Sunday, September 4, 2011

Louie Vermeil Classic Sprint Car Races -- TONIGHT in Calistoga

I've never had a chance to check out the local sprint car races -- in fact, I've never been to a car race of any sort in person (except for one brief viewing of a leg of a rally race as it whipped through a Belgian town whose name I forget.)

So I figured I would come and check out the local Louie Vermeil Classic! The weather is fantastic, and it's a long weekend, no need to get up early in the morning...

Yesterday they had the first rounds, preceded by a wine tasting event from 1:00-4:00 (cars getting ready starting hot laps at 5:00; race is at 7:00) Today is the bigger-prize event, though the pre-race Beer Garden festivities are now wrapping up....

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The 3rd Annual Napa Chili Cookoff

This past Saturday downtown Napa hosted one of various special events they regularly host: the 3rd Annual Napa Chili Cookoff. I have never been to this event before, and in all honesty might not have even known about it if it hadn't been for a heads-up (and free admission!) from our real estate agent, Mike Bolen (who happened to be working the "Raging Donkey" chili booth).

There were 18 chilis being represented at the competition, which took place on main street between 2nd and 3rd streets and required a $20 donation to Napa Food Bank as admission/tastings of all chili and a token to vote on your favorite.

I'm a pretty big fan of chili, so this wasn't a bad bet... especially since every single one of them was pretty decent (some much better than others, of course) -- I just wish it had stayed nice and foggy/overcast and cool like it was in the morning, but alas the sun burned it off and it was another typical sunny 80 degree summer day in Napa (I know what you're thinking: "And you're complaining about that?!")

The deal is that you walk around to different booths, most of them held by local businesses, charities, etc. (so they also get a little bit of publicity out of the deal), and you try a little cup of their chili. After tasting as many as you'd like, you can drop a token into their bucket if it's your favorite; the winner of the most tokens takes the "People's Choice" award.

As for the main 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prizes, these are awarded by a panel of judges, which this year included James Aptakin, Food Network regular and executive chef for San Francisco’s Hilton Financial District Hotel; local artist Gordon Huether; Napa Fire Chief Tim Borman; Catherine Bergen, owner of C Casa in the Oxbow Market; and L. Pierce Carson from the Napa Valley Register.

We stuck around long enough to meander to every booth and try every chili possible; Sarah is not a big fan of "heat" so she steered clear of some of them, but I devoured everything in sight without hesitation, and by the end I'd had a fairly substantial meal! The great thing is that, like wine tasting, there's plenty of variety -- subtle (or not so subtle) variations of "the same thing", which really lets you appreciate the nuances of ingredients and flavors.

L. Pierce Carson made it very apparent in his writeup that he was disappointed by the lack of heat/chili-power in this year's entries, and although I do believe chili should have some kick, I believe that kick can come from flavors such as spices making it "spicy" without necessarily being "hot" (fyi, Mr. Carson: not all peppers are hot.) There was one chili (I forget which) which was rather bland and too tomato-based... it was pretty awful. But as for the rest, I disagree that they were lackluster. Also, apparently the panel (only 2 of the 6 who actually have any sort of food expertise) was looking for the best rendition of a typical/traditional chili, because those are the only ones that seemed to win anything.

I personally found it refreshing that there were some sweeter chilis in the mix, some with hints of brown sugar or molasses or syrup in them. I actually gave my token to Bolen's Raging Donkey chili (which won 3rd place last year) -- it had some great slow-cooked braised short ribs and other meats, the meat was excellent and the flavor was different; I couldn't decide between that one and the one by Billco's Billiards... which was the most unique of the day, in my opinion, and it had an intriguing blend of spices (described by the server as "mediterranean spices")... I picked up maybe cinnamon? Allspice? Coriander? Hard to tell, but it was something you don't normally get in chili, and yet it worked very nicely. Apparently not for the judges, though. (Raging Donkey tipped the scales because they got me into the event, otherwise I might have slightly favored Billco's, but it was a tough call)

Sarah's vote was for Downtown Joe's chili colorado which had a minimalist and traditional -- but nicely done -- Mexican flavor to it.

Apparently others didn't agree, as they chose some of the most typical representations of chili to be the winners. I can't entirely blame them, though -- it was all surprisingly good (except for that one bland, stewed-tomato flavored one which shall remain nameless because it was completely forgettable).

Monday, July 4, 2011

4th of July in Napa Valley

It's been a long time, no writing... which is not to say I haven't been exploring. But there have been extenuating circumstances (mostly having to do with Internet access), so we'll see if I can get this blog in gear again.

Over the course of 4 years, I have not once spent 4th of July in Napa Valley. As I have done often in the past, we have gone to San Francisco to see the fireworks over the water... and other times I have been out of state (or out of country) altogether.

However, I have heard several times about some festivities that happen in Calistoga on 4th of July weekend: The Napa County Fair

The annual Napa County Fair occurs over the 4th of July weekend, including a 4th of July Parade (I was considering attending this today, but to make it for the 11:00 am parade and then stay for the 9:30 pm fireworks makes for a very long day) and culminating in 4th of July fireworks.

It sounds like a more-or-less typical county fair atmosphere at the fairgrounds: rides, junk food, etc. There are a few special events -- an antique tractor display, a BBQ cookoff, an olive oil competition... yesterday hosted blues bands and the day before had a junior bull riding rodeo.

I do plan to make it tonight to take in the sights and, at the very least, the fireworks! Been a long time since I've been to a fair...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

California Mille

It's been a while since posting a blog (a few in the works, but I also just returned from a trip to Italy -- Naples, Pompeii, Amalfi, Sorrento, and Capri), but I just saw some wonderful Italian-style racing cars circa 1930 or so, filling up with gas in Calistoga, so I had to investigate what that was all about.

They had numbered labels on the sides of the cars that said "California Mille" (mille means "one thousand" in Italian), so I looked it up and... sure enough, this week Calistoga is the hub of the 21st California Mille driving tour. As their press release notes, "The Mille (MILL-leh) honors Italy’s famed Mille Miglia (thousand mile) race that ran from Brescia to Rome to Brescia from 1927-1957. Only cars that could have qualified for the Italian event may participate in the California tour--not a race but a demanding drive."


[Sadly, I didn't get a photo but will keep my eye out for them tomorrow!]

Monday, March 28, 2011

World of Outlaws Sprint Car Races

I won't be in Napa Valley this weekend... I've decided to finally get up to Tahoe for some spring skiing, after a ridiculous amount of rain whipped through here and dumped several feet of powder there. Of course, all this rain has really put a damper on doing all the new thing I wanted to do this year (obviously, I have not been doing something new every day. I still plan to have 365 new experiences in Napa Valley this year, though. Just going to have to really load up during the summer! Sounds good to me!) Apparently, all I needed to do to make the rain go away was to book a trip to the mountains and hope for snow! Because as soon as I did that, the forecast called for 60 degree sunny says in Tahoe! Great! >:( I just thought I would mention that had I not booked a weekend in Tahoe (which is, by the way, just a 2.5 hour drive from Napa), I would probably have headed to Calistoga on Saturday, April 2 for the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Races. For the first couple of years I worked in Calistoga, I never even knew they had a car racing track! I've never been to a live car race (of any sort) and would be curious to see what it's like, so I plan to attend one this year. Looks like I will miss the World of Outlaws event, but plan on hitting one of the others, perhaps the Louie Vermeil Classic in September.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Etude Wines

In my recent excursions down Cuttings Wharf Rd, to the riverfront homes of the Carneros region just southwest of Napa, I passed a winery called "Etude" which I was always curious about, but always too late to visit.

Then I was reminded when a coworker mentioned that "Etude has some good Carneros pinot, you should try them if you like pinot..." The name rang a bell, but I couldn't place it. Then suddenly I remembered, and just in time to check out another home for sale (maybe -- it's a weird situation, short-sale temporarily off-market trying to get a loan modification to avoid foreclosure), and decided it was time to pay Etude a visit.

The grounds are sprawling and so flat; the flat, marshy wetlands of Carneros are such a contrast compared to the hills and crags upvalley. The tasting room itself was large and had a vibe like a minimalist modern art gallery, with racks of wine mounted in front of a panel-lit wall and -- what's this that looks like wine but glows a strange amber color? Well, it turns out the place used to be a distillery that made brandy, and when Etude winery took over they decided to bottle and sell some of the brandy (limited production, no more being made), one of which is 100% pinot and the other is a blend of grapes, but neither available for tasting and both of them expensive ($150/bottle)!

The average age in here seemed to be about 60, with the ladies pouring being at least that or older. It wouldn't bother me except that, like some of the other older servers around here, they weren't too personable. Tastings are $20 each (we decided to share) and it included a chardonnay, two pinot noirs (a blend and the Deer Camp single vineyard), a "GBR Red" blend (85% merlot, 15% malbec), and a cabernet sauvignon.

All of the wines were definitely good with delicate, balanced flavors and smooth mouthfeel (I've come to realize the mouthfeel is so important to me); the pinots are somewhat typical for Carneros, in the sense that they are a somewhat ruby color which accurately represents a decent level of fruit in the wine. However, these Etude ones have a great deal of musky spice to them, and not too tart/sour like some pinot can be. Overall they had hints of black tea and cloves, a flavor profile I could definitely appreciate.

The darker reds -- both the GRB and cabernet -- were full-bodied but well-rounded, with very smooth tannins. I got sort of a yeasty, vanilla potpourri aroma from the GBR which, personally, I found very appealing; the cabernet was more licorice and cocoa. Like I said, everything was good... but none of it was cheap. The estate pinot is $42 and everything else is $60+, so at those prices I couldn't justify buying any bottles right now, though I'll definitely keep them in mind if I want something special in the future. They got bonus points for ending up waiving our tasting fee, as well, since we are locals -- I didn't know they are part of the Napa Neighbor program, but sure enough when I checked the website it lists free tasting for up to 4 people, plus a 15% discount.

Okay, that settles it... I'll be back!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Casa Nuestra

"Casa Nuestra" means "our house" and, true to the name, this family-owned winery goes for a casual, comfortable feel. I first tasted their wine a week ago at the Mustard, Mud, and Music festival and I liked both the Symphony (a varietal you don't see often around here, despite the fact that it was created at UC Davis. This is only the third one I've tried, the other two being at Volcano Winery at Volcano N.P. in Hawaii, and at Maple Creek / Artevino Wines in Anderson Valley) and the Tinto (a "field blend" of various varietals grown on the same field and harvested and processed at the same time together). I've also passed the winery, located on Silverado Trail north of Deer Park Road, on various occasions, but have never visited.

After dealing with the utterly unfriendly pretentiousness of Cade Winery up on Howell Mountain, the laid-back vibe here is a welcome change -- their flyer says you can "bring your dogs... or your goats!" and, indeed, they have two goats on the property, Nava (a total ham, as long as you're feeding) and A.P. (who has started to catch on and learn from Nava). This was also the site where the opening scene of the Elvis movie Wild in the Country was filmed in 1961. The owner of the property is a big Elvis fan, but didn't know this little piece of trivia when he bought the grounds, so he's pretty excited about that and you can find all sorts of little Elvis memorabilia and kitsch in the tasting room.

As for the wines themselves, they are pretty decent. They do not try to be anything they are not, and the pricetags are accordingly reasonable -- most are in the $20-$30 range, with a few in the $30-$40 range. As far as I know, there's no tasting fee, and we got a discount (10 or 15 percent... I never actually checked) for being local Napa Neighbors.

The reds are very drinkable, but personally I find them a little bit sour or acidic for my tastes (but Sarah is more into that); we did end up buying a 100% Carignan ($32) because that is a grape you don't see every day and it had a nice inky, berry-filled flavor to it, sort of like a halfway point between merlot and syrah. It was also from Contra Costa county, which is another thing you don't see every day (maybe because it doesn't have the brand-name cache that putting "Napa" on the label does).

However, I feel their whites shine even more -- as already mentioned, I like the Symphony which is a hybrid of Muscat and Grenache Gris varietals which tends to make a semi-sweet wine with hints of tropical passionfruit, honeysuckle, and pineapple tones. Casa Nuestra's (from Lodi grapes) is true to this, and is $20/bottle. Casa Nuestra also makes a good off-dry riesling; often, these types of rieslings have a biting acidity or tartness to them, but this one ($22/bottle) is just light, smooth, and refreshing. It goes down like water.