Monday, January 31, 2011

R.I.P. The Candy Cellar - Another Business Bites the Dust

Today I was really hoping to hop into a small local shop in Calistoga called "The Candy Cellar" and grab some jellybeans or a chunk of fudge before hopping on the bus home.

No such luck. When I arrived, the old-fashioned wooden store sign was still hanging out front, but the shop was completely empty -- just a narrow shell with a hardwood floor and a paper on the window reading "For Lease"

This is just a sobering reminder of the "feast or famine" reality that abides in Napa Valley (and, indeed, in many areas of California.) The business turnover rate here is pretty astounding. I suppose that might be expected in an area where tourism is a key factor, but it just seems strange which places fold and why and when.

Whereas some iconic institutions (wineries, mainly) have been here for over a century, other establishments -- promising and highly-touted ones, even -- pop up and then disappear in a handful of years. Here is a list of some of the ones I have personally witnessed in the 4 years I've lived here:
  • Wappo Bistro -- This was widely known as the best boutique, "fit for foodies" restaurant in Calistoga. Now, Calistoga does not have quite the culinary cache of Yountville, Rutherford, or St. Helena, but Wappo (named for the local Native American tribe that lived here) was quite good, with a cozy, interesting atmosphere, delicious food, and a good wine selection (with reasonable prices). I have heard it was the local favorite restaurant of Robert Redford. It was here for about 2 years after I arrived, and it had business every time I walked past. Then, about a year ago, it suddenly shuttered its doors... why? The rumor mill has it that the landlord was raising the rent, the restaurant owners resisted, the landlord wouldn't budge, so they said "Fine, forget it. We can't afford that, so we're closing business." Lo and behold, the property has been vacant ever since, so it looks like Wappo was quite justified in sticking it to the property owners, but I do miss the restaurant.

  • Nicola's Deli -- This casual, unassuming deli/cafe was located right on the main street (Lincoln) of downtown Calistoga. It was nothing fancy, but had a good variety on the menu -- American and Mexican and a few things in between -- and had the best prices in town. It was a favorite of working-class locals but also seemed like it would be a good place for lunch for any hungry tourists in town looking for a quick bite without breaking the bank. I guess that just wasn't good enough to stay in business?

  • Bleaux Magnolia -- This Louisiana/southern-style restaurant featuring Creole food opened in downtown Napa shortly after I moved here. I saw them advertised somewhere, a local newspaper or flyer, and Louisiana cooking is hard to come by (and I love it) so we gave it a try. Like many places in Napa, the prices were a little high, but the atmosphere was nice -- small and cozy but also with outdoor dining patio, and they would often have live music (blues or zydeco)... and the meals were delicious: jalapeno cornbread, duck jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, sausage gumbo, muffaletta sandwiches, etc. Also very enjoyable for brunch. Oh, and no wine corkage fee! The only drawback was the location -- unlike many local restaurants, housed in scenic vineyards or historic downtown main streets, Bleaux Magnolia was unfortunately tucked along a strange back road on the outskirts of suburban and commercial downtown Napa, across the street from a parking lot for Mervyn's and a gym. This may have been its downfall, because otherwise it seemed to be doing great... busy every single time we went.

  • Esquisse winery -- I don't know what happened to this place, but I went there about 7 years ago and tried Malbec for the first time... it was $50/bottle, but worth every penny. It tasted just like a juicy filet mignon. Now I notice it is "Alpha Omega" winery in the location, the tasting room has zero personality or appeal, aside from the typical Napa pretentious feel and an overpriced tasting fee, to boot.
One would think that the key to success in a place like Napa Valley would be to have a business that is not seasonal and relying on tourism. I would assume the best bet would be a place that is popular with both tourists and locals. But, from what I've seen, those are exactly the kinds of businesses that are folding and going under...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Riverfront in Carneros

I decided to take a little drive today, a scenic detour to a part of Napa I didn't even know existed: a peninsula of wetlands, vineyards, and riverfront homes nestled right where the Napa River widens and deepens.

I found out about this area -- located south of Hwy 121 (which runs between Napa and Sonoma) by taking Cutting's Wharf Rd -- through my current house hunt in Napa County. There are several homes for sale on Milton Rd. right on the riverfront at the southern end of the peninsula.

I grew up near water (in Maryland, near the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay) and I love it. I love boats and would absolutely love to own a home on the Napa River, but particularly where the river is a little more secluded and is boat-accessible. This is that area.

The drive south is like another world -- flat, marshy fields with flocks of waterfowl silhouetted against the sunlight glinting from shallow pools of water and mud. There is an occasional cow pasture, and still plenty of vineyards, such as Etude (this is, after all, Carneros -- an AVA prized for the temperate cooling breezes and fogs that waft up from the Bay and the river, a territory loved by pinot noir and chardonnay) -- but now there are also boat launches and small harbors.

The strip of houses is different -- gone are the Victorians and craftsman homes so prominent (and beautiful) in most of Napa Valley. In their place are a motley hodgepodge of what can only be described as "beachfront" homes, vintage 50's-70's. It is not a place of staggering wealth, but seems to be a neighborhood of down-to-earth folk who just happen to love the seclusion (and plenty who want the water, replete with boats "out back" on the river)

To me, it's paradise. (Unfortunately, the homes are still too high out of my price range -- apparently nobody's told these folks that the real estate party is over and it's time to come back to reality. They are trying to sell homes for $500-$700k, when they are valued at $300-$500k on Zillow and Eppraisal)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Red Rock Cafe Back Door Barbecue

Rainstorms set in today, putting me in the mood for a casual, low-key comfort food sort of meal.

I've often seen a little cafe sitting along Lincoln Ave at the intersection of Main (between Jefferson and Soscol). Driving home, I pass by it frequently, and my eye is often drawn to it due to the preponderance of neon lights adorning the windows. More intriguing, however, is the fact that it always seems packed in the evenings, every day of the week. Being situated across from a 7-Eleven, "Lolita's Nail Salon", a billiards bar and a coin-op laundromat, this wouldn't normally be my first pick of establishment to randomly venture into. However, looking through the windows always revealed a pretty interesting assortment of people... elderly folks, yuppie-ish families, Harley and Ed Hardy types. But one thing is for certain: it is definitely popular.

So Sarah and I headed there tonight, out of curiosity but with no expectations. It's a tiny little place called "Red Rock Cafe Back Door Barbecue" -- I guess we arrived just early enough (around 6:00), although the place was already half full. Inside is somewhat kitschy, with weird little tchochkes adorning the walls and ceilings. We chose the smallest table, by the front window under a hanging lamp adorned with dangling plastic hot dogs and hamburgers.

The menu looks like it was printed on a computer circa 1990, but boasts a good list of American-style food, mostly centered around barbecue: tri-tip, brisket, chicken, ribs, sandwiches, potato salad, fries, cole slaw, etc. Normally I'd go straight for that, but I was drawn toward their salad offering -- it was a bit more affordable than their BBQ meals, which range from $12 for sandwich to $18 for dinner plate. The salads are $7.95 for a large one, plus $3 if you want it covered with meat. What I really liked was the way you could basically custom-design your salad, with a choice of iceberg or romaine lettuce or spinach (or a combination) plus you choose 7 toppings from a list of pretty much anything you would imagine putting on a salad: veggies, beans, various cheeses, egg, bacon, avocado, walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, raisins, all sorts of stuff. I ended up getting avocado, broccoli, hardboiled egg, bacon, pecan pieces, tomatoes, and jack cheese, covered with tri-tip (and plenty of it) and tortilla strips.
At first glance you would think the prices would be cheaper here than they actually are. They are not expensive, but not cheap, either. But then the food is delivered and you understand; the portions are HUGE. The "kids platters" I saw come out had more food on them than most standard-sized plates at other barbecue places like Bounty Hunter nearby in downtown Napa.

Oh yeah, and the meat is definitely good. I can only speak to the tri-tip, but it was cooked perfectly and was very tender and juicy. We also ordered some beer, of which they have about a half dozen varieties on tap -- nothing too fancy, but some nicer varieties than your standard American Budweiser/Coors garbage (I got a Red Tail while she had Alaskan Amber).

All in all, not a bad little place -- especially if you are hungry and want plenty of barbecued meat, and don't mind the fact that it is small/cozy and sometimes packed. One word of advice, though: if you don't want to be around a bunch of kids, I'd avoid going on a Saturday. About half of the people in there tonight were boys under the age of 10, and while this place clearly caters to families (they have some toys and games to be borrowed by the kids while they wait), I never see kids eating there when I drive by on the weekdays.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Lava Vine and B Cellars

Sarah offered to pick me up and drive me home again (she doesn't get to drive up the valley every day, so sometimes she likes to do so because she says the scenery is relaxing -- and it is!)

I suggested we take the "back route" this time, driving down Lincoln (the main street through Calistoga) to the end where it meets up with Silverado Trail and taking that south. This is technically not the fastest way, but it takes you through a winding, scenic, somewhat secluded portion of Silverado Trail that most people don't ever see.
The first noticeable thing is the Calistoga Beverage Company, distributors of Calistoga mineral water. I rarely see this building, but I always like the whimsical water bottle truck sculpture on the front lawn... it particularly caught my eye today with the way the sun was breaking through and glinting and glowing through the bottles perched in crates on the back of the statue.

Right next door is a small winery called "Lava Vine", which is where we parked and decided to go ahead and have a taste. The tasting room is a separate building in the back, behind the attractive old home and right next to some sort of orchard (olive grove?) We went inside and I was actually pretty surprised by how crowded it was! Granted, it's a small, quirky little tasting room -- only room for about 6 people at the tasting bar.

So we took a seat and looked around and just waited patiently for an open spot and for the pourer to become available, then we sidled up and decided to share a tasting; tastings are $10, refunded with purchase of a bottle. Even though they don't do the Napa Neighbors program, I think this is a very fair tasting fee policy. The tasting consisted of a Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a dessert wine (ruby port). They were out of whites for now, but the pourer said they do make a viognier and chardonnay which will be available in March. Also, since we were so curious about white wines, he poured us the last few drops of an open bottle of late-harvest semillon he had on hand.

To be honest, I was disappointed with this winery -- not with the tasting experience, which was fun and casual and I liked the tasting room atmosphere. But the wines themselves were simply not that good, yet had pretentious pricetags that were simply unwarranted. I noticed right up front on the nose of the syrah, before even sipping it, that it had a sort of hot, tart, prune-like scent. This is not entirely uncommon for syrah, but was far more pronounced with this one than most. Upon sipping it I said "This is... uh... different." And the pourer said "Really? It's actually a quite typical syrah, possibly one of the very purest expressions of the fruit." Hmm.. oh yeah? Where? Because I've had syrahs from France, California, and Australia, and the only ones that this one reminded me of are Yellow Tail and maybe Charles Shaw. The Lava Vine is better than the Charles Shaw syrah, which is horrible, but not any better than the Yellow Tail -- which retails for $7 while Lava Vine is $36.

That underwhelming, overpriced feel is what I got from most of the wines. It's not that they were bad or undrinkable, they just weren't particularly good either -- which is not what the pricetags would have you believe. The syrah was the least expensive at $36 and the others were about $50 each, with the port (also not great, and I love port) being $55 for 500 mL and the late-harvest semillon being $45 per 375 mL bottle.

Lava Vine also produced extra virgin olive oil, which they are currently out of but did have a few drops available to taste with some bread. The olive oil was tastier than any of the wines were, but at $28 / 500 mL bottle, I still think I'll pass (you can get equally good, and less expensive, oil down the road at Olivier in St. Helena) Normally I wouldn't pass up the opportunity to apply my $10 tasting fee to a purchase, but at this quality point and these prices (which should be half of what they are), I just couldn't do it... we paid the tasting fee and headed down the road. Still, I'm going to try to come back and try their whites in March -- some wineries just do a better job with whites than with reds.

At around 5:13 a fairly large building caught my eye. It looked new and I don't recall ever seeing it or the winery name before: B Cellars. The sign said "Open" but didn't list hours, so we pulled into the parking lot. There were plenty of people lounging around in the large tasting room, and the door was open and unlocked, but the sign said tastings ended at 5 pm, so we were confused but ventured in to take a look anyway. The pourer indicated that tasting had just ended for the day, so we said "Okay, thanks!" and turned to leave.

But then an older gentleman came over and ushered us in, saying that he owned the place and there was no reason they had to stop pouring -- he said we could stay, and since he was the boss, we could stay. So we decided to give the wines a shot after all. It was a little confusing at first, seeing a chalkboard with current tasting list, all of them with cryptic names: "Blend 23", "Blend 24", "Blend 25" and -- you guessed it -- "Blend 26" There was no tasting fee listed, but he informed us it was $15 for a tasting, comped if you buy 3 bottles.

This place has clearly gone all-out with the marketing; they clearly know the value of visual appeal and sales. The room's architecture was nicely done, they had glossy full-color brochures outlining the blends (along with recipes and food pairing suggestions), and even the wine glasses seemed to be very high quality -- they were unique looking, delicate, lightweight and easy to hold. I think many wineries underestimate the psychological power (if nothing else) that the wine glasses have; whenever I have wine in a light, well-balanced glass like this, I notice it makes the wine itself seem smoother and well-balanced, as well. Even when I'm aware of the psychological mind trick, it still works on me.

The owner (named Duffy Keys) explained to us that they used to be in a different location and just built this new place in September. He told us that their main wines are blends (as we noticed); our favorite was Blend 24, a "Super Tuscan" which blended sangiovese with cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah, to great effect. It was bolder and richer and less biting than the average sangiovese, but smoother than a cab and still had the definite hint of... something... blood orange and cedar? that comes through in sangiovese. We talked a bit about Tuscany and Chianti, and he seemed to delight in the fact that Sarah and I are heading to the Amalfi Coast for spring break in April. These Napa winery folks sure do love Italy!

B Cellars' blends were pretty excellent -- very smooth, very nice mouthfeel (blend 25 was the roughest in this department) and ranged from $36 (for the white viognier/chardonnay/sauvignon blanc Blend 23) to $75 (for the cabernet sauvignon, Blend 26), though our favorite was definitely the Super Tuscan (Blend 24, $45), which we bought 3 bottles of. The cab blend was great, but there are so many great cabs in the $75 range that I'd really have to make it a mission to try multiple ones and decide which is best. We were least thrilled with Blend 25 (syrah and cabernet sauvignon), though the combination of varietals was interesting and at least this one had flavors of real California syrah, unlike Lava Vine.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sunrise in the Valley

I'm willing to bet many people do not have the fortitude (or insanity) to wake up at the crack of dawn in Napa Valley. Actually, in the summer I am willing to bet many of the vineyard laborers do get up at the crack of dawn and hit the vineyards to tend to the vines and grapes in the morning before the 100-degree days set in.

However, in the cooler off-season months, the entire Valley seems quite quiet and asleep, empty like a ghost town in the wee hours of the morning when I wake up to head to work. I'm sure most tourists certainly don't rouse themselves at sunrise after eating rich dinners and drinking plenty of wine (possibly more than they should have, they may think in the morning) the previous day.

This is sort of a shame. People are missing out. Dawn is often one of the most serene, ethereal, beautiful scenes I have ever encountered. Sometimes there is dense fog, enshrouding everything in mysterious halos and giving true scope and depth to the valley scenery. Other days are crystal clear, with pale pastel hues slowly lighting up the sky and highlighting the silhouettes of sparse trees, undulating mountains, and century-old buildings.

And then there are days like this morning, which are magical hybrid of both of the above -- wisps of fog creep and settle throughout the nooks of the valley like sleeping phantoms, while meanwhile the sky is crystal-clear and morning hues can be seen taking hold. Lights glow -- of towns, of hot air balloons firing up and inflating -- yet the darkness is subsiding.

It really is one of the best times to get out for a car ride, a photo expedition, or even just a walk and a breath of fresh morning air.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Places to Avoid in Napa Valley, Part 1

I'll be honest: I had a long day at work today and didn't get home until late, so there wasn't really time to go out and experience Napa Valley today.

However, there was time to reflect on what a shame it is that, for how many wonderful wineries and restaurants and establishments there are around here, there are also some real stinkers and I honestly don't know how they fool people into continuing to give them money. While some of my favorite wineries and restaurants around here have gone out of business (Esquisse Winery, Bleu Magnolia in Napa, Wappo Bistro in Calistoga), other completely mediocre establishments continue to thrive somehow. I'm going to share a list of some of the ones that come to mind -- these are just the ones I know about... I'm sure I will discover more as the year goes on, but so far I've been pleasantly surprised by how great my wining and dining experiences have been.
  1. Bistro Don Giovanni -- I visited Bistro Don Giovanni a couple of years ago due to its popularity (supposedly celebrities like George Clooney love it) and good reviews. It's one of a handful of Italian restaurants in Napa Valley, and I was looking for a good Italian place. I don't know what restaurant these people were talking about, but it's not the Don Giovanni I went to. The restaurant was packed and we couldn't get a table at our reservation time. After waiting about 20 minutes, we were seated and then completely ignored. Nobody seemed to know which waiter should be serving us. After waiting 15 minutes, we flagged someone down and they poured some water for us. Then nobody came by for another 15-20 minutes until we flagged down a random waiter, who took our orders (and yet a third waiter actually delivered them to us, somewhat cold by the time they arrived.) Obviously, the service was horrible, but I would have forgiven that if the food was good. It wasn't. The pizza was really just a wood-baked flatbread with basically nothing on it. It was like a piece of naan drizzled with olive oil. The duck bolognese was absolutely horrible. Since when does duck meat have the consistency of Taco Bell beef?? It was like gritty, grade D ground beef with a gallon of salt in it. I'm seriously wondering what kind of meat they actually served me, because I've never had duck that tasted like that. Our other dishes were fine, but were of the same quality you could get from the frozen lasagna section of your local grocery store. After that utter failure of a dinner, I will probably never go back here again. If you're looking for Italian, you could try Tra Vigne (which I've heard is good, but have not yet tried) or Bottega in Yountville, which is not so traditional Italian, more of an Italian-influenced "California fusion" twist, but it's tasty.
  2. Silverado Brewing Company -- This brewpub is located just north of St. Helena, off Hwy 29 right next to Freemark Abbey winery. This combination should be a winner: cool location in an antique building, combined with microbrews and some pub food, right in the heart of Napa Valley. But, unfortunately, it's just not very good. They claim that "this is the spot for locals" but I can almost certainly assure you that the photos of happy young people on their website are all tourists. Whenever I drive/ride past (which is every weekday), the only patrons of this place are blue-haired local retirees and the occasional 60-year-old Harley rider cruising up through the valley. This sort of sums up the vibe there -- it's more like a plain, boring cafeteria or diner that happens to serve some microbrews. No atmosphere or liveliness whatsoever. This, in itself, wouldn't be a deal-breaker if the food or brews were good. But the food -- mostly typical sandwiches -- are completely standard, mediocre fare with higher-than-warranted pricetags. The beers include your standard varieties you would find at most brewpubs, and they taste fine... but again, there is nothing unique or memorable. If you really want a brewpub experience, skip this one; you could try Downtown Joe's in Napa (also not great, but better than this one) or go to one of my favorites, Russian River Brewing Company, which is over the hill in Santa Rosa (Sonoma County) -- that is a place with a truly unique, lively atmosphere, plus a huge range of completely interesting and exciting beers.
  3. Whitehall Lane and Black Stallion wineries -- These are two examples of wineries that give Napa Valley a bad name: wines that are lackluster, mediocre fruit bombs... yet charge an arm and a leg anyway, just because they say "Napa" on the label. Somehow, people are foolish enough to buy into it. I'm not. But if you don't believe me, go ahead and try their wines and let me know what you think. But be sure to try plenty of other wines from other nearby establishments for comparison, so you know what I'm talking about.
  4. Chateau Montelena -- Despite working in Calistoga just around the corner from this place, I had never even heard it. Well, that all changed (much to their delight, I'm sure) when the movie "Bottle Shock" came out, telling the story of Chateau Montelena's Chardonnay which won the 1976 "Judgment of Paris" tasting against French and California wines. Now the winery is swarming with people who saw the movie and are there for that sole reason. Sadly, I feel their current chardonnay release is far below par compared to many I've had in the valley. Their cabernet fares a bit better -- but not for the $120 pricetag they have slapped on it (there are many, many good cabs in Napa Valley, and great ones often fall in the realm of $75/bottle) Ironically, the chablis-style chardonnay at Stag's Leap (the winery which won best cabernet at that same 1976 tasting) is much better, while their current cab release didn't seem too great. Go figure.
  5. Ahnfeldt Wines / Uncorked at Oxbow Market -- This tasting room -- in Napa and just across the street from Gustavo-Thrace (by winemaker Gustavo Brambila, also featured in the film Bottle Shock) tries hard to maintain a friendly, low-key vibe in a sort of "family living room" style tasting bar. The pourer was friendly and the vibe is certainly inviting. Unfortunately, the wines are just not good. As Napa Neighbors, we were given free pours of everything they had, and they invited us to come by any time and said they would sometimes have live acoustic guitar music. It all sounded very nice, and I really wanted to like at least one of the wines, but I couldn't even finish a single tasting of any of them. I would take a sip or two and dump the rest. I can't even describe why these Ahnfeldt wines were so sub-par, but they just were... across the board.
  6. Century Cinedome Napa -- This is the worst movie theater I have ever visited in my life. Old, run down... shoddy sound systems, small screens, unclean seats, technical problems left and right, scratches and dust, you name it. Horrible. If you really want a movie theater experience in Napa, you're out of luck. You can try Cameo Cinema in St. Helena, which is a great little theater, but is a single screen so only has one movie playing at any given time.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Michael Chiarello's Bottega Restaurant

After such a great wine tasting experience at Hope & Grace Cellars, I really felt an impulsive urge to stay in town and have Sarah drive the 10 minutes upvalley to meet me for dinner (after all, Yountville is chock full of top-notch restaurants, despite its tiny size.)

I wandered across the street to the sign for "Bottega", which is an Italian-inspired restaurant by celebrity chef Michael Chiarello. Being a Tuesday in the middle of the off-season, I figured I might not need a reservation... and I was right. When I stepped inside, the hostess said they could seat me and I made a reservation for about 20 minutes later, to allow Sarah time to arrive.

When she got there, we were ushered back through the warm, upscale-meets-rustic decor and sat at a cozy table for two with a nice view of the restaurant. The ambiance is not extremely unique, but is nice -- sort of "medieval Italian farmhouse" with spit and polish added. Lots of warm lighting, but not so much as to remove the antique, cavernous feel... pounded copper cups for water... lots of wood and leather and earth tones.

I had previously checked out their menu on the website and was intrigued my multiple dishes on it. I have lived and worked in Italy and can tell you there is nothing "traditional" about this "Italian" food ... it's more like Italian-inspired "California cuisine" (which is more traditionally French-inspired). But I can dig that.

We decided to order the grilled octopus appetizer (Wood Grilled Octopus olive oil braised potatoes, pickled red onion, salsa verde), and for main dishes I ordered the "Confit of Half Duck mostarda di frutta, panettone bread pudding, red wine duck jus" while Sarah opted for "Fall Squash & Amaretto Tortelli, apple braised pork cheeks & pork braising jus." We didn't order any wine; the wine menu seemed decent, although a little pricey and I had already had plenty during my tasting at Hope & Grace.

All of the food was pretty decent; the grilled octopus is different than I had expected (it was basically one skinny tentacle served with some potatoes and greens) and could have been fresher; the tortelli plate seemed somewhat small at first, but was delicious and fairly rich so it ended up being quite filling. The balanced sweetness of the tortelli was a nice change of pace from the over-salted indulgence of other local hot spots such as Bouchon Bistro and Bistro Don Giovanni. And the pork cheeks were tender and succulent. The duck was not as unique of an experience as the tortelli, but was cooked well and was a pretty hefty portion (being that it was half a duck), and the panettone bread pudding was a nice choice for a side -- again, the sweetness was welcome as it offset the savory flavors of the meat.

Though we didn't get any drinks or dessert, the experience was pleasant enough and I definitely plan to come back some time for its varied menu choices (something for everyone) and above-average food quality. For anyone craving Italian-style food, but with that unique Napa Valley twist, I will bring them here (although I would also like to try Tra Vigne at some point. The only other local Italian restaurants I have tried were Boskos Trattoria in Calistoga and Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa, which was awful).

Yountville: Hope & Grace Wines

When I visited Yountville last week -- the first time I really decided to walk around and see what there is to see there -- I didn't get far, after being waylaid by the Girard Winery tasting room at Washington Square.

I decided today would be the day I hop off the bus in Yountville again, but this time further down in the heart of town. I got off at the bus stop right by Bouchon Bakery and the V Marketplace, neither of which I have been to (although I had dinner at the Bouchon Bistro once, and the one word I would use to describe that place is: "overrated"). The first thing I saw was "hope & grace wines" across the street. I had passed by this tasting room before and it always looked interesting, but a little intimidating being right there in the heart of the most touristy part of Napa Valley. Today I decided to just give it a try (and didn't really care what the tasting fee was going to be, either, but hoped for something less than $20)

The tasting room is small and decorated in an interesting, eclectic mix of old-world antiquity combined with whimsical modern art: a large abstract oil painting adorns one wall (and also adorns the wine labels), simultaneously eerie and serene; a gargoyle sits on the counter, while an oil painting of a girl throwing a tantrum adorns the wall behind. I was promptly greeted and I explained that I'm a local who finally decided to stop in and give it a try, and they started me on the tasting flight (which, if I recall, is normally $15).

The tasting started with a chardonnay (local Yountville grapes), then progressed to pinot noir (made from Santa Lucia highlands grapes, from the Monterey area a few hours south), an Oakville Malbec, and finally a St. Helena cabernet sauvignon. I was really wary of coming in here, thinking the wines would be overpriced and poor quality -- I guess I just sort of assumed you wouldn't have to be good quality to sell wines in this heart of hearts of tourism in the valley.

While the wines weren't cheap, they also didn't seem overpriced and, better yet, they were very good! The craftsmanship was definitely there -- every varietal was very well-balanced and drinkable, with my favorites strongly being the Santa Lucia pinot and the malbec (a variety which is a little harder to find around here). The pinot had classic pinot flavors, more in the fruit-and-spice vein than the earth-and-mineral type... but what I loved is that it was light-bodied and smooth; many of these cherry-and-clove flavored pinots tend to have a strange cloying acidity or tartness to them, and this one was far more mellow. I can actually say it's one of the best pinot noirs I've had, so considering that, I didn't find the pricetag ($46) completely unreasonable. The malbec was a bit more pricey at $64, and made me hesitant, but it was extremely unique -- rich, fruity, and full-bodied, but with smooth tannins and an intriguing, yeasty aroma that really reminded me of bubble gum.

The person pouring these wines was Charles Hendricks, the winemaker himself, and he took the time to chat a bit with the customers, which was nice. He also poured me his Stag's Leap cabernet, which I have to say was a huge step up from the $56 cab on the tasting menu; the Stag's Leap cab had just the right level of complexity and smoothness and subtlety -- and the pricetag reflected it, at $75/bottle) I was debating on getting the pinot or the malbec, and so asked for a second taste of the pinot, at which point he revealed that he also makes a pinot from Russian River grapes. I gave that a try, but to be honest I almost always am underwhelmed by Russian River wines (pinot and zinfandel being their claims to fame, but I just can't see why) and this was no exception. I decided to go a little crazy and get both the pinot and the malbec, and when he rang me up, the total came to $80. It was going to be $110 plus tax! Wow, a $30+ discount? I wasn't expecting that! Not sure if it was for being a local, or if he took pity on me for being a teacher, or if he liked my conversations with him about Italy (which he was fond to talk about) or what, but... first he has great winemaking, and now a nice discount to boot? Charles Hendricks, you rock!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Freemark Abbey

Today I got a phone call from Sarah, saying she was finished work early and wouldn't mind driving up to Calistoga to pick me up. Considering this (and being just after 4 pm), I figured this might be a good opportunity to stop into a random winery on the way home. There are several well-known ones right off of 29 which I have never even tried -- Grgich, Markham, Freemark Abbey, Behringer, Sutter Home, etc.

We headed south from Calistoga and decided to pull into Freemark Abbey -- we knew of this one because it is located right next to Silverado Brewery, a brewpub where we ate a few years ago (and have never been back, because it's just not good.) We walked up to the tasting room, a little self-conscious because there was only one other couple in there -- for some reason it always feels a little strange to have practically undivided attention from the pourer.

It felt stranger when I told her that I was a teacher in Calistoga, and she informed me that she had worked in the district for 16 years, until retiring a few years ago. So she started talking to me about several people she knew (my coworkers and some others I know from the high school), and telling me that she had really been a wine server all along, on the side, even when she was teaching (which she did in both St. Helena and Calistoga).

Like many wineries, Freemark Abbey offers more than one tasting menu -- I almost always start with the most basic or low-end tastings, unless there is something particularly interesting or unique on the higher-end or more specialized lists. In this case, the Classic Tasting ($10, but free for Napa Neighbors and up to 3 guests) included a choice of 4 tastings from: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Of that list, the ones that are the most hit-or-miss for us are Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, but we always try to give them a shot anyway because sometimes there are excellent examples of those varietals. The convenient thing about tasting as a couple in a situation like this is that you can each get 4 different tastings and take sips out of each others glasses, resulting in really being able to taste the whole menu, which is what we did. I came in expecting to be most impressed by their reds, but to be honest I don't even remember much about what they tasted like. So they must have all been okay, but nothing remarkable. I can almost always remember wines -- even years later -- if they are remarkably good or remarkably bad.

We were also poured a tasting of their dessert wine, a late-harvest botrytised riesling. We tend to like botrytised wines -- and a lot of people do, but I'm sure it's not a flavor for everyone. Botrytis is a fungus, also known as the "noble rot", which afflicts the grapes and dehydrates them, concentrating the sugars and sort of turning the grapes into raisins but also imparting a somewhat musky flavor to the wine. Drinking rotten, moldy grapes might sound disgusting, but keep in mind this is very similar to the process used in producing some of the finest, most flavorful cheeses out there. Weird, yes... but delicious.

Unfortunately, botrytised wine (listed as "dessert wine" as it is sweet and slightly syrupy) comes at a premium. Because the conditions have to be just right, and small batches are made, and the grapes yield less juice, botrytised wine (often riesling) is harder to find. The bottles tend to be priced accordingly, and this one a very fine example but happened to be $45/bottle -- and, like most late-harvest and botrytised wines, "a bottle" is actually a half-size bottle, 375 mL.

Sarah immediately said yes, and we ended up purchasing both a 2009 Viogner ($27) and the 2008 Edelwein Gold Late Harvest Riesling ($45). Although we were given a slight discount (seemed to be about 10%), this purchase was still a source of some contention for me, because this late-harvest Riesling ends up being the equivalent of a $90 bottle of wine. Although we occasionally purchase $75+ bottles of wine, we don't do so regularly or on a whim.

Still, it is a rare one to fine (and, according to the website, is sold out) and was a fine example of it, with flavors of honey suckle and orange zest. More expensive than I'd prefer, to be sure (I've had decent late-harvest riesling for $26/bottle, and amazing late-harvest semillon for $35/bottle), but I'm sure it will be enjoyed on a special occasion.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Two Tastings on Two Sides of the Valley: Darioush and Silenus Vintners

The weather has really cleared up here and it has been going to sunny and about 70 degrees here for the past several days (and yet has been dropping down below freezing at night! Makes it pretty difficult to know what to wear when it is 29 degrees when I head off to work and 70 degrees by the time I come home)

This, combined with the fact that it is still "off-season" as far as tourism goes, makes it a perfect time to enjoy the vineyards and wineries without the crowds (or the occasionally stifling heat of summer.)

As I've already said, I'm going to make it a mission to hit up wineries offering free tasting to Napa Neighbors first. We already know of one of these wineries which is not too far away up the Silverado Trail: Darioush. I've been to Darioush about 3 times... why? Because they clearly put a lot of attention into the atmosphere and the whole wine-tasting experience. But they also put a lot of attention into their wines, which are much better than I had expected. So these two reasons, along with its proximity, make it one of the destinations for visiting when I have guests. Today we don't have guests, but I recently received an email that they had released their limited production Shiraz, which I was curious about and was supposed to be pretty good.

We also wanted to try a new place, however. We've tried most of the wineries along Silverado Trail, but I noticed a smaller winery in the Napa Neighbors list which sounded intriguing: Ideology Cellars. They are a small, custom-crush operation and therefore do not have the real estate (or any good reason) to have their own winery site or tasting room. So what they do is share a co-op tasting room called Silenus Vintners. This is on the opposite side of the valley from Darioush, located off of St. Helena Highway (Hwy 29). However, it is about the same distance up the valley, which means there is a shortcut called Oak Knoll Avenue which cuts straight across the valley floor from Darioush to Silenus.

Darioush has a dominating and unmistakeable presence on the Silverado Trail: it looks like a large sandstone Persian temple, with a series of columns leading up to the front door. Indeed, the Persian influence is there because the winery was founded by Darioush Khaledi, an Iranian who found wealth by creating a successful chain of small grocery/corner stores in the Los Angeles area. The Persian theme continues with the prominence of Shiraz on their tasting menu; Shiraz is another name for Syrah, which was found through DNA testing to be a hybrid of two grape varietals from Rhône (France). However, Shiraz is also the name of the 6th-largest city in Iran, and shows that this grape probably found prominence and fame in that region.

The Shiraz made by Darioush was good -- rich and full-bodied without being overbearing -- and is a pretty limited production. So it's not always available for tasting. However, their "signature" wine is called "Duel", and is a blend of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon... also quite good. In fact, we really can't find anything wrong with any of the wines at Darioush, which is why we keep going back. Their whites are delicate but have a range from crisp pit-fruit to mellow and musky. Their reds are on the richer side, but medium-bodied and without harsh tannins. I know in the past we have purchased both a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Franc.

We decided not to buy anything this time, even after managing to get our pourer to give us a taste of the Shiraz (he informed us it has only been released to club members so far; it's not on the tasting menu), which was good but I felt it was no better than the Duel. The fact of the matter is that I feel it is decent but overpriced, considering I have had some wonderful Syrahs from Paso Robles in the range of $16-$24, and the Darioush Shiraz is $68.

However, the tasting itself (normally $20; free for Napa Neighbors) was enjoyable, as usual -- enhanced by their attention to aesthetics as well as a small bowl of delicious salted pistachios (nice and neutral on the palate) they serve with the tasting. I noticed it seemed to be far less busy than usual, with only 4 or 5 pairs of people tasting (at peak times, this place is packed)... maybe it's because of the time of year, or is it because of the NFL playoff games? [PS. If you go, try to get Ish as your server! He's the best! Very attentive and helpful, plus a good sense of humor!]

We drove across Oak Knoll Avenue -- which passes a few wineries but mostly just cruises through all the vineyards on the valley floor -- and made it to Silenus in just a few minutes. Silenus was even deader than Darioush -- in fact, we were the ONLY people there!

The pourer seemed excited for the change of pace and for having some customers to talk to, and he informed us that Silenus is a shared tasting room for multiple smaller custom-crush productions. They offer two tastings -- a tasting of whites ($15) and a tasting of reds ($25). He said one thing that is interesting (and perhaps unfortunate) is that the tasting menus change every week, so you don't ever actually have a chance to try all of the wines you might be curious about. (In addition, I think $25 is a pretty prohibitive tasting fee, if you ask me.)

Being Napa Neighbors, we decided to try everything on the menu (both whites and reds -- we're not picky, we like "whatever is good"), but we did decide to share a tasting. This is something we often do, both to save money but also to be sure we can taste a wide variety on wines without actually drinking too much (especially when we are driving).

The great thing I love about co-op tasting rooms like this -- and there are a handful in Napa, but seem to be more common in Sonoma -- is that you get a lot of variety all in one place. I've noticed in the bigger tasting rooms, there tends to be not as much variety. Even if they use several varietals (which most do), the personal tastes and style of the winemaker tends to shine through and so you might notice a common thread throughout multiple wines, like a leaning towards more acidity, or more tannins, etc.

Here at Silenus, we tried three cabernets from three different vineyards and three different winemakers and, lo and behold, the cabs were all vastly different.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Dinner and a Movie in St. Helena: Cameo Cinema and Go Fish

I love going to the Cameo Cinema in St. Helena. It is such a charming little theater with a healthy dose of character. Being so quaint, it fits right in on St. Helena Highway (the main street through St. Helena), and I appreciate their efforts to mix up the movies a bit, considering they only have one screen. They tend to choose dramas and Oscar-buzz-worthy films, sometimes a few weeks or a month after they come out in other theaters. It's hit or miss whether you want to see what they happen to be playing any given week, but when you find one you like you have to go quick because they rotate the movie out each week. They also occasionally play some special indie and art films, or broadcast performances like opera and ballet, plus occasionally they work in an extra children's movie on the weekends.

It's possible that my appreciation for this theater is because it is really the only one in Napa Valley. There is actually a larger, multi-screen one in Napa (the Napa Cinedome) but its quality is so awful and atmosphere so dismal, that you're really better off not even going at all. The only other large, multi-plex theaters are located in Fairfield and Santa Rosa.

However, even if there were other theaters around, I think I would have a soft-spot for the Cameo... It is small, cozy -- not too many seats, they all have a good view (no stadium seating though), and there are nice love-seat style two-seaters in the back, perfect for a date. Plus they have good snacks and refreshments. My gf had been wanting to see Black Swan -- and we are both fans of Darren Aronofsky -- and it happens to be playing this week at the Cameo, so it seemed like an opportune time for a date! (to be honest, I would have preferred seeing True Grit, but it was playing last week when she was in NYC).

I won't say much about the film here... I don't even know what there is to say. I can say it's definitely not Aronofsky's best work. I guess I was sort of left scratching my head. But not for long, because we had also made a dinner reservation at Go Fish, just down the street on the southern outskirts of St. Helena.

Go Fish is a seafood restaurant owned by Cindy Pawlcyn, who is best known for her Mustards Grill restaurant right off of 29 in the Oakville area, although she also runs "Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen" right behind the Cameo theater. I've never tried Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, but my gf (and her family) and I have been big fans of Mustards for a long time, and we had never tried Go Fish. Add to that that she likes sushi -- which is what Go Fish is known for -- and it seemed like a good fit [not as much for me -- I don't like sushi because I can't stand the seaweed. But they also have hot fish dishes, which I'm a fan of]

This restaurant does not hold a candle to Pawlcyn's Mustards restaurant. Whereas Mustards has a very cozy, casual vibe, the atmosphere at Go Fish is rather sterile. We liked the little cushioned alcove we got to sit at, it was very comfortable and was a nice setup. But the open spaciousness, uninteresting decor, and stark white lighting just feel too corporate and impersonal.

The waiter was a friendly enough guy, and was attentive without being overbearing. The food was hit or miss -- we had gone there because my girlfriend is a big fan of sushi (I am not because I can't stand the seaweed, so I appreciated that there were other options on the menu including hot fish dishes which were the main draw for me). My girlfriend ordered the "lobster roll" sushi roll, a special for the evening with tempura shrimp, crab salad, tobiko, avocado, and meat from half a lobster tail on top (not cheap at $33, though). I ordered the crispy duck salad followed by a Sole Almondine (sole in brown butter with toasted almonds.)

The crispy duck salad (with frisee, toasted pistachios, currants, and a generous portion of duck) was delicious and my gf enjoyed her sushi roll well enough (I took a bite and didn't really like it because I couldn't discern any of the different flavors). However, my sole almondine was awful. The freshness seemed okay, and the cooking/texture was fine, but it was WAY too salty. So salty that I couldn't even eat it. I ended up sending it back to the kitchen (this is the first time in my entire life that I've ever done this at a restaurant) and getting some fried calamari instead, which was good -- definitely fresh and tender and cooked right, but the inclusion of fried olives plus pine nuts, currants, and toasted garlic slivers which just sort of sat under the calamari was strange, it just didn't really work. I think I've been spoiled by the calamari just up the street at Market, which is much better.

We considered wine but the list was way too pricey and they charge $15 corkage (unlike Market up the street) so we didn't bother.

I'm glad we gave it a try, and I appreciate the accommodating service and the no-problems fix of the dish I sent back, but I probably won't return here... unless I have a guest who is really craving sushi (although there are still 2 Japanese/Sushi places I need to try in downtown Napa)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Calistoga Roastery Coffee

If you're ever in Calistoga and you drink coffee, there is a good chance you will end up at Calistoga Roastery. This is the local spot for coffee. There is no Starbucks or Peets in town (neither is there in nearby St. Helena). There are a couple other places that serve coffee: San Marco up the street is a small ice cream shop that also serves coffee, and Yo El Rey is a newer establishment across the street which has a more "indie" feel to it, with a focus on free trade organic coffee. But Calistoga Roastery is the biggest, the best known, and the most popular one. In fact, it was even featured in the TV show "Weeds"

It's a larger coffee shop than most, with plenty of space, seating, and tables inside. Unlike Starbucks, this place actually has some character and some warm, comfortable liveliness to it. It's truly a place that "wakes you up" when you come inside, both because of the lighting and layout but also because of the lively nature of the workers and the locals who will invariably be there reading newspapers, chatting, and sipping a cup. Unlike the chain coffee shops, this doesn't feel like fast food, it's not about a rush and a fix. It's about taking a break, easing into the morning, and feeling a sense of community.

Like other gourmet coffee shops, the prices are high... and I sometimes prefer Starbucks simply because of some of the drinks and flavors I can get there (namely green tea matcha lattes or house coffee with cinnamon dolce or raspberry syrup) which aren't available at Calistoga Roastery. The espresso drinks are good enough, but for the standard house/drip coffee, I actually prefer Starbucks (and I'm not a big fan of Starbucks. If you want to know where the BEST coffee is, it's at Cherry St. Coffee in Seattle. But that's not so local, is it?)

Still, I do like to patronize this establishment for the other things I mentioned -- comraderie or sometimes just a slow, relaxing way to start or end the day.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Downtown Joe's Brewpub

Visited Downtown Joe's today, a brewery, restaurant, and bar in downtown Napa. Maybe this place should be called "Downtown Dicks" because they certainly weren't very welcoming in my first ever visit to this establishment. I showed up at about 5:55, paused to take a photo outside, then walked in the door and up to the counter -- wasn't exactly a rocking place, but it was also around 6 pm on a weeknight, so I don't know if it gets more exciting or not. The crowd was mixed, but definitely in favor of the gray-haired gentlemen camp.

I walked up to the bar, where I saw a late-night menu and happy hour menu specials menu (good until 6 pm) which I started perusing. The bartender said nothing to me, did not even acknowledge me. An older guy walks in, sits down next to me, and is immediately chatted up and served by the bartender, who then finally asks what I want to get (after checking my ID -- I guess my 20 or 30 gray hairs just didn't hold a candle to the sea of them around me.) He says "What can I get for ya? And do you want something to eat? Happy hour just ended." and with that he removes the happy hour menu that I was looking at. I mean, was that the tactic all along... ignore me until the clock strikes 6:00 (which it was, on the dot, when he did this... but it wasn't when I walked in the door) just to save a few bucks? Bad move -- extremely poor taste and rude. I've worked in a bar, and I can tell you: you just don't remove a menu that was there and available when the person came to the bar, who you just ignored for several minutes, and then say "too bad, you just missed it."

The irony is that the tourist you're serving might never come back, or will return once in a blue moon. I am a local that could patronize your establishment weekly... but now I'm not so inclined to do so.

I ordered the "Tantric IPA" a strong Indian Pale Ale. So I start drinking my pale ale (which is okay, pretty standard high-gravity, high-ABV IPA, not bad) and perusing the menu for something affordable. I suppose I'd gotten spoiled by the delicious $1.75 tacos and $8 tri-tip BBQ sandwiches I recently rounded up in Calistoga, because I simply didn't feel like paying the $12 they charge for their burgers. I was originally going to get calamari (at the $5 happy hour price -- a good deal) but that jumps to $12 when happy hour is over. I settled on the pulled pork sliders with cole slaw (also $5 at happy hour; $8.50 normal price)

An older man, the one who came in and sat next to me at the bar, starts to strike up a conversation. I ask where he's visiting from, he says Omaha and is enjoying getting away from the cold for a bit. Talks about the 9 day road trip he has been on to Kansas or Oklahoma (I forget which) then to Vegas and up to here. Then things get interesting. Sort of out of the blue, he tells me he's a conspiracy theorist.

"Have you seen the movie Conspiracy Theory?"

"Yep," he chuckles.

"Like, what kind of conspiracies? Political?" I query.

"Well, there's an organization that is running the media, spreading lies and deceiving everyone... they pretty much rule the world and pull the strings in secrecy."

"Oh, you mean like the Illuminati."

"Exactly. And they've been around for a long time, founded in 1776 by the Rothchild family, who own more than half the wealth in the world and are tied in with Satanism..."

Now, I've heard some of this stuff, bits and pieces. I find conspiracy theories fascinating. I'm skeptical enough that I don't get carried away in them, yet not close-minded enough to think that we don't truly get deceived and manipulated in certain ways.

He goes on to explain his beliefs, founded in becoming a Born-Again Christian in his 30s (he's now 63) after living a worldly life of sex, booze, and partying in his early years. Now he believes Catholics are paganists, Obama was born in Kenya, the Bushes have blood ties to the Rothschilds, and the End Times are upon us. He goes on to explain some of his revered celebrities in this arena (particularly Texe Marrs, Dr. Monteith, and Alex Jones' "infowars") and that he has compiled a book that lays it all out, but just a private book he gives to friends and such, not a published one. Also said he had been recently interviewed on Dr. Monteith's radio show.

Told me his name at the end of the conversation (which lasted two beers) and it sounded like "John Burke", but after thinking about it later I figure he probably actually said "John Birch" (haha, sorry... not buying that one, buddy)

Why do I mention all this? Because it just goes to show you never know what kind of people you'll run into in Napa, because they come from all over! Plus, there really wasn't much else noteworthy with Downtown Joe's... typical brewpub environment, with the same fare but above-average prices, and an unfriendly service.

Oh, but for my second beer -- it was an "Old Magnolia" nitro-pulled stout, which was more or less incredibly good: smooth and creamy, with that trademark toastiness of a stout but less biting and pronounced. It almost had an Asian feel to it, a flavor like toasted sesame and misoyaki; a little toasty, a littly salty, a little sweet, and a little tangy. Probably one of the best stouts I've ever had, actually.

And the conversation was definitely one of the most fascinating ones I've ever had with a stranger at a bar. That and the stout made the stop-in worthwhile after all.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Yountville: Washington Square and Girard Winery

I really feel kind of ashamed of this fact: I have lived here for 4 years now -- and visited a few times prior to that -- and have never really explored Yountville. I've stopped in a couple of times for restaurants (this place is more densely packed with high-end restaurants than any other place I know; of them, I've only been to Bouchon and Ad Hoc, two restaurants run by Thomas Keller, the restaurateur of Michelin-rated The French Laundry... which is also here in Yountville)

My bus drives through every day, and I look out the window at the hot air balloons firing up and getting ready for takeoff at sunrise, or all the tourists dining and wine-tasting and window shopping, or the glint of the inconspicuous "French Laundry" sign outside the iconic restaurant (which features a prix fixe multi-course menu at $240 per person, drinks not included. And you must call ahead exactly two months before your desired date to make a reservation.) Today is the day I decided I should hop off the bus and really take a look around.

I disembarked at the first of a few stops the bus makes, and looked around to get my bearings -- this was the north end of town, near Panchas -- an apparent local dive bar that always looks intriguing to me -- and just outside of the "Washington Square" commercial building. I took a look around to find that this building is the home of Napa Valley Balloons (for hot air balloon rides), Napa Valley Bike Tours, and Girard winery. Despite being around 5:30 pm, the tasting room was open and I was intrigued, so I went inside.

It turns out (as I was informed by the pourer -- who also informed me he used to be a student of the school where I teach) that this tasting room is actually open until 7:00 pm! I was kind of surprised by this, because later than 6 pm is unheard of in Napa Valley and I kind of assumed it was a law. He explained that this is true, but city ordinances take precendence over county ones, so tasting rooms in the city limits can often stay open later -- he said there's even one somewhere around here that stays open until midnight!

One pleasant surprise was that Girard is part of the Napa Neighbors program and offers free wine tastings to locals. I hadn't looked into this ahead of time, so I was just prepared to spend $10 or $15 on a tasting (if it was $20, I was going to just turn around and leave.)
They poured a sauvignon blanc, a chardonnay, and old vines zin, and a cabernet sauvignon... he then followed this with one of his favorites, their "Diamond Peak" cab, a premium cabernet with a $75 pricetag. The other wines ranged from $16 to $40, with most of them being about $24.
I came in with no expectations -- I often equate in-town tasting rooms in touristy locations with poor quality. However, I was pleasantly surprised. All of the wines were quite drinkable -- pretty good, actually. The Diamond Peak cab was very smooth, not full of tannins like some of these "connoisseur" cabs are, and it had just the right level of complexity; the pourer explained this was his favorite of their 3 high-end cabs because it was right in the middle -- one of the others was very bold and tannic, the other was kind of light. I didn't try those, but I have to agree that this one was just rich enough, and well-balanced. However, $70+ wine purchases are a rare occasion for me, so I wasn't about to plunk down that kind of money without approval from my significant other. However, I had no qualms at all about picking up the $24 Old Vines Zinfandel, which was also quite rich and smooth, and not quite as fruit-heavy as some zins are.

Lo and behold, by the time I finished my tasting and explored the Washington Square area a little bit, an hour had gone by which meant it was time for the next bus to be coming through soon! So I didn't get a chance to head south into central Yountville, but it was getting dark anyway. I will definitely be heading there to explore the rest of town on another day.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Silverado Trail

The Silverado Trail sounds like something you might hike (or at least take a mule ride along), and indeed this was probably originally the case in the late 1800's when silver miners came here to seek their fortune. Now it is one of the two major roads that run through Napa Valley. The main road, with which most people are familiar, is St. Helena Highway/Hwy 29, which runs north-south along the west side of the Valley. Highway 29 is home to some of the most-known names in the Valley: Mondavi, BV, Grgich, Franciscan, Schramsberg, Behringer, Sutter Home, Rubicon (Francis Ford Coppolla's winery)

Silverado Trail runs more or less parallel to 29, but on the opposite (east) side of the valley. It gets less attention probably because the wineries are not nearly as dense and plentiful on that side... however, what it lacks in quantity (and trust me, there are still plenty) it makes up for in quality. Silverado Trail has some big, well-known names too, the most famous probably being Stag's Leap (whose cabernet sauvignon won for best red in the "Judgment of Paris" wine tasting in 1976, featured in the film "Bottle Shock") and Mumm (sparkling wine). This side of the valley is where some of the best cabs are to be found, especially in the Rutherford and Stag's Leap AVAs. Excellent cabernets we have had from the Silverado side include Caymus, James Cole, and Chimney Rock (all of these wines were about $75/bottle)

Personally, I use the Silverado Trail whenever I drive to work, mostly because it is close to where I live and has less traffic than 29 -- this is especially true when dealing with St. Helena. However, I also drive Silverado in my convertible when people come and visit during the summer, because I feel like this part of the valley has the best natural scenery that can't be beat.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Napa River Trail

There is a trail that runs right behind my apartment complex, and when the weather is nice or I am in the mood for a little exercise, I head straight to it. It's called "The Napa River Trail" and it was originally planned to run a long length of the Napa River, from the north end here at Trancas (you can pick up the trail off of Trancas near the intersection with Silverado Trail) all the way south to Vallejo. Obviously, that would be a huge undertaking and with the state of the state and local budgets, it hasn't been done. However, bits and pieces of the trail have been made, and one of them is here, running along the riverside for 1.1 miles between Trancas to the north and Lincoln to the south.

If you're ever in the area, or taking a bike ride through Napa, this can be a nice and leisurely little diversion -- despite running right behind homes and apartments, the trail is quite quiet and tranquil, populated by a variety of people seeking such asylum including families, dog-walkers, joggers, and even a few folks who head to the river bank for some leisurely fishing. At the southern end near Lincoln, there is also a complex of time-shares and tiny vacation cottages which can be rented, each their own self-contained unit with little decks, grills, and tables to enjoy a meal right next to the trickling stream (which is usually more like a creek at this part of the river).

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Day of Rest -- Thinking about the Napa Historical Society

With the hectic house hunting and work duties and just life in general, this has been an exhausting week and it's time to take a rest. I don't feel 100% healthy at the moment, so I'm not going to get out and do anything today. But this doesn't mean I'm not going to "explore" Napa Valley. What I'm going to do is explore via some research on the Internet.

One thing I've always been curious about is the Napa County Historical Society. I don't honestly remember how I discovered this group, but they hold some interesting-sounding lectures and special events focused on various themes. Some of the recent ones included "the bridges of Napa county" and an exploration of a particular artist's works. Their newest upcoming program is From Battleships to Apron Strings: How WWII created Napa's Swingin' Fifties

I might actually give that a look, out of curiosity (although I get much more intrigued by the late 19th and turn-of-the-century time periods)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

House Hunting, Part 2: This Old House

Today I decided to take a look at another home that is on the market. This time, I was very excited about not only the location (just 3 blocks walk to the heart of downtown Napa) but also another special feature: the home is a Victorian that was built in 1895.

I love Victorian architecture, and Napa is brimming with these 100-year-old homes. Not all of them are Victorian style, some are craftsman or farmhouse architecture. And, even in the Victorian vein, you may not realize that there are several different styles including the squarish Italianate style and the also-boxy Second Empire style which you might recognize from the house in the movie Psycho (which looks exactly like one that sits on a hill in the valley, across from the Folie a Deux tasting room on 29)

This is not to say that these homes are a dime a dozen. It's still a pretty rare opportunity to find one in my price range (under $400k), and especially one that is right downtown to boot. So I have to go into this with caution and wonder what is up. Walking through the home, it seems great -- stained glass window over the door, vaulted ceilings, bay window overlooking a cool old stone building across the street, a beautiful tiled fireplace, and new paint, inside and out (unfortunately, you have to wonder what that paint is hiding).

It seems like a golden opportunity -- after all, this home was selling for over $600k just a few months ago, then was foreclosed and bank-owned and put on the market for $440k, and now is being listed at $399k. However, the previous seller (who backed out of the sale) got a foundation report which says that the foundation cannot be inspected or fixed without demolishing the finished basement... to the tune of $70,000. More ($145k) is the basement is to be redone back to its finished state. This is a huge bargaining chip, and the reason why I could get the home for $350k... or maybe less. But it's quite scary to think that the home could have a faulty foundation which would cost that much to fix.

Even aside from this, there are special considerations most people don't even realize when they see these beautiful old Victorian homes:
  • lead paint was originally used (not a concern for me, but something to keep in mind if you need to do sanding or stripping or if you have toddlers that chew on things)
  • lead plumbing was originally used (however, in most cases this has been removed and replaced by now)
  • the houses do shift and settle over time, which could cause uneven floors, ceilings, and walls, as well as stuck doors and cracked windows and tileslath-and-plaster walls means there are likely to be cracks in the walls, and it's harder to hang pictures or to make renovations
  • there are historical preservation codes that must be met, in which any fixing or alteration of exterior appearance must go through a permit process first and must match the original appearance
It's pretty amazing to think about, especially when you look at beautifully restored Victorian homes like the one across the street from this one I am considering putting an offer on. The one across the street is a large Victorian owned by Erik Nickel, nephew of Gil Nickel (founder of Far Niente winery) and owner of Nickel & Nickel winery a few minutes up the valley

Friday, January 14, 2011

Napa public transportation: The Napa VINE

I figured today might be a good day to tell you about a Napa service I use almost every day: the local VINE bus system. I am so glad I discovered the VINE bus a few years ago. I drive about 25 miles each way to work and back -- basically I live at the south end of the valley in Napa and commute upvalley to Calistoga at the northernmost end. This is a beautiful drive -- I take Silverado Trail, a less congested route that runs parallel to 29 but on the east side of the valley -- and the traffic is rarely a problem and I never get tired of the scenery. However, driving can be tiresome nonetheless, and that's to say nothing of the gas prices hovering around $3.35/gallon around here... in other words, my gas alone was costing about $8/day.

Napa VINE to the rescue. I looked into it, and discovered that, aside from their buses which branch in and out of the downtown area, the Napa bus system also has oneroute -- Route 10 -- which runs basically straight up and down the valley, stopping at every town between the ferry terminal in Vallejo (where you can take a ferry to/from San Francisco) and Calistoga. It also happend to pick up a block from my home and two blocks from where I work. To top is all off, the fare is a nice price. Normally it is $2.10 each way (less if you aren't going as far), which is already half the cost of gas, plus it saves wear and tear on my car. But an even better bet is to get the monthly pass, which provides unlimited trips on any of the bus routes at any time, for $43/month. Score!

Of course, the bus is almost strictly locals -- I see lots of the same characters every day (and, like any bus I've ever ridden on... it has some characters! But unlike most urban bus systems, which can be filled with downright scary people, this one is pretty tame. Very very rarely have I ever see a crazy, a hobo, or thug, which by contrast are pretty commonplace on city buses. Sorry if this sounds harsh or insensitive, but I'm just telling it like it is.)

However, the bus would also be great for tourists on a budget... I bet a lot of people just aren't too aware of it. I mean, it has stops near many of the main accommodations up and down the valley, with its central hub right off of Pearl Street in downtown Napa. And using this bus, you could fairly easily visit practically any winery in off of Highway 29. The beauty of that is that you don't have to worry about whether you are getting a little tipsy or having a designated driver on hand, and it's way cheaper than a wine tour or chauffeured trip.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Angèle - Napa Riverfront French Restaurant

So today is my birthday... I am officially old. I say that every year, but today I am 33 years old, and that really does sort of feel like "the beginning of the end" or, at the very least, the last vestiges of my youth.

We were originally thinking of celebrating by heading to San Francisco to try a Thursday night "NightLife" at the Academy of Science, but seeing as I had to work all day and have to get up early again tomorrow, that just didn't feel so feasible. So instead I looked into eating at a nice restaurant -- fortunately, that's one thing we are lucky to have plenty of in Napa Valley!
I decided I would like to try Angele, a French-style restaurant at the "Napa Riverfront", a renovated portion of downtown Napa right on the Napa river, by the old Napa Mill. We had seen this restaurant and perused the menu previously, but had never actually visited.

We showed up and the restaurant was a little more lively than I would have expected on a Thursday in the middle of winter -- it was not packed, but only got more filled as the evening went on. The interior decor was just right: a warm blend of rustic woodword and contemporary styles and lighting, cozy but not crowded. The volume level was quiet enough for conversation but noisy enough to feel alive. Looking at the menu, I was intrigued by several things (one of which they were out of -- the pappardalle bolognese. It is a common theme in my life for restaurants to be out of the one dish I have my heart set on, so these days I make sure to only visit restaurants that have more than one enticing item on the menu for me!)

The wine list didn't seem great, so we decided to have some wine at home before going to dinner, and didn't get any at the restaurant. However, we still wanted something to drink and their specialty cocktails sounded interesting, so Sarah got "My Name is Earl", a cocktail involving cachaca and Earl Grey tea -- pretty light and refreshing. I decided to get one of my favorites, an old-fashioned, but this one was made with bacon-infused bourbon and mixed with maple syrup (sadly, I can say that I tasted not a hint of bacon or maple in it).

For meals, we ordered a sturgeon dish and the roti au veau, consisting of veal loin slices along with braised veal cheek. Both dishes were excellent, but we felt we needed a little more food, so we flagged the server down and ordered a side of brussels sprouts. Unfortunately, the waitress came out with our dessert menus without ever bringing our side before the meals were finished. When another lady (the door hostess/manager?) came by to see how things were going, we told her of the situation and she was clearly perturbed by it and set out to immediately rectify the problem. I could see her chewing out our server girl, which made me feel bad -- it's not like I had ordered everything all at the same time, so it was a simple mistake. On the other hand, it's good to see management taking top-notch service seriously. They ended up bringing out the brussels sprouts and did not charge us for them... and I'm glad we managed to have these, because they were amazing, broiled up perfectly with pieces of pancetta and meyer lemon confit. I hope it didn't ruin the server's night and everything was okay after that.

All in all, a very fine meal... nothing to fault, and they have a great-sounding brunch menu as well, so I think I will come back and try a brunch there at the outdoor seating when the weather warms up a little bit.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Buster's Southern BBQ & Bakery - Calistoga

For lunch today I decided to try another local eatery in Calistoga: Buster's Barbeque, located off of Foothill Blvd (hwy 128, which is what 29 turns into if you keep going straight past Calistoga), right after the turn for Lincoln Ave. into Calistoga (if you're heading north)

I had seen Buster's many times -- pretty much every time I come to work! -- but I tend to be pretty frugal so I try not to go out and buy lunches... besides, I only have a 30 minute lunch break.

However, I'm a fan of barbecue (and spending my college years in North Carolina certainly didn't hurt that fact) and I had heard Buster's was pretty good, and I had nothing to bring for lunch today so... here I am.

As soon as I rounded the corner on my short walk to the establishment, I could see the signature smoke signals of carnivorous delight climbing into the sky. When I cam close, I saw about 2 dozen heft slabs of meat slowly cooking on the outside charcoal grill they use, and they were being carefully turned and tended by one of the workers.

I approached the order counter (they have a sit-down eating section but the service is done more like line-order style at the counter) and took a look over what they had... sure enough, looked like your typical southern barbecue menu -- tri-tip, pork, cole slaw, potato salad, etc.! That was strangely reassuring... not that I don't love the "California fusion cuisine" twists they love to do around here so much, but sometimes you just want the comfort of the comfort food you know and love.

As I approached to order, the lady at the cashier gave me a look and said "Your day off?" Haha, she knew who I was! Like I said, Calistoga's a small town, and I teach every kid at the elementary school, so I guess I become pretty famililar (not that I knew which child she was a parent of. It's hard enough to remember 450 kids' names!)

"No..." I replied "Just a quick bite to eat during my lunch break." and I ordered the tri-tip sandwich which she sliced right there at the counter and served up on garlic bread with a side (I chose potato salad) and a container of barbecue sauce. I had to scramble pretty quickly to walk back to the school and eat it before my 30 minutes were up, but despite the rushed meal... it was very good! The tri-tip was delicious, the sauce was a little bit tangy, a little spicy, a lot excellent... the potato salad was nothing amazing, but who cares?

The price was reasonable, too, at about $8.50 for the sandwich plate (around these parts, that's more or less a bargain). I can see why this is a favorite pit stop for the swarms of hog-riding bikers who cruise through the valley during the warmer months.