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Danville Express

Column - July 18, 2008

Diablo Views: Wine, ravioli and tennis

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

The four of us hadn't been together since Christmas 2006 but we didn't miss a beat. Our family reunions are rare because son Pepe lives in Berlin. Last week he was in town and daughter Zoe coordinated a visit here from San Diego to hunt for an apartment in San Jose, where she starts a teaching job next month.

We decided to take a short family trip to a winery outside Healdsburg owned by two of my husband Jim's cousins since we'd been meaning to visit them for years - plus we all like wine. Also it would be a convenient hop from there to one of our favorite restaurants in the whole world.

We pulled up at Armida Winery at 1 p.m. Tuesday, right in the middle of the heat wave. Steve and Bruce Cousins - Jim's cousins, still referred to by the family as Stevie and Brucie - came striding out in their wine country shorts to greet us. What a gorgeous setting. Armida has a view of the Russian River Valley, and a large deck with picnic tables shaded by a huge oak tree overlooks a pond and a vast lawn. A bocce ball court properly made of ground oyster shells sits at the far edge of the grass, harkening to their Italian heritage, shared with Jim through Grandma and Grandpa Ciardelli.

After a tour of the winery - including a taste of newly fermented zin, chilled and straight from the cask - we settled in the tasting room, admiring their awards and a fun assortment of clothes touting the skull and crossbones of their distinctive Poizin (zinfandel, get it?). While we tasted and learned about their chardonnays and zinfandels, the three cousins exchanged stories about Grandma and Grandpa - especially Grandpa's winemaking endeavors at his home in Santa Clara.

After an hour or so, we continued on toward the Russian River, stopping at the large Korbel establishment to taste sparkling wine. Then we drove along the river through Guerneville and turned left onto the Bohemian Highway to wind our way toward the little town of Occidental. "California living!" Pepe exclaimed at each turn. "Bay Area back roads!"

What draws us to Occidental can be summed up in one word: ravioli. To elaborate a bit, it's the family style ravioli dinner at the Union Hotel. When we were first married we saw Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece "The Birds" and planned a trip to Bodega Bay where it takes place. My parents suggested that while in the area we might want to go inland a bit to Occidental to have dinner at the Union Hotel. We've been returning ever since. This time we booked a room at the Occidental Lodge, a motel set in the hillside that always caught my eye and made me wish we were spending the night in the relaxing burg after our huge dinner.

Our overnight stay was all I'd hoped. We checked in, then took a walk to check out the town - restaurants and shops - and have a repast in the Union Hotel bar. Then back to the lodge for a swim and to freshen up for our leisurely meal - antipasto, garden salad, homemade minestrone soup, fresh ravioli, all with wonderful bread of course. How great it was to walk home in the moonlight in the mountain air instead of hitting the highway for home.

In the morning Pepe visited the bakery for fresh muffins, then the four of us headed to the tennis courts at the edge of town for the cutthroat play that is always part of our family gatherings. We divided into our usual teams - Jim and Zoe vs. Pepe and me. They beat us 6-2, 6-4 but the play was superb, especially in the second set, all of us inspired by our recent viewing of Wimbledon. I was enchanted by the perfection of the moment - playing doubles with my family in this idyllic setting, public tennis courts seemingly in the middle of nowhere - nice courts, with lights, no fees, no reservations, near a little YMCA building.

We drove home through Bodega Bay, which unfortunately replaced its funky old diner with a huge restaurant and gift shop to accommodate "The Birds" fans. Gone was the set where Tippi Hedren hid in horror as the gas station went up in flames. But there were fake blackbirds guarding the shop - and there was a framed movie poster signed by Tippi for $300. Luckily, the town still has its old saltwater taffy shops.

Our mini-vacation was less than a day and a half but how fun and relaxing it was. Family, wine, ravioli and tennis. Life doesn't get much better than that.

-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.

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