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written by Paul Franson from Napa Valley

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A week in Romania

Cakebread American Harvest Workshop


Jim Conaway visits


A party for George Starke


Dinner at Ovid Vineyards


Catalán Festival at Gloria Ferrer Winery


A visit to the castle with my grandkids

Wine and cheese with Janet Fletcher

Hall Art and Wine lunch

Our work-at-home lunch group

Auction Napa Valley – the main event

Auction dinner at Jarvis Winery

Barrel Auction and Marketplace at Auction Napa Valley

Wine Auction dinner at Schweiger Vineyards

150th anniversary at Charles Krug

Mike Grgich’s 35th anniversary

Pine Ridge dinner at La Toque

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival

A Night in Mendocino

Three Cheers for the Chef’s Market

1313 Main opens

Tasting Durrell Vineyards

Being a tour guide

Wandering around Napa

Farmers' Market returns to Napa!
Breakfast and golf at Silverado

Cooking Bottega

Dinner at Estate with Coldani olive oil

Twin flaps roil wine world

Should we know how much alcohol is in our wine?

We need better alternatives for transport

Is it over for Napa Valley?

Earth Day in Napa

Happy Birthday, Melodie

Chris Smith joins the Opera House

Lunch at NapaStyle with Napa Valley Vintners


Dinner at Bottega


Pizza at Ca’ Momi


Grapegrowers’ Bud Break conference


Gardens at Napa Valley restaurants


Women for WineSense birthday


Honors for Thomas Keller


Dinner with Brian Duncan at Piero


Thiebaud exhibit at St. Supéry



The NapaLife blog

I have so many interesting experiences and encounter so many interesting wines and foods that I’m finally writing this blog, which I hope to update  when something is worth reporting. It will be devoted to my passions: food, wine, travel and life in Wine Country.

For news as opposed to my experiences, see NapaLIfe, which you can subscribe to at

Paul Franson

Our Press Adventure to Lake County

July 2012

Lake County makes some great wine, and I’ve visited there many times. It’s the county north of Napa County, and in fact, was part of Napa until 1855 when it seceded. That’s understandable, for the two counties are very different, though I bet the grape growers and wineries there would rather still be part of Napa with its valuable reputation.

Lake lies over serious mountains, and most of the county is very mountainous and wild.

The only populated part are the towns ringing giant Clear Lake, the largest natural lake wholly contained in California (Lake Tahoe is bigger, but partly in Nevada). Clear Lake is about 19 miles long and 8 miles wide at the widest, but only has an average depth of 27 ft.

You have to drive through mountain passes to get there from Napa or Sonoma, though it has fairly easy access from Sacramento and Ukiah, not that you’re likely to be coming from Ukiah.

The local winegrape commission has invited me to Lake many times, and I’ve gone some of them, but it is a long if interesting drive. At least 1-1/2 hours, probably 2 hours from my home.

The latest time, they added an interesting inducement: They’d fly us up by seaplane, which could land in Clear Lake near Jim Fetzer’s Ceago Wine Garden, perhaps the only winery in America approachable by boat and seaplane.

I’d never flown in a seaplane, so it sounded intriguing. The only hitch: I had to drive to Sausalito – a hour in the wrong direction – to catch the plane.

I said, “Can’t you pick me up in Lake Berryessa or Vallejo?” though in truth neither is that much closer. (I later found that they can land in the Napa River at Moore’s Landing, by the way.)

No, it was Sausalito. Finally, I said, ok. If you can get some fun people like Leslie Sbrocco, Tina Caputo and Chris Sawyer to go along along, I’ll go.

Amazingly, these entertaining and charming writers (and TV personality in the case of Leslie) agreed, and the pr woman, Stacy Jacob, even got Ziggy the Wine Gal as a bonus. I didn’t know her as well, but she’s definitely A team material, too. In truth, I was the odd man out, old enough to be their father at least, and let’s leave it at that.

I should tell you a little about them, but first explain that I’m invited on many torus involving wine, food and travel. Most involve four to a dozen people, and there’s almost always one person on the trip that the others would happily vote off if they could. I’ve even informally advised friends arranging trips about who to invite – and who to we wary about.

I can say that this group was the dream team to me.

Leslie Sbrocco is the attractive host of Check Please on KQED TV as well as an author, founder of Thirsty Girl, frequent speaker (for good reason) and full of personality and energy. If someone could figure out how to tap her energy, she’d light up Sausalito. I’d been with Leslie to southern France and Northern Spain, and though I can’t keep up with her, she’s always fun. Even her husband admits that he can only take one press junket a year with her!

Tina is the cute editor of the trade magazine Vineyard & Winery Management, as well as a writer for and other media. She was formerly the top editor at Wines & Vines, and has worked for the Wine Institute and the San Francisco Chronicle. Though definitely not as – well, flashy – as Leslie, she’s also a lot of fun.


Ziggy the Wine Gal (Ziggy Eschliman) is the appealing well-known and lively radio host in Sonoma County as well as wine judge, consultant and popular speaker and MC. She’s also a lot of fun; together, the three are dangerous!


Chris Sawyer is a sommelier, writer and wine consultant. He was wearing two hats, as a member of the media and advisor to the Lake County Winegrape Commission on this tour.

Even if he’s a guy, Chris is also okay...

The fun starts

So on a dreary Monday morning, I headed south to Sausalito, arriving at the seaplane base at the head of Richardson Bay at 8:30 a.m. as directed. The others (except Chris, who drove) soon joined me.

The operator and pilot soon gave us some bad news. The plane was broken.

We walked outside and took a look. It was definitely broken. Apparently they landed a bit hard, and the strut attaching the pontoon to the fuselage folded.

More impressively, the strut poked a large hole in the thin aluminum skin.

It was clear that we weren’t going anywhere in that plane.

As it turns out, our guide, Lake County grower Peter Molnar, was a little late and was reported to be arriving with a van to drive us to Lake County. (He lives in the East Bay).

The four of us agreed that that didn’t make sense. The whole idea was to fly by seaplane  but we decided it would be polite to wait for him.

In the meantime, I pulled out the bottle of JCB brut rosé bubbly I had brought along for the flight and the classy plastic “glasses,” and we each had a few pops.

Since no one had eaten much, the wine quickly worked its magic.

By the time Peter arrived, he had somehow arranged an alternate flight, this from Petaluma (where two of our party lived!).

We agreed to go, and drove to the Petaluma airport, where we intended to have much-needed breakfast, it being about 9:30. The plane wouldn’t be ready for about an hour.

Unfortunately, the diner at the airport was closed, but Tina remembered a restaurant at a nearby golf course.

When we got there, we found the restaurant was closed, but they had a bar that served hot dogs and beer, and it was open.

Beer – that’s made of the same stuff as toast. And hot dogs are like sausage. That was breakfast. They were the biggest hot dogs I’ve ever seen. Some of us had Bloody Marys so we got out fruit juice, too, and I think someone order coffee.

We almost collected a cute and lively young woman visiting the bartender, but she decided not to join us. I bet she still regrets it.

Soon we returned to the airport and were ushered into a swank two-engine prop plane from King Air. The pilot had flown around Elvis Presley’s crew, and the copilot was a attractive young woman.

In truth, it was a lot nicer than the seaplane, and we were soon on our way. At 350 knots, we got there in 20 minutes, but circled the lake before we landed.
Unfortunately, it was fairly overcast so we couldn’t see much – and the wings were below my windows. I had earlier visited in Jerry Brassfield’s helicopter, which is even better since you can land where you want and hover for better views.

From the small airport in Kelseyville, it was a short drive to Ceago Winegarden, a lovely winery on the lake. Jim Fetzer has sold his vineyards in Mendocino County (The family sold Fetzer Vineyards many years ago and it’s now owned by Concha y Toro.).

The team; Shannon Gunnier from the Lake County Winegrape Commission, grower and guide Peter Molnar, Leslie Sbracco, Jim Fetzer, Tina Caputo, Ziggy the Wine Gal’s back and Chris Sawyer’s hair.

Ceago has about 50 acres of grapes, a killer hospitality center Fetzer plans a small lodge and vacation homes.

For a while, they had a café at lunch, but it was overwhelming so they stopped. Such a problem!

We, however, did enjoy a nice lunch and tastes of his excellent wines as well as a discussion of Biodynamic growing and a visit to the pit where he buries the infamous cow
horns used in that regime.

After lunch, we headed southeast along the north shore of Clear Lake, an attractive drive where we could see stark Mount Konocti, a former volcano, rising above the southern shore of the lake.

We were headed for Brassfield Vineyard in the little-known High Valley north of Clear Lake Oaks, a town that has seen better days.

High Valley is an unusual “hanging bowl,” a peaceful valley up in the mountains at 1,600 to 3,000 feet. Though parts of Lake County can be pretty warm, this place isn’t. They can grow Pinot and Riesling in the cool valley, though the south-facing outer slopes are perfect for hot-weather varieties.

Brassfield is a “Napa” type winery, beautiful and designed to appeal to the eye as much as the taste.

The wines we tasted was excellent, of course, and we were promised more at dinner.

We didn’t have time to drive up and into the small extinct volcano in the valley, though it’s neat to drive into its caldera and even picnic there.

We also couldn’t visit Clay Shannon’s impossibly steep vineyards there, some planted from cuttings from Zinfandel vines brought over from Slovenia 135 years ago – and still alive.

Next, we circled scruffy Clearlake on the southeastern shore of the lake, reportedly the meth capital of California where 40 percent of the residential streets aren't paved, and headed for Red Hills.

Red Hills is an appellation that’s ground center for Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties in Lake County, but also excellent for Rhône and Spanish varieties. The high-altitude (1,400 feet to 3,000 feet; all Lake County vineyards are high altitude since they’re above the lake at 1,329 ft.) and rocky volcanic soils rich in iron are ideal for growing red wine grapes – and land is much cheaper than in Napa or Sonoma, even Mendocino.

Tina discussed Obsidian Ridge Vineyards well. We also visited adjacent Snow’s Lake Vineyard, all impressive, and tasted wines made from grapes grown by these growers.

An aside at this point: This trip was organized by the winegrape commission, not wineries, so we were thankfully spared the inevitable tour of bottling lines and endless samples of wines from barrel. All the participants are pros who have visited hundreds of wineries and don’t need that treatment – unless the winery is really different. And I’m not that interested in barrel samples. I’ve done that enough. I want to know what the finished, available wines taste like.

We were running a little late after the problem with the seaplane, so skipped the last visit to taste their wines at dinner.

Soon we completed out circumnavigation and arrived at the best – really the only upscale – hotel in Lake County. The Tallman Hotel was built in the 1890s, virtually abandoned, and recently lovingly restored. The small hotel shares a patio with the Blue Wing Saloon, the best place to eat in the county.

They’re in Upper Lake, a small town with an interesting if compact main street with a number of antique and craft shops, tasting rooms and other attractions.

On Monday night, amazingly, the Blue Wing Saloon was jumping with a band and big crowds. It’s the same way on weekends.

We were arbitrarily assigned rooms, but I was happy to bequeath my room with a Jacuzzi tub to Ziggy as I’m a shower guy. This shower was quite challenging, however, with arms that encircled you with water and many valves to adjust.

Dinner was thankfully in the adjacent banquet room (which isn’t very big; the hotel only has 17 rooms, some in cottages) so we could hear. A number of local growers were there, some with their own wines, some with those made by customers. We had fine lamb from grower Shannon which we enjoyed with a wide assortment of wines.

For me, it was then off to a little reading and bed, but I know the younger crowd closed the bar. I used to do that…

The next morning, after a short stop at –– vineyard in Big Valley near Kelseyville by northwestern Clear Lake  (The lake is at a SE-NW angle), we hopped on the sleek silver bird for the 23-minute trip to Petaluma.

It was great. A one-day trip that taught us a lot and I suspect generated a fair amount of ink (or bits). We’re all busy, and value efficiency, though that doesn’t mean any of us would turn down a trip to Tuscany and a spa treatment there or two.


If you visit: Do stay in the Tallman Hotel in Upper Lake. The north shore of Clear Lake around Lakeport is very nice, and there are some pleasant places to stay in Nice and Lucerne, too, and a number of budget chain places around. The Konocti Casino and Resort remain closed.

Another winery to visit is Vigilance Vineyard on rolling hills overlooking the lower end of Clear Lake.

Butts Canyon Road from St. Helena via Pope Valley is lonely but less harrowing than going over Mount St. Helena on Highway 29, where the road is clogged with RVs and trucks pulling boat trailers.

A week in Romania

Aug. 28, 2011


Recently, on a Monday I got an email asking me if I’d like to go on a wine trip to Romania the following Sunday.


That’s not a lot of time to prepare for such as trip – and deal with the things I was supposed to do during that week – but I quickly accepted.


It turned out that one write had fallen out of what was the first trip by a group of US writers to visit the country’s renewed wine business.


I wrote some articles on the wine business aspects of the trip (One will be in the Napa Valley Register, another in Wine Business Monthly), but thought I’d share some personal aspects.


I realize that my complaints won’t get much sympathy from people who'd like to travel, but going on these trips is not having a vacation.


First was an 11½-hour flight to Frankfort squeezed into coach with terrible food. Fortunately, I was on the aisle; I don’t sit still well.


Then a 3-hour layover and a 2-hour flight to Bucharest.


My first flight was at about 2 p.m., and I don’t sleep on planes. Romania is 10 hours ahead, so we arrived in the late afternoon the next day without me sleeping.I was exhausted.


The hotel was a beautifully restored place in the heart of town, and was modern and spotless, with WiFi in the room (very important these days). The shower was very high-tech. I had trouble figuring out the controls but finally mastered it. I also got a couple hours rest.


Then we went to dinner. The hostess from the PR company and  two women writers missed connections in London, so it was just the three men, Tim Teichengraeber, a nice writer I know from San Francisco, another writer and me. A guide from the agency hosting us led us to a famous typical Romanian restaurant a few blocks away over sidewalks that were all torn up for improvement.


The other writer had been to Romania before, and spent the week telling us what he knew. He also invited a couple of Romanian journalists to join us without asking the host. What could the host say? They were interesting journalists, though feeding them probably wasn't in the budget for US writers!

The other writer didn’t want to accept the meal of typical Romanian specialties arranged as a welcome for us, and he insisted on beer instead of Romanian wine. He was a pain the whole trip, including wearing weid basketball shorts to the business meetings and ripping off his shirt at pit stops to soak up the sun and show off his physique.


We did get a lot of food at the meal. The appetizer plate of Turkish-type food (Romania was long part of the Ottoman empire) and middle-European specialties was tasty and plenty for me, but the food kept coming. I don’t remember all, but I do know that we all refused the dessert.


After dinner, the others wandered around the streets and alleys of the old town, but I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed. I overshot a turn, however, and when I realized I was lost, a nice hooker offered her help. She walked me a block back to my turn, then asked if I wanted company. She graciously accepted my answer than I was tired and wanted to go to sleep, but asked for a few lei (Romanian currency) for cigarettes. I only had Euros, but that was enough.


The next morning, we met the rest of the group, had a nice breakfast – every hotel we stayed at had eggs sunny side up, which I’ve never encountered in Europe at breakfast before, checked out (We would return to that hotel twice more) and piled on the minibus.


Along with out guide Christian (Our other guide was also named Christian), we met a nice lady who apparently audited costs for the government agency that sponsored the trip and a man from an anti-fraud group. Both spoke decent English and were very nice, but it was an odd addition.


A large part of Romania around Bucharest is flat and frankly boring. It’s filled with sunflower and corn fields as far as you can see.


After a few hours drive, we got to the first winery, Murfatlar, the largest in Romania, about noon. They gave us a tour of an interesting museum of Romanian wine – it goes back a long way – then a tour of the large and well-equipped winery and a tasting. By 3:30 p.m., even with the time change, I was getting weak from hunger. They finally took us to a company-owned restaurant nearby and served typical Romanian specialties.


The food was generally good, just too much. I do remember noticing the stuffed grape leaves, which weren’t stuffed with rice as I prefer or ground  lamb, but brains. I got some grief from the more adventuresome writers but aside from a suspicion of neural tissue going back to mad cow days, there was plenty else to eat.


After lunch, we drove an hour or so to our hotel, a very nice resort on the Black Sea. Dinner was a disaster. Someone had ordered a meal of chicken – on the sea – and it took hours to get them to agree to change it to fish. Clearly, the hotel wasn’t impressed with having a bunch of journalists eating there.


The next morning, we got on the bus for what was supposed to be a 2½-hour drive, but it took five before we got to Halewood Romania winery about two. We were in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, but never got into them. Again, a tour, then lunch at 3 p.m. and a stand-up tasting of innumerable wines. It’s difficult to take good notes in such an informal setting.


At about 6 p.m., we were exhausted and ready to go, but the winemaker, who was very proud of her vines and wines, tricked us into driving forever to vineyards and tasting more wine, which took two hours more. Fortunately, she and the marketing manager were charming. Then it was back to the same hotel in Bucharest.


We had dinner in a classic old Romanian restaurant overlooking the ruins of one of the castles of Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Impaler), called Count Dracula. He had nothing to do with vampires or werewolves; that was Bram Stoker’s doing.

Again, we were offered typical Romanian food, but I just ordered a salad after the impressive appetizers. We were serenaded by a classic group of accordion, zither, guitar and bass, which made it tough to talk! They learned we were Americans and played suitable songs for tips, though I would have gladly paid them to go away.


The next morning, we had to be on the van at 5:30 a.m. for a flight across the country to Timasoura. The van driver (with a helper) drove all night to get there – after a day of driving and one to come.


We got into the town at 8:15 a.m., then had to kill time until out 12:30 appointment. No one seemed to know why we hadn’t just taken the flight that arrived at noon.


downtown Timisoara

The downtown mall at Timasoura facing the Orthodox catherdral where the 1989 revolution began.

We got a tour of the local farmers’ market, the downtown – where the revolution that overturned Communism started in 1989 – and the Orthodox cathedral, and then a shopping mall. I especially enjoyed the giant hypermarket, which was Dean and Deluca, Whole Foods and Costco times ten. I wish I could have brought back half the store.



Phillip and Elvira Cox at Cramele Recas

When we got to Cramele Recas, our host, entertaining Brit Phillip Cox and his delightful Romanian wife Elvira, immediately fed us a light but tasty meal of primarily appetizers, then gave us a short tour and a well-organized tasting. He also gave us a tour overlooking the vineyards, which was useful to see the scope, but only made us make one stop – it was close to 100 degrees that day.


He and his wife were to meet us at a charming inn in a park an hour later.

Unfortunately, the map we had didn’t distinguish between Bazos and old Bazos, and it took us two hours over terrible roads to get to the right place after backtracking. Fortunately, our hosts were warned so didn't ahve to wait


The inn was nice, but no WiFi and no air-conditioning, but it cooled off pretty well at night.


The restaurant featured gourmet Italian food, and was excellent, as were the host’s wines. We also heard the hostess’ story of being involved in the revolution, as she was in college in 1989. A (required) member of the militia, she was issued a machine gun and instructed to shoot fellow protesters. Of course like other Romanians, she didn’t.


The next day was the worst. It was a long drive anyway, and the guide took a wrong turn (not necessarily his fault, as the maps were suspect), and we drove literally three hours on some of the worst roads I’ve ever seen. The driver went no more than 5 to 10 mph part of the time to avoid damaging the van, and we were in the middle of nowhere. We did pass two hovels where people were obviously living a subsistence life.


To make things worse, the drive had to stop in the middle and rest for a half hour. All commercial drivers there have cards that record their driving, and can’t drive more than four hours at a stretch.


With the usual underestimating of time and the execrable roads, we got to the next winery, Carl Reh-Crama Oprisor, about four hours late. Fortunately, they fed us – also a relatively light buffet – and must have found us ill-mannered as we wolfed down the sustenance.


Veronica Gheorghiu

Chief winemaker Veronica Gheoghiu at Carl Reh Vineyards

After eating, we got a tour. The winemaker, like at least half we visited – was a woman. She was rather cute and I kept trying to take a picture of her smiling, but she was very serious and wouldn't smile.


They also has an Aussie consulting winemaker who had just arrived a few days before to help with harvest, and his observations were most useful. Basically, the better wineries have modern facilities and well-managed replanted vines, and just need to know how to make modern wines. Many of the wineries we visited had Australian, French and Spanish consultants or winemakers, in fact.


After the tour (and late lunch), we had a bizarre wine and food pairing tasting more suited for novices than old hands. The chef paired the wines with food with sweet tastes, mostly fruit. That would be fine with traditional sweet Romanian wines, but not these dry wines.


Then into the van for a few hours, arriving late at a nice winery guesthouse where they fed us a fine, but completely unwanted, meal prepared by a French chef. We had hoped for a few appetizers and bed, but ended up talking latewith our host, Mihai Anghel, owner of Domeniul Coroanel Sagarcea, and his son, who had attended Boston University.


The next morning, we visited the Anghel's impressive vineyard and restored and expanded former royal cellar. The owner reminded me of many I’ve met here. He made a lot of money in other businesses, and is trying to sell his wines at higher prices than most of the other wineries.


He gsve us a two-hour tour of his impressive vineyards, where I swear we stopped and looked at every grape.


After a short tour, we had another awkward stand-up tour, this one with overly complex, inappropriate but impressive appetizers created by the French chef.


The owner’s wife, a former doctor, is the winemaker, and does well, and their son, who were to Boston University, is learning the business.


We didn’t need lunch after the appetizers, so got in the van again for a long drive to Bucharest and the same hotel again.


Dinner that night was at another classic Romanian restaurant, this time with a very loud and happy wedding above us (we were in a cellar) and outside. Our hosts this time were from Senator and understood our needs and spoke excellent English. I had the stuffed cabbage rolls after the appetizers. They are wrapped with fermented cabbage leaves – like unshredded sauerkraut. I liked them.


My plane didn’t leave until 2 p.m. the next day, so it was a long day. Fortunately, there were no glitches – those in our party trying to get to New York were vexed by Irene – and I was even in economy plus, with extra legroom. It was a United flight from Frankfort, and though they charge for wine on overseas flights (unlike European airlines), the food was pretty good and the flight attendants pleasant.


I’ve been back a week now, and I still feel as if my body hasn’t gotten back to local time. Otherwise, it was an interesting trip. Rougher than most junkets, but we were the first…


American Harvest Workshop

Aug. 19, 2011


While Napa Valley is obviously about wine, it’s increasingly one of America’s centers for food. The fine restaurants are obviously an important reason for this renown, but so are the food programs at wineries.


One of the most influential has been the Great Chefs’ Program at Robert Mondavi Winery, but the American Harvest Workshops at Cakebread Cellars.


For 25 years, Dolores and Jack Cakebread and their winery have brought promising chefs to the winery to learn about wine, producing meals from local food and Wine Country cuisine. Most of these chefs are no longer promising. They’re well established, and the crème of America’s chefs.


Dolores also invites a few members of the media to attend the workshops. Their function is to observe, learn and act as scullery help. I have been fortunate enough to attend twice, which is twice as much as I probably should have, but both have been among the most memorable experiences I’ve had since I moved to Napa Valley and started writing about wine and food 15 years ago.


One experience stands out. Being from Montgomery, I was happy to meet a young chef from Birmingham, Frank Still. I remember him saying, “I’m going to go back home and encourage some farmers to start growing food for us.”


It happened, and Frank is now one of America’s best-known chefs. He’s been so successful that not all the articles about him start with a comment about being in Birmingham, which, by the way, is now a leader in medicine and a pretty open city.


This year, Cakebread invited all the chefs who has attended to return and 50 accepted. One part of their visit was a gathering where each showed off a special creation to pair with Cakebread wine. They were heavily oriented toward meat, especially game, which most chefs prefer (They’re often privately unkind in their characterizations of vegetarians and especially vegans.)


I also attended a seminar about wine and cheese pairing led by cheese guru Janet Fletcher. The wines Cakebread chose, Chardonnay and Cabernet, wouldn’t have been my first choices – Cakebread’s superb Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir would have been – but it’s always interesting to taste cheese with wine in an organized manner. I can’t find my notes, but I’d recommend you take a session with Janet (or another cheese expert) if you haven’t. The biggest message: In spite of convention, most cheeses go better with whites, especially crisp ones like Sauvignon Blanc, than big reds.


Needless to say, the food and company was remarkable. Many thanks to Dolores, Jack, who couldn’t attend, and Bruce and Dennis for this wonderful program.


Jim Conaway visits

Aug. 18, 2011


Jim Conaway, author of Napa: America’s Eden, and the Far Side of Eden, has been a friend since he called to disagree with something I had written about his books. (He was right, by the way.)


Napa is the most insightful book ever written about the Valley, too insightful for many people. No one even points out mistakes, but many complain than he wrote about things they thought he shouldn’t have. Unfortunately, many learned the difference between wine writers, who mostly try to stay in the good graces of vintners so they have access to wine, events and news, and journalists who just want to report the story. It also helps to live elsewhere and not run into agitated subjects in Sunshine or Safeway!


In the last few years, Jim’s interests have been more in preservation and travel writing and he visits here regularly. His last book was Vanishing America, and he devotes a chapter to Napa Valley.


He also has a novel set in Northern California coming out; he promises it won’t be a roman à clef. And he paints.


He was here recently visiting his daughter in Berkeley with his wife Penny, and invited some friends over for dinner. They included city councilmember Juli Inman and her husband John Poole, Clay Gregory of the Destination Council and Todd and Diana Zapolski, whose Alexander Crossing project was approved by the city, but is now being challenged by NIMBY neighbors.


Todd is interested in buying the Town Center if the experience of dealing with Napa interests doesn’t discourage him, but we couldn’t really talk about sensitive subjects. Nevertheless, the dinner reminded me of thoughtful evenings in Boston and elsewhere where most of the talk wasn’t about wine and food!


A party for George Starke

Aug. 4, 2011


Few writers in Napa Valley are more beloved than George Starke.

George, a former geologist, wrote the popular column Up and Down the Wine Road for the St. Helena Star for 22 years, weekly at first, then every other week.


George, who is 89, and his wife Bette seem to be at every social and industry event in the valley, and he chronicled the events, also sometimes taking gentle digs where appropriate.

The Star’s publisher decided to change some of his content, and in the process, George lost his slot.


Fortunately, Sasha Paulsen, the feature editor of the Napa Valley Register, found a place for George’s column. It now appears every other week alternating with my column. Mine is on wine business, however, his is more social.


George truly made lemonade after being squeezed out of the Star, for the Register has a much larger circulation – and far more events are relevant to it than the Star.


To celebrate his new gig, photojournalist Chuck O’Rear and his wife, writer Daphne Larkin, invited a number of George’s writer friends to a pot luck dinner at their home in St. Helena

.George party.jpg

 Dinner celebrating George and Bette Starke (That's him at the far end of the table).

We also brought wine, of course, and George contributed a well-aged and remarkable Araujo Cabernet.


With that collection of writers, we agree that our discussions would be off the record, and it’s just as well, for a lot of people in the valley would be squirming if they knew of our remembrances. It started gently., then moved to local scoundrals, and finally degenerated into stories of unsolved murders – Pierce Carson reported on the Zodiac murder at Lake Berryessa, for example, but I unfortunately couldn’t talk about my service as an alternate juror on the Fagiani grand jury.


It should be noted than Chuck and Daphne have a gorgeous new coffee table book called Napa Valley: The Wine, the Land and the People that’s the perfect present for friends from outside the valley.


I first met Chuck in the early ‘80s when I had just started a public relations agency in Silicon Valley, and Chuck was a photographer for National Geographic visiting to do the first big popular story on the valley. He featured one of my clients, a man with a huge ego. That did me a world of good with the client. That week.


Dinner at Ovid Vineyards

July 28, 2011



I’d had wonderful tastes of Ovid wines a number of times, and general manager Janet Pagano, a familiar figure in Napa Valley, has been encouraging me to visit. Finally, they created an event and that got me up there.


Ovid is on the hill/mountain above Miner Family and Oakville Ranch, but you can’t get there that way until you climb. Cars have to sneak up the back way, going way past to Sage Canyon Road, then winding around Lake Hennessy and heading up a long but interesting private road.


Eventually, you reach the relatively small but impressive winery. It’s not far from Stagecoach Vineyard in Foss Valley (Atlas Peak AVA) but you can’t get there, either, as a deep canyon blocks the way.


The views from the winery are most impressive, and you can see a huge swath of the valley, though it’s surprising where you’ve ended up.


Ovid is owned by couple Dana Johnson and Mark Nelson, who worked together at a startup software company called Ovid Technologies founded by Nelson. They sold it in 1998 and moved here.


Ovid is named after the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote Metamorphosis about transformation, an appropriate name for a winery that transforms grapes into wine.


The winery is dramatic and made from recycled materials. It’s cleverly thought out, and grapes can be dumped directly into open-topped fermenters in the cellar.


ovid tank

The retro concrete tanks at Ovid Vineyards.

The fermenters are a surprise: most are 850-1,700-gallon concrete-stone tanks built in, and some are large oak vats. They contain chilling coils.


The oak barrels used for storage are on rollers, and can be rotated regularly; the wine is racked back into the same barrel using gas pressure.


The winemaker is Austin Peterson, with Andy Ericson acting as winemaking consultant. David Abreu tends the 15-acre vineyard, which was thick with rocks and boulders before preparation..


What’s important, however, is the wine. The winery only makes one wine – sort of. The wine is called Ovid, and it’s impressive. Not over the top, but rich, balanced and powerful, it’s drinkable young but ages well. We tried the 2007 and 2008, which I suspect will have long lives ahead. The retail prices ranges above $200, and it’s not easy to find. Too bad so few people will get a chance to enjoy it..


We also tried barrel samples of 2010, but I’ve concluded that I’m not interested in barrel samples. They’re too young and not the final blend in most cases, so note representative of the wine. I’d rather than finished wined for sale now; that’s what most people get.


Nevertheless, winemakers love to offer visitors barrel samples, sometimes dozens of them – fortunately not here.


The winery makes a few experiments, too, generally of the components they use for the final blend, such as E0.4, from the young vines in 2004 and K1.5, Cabernet Franc from 2005 with some Petite Verdot blended in.


I might mention that Morgan Robinson of Smoke Open Fire caterer prepared the meal, which consisted on antinpasti, a magnificent squash blossom risotto and steak Florentine prepared perfectly, which is rare and rarely done right, plus chocolate pot de crème. Quite a feast – and the calories are why I tend to skip these dinners!


Ovid doesn’t accept visitors (except in the trade or its known buyers, but you can find more information at



Gigantes, tradtional Catalonian figures at Gloria Ferrer

Catalán Festival at Gloria Ferrer Winery

July 24, 2011


I generally skip the innumerable festivals at wineries – you can only eat and drink so much! – but never miss the Catalan Festival at Gloria Ferrer winery in western Carneros (Okay, Sonoma).


That’s partly because I’ve had the chance to visit Catalonia and its capital Barcelona a number of times, once with Ferrer general manager Eva Bertran (Thirsty party girl Leslie Sbracco was also along on that trip, but that’s another story!)


Ferrer paella

It’s also because I love the food from Catalonia – and the Ferrer wines. They also have great entertainment.

This year was a delight, for it wasn’t stinking hot as it usually is. Even if it is next year, I recommend the Catalan festival highly.

I think Napa would be a great candidate for wine-friendly Spanish food from Barcelona, though Catalonian’s barely consider themselves ‘Spanish’, the Basque country (they're not Spanish either!) or other parts of Spain.

ZuZu in Napa serves tapas, of course, and is getting quite a reputation for its paella, though the original from Valencia (where the people speak a variation of Catalán) is simpler than the overloaded versions typically served here at parties.

castelloA Visit to the Castle with my Grandkids

July 19, 2011

Since I had taken my oldest granddaughter to Italy two years ago, where we visited a number of impressive castles, I suddenly realized I hadn’t taken my youngest two to our castle. It was time for a visit to Castello di Amorosa.


I arranged reservations for what I hoped would be a relatively cool day and we lucked out.


cindyArriving at 10 a.m., we (my daughter and son-in-law came, too) collected our tickets, then were greeted by our guide, Cindy, who was everything you could hope for in a guide (and attractive, too!) We were in a regular your; the only concession to the kids was a promise to be discreet in the dungeon.


We started in the chapel, where traditional Catholic mass is celebrated each Sunday. It’s for real; women have to wear coverings on their heads. And contrary to rumors, no weddings are allowed in the chapel, though I don’t believe the county could prohibit them in a consecrated church even in the Ag Preserve, as this is.


Cindy gave us the background, and while she was talking about him, owner Dario Sattui happened in on the way back from exercise. Looking very fit, he greeted us and wished us a great tour.


Most people here are familiar with his story. Arriving here with very little money, he decided to resurrect the memory of his grandfather Vittorio Sattui’s old winery in San Francisco before Prohibition closed it.


Cleverly finding a property zoned commercial, he started V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena, initially selling relabeled wine made by others. He added a deli – the only one at a winery in Napa Valley (at least until one opens in the city of Napa) – and the rest is history.


Unbridled by snobbishness, he sold, and eventually made, wines that the customers wanted. Since most wineries in Napa Valley didn’t offer the sweet wines about a third of the population prefers, he did.


Now, his sweetish red Napa Gamay is the most popular wine, with Rieslings, Moscatos and Gewürztraminers also very popular. But he also makes traditional dry wines. Since the wines are only sold direct to consumers, critics ignored them for years. Once  they realized that that’s also true of some top-rated cult wines, the critics have  finally started ranking V. Sattui’s wines, many of the wines made by winemaker Brooks Painter have received excellent scores.


I concur, though I also like some of the off-dry and even sweet wines – but can’t get excited about those sweet reds (which are becoming very popular with consumers all over America, by the way).


Anyway, the business was very successful, and Dario bought a large Victorian mansion in Calistoga on a large piece of land that happened to come with the last full tasting and touring permit and a 150,000-case capacity ever issued in Napa County.


Though vines had been grown on the hilly site, the winery hadn’t been built, so Dario decided to build an 8,000-sq.-ft. Tuscan villa winery honoring his Italian heritage (The family was actually from Liguria, like most San Francisco Italians.)


As they says, it got out of hand. Eight years and an estimated $35 million later, Castello di Amorosa crowns the hill, overlooking well-tended vines and the Napa Valley with Sterling’s Greek monastery on a nearby knoll.


I’ve been to many castles in Spain, France and especially Italy, and this one is amazingly authentic looking. Dario imported workmen and materials from Europe, and apparently, just sort of let it evolve. There was no overall mater plan – just as was true of many castles in Europe.


One of the interesting touches in places he built, then tore down and rebuilt in another style and materials, as is typical.


Anyway, after the talk, we started the tour. We walked past the courtyard set up for Festival del Sole concerts, then to a tower where we could see the valley.


Then we visited the very modern winery – they were unloading some chic concrete egg-shaped fermentation tanks, the newest fad in the business – and headed down into the depths of the castle.


Lars, 8, and Annika, almost 10, were quiet, but drank it in. Lars is a serious history buff, and has many books on history in his growing library plus a number of model castles. They attend Stone Bridge School, which makes sure they learn history as well as other subjects, too, and the school has reenactments with wooden swords and costumes.


The castle is huge, and it seemed that we walked forever, ending at an exhibit of old armor and weapons, then went into the dungeon. Cindy toned down the gore for the kids and I was worried that it might bother them, but Lars announced that he knew all about that stuff anyway.


Then to the tasting in a private room. We tried about half a dozen wines, and considering the weather, I stuck to the lighter wines. I was impressed by the Pinot Bianco, dry Gewurztraminer and off dry Moscato. The rosato of Sangiovese and Merlot was fine, too, but the regular Sangiovese needed food – as Chianti does in Italy.


Cindy gave the kids Gewurz grape juice and coloring pages., but eventually Lars complained – “Too much wine. Not enough castle.”


He would have preferred more time in the dungeon, but I couldn’t have figured out how to get back there anyway.


We bought some wine and a 3D paper model of a castle and some other books and left, having had a great time.


On the way back, we stopped at Armadillo in St. Helena. The Gringo Mexican food was tasty and perfect for the kids.


A guided tour through the castle and winery followed by a tasting of five of wines is $32 and a private tasting of six wines including reserve wines is $42 including entrance fee).


Tour fees per child, ages 5-20, are $22 (includes juice and entrance fee).


Entrance without a tour including tasting is $17. Entrance fees for children and young adults are $7 per child and young adults 4 years to 20 years.


The castle offers a 50 percent discount with photo ID for residents of Napa Valley (I assume really the county).


Tours for locals are offered Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to noon (excluding holidays). Call 967-6272 for reservations.

janetWine and cheese with Janet Fletcher

July 7, 2011


I’ve attended more wine tastings than I care to remember, and many have included cheese, but I’d never taken a formal cheese and wine pairing class until last week.


Someone had to cancel attending Janet Fletcher’s "Cheese Meets Wine" class held monthly at Back Room Wines, and I was able to attend. (I’m a terrible procrastinator and the classes always sell out before I can commit.)


These 90-minute guided tastings of great cheese with fine wine help illustrate what works together and what doesn't, and you'll improve your tasting skills. She serves six exceptional cheeses with four wines chosen by Back Room Wines proprietor and wine expert Dan Dawson.


cheese and wineJanet lives in Napa, and is well known to many as a cheese expert; she’s written two books about cheese, The Cheese Course and Cheese & Wine: A Guide to Selecting, Pairing, and Enjoying, and has penned a weekly column on cheese for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2002. These “Cheese Course” columns are accessible online with detailed descriptions of more than 300 cheeses plus recommended wines.


Janet discovered farmers’ markets and the pleasures of the table as a college student in Provence. Shelving plans for business school, she enrolled in cooking school instead and eventually spent two years as a cook at Chez Panisse, time that shaped her taste, honed her skills and nurtured her interest in fresh produce, small-farm issues and traditional foods.


The classes can accommodate only 12 people, and a few familiar faces were at the one I attended, including  Jill Hough, herself a cookbook author.


Janet started out by pointing out that people’s tastes differ. “We won’t agree on everything,” she said.

Cheese has certain similarities to wine: It comes in many varieties affected by the source of the milk (cow, sheep or goat), the pasture (terroir), bacteria that forms the cheese, molds, storage and age.

When paired with wine, however, it tends to dominate. “Wine doesn’t change the flavor of cheese that much,” Janet points out. “It has full flavor and is full of fat.”


Confounding some stereotypes, she says that intensity is the first rule of matching. “Match intense cheese to intense wine and mild cheese to mild wine.”


She gave as examples pairing fresh goat cheese with Chenin Blanc, or blue cheese with port.


You might also want to match the texture. Cheese can be creamy, crumbly, granular, buttery or waxy.


Sometimes you want to contrast characteristics, sometimes echo them.


Like wine, cheese is acidic; the milk is converted into lactic acid, which preserves it. Cheddar, for example, is highly acidic.


One common suggestion often given is to pair cheese from a region with local wines. That doesn’t always work, however. Many regions make different wines, for one thing, but locals learn to like their products. She gave as an example the common pairing of stinky Époisses de Bourgogne with local light red Burgundy wines, definitely not a good match for most people.


We tasted six cheeses, each with four wines. The cheeses all came from Oxbow Cheese Merchant, which Janet recommends highly though acknowledging it’s quality is expensive: All the cheeses tasted cost $27 to $30 per pound.


We had Robiola Bosina, a mixed cow and sheep cheese from Piemonte in Italy; Casatica, an unusual conventional cheese – not mozzarella – from water buffaloes in Tuscany; Garrotxa, a goat’s milk cheese from Catalonia; Abbaye de Belloc sheep’s milk cheese from France; Cabot Clothbound, an artisanal cheese from the large Vermont dairy; and a well-aged L’Amuse Gouda cow’s milk cheese of course from the Netherlands.


The wines were a Gavi white from Piemonte; a Macon white from Burgundy; a Prioat from Catalonia and a dry Amontillado sherry.


My usual white to match most lighter cheese is Sauvignon Blanc, but I found the crisp white Burgundy quite pleasant with some of the cheeses, the Gavi a bit light. I was surprised to find the Prioat red a good complement to a number of the cheeses, but didn’t prefer the sherry with anything served.


Many others in the class disagreed.


Among the cheeses, my favorite was the Garrotxa, but I was alone, the class splitting between the creamy Robiola and the Abbaye de Belloc.


I found the class very informative as well as entertaining and recommend them highly.


The cheeses and wines change each class, which are held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Class size is limited to 12 and the class costs $55. The next class is August 11.


fmJanet was also a pioneer in publicizing food from farmers market in her books Fresh From The Farmers Market and Eating Local. She will be at the Napa Farmers Market from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 16 to talk to fans and to sell and sign those books.


She’ll also be leading a French culinary vacation in the Dordogne from Tuesday, Sept. 20 to Wednesday, Sept. 28.


Get more information and reserve spaces for the classes or tour at Janet’s web site,

Hall Art and Wine lunch

June 20, 2011

It’s great when taste and resources converge, and rarely is that more apparent than at the home and wineries of Craig and Kathryn Hall.

In addition to owning two wineries and La Residence Inn here and the valley as well as properties elsewhere, the former ambassador to Austria under Bill Clinton have amassed an incredible collection of art.

Some is visible at their wineries in Rutherford above Auberge du Soleil and in St. Helena, where they’re about to start on the second phase of a rebirth of the old co-op winery there.

But some of the most impressive is at their home.

Recently Kathy invited some members of the media and others to a preview of the art, food and wine lunches she has scheduled for the next two months (July 20 and August 17). The lunches include a personal tour of some of the art at her home with stories of the artists and how they acquired the pieces.

Kathy doesn’t claim to be an art expert, but she obviously knows a lot about it. The Halls buy art they like, but she also says she likes art that makes her smile. “Somber art can be important, but you can visit that. It’s not something I want to live with,” she said.

The artists range from unknown to famous artists like Jackson Pollack and pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.

It’s a combination of sculpture and two-dimensional art, paintings and more. All is contemporary and it’s amazing. We didn’t even see it all; the group, though small, was too big to fit into some spaces.

Of course, we enjoyed wine – Hall Sauvignon Blanc – during the tour, then we returned to the winery for a tasty buffet lunch and some more Hall wines. One was a Cabernet that has been receiving great reviews, the other Darwin, an Aussie-style blend of Syrah and Cab. It’s called Darwin to commemorate a visit there when they almost were in a plane crash – but were lucky. “We call it our ode to life wine,” says the philanthropist and businesswoman.

I’m sure the $150 art and wine lunches will sell out fast, but you can try at or 967-2657.


Our work-at-home lunch group

June 7, 2011

When you work at home, as I do, you miss the camaraderie of colleagues, including day-to-day banter and occasional lunches and other social events.

To create a little bit of that feeling, a number of us who work at home – and a few who have gotten real jobs – gather once a month for lunch, generally at the Oxbow Public Market, to talk and exchange thoughts and news.

They’re creative people – writers (ahem), artists, designers, marketing people, chefs and foodies, an actor or two, and a few other friends.

The mailing list contains about 20 names, including some who never seem to be able to attend but ask to be kept on the list. Anywhere from four to 16 show up, usually ten or 12.

We’ve found the Oxbow Market works best as the attendees are like a bunch of cats and wander in and out. We once went to a restaurant, but as people arrived over half an hour and then left the same way, the restaurant couldn’t deal with it.

Last time, we did gather at Whole Foods Market, and everyone found what they wanted to eat among all the read-to-eat goodies there (Reminder: never order pre-made sushi. The rice gets cold and it should be room temperature even if the fish is cold.)

What do we talk about? Anything, from our current projects to ideas like the need for a community center/gathering place, which has spawned another group. One thing we never discuss, thank goodness, is commercial sports. That may partly be due to the female/male ratio, but it’s great with me.

I almost always find some ideas for NapaLife or other writing, too.

If it sounds interesting, I’d encourage you to gather your own group of friends  and try it out.

Auction Napa Valley – the main event

June 4, 2011


It was raining – really raining ­ and the wind was blowing hard on Auction Day Saturday. If I hadn’t felt obligated, and also been anticipating it, I might have rolled over and stayed in bed with my cat.


This year, the auction didn’t start until 1 p.m., and I rode up with J.L. Souza, The Register photographer and Sasha and Pierce, avoiding the parking at The Ranch and a bus ride.


When we got there, we found that the Napa Valley Vintners had tented almost everything. A long covered corridor stretched onto the Fairway except for the sloping sidewalk, and we didn’t really need umbrellas that much.


We actually kept pretty dry except for our feet. Even paths of redwood bark and some plywood couldn’t overcome the insistent rain, and once or twice I stepped into water over my shoes. Smart people wore boots, though I saw some women in 4-inch spiked heels. Most people dressed for the weather, though some expecting sunny skies weren’t prepared. The Vintners could have probably raised plenty more if they had had boots and warm clothing to sell – they did sell a fleece vest.


The entry wollackscorridor opened into a large ‘room’ constructed at the last minute and filling with tables and a long wine bar – then a smaller foyer with the band composed mostly of local vintners and a matching room. Those were for lunch and dinner.


Altogether, there was 150 ft. of wine bar, so it was no trouble to find something to drink.


The food was prepared by Cindy Pawlcyn as a picnic, but it was unlike any picnic I’ve cindyhad. I t featured ribs, fish Vintners Sue and Dick Wollack            tacos, small burgers and far more. I ate with George and Betty Starke of the St. Helena Star, but of course talked to many others.

For a while, I joined Bob and Gretchen Lieff, who own Lieff Vineyards, and found that a movie may be in the works based on his experiences working with flamboyant Melvin Belli in the ‘60s before he went off to become probably the leading plaintiff’s lawyer in the business (tobacco, Exxon Valdez, you name it). Outgoing Gretchen, who seems to know everyone I didn’t, introduced me to most of them.                                                        Cindy Pawlcyn


After lunch, and down another plastic corridor was the Auction tent. It was square this year, giving everyone a good line of sight. I was naturally assigned to a back table, but it was elevated and actually provided a good view of the action, and the enormous TV screens took care of the rest.


I was at a table with Michael and Stephanie Honig, two of my favorite people, and they had a magnum of their excellent Cabernet on the table. Ironically, though the Honigs make an excellent Sauvignon Blanc, I hated the one in our ice bucket and had to score another white wine to drink.


We were joined by others, including Rebecca Fine of Trinchero Family Estates, who also       Rebecca Fine of Trinchero and                          chaired the PR committee for the auction.

Michael and Stephanie Honig

There were many interesting lots, but only 40 (plenty to sit through!). The biggest regular lot was the Calabrian experience donated by chef Michael Chiarello and Garin and Shari Staglin (His family name was Staglino, and they came from Calabria), which went for $300,000 and was doubled.


The Fund a Need for programs for children’s health and wellness lot – just donations with no prizes for donors – raised $1.1 million, with five of $100,000!


One interesting lot at the Auction: The first one ever featuring a nonmember, a lot of 11 magnums from vineyards owned by Andy Beckstoffer. Of course, the wineries are all members, but Andy’s property ties them together.


shafersBy now, everyone knows that the live auction raised $5.8 million, the whole auction $7.3 million, very respectable with a sputtering stock market and all the bad weather if a bit down from last year. More importantly, it pushed the total raised in the 31 auction to over $100 million raised for local charities.


I had to grab my ride before it was all over and missed Michael Chiarello’s dinner and the Mary Novack of Spottswoode and Barbara and John     dancing, but I’m sure everyone had a great

Shafer of Shafer Vineyards time                       in spite of the weather.

I did, and once again must congratulate the Napa Valley Vintners who put the auction on, the vintner member, volunteers and suppliers, and most of all, the generous donors who do so much for us here in (usually) beautiful Napa Valley.


Dinner at Jarvis Winery

June 3, 2011


Friday night, I was invited to dinner at Jarvis Winery. The dinner was hosted by winemaker Ted Henry and Will Jarvis, son of owners William and Leticia Jarvis, who had been called away to China at the last minute.will


It was the first time I met Will, who had just completed his exams for his MBA at Stanford. Though a bit shy compared to many of the vintners in the valley, he was gracious and interesting, and the young single woman in the group seemed very intrigued.


We started out with a tour of the unusual winery, which is wholly underground and in the shape of a wheel with intersecting spokes.

                                                                                                                                            Will Jarvis

Jarvis has spared nothing in getting the best equipment for the winery, and the cave is also remarkable for its construction and furnishings.


Beyond the working part of the winery – which includes an underground stream and waterfall – lies the Amethyst room, which can hold 250 people, and contains giant Brazilian amethysts.


Beyond that is a huge room that could hold 750. It’s where I want to be when the bombs fall. And apparently, there’s another room beyond that that has no door, just a passage through the ventilation shaft. The whole place calls out to be the setting for a spooky movie, but the Jarvises are quite private and don’t even rent the rooms for events.


After the tour, naturally with a glass of the Jarvis Finch Hollow vineyard Chardonnay, we took a van up to the lake house by huge Lake William, stopping on the way to enjoy the views from a cliff overlooking the Finch Hollow vineyard. The vineyard is target for birds, in fact, and must be netted every year.


Dinner was eclectic, but featured Peking duck after shrimp and small steaks, followed by chocolate cake filled with mousse cream. We had unfiltered Finch Hollow Chard with the shrimp, Cabernet with the steak, then Science Project, a Cab Franc blend, with the duck. This wine truly originated as Will’s science project one year, but proven so popular it’s stayed in the winery’s offerings.


Our dinner companions, who were staying at Meadowood, were from Orange County, and also had a great time. One man especially, even joining the trio of guitarists singing Mexican folk favorites.


Jarvis had kindly sent a car, well a Cadillac Escalade, for us, so it was a relaxed evening in every way.


Barrel Auction and Marketplace at Auction Napa Valley

June 3, 2011


The Barrel Auction and Marketplace, once called “The Taste of Napa Valley,” and colloquially, “The Friday Fest,” is typically my favorite part of Auction Napa Valley, though the private dinners can be superb.


The reason is not the fabulous food and wine, but the chance to see so many old friends and meet new ones.


In keeping with my decision to not drive to the Auction events this year, I decided to take the bus, which was perfectly timed and would drop me right in front of Greystone Cellars. It ran about even hour and cost less than driving, even with my 40-mpg diesel VW.


But I found that Sasha Paulsen, feature editor of the Napa Valley Register, was driving up with Pierce Carson at the right time, so I hitched a ride.


We got there early enough to attend the media breakfast and warm up, but missed the seminars. We headed up for the tastes of food and wine at 11 a.m. Rain had been threatening, and part of the area in front of the CIA was tented, but fortunately, the weather gods cooperated.


More than 40 food vendors were serving tastes, most of them excellent, and a new Rombauersaddition was three food trucks, which attracted long lines. Pork and duck rillettes seemed the nibbles du jour, but there was a long assortment of foods from pizzas from Pizzeria Tra Vigne to ‘angry’ octopus from Morimoto. I couldn’t begin to choose a favorite. Thomas Keller was giving out his usual tiny cones filled with raw salmon.

                                                                                                The Rombauer family, chairs of the Auction:  

Along with the food, 100 wineries, many                   Sandy, Laura, KR and Koerner

of whom had donated wine to the e-auction,

poured their wares. For the first time I can remember, it was good weather for hearty red wines, but sparklers, whites and rosés were also popular, especially before noon.


The food and wine stretched across the elevation in from of the CIA and curled up onto the patio and even into the Wine Spectator Restaurant, which was also offering goodies.


At noon, the barrel auction opened in the barrel room of the CIA. It seemed fitting, though it was the first time the CIA had been the site of the festival. I’m guessing that Brother Timothy’s spirit approved.


Jean Chareles and StephanieIt was quite crowded, and the owner or winemaker of the winery that donated the wine hosted most of the 100 barrels. It was truly a who’s who of Napa Valley wine royalty from Mike Martini and John Shafer to Heidi and Bo Barrett and Jean-Charles Boisset, who has quickly become of one Napa’s starts since buying Raymond Vineyards.


Boisset was rightfully jubilant, as his wife Gina Gallo had just had twin girls and the couple was still mulling names. I put in my vote for Grace, my great aunt’s name.

Raymond winemaker Stephanie Putnam

and owner Jean-Charles Boisset

Talking to these people was my pleasure. I hardly tasted any of the wines; I knew I wasn’t going to buy any, and am not fond of barrel samples anyway. I prefer finished wines – and Cabernets older than their 1½ year.


Almost all the wines were Cab or Bordeaux blends, david brownhardly surprising in Napa Valley, where some of the world’s most renowned Cabs originate.

There were a few Pinots and one Zinfandel, from Brown Estate, one of the best Zins not only in Napa County, but anywhere.


All of the lots included QR codes that let prospects get the details via their smart phones, a clever addition to the festivities. And a smart phone-based scavenger hunt attracted many festival-goers.                                                                David Brown of Brown Estates


The food and wine marketplace ended at 3, the barrel tastings at 4, but we left a bit earlier as Sasha had to write something – and I had had enough fun. I took a nap when I got home.


Wine Auction dinner at Schweiger

June 2, 2011


Thursday night was the official opening of Auction Napa Valley, though past big spenders were treated to dinner at chair Koerner Rombauer’s home the night before.


I was invited to dinner at Schweiger Vineyards in the Spring Mountain district high above St. Helena on a windy mountain road.


I was able to arrange transport with Designated Drivers, a great service that drove me there in my own car.


schweigersThe Schweiger family is some of the nicest people in Napa Valley. They didn’t arrive with a fat bankroll, but bought then-unpopular land atom the mountain for $250 per acre (sob!) and slowly cleared and planted the land.

The famili is Fred and Sally Schweiger and their kids, winemakerAndrew Schweiger, and
sales director Diana Schweiger Isdahl.


schweiger vyThe property is one of the most impressive sites in Napa County. The rolling hillsides atop the mountain are not only beautiful, but also ideal for growing Cabernet, though they also grow Chard.


It turned out to be a sports fan’s treat, with baseball legend Rusty Staub and John York, owner of the San Francisco 49ers among the guests. I’m afraid I’m not on that team, but I did enjoy talking to Rusty about his charitable work. He used to have a restaurant in New York, and still holds a big wine auction every year there.


Many Auction dinners are very fancy; this was a lobster feed put on by John Sorenson, St. Helena’s fire chief. John and his helpers dumped big buckets of steamed lobsters, artichokes, potatoes, corn, shrimp, Louisiana Hots, onions and even whole bulbs of garlic on a long table and we tied on bibs and dug in.


Most was perfect with the Schweiger Chardonnay (not the hot sausage!) but I also tried the Cab and found it excellent.


Rusty is a big guy and put away tow of the large lobsters, but I found one more than enough.


It was a nice change from the usual stuffy dinner, and great fun, made even more fun as I relaxed on the trip home with my Designated Driver (

150th anniversary of Charles Krug

June 2, 2011


The noon before Auction Napa Valley began, Peter Mondavi, Jr., held a little tasting to highlight some of his family’s wines on the 150th anniversary of the founding of Charles Krug Winery, which his family bought in the 1940s.


Charles Krug is the oldest still operating winery in Napa Valley, and the Peter Mondavi family has completed a remarkable restoration of two beautiful historic buildings on the site. It’s also replanted most of its extensive vineyards and upgraded winemaking and now counts among the best wines in the valley. Unfortunately, its reputation hasn’t caught up with reality, and hot new wineries do have more flash.


Pete is delightful and good-looking but reserved, not likely to be inclined to generate much flash. He gave us a tour of the facilities, then invited us to try firs the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, one of the Valley’s best – and that’s saying something – and 2007 St. Helena Zinfandel, like Grgich’s restrained and tasty, not a Port-would be.

 pete mondavi

Then helpers brought out a huge slab of New York steaks still in a roast, and Pete cut off slices to order with a huge butcher knife. Then we grilled the steaks to our taste, adding flavoring salts – and at Tin Caputo and Pete’s suggestion – an Italian splash of olive oil.


We enjoyed those with side dishes and an assortment of Krug Cabernets: 2006 Vintage Selection Cab, 2008 Family Reserve Generations and 2008 150th anniversary Cab in magnum. The VS remains a bit tannic, and is an excellent match for the stead, but so were the others. All will age well.


Krug also makes a dessert wine, a port-inspired Zinfandel excellent with the berry shortcake.


With the wine auction due to start that night, I was surprised to find that the winery withdrew from the Napa Valley Vintners a few years ago. Wineries pay dues based on production, and they make the volume CK Mondavi brand in their winery and apparently felt the dues were prohibitive.


In contrast, the Trinchero family winery is a member – but not huge Sutter Home, which they also own but has separate production.

Mike Grgich’s 35th anniversary

May 28, 2011


By coincidence, La Toque also prepared the meal the dinner to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Paris Tasting of 1976, for which  Mike Grgich made the winning Chateau Montelena Chardonnay (with most of the grapes coming from Sonoma County, though that’s not often highlighted!).


We started with barrel samples of the 2010 Chardonnay they now call the Paris Tasting Chardonnay. It was also from Carneros, and even more European and less oaky even though winemaker Ivo Jeramaz (Mike’s nephew) says was fermented in all new French oak. He said that the grapes had such flavor that they could handle the oak. I personally don’t like to taste oak in any wine. It should be used to create the wine, not dominate it.


The dinner included bits of lobster in a lot of mango, cucumber and other vegetables served with 2007 Carneros Selection Chardonnay ($75) and 2008 Napa Valley Chardonnay $42). Due some mix-ups in pouring, I was never positive which was which – and I know I got a blend at one point – but they were certainly excellent and showed no sign of age like some 2007 Napa Chards do.


The lamb loin was paired with 2007 Zinfandel ($35)and panisse (chick pea flour fries). Grgich Hills makes superb Zinfandel, not raisiny or over-the-top, but I would have preferred the following two Cabs, which were served with cheese that they overpowered. These were the 2006 Yountville Cab ($135) and 2007 Cab ($60).


The dessert was a chocolate truffle cake with embedded raspberries, an unnecessary adulteration. It was served with the 2008 Violette Late Harvest, as good a dessert wine as you can find hereabouts. Unfortunately, the real Violetta (Violet Grgich) was playing harpsichord at a concert and couldn’t attend, but her father certainly did.


Mike dedicated a new display on the winery’s history, then discussed how he made the winning wine in 1973. I don’t have the space to go into that here, but I’m sure the winery would be glad to provide copies of his talk.


Grgich understandably focuses on this accomplishment, but in truth, Grgich Hills stands on its own without that history. Mike and Ivo also are fully committed to Biodynamic growing and winemaking, which I’m very skeptical about, but they do make superb wines!


Congratulations to Mike once again for helping establish California wines in the panoply of the world’s best.

Pine Ridge dinner at La Toque

May 25, 2011


It’s been a busy few weeks, and I’m a bit behind. Let’s catch up.


I try to avoid going to too many wine dinners – there’s a limit to how much rich food you can eat – but agreed to taste new Pine Ridge releases as I hadn’t tasted them in some time, nor had I seen Michael Beaulac since he joined the winery in early 2009. It was also at La Toque, one of Napa Valley’s best restaurants as well as very close to home.


It was a blustery evening, but we were comfortable in the covered patio with a fireplace burning.  The guests included writers Tina Caputo and Chris Sawyer, always good company.


We started with Pine Ridge’s unique Chenin Blanc –Viognier blend ($14, but often lower in stores), a dry white wine perfect as an aperitif. I thin Chenin is coming back. It deserves to. Once one of California’s top white wines, it suffered from being made sweet. It’s popular from the Loire Valley, and should be here, too.


That wine doesn’t come from Napa vineyards, but the winery owns 200 acres here spread from Carneros to Howell Mountain in 13 separate vineyards.


Pine Ridge makes a number of Cabernets. We tasted the 2009 wines as barrel samples, not my favored approach as a lot can happen before the wines are released, but those were the first wines completely made by Michael. I was impressed that they were accessible so young, in fact.


They included the highest volume Napa Valley Cab ($54) which surprisingly uses new American oak, but didn’t have the Bourbon vanilla flavor of much American oak. Michael says American barrels are getting much better, and he seems to be right, though these barrels were coopered in Australia, a long round trip.


The more expensive wines were all French oak. The Howell Mountain ($90) had slight green flavors we once associated with Cabernet, but one that has largely disappeared as winemakers use riper grapes. They’re likely to subside over time; the wine is more than a year from release.


Other wines came from  Rutherford ($75), Oakville ($75) and Stags Leap ($80), and the Fortis was the top wine at $140. All were excellent, but I’d like to see the finished wines before passing judgment.


During dinner, we had 2009 Dijon Clones Chardonnay, naturally from Carneros ($34). I liked it. It had good acidity and subdued oak, so it was a good match with the lobster.


The other wines were 2008s, which will be released in the fall. They were paired with pork tenderloin, tournedos and antelope, and all were good matches, though a lot of meat.


The dessert was cheese, which was delightful, but I should had saved some of the Chardonnay or Chenin for it. I did remember to snare some white bread before it disappeared. Chefs – even otherwise excellent ones – insist on pairing cheese with strong-tasting bread filled with nuts and fruit that overwhelms it.


I was impressed by the wines, but wondered how they were doing selling relatively expensive wines in this market. Michael said they were doing well, but admitted that Pine Ridge’s parent company, Crimson Wine company, which also owns Archery Ridge in Oregon and Chamisal Vineyards in the Central Coast, and just bought Zinfandel specialist Seghesio in Sonoma, also makes Forefront at lower prices. Based on the Pine Ridge wines, I’d like to try them.

A Night in Mendocino


I then drove the 45 minutes or so out to the coast and up to Mendocino. The recession has hit the coast hard, and the famed Heritage House Hotel, site of the movie Same Time Next Year, remains closed, and a number of store fronts on Mendocino’s busiest street for tourists are for rent. A broken water pipe took out another and the restaurant above it.


It’s still a romantic and picturesque destination, and its science and toy stores as well as bookstore are unmatched for gifts, while the art furniture gallery is fascinating.


I stayed at the Joshua Grindle Inn, just a couple blocks from everything. It has a number of comfortable cottages, an inviting parlor, massages on site if you want, and incredible flower display in the yard.


Owners Charles and Cindy live onsite. Charles told me things had been rough, and the inn was so quiet I thought I was almost alone, but a full house wisely showed up for Cindy’s sumptuous breakfast.


I also visited Ft. Bragg seven miles north. The town has been hard hit by increasing restrictions on logging and fishing, and the mill that occupied the waterfront in the center of town has closed. The city is planning development, but it appears far off.


Meanwhile, Ft. Bragg has turned into a reasonably priced, downscale (compared to Mendocino) tourist attraction, with many reasonable lodgings, some inns and some motels, and more and more good restaurants. Its compact downtown boasts interesting and diverse shops I’d love to see in Napa.


Sally Ottoson, who many know from Napa, even has a winetasting bar in town for her Pacific Star wines; her winery is literally on the edge, a cliff north of town pounded by waves.


The fish and chips in Noyo Harbor was nothing to write about – once when I was there, a sea gull swooped down and grabbed a piece off my plate. He could have had these.

Dinner was a bit disappointing, too. A large corporate group had taken over the fine MacCallum House and its restaurant (as well as some other inns) so choices were a bit limited.


I grabbed a bland Caesar salad and overcooked crabcake containing too much tarrgon at the bar at the usually excellent Mendocino Hotel.


Coming back, I took a local’s advice and tried the Comptche-Ukiah Road. Don’t even think about it. It deteriorates to a one-lane, barely paved path and the only traffic was a swarm of motorcycles zooming past in no-passing zones (the whole road!).


I came all the way down 101 to make up the time, stopping at the Bear Korean restaurant in Cotati for lunch. Their bibimbap is odd – vegetables, egg and meat on chopped lettuce instead of rice, but they provide rice on the side so I mixed it in. It was still good and a bit lighter than usual.


This is clearly a great time to visit Mendocino and the Coast. I bet you could easily find good deals, and the crowds are light. It’s the perfect place for a romantic weekend – and make sure you stop in Anderson Valley on the way for some wine, too.

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival

May 29, 2010


Anderson Valley is one of my favorite wine-growing regions, Pinot Noir one of my favorite wines and Mendocino one of my favorite places to visit, so attending the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival was an easy decision for me.


The festival is held each year, but I hadn’t been in some time. My favorite route up is straight up 128 through Knights and Anderson Valley, a delightful rural drive. There’s a bit of construction on the way right now, so I had to wait a few times for traffic on one-way stretches, however, and I decided to detour over to Highway 101 to check out Francis Ford Coppola’s new Rustic Restaurant at the old Chateau Souverain, now Francis Ford Coppola Winery.


Rustic is a friendly place serving classic Italian-American food at reasonable prices: Pasta dishes start at $12 and Francis’ wines at $5 per glass or $18 per bottle. I had a sausage and pepper sandwich for $9 that was just like being in Boston. The sausage was housemade or close to it and delicious.


The swimming pool and outdoor bar are now open, too, and you can rent cabañas for the day.


The restaurant is only a few minutes from Healdsburg or Geyserville, and attracts a lot of locals as well as people heading up 101.


I suspect a clone would be very popular here in Napa. You can try out some of the dishes at Coppola’s Mamarella Café at the airport corporate park, in fact.


I was fortunate to have a room at the “Handley Hilton,” the winery’s guest house, for accommodations are scarce in Anderson Valley and it’s a long drive to Ukiah or the Coast over windy roads after dinner.


Hadley makes great sparkling and still wines, which I also tried.


The festival started for the media with a do-it-yourself taco dinner, and I must say the tacos I assembled were delicious, but probably not what I’d choose to show off Pinot Noir.


The next day started with a very technical morning as experts discussing growing Pinot Noir and the big topic of the day, getting the intense color Americans prize. I attend a lot of technical sessions about wine, but learned some new words that day!


Amid all the learned talk, what emerged was no consensus about the best way to get intense color and some debunking of beloved techniques. In Burgundy, they don’t try to produce dark-red wines, being happy with the delicious delicate aromas and flavors, but other parts of Europe have found that co-fermenting certain red grapes (Syrah and Sangiovese) with other grapes that have complementary polyphenols, traditionally white Viognier and Tebbiano, gives better stable color but no one in Pinot land will admit to that or the rumored practice of adding a bit of deeply colored wine (generally Syrah) to beef up the color.


I didn’t hear any winemakers or others defend the traditional paler wines, but I will. My favorites from the tasting panels were light Navarro and Husch, not the inky versions favored by many newer wineries in Anderson Valley, many with strong connections to Napa with its intense Cabernets.


That became even more apparent at a tasting of 40 producers’ wines set up for the press the next day.                                                                                                                                                                                 Navarro Vineyards 

Lunch was excellent barbecue, once again

not a particularly good match for Pinot, but most people opted for other wines or none after a morning tasting wines with an afternoon to come.


The afternoon started with an interesting and entertaining session tasting diverse Pinots led by wine expert Karen MacNeil. Karen finds some intriguing descriptors and analogies for wines, and I highly recommend catching her act if you can. She runs the wine studies at the CIA in St. Helena, and her book, the Wine Bible is.


After Karen came a panel of a grower and winemakers who produce wine from the cool Ferrington Vineyard, then a short presentation on rosés made from Pinot. One was Roederer sparkling wine traditionally made from Pinot in Champagne as well as here, the other a pleasant wine from Toulouse. Most Pinot rosés are made by “bleeding” (saignée is the French term) some light juice off a red Pinot fermentation in an attempt to make the wine darker, which researchers say doesn’t work anyway.


Nothing against such rosés, but I’d rather they just make the red Pinot and stick to traditional grapes like Grenache, Syrah and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo for lip-smacking rosés.


Dinner that night was paella at Navarro in slightly chilly and windy conditions. It was a BYOB party – at least for the winemakers – so we got a chance to try many wines to find which went best with the paella. Guess what it wasn’t.


The next morning was the tasting of the wines selected as best by the vintners. Many were produced in tiny quantities, and  would be impossible to find, and all were good (one contaminated with Brett excluded) but mostly of the I’d-rather-be-Cab inclination.


After that was a mass tasting of Anderson Valley wines and local food, the highlight for consumers that weekend.


I did find plenty of wines I liked during the weekend, and bought a case at Navarro including a delicate dry Muscat. Still, the Pinots are the start in Anderson Valley, and whether you like massive ones that taste like Syrahs or the Burgundian style, you can find something to your taste.

Three Cheers for the Chef’s Market

May 27

I was out of town, so missed the opening of the 17th Napa Chef’s Market season, but last night’s party was great. It apparently attracted more than 3,000 people in slightly chilly weather. The opening night saw more than 5,000 in even better weather.

Everything about the market seems improved, notably the extensive family area with activities for kids (including a giant python to wrap around their shoulders and a tarantula to hold.

Many more local food vendors were offering their wares, including Azzurro Pizzeria with its mobile wood-fired oven with owner Michael Gyetvan serving as the sweating pizzaiolo baking the artisan pizzas. If you prefer a fat, over-stuffed American pie, Filippi’s was there, too.

A number of food trucks and the crepe maker who’s also at the Farmer’s Market helped raise the quality of the food.

More local wineries seemed to have their wines there, too, and the “glasses” for the event are the new, smaller GoVino plastic receptacles.

Chefs’ demonstrations drew rapt crowds, as did the music, but for many people, the biggest pleasure of the Market was seeing their friends.

The farmers market has been moved to near the chef demonstrations, but it’s a bit early in the season for summer produce in any rate.

I look forward to many more happy Thursday nights in downtown Napa.

1313 Main opens

Before hitting the Chefs Market, I stopped by to preview snazzy new 1313 Main, a spacious wine bar in the block across from Shackford’s. It's obviously at 1313 Main St. in Napa.

It’s the baby of Al Jabarin, who runs the successful CalWine Internet wine shop and formerly had a small store at Silverado and First. 1313 Main, however, is more than a tasting bar or retail shop, but a great place to hang out with friends (or meet them).

Beautifully designed and executed, the tasting and retail shop features more than 1,300 wines for sale plus a rotating selection of 13 white and 13 reds by the taste, glass and flight as well as full bottles and beer. You can belly up to the bar, relax in a lounge-like setting, or share a friendly huge communal table.

There are actually two tasting bars for busy times, and a patio and private room for events. They’ll also hold special events on the 13th of each month (13, get it? I'm glad Al isn't superstitious.)

You can get cheese and charcuterie as well as hummus to accompany your wine. They’re selected by chef Sarah Scott, and the place cries out for more snacks, which might come in the future.

The business’ artistic design is by talented local designer Tina Carpenter, including the unique logo and wooden touches like covers for the wine list.

The wines are displayed upright, which might concern some wine buyers who’ve heard that you should store wine on their sides to keep corks wet. That’s not really an issue for relatively short-term display, but the display cases could certainly accommodate.

1313 Main is open Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. and Sunday through Thursday till 10 p.m. The web site is and phone number is 258-1313.

All it needs is coffee and Wi-Fi to make the perfect hangout for any time of the day.

Yes, as mid First Street languishes, Main Street is becoming Main Street again.

Tasting Durrell Vineyards

May 18, 2011

The Durrell Vineyard in Sonoma County is one of the most famed vineyard properties in the wine business. The 200-acre property lies just west of Sonoma north of Stagecoach Rd. to Petaluma, and various parts are in the Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast and Carneros appellations.


It’s a very cool site, ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and more than a dozen high-end wineries use its fruit to make wine.


Recently, owner Bill Price invited the media and these winemakers to a lunch to taste the wines and talk. The attendance was impressive:


Jeff Gaffner, Saxon Brown

James Hall, Patz & Hall

Tor Kenward, Tor

Jason Kesner, Kistler Vineyards

Brian Loring, Loring Wine Company

Bill Price, Durell Vineyards and Three Sticks

Steve Tylicki, Steele

Don Van Staaveren, Three Sticks


So were the wines. They had set up a tent in case of rain, which fortunately wasn’t needed, among huge oak trees nestled up against the southern end of Sonoma Mountain.


Inside, we tried a flight of eighth Chardonnays from 2008, then some older Chards and then the Pinot Noirs. It was amazing to see the difference in the wines. Some might be attributed to different sites on the large ranch, but most is surely sue to the winemaker’ skills or visions.


The Chards were generally big and impressive, though some were too oaky for me, but I don’t like to taste oak in wines. I prefer its subtle impact, not the taste. My favorite was the Saxon Brown, but I also liked the Chasseur, Autre and Loring.


Price owns Three Sticks and has an interest in Kistler, perhaps the most famed of all the wines, but I found them a bit big and oaky for my taste. Unfortunately, it seems Americans buy wines by the weight; the bigger they are, the more they will pay for them.


The older Chardonnays wines – in California, where many Chardonnays are old at three years – had stood up well, but I didn’t find that any seemed improved by the age, though the difference in vintages might have more impact than age.


From left to right:

Jeff Gaffner, Saxon Brown
Don Van Staaveren, Three Sticks
James Hall, Patz & Hall
Tor Kenward, Tor
Jason Kesner, Kistler Vineyards
Steve Tylicki, Steele
Brian Loring, Loring Wine Company
Bill Price, Durell Vineyards & Three Sticks

All the Pinots were good, but they
                                        Photo credit: Michael Wright Studio were definitely of the “bigger is  better” variety.                                     
Ste. Jean was perhaps the lightest and most Burgundian, and I especially liked the Loring.


The De Loach, which many attendees praised, was big and very meaty, almost like a Syrah.


It was an interesting tasting, and also a good chance to network. The lunch was good, too, those traditional tuna tartare crispy tacos and chicken meatballs in hummus for appetizers, an excellent salad and enormous hunks of tasty roasted pork loin with pomegranate molasses reduction on them and couscous. I wouldn’t have picked the sweet and sour sauce to com

plement the wines, but the tasting was

over by then anyway.


                                                                                    Ziggy the Wine Gal, Jeff Brown of Saxon Brown and
                                                                                    sommelier and writer Chris Sawyer at Durrell  tasting.

Being a tour guide

May 17, 2011

My writing has been interfering with my blogging, so I’ll catch up with recent experiences as a tour guide.


I hadn’t seen my old friend Marc Cohen of Howell at the Moon in quite some time, so when he showed up for a glass of wine Friday at 5, we ended up doing downtown Napa. Much was new to him, of course.


We started at Carpe Diem, getting there in time for happy hour, and met a nice sales woman for a local winery and talked to some other locals. Tourists haven’t yet discovered Carpe Diem, but the fun bar is featured in the big spread on Napa in the latest Wine Spectator, so that may change.


It’s always a treat to see Stephanie and Steve. Of course, I’m a bit old for the crowd (even Marc is, though he doesn’t see it that way), but they tolerate me and always make me (and everyone else) welcome.


It wasn’t easy dragging Marc away, but I was determined for him to see the new sights. As we walked by ZuZu, however he wanted to stop in to see Mick (and pump his wines, I’m sure) but Mick wasn’t there. Still we had a glass of wine and chatted with patrons at the crowded bar, then ambled over to Fish Story.


I gave him a quick tour of the attractive restaurant – it was filled – and we found a lucky spot at the bar next  to  our new sales rep friend. We tried some wines on tap, then decided we should eat something. I had the great fried Ipswich clams, and Marc had ceviche, then he had the shrimp and grits, which he loved, and I had cole slaw. Weird? It was perfect after the fried clams.


Surprisingly, the next stop, Tyler Florence’s Rotisserie and Wine, was dead on a Friday at 7:30. There was a couple at the bar and one eating. The restaurant gives every sign that it’s playing for tourists, not locals, and maybe that’s hurting it.


It also doesn’t serve cocktails, a big problem for younger drinkers. Both Fish Story and Morimoto got microbrewery licenses since they allow selling spirits without a regular expensive liquor license – and both were jumping.


Morimoto was the last stop, and if the manager hadn’t recognized me, we wouldn’t have had a chance. It was mobbed – mostly I suspect with tourists from their attire –  but we sat at the edge of a lounge cluster. I had a beer and the wonderful salmon skin roll, the best bargain in the place for $7, while Marc had a cocktail. We were both very happy by then, so it’s good I live within walking distance of downtown.


It was a great Friday night in the new downtown Napa – and we didn’t even hit the booming West End or Oxbow.


Sunday, an old friend visited, and I took her and a girlfriend of hers on a tour of downtown Napa in the daylight.


We checked out the snazzy new visitors’ center – the 3D map of the valley is fascinating – and I almost lost them at Helen Lyall among all the chic women’s wear. I checked out Scott Lyall next door, and was impressed with the clothes, too.


Both seem perfect for Napa parties, particularly for the sophisticated City Set that prefers fancy clothes to our jeans, boots and checkered shirts.


I’d certainly check them out before driving to San Francisco or even Walnut Creek to shop.


We stopped by Tyler Florence’s kitchenware shop, where Denise bought something for her girls.


Fish Story has a happy hour in the afternoon, so we had glasses of their house sparkler, Prosecco, and Denise had the ceviche, while Patti let her curiosity get the better of her and got the fried pickles.


The ceviche was great, and now I’ve tried fried pickles. Each – wine and appetizers – was $5, a great price in Napa.


I showed them around Morimoto, which wasn’t serving by then, and they were impressed. We’ll surely visit there next time Denise comes north.


Continuing my tour guiding, I took them to see the change at Oxbow Public market, which is now very busy. We grabbed seats at Ca’ Momi and shared a $17 bottle of Ca’ Secco, their local version of Prosecco, which is equally good.


Knowing we shouldn’t, we also tried some delectable pastry filled with gianduia, the upscale cousin of Nutella. Too tasty...


After that, we came back home, soaked a bit in the hot tub and I made risotto with artichokes and fennel gratin and a salad, which were apparently much appreciated.


Monday, we hit the new Kitchen Gallery, a wonderful addition to downtown, then wandered through many stores on First Street. The two new stores in the Avia building aren’t open yet, and it looks like Eiko’s is a way off.


We do like the toy store, but Mustard Seed and especially Betty’s vintage shop were very popular. I had forgotten that the Playful Garden had moved to First, and it’s a good addition.


I hadn’t checked out the Artists of Napa Valley gallery recently, and was impressed with the quality of work, including much jewelry as well as the expected paintings. Prices are generally very attractive, too.


Then we had a pizza at Ca’ Momi before Denise had to leave for the airport.


I obviously love Ca’ Momi, the people, and the food, but I should warn you that they’re the Pizza Nazis. They don’t make changes or substitutions, and don’t even think of asking for Parmesan cheese or chili flakes on your pizza.



There’s a small plaque of the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld posted by the register: “No soup for you.” and I’d be careful or you may hear, “No pizza for you!”

Wandering around Napa

May 7, 2011

Tuesday evening, I wandered down to the Oxbow Public Market for Locals Night after having lunch there. I ended up having a pizza at Ca’ Momi, and for a change had the $10.95 Pinot Grigio instead of the usual Napa Ross.

It was crisp and clean, and of course, I bought a bottle and drank two glasses, then screwed the cap back on to take home.

Only a couple more clicks and I get a free pizza!

I also noted that the work is going on to punch Ca’Momi out into the former farmstand spaces just outside.

The Ox was quite busy, but vendors report that Friday night has been especially active of late.

Wednesday night, I decided to check out the River Front, and stopped in to Morimoto, where I had their $7 smoked salmon skin roll, incredibly tasty and a huge bargain in a placed where an ordinary glass of wine is $12.

I notice that they do now have their home-brewed beer on the menu for only $4, but “It was being brewed” was the reply when I asked for a glass.

The Morimoto beers are made by Rogue River Brewery up north; a 22-oz. bottle is $15.

The restaurant was pretty busy even early at 6 or so, but the barkeep says that Tuesday nights are very busy; apparently “Locals Night” has caught on, and not just at the Oxbow.

Tyler Florence's Rotisserie & Wine was dead at that time, but Fish Story was pretty busy. I sat at the bar and had a wine on tap and a fried clam appetizer with a side of cole slaw. The food was very tasty, but I tried a few wines before I found one that grabbed me.

Few people were outside on a pleasant evening, but I found that both Morimoto and Fish Story had parties coming later.

I wandered down to the adjacent Hatt Mill and the patio at Celadon was packed, as was Angele’s patio on the river.

Friday, the Marriott had a party to introduce everyone to its greatly improved facilities. The new lobby with a bar and wide opening to the courtyard are very inviting, and other facilities are upgraded, too.

They have an impressive culinary garden in the southeast corner of the property.

Farmers' Market returns to Napa!
May 3, 2011

For the last few days, I've been awaiting the opening of the Farmers Market in Napa. I prepared and planted part of my vegetable garden (and flowers as well) over the weekend, but still need some plants – and have been lusting for tomatoes.

It's obviously not tomato season, but early in the spring, Bruin Farms sells pretty respectable greenhouse-grown beauties until the field-grown tomatoes start coming in long before mine do.

I wanted to get over there about 10:30 a.m., do my shopping and visiting, then join my friend Harvey Posert to discuss the second edition of Spinning the Bottle, which is not spinning as fast as we'd like. Got to bug some contributors – including me, as I haven't finished a new marketing-oriented summary for publicists.

Unfortunately, every Tuesday (mostly), I have to turn in a news story for Wines & Vines, and today's took a lot of work; it was on some recent meergers and acquisitions (, so all I got to do at the market was grab some tomatoes before meeting with Harvey and then a lunch with other home workers.

The first Tuesday of each month, a bunch of us who work at home (and a few who have gotten jobs!) join to talk and share thoughts as if we were colleagues from work enjoying a lunch.

It's a rotating group of about 20, and generally eight to ten show up. After trying other places, we settled on the Oxbow Pubclic Market both because of the variety of food available, and because people dribble in and oute. We tried one restaurant and they almost had a meltdown trying to serve us.

We had some good news today. Mick Wintder has completed his thesis and it's been accepted so he's now an MS in communications. He also showed us his new book on QR codes, the small crossword-puzzle looking images that are turning up everywhere.

New member Evy Warshawski, former artistic direction of the Opera House, was sharing her impressions of being on her own after 6 1/2 years. Also new was Stacey Meyer. She has a job at Domaine Carneros, but has returned to the area; she used to work with Kathleen Iudice and Holly Krassner at Copia.

Holly reported progress on Festivale del Sole, which is really becoming part of the local community in its fifth season. She said they sold more tickets to the Festival in the last month due to a special $35 offer (which I missed) than all last season. Nine winerie shave joined the supporters, and there will be more free concerts. One will be a brass concert at the Opera House; sounds like time for earplugs!

Holly also says that the Truffle Festival will return next January. Doubt we'll have any from Napa by then, but wait a few years...

Most of the group had food from C Casa as we sat outside on the river deck, and I had an oyster sandwich from Hog Island, a great bargain in Napa Valley at $10.

I had promised to buy a bottle of C Casa wine, but no one seemed interested and I had to work this afternoon...

Catherine Bergen of C Casa came by to say hello, as did Louisa Hufstader of Napa Patch, which is launching its blog tomorrow.

When I got home, I couldn't resist trying one of the expensive tomatoes I had bought. It was good and certainly tasted like a tomato, unlike those red balls at supermarkets, but it only hints at what is to come.

I plan to bring my grandkids to the market Saturday; St. Helena's market starts Friday. It's the best around with its strong community feeling, but tough for me to get to these days.

Spring has definitely come to Napa Valley. It's a great time to be here.

Breakfast and golf at Silverado

April 29, 2011

Since venerable Silverado Resort was bought by a group including local golfer Johnny Miller, they’ve changed management companies and most upper staff, brought in new golf and tennis managers and initiated an extensive upgrade of the property.

Unfortunately, many of my friends were swept out in the change, so I had misgivings, but that’s behind us, and some of the results are being manifested.

The resort had a breakfast and conference on Friday to unveil the newly renovated North Coast golf course.

I’m not a golfer, but apparently Silverado used to be used for professional tournaments, but fell out of favor.

Miller, who played one his first PGA tourneys there long ago, is determined to restore its status. He vows to bring pros back, and outlined the extensive changes made to make the course more interesting and challenging.

Sounds like a good move for the resort and for Napa Valley; I love the food and wine, but new emphasis on arts, outdoor activities and even wellness seem excellent ways to broaden the valley’s appeal and diversify our economy.

One side note for me: I didn’t know a single one of the sports and golf writers and celebrities there, or in fact, anyone in the room except chef Thomas Keller, who is apparently an avid golfer. When does he find the time?

And though I’m not sure the golfers cared, the breakfast was pedestrian: overcooked scrambled eggs, soggy potatoes, bacon and sausages plus unripe fruit (other than excellent strawberries) though the pastries were good and service excellent.

The resort’s fancy Royal Oak diningroom, which features all-American steak and seafood, also has reopened for the season.


Cooking Bottega

April 28, 2011

Thursday night, our gourmet Cooks & Books group prepared a dinner from Michael Chiarello’s gorgeous cookbook Bottega.

The every-other-monthly event was held at my house, and it was a bit cozy with a dozen attendees – four were absent, out of town or sadly ill.

Here’s the menu:

Libations, antipasti and stuzzichini

  • Crispy blue cheese-stuffed olives
  • Budino di pecorino fulvi with oven-roasted rapini
  • Carrot, eggplant and onion caponata
  • Pesto aracini
  • Prosecco, Negroni and spanked basil Gimlet


Italian wedding soup


  • Ricotta gnocchi
  • Tagliarini with Manila clams and Calabrese sausage


Arrosto pork centerpiece

Contorni and insalata

  • Five onion-braised Cavolo Nero
  • Heirloom Toscanelli beans al fiasco
  • Shaved Brussels  sprout salad (missing due to illness)


Biscotti and truffles with Vin Santo (I bought some fancy Italian cheeses from Oxbow Cheese Merchant, but forgot to put them out!)

It was great fun as always.

My favorites were the gnocchi by Annie Bake, who usually brings sweets, and kale prepared by Janet Fletcher.

I prepared the pork since what I wanted to make was porchetta, but we’re  supposed to follow the recipes exactly and that wasn’t practical: It called for a 32-lb. pig stuff with a pork roast.

I didn’t care for the pork roast. It didn’t seem very Italian with exotic spices, applesauce and a sweet reduced wine sauce, and the flavors just didn’t work for me in any case. Some others loved it and got the leftovers.

Since one of our group, Claudia Sansone, was a co-author of the book, she was taking notes like crazy as we commented on the preparation and impressions of the courses.

There were a surprising number of omissions and unclear instructions, but most people probably buy the book for the great stories told by Michael, the gorgeous photos – and to remember meals there.

Our group contains many experienced culinary pros, and most commented that the recipes weren’t really for amateurs.

On the other hand, it’s just another reason to eat at Bottega!

The group has been cooking five years. It was Betty Teller’s brainchild, and many have asked to join, but we can’t really accommodate more cooks. We encourage you to start your own group, and we’d be happy to share our guidelines.


Dinner at Estate with Coldani olive oil

April 28, 2011

I love Napa, but in some ways, I love Sonoma even more. It has that great plaza, more varied – especially ethnic – restaurants, more entertainment and a gentler vibe. Yet even though it's only 14.9 miles away (according to my iPhone's Map Quest program), closer than St. Helena, I don't get there much. It's in the 'other' valley.

Last night, however, I ventured over to have a dinner focusing on olive oil at Estate, Sondra Bernstein’s fine Italian restaurant (you probably know her southern French the girl and the fig better).

The restaurant is in the old General's Daughter site next to Ramekins cooking school. It's a restored house that was built by General Mariano Vallejo for his third daughter Natalia, who  married Attila Haraszthy, son of the famous importer of European vines and founder of Buena Vista Winery.

The hosts were the Coldani family – six of them – who are olive oil growers from the cool western part of the Lodi region close to the Delta.

The family, which came from Piedmont in northern Italy, has farmed there for 70 years.

Unlike many of their neighbors, who grow grapes, the family sticks to olives.

They've planted them much like grape vines, small bushes tended in rows close together. They're mechanically harvested.

The result is yields comparable to grapes at 4-6 tons per acre, but lower yields (maybe it's the pits) of 30 to 40 gallons per acre (grapes average 170 gallons per ton).

Their Calivirgin oils are a mixture of Arbequina and Koroneiki olives with a rich, olive taste, not the harsh green pepper Tuscans have tried to convince the world is superior.

Naturally, it's extra virgin and certified; apparently most imported "extra virgin" olive oil isn't, and much is rancid, though many people like it that way as they think that's normal.

In addition to the regular oil, they also crush fresh lemons with the oil for a "Lusty Lemon oil, basil for Bountiful Basil and pepper for Hot Virgin Jalapeño oil.

They also sell imported balsamic vinegar from Modeno, and are working on a balsamic-flavored oil.

I prefer plain oils so I can add my flavoring, but many people like the flavored oils.

The meal starred the oils, of course, even to a lemon olive oil cake and olive oil gelato.

It was all delicious, but the five appetizers were so tasty I could have stopped there: house-made salumi, burrata, roasted asparagus, roasted foraged mushrooms, and roasted peppers, all with appropriates Calivigin oils.

I did encounter a new type of pasta – fazzolotti. They're small "handkerchiefs," in this case made from spelt flour, so they had a rustic, whole wheat flavor. I'd say more interesting than compelling.

One side note: Richard Branson’s lawyers contacted them about the name Calivirgin. Apparently Richards thinks he’s entitled to all ‘virgins,’ as in the days of feudal estates, I guess.

You can find out more about Coldani at, and Estate at

Twin flaps roil wine world

April 26, 2011

Two interesting controversies have arisen this week, alcohol content of wines and Napa’s status in the wine world.

Should we know how much alcohol is in our wine?

The San Francisco Chronicle has announced that it will start publishing the alcohol content of wine in its reviews.

Seems like a good move to me. I’m all for consumers having more information. I’d be delighted if they also listed residual sugar and acidity (I wish they could figure out a way to measure oakiness!), but alcohol is especially important for the obvious reason that too much can get you into immediate trouble. Sugar is a longer-term issue for most people and really just a matter of taste.

When I started drinking wine about 1966, most wines were about 12.5 percent alcohol.

The average now is about 14 percent, maybe 14.5 percent. That may not seem like much difference, but it’s about 20 percent, and that can have a big impact if you have a few drinks.

If you’re going to drink alcohol, I think you should know what you’re consuming. That’s true not just so you won't drive when you're impaired but so you don’t make a fool of yourself and wake up with a hangover.

Young guys – I was one once – don’t care much about these things, but as you get older, you get more rational (or cautious).

I even have a breathalyzer, but I’ve learned through experience that you have wait a while to use it or it reads very high.

Beyond issues of safety, highly alcoholic wines can taste hot, and they can also change the perceptions of the food you eat. I can’t think of anything I want to eat that can stand up to a 16 percent Cabernet or Zinfandel, though I’ll grant that there’s a tradition of eating some foods with even fortified wines.

It might be worth a quick word on why alcohol level has risen: A primary reason has been the fashion – promulgated by critics – for wines with no green or vegetal notes, as Cabernet and many other grapes used to exhibit.

It also might be improved grapevines without viruses and better management, which produce more sugar.

But I think a big part is simply that growers don’t irrigate their grapes enough late in the season because of the fashion for high sugar levels and consequence high alcohol.

Cynics (and some growers) claim wineries like this as they buy fewer tons, but many wines of this class are made with grapes that are contracted by the acre and the wineries have heavy input in the management anway. Ironically, winemakers sometimes (legally) add water to the must to reduce alcohol levels slightly.

I once asked a grower in the Valpolicella area of Italy why they can produce such nice wines with lower alcohol, and he pointed out that we were standing out in the rain: Mother nature often dilutes the sugar. In fact, they dry grapes there to make high-octane Amarone, which I consider completely unnecessary.

A few stores and restaurants have decided that they’ll set upper alcohol limits on the wines they serve (though not for dessert wines, I suspect). I guess I’d prefer information to a nanny, however.

Of course, you might ask why would anyone object to listing alcohol levels, just as why would anyone object to listing the fat or sodium content of food?

In simple terms, they object that people will use this one-dimensional number to reject their wines, as if people aren’t already judging them by Wine Spectator or Parker rankings. They say a wine can be balanced at high alcohol if the acidity and other factors are appropriate.

That may be true, but balance doesn’t keep you from getting busted by the St. Helena Police.

So I say thumbs up for the Chronicle.

We need better alternatives for transport

And while we’re at it, kudos to wineries like Constant Diamond Mountain and Hall, who send drivers for attendees at their Auction Napa Valley and other functions.

The biggest argument for passenger train service in Napa Valley is how convenient it would be to transport people enjoying themselves. Almost all attractions up to north St. Helena are within walking distance of the train tracks, and the others are a short shuttle away.

Maybe some day…

Is it over for Napa Valley?

The other fuss was over an article by Jennifer Thomson in the Wine Business Insider newsletter published by Wine Business Monthly that comments on the top 100 lists the Wine Spectator publishes each year. That list is including fewer and fewer wines from Napa (and top regions of Italy and France, for that matter). See editor Cyril Penn's comments at

The Napa Valley Vintners took umbrudge and responded in its blog (

People love lists, however, and writers are always looking for something new and different, especially controversial, to write about. It’s in their nature and it's their job.Those who can do, do; those who can't write about it, one wag said.

I also think it's better to ignore such comments, especially in limited circulation publications even if read by important people, not draw attention to them.

However, Napa valley wines have increased in price much faster than the wines of any other region. Many vintners here think its their birthright to charge $75 or $150 per bottle.

Many have been able to, but perhaps many prices got a little ahead of the market.

If I had a dollar for every person who’s asked me if Screaming Eagle or Colgin is worth the price, I could afford to buy those wines. Wine, like other luxury goods, is worth what people will pay for it. I suspect many people are no longer willing to pay what they once did. Perhaps they aren’t trying to impress their  friends that way, or more charitably, don’t consider the wines are good investments or even worth the price to drink.

Unfortunately, some Napa vintners have gotten used to high prices, and think they deserve it. Many have also adopted cost structures to go with the wines.

Napa grapes have gotten very expensive, and the land used to grow them has gotten and remains very expensive, too.

Unless you’re one of the fortunate ones whose ancestors bought the land long ago, or you bought the land a few decades ago, you may have paid $150,000 to $350,000 per acre for land. Do a little bit of math, and you’ll see that you can almost never sell wine for enough to justify those prices.

Many of the people who’ve spent these amounts, however, could afford to – at least when they bought the property. Maybe not now.

On top of that, many Napa growers and wineries have adopted very expensive growing practices, with very high labor costs for tending the vines, and very low yields.

They’ve convinced themselves – and many critics and consumers – that this is necessary and that low yields equal high quality.

The average yield in Napa Valley is about 3.5 tons an acres but some people like Robert Parker preach that lower yield equals better wine in spite of strong evidence to the contrary.

Some sites like sparse mountain-top soil might only be able to support low yields, but much of Napa Valley’s crop grows in rich valley land easily able to support higher production without compromising quality. In fact, growers have to hedge vines, drop fruit and otherwise frustrate the poor vines to get low yields.

The optimum yields also depend on the grape variety, of course. Sauvignon Blanc in rich soils can happily produce 8 tons of excellent fruit per acre, for example, though Cabernet is surely less.

Anyway, Napa Valley growers and vintners do make excellent wines, and they’ve been huge benefactors of that fact and masterful promotion efforts by the Napa Valley Vintners and people like Robert Mondavi.

But they produce a tiny amount of wine in the world market, and the world is changing. The fact that Chile or Austria is now making excellent wines that appeal to many people doesn’t mean that Napa Valley is in trouble. It just means that more people are buying more wine and are open to new experiences. Others will turn to the wines with the biggest reputation and convince them that they’re better.

And writers will continue to love to stir the pot.

Earth Day in Napa

April 23, 2011

We walked downtown, about a 20-minute walk, to catch the action on Earth Day. Streets were blocked off for the exhibits by environmental groups a a few vendors selling solar power and so forth.

A huge crowd attended under overcast skies, and they seemed very interested in the exhibits and messages – and no one escaped without some goodies, whether small poppy plants or posters.

Four four trucks had set up, as well as vendores at more conventional booths selling food, and variopus musical groups were playing. The reggae took me back to the time when I lived on my sailboat in Antigua.

I was surprised that few local wineries were on hand, for many are very sensitive to the enviornment.

We – my daughter Wendy, son-in-law Steve, Annika and Lars – ofted for sitting down to eat, so we went to one of their favorives, El Périco on First Street. It serves tasty Mission food, but I made the mistake of ordering a chimichanga, a deep-fried burrito served with guacamole and sour cream. I hadn't had one in years, maybe decades.

In Arizona where I did, they were relatively modest: a normal flour tortilla wrapped around the filling (chicken in this case) and fried.

You know about Mission burritos – rice, beans, cheese and meat in an enormous flour tortilla. It was huge. It tasted great, but I couldn't think about eating it all.

It's no wonder Americans are so – well-fed, shall we say.

In retrospect, I should have gotten a taco. Period. But the chimichanga was good.

Happy Birthday, Melodie

April 22, 2011

Friday was Melodie Hilton’s 50th birthday. The southern belle often calls herself ML in print, a throwback to the days when a petite southern ‘girl’ named Melodie didn’t demand respect, I guess.

She used to be a respected journalist, but is now director of marketing for the Wine Train, and doing a great job.

She’s introduced the immensely popular piano bar sing-alongs and other entertainments at the Wine Train Depot. She’s also helped engineer the use of the Wine Train to take people to Cheers! street party in St. Helena during the summer and along with the other new management, diffused some of the issues that used to face the train...

One of the guests at her party was Greg McManus, CEO of the train, and son-in-law of the late Vince DeDomenico, who started the train.

McManus is a techie who was head of operations for Vince’s Golden Grain pasta and Ghirardelli chocolate companies, but he’s a fascinating guy with wide experiences and interests, from working at a ski resort with Bo Barrett to being a mechanic.

Greg climbed off a locomotive to come to the party; he had been working on one of the engines. I wonder how many CEOs can make that claim, though I know many vintners who get their feet wet during harvest, figuratively speaking.

Greg has installed systems at the Wine Train so that he can monitor all aspects of its operation from his iPhone, which is convenient since he lives on Hawaii, though he obviously visits here often.

Speaking of the Wine Train, with people in St. Helena learning that it’s not an evil dragon, perhaps it’s time to look into using the Train to deliver people to the Friday Barrel Tasting and Marketplace at the CIA during Auction Napa Valley.

We’ll all have to park at Charles Krug or elsewhere and take a shuttle, so why not let the train continue up to Krug – the tracks end just past it at Deer Park Road – and save a lot of driving?

The Peter Mondavi family has been vehement opponents of the train in the past, yet they would probably benefit more than almost anyone if the train could drop passengers off by their tasting room and restored buildings. Maybe they’ve mellowed by now…

Politics aside, I don’t think they’ve used the track for years, so it may be in disrepair.

Some people in Napa Valley are unhappy that that event is no longer affordable to more people, but it’s for charity, and they should change as much as they can; it sold out in 20 minutes at $350, after all.

Chris Smith joins the Opera House

April 22, 2011

Friday, I had the pleasure of meeting with Chris Smith, the interim (and hopefully permanent) director of the Opera House. We enjoyed fried oyster sandwiches at Hog Island Oysters in the Oxbow Public Market.

Chris is an upbeat, optimistic young (of course, to me, everyone is young) guy with an open mind and great ideas. He comes from a background in theater and development (that’s what they call marketing in nonprofit groups).

He replaces Evy Warshawski, who did a great job for more than five years before she left.

Chris and I (who have too many ideas and opinions) discussed many things including potential new Opera House programs and I won’t say too much since everything is still talking, but one good prospect is for movies like those Richard Miami used to schedule at Copia on a weekly (at least) basis.

Chris is also open to ideas for new programs and performances, too. If you have anything you’d like to see there, his email is

Just remember that Chris just got here and is very busy, so be reasonable – and be prepared to help implement your ideas.

The Opera House is one of the treasures of the valley, and it needs our support.

Lunch at NapaStyle with Napa Valley Vintners

April 21, 2011

The next day, I zipped back to Yountville for lunch at Michael Chiarello’s NapaStyle; I didn’t choose the place, but was very happy to eat there.

It was for a meeting with Rex Stuls and Anne Steinhauer of the Napa Valley Vintners to talk about a chapter for the new version of Spinning the Bottle Harvey Posert and I are preparing.

The book about wine public relations is seven years old and we’re updating it with many new chapters on today’s interests, like social media, blogging, virtual wine tasting and much more, and I wanted them to contribute an updated chapter on the Vintners’ superlative local community efforts.

We spent some time talking about the upcoming 31st Auction Napa Valley, which chairs the Rombauer family have returned to our roots and focused on the valley, not fanciful ideas from around the globe.

The key chefs Saturday will be locals Cindy Pawlcyn and Michael Chiarello.

The Auction will surely pass the $100 million mark in total contributions to worthy local causes this year, as the total now stands at $97 million.

More on the Auction later, including some treats for the community.

Also, Rex and I had the pork panini, Anne the vegetable one. It’s a nice place to enjoy a lunch outside. And a pedantic note: panini just means sandwiches; they don’t have to be grilled. Also, one is a panino.

Dinner at Bottega

April 20, 2011

When I used to visit Napa Valley from Silicon Valley in the ’80s, my favorite restaurant was Tra Vigne, and when I moved to St. Helena 15 years ago, I hung out at the bar a lot.

Founding chef Michael Chiarello had left by then and the food had lost the magic by the time I moved to Napa eight years ago, and the 18 miles to St. Helena is too far to go to hang out especially with the explosion of great places in Napa.

So when I heard Michael was opening a restaurant in Yountville, I was very excited and followed the slow progress until it finally opened.

If you can believe it, Michael told me the day before it opened that he was worried it wouldn’t be successful!

Now it’s the toughest reservation in the valley (after the French Laundry) and it’s always packed.

For good reason. The atmosphere is exceptionally friendly, the décor comfortable, food superb and Michael is exceptionally warm and welcoming. When he’s there, he visits the tables to greet people and visitors treat him like a rock star. The only problem for me is that after he visits my table, my date loses interest in me :)

Michael’s food is based on rustic southern Italian Cucina – his family is from Calabria, the little-known ‘toe’ of Italy – using local ingredients and tempered with sophisticated innovations. It’s also very good.

Last week, I was able to secure a reservation by begging, and we enjoyed a great meal as always.

First, we tried some experimental dishes: a trio of fresh porcini, one deep fried, one sliced raw in a small salad and one grilled. Remarkable. The inside of the fried mushroom pieces had turned soft in contrast to the crisp coating, and the grilled version was meaty; even a staunch carnivore would love it. A grilled Portobello can’t compare.

Unfortunately, porcini can’t be tamed and so they’re hard to find, seasonal and expensive.

We also got crudo of hamachi served on a large block of solid salt, a signature inspiration of Michael’s. The raw fish wasn’t salty but delicate and fresh, and it was served with pickled ramps that we very tasty but tiny.

We split an excellent risotto of stinging nettles (!) with a little salad and bits of prosciutto on top. Italians like simpler risotti and don’t pile things on them, but the risotto was good if too salty.

We then split a wood-oven roasted fish, one of my favorite dishes of all times.

It was served with (actually over, again the Italians would serve it separately) fat and sweet asparagus.

Though we split two courses – and they split them in the kitchen for us – service was gracious.

We were pretty full, but did order one dessert, lighter-than-air Italian bobolini or doughnuts (more like flat doughnut holes) served with dipping sauces of lemon curd and berry, I think blackberry.

Unfortunately, they sent out two more desserts to try: panna cotta and a molten chocolate cake. In spite of my resolutions, I ate part and they, too were great, though again, the cake was very salty.

After some bubbly, we paired (at their suggestion) the food with a Greco di Tufo from Campania and a Pinot Grigio that shows what a good one can be.

We finished with a light sparkling pink moscato from Piemonte. It was a perfect finale.

Not surprisingly, I chose Michael’s cookbook and coffee-table book Bottega for the next meeting of our Cooks and Books club at my house next week. As the host, I wanted to do an impressive centerpiece, but a 32-lb pig stuffed with a pork roast was a bit much for about 15 people, so I’m compromising on the pork roast.

I’ll let you know how the dinner turns out next week.

Pizza at Ca’ Momi

April 19, 2011

I’ve become a big fan of Ca’ Momi Pizzeria in the Oxbow Public Market. I still love Pizza Azzurro and especially its verde pizza with ricotta, spinach, peppers and garlic, but also love the choices and the friendly people at Ca’ Momi. They also have kids at my grandkids’ school Stone Bridge, and donate part of their proceeds to the school; say you’re supporting Stone Bridge even if you don’t have a connection when you order!

They also have a “buy 10, get 0ne free” card, and serve their very drinkable Ca’ Momi pizza wine, Napa Rosso, for only $10.95. I never order a glass when I’m alone, but just get a bottle and take the extra home as they also are the only winery using the Novatwist, the best screw cap I’ve encountered.

It’s also a great place to take the family, though we also really like Firewood in the Bel Aire Plaza.

Just don’t ask for Parmesan or pepper flakes on your pizza; they’re the pizza Nazis and won’t make inauthentic pizzas.

And don’t miss the pastries, which are divine. The proprietors are from near Venice, which is famous for its pastries.

I stopped by for a pizza during Locals Night at the Oxbow Public Market, and the place was packed. I had to park in the south parking lot.

After some rough spots, the  Oxbow Market has really caught on. I think filling up the space with vendors (though one space is waiting a new tenant, it’s filled with useful tables and chairs), comfortable new seating, and especially the move of the wine and cheese shop to the main hall combined with thje addition of popular C Casa and Ca’ Momi have really made a difference.

I’m anxiously awaiting opening of the Kitchen Door, which should bring a new dimension to the popular market.

Grapegrowers’ Bud Break conference

April 19, 2011

Napa Valley Grapegrowers gathered the media to discuss the 2011 growing season during the first Bud Break Press Conference, which was hosted at Vine Hill Ranch just north of Yountville  behind Brix.

Grower Mike Wolf

Growers addressed weather, pest control, advancements in technology, and vineyard labor, providing insight into the day-to-day operations in the vineyards.

“People often don’t realize that spring is the most stressful time for grapegrowers,” said Matt Ashby of Constellation Wine. “Everything is waking up in the vineyards and you never know what the weather will hold.  You could lose an entire crop in a matter of hours.”

Matt Lamborn of Lamborn Family Vineyards and owner of Pacific Geodata, a mapping and analysis technology company, talked about how advancements in weather monitoring technology are helping to combat the unknown. “We use technology to assess everything that can be measured: soil, temperature, wind speed, moisture, and then use the data to help automate our reaction to weather that best suits the vineyards.”

Jennifer Lamb of Herb Lamb Vineyards discussed how the effort of many parties helped to identify and fight the European Grapevine Month during last year’s growing season. The fight was spectacularly successful, and so far they’ve only found a few of the bugs this year.

Another topic discussed was the benefits given to Napa County farm workers. Napa Valley Grapegrowers have invested in farm worker education on topics ranging from safety to pest control. Because farm workers have been trained to identify pests in the vineyard, Napa Valley Grapegrowers can take preventive measures. 

Also, the growers of Napa County approved a $10 per acre ‘tax’ that subsidizes farm workers’ housing. What other businesses do that?

All in all, the members of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers have a positive outlook on this year’s growing season. Early heavy rains have provided an adequate supply of water for a change, helping to avoid the threat of drought.

The Napa Valley Grapegrowers represents over 550 Napa County grape growers and associated businesses.

Ironically, there wasn’t enough meat there for news stories by most wine industry and local media, but the Growers got a nice hit: A great segment on channel 7 ABC in San Francisco.

We got a chance to preview the new VHR (Vine Hill Ranch) Cabernet Sauvignon, the Phillips' family's first wine under their own name after growing grapes for renowned wines for other people for generations. It's made by Françoise Peschon, the winemaker at Araujo Estates.

The first release, the 2008, was emminently drinkable now, but has a long future ahead as well. Not excessive, it's a fine example of what Napa Valley is capable of. The Vine Hill property is a tad cooler than some here, with northeastern facing slopes, which keeps it delicately restrained by fully ripe and luscious.

The meeting was a great chance to be reminded of things we should know, and to talk to some very nice people.

Gardens at Napa Valley restaurants

April 15, 2011

Though I write about wine, I’m not a “wine writer.” I write about a lot of things, and I don’t even believe in the practice of judging wines with numbers or hierarchies, for experience and understanding of wine science and technology has convinced me than people’s perceptions of wines differ as widely as their tastes in, say, food.                                                                                                                       Gardens at Mustards

I do write more about wine than anything else. After all, I live in Napa Valley, the heart of America’s wine country, but my idea of hell would be tasting 100 huge Cabernets or oaky Chardonnays.

That’s a long lead up (‘buried lede’ it’s called in the writing business) to a recent delightful assignment, writing about restaurants in Napa Valley that grow their own food. A huge number do, from the tony French Laundry to modest Gott’s (formerly Taylor’s) drive-in in St. Helena.

Vegetarian Ubuntu sources almost all their own produce and fruit, and Ted and Laddie Hall of Long Meadow Ranch are such ardent farmers that they created Farmstead restaurant in St. Helena to utilize it. (An ironic state law limits the amount of their wine they can sell in their restaurant, however!)

In fact, one practice that distinguishes many Napa Valley restaurants from their big city counterparts is that they grow at least part of their own produce as well as sourcing from local suppliers. That’s largely the result of geography. You can’t very well have a garden in San Francisco or Manhattan.

In addition to providing the freshest possible ingredients, these gardens are an attraction in themselves. Many patrons enjoy strolling through the gardens, and as they savor their meals, you know they’re thinking of where it came from.

Unfortunately, however, tomatoes still don’t ripen until July or August. They may be the epitome of summer vegetables, but they just don’t cooperate, so I suspect even the restaurants passionate about local produce mostly give in to customer demand and buy their tomatoes from warmer climates early in the summer. Until mine ripen, I buy expensive (like steak) but beautiful and tasty tomatoes from Bruin Farms at the Farmers Market. They grow them in a greenhouse. It’s only a week or so till the Farmers Market starts May 3!

Garden at French Laundry

Women for WineSense birthday

April 14, 2011

The same day the French honored Thomas Keller, Women for WineSense celebrated their 21st anniversary with a retrospective, panel and reception at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Yes, they did let me in, and I was one of about half a dozen men among the 100-plus women.

One of the first articles I wrote when I started writing about wine seriously 16 years ago was about women in winemaking. I wrote it for Wine Business Monthly, but then rewrote it for a number of other publications because of the interest.

Now the topic seems quaint and even a little embarrassing. Women winemakers, viticulturists, executives and owners are everywhere. Their sex is no longer relevant to most people. UC Davis’ winemaking classes contain more women than men, and if you attend any winemaking seminar or meeting, you’ll see that a high percentage of the attendees are younger women who will be even more prominent in a decade or so.

It’s great to see the progress that’s been made, but it’s also important to recognize the contributions of those women who fought so hard and put up with so much to make it happen. Fortunately, they didn’t have to face German shepherds and Billy clubs, but that doesn’t lessen their contribution.

Honors for Thomas Keller

April 14, 2011

Thomas Keller threw a little party to celebrate his induction as a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor today. They celebrated him for his promotion of French cuisine to Americans.

The only other American recipients of the honor were the late Julia Child and Alice Waters, who attended and said a few words. Most French chefs, after all, are French.

What more can be said about Keller? He put Yountville, and to some extent, Napa Valley food, on the national map, and has had tremendous influence on fine American dining.

I’ve only eaten at the French Laundry a few times; the food and presentation is exquisite.

It’s also one of the few quiet restaurants in Napa Valley or anywhere else I know, as befits a temple to food. Would you yell or talk on your phone in church, after all?

Though the portions are tiny, it’s still too much for me to eat as course follows course with tidbits between them. It’s also hard for me to think of many occasions to justify a $270 meal (without wine).

On the other hand, his Bouchon and Ad Hoc are delightful, and if still expensive, affordable once in a while.

Dinner with Brian Duncan at Piero

April 13, 2011

If you’ve seen my photograph, you know I’m not skinny. I hope not fat, but I certainly could lose some weight. That’s tough to do when you’re invited out so often (five or six times a week), though I turn down most invitations.

Then I have to try new restaurants, and on top of that, I love to cook for my family, friends and myself.

Last week, however, an old friend, Bill Leigon, invited me to a dinner at Cantinetta Piero in Hotel Luca in Yountville and I succumbed.

Piero is one of my favorite restaurants in Napa Valley, and I think chief Craig DiFonzo makes superb and authentic Italian food.

It was a dinner featuring Hahn Wines (He’s president of Hahn) and Bin 36 and D&S wines made by Hahn for Brian Duncan, who owns and runs Bin 36 restaurant in Chicago.

Brian is quite entertaining, and his wines, which are very reasonably priced, are excellent. In fact, I preferred his Chardonnay to the oaky Hahn served (I know; many people love that style and it’s not over the top. I just don’t want to taste oak in any wine. I hate Bourbon with its similar oak flavors, too.)

It was a perfect match for the huge seared diver scallop and stinging nettle risotto. It seems stinging nettles are the kiwis of the year, for I had them a few nights later, but they do make a tasty risotto as long as you’re not picking them.

The second course was Berkshire pork cheek with parsley root purée (remind me to go into the exotic vegetable business) and ramps – wild leeks – which I also had two nights later. Both nettles and ramps are harbingers of spring, along with favas, asparagus, peas and artichokes, and I love them all, I must admit.

It was matched with the 2007 Bin 36 Pinot Noir. I always find pork a little hard to match but it was a good one.

The third course, braised short ribs, was unnecessary but fortunately all the course were small. It was served with D & S Cabernet, which was fine.

Anyway, the wine and food was good, and I sat with Bill, a former professional actor, and two other actors, his lady Anna Carminito, and saucy Lisa de Bruin, who works in sales for Hahn. I met them when they were in the sadly late Napa Repertory Theater, but all three have had to get realistic and focus on their wine jobs (Anna is with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars). But theater people are always interesting, and it’s well know that actresses are magnets for vulnerable men.

You can find out more about Brian’s wines at and Hahn’s at And in spite of my comments about the Hahn Chardonnay, their wines from Santa Lucia Highlands and elsewhere on the Central Coast are excellent and good values.

Thiebaud exhibit at St. Supéry

April 12, 2011

This month, Napa Valley celebrated Arts in April for the first time, and the arts were highlighted up and down the valley. It’s a welcome trend, as in the last year or so, the people who promote Napa Valley to visitors are recognizing that the arts should share billing with wine and food in our attractions. And it’s vital to get visitors to our performing arts venues for performances as we have too many riches for Napa County’s 135,000 people to support.

In fact, Napa Valley is full of visual and performing arts all the time. Among the former are the incredible art collections at Clos Pegase, the Hess Collection, Mumm and many other wineries that you can visit – for free.

St. Supéry Winery, which is owned by the Skalli family of southern France, has always had impressive art on display, but they’ve outdone themselves this time.

The upstairs gallery now contains almost a dozen paintings by Wayne Thiebaud, one of the world’s top contemporary artists.

Titled “Mountains,” this will be the first Thiebaud exhibition ever shown in the Napa Valley. The free, public show will be open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. until June 30.

Thiebaud is perhaps best known for his iconic interpretations of baked goods. 

In contrast, the Mountain exhibition embraces “aspects of realist paintings with the celebration of texture and light, but adheres closely to his experiments in geometric shapes and bold brush strokes of complementary colors.”

Stop by and view the paintings, and not to be a philistine, but I’ll note that his paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Only a couple of these are for sale, however.

While you’re there, you’ll want to try the wines. St. Supéry is a member of the Napa Valley Vintners’ Napa Neighbor program, so Napa County residents get free tasting for themselves plus a guest, plus 10 percent off wine purchases. 

While their Bordeaux reds are most celebrated, St. Supéry says it produces one-third of the Sauvignon Blanc made in Napa Valley, and it’s fine drinking. They make three:

The ‘regular’ 2010 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($25) smells of grapefruit and lime with hints of fennel, with none of that grassy green-pepper stink of some NZ SBs. It’s the perfect match for foods, from most cheeses (which don’t pair well with reds in spite of the tradition) and fish to boldly flavored Asian and Latin dishes. It's also a great aperitif.

The Dollarhide Ranch, by the way, fills a remote 1,500-acre valley off Pope Valley near Lake Berryessa. With its rolling hills, lakes, vines and ancient trees, it’s as close to Eden as you’ll find around here. Unfortunately, it’s not generally open to visitors, but maybe we can persuade them to open it for occasional events.

The 2009 Dollarhide Sauvignon Blanc is richer would be better with chicken or heavier seafood. It’s $35.

The Virtu 2009 is the current version of what was once called a white Meritage, a blend of slightly more Semillon than Sauvignon Blanc. It’s $25.

St. Supéry also makes a winery-only Semillon but I’m not fond of California Semillon (Washington’s are better, as are Bordeaux).

On the other hand, the winery-only unoaked Chardonnay is a winner. Many unoaked Chardonnays demonstrate why winemakers usually use oak with the bland grape, but most overdo it. This is a fine wine for shellfish. Think Chablis. Real Chablis, not Gallo white, pink or red “chablis.” It’s $20.

And don’t forget one of my favorite wines of all: The Moscato. St. Supéry has been making Moscato in a light, slightly sweet version for years, long before the current craze for the wine. It’s the ideal summer afternoon wine, pairing for Southeast Asian or Caribbean food – or after dinner. It’s $20 but hard to find.

And as indicated, St. Supéry has given up on the term Meritage. They were a pioneer and fought the good fight, but the concept never really caught on. It’s been debased by some cheap wines, anyway, and the association didn’t have the mechanism for voting wines out like they do for Mendocino’s Coro Zinfandel blend or many European appellations.

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