The holidays are a time to reflect and celebrate life with friends and family. However, after a month of love, celebration, holiday lunches and dinners, parties, and hangovers, my ass needed a sabbatical. Don’t get me wrong, family and friends; I love you to death, but after dropping my kids off at their mom’s on Christmas morning, Lauren, my side kick, and I bolted to Solage in Calistoga for a few days to reflect. To be instead of being. To bathe in the afterglow of Santa’s ass sleighing off into the sunset.
As Lauren and I arrived at Solage, the desk person mentioned that the resort was completely sold out. We were surprised; who’d’ve thought so many people would be clamoring to go to a vacation spot in the wine country over the holidays? Good thing we had a reservation.
It being Christmas Day and all, not much was open in town, so we enjoyed the day wandering the grounds, back and forth from our room to the bar to watch football and the Warriors. Strolling around, we noticed the decidedly minimalist approach they’d taken to the Christmas holiday and how few people were wearing celebratory clothing. It was obvious to us that we weren’t the only ones looking for a holiday reprieve.
After dropping off our luggage, we returned to the hotels Michelin-starred restaurant, SolBar, to have lunch. We started chatting with our bartender, and he told us something I hadn’t heard: The Four Seasons is planning to open a resort with private homes directly across the street from Solage, in early 2019. I love the Four Seasons; shit, who doesn’t? Obviously, though, Solage has got to be a little nervous about a huge company like Four Seasons setting up shop across the street, and with good reason. If you want to read about it, check out this article from the North Bay Business Journal
Over the next few days, we ate, visited wineries, and ate some more. A lot more. On Wednesday, on our way home, we decided to hit a few wineries and grab lunch in Yountville. Yountville is my favorite town in the Napa Valley; its density of great restaurants within walking distance of your hotel is hard to beat—French Laundry, Bouchon, Ad Hoc, Redd, and Bottega, to name just a few. I usually stay at Bardessono, a beautiful hotel with yet another great restaurant, Lucy (Top-secret tip: take your date to Lucy for a drink, breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and then point them toward the toilets. I guarantee you won’t see them for a half an hour; each individual stall has an imported toilet from Japan, with directional front and back pulsating heated water, heated toilet seat, and directional drying heater. Whenever we’re there, Lauren gives me the look—“see you later”—with a smile and then disappears).
Wine country is beautiful, yes, but there are risks. While you’re enjoying the valley, unbeknownst to you, as you slowly eat the forbidden fruit and inhale the valley’s intoxicating aromas, before you know it you’ll have contracted a nasty disease. I call it Napa Valley Attitude Disease (NVAD). The expensive wine, multi-million dollar estates, posh tasting rooms, Michelin-starred restaurants, and of course wineries that ooze money from their walls—it all slowly-but-surely starts having an affect on you. The tasting room staffs nurture and coax it along, and before you know it, your snootiness level starts climbing. You start imagining yourself in a spread from The Robb Report and—just like that—you’re Louis the XIV, complete with pink tights, powdered wig, red lipstick, and of course, glass held high, toasting and boasting of your grand successes.
Trust me, folks, it ain’t pretty watching your average mid-scale slob turn into a pompous snob, all the more so when you’re looking in the mirror. This disease is real, and it can have long-lasting affects if you don’t address it, so listen up.
I’ve caught NVAD more than a handful of times, walking into a bathroom after a few hours of wine tasting, glancing at myself in the mirror and catching myself chuckling smugly, like I’m The Most Interesting Man in the World, only sipping on Champagne instead of a Dos Equis. Well hello, stud! I remember a few times being so scared of myself, I attempted to run down Washington Street to St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church to beg for an exorcism—Get this thing outta meeeeeee!— But NVAD being such a powerful disease, I consistently got distracted by JCB’s Mirrored Champagne Salon – oh doesn’t this look luxurious…..
Luckily, there is a cure for NVAD. When you feel the early stages, you can ride it out for a while just for fun, but you must know when to stop. The tipping point is when, say, you’re about to sign up for your second wine club of the day or purchase your third case of wine; either of these is a warning sign, and you need to pump the brakes and get the hell out of wherever you are immediately.
The cure is easier than you think. If you’re in Yountville, for example, just head over to Pancha’s, Yountville’s oldest business on Washington Street and Yountville’s last remaining dive bar. With its decaying façade, gravel parking lot, mirrored beers signs, nicotine colored walls (smoking is allowed), half-cocked stools, two pool tables, and multiple dusty TV screens, Panchas is a sure cure for NVAD.
Pancha’s is the last holdout in a town where a goodly number of people would like nothing more than to see this eyesore removed from their precious hamlet once and for all time. Rose Solis and her family own Pancha’s, and Rose herself has been tending the bar for the past 35 years. The Solises have been able to hold onto the property primarily because the mortgage has been paid off, and yet they can’t improve the property due to city-mandated design restrictions, which means they’d be shut down if they were to make any changes. So here they sit, rotting façade and all, happy to keep this glorious dive rolling along.
What I love most about Pancha’s is the diverse demographics of its patrons. You’ll see veterans, waiters and waitresses, Culinary Institute students, field workers, winery workers, tourists, drunks, bums, suits, post-wedding attendees, post French Laundry diners—the list goes on. The place is always busy, especially at night, and when you arrive you’re greeted with a smile and unpretentious service. Sometimes there’s live music. One important thing to remember: Pancha’s only takes cash, which, come to think of it, is another essential part of your NVAD treatment—no credit cards!
As Lauren and I rolled into town, we’d talked about lunch at Redd, but as I’d been battling NVAD for a few days, I said, “let’s see if the taco truck is in the parking lot at Panchas.” She just smiled, game as usual, thats my girl! We pulled into the lot and, Nirvana! There she was, one of my favorite taco trucks in the Valley: Tacos Garcia. The Garcias throw down some of the best barrio tacos and burritos I’ve had the pleasure of eating, rivaling anything in San Francisco’s Mission District. The shit is that good!
I started salivating immediately. I knew exactly what I wanted: an al pastor (spicy pork), cabeza (beef cheek), and carne asada taco. A few minutes later, as I received my plate through the truck’s tiny window, the aroma hit me. I knew it was going to be good, and was it ever. All three meats were perfectly tender, moist, and seasoned, accompanied by radishes, lime, and a grilled jalapeño. It took all of a minute or two before my tacos disappeared and I sat smiling, pleased with my decision to stop here.
As I stood there contemplating the state of my NVAD after eating and drinking in the valley over the previous few days, I knew I needed more medicine, so I returned to the taco truck window, Lauren at my side. As the window opened, our order taker had a huge smile. “More?” he said. I responded with lingering NVAD: “But of course,” and, “I would like to “enjoy” a Carne Asada and an Al Pastor burrito, por favor, bah ha ha. “No problem,” he said as he disappeared back into the truck, reappearing minutes later with two Dura Flame-sized burritos.
Lauren and I brought our logs into Pancha’s and sat down, joining a few older gentlemen sitting at the bar and two couples playing pool. We asked Rose for two beers and started unwrapping our foiled beauties. As I bit into my burrito, I knew I was well on my way to a full recovery from NVAD. We both sat there for the next few minutes not talking, eyes rolling back in our heads in sheer delight with how good these burritos were and how nice it was to escape the glitter of Yountville. My douche-baggy airs had disappeared completely, replaced with talk of projects I needed to get done around the house. One-hundred percent recovery!
Driving off down Highway 29, I looked over at Lauren and smiled. I felt normal again. Pancha’s bar and Garcia’s Tacos had cured me, and they’ll cure you, too. So next time you’re traveling in the Napa Valley, be sure to get a good dose of your local taco truck and dive bar along the way. Remember, Napa is beautiful, and so is the landscape and food, but to survive its vices, you need to be ever mindful of the Five Star to Dive Bar credo: enjoy the high-end pleasures, yes, but visit the underbelly to find balance.
If you enjoyed this story, check out a story about a recent visit to Portland and my favorite Thai food restaurant Pok Pok.