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.

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