal, Amelia and I chatted about everything from social media, to the challenges of being a Latino business owner, to our shared love of author Isabel Allende. Recounting the details of one of our favorite books, Daughter of Fortune, I thought about how fortunate I was to have been led here to sit with this inspiring businesswoman who has started a legacy for her family and the region of Napa Valley.
There was nothing more comforting than wrapping up a day of delicious wines and home cooked food than falling back onto the cozy couch in my suite, warmed by a crackling fire. Easing into its embrace, I looked at the calendar for the film festival and began to plan the next day. How to choose among so many enticing options? I thought back to my interview with Marc when he discussed how they chose films for their festival. “We like to show films that people would really relate to; we’re representative of the audience. The films are less edgy and more positive, with upbeat, amazing documentaries.” Scanning the list, I decided to see Crossing Rachmaninoff, a feature documentary that beautifully blended the story line of pianist Flavio Villani’s personal and professional quests.
Watching Flavio’s gifted hands dance across the keys, I was grateful that he decided to hone his gift and forgo his “safe” career as an IT professional. Thinking back to the film, Lion, I realized there were a lot of similarities between Saroo and Flavio. As they tossed aside the map that had been laid out before them, their true destiny began to open up. And witnessing Flavio’s destiny to become a world-class musician unfold on screen brought joyful tears to my eyes. Tears that seemed to ebb and flow to the melody of Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece concerto.
Leaving the screening, I headed over to Bar Terra, a gastronomic gem tucked behind St. Helena’s Cameo Cinema. Knowing that it was quite difficult to get a reservation, I lucked out and found space at the bar, eager to chat about all things film, food, and wine with the other patrons. Not hungry enough for their full tasting menu, I opted for the most perfect bowl of polenta soup, another masterful dish created by Michelin Star Chef, Hiro Sone. Making sure to save room for dessert, I originally had my eye on the goat cheese cake, but went with the apple and almond bisteeya, a recommendation from my bartender, Stephen. Always take a dessert recommendation from a man who makes his own grenadine. Each bite of the light and flaky bisteeya melted in my mouth, with soft flavors of cinnamon and wild flower honey easing it along.
One of my favorite past times is visiting museums and art galleries, so when the Fairmont concierge recommended that I visit Imagery Estate Winery, a winery that also has a gallery on-site, I knew I had to pay a visit. Once inside, my wine guide and impromptu docent, Lilly, led me through their space. “What’s unique about Imagery is our labels, with each piece being commissioned to incorporate the Parthenon logo in a creative interpretation by each artist.” Originals of past labels hang beside Imagery’s top-sellers and wines reserved for club members, encouraging visitors to not only broaden their palate for wine, but their appreciation for art. Upon leaving, I passed a piece called Lion, a watercolor by Laura Ball that will be used for a future wine label. I told Lilly about how I now knew why I was led to this winery; Lion was a feature film at the festival, and my dad was a Leo, two reminders to always trust my path.
Stopping back by the Fairmont for a quick bite before heading back to the festival, I indulged in a juicy hamburger at 38º North. This wasn’t just any hamburger; it needed no fixings or extras. Using Mindful Meats, a local company that produces 100% organic, non-GMO, grass-fed beef, this delectable burger is layered with smoked fiscalini cheddar, caramelized onions, bacon, and pimentón aioli. Mouthwatering to say the least!
The great thing about 38º North is that it is led by Chef de Cuisine, Andrew Cain, who also orchestrates the menu at Santé, Fairmont’s Michelin-rated restaurant and one of Elite Traveler’s top 100 restaurants in the world . Chef Cain’s inspiration for the menu comes from “the change of season, what is available at the farm, a conversation with another chef, or a memory.” And memorable it was. Having already tried their lobster bisque and charcuterie after the hotel’s nightly wine tasting, I made a note to come back and try Chef Cain’s favorite: “a Venison entrée that comes from a 55,000 acre ranch in Wyoming that raises the animals in a natural free range environment. We are serving it with petit vegetables grown locally, as well as a sauce prepared with wild huckleberries harvested from the coast.”
My last film of the festival was Pisco Punch, a lively documentary that traced the history of one of Peru’s most spirited exports. The film weaves anecdotes from Peruvian distillery owners, mixology tips from renowned bartenders, and haunting images from Peru’s troubled past. Now experiencing a revival, Peru is luring travelers to its diverse culture with a dynamic food scene, and of course pisco. Watching the artfully prepared cocktails and cuisine flash by on screen, I instinctively felt that Peru may have to be my next destination.
At the wrap party, I compared my favorite films, and of course favorite eats, with other festival goers’ top picks. During the party, I bumped into pianist Flavio Villani, excitedly telling him that I had gone back a second time to see his film after hearing that he was going to perform live for the film festival audience. We chatted about some of our other favorite classical pieces, his family recipes highlighted in the film, and the challenges of being an artist. Looking around the party at my fellow artists, and the filmmakers who had conquered insurmountable situations to create their films, I was reminded of the words from Flavio’s brother featured in the film: “Having faith in yourself is the biggest obstacle that you have to overcome.”