True to its food-bowl heritage, San Francisco has embraced fine produce to become a cosmopolitan foodie haven, writes Flip Byrnes.
It's 9.30am and we're sucking red wine through a pipette. It's not a usual start to a Wednesday, but this isn't any normal Wednesday. Rather, it's a wine-blending class at Ravenswood Winery in the Sonoma Valley and I'm optimistic my personally blended wine could be the start of an award-winning, big-buck winemaking career. Penfolds, watch your back.
This unusual situation of sucking on a post-breakfast wine pipette (not to be called a "bubble blower" or "wine bong", the winemaker jokes) isn't the only unique element to this trip. My first visit to the wine region around San Francisco also involves being on a tour, and not just any tour. It's a Trafalgar trip, where tours are renamed "guided holidays" and tour guides are coined "travel directors" - so we'll be nudged in the right direction, then left to roam free.
For an independent traveller, the concept of a group tour is slightly disconcerting. But with promises of "hidden treasures" (experiences so far off the beaten track even locals can't find them) and "be my guest" meals (meeting winemakers, celebrity chefs and visiting back-alley fortune-cookie factories), this is a fast track to San Francisco's belly. Being a food- and wine-focused tour, the belly is the appropriate place to be and I'm expecting the glass to always be half full and the water to flow like, well, wine.
It's easy to believe American cuisine is a wasteland of fast-food buffalo wings and super-sized burgers - but some cities, such as San Francisco, which have retained their agricultural roots, will change your mind. Originally named "Yerba Buena", after local wild fennel and herbs, the city has flowered in both size and reputation and serious foodie seeds have been sown. To take a bite of San Francisco, the best place to start is the seaside Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, the core of the local sustainable-food industry.
Sense of plates
It's a sunny day, and the Embarcadero boardwalk is buzzing. Ringing the former ferry building are stalls such as Happy Girl Kitchen, selling seasonal bounty with its pickled and pureed bottles of beans, cucumbers, beets and root vegetables. We pass trays of king, trumpet, oyster, shiitake and button mushrooms from Eatwell Farm and sight Swedish-born chef Staffan Terje on the hunt for truffles for his Italian dishes at Perbacco.
It's tempting to join the line for Blue Bottle Coffee snaking around the building (I don't even drink coffee, but a line this long must mean something good), however, 140 stores wait inside.
Luckily we have Lisa, of Edible Excursions, to lead the way through this labyrinth of produce. Thanks to Lisa, providores greet us personally, samples are waiting at every turn. This insider experience is reserved for Trafalgar guests.
Passing Recchiuti Confections (famed for its salted caramel) and artisan Scharffen Bergen chocolates, I follow my nose, literally, to Cowgirl Creamery. Giddy-up, cheese lovers! Cheese "culture" once involved Cracker Jack and Cheese Whiz. But how times have changed. Cowgirl Creamery offers cheddar, cow's and sheep's milk cheese, goudas, softs, hards, blues, washed rinds: more than 100 cheeses. But the star is Mt Tam, the decadently buttery, triple-cream cheese.
Or so I think, eyeing the Trafalgar chief executive buying one. He lives in Geneva, knows his cheese and never leaves San Francisco without a Mt Tam. But then I'm offered a slice of Red Hawk (named after the squawkers at Mount Tamalpais). It's Mt Tam, rind washed with salt water, resulting in a show-stopper of a strong cheese dressed in sunset hues, able to steal the show anywhere, any time. The only thing missing are maracas.
It's not difficult to resist the meat cone from Boccalone, advertising "Tasty Salty Pig Parts"; pork and cheese aren't a famous mix. Instead the Gluten Free Mariposa Bakery beckons. The owner has multiple sclerosis, (a gluten-free diet is sometimes recommended), and voila: cakes and treats are created from rice flour, potato starch and tapioca.
There's only two things missing in the markets. Styrofoam and plastic bags. Eighty-five per cent of San Francisco rubbish is recycled or composted. In efforts to be green, San Francisco stands head and shoulders above other urban areas, with aims to be rubbish-free by 2020. Impressive stuff.
If the way to a woman's heart is through her stomach, I'm slowly falling in love with this slice of the US. And at B, a simply named, simple-food-serving restaurant, seduction continues.
In a glass-atrium setting, its atmosphere is casual, rustic and friendly - (the chef even wanders over to our table), but it's the food that has made B a hot ticket on the San Francisco food scene.
Food is sourced from within a 60-kilometre radius; when considering the area contained within, that's an entire picnic basket. On this day, it seems they found corn. The mustard yellow, creamy corn soup explodes with flavour, lining the back of my throat with a velvety consistency. The only downer is that, unlike a cow, I have one stomach not four. Which means the juicy Hangar steak sits forlornly on the plate, untouched. Likewise the creative corn creme brulee. Rookie error: never visit the food markets before B.
Good food, of course, is accompanied by fine wine. And that's how I find myself two days later, sucking up a post-breakfast wine aperitif in a wine-blending class. I'm not just after a nice wine, I am searching for The One. A wine that makes the drinker sigh, olfactory senses igniting, and ask for one thing. More.
There are almost 400 wineries in the Napa and Sonoma valleys, the sleepy vineyards an autumnal tapestry of russet reds and golds just 40 minutes' drive from downtown. A maze of microclimates delivers varied wines, from popular chardonnay and cabernet, to the unusual, such as nebbiolo and viognier.
Ravenswood's famous tipple is zinfandel. The thickly skinned, tightly clustered zinfandel berries can be a mould disaster, but not here, where it's cool and dry. We're mixing it with carignan, an acid-saturated old-world grape, to balance the sugary zinfandel and add mid-tongue tingle. And finally, petite sirah (actually durif, a minor Rhone syrah-pelourism hybrid) for structure.
Ravenwood's motto is "No Wimpy Wines" and true to the winery, my final blend, presented in a personal bottle, has the guts of an action hero and so much body it makes Sophia Loren look waif-like. In short, it's Terminator 3 and Basic Instinct rolled into one, aggressive and sexy, guaranteed to blow your socks off. But drinkable? Hmmm. Penfolds, your Grange is safe ... so far.
I'm keen to see what the professionals are doing. And so ensues Goldilocks behaviour. One wine is too thin, the next too sweet, too much aftertaste. I do love the sparkling wine at Domaine Carneros. But more appealing is that Domaine Carneros is a chateau (founded by Frenchman Claude Taittinger of that champagne), a whimsical piece of France smack-bang in California.
From Provence to Tuscany, we arrive at Castello di Amorosa. As the name suggests, it's a labour of love by owner Dario Sattui. Modelled on a 13th-century Italian castle, it's so vast (107 rooms over four levels, including a torture room and Great Hall) that our guide instructs: "Don't get lost. I've found grown men crying down here."
One can't help admire Signor Sattui for his love, his dedication and his wines, sold only from the cellar door. Sitting next to a 500-year-old fireplace imported from Umbria, sipping Il Barone Reserve, a cabernet sauvignon blend, I think this could be "it". It's lust. But not love.
But love is waiting, and as usual arrives when unexpected, this time delivered by Round Pond Winery in Calistoga. Served in shot glasses, the first liquid we down is delightfully bitter, pungent, grassy. The second, mellow and rich. I pause, glass in hand, and almost swoon, feeling the pitter-patter of taste buds frolicking in excitement. But it's not wine at all, it's olive oil. Olive oil aficionados won't be surprised that olive oil making, and processes, are as complex as those involved in wine - with results as varied. But it's news to me, and this olive oil is sublime.
Round Pond used to haul its olives from 4.8 hectares with 2200 trees to the community mill; now it owns one of only two private mills in Napa. Considering a tree produces 3.7 litres of oil (grapes make five times more wine), olive oil making is a pastime for the passionate.
It's not just an interesting pastime for the owners, but a wild ride for the olives. After being shaken onto nets, olives go into a silver bin, take a roller-coaster trip up an escalator, head into a spinner (spitting out leaves, later composted) and have a spa treatment in bubbling water before being squashed.
A horizontal and vertical centrifuge are next, separating solids and liquids, then liquids and water. Two hours, 15 minutes later, with another eight minutes into a bottle, the oil is ready. No transport, no bruising, with minimal oxygen exposure - this is as close as it gets from tree to bottle.
One last stop is at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in San Francisco. Unravelling the fortune, it reads: "Keep your mind open to new discoveries, and enjoy." Licking my lips, I have the extra kilograms to prove I've done exactly that.
Flip Byrnes travelled courtesy of Trafalgar Tours
Getting there: United flies direct to San Francisco. Trafalgar offers new Taste of America programs in 2013 with exclusive experiences, including San Francisco and Wine Country Delights and Wonders and Flavours of the Golden State. trafalgar.com.
Need to know: Shop-arama Pack half a suitcase and check dates (such as the Thanksgiving sales). A Macy's Welcome International Savings Card offers foreigners 10 per cent discounts (ask in-store).
Beat the queues: Want to take a historic cable car? Stand in a long line at Fisherman's Wharf. Or follow the locals and take the California line car (east-west cross town) for an iconic experience (it's legal to stand on the outside and hang on!)
Snack attack: There's more organic produce than you can poke a fork at. In quaint Helena, dine at Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen. In Haight-Ashbury, head to Cha Cha Cha for a tres leches cake (including evaporated milk, condensed milk and whole milk), while the opium opulence of Tommy Toy's in Chinatown is a must and for seaside atmosphere, try Scoma's Sausalito. cindysbackstreetkitchen.com; cha3.com, tommytoys.com; scomassausalito.com.
Stay connected: Trafalgar coaches have on-board Wi-Fi, perfect for sharing your latest discovery.