Thursday, January 28, 2010

Three Days in Wine Country

I love the wine country lifestyle: casually, understatedly elegant. We made a trip out to Napa and Sonoma over the long MLK weekend. We stayed in Santa Rosa at an average Hyatt using G's points. It was a good location being the middle between the two valleys.

We were also lucky that G's friend, who runs Copenhagen Wine, was/is well entrenched in the wine business. Through him and his local connection, Dan (who, coincidentally is an alumnus of my high school in Virginia), set us up with complimentary meetings and private tours with several family vineyards.  We visited our favorite Benziger, finally got an appointment at A. Rafanelli, did a private picnic and vineyard walk through the Donum Estates and had very lovely personal tours with the gentlemen at Hendry, Hanzell and Vine Cliff. These were all small-production operations, and the emphasis on the personal touch was highlighted throughout. We loved all of it, and prefer this way of wine tasting over what the locals call, "Red Wine Poppers": the large tour  or the limo groups who rush through the big corporate wineries trying to get as much alcohol consumed as possible.

We opted for the quiet and sedate, at a pace where we could savor the wine, which meant about two vineyards/wineries a day. Three at most. The weather was a bit overcast and in the fifties. The rain held off until our last night, when it poured. (Apparently southern California had been experiencing downpours, which we escaped for the most part.)

Four years ago, when G and I first started dating, we did a very similar tour of the area. It was a very different time.  We stayed in Sonoma.  And it was a better economy and the romance of a new relationship that led us to the big splashy corporate wineries and restaurants, including Silver Oak, Chateau St. Jean and French Laundry. Perhaps, it *was* the red wine poppers tour!

But this time around, it was more intimate, value-focused, and, actually, a much better visit. Smartly-priced-serious-food restaurants seem to be the Zeitgeist. As I previously wrote, we found such a place in FIG in Charleston and continue to see them throughout our travels. We dined at Ad Hoc, Thomas Keller's laid back and deliciously fun restaurant in Yountville. Similarly, in St. Helena we loved Taylor's Automatic Refresher, a walk up with the best green garlic fries and fish tacos you'll ever have (because in part you can BYO wine). The endless array of wines and ever-changing daily choices at the James Beard-awarded Mustard's Grill is no joke. And one of the newer Michelin-starred restaurants in the area, Farm House Inn, has amazing white tablecloth service, meticulous (but not over-the-top) fare, with astonishingly reasonable pricing.  We did a lot in three days, and it was all affordable and fantastic.


Benziger, Sonoma

Benziger was perhaps the largest and most commercial of all the wineries we visited, but it's still family-owned and operated, and we like their biodynamic process. The wine is very good (we've been members of their case club for a few years.) We like their Reserves and Merlot (even). This time we picked up a blend and some Cab.

El Dorado Kitchen, Sonoma

Afterwards, we stopped in the town of Sonoma to have lunch, ostensibly at the Girl and the Fig, but they were closed that day. We went across the street to El Dorado Kitchen (in the lovely and sleek El Dorado hotel--where I've stayed before and loved) for a wild mushroom and thyme pizza, potato and pear soup and a field green salad. Everything tastes better in California!

Hanzell, Sonoma

We rushed from lunch to our next tasting appointment at nearby Hanzell. They produce a lot of Chardonnay and a bit of Pinot Noir. We aren't big Chardonnay drinkers, but the style they make is classic California oaky and very much to G's liking.  The cave was spare but nice, and the bottle rooms were lovely, as was the room we tasted in. It's a very small operation on a beautiful piece of property (all the properties are beautiful), but this was dotted with amazing sculptures that the owner, Alexander de Brye, collects. (Pictures weren't allowed on our little art tour,though.)

Ad Hoc, Yountville
That night we went to Yountville to Thomas Keller's newest place, Ad Hoc. Last time we were in Yountville, as I mentioned, we ate at the French Laundry. This time around, we tried Keller's more laid back and fun supper club. His original plan was to open a burger and wine eatery. Having procured the space early, he couldn't just let it sit there, so he thought he'd serve up ad hoc, or something simple in the interim.

The idea: a simple, reasonably-priced, four course family-style menu offered five nights a week (changing nightly). It  was so popular, Keller kept it for good.  The atmosphere is very young and casual, but still high quality and definitely stylish. They have a theme going with the ad hoc old typerwriter font and gas station attendant shirts for the staff. Even the menu is fashioned in an old timey file folder with two metal prongs that hold the wine list, along with file folder labels that read "ad hoc". Love it.

On the menu that night was spiced beef sirloin steak with trumpet and shitake mushrooms and wilted greens, along with butter poached curried carrots and quinoa. We started with a smoked trout salad on a bed of romaine with a sort of salsa verde dressing and a sprinkling of hazelnuts. All simple and outstanding. For the cheese course, we had what they call 'crocodile tears', a pear-shaped wedge of semi-firm goat cheese from Capriole Dairy, served with pepper grassini and honey. YUM. Finally, dessert was a very simple apple and blueberry tarte that they called 'apple bands' (long rectangles of baked apples and blue berries on puff pastry) with some lemon curd and fresh cream.

There was also a lemon theme with the decor. We sat at the bar and watched the restaurant. While we were waiting, our bartender served us our wine (that we brought--they understand corkage for sure) along with some water. He offered us lemon for our water, disappeared for a bit, and came back with a lemon he picked from the tree out back. Nice. They had a simple, but very nice wine list that included the rose Champagne that we served at our wedding! We'll definitely come back to Ad Hoc. There's nothing to dislike.


Flying Goat Coffee, Santa Rosa

As I said, we stayed in Santa Rosa, a suburban town with a nice tiny little historic area called Railroad Square. We found Flying Goat Coffee, a great shop set in the old Western Hotel building. We kept going back every morning for their delicious specialty brews and vegetable and fruit galettes.


A. Rafanelli, Healdsburg

Years ago, I started drinking Rafanelli Zins. It's often hard to get an appointment for a tasting, but I guess with the economy, that wasn't the case this time. The small, family-run winery was beautiful and casual. We purchased two Cabs.

Donum, Carneros

We then drove out to the Carneros area for our visit with Donum Estates Vineyard. Along the way saw some great ranch life, including these smiling goats and grazing sheep.

Donum was the highlight of the trip for me. We had a very special private vineyard lunch with viniculturalist, Anne Moller-Racke, president of Donum (which is not open to the public). She laid out a lovely and simple spread and we dined and sampled her wines on a picnic table on the property. She educated us on the daily life of the grape farmer. And yes, she farms the estate herself. She married into the nearby Buena Vista wine family years ago, learned viniculture and stayed on to run the Donum property after separating from her husband. The grapes farmed at the vineyard are pressed and bottled at a co-op in Santa Rosa, and the delicious (and not inexpensive) wine is mainly distributed to restaurants.  At her home in Carneros, she also grows grapes and bottles a very small batch under the Blue Farm label. She gave us a taste as well as a bottle as a gift along with all the opened bottles we tasted. We drank the opened ones later with dinner. SO nice!

After lunch we walked through the vineyards as she educated us on pruning and the micro-climate. I envied her life.

Hendry, Napa

 Our next stop was Hendry family winery, where we got a great education and tasting from George Hendry (himself). His father, an Agronomy professor, purchased the land in 1939 and the initial focus was  wheat crops, grapes and plums. In the 70s George planted the Ranch’s remaining pasture-land to vineyard, slowly building a reputation for grapes and quality. In the early 1990’s the Ranch’s zinfandel grapes were making Rosenblum’s Hendry Reserve. Its Cabernet was being divided between Opus One and Mondavi’s Reserve. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were finding their way into Mondavi’s reserve programs.

They also started producing grapes under the Hendry label. The wine tasting was interesting because George made it a culinary pairing lesson, talking about complementary dishes and so forth. We liked their Zin and purchased a few bottles, including a demi that we had with dinner that night.

Mustard's Grill, Napa

That night we had dinner at Mustard's Grill in Napa. Appropriately named for all the mustard flowers that bloom (as you can see in these images) every spring, the very popular place known for James Beard award winning chef, Cindy Pawlcyn, and her organic kitchen garden. The menu is a bunch of tasty grills, stuff "from the pan", soups, and various tyles of lamb and "the truck stop"--aka meat and potatoes-- that change daily. I had the Sonoma rabbit, roasted with root vegetables and heirloom corn polenta; G had their famous Mongolian pork chops with sweet and sour red cabbage and homemade mustard. We started with a delicious sweet corn tamale with tomatillo-avacado salsa, and pumpkin seeds. For dessert we shared a banana pudding with shortbread cookies and bruleed bananas. YUMMMMM. We brought a bottle of the Hendry to have with the dinner.


Flying Goat, Santa Rosa (again)

More delicious coffee and galettes

We took a shortcut through Mount Veeder to get to Napa. Saw beautiful misty winding roads and deer.

Vine Cliff, Napa

Our last full day included an appointment with Mark at Vine Cliff. The beautiful winery and vineyard is owned by the Sweeney's (of Embassy Suites fortune) who purchased it for a song in the eighties. Mrs. Sweeney paid a lot of attention to the design details of the estate, including everything from the county-mandated water reservoire (which she turned into a pond and sitting area) to the vine detailed hand rails, to the staining of the barrels to camouflage spillage. The small winery was the most formal of all that we had seen during the three day visit. Like others, most of Vine Cliff's business is to restaurants. The prices are a little high, so we just got 2006 Malbec, which is interesting because its a rare non-blended varietal (not many people grow Malbec in the area, but they found a spot on their property where it did well that year).

Oakville Grocery, Oakville

We stopped by the CUTEST Oakville Grocery and market. Stylized country rustic, it had everything a gourmand and oenophile could want. Including great wines and vintage refrigerators. Its what G called, "A gold mine."

Taylor's Automatic Refresher, St. Helena

We stopped for lunch at the ORIGINAL Taylor's Automatic Refresher in very charming St. Helena!!!! I LOVE TAYLOR'S ! The fast food walk up, is amazing. The food is so good and they offer everything that a burger joint would, plus amazing variations including NYC Kim Chee Burgers, shrimp tacos, and outstanding shakes. The big kicker: they offer corkage! Of course they would! I had the fish tacos, G had the patty melt, and we shared the AMAZING green garlic fries that we had with the opened wines from Donum. Bonus that the kids behind the counter gave us free corkage. We finished off with the most delicious white pistachio milk shake that I've ever had in my life.

Driving scenes to and through Yountville.
French Laundry: not this year!

Farmhouse Inn, Forestville

We had our final dinner at the one Michelin-starred Farmhouse Inn. It was lovely despite the rain. The service was definitely white table cloth, the prices were not. In the winter they have a prix fixe menu of three courses for $39 on Sundays and Mondays. We brought our own wine, of course. We had an amuse bouche of seafood consume, I started with a shrimp bisque, while G had a nice green salad. We both had the pork Ossobucco with barley risotto topped with fennel. I had lemon three ways (brulee, sorbet, and olive oil cake) and G an okay coffee gelato for dessert. It was a lovely end to a GREAT three days in wine country.


Startup Wife said...

That looks like an amazing trip! My husband and I went to wine country over the summer and stayed at the B&B right next to Mustards. Looking at these pictures I'm wishing we ate there!

I was so touched by your uncle offering his hospital food. That is so sweet, in so many ways.

Sounds like a wonderful trip.

Brandi said...

You should be a travel writer. I'm totally relaxed and missing Napa after reading your post. Danny & I went up there receiving semi royal treatment (nothing like what you received!) for us both working at restaurants then that served a lot of Napa wine. Provenance being one of my favorites. I long to go back now...

M and C said...

Yay! It's like you knew we'd be making the trip to Napa in the Spring. Now we have a some good ideas to start from.

HisBirdie (Ali) said...

Totally agree w/ Brandi - You should be a travel writer. Everywhere you visit, I want to visit.
J and I are thinking of going to Napa for our 30th birthdays (they're about a month apart). I'm going to send him your post so we can start planning!

Eileen said...

gorgeous tour de force ya sexy thing you! you may envy that winelady's life but i totally envy yours....

EmilyGustafson said...

I totally agree with Eileen and all the others! You've got a great knack for making even a short weekend trip seem long and luxuriant. Writing about travel/food/fine dining is your calling!

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