My Gourmet Journey to Napa Valley

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By Teri Williams
January/February 2012

From Napa north to Calistoga, the famed Napa Valley is bigger, wider and much more than I ever expected. More wineries, restaurants, shops and natural beauty than any article, book or TV review can cover. More wines to discover, restaurants to try, foods to savor and tasting rooms to visit exist than even its reputation promises.

On a recent trip, my first to the valley, I was dazzled just by the small selection of vineyards as well as eateries I visited and can’t wait to return for more.

Our first treat was at Domaine Chandon where we enjoyed an informative tour and a delicious tasting of both their sparkling and still wines. This festive beginning was followed by dinner at etoile where our first course was a heavenly pan seared Sonoma foie gras. (This dish is all the more vivid in memory knowing it will soon be illegal in California.)

Chef Perry Hoffman , a Napa Valley native, served the fatted duck liver sauteed and accompanied by a creamy torchon with Royal Blenheim apricots and curried endive. The meal continued with Galia melon and Spanish octopus; dayboat scallops with sprouted mung beans, Santa Rosa plums and uni sabayon; and roasted veal tenderloin with sunchokes, snow peas, rhubarb, celery and sauce gribiche. Bliss!

The following day’s lunch was at NapaStyle Panitoteca Cafe & Wine Bar in Yountville owned by Michael Chiarello and situated opposite his famed Bottega. Our local NapaStyle has the wine tasting but unfortunately not the delicious lunch fare nor the al fresco dining, but like its sister shop is part of the gourmet emporium stocked with Chiarello’s olive oils, infused vinegars, spices and cooking tools. We chose the wine bar to enjoy a light, reasonably priced lunch of paninis and salads with a flight of tasty wines. Delightful!

Fortified with lunch, we moved on to Quintessa for a tour and tasting. Guests are welcomed by appointment only to the Rutherford appellation winery. Our visit began with a hike to Dragon’s Terrace overlooking Dragon’s Lake and a magnificent view of rolling hills and vineyards. No cute shoes for this trip, leave them in the car. The reward at the top of the steep incline is a tasting of Illumination, a crisp, delicious Sauvignon Blanc and one of Agustin Huneeus’s wines. Back in the tasting room, we sipped Quintessa 2006, 2007, 2008 vintages while nibbling Bellwether Farms sheep’s milk Pepato, Central Coast Dairy’s Goat Gouda and Matos Dairy cow’s milk, St. George. Fabulous!

An unplanned stop at Paraduxx (a Duckhorn division) along the Silverado Trail was an unexpected treat. Beautifully rendered labels feature woodland ducks framed to look like postage stamps (see image). The commissioned artwork done for the inception of Paraduxx in 1994 have since been retired and replaced by a more consistent rendering for the brand. We tried their 2008 Napa Valley Red Wine, a bold blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and small amounts of Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. We also tasted 2007 and 2004 with Point Reyes Toma, a farmstead table cheese similar to asiago and an offering of Mimolette, reminiscent of Dutch Edam. Perfect pairing!

With no time for a nap, we proceeded to dinner at La Toque, owned and operated by Chef Ken Frank. The Michelin One Star is now located at the new Westin Verasa in downtown Napa. We were lucky enough to join a group of chefs from Club Culinaire for a dinner sponsored by Maple Leaf Farms, Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte and Crocker Starr. My favorite course from the amazing menu was Gougeres (French filled cheese pastries), duck rillettes, house cured gravlax, and pickled chefs garden vegetables. Delectable!

The next morning we toured Schramsberg for more world-class sparkling wines located in the northern part of the valley, between St. Helena and Calistoga. As many as 1.7 million bottles are aged for two to seven years in Schramsberg’s hillside caves. Originally dug in 1870 by the Chinese, we were fortunate to experience a torch lit tasting inside those caves. Currently covering 34,000 square feet, a consistent temperature and humidity level are maintained essential environment for the flavor development of sparkling wines. Bubbly!

Drinking was again followed by eating (detect a pattern?) We selected lighter choices for lunch at Solbar, the restaurant in the Calistoga spa hotel Solage. The user-friendly menu is laid out with side-by-side choices of lighter, healthier menu items next to hearty cuisine items. For example the chilled sweet corn soup with avocado, lime and cilantro was next to lemon-lime soup with lemongrass, lime leaf, jasmine rice, coconut milk, broccoli florets. While both sound fairly virtuous the sweet corn was the healthier and our choice. The first flavor-filled spoonful confirmed our decision to go light. Other choices are more obvious“Alaskan halibut tacos vs. Maine lobster roll, peach salad vs. sol fries or chicken paillard vs double cheeseburger. Every bite a pleasure!

That afternoon we continued the moveable feast to Kelly Fleming Wines (see photo above). Tucked in tree-covered hills, vines and olive trees, the red-tile roofed stone winery gave the entire scene a Tuscan feel. The cave, blasted from hillside rock that backs the tasting room, is extraordinary. The mother-daughter team who run Winery Restaurant & Wine Bar (The) – Tustin and tasting room add warmth and hospitality to the space. Kelly (mother) and Colleen (daughter) oversee this perfect venue for tasting the Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Colleen, who got her culinary degree from the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, VT, is happy to coordinate and prepare private dining affairs. Reservations are a must for the cellar view alone but the memorable wines reveal a hands-on involvement in every part of the process, from growing grapes to bottling. A treat!

So many wineries: so little time. Our last wine tasting had to be postponed until next trip but we did bring home some wines from Smith-Madrone to experience their Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Tours and tastings are by appointment, gratis and are always conducted by one of the Smith brothers. Founded in 1971 by Stuart and Charles Smith, they added Madrone to their vineyard’s name because Smith Wine just didn’t seem enough. The madrone tree thrives on their property and is easily recognized by its red-brown trunks, red branches and shiny evergreen foliage. Their slightly sweet 2009 Riesling is balanced with high acidity and complexity. The 2008 Chardonnay, aged in oak, is delicious and designed to age. The 2004 Cabernet from the estate’s 34-year-old, dry-farmed vines at the top of Spring Mountain was aged for 22 months in new American Oak barrels then bottled unfiltered. Must try!

Quick stops

We stopped at Dean and Deluca for a quick visit with our friend Barry Pierce and perused the extensive selection of kitchen ware and gourmet delicacies, both prepared and raw. Our friend Chef Michel Cornu recently took over the kitchen ops at Raymond Vineyards in conjunction with the complete overhaul of the property, tasting rooms, etc. that promise to continue to evolve. We squeezed in a brief visit with our new friend Pam Starr of Crocker & Starr, Casali and Bridesmaids wines for a sample of her delicious wines. Pam’s winemaking roots born at UC Davis ere developed through her internship at Sonoma Cutrer, and job experience at Edna Valley, Carmenet and Spottswoode. Bouchon Bakery “ Coffee and luscious sweets to go for the road trip back to the airport.

Next trip “ Sonoma!

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