Nov
01
2013

Around the Bay

Goose & Gander's Pisco Sour Brava with Encanto Pisco

Goose & Gander’s Pisco Sour Brava with Encanto Pisco

WINE COUNTRY Bitters & Cocktails

Photos & Article by Virginia Miller

It gets easier and easier to find an elevated cocktail in Wine Country, besides the superb cocktails at Healdsburg’s Spoonbar and Campo Fina or gratifying refreshers at The Thomas (Fagiani’s) in downtown Napa. Here are a few recent cocktail highlights and one top-notch bitters shop:

Bitters Heaven

NAPA VALLEY DISTILLERY’s Bitters Shop, Napa

NVD's charming bitters & barware shop

NVD’s bitters & barware shop

Tiny Napa Valley Distillery (the first licensed distillery in Napa since Prohibition) makes vodka from Sauvignon Blanc grapes, bottled cocktails with retro labeling, and soon-to-be-released Hollywood Gin, while they age experimental brandies and whiskies. Husband/wife owners, Arthur and Lusine Hartunian, are also collectors of gorgeous vintage glassware, cocktail accoutrement, books, and bitters, which they sell in their Oxbow Market shop.

NVD's barrel-aged, bottled cocktails

NVD’s barrel-aged, bottled cocktails

I’ve not seen a bitters collection like this anywhere, including The Meadow in NYC, a lovely shop with a thorough bitters selection for purchase but none to taste. Not only is the Hartunian’s collection the most extensive and filled with rarities, but best of all, almost all bitters are available to taste. It’s a rare offer: the chance to “try before you buy” from fascinating, hard-to-find bitters, like AZ Bitters Lab meaty, spicy “Mas Mole”.

The shop elevates Oxbow to new heights and is just the sort of place I wish was in San Francisco.

A Break from Wine: Cocktails

CHALKBOARD, Healdsburg (Sonoma County)

Chalkboard cocktails

Chalkboard cocktails

In the former, legendary Cyrus space, Chalkboard is Healdsburg’s bustling, convivial new hotspot with a strong bar and spirits collection. Alongside intriguing small plates like roasted baby carrots ($7) over caraway yogurt, accented by sesame seed brittle and dill, or maple-glazed pork belly biscuits ($10) with chipotle mayo, sip cocktails ($10) like War of the Roses, a twist on a Whiskey Sour with lemon, egg white, and subtle cherry-infused Cyrus Noble bourbon.

Smoke ‘n Mirrors exhibits soft smoke from Don Amado plato mezcal, perked up by layers of green: jalapeno, cilantro and lime. My favorite on the initial menu is the Ballyhoo cocktail, a fine showcase of Brazilian cachaca. A tart strawberry ice stick slowly dissolves in the cocktail, balanced by basil, lime and a black pepper rim. It’s savory, sweet and garden-fresh.

If you crave wine (it is Wine Country, after all), Chalkboard offers international and local flights, featuring wineries like Banshee ($17.50 flight includes 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, 2011 Pinot, 2010 Mordecai), who just opened a tasting room off the Healdsburg square.

MERCANTILE SOCIAL at ANDAZ NAPA, Napa (Napa County)

Ukiah Sour

Ukiah Sour

The Mercantile Social bar at the Andaz Napa hotel was a welcome addition to the Valley the moment the hotel became an Andaz property in 2012. I’ve visited a few times since and it’s one of Napa’s stronger cocktail bars, displaying the rich produce of the region.

With a focused collection of mostly Northern California spirits, they showcase locally imported Tapatio Blanco tequila in a Ukiah Sour #3 ($12), herbaceous with bay leaf syrup, tart with lime, given earthy complexity from Tempus Fugit’s gorgeous crème de cacao. Local Blade Gin from Old World Spirits is put to sprightly, green use in a Sage Tom Collins ($12), blessed with lime, sage and citrus bitters.

Their lovely cocktails go well with heartwarming bar bites like cheesy queso fundido with chorizo ($7).

GOOSE & GANDER, St. Helena (Napa County)

Painkiller

Painkiller

Scott Beattie, Michael Pazdon and crew continue to craft gorgeous drinks at atmospheric Goose & Gander, a cozy basement bar below a restaurant in a historic St. Helena house, surrounded by an outdoor garden/patio.

Recent cocktail loves (at arguably the best bar in the county) include a Pisco Sour Brava ($11), a frothy egg white cocktail featuring Encanto Acholado pisco and Oro Italia pisco, tart/sweet with pür Spice (blood orange liqueur), lime juice and bitters.

Their dreamy version of classic Tiki drink, the Painkiller ($11), gains funky complexity from Appleton and Smith & Cross rums, creamy with Pazdon’s coconut cream, lively with lime, pineapple, orange and fresh nutmeg. In typical Beattie/Pazdon fashion, the floral garnish turns the drink into art.

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Oct
15
2013

Around the Bay

Flowers growing on Jordan Winery's farm

Flowers growing on Jordan Winery’s farm

Napa & Sonoma: EDIBLE ADVENTURES

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Jordan Winery food pairings

Jordan Winery food pairings

Late summer and harvest season have brought me to Sonoma and Napa for numerous excursions. Fall is my favorite season and time of year in Wine Country as vineyard leaves transform from green to blazing reds, yellows and oranges.

Here are a few fall ideas – unusual tours and quality Mexican food (plus mezcal and tequila, when you need a wine break!) – for weekend or day trips to one of our great treasures: Wine Country.

SommFor an insider look at the agony of becoming a master sommelier and a better understanding of the dedication I often witness behind the scenes in cooking, wine, spirits and beer, watch the documentary film, Somm (just out on DVD in September; available for download on iTunes).

Wine & Food Tours

JORDAN WINERY, Healdsburg

A stay at Jordan Winery is magical, with its Bordeaux-influenced chateau and clear focus on only two varietals since 1976: Chardonnay and Cabernet.

Jordan's farm

Jordan’s farm

Jordan is a family affair with their enchanting grounds, farm, animals and vineyards. All this is now accessible to the public via a just-launched estate tour and tasting ($120) that is about so much more than wine.

I partook in a preview before the three-hour tour launched in September (it runs through November, starting again in the new year – reserve here), exploring the estate, sampling Jordan wines and olive oil, walking through their edible garden, meeting farm animals, and eating the estate chef’s generous array of artful bites both lakeside and from a 360-degree hilltop vista.

GLORIA FERRER, Sonoma

Picking grapes in the early morning light

Picking grapes in the early morning light

Visiting Gloria Ferrer this September, I awoke while it was still dark to pick grapes for their famed sparkling wine on a clear Carneros morning.

Years ago, I took a tour of GF, the first sparkling house built in Carneros in the 1980′s. As I learn even more of their operation, I’m most impressed by their over 25 year dedication to extensively studying clones and grapes from Champagne, France, replanted in California soil, learning what works best here for sparkling wines. They generously share their studies and decades of research with the region to improve Nor Cal sparkling wines across the board.

A range of Gloria Ferrer tours are available here.

Wine, cheese & charcuterie break after picking grapes at Gloria Ferrer

Wine, cheese & charcuterie break after picking grapes at Gloria Ferrer

HALL Wines, St. Helena

Restored 19th century barn at St. Helena location

Restored 19th century barn at St. Helena location

The idyllic grounds of HALL Wines in Rutherford – opened in 2005 from wife/husband, Kathryn and Craig Hall – are peacefully perched hillside in a winery originally founded in 1885. The Halls collect and display modern art sculptures and paintings around the grounds, while a large terrace looks out over invigorating Valley views.

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Swarovski chandelier

For parties and private tastings, it is hard to top their atmospheric, cool wine caves built by hand with Austrian bricks. Most impressive is a stunning Swarovski crystal tree chandelier over a massive table buried further into the caves.

While the Rutherford location tours are by appointment, Hall plans to open their massive new visitors center right off Highway 29 in St. Helena in 2014. I did a hard hat tour of the site this summer, an impressive array of buildings, both modern and historic (like a gorgeous, restored barn and a massive structure overlooking vineyards which will hold cooking demo classrooms and tasting rooms), an edible garden, an outdoor concert facility, and more. It’s going to be the winery to visit next year in Napa.

Hall's wine caves hand-built with Austrian bricks

HALL’s wine caves hand-built with Austrian bricks, Rutherford

Mexican Food Break

Carnitas platter

Carnitas platter

LA CONDESA, St. Helena

La Condesa is first and foremost the county’s best tequila/mezcal selection offering a range of cocktails and agave spirits in a winning bar program overseen by Eric Schulz.

While basics like guacamole ($15 for the tasting of all guacs) and some salsas are surprisingly bland, there’s plenty to love on the food menu.

Queso fundido

Queso fundido

They serve one of the best queso fundidos ($10) around, oozing with Mexican cheeses, housemade wild boar chorizo and poblano rajas, sprinkled with pepitas (pumpkin seeds). Gourmet tacos come two per order in a range of meats and vegetables ($9-13 for two), while they make a mean entree ($13/18) of Snake River Farms carnitas (in this case, pork shoulder confit) partnered with white rice, black beans and avocado.

Save room for dessert as house ice creams are one of the best items here ($3 per scoop). Executive Chef Chris Mortenson experiments with fascinating flavors I wish I could take home, like ghost pepper sour, mint cilantro chip, Pt. Reyes blue cheese, apple crema tequila, avocado coconut curry and ever-popular brown sugar banana.

LA TAQUIZA, Napa

Taquiza tacos

Taquiza tacos

The best “fast food” tacos in Napa? In a suburban strip mall, La Taquiza may serve the best fish tacos in Napa, whether Baja-style (fried, breaded) or grilled ($3.65-3.95). As a huge octopus fan, I was disappointed in chewy octopus tacos. But on the fish taco side, an obsession of mine since So Cal youth, theirs stand up. Check for daily taco specials and pair with daily changing agua frescas ($2.50), like a vivacious watermelon.

La Condesa's extensive tequila and mezcal bar

La Condesa’s extensive tequila and mezcal bar

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Mar
01
2013

Around the Bay

Brunch basket of house breads at The Thomas

A Day in NAPA in Three Meals

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

The Thomas' BLAT

With work (happily) permeating every trip and journey, my most restful weekends tend to be close to home. When I’ve been countless times, I needn’t dig and explore, but just relax and breathe in my surroundings. In recent Napa weekends, there are, as ever, fresh discoveries to share with you.

Breakfast: The Thomas

813 Main Street at Third, Napa, 707-226-7821

French toast

Over the past months, downtown Napa’s The Thomas in the old Fagiani’s bar is my favorite new Napa go-to. I’ve been for lunch, dinner, drinks… plus brunch just after it launched (now running close to 3 months). The three-level, AvroKO-designed space is as fantastic then as it is any other time of day, particularly the rooftop.

Welcoming 2nd floor booth

A basket of house breads ($9) is almost the brunch highlight: during my visit, it was pumpkin seed pecan and scallion cheddar muffins, and a yuzu-glazed coconut carrot scone with spreads of passion fruit curd and Black Mission fig-berry jam. French toast ($13) stuffed with banana and house hazelnut Nutella, topped with bacon is an optimal wake-up. Ditto their “BLAT” ($12 – also on the lunch menu), a massive sandwich of bacon, lettuce, avocado, and tomato, even better topped with a fried organic egg ($2).

Black pudding

I appreciate unique brunch specials like a baked apple in Chinese black vinegar or one of my most beloved Irish/Scottish regional foods: black pudding (blood sausage to you), savory with sage, parsley, pork and duck fat.

Lunch:
Napa Valley Biscuits

1502 Main Street, Napa, CA 94559, 707-265-8209

Napa Valley Biscuits

Unassuming, humble and off the beaten path, my latest “cheap eats” go-to in downtown Napa is Napa Valley Biscuits. Biscuit sandwiches ($4-8) are cheap, filling, fun, and oh, so Southern. There’s catfish, Western Carolina style BBQ pulled pork, country ham, sausage and the like, exploding from flaky biscuits. Similar to Soul Groove in San Francisco, chicken and waffles appears as a sandwich: The Pappy ($8), accented by bacon, hot pepper jelly, and sides of butter and maple syrup,

Fried chicken biscuit

On the “fresher side”, watermelon salad ($6) is bright with Heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, pickled peppers and crumbled queso fresco on top. To finish: housemade ice cream ($1.50 per scoop).

Dinner:
Lucy Restaurant & Bar

Bardessono Hotel, 6526 Yount Street, Yountville, 707-204-6030

Blini & caviar

From day one, Yountville’s eco-chic Bardessono hotel was home to a peaceful, modern hotel bar mixing better-than-typical Wine Country cocktails. The initial restaurant, however, was expensive and a bit staid. The hotel’s newer restaurant, Lucy, is still pricey but more approachable. Chef Victor Scargle and team deliver a garden-fresh beauty of a spread, some of it excellent, like perfect Russian blini topped with osetra caviar (in a 6 course, $95 tasting menu).

Carrot salad

Local ingredients are front and center, with dishes subtly changing over the seasons. On the a la carte side, mixed greens ($10) from their on-site garden become special with pomegranate seeds and pineapple guava in winter. Garden carrots ($11) are artfully displayed confit-style and as chips in curry shallot dressing accented by carrot fronds.

Dungeness crab salad

Warm Dungeness crab salad ($19) is layers of flavor from Thai curry coconut sauce, joi choi (a dark, leafy green), with a flaky rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) biscuit sitting atop the crab. Chef Scargle shines combining sweet and savory (my preferred combo), fruit and meat. Case in point: Iberico fresco pork ($39) over forbidden rice dotted with lychees and Burgundy okra in caramelized pear jus.

Lucy cocktails

Cocktails ($14) are pricey but well made, like a Tiki-spirited 3 Kings, infusing No. 3 Gin with cardamom, mixed with King’s Ginger Liquor, pineapple, vanilla, or Pop A Kappa, bright with Kappa pisco, lemon, egg white, bitters, with a hint of smoke from Del Maguey Minero mezcal.

Wine is a strong way to go at the recommend of Wine Director Brett Fallows. Crisp notes intensified when pairing a 2011 Signorello Estate Seta (Semillion/Sauvignon Blanc blend) with food (more oak apparent solo), while layered boldness is exemplified in 2010 Kunin ‘Pape Star’s blend of Grenache/Mourvedre/Syrah. Most appealing was Fallows selection of a fruity, creamy yet balanced Italian white from the Veneto, a 2009 Sartori Ferdi.

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Dec
01
2012

On the Town

11/16 Appellation Trail at CIA (Culinary Institute of America), St. Helena

2012 Flavor! Napa Valley

Photos by Virginia Miller

Flavor! Napa is a five day food and wine festival in its second year, potentially the definitive event representing the wines of the region and the chefs and restaurants that make this grouping of small towns in the countryside one of the great culinary and wine destinations in the world.

Despite some nasty rainstorms hitting the area for part of the week, festivities were many and varied, from classes and demos to dinners and galas.

Here are a few highlights this year in photos, including sessions with two of the biggest chefs in the world: Thomas Keller and Masaharu Morimoto.

My top taste at the 11/16 Appellation Trail event: an incredible chicken liver creme caramel - silky, sweet & savory - with roasted grapes & bacon from Chef Brad Farmerie at The Thomas & Fagiani's Bar

11/17 Interactive Lunch with Masaharu Morimoto who helped attendees make sushi for a three course lunch

11/17 morning session with Thomas Keller on the importance of selecting produce

Food highlight at 11/16 Appellation Trail event: Chef Richard Reddgington of Redd's confit chicken thigh in a winning chocolate orange spice mole sauce over cheddar cheese polenta with cracklins'

Appellation Trail wine highlights: 2009 Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc

Appellation Trail wine highlights: 2009 Moone-Tsai Howell Mountain Hillside Blend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 11/17 Morimoto lunch, second course was a lush, braised black cod paired with 2011 MerSoleil SILVER Unoaked Chardonnay

Perfect dessert at 11/16 Appellation Trail from Chef Valentina Guolo-Migotto at Ca'Momi Enoteca: dreamy bigne (beignets), both Tchocolato with TCHO chocolate & latte miele, caramelized on top, filled with vanilla bean cream

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Sep
15
2012

Around the Bay

Beautiful cocktails for dessert at The Thomas in downtown Napa

NAPA COCKTAILS with DINNER

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Goose & Gander's bookshelves and wooden ducks

Judging a cocktail contest in Calistoga and sampling Wine Country cocktails early in 2011, I witnessed a rise in quality congruent with the cocktail renaissance exploding across the nation, beyond longtime torchbearers like SF and NY. This is especially notable in Wine Country where the god of wine dominates. Despite growth, making a dent in the all-consuming wine culture is still an uphill battle, so local bartenders tell me. Not only is the local community wine-driven, but the constant influx of travelers are mainly here for wine, after all. Though you won’t see many cocktail bars opening up, restaurants continue to refine their cocktails and spirits selection, so that one finds, a few city-quality cocktails amongst the vineyards.

Goose & Gander's dining room is warm with reds, woods and hunting lodge vibe

GOOSE & GANDER, St. Helena

1245 Spring Street at Oak, St. Helena,  707-967-8779

Mellivora Capensis (honey badger)

Arguably, the number one talent in Wine Country has long been Scott Beattie, who crafted exquisite cocktails in sleepy, chic Healdsburg at Cyrus long before many of the country’s big cities had clued in, leading the way in farm-fresh, artisanal cocktails (note his book, Artisanal Cocktails), torching kumquats and crisping apple slivers from his backyard as garnishes.

When Beattie left Spoonbar to take over the bar at St. Helena’s Goose & Gander – which opened in April – Sonoma’s loss was Napa’s gain. Goose & Gander is in the former Martini House in a 90-year-old craftsman bungalow with idyllic yard and patio. Red walls, bookshelves, brown leather booths, fireplaces, wood ceilings and floors impart a charming hunting lodge feel.

Hawaiian lemon snapper crudo

Beattie works alongside talent like Michael Jack Pazdon, who previously supervised the bar program at SolBar and has won numerous cocktail contests (including the aforementioned Charbay/Perfect Puree competition). Beattie, Pazdon and crew serve fantastic drinks. There’s a handful of cocktails (all $11) on the regular menu, but ask for “the book” for a more extensive selection to suit every palate – and peruse an impressive spirits collection lining the bar.

Cozy downstair bar

Mellivora Capensis (honey badger) is a prime example of Beattie-style cocktails: Eagle Rare 10 year bourbon, honey and lemon sound like a classic base, but it gets interesting with a touch of peat from Ardbeg Scotch, pineapple, black cardamom and chili, coconut foam contributing texture, with edible flowers the crowning touch.

Cucumber Collins (Square One cucumber vodka, yuzu, lemon, fresh and pickled cucumber, huckleberries, seltzer) and a Coastal Pimm’s Cup (Pimm’s No.1, St. George Terroir Gin, lemon, bitters, seltzer, bay laurel) are classic Beattie: visually striking and artful as they are refreshing and flavorful.

Cucumber Collins

Executive Chef Kelly McCown’s (formerly at Sacramento’s Ella) food is notable. Spicy whole blue prawns ($16) are large and juicy, skillet-roasted brown, swimming in shallot garlic butter, rosemary, and chilis over polenta. A bright crudo of Hawaiian lemon snapper ($17) is lined up next to heirloom tomatoes dotted with shaved tomatillos and sea beans. As a twist on the ever-gratifying wedge salad, a Berkshire pork belly “wedge” ($15) is an understandable hit: a disc of iceberg topped with a hefty chunk of pork belly and Shaft’s blue cheese dressing. Jersey cow’s milk ricotta gnocchi ($18) melt joyously in my mouth, intermingling with cherry tomatoes, basil, and tomato coulis, crowned by a light Parmesan crisp. Goose & Gander is the whole package and works as well as a romantic date night as it does a relaxed stop for a bite and drink.

Aperitifs at The Thomas, like the Jasmine (right)

Transporting view from The Thomas' third floor terrace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE-THOMAS, Napa

813 Main Street at Third, Napa, 707-226-7821

Follow the Fagiani's sign

Follow the vintage neon signage of the former Fagiani’s, where The Thomas opened just last month in a 1909 building restored by New York’s AvroKO Hospitality Group. First visiting during opening week, I dined on the partially covered third floor terrace (though housing a second bar, this floor is for diners only) gazing out over downtown Napa. As the sun set over the river below, rooftops and hills peeking above the the deck, I was transported to Europe and beyond, a timeless moment on a summer night.

I’m immediately hooked though waiting to see how the place evolves, particularly with just-launched brunch and recently named bar manager Jim Wrigley of London’s Albannach and the Lonsdale. During my visit, AvroKO’s Cocktail Director Naren Young was in town serving drinks from the menu he co-created with Linden Pride, with whom he runs Saxon+Parole in NY.

White Manhattans on tap

Drinks are classic, simple, playful with the ubiquitous (though not so much in Napa) Negroni on tap ($12), and for a change of pace, a White Manhattan on tap ($15), utilizing Death’s Door white whiskey, white vermouth, kirschwasser, jasmine bitters. The latter is a good two servings, arriving with an additional mini-carafe on ice to fill up after your initial glass is empty.

A mini-seafood tower

An ideal aperitif/starter is Jasmine ($14), made of Campari, Beefeater Gin, Combier triple sec and lemon juice, or have fun with beer in an Improved Radler Cocktail ($13) of pineapple-infused grappa, Hefeweizen, ginger, peach bitters, and lemon juice. Dessert was a winning round of a Grasshopper (Marie Brizard creme de menthe and cacao, although I couldn’t help but wish for Tempus Fugit’s menthe and cacao instead) and an elegant whiskey cocktail with biscotti.

Lovely grilled Monterey Bay squid with sweet chili sauce & creme fraiche

Executive Chef Brad Farmerie (of NY’s The Public) goes for casual, comfortable American food, though prices range $21-45 for mains, the latter being for wood-fired strip steak. Also pricey is the raw bar seafood tower (mini $22, medium $67, large $125) but a mini offers a fine sampling of East and West Coast oysters, smoked mussels, Dungeness crab and plump shrimp with Sriracha cocktail sauce. On a warm night on the terrace with an icy-cool White Manhattan, it was perfection.

Pot de creme and cookies for dessert

Beet gnudi ($21) in smoked almond-celery pesto with Cowgirl Creamery cottage cheese is a colorful, gratifying gnocchi dish. Grilled chorizo sausage ($13.50) is lively, even exciting, with txiki cheese, black bean chocolate puree and padron peppers. Save room for a dessert of dreamy dark chocolate pot de creme with cookies or decadent monkey bread.

The three-story space has a big city energy, with much of the staff from NY, imparting a welcome cosmopolitan vibe atypical of the area. The bottom floor boasts a vintage oak bar and pressed-tin ceiling, which looks like it’s been there for 100 years, in keeping with the historicity of the building, freshly incarnated.

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Dec
01
2011

Around the Bay

WINE COUNTRY SNAPSHOTS

In my many jaunts to Wine Country, I never suffer for options. Even after a decade, I am ever experiencing new delights. In addition to recent weekends (Calistoga to family-run wineries), here’s a few more bite-sized fall delights that will be equally pleasing this winter.

Coffee goodness

Napa Valley Roaster's vintage Probat roaster

Inside the welcoming St. Helena cafe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Napa Valley Roasters is a family-run affair with the original shop in downtown Napa and a larger cafe in St. Helena. Nancy Haynes is president, carrying on the legacy begun by husband who started the business many years back, while son Charlie Sange is the roastmaster. Using a vintage Probat roaster, he rotates batches of beans each shift, personally adjusting roasting times and techniques for each style. They supply coffee for numerous high profile restaurants all over Wine Country.

I’ve spent time in both cafes, and though I am inclined towards the character of the historic Napa space with high ceilings and creaky wood floors, I value the welcoming vibe of the St. Helena location. Locals chatted me up as I wrote over espresso and coffee, alongside the well-loved, red Probat machine. At home, I savored their robust French roast beans, each cup a reminder of a family who clearly cares about coffee and their community.

Gourmet spread, with a view

Enchanting night view from Ram's Gate Winery

Bounty in Ram's Gate kitchen

Ram’s Gate Winery is one of the more exciting winery openings I’ve seen in Wine Country. Having visited a couple of times (including the pre-opening party in September), I’m mesmerized each visit by the winery setting atop a small hill surrounded by wide valley vistas.

The building itself is an architectural delight. An array of room feature high ceilings, comfortably chic chairs, fireplaces, massive, open air spaces and patios flowing into one another, all taking in that view. Rustic with weathered woods, the structure is likewise visionary and modern.

Sleek indoor fireside winery seating

Yes, there is wine, from Pinot to Syrah (I am partial to their Sparkling Brut), but a highlight of Ram’s Gate is Executive Chef Jason Rose, who’s resume includes a stint as Culinary Project Manager at the Delfina Restaurant Group. His cooking is worth going out of your way for alone. Small plates represent (naturally) the best of local bounty and are as refined (and damn tasty) as the better restaurants nearby.

Though the address is Sonoma, one of the key factors Ram’s Gate has going for it is a location right off the 121, en route to  Napa and Sonoma counties, barely over 30 minutes drive from SF. It’s now a key stop for a snack, a sip, or a full meal.

Daytime view from Ram's Gate's back patio

Chef Jason Rose's sumptuous pork belly

Old world Napa

A photo is a meager reflection of the stunning valley & mountain range view from the Smith Madrone property

Way up winding roads from St. Helena, Smith Madrone is run by brothers Stu and Charles (Stu founded the winery in 1971). At first meet, Charles is mild-mannered and polite, while Stu is a straight-shooter, peppering his talk with more than a few swear words. Stu took me on a ride around the winery grounds, tucked into the slopes of Spring Mountain.

Fermenting grapes next to aging vintages in French oak barrels

Being harvest time, grapes rested in open air vats in the small, barn-like winery, giving off a fragrant, sweetly boozy aroma, surrounded by past vintages aging in French oak.

Far off the beaten path, this sleepy (though hard-working) vineyard evokes a Napa of decades ago. It seemed a glimpse of what Napa was like before 1976′s Judgement of Paris, before Mondavi elevated Napa on the global wine map. Here there is a sense of place, history and family that feels very much Napa. It made me grateful to see it preserved in this peaceful hideaway.

A short walk from the winery is an unexpected, breathtaking view (above). Standing on the edge of Spring Mountain, the slopes cut down to the valley with the Eastern ridge visible across the valley. Sipping a glass of their dry Riesling (bright with floral summer fruit) with this view before me, I had a moment. Taking in the silence of pine ridges and mountains, hills and valleys, vineyards and sun, I was reminded of how sweet it is to be alive.

Stu Smith interacts with grapes during harvest

Fine dining in a Westin hotel

Dreamy dish of Maine lobster with butternut squash in fall spiced creme fraiche and toasted pumpkin seeds

La Toque seems an unlikely fine dining destination for hardcore foodies inside the Westin Verasa Napa hotel. But a tasting menu here (four courses $74, five for $90, chef’s table menu $135) leads with impeccable waitstaff and service, surprises with inventive dishes, and an international wine list. The decor, while refined, felt a bit stiff, but service is so warm, one forgets the surroundings, particularly when a dish like Maine lobster creamy with butternut squash comes out, illumining another direction for lobster – one vividly fall-like.

Garden-fresh creativity

Ubuntu's usual work of art in garden-fresh dishes: chilled cantaloupe and sage gazpacho is infused with roasted corn husks imbuing slightly smoky notes accented by spicy charred lime peanuts, pickled watermelon rind, Mexican sour gherkins and shiso oil

Ubuntu is one of Napa County’s best restaurants – and I am decidedly not a vegetarian. This “soup” may look as spare as bird food. I’ll admit, portions on some dishes do run small. But sharing four plates each visit I somehow leave full, and in what is a rarity for me anymore, there’s always a few dishes unlike any I’ve had before. A complex, pleasing range of flavors is commonplace at Ubuntu.

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Nov
01
2011

Imbiber

The view overlooking To Kalon land at Robert Mondavi winery

WINE TALES

The wine scene never rests, particularly during harvest time. Besides traveling to Bordeaux for harvest a couple weeks ago (where I picked grapes with the harvesters one day in Sauternes), and continued weekends in Napa and Sonoma, I’ve been savoring the city’s latest wine bars, wine books, winemaker tastings, and a rare panel for Robert Mondavi staff of key winemakers discussing Napa’s premier soil.

City Wine Bars

Alongside the best wine bar openings of 2010 (like Barrique and Fat Angel), there’s the new Barrel Room (in the old Hidden Vine space), and the new Hidden Vine (near the Transamerica Building).

Beauty in the Robert Mondavi garden

But for city-produced vino, I’d head to brand new Bluxome Street Winery. Reclaiming a SoMa winemaking heritage they say was thriving pre-1906 earthquake, the Bluxome crew grows their own grapes within 100 miles of SF, producing a handful of whites and reds, from Sauvignon Blanc to Pinot. Tasting through flights of each, I found all balanced and interesting, particularly a Chardonnay, which reigns in typically over-oaked California qualities for a pleasantly acidic, well-rounded white. In the tasting room, sit in front of giant windows overlooking production of the wine you’re tasting.

Contemplating Napa’s
“Grand Cru”: To Kalon

This summer I spent an unforgettable weekend with Robert Mondavi staff at Mondavi’s To Kalon vineyards, where vines were first planted in 1868. Mondavi’s master of wine, Mark de Vere, deems this land, “the preeminent Grand Cru site of Napa since the 19th century”. At the cost of over $40,000 per acre, it’s outrageously expensive land. But to the winemakers who each claim a plot of it, they say it produces some of California (and the world’s) finest wine, reflective of the unique terroir of Napa.

Mondavi's winemaker, Genevieve Janssens

It was a mesmerizing couple hours listening to a panel of six To Kalon winemakers (including Mondavi’s Genevieve Janssens, a Frenchwoman named 2010 winemaker of the year by Wine Enthusiast), discussing how Napa is reaching the point in its history past infancy and teenage years, maturing in the quality of vines, land and winemaker technique. Tor Kenward, of TOR, says working with To Kalon vines is: “Intellectually challenging… Despite price, it’s fascinating to work with.”

Sampling five To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon side-by-side, each reflects similar characteristics pointing to the properties inherent in the land. Each also reflects winemaker style (these winemakers likewise produce wines from other Napa regions).

To Kalon Panel at Robert Mondavi Winery

As one would expect, they’re pricey bottles, hovering between $125-150 due to immense land costs. Provenance Vineyards was the exception at $75 a bottle for their 2007 Cab, exhibiting notes of white pepper, vanilla and berries.

Picnicking among Mondavi vines

Though it seems Provenance winemaker Tom Rinaldi gets flak for not increasing the price of his To Kalon wine to more closely match fellow winemakers, he keeps costs low for reasons akin to benefiting from rent control. He secured an early contract and plot with essentially a fixed price that has kept his cost lower than the current $40k plus per acre. I admire that though he could be making double, he has chosen not to put this on his customers… yet. His current rates will be renewed soon so he will no longer be able to hold at that price. It’s an issue each winemaker must contend with. Competition for To Kalon plots remains stiff and no matter the cost, each considers themselves lucky to work the land.

Dinner before a Mondavi Summer evening concert overlooking vineyards

Standouts were Carter Cellars 2008 Cab ($125 a bottle), with dusty earth and spice giving it profound character, balanced by bright floral notes. At a mere 185-300 cases a year, it’s truly a limited wine. The other was TOR’s 2008 Cab  ($150/400-500 cases a year). A clean, mineral nose exudes light perfume, while it tastes of dark berries with gentle spice, vanilla, and a creamy finish.

Tor Kenward comments on Napa’s maturing winemaking, playfully expressing California’s place in the wine world: “I’ve gone mano y mano with Bordeaux through the decades. It’s amazing how California goes head to head.”

November Tastings

Press Club's chic, subterranean tasting room

For a few Thursday nights in November (3,10,17 from 6 – 9pm), Press Club (20 Yerba Buena Lane, between Market and Mission) hosts their Visiting Vintner Series with wine flights, by-the-glass pours and winery staff in tow. This month’s line-up is Swanson Vineyards and Roederer Estate Winery. Roederer creates some of the country’s loveliest sparkling wine, pouring their Brut, Brut Rose, and Estate L’ermitage ($22 a flight or priced by the glass). Swanson, a family winery I wrote about last month, pours their Pinot Grigio,  Oakville Merlot, and Napa Valley Zinfandel ($22 a flight or priced by the glass). With the focus generally on pours only available at the wineries, they bring the winery (and winemakers) to you. Press Club also has a food menu for snacks or a meal to pair with.

Bookworm

My recent flights overseas required some serious reading, and finishing Natalie Maclean’s new Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines helped a 10 hour flight pass quickly.

Each section hits a different part of the world in search of high quality, value wines. From South Africa to Sicily, wine terms and history are subtly slipped into stories about individual winemakers and pairing recipes. A cheery book cover belies Ms. Maclean’s skill with imagery (she’s won the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award and four James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards). For example, in her particularly engaging chapter on German riesling, she compares riesling as the “quivering”, “opera diva Sarah Brightman singing pop tunes… [with a] range [that] stretches far beyond what I hear,” to popular chardonnays as: “breathy pop stars who have to whisper the high notes.”

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Oct
01
2011

Around the Bay

A Weekend in Calistoga

Painting in Yo El Rey coffee shop

The Northern end of Napa has long been my favorite part of the Valley, namely for increasing oak trees towering over vines, and the way Highway 29 morphs from straight arrow into winding road (just like the beautiful and far less congested drive parallel along Silverado Trail). A recent weekend in Calistoga afforded one of the most relaxed I’ve had in my many dozens in Wine Country over the years. Visiting Kelly Fleming winery (by appointment only) was the impetus for my trek north, while I felt restored at Indian Springs, lounging around the Buddha Pond, swimming in an olympic-sized pool, and finally trying those famed Calistoga mud baths (I can now say I’ve done it).

Calistoga is a small town and the dining choices are therefore minimal. Lincoln Ave., the town’s main drag, is less overrun than St. Helena’s main street and less touristy than Yountville’s V Marketplace. It’s the real deal: small town Americana, laid back, approachable, and merely a few blocks long.

Calistoga Kitchen's juice bar

Calistoga now has their own organic, locally roasted, fair trade coffee, Yo El Rey, a humble little shop that feels like a college coffee dive but serves robust coffee made with care. Besides the shop, they serve their coffee at Calistoga’s Saturday farmers market where I also bought Calistoga Inn’s newest housemade granola, laden with ginger, orange, spice. I’d like to stock my cabinet with this one. A new juice bar inside Calistoga Kitchen, a catering company, is an unexpected treat. Only a few juices, but each made by the sweet owner at a charming café and garden. I’m a little disappointed in the food at longtimer All Seasons (despite inviting, retro cafe decor). But Calistoga has grown up in the realm of two relatively newer (within the last 2-3 years) restaurants: JoLe and Solbar

Bright seafood trio (uni, lobster, cuttlefish), Cheryl's Tasting, at JoLe

JoLe, 1457 Lincoln Ave, Calistoga, 707-942 5938

Utterly satisfying chicken fried quail

JoLe brings a bit of city chic to Lincoln Ave. Clean lines around a wood-burning oven and cozy wood bar are merely the backdrop for ambitious dishes. The a la carte menu reads reasonably with nothing over $18, but a meal quickly adds up to over $100 for two if one goes for the basic tasting menu: 4 courses for $50 (also 5 courses $65, 6 courses $80). Thankfully, you can chose any mix of dishes you want. One can save going a la carte, where portions are bigger so not as many courses are needed. Generally, the price of the final bill doesn’t feel quite congruent with the casual, buzzing atmosphere.

Besides ever present wine, it’s refreshing to see a few cocktail options, and the bar staff can make off-menu classic or classically-inspired cocktails with their strong spirits selection (many of them local and small batch). Napa Valley 75 ($10) is a classic French 75 but with Bay Area ingredients: 209 Gin, Schramsberg Blanc de Noir, Meyer lemon juice and agave. Strawberry Tarragon ($10) is strawberry-infused Espolon tequila with tarragon, Peychaud’s bitters and egg white to soften it. I wished the tarragon was more prominent, but it’s still a crowd-pleasing concoction.

Scallops w/ tasso ham

Dishes like grilled cauliflower ($8) underwhelmed, though Dungeness crab and saffron aioli normally would be just what I’d want with cauliflower. Local Heirloom tomato salad ($10) is a dime-a-dozen dish during tomato season but I never tire of excellent tomatoes. With zucchini puree and curry oil I expected a kick, but sadly the curry was all too subtle.

With Cheryl’s Tasting ($18), however, chef Matt Spector illumines his possibility. The trio plate recalls the types of East-meets-West seafood dishes I’ve had at Ame in San Francisco. Three mini-dishes of lobster, uni and cuttlefish (the latter in the form of custard) are steal at $18 for such gourmet, painstaking bites.

House ice cream & sorbets

Chicken fried quail ($15) was the most satisfying dish, its crispy skin crackling tight over tender meat, accented by haricot verts (aka green beans) and blackberries, resting in a puddle of corn jus. Not quite in the same league but still pleasing were scallops ($17) with chanterelles, Tasso (that ever satisfying Southern ham) and peas in peach BBQ sauce, or Korean-style short ribs ($15) with Napa cabbage, chili, peanuts, cilantro, mint.

For dessert, I opted for a tart, summery lemon huckleberry truffle, essentially lemon pound cake layered with cream, huckleberries and lemon in a pilsner glass, and house sorbets and ice creams, all made by Sonjia Spector, wife of Matt. JoLe skillful dishes in an unpretentious setting, representing Calistoga comfort but with gourmet edge.

Lemon Lime Soup at Solbar

SOLBAR, 755 Silverado Trail, Calistoga, 866-942-7442

Peaches & prosciutto w/ lavender honey Parmesan mousse

Solage Resort sprawls over a large patch of land off Silverado Trail with modern chic cottages and main houses, including restaurant Solbar, facing a giant pool with floor to ceiling windows and spacious patio bordered by couches. The restaurant is industrial with high ceilings and touches of brown and olive green.

Solbar delivers relaxed high end to the countryside of Calistoga. Unfortunately, this can transport a mix of clientele evoking the plastic nether regions of Miami or LA, or essentially the Real Housewives set. Some plastic surgery-amplified couples or girlfriends out for a Wine Country weekend mix with upper class families and their kids. This makes Solbar a bit hard to bear at times and is far cry from the downhome people one sees wandering Calistoga’s main street.

Appetizers are around the $15 mark and entrees closer to $30 – one hungry person can easily eat one of each. The cost doesn’t quite add up with the fairly casual (though chic, modern) tone of the space, particularly if your table outside is surrounded by children, as I’ve experienced. Walking away at over $150 for two should offer a bit more of an adult setting, though attentive service ups the experience, as does gorgeous Summer evening weather.

Monterey Bay sardine

What Solbar brings to Calistoga is truly cosmopolitan cooking. Whereas JoLe is the warmer welcome of the two, Solbar has a leg up on consistently excellent, often creative dishes. Lemon lime soup ($12) is certainly Tom Kha Gai-inspired with lemongrass, lime leaf, jasmine rice, coconut milk, broccoli florets, but its citrus tart is brighter than typical in the classic Thai soup. Dollarhide Ranch peaches ($15) are served with Italian staple San Danielle prosciutto. Charred onions add on s a sweet, smoked layer, while lavender honey Parmesan mousse elevates nuance in what could be a common dish. Instead, it expresses the glories of Summer.

Brannan Street BLT

A Monterey Bay sardine ($14) is generous and glistening, just the way I love them. For those who’ve never had sardines fresh and plump as you can find them in San Francisco or along the coast of Italy, to name a few places, Solbar’s dish would be an excellent introduction. Gypsy peppers, nicoise olives, and pickled fennel open up various expressions of the fish, resting in a bit of aged sherry vinegar. No dish was more fun than Brannan Street BLT ($15). Stacked between a house-made English muffin is a bacon fat-basted egg, fried green tomato and shredded romaine slathered with aioli. It would make a fabulous breakfast.

Trade Secret (L) Smashed Margarita (R)

Cocktails here are among the best in all of Napa. Though it’s still a rarity to get cocktails of this quality nearby, that to me doesn’t justify the $14-15 average. San Francisco is not far away and littered with artisanal and classic cocktails, many of them excellent at $8-10, with the pricier average more like $12. It seems odd to find these even more expensive than in the city. But they are artfully made and delicious. Smashed Margarita ($14) is made with the ever-respected Siete Leguas blanco and lime, given that smoky, mineral touch I’m crazy about from a splash of Sombra mezcal and smoked, orange-infused Cointreau. A pasilla chile and smoked salt rim confirms it’s status as a fine margarita. Deer Park Sour ($14) appeals to the Scotch lover on the light, refreshing tip: Glenfiddich 12yr and lemon are enriched with maple syrup, lavender tincture, and egg white. Trade Secret ($14) is my favorite of recent visits. It plays like an elevated tiki drink sans rum. Germain-Robin brandy and Batavia Arrack may not sound tiki, but combined with pineapple juice, lime, house-spiced pineapple molasses and peppercorn, it’s sweet, spiced, boozy perfection.

Robin's Chocolate Cake

A finish of Robin’s chocolate cake ($10) wins with a scoop of their house Old Rasputin stout ice cream. Though sold on the fact that the dessert includes mustard caramel and sea salt pretzels, I was disappointed not to taste much mustard or enough sea salt. It is still a worthwhile dessert mainly due to the ice cream, though punching up the salty/savory aspect would make it divine.

All in all, every visit I’ve made to Solbar has been a pleasing one. Clientele and prices are a struggle, but the tastes are most seamless of any place I’ve been to in the area, and it’s one of the better in all of Napa. Sitting couchside near the pool on a warm Summer night for appetizers and cocktails allows one to soak in the slow pace of the region, but not lose in big city quality and invention.

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