Monday, March 28, 2011

World of Outlaws Sprint Car Races

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

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Etude Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 14, 2011

Casa Nuestra

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 13, 2011

New York Pizza Kitchen (Napa) Sucks

I've lived across from the Silverado Plaza shopping center (at Soscol and Trancas) for almost 4 years now, but had not yet tried all of the little restaurants there. Mainly because none of them are too special... they consist of:
  • Starbucks (of course)
  • Cold Stone Creamery (fun, but overpriced)
  • High Tech Burrito -- went there once, liked the Godzilla Burrito, went back to get it again... and they had removed it from the menu because it was the only burrito worth its price. Instead, I settled for one of their standard burritos which is $6 and has about two ounces of meat in it. Those cheap bastards will not get another dime from me.
  • Hop Hing Kitchen, a cheap fast-food chinese place (you know, the kind where you pick one or two dishes plus a rice or noodle side. Like Panda Express).
  • New York Pizza Kitchen, which I unfortunately decided to finally try tonight
Today I was suddenly in the mood for a nice, authentic pizza -- we often do Little Caesar's... they're just down the street and a pretty good deal for the $5 it costs for a large pizza and breadsticks on Mondays, and for what it is, it's pretty good... but I wanted something a little more "homemade" today, and after the nice experience at Pizzeria Tra Vigne (which is unfortunately too far to bother driving to at the moment), I figured I'd give New York Pizza Kitchen a try.

I showed up, took a photo, and perused the menu... lots of toppings, but pretty expensive: $14 for a small 12" pizza, $20 for an extra large 18", not including any toppings which are about $2 extra for 1-2 toppings. Most of the toppings are pretty standard, with a few additions like salami, chicken, bacon, fresh basil, and roasted garlic. Some of the more interesting toppings cost extra ($2.50 per topping), which is unfortunate because the thought of artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, and feta sounds pretty good.

I was really tempted to try chicken and fresh basil, but called Sarah because she has a weird hang-up about chicken on pizza (she loves chicken and loves pizza, doesn't like chicken on pizza). Sure enough, she told me to get a veggie option -- mushrooms and roasted garlic. Despite that I really do like chicken pizza, this option was fine by me because I have always loved mushroom pizza, and roasted garlic is a rare opportunity... slow-roasted cloves, all soft and sweet and somewhat caramelized.

Only... this wasn't the case. I sat at the front table for 20 minutes reading the newspaper and waiting for my pizza. When it finally arrived I took it and headed home (about 1 minute away)... as soon as I got in, I opened the cardboard box and saw what appeared to be minced raw garlic - the kind you can get in the big, bulk jars pre-chopped and drowning in garlic juice. Apparently what they do for their "roasted garlic" topping is to take minced RAW garlic, slap some spoonfuls on top, and throw it in the oven for 8 minutes so that it chars (but remains raw) while the crust cooks and cheese melts? Unacceptable. There was nothing "roasted" about this... their garlic is straight-up raw. I took a few pieces off with my finger and realized the pizza would be pretty much inedible (roasting garlic mellows out the flavor, allows you to eat large doses at a time).

Well, when I returned to say that I was returning the pizza and wouldn't be accepting it (I hadn't eaten a single bite, other than the slivers of garlic I picked off to test), the goofy young guy behind the counter said "What do you mean? It's roasted... see? It's dark. It went in the oven."

I said "No. This is raw garlic. Sticking it in an oven for 8 minutes does not make it roasted garlic. You need to either take that off your menu or change the name to 'minced garlic', because this is not roasted garlic." He refused to accept that so finally I said "You know what, fine. I'll just dispute the charge on my card and tell the whole Internet how much you guys suck." Then he got quiet and found my receipt, handed me some cash back to leave.

I went to their website to try to send them an email with a link to a Google search for "roasted garlic" -- in which I don't see a single website showing a method where you take minced raw garlic and throw it on a pizza for a few minutes. Of course, their web skills are about as savvy as their pizza-making and garlic knowledge, so they have some crappy cookie cutter website provided by AT&T and, of course, no email address.

It really makes me wonder what their other toppings are like. Is the "fresh basil" actually dried basil? Is the "bacon" actually Baco-Bits?

Sad. There are only a few pizza places in Napa that I know of, but I think I'll stick to $5 pizzas from Little Caesar's (at least I know what I'm getting and it doesn't involve paying $20 for a bunch of attitude and crappy customer service) or maybe I'll try Browns Valley Pizza at some point...


Sorry for the delays in posting the daily excursions (as if anybody is reading this)... I canceled Comcast internet because they are horrible and I already had a mobile Verizon internet access via netbook. Which is great, but all of my photos are on my other computer and I had to wait for a new external HD to store and transfer my photos. That finally arrived, so I'm getting caught up on the posts.

Generally what I do is write the entries each day, typed in the computer but it doesn't feel right to post them without photos (a picture is worth 1000 words, right?) so I save the drafts and wait until I can get the photos added.

As it turns out, that was a time-consuming process and I still have about 18 days to post! But once I get caught up, I am going to try to stick to it on a daily basis. Shouldn't be impossible.

At the very worst, I will post them every few days...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Howell Mountain, Angwin, and Cade Winery

I was drawn to a corner of Napa Valley I had not visited yet, due to an enticingly-low priced home in St. Helena -- but technically in Deer Park, near St. Helena Hospital which is up Deer Park Rd. to the northeast of Silverado Trail. This home was priced at $299k (extremely cheap for St. Helena, where average homes are $800k+) and was described as a fixer-upper, but I was curious to see what extent. Also, I figured even if the home was awful (it was -- horrible, horrible nightmare of a place, people clearly living in squalor there. And they still owe over $500k on the mortgage!!), I would make a day of it because, even though I turn onto Deer Park Rd. every time I drive to Calistoga, I am cutting west to 29, not northeast up into the hills.

It happens that this is the route up to the Howell Mountain AVA, an up-and-comer (like Atlas Peak) mostly known for some rich and fruit-forward examples of cabernet sauvignon. This is also the region of Angwin, a very small town known for Pacific Union College and a lot of Seventh Day Adventists. We drove around Angwin a bit, just to see what it was like, and to be honest it had a strange, eerie vibe to it... like a closed, conservative community that eyes strangers warily. I don't know. A very different, secluded, otherworldly feeling from Napa Valley; it felt like something out of a Stephen King novel.

On the way back down the mountain, we decided to try a winery we had passed: Cade Winery. The sign said Appointment Only, but we figured we'd give it a shot; a lot of the newer wineries post this "By appointment only" requirement but don't really stick to it. And isn't that a bit of a gray area, anyway?? What's to stop me from driving in, seeing if they have room for us, and saying "Hello, I'd like to make a reservation for a tasting 5 minutes from right now."?

Well, it turns out that Cade Winery takes the cold and pretentious stance when it comes to things. There were several overly pretentious visitors hanging out (all of them at least 50 years old), and when we announced that we did not have a reservation but were curious, if they had room, we got a very cold reception and were told "They are very strict about that here, it is part of the laws." To which I said "Well, can I make a reservation for just about right now?" Yes, she said, it was $20 per tasting, and were we okay with that.

No, no we're not okay with that. We're not okay with the pretentiousness of a new (3 years old), unestablished winery assuming they can charge $20 per tasting without having that fee applied to or waived with a purchase. Out of curiosity, I checked their wine list and noticed it was mostly cabs, with the cheapest being $60. So let me get this straight: I have to pay $20 for something which may or may not suck, and then if I like it I have to pay $60 more to get a bottle? No thanks.

So... we left. The view up on Howell Mountain is nice, and faces west overlooking the valley so it could be pretty spectacular at sunset. However, between the spooky reclusive communities and the pretentious and sparse wineries, I wouldn't see much of a reason to come back up here. Most of the wineries located up here either do not do tastings, or have tasting rooms down in the valley (like La Jota, which tastes in Oakville). And Howell Mountain cabs tend not to be as good as other local appellations (like Rutherford, Oakville, and Stag's Leap) anyway, so why shell out the dough?

Monday, March 7, 2011


Yes, that's right: Wal-Mart. This is not to say I am endorsing it or encouraging you to go there. Quite the contrary. But... that is the "special Napa location" I got to visit for today. It wasn't "new" to me, other than the fact that they have put in a grocery section and this makes it an even more horrible experience, waiting in line behind people standing there with 7 kids (yes, seven. I come from a big family of five kids, but I find seven pretty excessive) with not one but TWO shopping carts filled with things like 6 boxes of laundry detergent and 8 cartons of orange juice. Seriously?? That's not shopping for a family, that's hunting and gathering for a TRIBE.

I haven't been to Wal-Mart (located at the corner of Soscol and Lincoln, just in case you want to stop by and see what the Gates of Hell look like) in years, partly because I completely do not agree with their policies as a company (union-busting, gender discriminating) but also partly because I fear for my life sometimes. And when I can get over those two, I can't get over the depression that sets in when I walk in and start to be convinced that people probably don't really have souls. And many certainly don't have brains (as I watch a man gleefully wheel a brand new 40" flat panel TV to his beater of a car that looks like it barely runs... ah, priorities)

The only reason I was here is because, for some odd reason, it happens to be the only place in Napa I could manage to find some arts and crafts supplies for my students' projects. I hope to never return again. The only positive I can say is that this really encouraged me to be the best person I can be in life, because being stuck in line at Wal-Mart pretty much seemed like eternal damnation, and it was terrifying. Instead of door greeters, they should post Cerberus at the front entrance.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Checkers in Calistoga

I'll be honest -- this isn't something new I did today, but it was a new experience for me this weekend. To continue the honesty: there was no way I was doing a single damned thing today, because my body hates me for what I did to it yesterday (seemed like a good idea at the time. I don't have any regrets, except for not sticking to 10 tastings despite the technical ability to procure more...)

While I was waiting for the pourings to begin, I was actually pretty hungry and figured I'd be better off if I had some food in my system (little did I know about those big $1 hot dogs down at CalMart), so I decided to pop into Checkers, a restaurant on Lincoln Ave (the main street through Calistoga) which I had often walked past but never been to. Something about the whimsical, casual, "diner-like" appearance of it always made me skeptical. But I'm glad I gave it a shot!

The place was nicer inside than I expected, and the menu also more interesting than I had anticipated. The butternut squash ravioli with roasted chicken sounded interesting, but I was in the mood for a sandwich so I went with the leg of lamb sandwich and it was really a good choice! First of all, they brought out some bread and it turned out to be focaccia -- which is often hit-or-miss; focaccia seems to often suffer from being stale, or overcooked, too dense or too chewy or too dry. Not here! This focaccia was super light, fluffy, spongey, and delicious... it might just be the best focaccia bread I have ever had.

Luckily, that's also what they serve their sandwiches on! (Sorry, no photo -- in retrospect I wish I had taken one, if just to show the delicious juiciness of the meat and fresh, pillowy softness of the focaccia. But I was starving and it was just too enticing to bother with photography.) This was a great way to eat leg of lamb -- the meat pre-sliced and ready to go, all juicy and dripping like it should be, but neatly piled on the bread, along with sauteed mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted garlic (so good), monterey jack cheese, mayonnaise, tomato, and lettuce. The sandwiches come with soup or salad, and I went with a basic salad which wasn't that great -- I have a feeling their soups are better -- but the sandwich itself was fantastic. I'll be back!

EDIT: I did go back for another lunch, and the leg of lamb sandwich was just so perfect that I didn't bother trying anything new -- except this time I got a cup of soup with it instead of salad. It was a white bean soup, and I was right: better than their salads. And I took a photo of the sandwich this time! Look at all that fluffy bread and roasted garlic...

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mustard, Mud, and Music Festival

Today marked the beginning of Calistoga's annual two-day "Mustard, Mud, and Music" weekend involving wine and mustard tastings and live jazz scattered at different venues throughout Calistoga.

In the 4 years I've been here, I've never attended, so today was the day! I figured parking might be crazy and I also figured I might be a little affected after wine tasting, so I took the Napa VINE bus (route 10 N, as usual) and was there in an hour, right before the festivities began at noon. Like many events around here, things were a bit confusing at first -- I saw people walking around with orange flyers about the event, and I saw officials (volunteers?) handing out information and informing people on the street. Yet... there were no signs anywhere or indications of where to go to get the admission ticket (which was actually a plastic wine cup and a bracelet with tear-off tokens for 10 wine tastings). Eventually one of the ladies told me to go to the "Chamber of Commerce" to purchase admission, yet the signs read "Visitor's Center", not Chamber of Commerce. Heck, I've worked here for 4 years and it's STILL this confusing, so I can only imagine what it felt like for tourists.

Being a local, I got a discount ($22.50; normally $30 per person) and headed out... music started up on the main stage soon enough at around noon, but the website about the event had been pretty vague about how it worked or when things were happening. Music started at noon but wine pouring wasn't officially happening until 1:30, so I wandered around quite a bit. However, it did give me a good chance to notice some of the shops and venues that I normally just walk right past and pay no attention to!

I can only presume that this is part of the purpose of the event: to draw people into the boutiques and shops and restaurants. Unfortunately for me, many of these are places I would never normally visit if they weren't pouring wine inside: "Mudd Hens" sells bath, spa, and beauty products; "Mud Puddles" being a clothing store for young children; "Sugardaddy's" and "Attitudes" being fashion boutiques; and "Ace Hardware" simply being a weird place to have wine, though this is one of the local establishments I've found a need to visit on occasion.

Wineries included many of the local tasting rooms but also several small-scale or custom-crush pourers who don't even have a tasting room, so I wanted to be sure to give some of those a try and figured I could save visiting the existing tasting rooms for another day. The wines I tried were: Envy Wines, Raymond Vineyards, Alienor, W.H. Smith Wines, Castello di Amorosa (because it's normally $25 to visit and taste, so I wanted to a sneak preview to see if it's even worth tasting there!), August Briggs, Madrigal Vineyards, Kenefick Ranch, Laura Zahtila, Bennett Lane, Casa Nuestra, Sterling Vineyards, and Tofanelli. I didn't bother with Chateau Montelena because I've tasted at the estate and, famous as they may be, the wine was not great (despite being way overpriced); Frank Family Vineyards was also pouring, and I do like their wines but have already tried them before.

Yes, I know that's more than 10 tastings. The fact of the matter is that they were not all collecting the tickets. Another fact of the matter is that I probably drank too much wine (the woman at the bus stop while I was waiting for my ride home kept looking at all of the swarms of people in disgust and talking to me about all of the "borrachos" -- "drunks"). I would say that the wines were overall hit or miss, with the best that I can remember were Kenefick Ranch 2006 Cabernet Franc, Bennett Lane cabernet Saugvignon, W.H. Smith Pinot Noirs, Alienor Sauvignon Blanc, and Casa Nuestra Symphony.

The free mustard sampling at CalMart was also a nice experience (supplemented by a big, juicy Saag hot dog on a stick at $1 each) -- plenty of different flavors here, with my favorites being Wine Country Honey Truffle, Wine Country Merlot Spice, Napa Valley Whole Grain, Good Housekeeping Apple and Spice, and CalMart's own Cherry BBQ and Sweet Onion and Bacon blends. The finale of the tasting booth was a wonderful cheese called "Red Dragon": a soft Welsh cheddar made with whole mustard seeds and brown ale (and, if I'm not mistaken, a hint of horseradish). It was delicious and I was sold on the spot -- went in ans bought a small wedge, even though it's not cheap at about $22 per pound. I also brought home jars of honey truffle and apple spice mustard.

As for music, it was certainly nice to have around... I didn't sit and concentrate on any one performer, other than spending about 10 minutes listening to Susan Sutton (keyboard and vocals, with accompanying upright bass) at the Brannan Cottage Inn, because it was a nice, relaxing, secluded environment and the mellow music was great to accompany some chilled-out wine sipping. I was also impressed by Bob Culbertson's fancy fingerwork on the "Chapman Stick", a string instrument in which you play notes with both hands simultaneously. In this way, it's like a guitar but almost played more like a piano. Culbertson was certainly a pro at it.

All in all, an enjoyable day and I'll probably try it again next year. I'll also be sure to ride the bus again, and possibly do fewer tastings and/or drink more water. Not sure which would be the solution, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to be hurting in the morning.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Osprey Seafood Market

I wouldn't expect anyone visiting Napa to cook their own food -- after all, this is home to The Culinary Institute of America, The French Laundry, and other world-class and Michelin-rated restaurants.

However, if you happen to like cooking your own meals and you like seafood (and you live here or have a vacation home or an extended stay with access to a kitchen), then there's a little place you might want to check out called Osprey Seafood Market.

This is a basic seafood shop, nothing fancy -- it's a small, no-frills building tucked off of Solano Rd (which runs parallel on the west side of Rt. 29 on the northern part of Napa). But they have a reasonable selection of seafood that you might not be able to find at one of the local grocery stores.

I was in the mood for cooking some seafood on the way home from work today, and I was originally thinking fish -- maybe a Moroccan-style monkfish with tiger prawns. But then I thought about lobster, which I haven't had in a while, and one minute later the Napa VINE 10S drove past Osprey, with a sign out for Maine lobster, $12/lb.

They did, in fact, have monkfish (not cheap at $18.95/lb, though) but I went with a live lobster ($15), took it home and steamed it in saltwater, served up with lemon butter (melted butter with juice of one lemon freshly squeezed into it) and a side of Trader Joe's "Polenta Provencale", spicy creamy polenta with spinach and peas. I couldn't decide on which wine to pair with it, but decided to base it off the polenta dish flavor rather than the lobster, so I went with the Ochoa 2003 Chardonnay I bought at his tasting room in Calistoga recently. This one has a bit of apple, some sweet flavor like toffee, and a little muskiness. There's oak there, but it's weird because I don't taste it but can definitely smell it. It turned out to be a good pairing.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Yo el Rey Roasting - Organic Coffee

This morning I had a seriously hankering for a shot of espresso. I considered going to the Calistoga Roastery, but there is another small, relatively new coffee place in town which I've walked past on several occasions and been somewhat curious about... and the nice thing is that it's on my walking route from the bus stop to the school, so I decided today was the day to give that one a try.

It's a small, minimalist place called Yo el Rey, tucked next to a beauty salon, which is right next door to the police station and the Sharpsteen Museum. I had assumed all along that it had a bit of a bohemian vibe (judging from the prominently displayed "Fair Trade Organic" signs), and boy was I right. The interior is sparsely decorated but consists of a few tables adorned with books about modern artists and animal rights -- the two I noticed were a Salvador Dali book and one about large-scale industrial raising of animals for food. The walls were decorated with some abstract paintings and had lines of poetry scrawled across them, all over the room, and there was some downtempo reggae/chillout music wafting from a couple of speakers tucked beneath the coffee counter.

I wouldn't say the Calistoga Roastery is "corporate", but Yo El Rey is even more bohemian; it feels more like the small hippie (and hipster) hangouts you might find dotted around Haight Street or Potrero Hill in San Francisco. If you have dredlocks and/or are a vegan, this is probably the place for you. But the atmosphere and (particularly) the organic free trade coffee comes at a price. The menu is more sparse and the prices higher here than at most coffee shops. I can normally get a shot of espresso for $1.50-$2.00, with 50 cents for an extra shot. At Yo El Rey, it's $2.50 for an espresso and $1 for an extra shot.

Considering that, I decided to go with a cappuccino, which was priced more on par with other places at $3.00. It was nicely made and I have to admit that the coffee had a good flavor (less "burnt" tasting than Starbucks and probably less so than Calistoga Roastery, as well)... it was served up with some sort of small cookie. Judging from the strange, brittle consistency of it, I can only conjecture that it was vegan and maybe even gluten-free, but I don't know.

Due to the prices, this won't be a regular hang-out for me, but I will probably be back whenever I am specifically in the mood for a cappuccino I can sip in a small, cozy setting surrounded by modern art and chilled music.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Before going to Pizzeria Tra Vigne, Sarah and I decided to pop into Merryvale. After all, why not? It's right there across the street, we were already early for dinner, and they were open for tasting.

Being a midweek weekday in the middle of the off season certainly shows here -- we were the only customers in the tasting room... kind of a strange feeling with a tasting room as large and spacious as this. Something about the whole setup here -- the large building, to its location right in St. Helena off of Highway 29, the fountain out front, the top 80's New Wave hits mildly playing in the tasting room -- all says "typical commercial Napa Valley winery" to me.

Having said that, the experience was still enjoyable. Our server, Kai (Ky?), was a no-nonsense sort of guy who looked like an ex-rugby player for New Zealand or perhaps a character in a Guy Ritchie film... he was laid-back but professional and answered any questions we had (such as whether it was normally such a ghost town, which I'm assuming is not the case on summer weekends!)

The wines were somewhat more interesting and memorable than I expected (because I had no expectations); for example, their syrah is from Carneros. For those who don't know, this is fairly unusual -- Syrah/Shiraz tends to be a warmer-climate grape, and Carneros is known for its cool-climate atmosphere, being closer to the San Francisco Bay and cooled by its breezes and fogs. Not surprisingly, this Syrah was different than many others I've tried... not as plummy and smoky, more light and almost somewhat citrusy, with flavor profiles I would much more expect from a white wine, like hints of orange blossom.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pizzeria Tra Vigne

There is a restaurant in St. Helena called Tra Vigne. I pass it every day on Highway 29, and considering my love of good Italian food (and the fact that it is extremely hard to find good Italian food), I've always been curious. I've heard it's good... it has a fairly established reputation, with associated "Tra Vigne" cookbooks and whatnot.

However, it's a typical Napa affair, requiring a little bit of planning -- a reservation and the willingness to spend some money. On the other hand, Tra Vigne has a sister restaurant right next door, a very casual affair: Pizzeria Tra Vigne. Pizzeria Tra Vigne bills itself as a casual spot, a locals joint... and the weird part is, this is true! It's hard to find local, casual spots that are still, at the same time, classy and have a little bit of sophistication.

But here we are: it's a weeknight and I showed up fairly early for dinner after Sarah offered to pick me up from my work, and this was on the way home and we were hungry. No reservation needed, we walked in and picked a table. By the end of our meal, the place was teeming with plenty of local families bringing their two or three boys each (how are they all boys???), who proceeded to wolf down slice after slice and bowls of pasta, to boot.
The focus here is, of course, pizza... thin-crust, brick oven Neapolitan style pizza, to be exact. And these pizzas have pretty reasonable prices. In addition, there are some interesting salads as well as a few other casual Italian fares: fried calamari, pasta, etc.

The typical toppings are all available, but what stood out to me are the special ones -- the one that most caught my attention was the "funghi" with crimini, shiitake, and beach mushrooms with fontina cheese and truffle oil... however, once I saw the "Positano" I knew that would be the one we'd have to get: crecsenza cheese, sauteed gulf shrimp, scallions, and fried lemons. Sarah is a lemon fanatic. It was pretty good -- the fried lemons on top are definitely what kept it interesting, though my curiosity for the funghi is still there for a return visit...

We got a large but, being a thin crust pizza, didn't know if that would be enough (it turns out that it definitely would have), so we also ordered a "piadine" as a starter. These piadine are like salads, but served on an oven-baked flatbread (basically, the pizza dough without anything on it). We got the Rocca, with roasted turkey, applewood bacon, field greens, feta, red onion, and cilantro aioli. It's a pretty nice alternative to a salad when you want more protein (from the meat) and more starchy bread (always good).

I'm not a big fan of big families with kids running everywhere, so I didn't really dig that vibe, but the food was good, the atmosphere casual, walk-in ability nice, and prices reasonable, so I'm sure I'll be back.