Chocolate, wine and cheese – a gourmet dream walk through downtown Napa

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Annette's Chocolates

Gourmet Walks culinary walking tour of downtown Napa delivers some of the spectacular local flavors of artisan olive oil, bread, charcuterie and, of course, wine to participants who also get a healthy dose of local history.

NAPA, Ca—Napa City itself was often bypassed by tourists on the way to the celebrated wineries of Napa Valley. Recent developments have transformed the city, making it a destination on its own.
Tasting rooms, shops, wine bars, and restaurants are set in a walkable downtown dotted with 19th-century Victorians. Parks, public art, pedestrian paths, and celebrity chef restaurants such as Moritmoto Napa and Rotisserie & Wine by Tyler Florence now line the Napa River.
We began our tour at the Oxbow Public Market, named for its location next to turns in the Napa River. A group of gourmet food shops and restaurants, the market offers a wide variety of treats in a foodie heaven.
Mary took us outside to explain how the turns in the river, called oxbows for their "u" shape, exacerbated the flooding around downtown Napa. Improvements began in 1998 according to Mary Hudson, guide for Gourmet Napa Walking Tour, when voters approved a plan to control flooding that is nearing completion; “Now that it’s safe, hotels and others are building and investing."
We started with cinnamon-accented Mexican coffee and gluten free scones from C Casa An Innovative Taqueria featuring grass fed beef, free range chicken, sustainable fish, and local produce. A perfect beginning to a morning of tasting.
We moved on to artisan cheeses from the Oxbow Cheese Merchant with a sample of four cheeses presented by Ricardo. Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, made with goat’s milk was tangy and creamy; the Bermuda Triangle is tent shaped with an earthy flavor also from Cypress Grove, soft ripened with ash; the Red Hawk Triple Creme from Cowgirl Creamery was firm, mellow and buttery; and Bellwether Farms San Andrea at Pelican Hill Resort – Newport Beachs raw sheep milk cheese is similar to Pecorino according to Ricardo. Each was delicious, rich, and satisfying in the way only good cheese can be.
At the Press Club we sampled locally grown extra-virgin olive oils, dipping and flavored oils.
Next up was charcuterie from the Fatted Calf accompanied by bread from the next-door Model Bakery. We did not yet feel like fatted calves but eating speed definitely slowed.
Before we left the Oxbow, Mary pointed next door to the now shuttered Copia Center. “It was built by Robert Mondavi who supported the community in many ways. He wanted a place for food, wine and the arts,” she said. Due to poor management, the center and restaurant, Julia’s Kitchen, were closed according to Mary. “The large garden in front was padlocked but local chefs jumped the fence to tend and use the produce for their restaurants.” They were volunteers but there was a problem of insurance. “Ken Frank of La Toque organized a group of chefs to take over the garden and divided it into individual plots,” she said.
Mary explained that Mondavi was also instrumental in establishing an Agricultural Preserve in Napa Valley to prevent future over-development. The zoning ordinance mandated 100-acre lots the minimum size land allowed to be sold.
Fortunately our next move included a walk across the Napa River to Vintner’s Collective wine tasting room. There we tasted a selection of wines from small and unknown wineries including 2008 Ancien Pinot Noir “Horizontal,” 2010 Buoncristiani Sauvignon Blanc and a 2006 Richard Perry Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. They serve house made cheese biscuits, an irresistible cheesy shortbread, to go with the wines. Once a brewery, saloon and brothel, the Vintner’s is housed in the oldest stone building in Napa, 1875. During prohibition it became a laundry and is now completely renovated except the stone façade.
The next stop was a personal favorite–Annette’s Chocolate Factory. Aromas alone were wonderful and the samples delightful. We crunched into salty-sweet peanut brittle, cabernet truffles and milk chocolate cappuccinos. This was one tasting where more would have been more.
The last stop was Fish Story across from Veteran’s Memorial Park along the Napa Riverfront. There we enjoyed fried Monterey Bay Fish storycalamari with roasted tomato aioli. The manager supplied postcards of the restaurant they will mail anywhere for free.
For the money Gourmet Walks is one of the best ways to discover the finest Napa has to offer in wine and cuisine. The bonus is having a guide who can answer any question that comes up, (ours did), and adds colorful details about the history of older buildings (owner murdered, culprit found decades later), wine growers survival during Prohibition (grape juice, sacramental wine, plums and prunes), local politics (an adorable bridge to nowhere) and the Judgment of Paris. The Judgment of Paris occurred in 1976 decades after the repeal of the 18th Amendment. In blind tastings by French judges, Napa Valley vintages bested French bottles in white and red categories. At the time, the results were revolutionary and put California wines on the international map.
The three-hour walking tour runs on Friday and Sunday mornings with eight tastings and costs $68 per person.
See www.gourmetwalks.com for the Chocolate Tour, Gourmet San Francisco and the Ultra Chocolate Tour with wine pairings.