Saturday, February 26, 2011

Domaine Chandon is a ChanDON'T

I pass Domaine Chandon every day on my commute to Calistoga. I have tried to come and give it a shot TWICE now and have been completely ignored and/or rudely mistreated both times. Considering that Napa thrives on the "hospitality" industry, you will find no hospitality here. Just a bunch of bitter people working in an over-commercialized tourist trap / sorority party.

My first visit was about 5-6 months ago, and when we arrived to the tasting room we were promptly ignored for 20 minutes and then coldly told they were closing in 5 minutes so we wouldn't be served.

This week it was like deja vu. We showed up 15 minutes before closing time, came to the tasting bar about 10 minutes before closing, and -- you guessed -- were promptly ignored until 5:01 when the bitter older man behind the bar said "We're closed. Bye."

Okay. I get it. You don't want my business. And you don't want me to bring any of my guests or company VPs and business associates here when they visit and want me to take them out tasting. In other words, you're just so wealthy and wonderful that you must not need any extra business. Good! I won't provide you any. I have better things to do with my time and money.

Heck, going to the dentist is a more pleasant experience. This place has been the WORST experience I've ever had at any winery or tasting room in the world. And I've been to hundreds.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Vermeil Wines / OnTheEdge Wines

Every day I stand outside of a little winery on the corner that says "Vermeil Wines / OnTheEdge" with a little logo of a football. This is because it is owned by Dick Vermeil, famed NFL coach and winner of Super Bowl XXXIV (and native Calistogan).

Last time I popped into this establishment was a few years ago, when it was filled with beeswax candles and a beehive you could peek into from a hole in the back wall. Now the look is completely different, with austere lighting and a sleek "Vermeil Hall of Fame" collection of photos and memorabilia adorning the walls.

Since I had an hour to kill after work before the bus arrived, I decided to finally stop in and sample the wares, of which there is quite a variety. There is a chalkboard sign outside mentioning the variety of reds, whites, sweet, dry, etc. wines. Perhaps their signature -- and a varietal you don't always find everywhere -- is Charbono, so I decided to try that along with some Zinfandel; there are far too many wines to try them all, especially considering all of the different vintages they have open for some of the varietals -- such as charbono and zin. They don't have free tastings for Napa Neighbors, and the $10 tasting fee lets you choose 4 wines to try. I figured I would give those varietals a go for some side-by-side vertical comparisons, and come back another time to try others.

I was informed by MarySue Frediani (who seems to be the main manager of the tasting room -- I always see her in there) that Trent Green was a business partner for the winery, and that he happened to be in town visiting and would be swinging by at some point. I figured I wasn't going to wait around for that but my leisurely tasting went on for a little longer than I had expected (somehow this tends to happen) and I saw my bus pull up when I still hadn't quite finished or paid, and wanted to take some photos. So I figured I'd just stick around for a while longer and wait for the next bus (they come every hour on the hour). Meanwhile, I went to the memorabilia wall to read about the history and family tree of the Vermeils and Fredianis, which is followed by photos from Dick Vermeil's past such as his coaching at Napa Valley College, Stanford, UCLA, Philadelphia Eagles and, of course, the St. Louis Rams. While I was looking around, the door opened and a crew of 5 or 6 people rolled in... sure enough, it was Trent Green and company, greeted by the server and MarySue and starting to talk about this and that, leaving me pretty much ignored in the corner (which is fine by me. I would expect nothing less...)

On to the wines: the reds here, while definitely different from year to year, each have a certain quality I'm not sure I'm a fan of. I've noticed that wineries often tend to have an overarching style to their wines, regardless of varietal, that I can only presume reflects the personal techniques and preferences of the winemaker. In this case, the wines reflect a style that I have encountered elsewhere -- lighter-bodied, but somewhat acidic, reminiscent of cranberry juice. This is not to say they are bad -- they don't actually taste like cranberries nor like plain fruit juice. I'm sure some people love this style (because, like I said, I've encountered it elsewhere), but I prefer wines to be not quite as tart and a little more "round" or smooth in the mouthfeel... but without biting tannins, so I'm sure it's not an easy feat to pull off. I'm also sure the charbono grape, itself, is a little bit to blame -- being a slightly lighter red, with a little bit of citrus/orange note to it. However, even the zinfandel here tastes far less lush and jammy than most zins I have tried.

Still, I will have to come back and try some more of their wines. I only had a small sampling of them, and sometimes these winemakers who opt for more acidity make some very nice whites, so I'm especially curious to try sauvignon blanc, though I'd also like to try the syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc.

Tip to anybody out there: if you do like the charbono, opt for "Nonna's Secret" which is blended with charbono and tastes almost the same, but for a much nicer pricetag).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In-N-Out Burger

If you've never been to In-N-Out, then one of these must be true:
  1. You don't live in California or Nevada.
  2. You are a vegetarian.
  3. You hate life.
And if you've never even heard of In-N-Out burgers, then... well, then I don't know how you get internet inside your cave.

In-N-Out Burger is an iconic establishment of West Coast fast food. Now, there has started to be some (slightly raging) debate over the best burgers in America. Fuddruckers caused a stir with its larger, more homestyle burgers, but some would argue that ventures away from the realm of fast food because they are more expensive and take longer to cook and to sit down and eat. On the other hand, many people are claiming the newer Five Guys burger chain (currently sweeping the nation; full disclosure: my uncle owns several of them) boasts the best burgers.

Right now, the biggest battle is between the In-N-Out diehards and the Five Guys fanatics. Both have achieved cult-like followings and loyalty, and both have fantastically fresh and sloppy burgers. It's almost like a West Coast versus East Coast rap rivalry here, folks.

Don't get me wrong, Five Guys burgers are pretty good, but the problem I have with them personally is the pricetag: they weigh in at close to $6 per cheeseburger. For about half that (a little over $3), I can get an Animal Style Double Double* at In-N-Out. To me, that says it all: bang for the buck. And in this department, you can't beat In-N-Out. Also, I don't know how they do it, but the workers at In-N-Out always seem a lot more wholesome and professional than you would normally expect from your typical teens working at a fast food joint. I sometimes wonder if they're back there singing Kumbaya while they mustard-grill my patties*

Now, let's be clear: In-N-Out is not a "strictly Napa" thing, unique to this area. No, they are everywhere, scattered throughout California and some parts of Nevada. But they are a California thing, and there is one right off of Soscol/Imola in Napa, so if you're craving a fast but fresh-made sloppy cheeseburger after a day of wine, this isn't a bad option.

Except their fries suck.

[We also don't have a Five Guys here, but you can find a great local burger at "Gott's Roadside" -- used to be known as Taylor's refresher -- with original location in St. Helena but also one at Oxbow Market in Napa]

* Yes, there is a special lingo at In-N-Out for their "secret menu"... some might find it annoying, some think it's fun, but it's all just part of the tradition and culture. You don't need to know the terms if you want a standard burger with normal toppings, but if you want some different toppings -- admittedly not as many offered as Five Guys -- you need to know the codenames. For me, Animal Style is the way to go: a mustard-grilled patty with sauce and sauteed onions. You can also get Animal Style fries, which is definitely an improvement.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cole's Chop House

Sarah's boss was in town for a business trip, and he's a big fan of steak (Ruth's Chris being a regular weekly meal for him -- guess that's easy to do when you are a VP), so I had suggested we book a reservation at Cole's Chop House, but it was too last minute so we gave Rotisserie & Wine a try instead. Fortunately, their business day went late and he was too jet-lagged for that dinner. (I say "fortunately" because I think he would have found both the hipster-casual environment and the meat at Rotisserie and Wine to be subpar -- especially considering they were out of the only beef item they had on the menu.)

However, when that occurred I figured we should book the next night's dinner at Cole's Chop House in downtown Napa. I had never been to this restaurant, but you can't go wrong with a good chop house, and I'd heard this one was decent -- I figured, looking at the menu on the website, that with prices like that, it'd better be good! I had also seen the interior when dining at Ubuntu next door for my birthday a couple of years ago, and we have also tried Celadon, Cole's sister restaurant down the street, which is also decent and with a menu that's a little more varied and intriguing.

Cole's bills itself as a "Classic American Steakhouse" and it definitely has the standard old-school chop house vibe -- not unlike Ruth's Chris, but it's nice that Cole's is a unique location, not a chain. The atmosphere works well for this "gentlemanly" type approach: it's a lofty old brick building, which is in fact the 1886 Williams-Kyser building. Rather than describe the history of it, I will let their own website do the talking:

Named after its original owners, the Williams building was the first commercial block constructed north of the Napa creek. The hand-hewn native stone structure cost $26,000 to build and its designers were San Francisco architects Wright and Saunders.

While owned by the Williams family, the Main Street structure was used as an exhibition hall during the 1890 Napa and Solano counties fair. Three years later, the building was outfitted to be the temporary home of the local armory. At about the same time, D.S. Kyser became a tenant when he relocated his furniture and undertaking business to the Main Street block.

In 1897, the Williams Building became the site of both civic pride and notoriety. Shortly after the arrival of that year, January 15, 1897, the Napa County Courthouse was the scene of the last public execution held in California. That day, Billy Roe was hanged for murdering Lucina Greenwood of Napa in 1891. Kyser attended the execution in an official capacity as the Napa County Coroner. Eventually, Roe’s remains were delivered to Kyser’s Main Street undertaking business.

So, there you have it. Now on to the service and food. The waiter, like the atmosphere, fit a "classic American steakhouse" well. He was professional and well-mannered, serious but not aloof or unfriendly. He had the sort of "old world" service demeanor that I know some people are very fond of.

The menu is a little overwhelming at first, especially for someone like me who (I'll admit) is not exactly a beef connoisseur or meat expert. I have enough trouble distinguishing different cuts, let alone special features like Wagyu, Dry-Aged, or Certified Angus. The prices for any of the steaks are not cheap, most of them being close to $40 (some as high as $60 or $70!), and this is without any sides, which are served family-style separately. I opted for a special they had for the evening, mostly because it did come with sides and they sounded pretty great: a marinated New York strip with mushrooms sauteed in fois gras, served with truffled mashed potatoes.

However, the sides were a little unnecessary, considering we also ordered asparagus (cooked just right -- tender but bright green and a little crisp. I never know how they manage to do that at restaurants), creamed spinach, and mushrooms -- not just any mushrooms, but a seasonal special of sauteed wild mushrooms with garlic, shallots, red wine sauce, and truffle oil. This was fantastic and I'd say well worth the $15 (for a large portion that could easily be enough for 4 people).

After seeing the petite filet and filet mignon ordered by Sarah and her boss, I was a little disappointed in my selection. The sides were, in fact, pretty good, but the steak was not so tender (despite being ordered medium -- and served actually medium rare); the filets were clearly much more juicy and tender (to be expected, but my New York strip was pretty sub-par even when compared to ones I've ordered at places like Outback steakhouse, to give you some comparison). I tried Sarah's Double G Brand (Red Lodge Montanta) 7 oz. petite filet and it was, in fact, excellent -- very fresh, flavorful, juicy, tender.

We also ordered wine, for a few reasons: (1) what is filet mignon without a good red? Blasphemy, that's what. (2) Cole's has a very decent and pretty extensive wine list -- to give you some idea, it includes a table of contents, with local Napa wines being divided up by AVA -- how cool is that?? On top of that, although the markup is still pretty high, it still seems to be more reasonable here than at some other restaurants (such as Rotisserie & Wine). The corkage here is $25/bottle, which is absurd, but might still be the best route if you have one you know you like. We went with a Chimney Rock 2006 cabernet sauvignon, since that is one we know and like, but it was $105 (retails for $65). I'm going to stand by my belief that: (a) corkage should be reasonable, and (b) wine markups should be on par with corkage fees. One would think a markup of 40% would still net them some profit, instead of the 60% markup they charged for this bottle.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rotisserie & Wine

During my little exploratory excursion to downtown Napa last month, I noticed a new restaurant at the Napa Riverfront complex (which is designed to be a live/shop environment, with condos over restaurants and shops. The shops are slowly appearing, and the restaurants are really starting to take root, as well); actually, I noticed a few new restaurants, but the one I had not heard of was "Rotisserie & Wine"

This is a restaurant by celebrity chef Tyler Florence partnered with Jeremy Fox (of Ubuntu fame -- not sure what happened there, but he up and split and became Florence's creative director). The general premise is very "Napa Valley" -- take down-home country cooking and give it an upscale twist (like practically everything else here). As the name suggests, there is a focus on rotisserie meats and a fairly large wine list. Essentially, the aim is "country comfort fusion" -- decor includes moonshine-jug shaped glowing-coil hanging lights. Servers wear plaid flannel shirts and speakers play classics from Guns n' Roses and Michael Jackson, though you can't really hear it from inside due to the general noisiness and proximity of everybody and everything. Considering the reasonable the size of the restaurant, the tables are oddly packed like sardines in one corner of the room (while the other half is devoted to a sort of "lunch counter" style eating and the namesake rotisserie ovens). This lends a feel of casual coziness, but detracts from any sensation of privacy or personal space.
I can only describe this genre as part of the new, hip "so casual it's not casual anymore" trend going around -- you know, the type of hipster thing where you pay a premium to go to an exclusive place where you can partake of blue-collar entertainment and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Rotisserie & Wine isn't really that, per se, but in the same trendy vein. The beers and wines, however, are a notch above PBR -- with pricetags to match. I didn't recognize many of the wines on the list, but they sounded intriguing, with about half hailing from local regions and half international (mostly France). If someone else were footing the bill, I'd be tempted to try some. For example, I have been really enjoying all of the Santa Lucia Highlands pinots I've had recently, but I'll be damned if I'm going to spend $105 for a bottle like the one they sell here.

I came because the food sounded interesting, although it was a bit dismaying that the one meat entree I wanted -- prime rib -- they were all out of (at 7 pm?). They were also out of my second-choice charcuterie plate, as well as the olive assortment. Since I'm actually not really a fan of rotisserie chicken (and certainly not for $22), we opted for one entree of curry BBQ lamb ribs, and two smaller dishes of duck confit waffles (the Napatastic equivalent of "chicken and waffles") and farro verde, a buckwheat or spelt-like grain served up risotto style with foraged mushrooms and bits of fried sweetbreads. This started out with two delicious (but small) ladyfinger-like cornbread sticks served with sweet and delicious honey butter. This was more like cookies than like a bread serving.

The lamb ribs were a bit lackluster -- a decadent amount of fat with very little meat (seemed even more than usual for lamb) and the lamb flavor overwhelmed the curry BBQ flavor, which smelled enticing but really got lost in the flavor of lamb grease. The side dishes were more interesting; the foraged mushrooms were delicious and the sweetbreads were cooked perfectly, battered crisp and light and salty on the outside with that sweet, succulent creaminess within. The duck confit went well with the waffles and bourbon maple syrup, though the portion went down mighty quick and easy for a $14 dish. Still, when all was said and done, these three dishes together packed Sarah and I to the gills and we couldn't squeeze in dessert.

I might possibly come back and try this place again, if I had guests who were interested and somebody was willing to pay for the wine, but the overall lack of menu variety, the cramped quarters (I was basically a participant of the date happening at an adjacent table), and the expensive wines are deterrents.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Oxbow Market, Part 1: C Casa

Oxbow Market is... well, how can I make a long story short?

Oxbow Market is basically a collective of gourmet restaurants and shops; a sort of a Napa, upscale, niche-target food court /market. It is located near downtown Napa, but just east of Soscol Ave. and the Wine Train tracks, in the area of the COPIA building. (COPIA was a similar experiment, which attempted to merge high-end food alongside wine tastings and education, but the experiment had far too much money pumped into it to recoup its losses, and failed to the tune of bankruptcy and closure... alas, I never even got to give it a try)

I've been to Oxbow Market once or twice before, but really just to look around... the one restaurant here that kept being recommended (through local wine tasting rooms) was C Casa, an upscale taqueria. I guess I had never been tempted, due to the high prices -- $8+ for a taco is a bit prohibitive considering you can get them for $2 each (sometimes less) at local taco trucks and taquerias.

Still, I figured it's one of those things I should at least give a shot, and we happened to be in the area today so... why not?

I'll tell you why not: this place was a madhouse! Here I was, thinking that being the middle of the winter offseason might deter tourists a little bit. Word to the wise: tourists are never deterred from visiting Napa. So here I was, weaving my way between the privileged and the wanna-be-privileged, waiting in line for an expensive taco ("Gluten free!" the sign reads. Umm... I may be confused, but aren't tacos -- normally served on corn tortillas -- always gluten free??) and looking around to see no open tables available.

Still, within twenty minutes, Sarah and I had our gourmet tacos and found a small nook to sit at outside of the bar area in the middle of the cattle call. To be fair, they were well-presented and delicious: mine was a lamb taco with juicy meat and some mint and cilantro; Sarah's was a blackened prawn taco with some fresh-tasting and heavy-duty shrimp in there. The servings were not filling -- after all, they are pretty much normal-sized tacos, meaning you would need at least 2 for a full meal, but I don't think that warrants spending nearly $20 per person.

Verdict: Tasty gourmet tacos -- perhaps overhyped and overpriced, a yummy snack but doesn't fill you up for the price.

The crowds were a bit much and I actually was feeling pretty claustrophobic, so we didn't stay long -- on a warmer day, we might have headed to C Casa's outdoor eating section, but it was not one of those nice, warm days (and if it were, that area would probably be teeming with people, too!)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Olivier St. Helena

Olivier is a local French-themed olive oil and condiment shop located on Main St (Hwy 29) in St. Helena. (On a recent visit to Northstar-at-Tahoe for some snowboarding, I noticed they also now have a shop right there at the Northstar base camp, as well as a little bistro!)

The ambience is light and airy, provencal-type decor and colors... warm yellows, olive green, lots of artisan cookware, etc. A small, cozy atmosphere that is only made more enticing my plenty of sample trays out for dressings, dipping oils, barbeque sauces, various condiments/dips, vinegars, and four large copper kettles of various varietals of virgin olive oil.

This was not my first time here, but it is always changing -- some things stay the same, but their line of sauces and dips seems to be ever-expanding, with most recent additions being barbeque sauces and salad dressings. On my first visit, the things that really stood out were the arbequina olive oil -- a particular strain of olive which has a somewhat floral flavor less grassy and a little more honey suckle than your typical store-bought extra virgin -- as well as the white bean and sage dip, which was possibly the best and most addictive bean dip I had ever had, but unfortunately they changed up the recipe and it's not nearly as good now (they took out the lactic acid and replaced it with lemon juice, added additional parmesan... the flavor is a little more tart and not nearly as wonderful as it was 2 years ago).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen

In St. Helena, there is a little restaurant tucked off the beaten path -- that beaten path being Main St/St. Helena Highway (Hwy 29), the main artery right through town.

This restaurant is run by Cindy Pawlcyn, best known for her mid-valley restaurant "Mustards Grill", but also owner of Go Fish in St. Helena. It can be found one block east of the main road, off of Railroad Ave., more or less right behind the Cameo Cinema. Hence the name: "Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen"

This restaurant has a different vibe than either Mustards or Go Fish (which, in turn, are very different from each other). It goes for the same "classy meets casual" vibe that the other two attempt, and it feels closer to Mustards than to Go Fish. However, Mustards was always more of a "scene" -- after all, you have to actually make an effort to go there (due to its location) and for that reason, if nothing else, it feels more formal.

Backstreet Kitchen feels like more of a locals hangout -- in fact, when I was there that's all it was... the bartender knew people coming in by name, everybody seemed to know what was going on with everybody else. This is the local diner, Napa Valley style.

To be honest, it was a little bizarre. I am a "local" but do not live or work in St. Helena, so I was as much a stranger and tourist there as anybody else could be... not that I felt unwelcome. I showed up for an early dinner at 4:00 (hours are 11:30 to 9:00), so there were only a few people in there... which is good, because they were understaffed due to snow on the mountains preventing some of the employees from "driving over the hill" as they say. [Yes, we have gone from 80 degrees a week ago to snow, hail, and cold rain today]

The decor is sort of Beatrix Potter/French cottage meets jazzy diner... I imagine this is what you'd get if Dr. House, MD decided to live in Giverny. A long chrome counter serves as both a bar (a full bar but also with an emphasis on local wines) and eating counter, which comes in handy for days like today when requesting a "table for one", and the rest of the restaurant is cozy seating areas with small white tables. In a way, this feels more comfortable than either Mustards or Go Fish... light and airy, perhaps a bit feminine but subtly done and not overboard.

I couldn't decide what to get from the menu... I wasn't in the mood for any of the large plates, but I was hungry and wanted some variety. I debated between the duck burger with shiitake mushroom ketchup (a popular choice, as I saw the man next to me order it and directly after someone came in to pick up a carryout order of the same thing), the mushroom tamales (the one "large plate" I considered), a rabbit tostada, and the "Backstreet Fry" of calamari, red onion strings, fennel, and okra. I decided on the last two -- I'm always curious to try fried calamari and see the variations and how well it is done (which can vary wildly from amazing, crisp, and succulent to horrible, like chewing on fishy leather shoelaces).

Of the two dishes (which were much larger than the "small plates" I had thought they might be), the rabbit tostada was more exciting -- it looked delicious, it smelled delicious (I can't put my finger on the aroma given off by the toppings) and it tasted delicious, with plenty of rabbit meat cooked just right in just the right amount of sauce, though a little on the spicy side but I like that.
This is not to fault the Backstreet Fry -- it, too, was very good, with a nice balance of the different ingredients. The calamari was extremely tender, fresh, and juicy -- on par with the great fried calamari at my favorite St. Helena restaurant, Market (a block away). I like fried onion strips, but was more excited by the okra and especially the fried fennel, so I wish there had been more of those in lieu of some of the onions.

I was extremely full by the time I finished all that, so no room for drinks or dessert, but I'll be sure to come back at some point with Sarah. They also have special "Supper Club" events every Wednesday and Thursday, food specials that revolve around a monthly theme. The theme for this month is Indian-and-Portuguese inspired foods; tonight they had a vegetable sambar (curry and rice), a special lentil soup, and a lamb vindaloo or something like that. I was just thinking recently how much Napa could use more Indian/curry options at the restaurants, so this was refreshing to see, but I wasn't in the mood today... maybe I'll check the menu out in a week or two -- I can't afford to do this on a regular basis; my bill for two small plates and water came to about $30, and also unfortunate is that CBK does not have free corkage like Market does (I believe it is $15 here).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Butter Cream Bakery and Diner

Today was, of course, Valentine's Day. Normally, I find the notion of Valentine's Day to be pretty cheesy and uninspiring -- the one day of the year people are rushing around looking to buy a quick, cheap, trite way to express affection for somebody. If you ask me, "romance" means spontaneity and unexpectedness, it means doing things from the heart -- which means it can happen at any time, not on one set day of the year. And it should happen far more often than on a "once annually" basis.

Mostly, I just resent the unoriginality of it all, and the mad dash and crowds that happen to make many experiences (like trying to go out to dinner) decidedly unromantic. Today was no exception -- I decided, unoriginally, that it might be nice to do a "typical" V-Day gesture: a box of chocolates for Sarah. I swung by See's Candies, the local storefront for See's, a California brand of candies and chocolates (Overall I do not find them to be amazing, but they have the hands-down best dark chocolate bars I have ever had.)

Unsurprisingly, the place was a mad house, a sardine can of unimaginative sheeple herding into the chocolate corral to very unromantically fulfill a tacit obligation. To top it off, the one type of assortment I would actually be interested in buying -- the truffle centers -- were completely sold out (and it wasn't even 5 pm yet.) What a horrible, unpleasant experience.

Sarah was not expecting any gifts from me, aside from the dinner I had planned to cook, but I wanted to get a little surprise anyway... and I didn't have a dessert planned, so something sweet would be good. What to do?

I remembered that just around the corner is a bakery/diner I had heard of (and passed on numerous occasions -- it is candy-striped bright pastel pink and white. Kind of hard to miss.) called ButterCream Bakery, near the intersection of Jefferson and Lincoln. So I headed there.

To my pleasant surprise on this gray and misty day, they were open and practically empty, to boot. I had never been here before, and this was a perfect excuse to visit. The server girls were polite and unpushy, letting me take my time and look around and take photos. I didn't realize that this is not only a bakery (specializing in the sweet stuff -- mostly cakes and donuts) but also a diner, a typical old-fashioned place I would imagine seeing plenty of blue-hairs eating eggs and sipping coffee on Saturday mornings. That portion was closed (only open for breakfast/brunch/lunch), but I am almost 100% certain my imagination pegged the scene spot-on, but the only way I'll find out is to return at some point.

Being Valentine's Day, I just had to go for the enticing little spongy, confectioner's sugar-coated cakes with red jelly hearts on them. I wasn't quite sure what they were, but they looked like wonderfully fluffy and unhealthy sugar bombs, so I pointed and said "I'll take two of those, whatever they are" and also requested two red velvet cupcakes*.

They made for a very eye-widening and lip-salivating surprise for Sarah, and the two little confections for each of us were just the right dessert for the meal I whipped up of crab-stuffed flounder, broiled asparagus with meyer lemon confit, and whole wheat couscous.

* Ever since I attended college in North Carolina, I've been a big fan of red velvet cake. However, I'm not a big fan of how trendy it has become -- it is such a fad for the past couple of years it is ridiculous. And a lot of people do it just plain wrong, not realizing that genuine cream cheese frosting is half of what makes it so good. But at least on a positive note this trendiness means that I can still find it and eat it without having to live in the South.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

VINTJS: A Tale of Two Trader Joe's Pinots

Trader Joes Pinot Noirs

Today I decided to pick up try some of the lower-end wines I picked up at the local Trader Joe's -- and none of them are from Napa Valley (*gasp!* blasphemy!)
VINTJS (pronounced "vintages") is Trader Joe's label they use for some of their branded wines (namely pinot noir, as far as I can tell)

I first became aware of it when looking through their selection and noticing this label on a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir a year or two ago. I scrutinized the label and became curious because the wine is actually made by "Wine by Joe", which is the budget-line label of Joe Dobbs, of Dobbs Estate wine (decent pinot noir) in Oregon.

On my last TJs shopping trip, I decided it was time to investigate some new wines -- to be specific, I picked up a 2010 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau ($7.99), a LaGranja 50/50 blend of garnacha/tempranillo from Spain ($4.99... and I'm curious to start trying TJ's entire selection of inexpensive Spanish wines, so if anybody has suggestions, let me know), an Evenus Zinfandel Port from Paso Robles ($7.99), and these two pinot noirs ($7.99 each) under the VINTJS label: one is a 2009 Willamette Valley (Oregon), the other is a 2009 Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey, CA)

I've been a big fan of Oregon pinot for a while, but I was recently turned on to Santa Lucia pinot when Charles Hendricks poured me one of his own at Hope & Grace cellars in Yountville (Napa Valley) It was possibly the best California pinot I've had; I also tried his Russian River pinot, and it didn't hold a candle. Something about the Santa Lucia terroir must be amazing, because there is an extraordinary balance of fruit and earth and spice (more spice than I get in most pinots -- like a little hint of cedar and clove), and a smooth mouthfeel without the cloying sour/tartness of some pinot noirs.

So my gf and I decided we would open these side by side for a taste comparison. On pouring them (into our amazing new Riedel Vinum crystal pinot/burgundy glasses), the color and opacity difference were negligible. They were both medium-dark (for a pinot), somewhat translucent (par for the course for pinot), and only had a slight variation in color, with the Willamette wine having a slightly more ruddy hue and the Santa Lucia one having a hint of raspberry color to it.

Taking a whiff of each, the difference on the nose is remarkable. The Santa Lucia one had a rich, aromatic smell -- again giving some hints of that earth and spice, a little bit of mushroom and cedar and clove, but all mixed in with hints of ripe fruit as well. A wonderful perfume, reminiscent of potpourri or incense. The Willamette one had a slight oak smell, but gave a little more alcohol on the nose (despite being lower ABV) but the primary aroma here was sour cherry, all the way.

The flavor profiles didn't stray too far from those aromas. The Willamette Valley pinot had a much more pronounced oak (American oak, if my tastebuds don't deceive me) flavor up front than was present on the nose, quickly followed by the sour cherry primary flavor. Considering the relatively low alcohol (13.3%), it seemed a little hot, but it could be the acidity contributing to that sense. Overall it's right about what I would expect for a pinot under $10: a little thin, a little tart, a little imbalanced, but drinkable.

The Santa Lucia, on the other hand, far exceeded my expectations. In fact, it was better than several $30+ pinots I have tried, and it was certainly the best pinot noir I've had for under $10, hands down. The mouthfeel was round and smooth, there was a nice balance of fruit and earth/spice flavors, and the sour/tart acidity often found in pinot (even though I enjoy it sometimes) was a lot tamer here. I am definitely going to go back to TJ's ASAP and pick up a case of this for under $100.

Originally my gf and I had planned on finishing half a bottle of each and saving the rest for the next day, but after tasting them we figured we'd better down the Santa Lucia one since it was so excellent, and then if the Willamette one was no good the next day, we wouldn't care so much.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Thai Kitchen - Napa

Thai Kitchen is a little restaurant off of Trancas, just around the corner from where I live. There is nothing fancy or super unique about this place... except for, you know, the fact that I don't actually know of any other Thai restaurants in Napa Valley!

Unfortunately, restaurants that might be a dime a dozen in cities like San Francisco are actually pretty scarce here -- namely, I am thinking of Thai, Indian, Korean, German (heck, German food seems pretty hard to find practically anywhere), and others. There is plenty of Mexican, some French and Italian, California Cuisine and steakhouses, a few Chinese places, and an up-and-coming scene of sushi and seafood. However, this is the only Thai restaurant that I know of around here, and for some reason it's always very enticing whenever the weather is gray or raining.

The interior is typical but cozy, a little one-room/small-kitchen affair. The place seems to be family-run and they are always friendly and accommodating (today was actually my third time visiting). Although it's not fancy or unique, the place is never empty so that should say something. When I visited today, I overheard a conversation saying "This is surprisingly good... certainly way better than Sushi Mambo" (Sushi Mambo is a Japanese place in downtown Napa which I have never tried).

We ordered crab fried rice (very tasty, lots of crab meat, large portion to share for 2 people), duck pineapple red curry, and a vegetable/tofu noodle dish (Sarah's go-to dish, pretty good). All of the food I've tried there is pretty decent -- nothing I'd write home about, but satisfying in the same way that soul food is: fills you up and warms you to the core, so no wonder I'm always craving it on a rainy day. Or when we have a hankering for the orange, caffeine-boosted Thai iced tea... although we tend to save some money by making that ourselves at home now, using Pantai Norasingh mix ($5 per 1 lb. bag) which tastes just like what you get in the restaurants!

Verdict: Being one of very few (if not the only one) Thai restaurants around, this place is not bad for comfortable, casual food with a little kick.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Village Bakery -- Calistoga

Apparently bakeries are the hot new trend right now. Despite the fact that there are now two coffee shops in town, both of which sell some baked goods (muffins, quiche, etc.), there recently opened the "Village Bakery" on Lincoln Ave. From what I understand, I think it's a new branch of a chain of two bakeries open in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

It's a small place, kind of austere in its personality and presentation, but not cold... a few small tables and chairs are there to relax and nibble on your baked goods or sip a coffee (which they also sell), and it feels warm and inviting enough (certainly better than Starbucks, which I've always found extremely cold and uninviting).

They have the requisite display case of cupcakes, brownies, etc. as well as a back shelf for loaves of bread -- in other words, it's like a plainer, less-hyped version of Bouchon Bakery. Which is why it surprises me that the prices are a bit higher here. Whereas a standard-sized loaf of bread at Bouchon Bakery would be about $3.25, here at Village Bakery they are $4.25. I can't attest to the quality. but might try the "Sebastopol Sourdough" at some point.

Usually I pop in here when I'm hungry for a serious sweet-tooth/sugar-rush fix, because I go straight for the brownies with cream cheese frosting. These are dense, fudgy brownies with a serious layer of cream cheese frosting on top. The brownies aren't cheap -- $2.95 -- but they are pretty huge. It's like a whole meal (a whole meal of carbs and sugars). I'd actually prefer if they were cut in half and charged half the price. As it is, this one would be a good one to share with a friend. One drawback to the flavor is: I can't be sure, but the frosting tastes like the artificial, packaged variety... which is disappointing. I might be wrong, but it just doesn't taste like the real cream cheese frosting I am used to.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Brewer's Dinner at the Calistoga Inn and Brewery

I've been looking forward to today for a little over a week now. Why? Because a week or two ago, as I was casually waiting on Lincoln for the VINE bus to arrive, I noticed some banners hanging outside of the Calistoga Inn and Brewery across the street.

This place is right in the heart of town and right by the bus stop, so I see it pretty much every day. It's visually appealing and the combination of brewery/bar, restaurant, and "European style" lodging (ie. a few rooms, not many, and they share a bathroom. But they are affordable.) has always intrigued me. I've walked past and looked at the menu before, which always sounded good, even if a little pricey, but hey, we're in Spa Town...

Occasionally they hang signs outside for upcoming special events. They caught my eye this time because there was not one sign but three: Super Bowl Party, Valentine's Day Dinner, and Brewer's Dinner. As much as I like watching football, I wasn't super excited about the Super Bowl this year, and I generally don't like watching it in the pubs -- they always get too cramped, overcrowded, people get grumpy. So I usually just watch it at home (but I gave up TV years ago) or at a friend's house (but I also gave up friends years ago). Valentine's Day is a similar story -- I've done the whole "going out on a Valentine's dinner date" thing, and it's simply overrated. The romance level actually goes down because suddenly everything is stressful -- there is the stress of competing for a reservation, the stress of higher-than-normal prices, the stress of expectations for the evening. No, thank you -- I think I'll just stay in and cook a nice meal and spend some time with my significant other.

However, a "Brewer's Dinner" is not something you see every day. In fact, in 4 years living here I have never seen a sign for one. I checked it out on their website and liked what I saw: a 6-course meal in which each course was paired with a different one of their microbrews, for $50/person. I've done wine-pairing dinners, but never a beer-pairing one, so this was enticing and I made a reservation for two.

We arrived about 15 minutes early. but the restaurant doors were shut and locked. There were plenty of people hanging out in the bar area, but there were no signs or indications of where we were supposed to go for the dinner. About 5 minutes prior to scheduled dinner time, we went in through the bar entrance and scoped out the dining area to see what was going on. Nobody was there. Eventually we saw a waiter and asked him about the dinner. He looked confused and said "Oh, uh... I don't know. Let me see what is going on." He came back and said "Yeah, they aren't ready yet. You can wait in the bar area." So we went and sat down. We waited for about 10 minutes and didn't see anything happen, but that bar area sure got packed. We decided to walk around and see what was going on (and almost walked out, since it was stressful and nobody was telling us anything) -- then the waiter saw us and said "Oh, it actually starts in here."

He informed Brad Smisloff (brewmaster) who was standing right there having one of his brews, and we headed to the back where they had out tables with big bowls of homemade potato chips with gorgonzola (this was the first course). Unfortunately, it was already packed with people by now (good thing we showed up early, eh? It did no good when nobody could tell us what was going on) but we managed to squeeze to the corner table where they were pouring the first beer: their "Blintzen IPA" which was a strong India Pale Ale serving as their seasonal winter beer. To my surprise, they were pouring full glasses! I had come to this expecting small samplers/tastings of each beer, but that wasn't the case so far. The chips and beer were good, but the stress of figuring things out and people crammed together like sardines were not so enjoyable. We tucked ourselves into a corner away from everybody (but near the chips) and waited eagerly for seating to begin.

The way it worked is that they had this first-course appetizer mingler in the bar, then they had assigned seating for everybody in the restaurant area. Thankfully our table was one of the first and most easily accessible in the room. Unfortunately, it was communal. I can't say I'm entirely surprised; I had assumed they might do something like this. Personally, I was happier to be sharing a table with two other people than to be sitting at the long communal one of about 20 people where most people were seated.

The rest of the evening went pretty much as I'd expected, with Brad Smisloff coming out and giving a little speech about each course and the choice of beer to go with it, some info about the beer and why it was chosen. The one thing that did surprise me was just how much food and beer came out. It was a complete feast! They poured probably 8 ounces with each serving -- totaling probably about 48 ounces of beer over the course of the evening. I also didn't realize that is that this was their first Brewer's Dinner they'd ever held (I suppose this might explain the confusion and lack of guidance)! However, he did say they've wanted to do this for a while and they plan to make it a regular thing... so if anybody out there is reading this and likes beer, keep on the lookout for that! He said they plan to do it quarterly (I guess one each season). Heck, I might go to several of them if the menu and beers are changing.

The courses and beers (along with my notes) were as follows:
  1. Homemade gorgonzola potato chips, Blintzen IPA. Good pairing, chips were good, maybe could have used more evenly-dispersed cheese.
  2. Cheese soup made with pilsner, paired with pilsner. Interesting soup... sort of thin, more like a bisque. I can understand why the pilsner was put in the soup, but I feel like a stronger-flavored beer (maybe red ale) would have been a better pairing.
  3. A cured salmon salad, containing spring greens, cured salmon, and grapefruit pieces. Paired with wheat ale/hefeweizen. Great pairing... very light and tangy, the hefeweizen was a nice choice to go with the zest of the salad, and the salmon was fresh, delicious, and plentiful.
  4. Porter-braised short ribs and bacon-sauteed brussels sprouts, paired with porter. A nice pairing, the strong flavor of the porter held up to the strong flavor of meat and brussels sprouts. But boy was this rich and hearty and filling!
  5. A cheese sampler of Humboldt Fog soft goat cheese, Sonoma Dry Jack, and a pungent, sweet blue cheese (whose name I don't remember) -- paired with 3 small servings of beer: a red ale, a "Purple Haze" blackberry-infused ale, and an oak-barreled peach kolsch, which was the most interesting of the three, though they were all good.
  6. A rich, moist, dark chocolate cake drizzled with brewer's wort for dessert. The malty, caramelized flavor of the wort (like a sweet, delicious version of vegemite) was a delicious combo with the rich chocolate flavor, and the slightly-bitter, hoppy but still syrupy and sweet barley wine made a good pairing as well.
Needless to say, after all of this (and polishing off Sarah's barleywine), it would have been ideal if we had a local place to crash! Driving after this event is not advised. However, I had finished half of Sarah's beers, leaving her capable of driving home (and leaving myself feeling completely full and slightly giddy.)

Brad said they've had this idea for quite a while and it just took this long to finally make it happen, but they now plan to do one every few months (quarterly -- basically, once per season.) I think it's a great idea, and I'll definitely be back -- especially if the prices and quality stay the same, and even more enticing if they mix up the menu each time.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

January was Restaurant Month in Napa... Who Knew?

I overheard a coworker today talking about plans to try out some restaurants for Restaurant Week in Sonoma (she lives in Santa Rosa).

I thought about it and got to wondering: is there a restaurant week here in Napa?

I looked it up online and, sure enough, there is not only a restaurant week but an entire restaurant month, with various specials and discounts at a variety of restaurants. Unfortunately, I just missed it! Why am I always finding out about these things right after it does me any good??

I guess it's a good thing I am keeping this blog so I can force myself to proactively figure out what is going on out there, and to record it for reference so I can be prepared next year...

Anyway, click here if you want to know more about what Restaurant Month entailed this year, up and down the valley.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Discovering What to Do in Napa

I'm exhausted and this is another one of those all-work, no-play days. Left for work at 6:10 am, got home at 6:10 pm. Needless to say, there won't be anything too exciting for me to talk about today.

However, I have been pondering about how hard it is for me to actually figure out what is going on in the valley at any given point in time. How do people do it? For example, in the recent Calistoga wine tastings I have done, the tasting rooms were far busier than I would have expected. It turns out that there was a Winter Wine Passport promotion going on for the first time this year, in which $50 would get you a "passport" you could use for free tasting at several local tasting rooms: W.H. Smith, Ochoa/Rios, Lava Vine, Twomey, and Castello di Amarosa... amongst some others. This had been going in since the beginning of December, and this was the first I'd heard of it! (It just ended yesterday)

I do see signs for the local events in Calistoga, as they are advertised on banners strung across Lincoln Ave. For example, right now they are hyping the Mustard, Mud and Music weekend featuring jazz events in Calistoga on March 5 and 6. Nearby I often notice banners outside Calistoga Inn and Brewery advertising special events there (the one for a "Brewer's Dinner" of various beers paired with multiple courses in a prix-fixe meal caught my eye, and I've made a reservation to be attending that on Wednesday at 6:30 pm, $50/person for a six course meal and lots of different beers... should be good!)

Anyway, I really am clueless, so I decided to start going online and finding various tourism websites and listings of activities and events. It's actually not so easy to find out what is going on around here! How do people do it?? I imagine a lot of tourists might get info from hotels when they are calling and making reservations, or from the concierge once they arrive (ie. stumbling upon them by accident), but it would be nice if there were some sort of mailing list(s) or RSS feeds or something that would send auto-updates of special events. Unfortunately, the web designs of a lot of the local websites in the Valley are pretty rinky-dink. I mean, the wineries sure shell out money to get top-notch web design (because, let's face it, the Napa "brand" is 50% glitz and hype and marketing), so why can't the B&B's and city chambers of commerce and tourist bureaus do the same?

Anyway, I've started searching around for websites I can frequent in order to see the 411 for the Valley, so I'll share the ones I know about right here... if anybody knows other good sources or feeds for information, please share!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Super Bowl Sunday on a Warm Winter Day

Of course, anybody who is a fan of the NFL -- or a fan of slap-stick advertising, or a fan of excuses to sit around with friends drinking beer and eating junk food -- will be centering today around the Super Bowl.

Any people who are not fans of the above but are fans of wine should probably be in Napa Valley today... where we have reached record-breaking high temperatures this weekend! It was 80 degrees yesterday and slated to be that warm again today!

P.S. I'm kind of disappointed that the Packers and the Steelers (only two of the winningest teams in NFL history) are in the big game today. I have normally been a big fan of the Steelers, but I had to root against them when Arizona was playing, and I'm going to have to root against them again today. Maybe I'm not such a big fan of the Steelersd anymore?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Soda Canyon Rd. / Atlas Peak

While sheets of ice are attacking people in Dallas, a heat wave has been brewing here in California. Napa reached record high temperatures today -- 80 degrees! (in the middle of winter!) With weather like this, I just had to go out, drop the top on my convertible, and explore one area I had been curious about: Soda Canyon/Atlas Peak.

I drive past the Soda Canyon Deli and General Store every time I commute up and down Silverado Trail, and I've sometimes seen Soda Canyon Road and wondered what's up there... but then I never wander up to see. Meanwhile, I've been seeing more and more local wines tagged with the "Atlas Peak" AVA label (of local mountain regions in Napa, the three you are likely to see are Mt. Veeder, Atlas Peak, and Howell Mountain. For a long time I couldn't keep the different locations straight, but I finally understand where they are -- they sort of form an equilateral triangle surrounding Napa Valley, with Mt. Veeder to the west, Howell Mountain to the north/northeast, and Atlas Peak to the east.) However, my interest came to a head when we recently saw a listing for a nice and reasonably-priced (by Napa standards) home, a 2000-square-foot, 2.7 acre beauty tucked up on a hillside overlooking the rugged hills, with a pricetag of $479k (it had started at over $700k but dropped steadily over the course of a few hundred days, until finally somebody bought it at this price). This is still out of our price range and a little more out of the way than we'd like a home to be, but we were curious what kind of area and home you can get for that price, so today we decided to find out.

As soon as you turn onto Soda Canyon Rd., you are entering another world. You slowly but surely start ascending a very gradual (at first) climb into the mountains -- more tranquil and not as winding as the roads toward Mt. Veeder or Lake Berryessa, but just as primitive and otherworldly. The place is rugged and almost prehistoric looking; pale green lichens and Spanish moss cling to gnarled trees and jagged outcroppings of gray rocks. Combine this with the relative silence, lack of traffic, and relative paucity of buildings and vineyards and you have a feeling you are in the Land of the Lost.

Soda Canyon Rd. is one of two roads that wind their way into the 11,000-acre Atlas Peak appellation (designated in the 1990s), with Atlas Peak Rd. being the other road and Atlas Peak being the highest point at 2,663 ft above sea level. The roads are not connected and both eventually dead-end high up in the hills.

The reason you would explore back here would probably be to enjoy the cruise itself -- ideally in a convertible or a motorcycle on a nice day like today. However, there are several vineyards and some wineries tucked back here, although some are closed to the public and the rest require you to call ahead for tasting appointments because this place does not get the drive-by casual traffic of Hwy 29 or Silverado Trail.

You can learn more about this region and AVA -- including maps, wineries, and history -- at

Friday, February 4, 2011

Bouchon Bakery, V Marketplace, and Napa Style

Hopping off the southbound 10 bus in Yountville has always proven to be a pleasant experience so far (it certainly helps that I don't have to pay the >$200/night it costs to stay here as a visitor!), so I decided to do it again.

I had been to Bouchon Bistro -- the local (and now interstate chain) restaurant of local celeb chef Thomas Keller (of the Michelin-rated French Laundry just up the street)... and let me tell you, I was less than impressed. I actually felt bad that this was the restaurant I took my parents to in their first visit to Napa Valley, but I didn't know any better at the time. The food was overpriced, way oversalted, and not memorable; the space was loud and cramped and the servers were impersonal and embittered. My mother's "trumpet mushroom salad" had one (yes, one) microscopic sliver of mushroom. How does that make a mushroom salad??

However, I had never stopped into the popular Bouchon Bakery next door to the restaurant. I had seen some of their (pricey but tasty-looking) baked goods in Las Vegas -- which is also home to a Bouchon Bistro -- but I was craving some good bread today and figured, why not from here?

It was doing a brisk business... not packed, but there was a line. I'm sure the 70-something-and-sunny weather we've been having didn't hurt. The bakery is small, with a variety of tempting-looking baked goods; my eye was first drawn to the colorful macarons, but quickly distracted by the nearby bread pudding cups (I love bread pudding), but I ended up getting a pistachio and citrus brioche. Which was good, but perhaps a little stale from sitting out for a while. Should've gone with the moist and glistening bread pudding. These items (the specialty baked snacks) are all about $3 each.

Meanwhile, the prices of coffee and bread loaves are a lot more reasonable -- coffee is about the same you'd pay at Peet's or Starbucks or elsewhere, and the loaves of bread are about $3.25 for a normal-sized loaf. I debated between the hearth-style "pain rustico" and the nearby loaf of sourdough; both looked good, and Sarah and I love sourdough, but it's also one that is very hit or miss. Some people don't make it sour enough (in true Boudain/San Francisco style) and other times it is just not dense or moist enough. I went with the pain rustico and when I got home and tore off some pieces to dip in olive oil and herbs, I knew that I had made the right choice: the outside was firm and tasted like a wood oven, the inside was soft and spongy and a little bit moist; overall the bread was very good for the price (which is just about the same -- or possibly even less -- than you'd pay for artisan bread like this at most grocery store bakeries)

I still had time left before the next bus arrived, so I wandered across the street to check out the "V Marketplace" which I had never seen. This place is a strange duck. You walk inside, and it's an eclectic (and sparsely populated) shopping mall of sorts, done up in a pseudo-villa style. The shops seem nearly unanimous in their decision to appeal to older wome. Some have names like "Sisters, the Ultimate Girly-Girl Boutique" and "i*elle" and "Tay & Grace: Playclothes for Women"; others are art galleries featuring plenty of colorful, flower-and-vine-filled rustic scenes.
I explored the whole place but so few people were there that I didn't want to wander into any shops for fear that the shopkeeps would either swoop on me like vampires or sigh in disappointment that I'm not a wealthy menopausal lady.

Popping out the back door, I emerged by Michael Chiarello's "Napa Style" storefront, and went inside to check out the assortment of cookery goods and gourmet foodstuffs -- olive oil and vinegar "caviar", Himalayan sea salt, extra virgin olive oils -- many of which had samples available. Some of the goods are certainly tasty (for the mouth and sometimes for the eyes) but the prices match the decadent indulgence of the goods. For things like sauces, spices, and vinegars and olive oils, a better bet would be to stop in St. Helena up the road where you can try plenty of wonderful oils, vinegars, dressings, sauces, and rubs at St. Helena Olive Oil Co. (These gourmet shops are also pricey, but still about 30% less expensive than Napa Style)

Time was about up for my hour in town... I went to the bus stop (right outside the V Marketplace) and sure enough the next southbound 10 arrived within about 5 minutes.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Luis Ochoa and Rios / Solovino Tasting Room

While waiting for the 4:00 VINE bus from Calistoga to Napa today, I decided it was time to try some wines at the new tasting room along Lincoln Ave: Rios / Ochoa wines. These are technically two different wineries -- Luis Ochoa, a longtime farmer, owns Luis Ochoa Vineyards; the tasting room is shared with Rios Wines, LLC (aka Solovino wines)

There are several varietals being offered at the tasting room, with the whites being sauvignon blanc and chardonnay and the reds being mostly cabernet sauvignon but also some merlot, zinfandel, and blends. Tasting policy is $15 with $5 refunded for each bottle purchased.

It can be a daunting task to get through a tasting of these -- especially if you are like me, not picky about varietals but simply curious to try them all because you never know which will yield an interesting, exemplary wine. There were a total of 11 wines for tasting on the counter! The good news is that I was riding the bus (not driving), and had no other tastings that day, so I decided to try most of them -- I skipped the Solovino crisp chardonnay and opted instead for trying the fuller-bodied Ochoa chardonnays.

Luis Ochoa was there and when he heard my discussion with the server that I am a computer teacher, he eagerly asked if perhaps I could help him learn some computer stuff and he could pay me with wine. Not sure how much time I have for that right now, but I do like teaching people and he seems like a pretty cool, friendly guy; I may have to consider the offer.

The wines (by both wineries) are small-production and there is a lot of variety here under one roof -- even with grapes sourced from the same vineyards, there are vast differences between winemakers and vintages. Of the reds, my favorite was the zinfandel because it had a rich, typical zin flavor (ripe, dark berry fruit and a tiny bit of peppery earth), but my favorite overall was Ochoa's 2003 chardonnay... of which he seemed to be a fan himself, considering it was the one he decided to pour a small glass and partake of. The pourer told me it was their best-selling wine, and I have to say I really enjoyed it for its unique flavor -- it has some of the full, rich fruit so prominent in California chardonnay, but the first hit on the tongue was not fruit but rather rich, mellow, spicy sweetness, like butter toffee, or cinnamon caramel, or granny smith apples and dulce de leche. Overall I feel like the experience is something like drinking a glass of not-overly-sweet apple pie.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ceja Vineyards

After trying the Vino de Casa red blend wine at Bistro Sabor last night -- and thoroughly enjoying it more than I expected -- I wanted to hit up the Ceja Vineyards tasting room as soon as possible and see what their other offerings are like.

I called Sarah from the VINE bus and asked if she'd want to join me at the downtown tasting room -- also on First St, not far from Bistro Sabor -- which I could make it into just before they close (open until 6 pm most days, but open until 8 pm Thurs - Sat... this is the benefit of being a tasting room within city limits, the restrictions on hours isn't as stringent)
She was under the weather, but I was on a mission. So I ended up at the tasting room, but I really felt she should be there with me in case I found some I liked and wanted to know if they would be worth purchasing. The tasting fee is $10 (refundable with pruchase of $100 or more) and no Napa Neighbors discount*, so we would probably just share a tasting like we usually do.

The tasting room is nicely decorated and lit -- as most of them are. People here know marketing and aesthetics are a huge factor. In addition to tastings, they also run as a lounge/wine bar where you can order wines by the glass. Surprisingly, they are even more expensive per glass here than they are at Bistro Sabor! (the Vino de Casa red is $9/glass and the pinot is $12) However, they might pour bigger servings... the Bistro Sabor pour seemed pretty skimpy (maybe 4 ounces?) You can also buy wine by the bottle and drink it there (same prices as Bistro Sabor in this case), but it's a much better deal to simply buy the wine at retail (which they also offer) and take it somewhere else to drink.

This is exactly what I decided to do, getting a bottle of the Vino de Casa Red ($20. they also have a white blend which I have not yet tried) and bringing it home to have with dinner. The pourer also gave me a two-for-one tasting card for when we decide to visit and taste.

Our fridge was empty and we've been sort of shelling out the cash lately, so not to break the bank I picked up some good old-fashioned American unhealthy fast food.

Vino de Casa red -- which is 40% pinot noir, 40% syrah, and 20% cabernet sauvignon -- pairs surprisingly well with Wendy's** double-stacks and junior bacon cheeseburgers!

* Actually, come to think of it, they were listed on the Napa Neighbors website as having 10% off wine purchases for locals... but I didn't get my 10% off and didn't think about it at the time.

** There are better burgers in the area, notably the classic California chain "In-N-Out" and the iconic Napa Valley establishment "Gott's Roadside", located in the Oxbow Market and originally known as "Taylor's Refresher" with its flagship location being in St. Helena. But these are both more expensive and a little more time-consuming, so Wendy's did the trick just fine for this time.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Downtown Joe's (the sequel) and Bistro Sabor

I had planned to take advantage of a local happy hour today -- specifically, happy hour at Bounty Hunter wines and BBQ in downtown Napa. The cool, rainy weekend really weather for some reason really put me in the mood for some barbecue, so we were thinking of Bounty Hunter but when we looked up their website, we saw that they have some happy hour specials during the week, so we decided to postpone it and give the Red Rock Cafe / Back Door BBQ a try instead.

Well, for some reason that mood has passed and I wasn't really in the mood for BBQ, or even wine for that matter. But Sarah and I were still home from work and available for a happy hour (a rare feat that we can both be home before 6 pm), so I hopped off the VINE route 10 bus at the Pearl St. transit center downtown anyway. On the way, I called Sarah and told her maybe we should give Downtown Joe's brewery/restaurant another try -- after all, I had been gypped out of their happy hour last time, so I wanted to give it a try and was also suddenly craving fried calamari (plus, I can't get their Old Magnolia stout out of my mind -- it is ridiculously smooth and well-balanced. I think it may be my new favorite stout.)

We showed up at 5:30, plenty of time to spare before happy hour ended (at 6:00). I had planned to take a seat at the bar like last time, but unlike last time (in which the bar was practically empty), today was crazy! Every seat at the bar was taken... on a Tuesday? What is up with this? I thought. We sat ourselves at one of the small tables, and were promptly ignored for 10 minutes. Eventually we talked to a hostess girl (who had not been there when we arrived) and she brought us some menus -- hmmm... no happy hour menus or mention of happy hour anywhere. I was pretty confused. Last time the happy hour menus were just sitting out. So we went and specifically asked her if there were happy hour specials; at that point, she said there were and gave us the menus. Wow, these folks will do anything to make you pay more money, huh? If you really don't want to give people a deal, why even bother having a happy hour? There's no law that says you have to.

After about 10 minutes, she came back and asked if we had been served; when we said no, she said she'd look into it. Nobody ever showed up, but we saw 2 people leave the bar and we decided to shift our location to where we might actually get service, at the bar. We sat down and were promptly ignored for another 10 minutes. Sarah said "This is ridiculous, I'm really about ready to leave", which we were about to do when finally the bartender (an unpolished woman by the name of "Patty") asked what she could get for us. We ordered a Tail Waggin' Amber, Old Magnolia Stout, and an order of calamari -- we had already talked it over and decided we wanted our main meal to be at the new downtown Latin/fusion taqueria called Bistro Sabor.

She quickly poured our beers for us and sloppily set them in front of us (to the point mine was a wet, sticky mess -- and with no napkins provided or in sight. I found one at one of the tables and used it to mop up my beer.) Eventually the calamari arrived and was actually pretty good -- nicely battered and tender and juicy -- but still no napkins or silverware. Meanwhile, Patty was pouring drinks left and right; it turns out, the reason they were being run ragged is because today happened to be the day they were holding a "BBQ Rib Cookoff" in their outdoor seating area, and already there were tons of people who are just the type for Downtown Joe's. If you are an Ed Hardy-wearing West Coast Choppers fan, this might be the place for you. I wouldn't be surprised to see Jesse James and one of his mistresses here. Then again, you won't get service unless you are one of the "regulars", with a name or nickname like Dusty or Smoky or Slim. Although this is not my type of people, I don't have anything against this particular subculture -- until they pull an exclusivist attitude like this and frown upon people who actually have class.

After our beers and snack, we headed west on First St. to Bistro Sabor, a corner taqueria with a twist. This is a newish establishment opened by Ariel Ceja, son of Amelia Ceja who is the owner of Ceja Vineyards winery. I had never tried Ceja's wines, but had heard of them, and had heard that the food at Bistro Sabor was pretty good.

We walked inside and looked around, trying to figure out how it worked -- looked like a typical order-at-the-counter-then-wait-at-a-table setup (with numbers marking where the order should be delivered), which has always made a lot of sense if you ask me. We perused the white board menu and a slender, hiply-dressed young Hispanic man came over and started talking to us, explaining the menu and how things worked. He was very friendly, eager and energetic, so I could only presume this was the owner (Ariel)... and I was right.

We ordered a chile relleno ($9) and an order of braised short-rib tacos ($10) -- actually sort of an Asian/Mexican fusion, as the ribs have sesame seeds and a sort of teriyaki flavor, served with Napa cabbage. In fact, the goal and vibe of this place is a sort of hip, urban mashup of popular "young people" foods -- Mexican, Asian, and Cuban influences. There is colorful graffiti mural art on one wall, and they serve 20 different beers as well as several types of sake... and, of course, Ceja wines. We decided to try a glass of wine as well, but the prices were a little prohibitive -- normally we would have tried a glass of the pinot noir, but at $11/glass (for your own house wine?) that was too steep. We decided to try the "Vino de Casa Red" blend (also seemed a bit pricey at $8/glass)

The wine was actually quite good -- very smooth and balanced, not sure what was in it but I definitely picked up on a pinot noir flavor which seems rare for red table wine blends, but it definitely had some richer grapes in there as well... seemed like syrah, but maybe merlot? cabernet? This is a very quaffable wine, though, and we polished it off quickly. The food was good, nothing to complain about -- the prices are a little higher than average; you can get similarly-good food at local taco trucks and taquerias for a little bit lower price... but not a whole lot less, and you can't get interesting fusions of flavors like the Asian-braised short ribs. Ariel was very attentive, checking to see how we liked the food and wine and also offering to bring us an extra glass of water when we needed it (even though the setup is self-serve). I found it refreshing to see a business owner recognize the value of being present and being hands-on, actually putting plenty of his own energy and labor and pride into his restaurant. You don't always find that everywhere.

Possibly the main selling point -- and the main reason I would return to Bistro Sabor -- is the fact that Ariel has recognized the need for a legitimate "night spot" in Napa; Bistro Sabor is open until midnight on weekdays and until 2 am on weekends, and they even move the tables and chairs aside to turn it into a little salsa-dancing club on Saturdays.