Friends came to town in early June to celebrate their anniversary with us, and as a 10 year resident and wife of a third generation local, I love giving friends my view of the Napa Valley. This is not a schedule I would suggest to most visitors. My guests have fairly perceptive palates and prefer to be busy so it worked for us, and allowed me to get a quick snapshot of several different operations.
I will briefly step on my soapbox here to say that I get so tired of hearing Napa Valley and its wineries referred to as snobby. I was raised in Sonoma County and moved to Napa 10 years ago to pursue a career in the wine industry. The most snobby winery experience Ive had was in Sonoma County where they simply ignored me after I put a business card down with a St. Helena address. In my experience, its often the visitors who come off as snobs: name dropping, refusing to drink a wine because its so passé or because a critic panned the vintage and asking question after question not to learn anything but to show off their knowledge (which often turns out to be just enough to be dangerous). I will now descend from my soapbox.
As a member of the wine industry, wine tasting was complimentary at all of the wineries visited. While I enjoy this perk, I completely understand why wineries charge for tasting and support the idea of charging for tasting. But that is a discussion for another thread.
Upon their arrival, I hurried my friends to Artesa and they were immediately pleased by the striking modern architecture and panoramic views. The wines were numerous and very good, particularly interesting was the horizontal tasting of Pinot Noir from Russian River, Carneros and a California blend. We headed to the Napa River Inn to get them checked in and were pleased to find the rooms were attractive, clean and not too frilly. Throughout the weekend, they raved about the breakfasts that came with their room package. Provided by Sweetie Pies (located downstairs), they had the option of having breakfast in the room or at Sweetie Pies and praised the fresh pastries.
We wandered downtown to the Bounty Hunter where we sampled bubbly and beer and for $8 scored a generous plate of about 8 cheeses, the highlights of which were a 5-year aged gouda and a sour cream brie. Next it was off to JV Wine & Spirits for their Friday night winemaker tasting which happened to feature a Pinot Gris, two Pinot Noirs and an Italian style dessert Gewurztraminer. For $2, the JV Friday night winemaker tastings has to be one of the best secrets around.
We decided on Sushi Mambo for dinner; after amusing ourselves for 30 minutes by watching the Chefs Market crowds outside we were seated. The service was horrendous because they were apparently missing a server and a cook that night. This made it impossible to get enough to eat, so we left hungry after a 3-hour meal. I would hesitate to return even though I thought the sushi itself was fine. I am in no way a sushi expert, but the fish had a rich & clean flavor.
Saturday we began our day at the Turnbull tasting bar, and sampled four of their wines; a Sauvignon Blanc, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a red table blend and a dessert wine. All were very good and less expensive than I expected. We made a brief walk through of Dean & DeLuca in preparation for purchases there later in the day. Salvestrin was our next stop and its a lovely newish winery on a historic property owned by a longtime Napa Valley family. We sampled the Sauvignon Blanc (lovely nose of floral & tropical notes but the mouth-feel is a bit sharp), Sangiovese, Retaggio (a proprietary blend) and Cabernet Sauvignon.
We squeezed in a brief visit to the Napa Valley Olive Oil Company which is rustic and charming with its whitewashed barn filled with bottles of olive oil and jars of gourmet goodies both domestic and Italian. My friends are fans of the big jugs of reasonably priced olive oil. We called in our orders to Taylors ahead of time, allowing us to bypass the long lines and head straight to the bar where our lunch arrived as we paid. Taylors may not be a hit with this board, but my guests are fans and so is my family. Yes, its overpriced, but so are most meal options in St. Helena. The service is great, the food is good, and eating under the oak trees with friends is a pretty perfect break from a day of winetasting. Plus, Im a sucker for their Texas burger and the sweet potato fries.
After lunch, we made our way to Schramsberg and I read the description of the property from Robert Louis Stevensons Silverado Squatters to create a backdrop for our visit. Having given trade tours for over 6 years I can say that our tour guide, Tom, gave one of the most personable, interesting tours that I have ever taken. He was gracious, approachable and incorporated property history and family stories into his overview of Schramsberg winemaking practices. At the conclusion of the tour, we sampled the J. Schram, the Reserve, Querencia and their 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon. The first two wines were excellent, balanced and rich. The Querencia a special project in conjunction with the Culinary Institute was lackluster and off balance in comparison. The Cabernet Sauvignon lacked the structure I expected from a Diamond Mountain Wine. At $60+, thats pricey for a wine described as drink now.
Following our lovely experience at Schramsberg we wandered to Cuvaison, which was crowded. As we entered there was a greeter offering complimentary tastes of their cool Sauvignon Blanc and Rosé. I sampled the rosé and will probably head back soon to buy some because it had a fair amount of structural oomph for a vin gris. The rest of the wines were ok, but nothing stands out. Its a very small tasting room, and one or two boisterous people make a huge impact. I commented to our pourer that they should be allowed to keep tranquilizer darts behind to bar for quick use in controlling the ambiance of the tasting room. (g)
With a few minutes to spare before our next appointment I was curious to visit Dutch Henry, which was exactly as described to me. The tasting room was rowdy and lively, and the gentleman serving us was brash, funny and very down-to-earth. Several of the wines were flawed, either a wee bit funky or full of the sweet nail polish smell that is a sign of excessive volatile acidity.
We headed up to Von Strasser where my pal Pete took excellent care of us. He is very unassuming, informal guy with dry, sarcastic off-beat wit, which can be startling when contrasted with the complex, elegant (and expensive) Von Strasser wines he pours.
We returned to Dean & DeLuca and very quickly were sucked into a frenzy of cheese tasting and purchasing. We were unable to discover a Gouda exactly like the one sampled the previous day at Bounty Hunter, but had an excellent education on aged cheeses along the way.
Just for kicks, we squeezed in a visit to Peju, which was insanely crowded. The wines were good, but with people crowding at three separate tasting bars it was hard to focus on the wines.
The day culminated with dinner at Coles Chop House, which absolutely made up for the disappointing meal the evening before. We all started with their Oysters Rockefeller which is sublime. This was a new treat for our friends, who nearly passed out from the bliss. Ive had uninspired versions buried in heavy cream sauce or tainted by not-quite-prime oysters. Not Coles. They are full of creamy flavor that is rich but not heavy. Our server said something about spinach, Pernod, hollandaise & béarnaise. Im not quite convinced of the latter, but regardless, I usually find myself surreptitiously licking the shells and yearning to recklessly order more.
Our friends had Lobster Bisque crowned by puff pastry, which was appropriately old school: rich, buttery, and full of sweet lobster flavor. My husband and I split their special salad of green beans, arugula, sweet corn and blue cheese. It was a wonderfully simply combination that was a nice transition from oysters to steak.
My husband and I ordered rib eyes and they were juicy and full of marbling and distinctive beefy character. We selected a Baked Potato, Creamed Spinach and the Potato Onion Hash browns. The baked potatos only flaw was a somewhat soft skin (I like mine chewier), but it was accompanied by little dishes of butter, sour cream and chopped chives. The spinach was creamy, rich but not too congealed, thick or heavy. I wish I had some right now. The hash browns strongly recommended to us by a guy at Peju were a disappointment. Yes, they were a perfectly golden cake of potato and onion shreds, but after the thrills of the oysters, bisque, salad, spinach and steak, it just seemed out of place. I would have preferred mashed potatoes instead.
For dessert, our friends went straight for chocolate and my husband and I went for the Fruit Crisp. Sadly, I dont quite remember what kind of fruit was in the crisp, but perhaps that memory is obscured by what we drank with dessert.
Now, I had brought two lovely bottles of wine produced by my employer; Titus Vineyards 2000 Lot 1 and the 2002 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The former was showing well, but the latter is still really a bit too young to drink and would have performed better with decanting. During dinner, our attention was drawn to a large group spread out over three tables. They were nearing the end of a decadent, wine filled dinner when I was startled to see two magnums of Dolce brought out and poured for the group before dessert. For those who dont know, Dolce is the sought-after Sauternes-like wine produced by Far Niente. I immediately started babbling to my table that I never knew they made Dolce in magnums, wondered who the group was, whether theyd provided the bottles or if Coles had procured them, and how much the suckers cost. We snuck glances enviously at the group drinking this gem like water. Finally, my friend dared my husband to approach the group and ask who they were and the story behind the magnums. My fearless husband did so and moments later returned with a partial magnum of what turned out to be 1998 Dolce. It turned out to be a well-known company entertaining its best clients. One of the executives had scored these bottles on an online auction site for a paltry $120 apiece. So, in accompaniment to our desserts, each of us at our little table enjoyed a generous glass of Dolce. Not a bad way to end a quick, whirlwind tour of my world-famous neighborhood with dear friends!