Fall in the Napa Valley

Yountville fallEvery year after harvest, we are blessed by an amazing show of fall colors in the valley. If we have received measurable early fall rains, there is a carpet of fine new grassy growth between the vines,  highlighting the dramatic difference between the bright new growth in the vine rows and the declining yellow leaves on the vines; one aspect just starting its cycle, the other ending theirs. If an early frost should set in, instead of the natural progression of leaves turning deep green to light green to yellow to brown, the leaves wither crisp and brown overnight, looking as though they have been hit with a dreaded disease.
DSC_0458The colors and contrasts of the vineyards are subtle yet brilliant at the same time, highlighting the barren, brown hills from the vibrant row designations, and each varietal and row direction changing color at its own pace.

But in years like this one, where the Indian summer has graced us with warm days and cool evenings and no rain or frost for over a month, there is a miraculous array of colors around every bend. Everything is in dazzling hues, as though enhanced by Photoshop and color corrected by Mother Nature.

DSC_0423The shades of green to yellow and orange to red are so subtle that some leaves seem to be tinted with all four colors at once. And the deep purple hue of the second crop Cabernet Sauvignon is a striking contrast to the yellowing leaves of late fall. It paints the kind of image for the eye that, if you put it on canvas, critics would say “But it is too dazzling – it doesn’t look natural”.

The work has shifted now from the vineyards to the wineries, and the vineyard crews are applying the last soil amendments and fertilizers before the rains set it. Tractors and harvesting equipment have been stored away in the barns and shops. There is an odd quiet in the vineyards now, which only a month ago were the source bustling activity.

DSC_0424So remember to put a visit to Wine Country in November on your calendar for next year so you can sample the new wines from the barrel as you watch an old vintage transpire.

New England fall colors, eat your heart out!

Moms Gone Mad on the 4th of July

Every small town has their 4th of July traditions. The Napa Valley celebrates like  many others; parties around the pool, BBQ with friends and family followed by a night of fireworks whether put on by one of the big local wineries and seen from afar or on the street in front of our house with the entire neighborhood watching the event.
But as a rural farming community, the most indelible part of our local 4th of July celebration always includes a morning watching the annual Silverado Parade on the main street of Calistoga, where we know half the participants on the floats and wave to our neighbors the Fire Chief and the Mayor. After the parade, we walk down the street to spend the rest of the day at the Napa County Fair at the Calistoga Fairgrounds. For days before hand, we try to be the first one to see the Cotton Candy or Corn Dog trailers driving through town, followed closely by the huge trucks hauling the “Tilt-A-Whirl” rides and trailers for the carneys. 4-H children prepare their animals for the show ring, grandmas bake their award-winning pies and the teenagers make dates to sit in the race-track grandstands and listen to featured 2nd string fair-circuit bands. Rivaling drinking habits at “crush” throughout the Napa Valley, much more beer than wine is enjoyed during the fair. Through the years our children won dozens of goldfish in the ping-pong ball toss, all of which were named Jaws and by week’s end were floating in their make-shift bowls.

Our favorite memory was of Jennifer’s participation in the parade as part of a local entry of women calling themselves “Moms Gone Mad”, many years ago. In the late 1970’s, when fewer than 80 wineries existed in the Napa Valley, about a dozen young wine-industry moms worked for weeks to perfect their marching routine, wielding mops and brooms and buckets, pushing strollers and carrying babes in arms. In the same vein as Pasadena’s Do-Dah Parade (a spoof on the Rose Parade) it was a hilarious, finely choreographed marching routine that took far too long to move along the main street between fire trucks with their sirens blaring and the Girl Scout float, but was the hit of the parade. And in the lead, eight months pregnant, was Jennifer with a mop, being pushed in a wheel chair and guiding the band of misfit moms. Thirty-three years later, we are celebrating our daughter’s birthday next month. Happy birthday, Meg!



Easter with the Iron Chef

In the Napa Valley we are blessed with dozens of exceptional restaurants locally, and we frequent them often. Within 15 minutes of our home in St. Helena some of our favorites are Farmstead, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, Tra Vigne, Brassica, Gott’s/Taylor’s Refresher, Market and Terra. A little further afield in Yountville, 15 minutes further down the Napa Valley, we have an equally great selection with restaurants such as Redd, Bouchon, Mustard’s, Bottega, Ad Hoc and Bistro Jeanty. But a 30+ minute drive to the town of Napa sometimes seems like going to another planet, and we rarely spread our wings that far just for a good meal.

Easter brunch gave us the opportunity to have a leisurely afternoon out, exploring fine dining options in Napa without having to drive home in the dark after several glasses of wine. We have enjoyed the multiple and tasty options at Oxbow Market in downtown Napa, and now wanted to see what the new dining selections on the Napa Riverwalk were all about.

For hundreds of years, the downtown streets of Napa have periodically flooded, sometimes with devastating results; but recent flood control and redevelopment efforts along with dredging of the river gave way to a more controlled flow and security for the local merchants. Up went high-rise (well, four stories in Napa is huge!) million dollar apartments and a new series of shops, galleries and restaurants called Riverwalk right on the banks of the muddy Napa river. We had eaten at and enjoyed the restaurants Angele and Celedon in the renovated feed mill on the water (Herb used to sell grain there, which he farmed when in FFA, for the Hunt & Behrens brand of chicken feed), but wanted to explore newer additions next door. Alas, Fish Story and Tyler Florence were closed, leaving only Morimoto, a contemporary Japanese restaurant, as an Easter brunch option. Perhaps the Iron Chef would be there in person to greet us?

And what a lucky find that was! We sidled up to the bar (all the locals eat at the bar in the Napa Valley – that way we get to try and share our and others’ wines) and ordered festive Japanese cocktails – Herb’s Japanese Manhattan with a touch of ginger liqueur was a hit! The backdrop over the bar featured old grapevines, sandblasted and hung in a huge glass box (“looks like the stuff we pulled out and chipped in the vineyard!”). We had a series of small plate appetizers, including pork gyoza, kakuni, Morimoto bone marrow and lobster wonton and duck meatball soup paired with our own Two Old Dogs Sauvignon Blanc (we never travel far without one!) and a glass of local Syrah. The sushi and sashimi looked exceptional, but we’d hit our limit. After comparing histories and stories of river activity and Chef Morimoto’s active involvement in the restaurant, (unfortunately, he wasn’t in on Easter), with the native bartender, we agreed that it was an odd place for such up-scale expectations, “between the slew and the jail” and across the river from a row of used car lots. But we left satiated and fortunate to have Morimoto as such an exceptional restaurant option, even if it would take us 35 minutes to drive home. Add this one to your “must try” and take a bottle of our Two Old Dogs Sauvignon Blanc when next visiting Napa Valley!

Local Cheese and Wine

Blame it on Millie. She was the fawn colored Nubian goat that we inherited on the ranch we were care taking in the mid 1970’s – head-strong, vocal and capable of eating anything in her path – who subsequently proceeded to give birth to twins. What to do with all the milk? Make cheese, of course; a lovely farm-style, crumbly goat cheese that we ate on everything!
Fast forward 30 years, and we are still searching out little-known and interesting local cheese to serve to friends and clients at each wine tasting. No imported cheese in this household!  With the plethora of rolling grassy hills and dozens of creative cheese makers locally, we are literally in cheese heaven when it comes to selections. Dozens of aged dairies in the North Coast of California have been resourcefully converted to family owned smaller creameries, and inventive family farmers are now raising sheep and goats as well as smaller herds of milk cows to create imaginative cheeses. Fortunately, they are also doing a good job marketing their wares, which can now be found in fine dining restaurants all over the Bay Area as well as locally owned markets who now flaunt extensive cheese selections; Sunshine Foods  (St. Helena), The Oxbow Cheese Merchant (Napa), and Cal Mart (Calistoga), in case you need any options for your next Wine Country picnic. Local cheese with local wines . . . what a concept.

Here are some of our favorite artisan cheeses to pair with our locally-grown fruit and favorite wines; Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

We always offer a selection of goat cheese which we find is a great accompaniment to our Two Old Dogs Sauvignon Blanc. Goat’s Leap (from our own backyard in St. Helena) “Sumi” is an elegant ash coated soft cheese or try their aged “Carmela”. Any of Andante Dairy’s inventive goat cheese selections are successful pairings – “Acapella” soft-ripened, “Impromptu”, an aged hard cheese, or “Minuet”, a triple cream goat cheese. Bohemian Creamery also makes a great tangy cheese called “BoDacious”.

For sheep’s milk cheeses we go with Bellwether Farms’ raw milk farm-style “San Andreas” or the “Pepato” with small peppercorns that both pair beautifully with our HL Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Or, if you can find it, the “Fat Bottom Girl” washed rind cheese from Bleating Heart. (Wine labels aren’t the only brands with entertaining names!)

For cows’ milk, we always start with “The Original Blue” from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, creamy yet pungent and always a winner! For a hard cheese, we like the Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese “San Joaquin Gold” or their “Bandage Wrapped Cheddar”. And we can always count on the selection from Cowgirl Creamery, from their triple-cream washed-rind “Red Hawk”, to the mellow, earthy “Mt. Tam”, or the seasonal Jersey cow milk winter cheese “Devil’s Gulch” which is lightly dusted with dried peppers. After several bites of cheese paired with sips of wine, suddenly the cheese has disappeared and the glass is empty!

There are dozens of books and guides about our local cheese, and even an interesting industry magazine called Culture (look for the cheese centerfold and join their cheese-of-the-month club!), which is akin to the early publishing of the Wine Spectator covering the fledgling wine industry in the early 1980’s. As members of the California Artisan Cheese Guild (which is a great reference for local cheese) and attendees of the annual Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma, we have been able to visit many of the creameries in Sonoma and Marin and speak with the farmers and cheese makers first hand. It’s a real treat to visit with cheese makers –  sort of like casually meeting Napa Valley vintners in the vineyards and then touring the winery and tasting the end product . . . except that we don’t have as many cow pies to avoid in our fields. Millie would be proud.

It’s Fair Time!

Living basically on the fringes of rural America (albeit with the benefits of a wealthy wine-making populace and within a hours’ drive of northern California ‘s cultural capital), we are blessed by the opportunities we have to connect with the farming and agriculture communities in our backyard, a staple of which is the summer-time County Fair. So, with money in our back-pocket and gas in the tank, we spent the weekend visiting three of these American-Pie County Fair events within an hour of our home.
The first fair was the iconic Napa Town & Country Fair (not to be confused with the” Napa County Fair” which occurs each 4th of July weekend – along with the best parade ever –  in Calistoga) “Celebrating 200 Years of Homespun Fun” at the Napa County Expo – which also hosts RV camping and bingo on a regular basis. Older friends even recall Janice Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company singing at the fair in the 60’s. This was like old home week for us, as we bought a burger and beer from the Brown’s Valley School booth and toured the livestock barns, where Herb grew up showing 4-H and FFA animals over 40 years ago and Jennifer led the Rutherford 4-H sheep project in the 1970’s and 80’s. “You see this exhibitor?” he asked as he pointed out a young boy’s lamb. “I showed my Southdown lambs here against his grandmother.”

We were met by back slaps and smiles, as friends led their children up to introduce us in hopes that we would support them in the livestock auction the next day. Some earnest money can be made by exhibitors at his fair in the name of supporting our youth – our daughter earned enough with her 4-H hog projects to purchase her first (very used) car. We had received hand-written notes in the mail – with pictures of them smiling next to their beloved FFA project animals-  from the son of our insurance agent and the daughter of a vineyard client, and one dad even suggested that his son’s gilt (a young, female pig) would make a great breeder. No, our pig breeding days are over – thanks anyway!

The “best of breed, best of show” fair was the iconic Gravenstein Apple Fair in Sebastopol near Santa Rosa. Russian fur traders first brought these apples to the west coast in the early 1800’s and Luther Burbank, the great plant breeder, praised the apple, “It has often been said that if the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown.” In the same degree that grapes have replaced hundreds of acres of prunes and walnuts in Napa County, the Gravenstein apple acreage in Sonoma Country is almost a thing of the past. But in this infamous “West County” territory, the tie-died t-shirts, patchouli oil and love of all things Gravenstein lives on! And the Farm Trail booth was pouring some delicious Dry Creek Zinfandel to boot. We won a bag of apples playing darts (hit the apple on the board, win a bag!), and tasted apple fritters, cider, tarts, granola, pies and gelato, all the while enjoying watching the locals participate in the caramel apple eating contest, apple preserve cooking demonstration and, seated on bales of straw under the ancient oaks, boogie-woogie dancing to the rhythm of Mitch Woods and his Rocket 88’s on Stage 2.

Our last hurrah was the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa, where the call of the race track, “aaaaand they’re off!” lured us for a couple hours of intense equine conformation analysis. “This is a mile race – look for long muscles from the croup through the hock.” “But it’s a gray! I’ve got the place $2.00 across the board on the gray!” We left breaking even, except for the beer and burger, to tour the livestock barns and watch the afternoon milking demonstration and the last of the breeding dairy goat competition. “I really like the uniform udder on the second group”. The final coup was the short line at the free, Clover Dairy ice-cream stand where we kidded with the young volunteer with braces on his teeth to give us sprinkles and chocolate dip. We got a plain vanilla but it was delicious – fresh from the milking parlor, creamy, rich and ice-cold.

The best memory of the weekend? “I got in for $2.00 less, with a senior discount”, Herb recalled. “Next year it’s your turn!” I guess we’ll be back again next year – can’t wait!

Tips for Visiting the Wine Country

If this is your first visit or if you are a seasoned wine taster, here are some basic tips that will make your trip to the Wine Country so much more enjoyable;
Check the weather report. Our grapes ripen beautifully because we are located in a Mediterranean climate; almost no rain at all from June to September, warm to hot days (75-105 daytime temperature), with little or no humidity, but chilly, foggy evenings with wind and cool temperatures (50-60 degrees in the am & pm), which keep the acids high in the fruit. Dress accordingly with layers.

Start with your lodging. Book as far in advance as possible. If you intend to spend most of your day tasting wine and visiting wineries, is it really necessary to stay in the best resort? Look for something centrally located to your winery and restaurant visits, and save money on time and gas that you could be spending on wine! There are lots of funky but very adequate places (El Bonita in St. Helena) that are clean but not over $200.00/night. If you really need some quality down time and want high end dining, concierge service, pools and spas, then look no further than Meadowood, Auberge du Soleil and Solage.

Then book wine visits. Call or email and get personal. Get references from your wine loving friends, your wine shop or ask the wineries that you are most fond of where else to go – we’ll gladly tell you our favorite stops.

Now book dinners and luncheons. We have some of the top restaurants in the world, but we also have over 5 million visitors a year (and lots of locals) who want to dine in those same restaurants. Many restaurants have marginal corkage fees to entice you to bring a bottle of a special wine you purchased to dinner with you – don’t forget to include a glass for the sommelier or wait staff. Ask locals – what’s good, what’s hot, what’s new. We all eat out and we all taste each others’ wines and know the wineries. Network. An introduction from one winery owner to another, or suggestion for a restaurant, may mean all the difference in the world!

Look at a map. Don’t book a winery tour in Sonoma’s Dry Creek and another in Napa’s Howell Mountain the same day. Stay in one area and think about taking a picnic with you, so that you don’t have to race back to a restaurant for lunch. Focus your tastings in one area each day, and leave room to be late or take a side road and explore the area . . . or get lost!

Don’t book more than 3 winery visits a day. Tastings may include current releases, newly bottled samples and barrel samples of several lots. Drink lots of water in between tastings. Take crackers or snacks to help digest all the wine. If you must power-taste, then have a designated driver or hire a car with a driver. Many times the local car/chauffeur services can even suggest or make arrangements to get you into little-known wineries who only take visitors by appointment. Be smart.

Figure out what you are going to do about getting your wine purchases home. Can the wineries ship wine to your state? Possibly not. Determine if the wines you like are available in your area, if not, buy them at the winery and take them home. You will probably purchase several bottles at each stop. Ask the concierge at your hotel if they can arrange for or suggest a shipping company. If your airline only charges $25.00 for an extra bag, then purchase a 12 pack styrofoam shipper (or two) and start filling it to take home. There are several shipping centers throughout Wine Country that are in the business of shipping wines anywhere you want. Get your cellar ready!

Treat your wine purchases like cheese, or chocolate. Don’t fill your trunk with valuable, hard to find wines and then leave them in a hot parking lot all day to melt . . . Get an ice-chest or styrofoam shipping container to keep the wines at room temperature and keep them inside the air-conditioned car with you.

Do what the locals do. Check out local newspapers (Napa Register, St. Helena Star) and The Juice on-line for upcoming events. On Friday mornings St. Helena has the best small-town Farmer’s Market, where you can get picnic supplies as well as coffee and breakfast and watch a cooking demonstration by a local CIA or restaurant chef or book-signing by local author. On Wednesdays, our local Fire Chief, at his hole-in-the-wall catering business next to Dean & Deluca, offers a sandwich with all the fixins and a picnic area. Everyone in town goes! On Friday evenings, several local retail wine shops (Acme Fine Wines and St. Helena Wine Center in St. Helena, Back Room Wines in Napa) offer tastings with the winemakers, or introductions to new wine releases. Some Thursday nights in St. Helena include free music and a picnic in the park, some Fridays we have a street party, called CHEERS!. Look for fundraisers occurring in the Wine Country during your visit – all the locals will be there and the wines offered to taste or at auction will be some of the best around! Meet the community and go home with an enhanced feeling for the wine country . . . we will all be better for it, and will look forward to seeing each other on your next trip!

Any other tips to share? What made your Wine Country visit the best one ever?

Father’s Day 2011

I had dutifully sent my package with a Pendelton long-sleeved shirt and two new books from the NY Times Best Seller list to my father (92 years young) and called to remind him that Wimbledon would be on for 2 weeks and to make sure to watch it on TV, and Herb had taken his dad (95 years young) to do a little gambling at the Cache Creek Casino near Sacramento the Saturday before, so Father’s Day was going to be a day just for us. Our children both checked in to wish their father Happy Father’s Day – our eldest daughter called from a friend’s bachelorette party at a Dude Ranch in Colorado, and our youngest daughter called from “somewhere in the maze at Hampton Court Palace”, so we took off for a day at the coast. The crab season was almost at an end, and Herb was still itching to put a pot in the harbor and bring home some salty crabs for dinner.
We had just received an order for some of our wines from an account near the ocean, so we decided to take scenic River Road along the Russian River headed west through Guerneville towards our destination at the Bohemian Grove. (Lucky members to be offered some of our 2008 HL Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon while in camp this summer!)  The streets were lined with tie-died t-shirts, hitch hikers with backpacks and dogs, peace signs and other hippie ephemera of our youth. Along the river, majestic redwoods on the hills gave way to patches of vineyards, and shanty summer homes on stilts on the river lead down to rocky beaches. We reminisced at the dozens of kyacking trips we had taken with our family down that river, for a quick summer cool down, to watch the Jazz Festival from the water or with a convoy of boats for a child’s birthday party.

Another favorite haunt, Occidental, beckoned, so we stopped in at the old Union Hotel to play some favorites on the jukebox and have a celebratory drink with a couple of Liar’s Dice matches at the bar. The lottery board flashed, the TV had a ball game on and the wait staff was prepping for a big luncheon crowd. We used to come with the kids to experience the old lumberjack’s family-style dinners of all-you-could-eat ravioli, duck and spumoni ice-cream.

Up and over the Pacific Range to the coast via Coleman Valley Road, the grass turned from green to brown and the wind blew while the temperature dipped 15 degrees. We passed more bicyclists (14) than cars (6 – one of which was a 60’s Volvo), and saw more cows than vineyards. Once on Hwy. 1, the cool, misty sea breezes followed us down to the docks at Bodega Bay, where we launched our yacht for the open waters.

Alas, the crabs had left early this year, and the purpose of our trip eluded us. But the trip itself was worth more than any bite of crab could have been . . . the kind of day one might anticipate having when/if you were retired with nothing but time on your hands, traveling with the father of your children.