The barrel room at Merryvale Vineyards
  • The barrel room at Merryvale Vineyards
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Visiting Napa Valley in the spring brings some unexpected surprises.

The off-season in Napa means fewer cars on the road, giving you more time to enjoy the scenery and the tasting rooms — crowd-free. Wine pourers have more time to be generous with their pours and their conversation. Vines aren’t heavy with grapes and bushy with foliage, but there is new growth, bright green and vibrant when backlit by the sun if you’re up early enough.

Napa locals are gracious and eager to share their favorite wines, wineries, winemaking tips and tours of their facilities. I’d highly suggest visiting to find some new favorite wines from limited production wineries that you can’t find in retail stores. There’s always Internet shopping, but you’d miss the experience.

The weather at this time of year is hit-or-miss. I was lucky enough to land in a three-day sunny window between rainstorms. The land was dewy, saturated and fresh with color. The air and the grass smelled sweet. Something I didn’t expect to find was the large population of California condors. If you pack a picnic near Lake Hennessey, you can watch these magnificent birds soar overhead.

On more than one occasion, we found ourselves on private estates (accidentally) to take in the scenery and take some photographs. Each time, we were greeted by friendly property owners who seemed happy to come over, shake hands and have a chat. There are a lot of San Diego transplants in the Napa region, many of them pouring wine for us.

Making new friends along the way, we met a woman working at a winery in Rutherford. She had family in the Escondido area and invited us for a dinner party later in the month. I’m looking forward to seeing her again to share stories, photos and more wine.

There’s a wonderful food center near downtown Napa, resembling a food court in a mall, called Ox Bow Market. It was different from what you’d expect — all the vendors were local artisans and growers. Shops were full of infused oils, specialty cheeses, appetizers, oven-baked pizzas, handmade tortillas, handcrafted household decorations, a spice shop, fresh dolce (sweets) and more.

At the Olive Press, you can buy tasty almonds roasted in olive oil, which will become an almond pesto in my kitchen in the near future. Don’t forget to check out Hog Island Oysters in the market for steamers, oysters, chowder and salad. Tuesday night is happy hour and local’s night.

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