With the recent trip to California wine country, I have successfully checked off another item on the bucket list. It is certainly a must visit spot for lovers of food and wine.
In lieu of boring you to death with a chronological narrative of the getaway, I thought I’d rank the experiences to give you an idea of the highlights and lowlights.
Given that Napa is one of the leading wine producing regions in the world, it stands to reason that the culinary scene would be just as competitive. While Napa is home to the French Laundry, one of the best restaurants in the country and perhaps the world, it also boast a number of fine eateries that are far easier to get a table in. Running through the alphabet and not getting far beyon the “b’s”, we dined at the following: Botega, Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, Bistro Jeanty, Brix, Gott’s Roadside, The Grill at Silverado, Lucy’s, and Morimoto. And our favorite dining experience was…
#1 – Actually not a restaurant at all. It was the Delicacies and Cave tour offered by Del Dotto winery. It’s not something that they do often but when they do…oh boy! The post cave tour delicacies pairing was prepared by Del Dotto’s head chef, Joshua Schwartz, in their state-of-the-art kitchen. The chef brought considerable culinary skills to the party as he is a former chef at the French Laundry. The small bites included a lobster roll on toasted Brioche, caviar and sweet corn egg mousse (pictured lower left), pasta with collard greens and pork shank Pastrami, and an American Wagyu Beef and Black Truffle slider all perfectly paired with delicious wine. There were two other food and wine-loving couples in our tour group which added to the positive experience. Our Del Dotto wine ambassador was knowledgeable about the wine, wine making process, company history and the food. Del Dotto surpassed all of our restaurant experiences. The total cost was $190 for the two of us.
#2 – For me it was the French centric Bistro Jeanty and their succulent Coq Au Vin (pictured upper left). Angela was less than pleased with her menu choice which happened to be sole. In her words, “it was extraordinarily bland.” Her second favorite was the chic Bardessono hotel’s restaurant Lucy. I had the lobster risotto (pictured upper right) and it was fabulous. Super chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant was also excellent and ranks pretty high but the meals were a bit heavy for us after a day of wine tasting.
#3 – Morimoto located in downtown Napa had tasty food and offered more than the chef’s famed sushi. Angela’s porkchop (pictured lower right) was huge and delicious and I was more than happy to help her finish it. The restaurant was large and energetic which made it a poor choice for an intimate evening.
Special mention goes out to Gott’s Roadside. Their California burger is one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. Thanks to my friend Matt Martucci for pulling my coattail on that one.
Thumbs down goes to the Grill at The Silverado resort. The food was fair, the service lousy and the clientele…were mostly in polo shirts, golf shorts and in their 70’s. Honestly though, I blame myself for coming up short on the research.
Best Wine Tasting Experience
The experience offered by a winery is a very important part of the overall wine country vacation experience. Seeing a bit of how the wine is made, understanding the variety of soils used, distinctions in growing areas, wine-making philosophy, and even the history of the vineyard and personality of the owner help inform the wine-tasting experience. The best experiences were those that offered tours of the facility, seated tastings, and education. These are of course at additional cost and most require advanced reservations. My least favorite are the ones where you plop down $25 bucks on the counter, get your 4 or 5 pours and a little conversation with the staff as they flutter between customers. With so many wineries and vineyards in the Napa Valley, it is impossible to visit them all even on a week-long holiday. We visited Charles Krug, Joseph Phelps, Plumpjack, Stags Leap, Cliff Lede, Opus One, Caymus, Silver Oak, Chateau Montelena, Hall Wineries, Del Dotto, and Nickel & Nickel. Here are our top 3 favorite experiences:
1# Del Dotto Estate Winery & Caves (St Helena) – Founded by infomercial king, Dave Del Dotto, Del Dotto Estate Winery offers the kind of Vegas-styled production one would expect from a media and entertainment savvy owner. Del Dotto attacks the senses with aggression upon approach. You immediately get the not-so-subtle nod to Dave’s Italian heritage. And it’s more of the same as you enter the lower level of the building. All of the decor including tile, lighting fixtures etc. are imported from Italy. The tour starts with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and an introduction from your assigned Wine Ambassador. And with the yank of a velvet curtain, you are ushered into the “wine cave” (more of a basement than a hill-side cave). Here is where our experience gets elevated. Unlike other tours that we booked, every taste of wine (about 5 in total) was directly drawn from the barrels. You get to taste the differences in vintages, types of oak, barrel toasting grades, and regions. For example, we were able to compare the exact same wine aged in two different barrels – one in French oak and one in American oak from Minnesota. The French oak offered sweet vanilla and burnt sugar flavors while the American oak delivered smokey bacon notes. Once done with the cave tour, our group was escorted to the private dining area for sensory overload with the delicious delicacies previously described in the dining section (pictured upper left)…and another 5 pours of wine! Overall, the wine was very good, the tour entertaining and the food/wine pairing exceptional. And that’s why it gets our top spot. If you sign up for the Delicacies and Cave tour at Del Dotto, make it your only stop that day. The tasting pours are larger than average and 10 of them pretty much knocked us on our asses.
#2 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar – Located in the Stag’s Leap district, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar is a gorgeous facility with knowledgeable staff. Our tour started with a taste of Sauvingnon Blanc and an introduction to the facility, types of soil Stag’s Leap’s grapes are grown in, and their wine making methods including how the wine gets moved around the facility. The tour proceeds with a stroll through the vineyard’s hill-side wine cave. It was a gorgeous facility, beautifully decorated with touches that indicate the founder’s interest in the cosmos (pictured lower left). The cave temperature was cool and full of fresh oak aromas. The tour ended back in the main building’s tasting room with beautiful stone-covered walls and floor-to-ceiling windows behind the tasting bar that overlooked grape vines and mountain vistas. And of course the wine was exceptional. The Estate Wine Tasting and Cave Tour is $60 per person and well worth the money.
#3 Hall Wines – Hall Wines in St Helena pays as much attention to pleasing your sense of sight as is does your sense of taste. Founders Kathryn and Craig Hall blend their love of contemporary architecture, art, and wine-making to create one dynamic experience. After a quick trip to Hall Wines red bathroom (Kathryn’s favorite color) the HALLmark tour, like others, started with a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc. The $40 per person 45 minute tour exposes you to some eclectic modern art (pictured upper right), contemporary architecture, and advanced wine-making techniques. A stop in one of the temperature controlled barrel rooms allowed us to taste a remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon straight from the barrel. After passing a beautiful infinity reflecting pool where club members can enjoy a glass of wine and extraordinary vistas, the tour ends with a seated group tasting of 4 outstanding wines (6 total taste from start to finish). Some of our favorite experiences occurred when we were grouped with other wine enthusiasts as was the case here. Good conversation and a shared love of wine is always a recipe for a good time.
Notables – Joseph Phelps Terrace tasting was awesome. The tour was minimal (pictured lower right) but the outstanding wine tasting on a terrace overlooking the vineyard and conversation with a fellow wine-loving couple made for a terrific first day in Napa. Also, the tasting at Caymus deserves mention. While you don’t need reservations for a tastings, the vineyard doesn’t leave you sipping at a counter. We were seated at a private table for two nestled in their stunning garden and served 5 wines from the Wagner family of wines…including Caymus. And you can’t go wrong with Caymus.
Least Favorite – Silver Oak – sure it was only a walk-in tasting but I somehow expected more from this reputable wine producer. There wasn’t much interaction with the server and no real history or information offered. The experience lasted only about 15 minutes but we did purchase some nice swag from the vineyard store. Additionally, Chateau Montelena (also a walk-in tasting) was underwhelming. Located in Calistoga on beautiful grounds with a pond full of crawfish, the landmark winery failed to deliver a meaningful experience worth the drive up RT 29.
Best Tasting Wines
This a a tough one because the taste and enjoyment of wine is rooted in personal preference. It’s all subjective. Angela and I happen to love full-bodied reds that burst with jammy fruit and because the Napa Valley is one of the best regions on earth to grow Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, the competition to be king of cabs is fierce. Whether you prefer Bordeaux styled blends, wines that are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, or something in between chances are that if you throw a rock while blindfolded, you’ll likely strike a good one. While we were visiting Napa for a relaxing, flavor-filled holiday, Angela and I were also on a mission to find some unique wines to add to our wine room. Here are some of our favorites:
#1 Nickel & Nickel – Located in Oakville, Nickel & Nickel was designed to produce single-vineyard wines, and as such, a relative small number of cases are produced annually. The Cabs take on the personality of the different districts that the vineyards are cultivated in. These cabs are full-bodied and inky in color, and burst with ripe, dark fruit with long finishes and smooth tannins. We loved all the wines that were a part of the tasting but purchased the 2013 Beatty Ranch Cab from Howell Mountain – exquisite! We also bought the 2013 Quarry Cab from Rutherford and their Darien Vineyard Syrah that our host was kind enough to introduce us to but was not a part of the official tasting. All wine was served with 3 different cheeses in a private dining room in Nickel & Nickel’s charming late 19th century, historic farmstead.
#2 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar – Many know of Chateau Montelena’s historic 1976 win for white wine at the Judgment of Paris primarily from the movie Bottle Shock. The movie’s focus was Chateau Montelena’s story but it also highlights Stag’s Leap’s historic win for Cabernet Sauvingnon at the same international competition. The excellence in wine making continues today. We enjoyed several pours of outstanding wine including Winery Exclusive 2014 Arcadia Vineyard Chardonnay, and 2012 & 2013 Estate Collection Fay Cabernet Sauvignon. We bought them all and joined their club.
#3 Hall Wines – Hall produces some outstanding wines and, quite frankly, this list could easily be rearranged with Hall going #1 or #2. It’s that tight of a ranking. There wasn’t one wine at Hall that I didn’t love. The 2013 Bergfeld was rich and inky with super smooth tannins and tons of ripe fruit. We snagged a bottle for the wine room and joined their club.
#4 Joseph Phelps, Plumjack, Caymus, Del Dotto- all of them easy top 3 candidates and all of them represent some of our fondest wine tasting moments. Joseph Phelps has one of the most drinkable Pinot Noirs (we snagged it) and their 2012 Backus Cab could be my favorite wine of the trip (snagged that too). Plumjack wines are fantastic as are the wines of its sister label, Cade. We grabbed 6 bottles in all including the 2013 Plumpjack Estate Cab and 2014 Syrah. Del Dotto also offers outstanding wine and I can say I’ve never seen a bottle in a store in NY state. Most of their wine is sold to club members and visitors. We bought a Sauvignon Blanc, a fantastic red blend, and a Cab aged in American oak. It will be interesting to see if the wines are as good coming out of the bottle as they were straight from the barrels.
Disappointments – Silver Oak and Chateau Montelena. The wines were just OK and neither were worthy of the price points that you typically have to pay for them.
A final note on the Hotel Yountville and the town of Yountville, CA. The room, grounds and services at the Hotel Yountville made for a perfect holiday. From the public art on the grounds to the relaxing pool to the nightly chocolates that Angela hoarded, bagged up, and brought home, the Hotel Yountville served as the perfect base camp for our daily excursions. I remarked on several occasions to Angela that Yountville has to be the most fragrant town I’ve ever visited. Bushes of rosemary serve as landscaping and olive trees line the streets. Mix that with the aromas of fresh baked goods emanating from Bouchon Bakery and savory delights coming from Bottega and Bouchon restaurant and you create a truly happy place. The public art spoke to the area’s unique place in the wine and culinary universe. We are counting the days until we return.
If you’ve visited Napa and have experiences to share, I’d love to hear them.