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Food and wine, the checkpoint way

Written by Emmy on 29 September 2011

Following our day of wining, it was time for dining, and so we headed back to the city of Napa for dinner.

Downtown Napa is a funny place. The city made the map when a local wine won a blind test against a famed French wine in Paris in the 1970s. Since then, the valley has cashed in on its claim to fame, building tasting rooms, a wine train to shuttle drinkers from vineyard to vineyard and cornily-named accommodations, like our very own Chardonnay Lodge. It gives the whole city a bit of a grown-up alcohol-themed Disney World feel. Underneath the shiny yuppie markets and wine cellars though is just an old city, once the seat of a quiet, mainstream, agricultural county.

We ate at ZuZu, a Mediterranean tapas restaurant on Napa’s Main Street. Perhaps a bit overdone on wine by the glass, we ordered a pitcher of sangria to start, followed by a parade of small plates. We ordered some hot, some cold, and tried to, as always, experience the full range of the menu: citrusy ceviche with jicama and avocado; quinoa salad with duck, figs and walnuts; pimientos de padrón, the Spanish peppers we also ate at the Ahwahnee; queso frito, a manchego cheese fried and dipped in a tangy aioloi; Japanese eggplant drizzled in honey; and a spicy lamb burger served with hummus and yogurt sauce. A bit of a change from the flavors of the campfire. We did, however, face a familiar problem: as dinner wore on, our photo light began to disappear.

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Overall, the food was great. My personal favorite was probably the ceviche, though I loved the spicy flavors of the lamb complemented by the hummus and yogurt. The quinoa salad definitely won the award for most interesting composition. The peppers were good, but not quite what I was hoping for. The cheese and eggplant were both lovely, but fell prey to the flavor loss problem that most fried items do. The aioli did help to bring out the rich flavors of the manchego though, helping to spice up the dish.

After dinner we retired to Chardonnay Lodge, where we caught up on a few quality television shows before falling asleep.

Our first stop in the morning was to the Oxbow Public Market, one of the aforementioned yuppie developments in Napa. We grabbed coffee at Ritual Coffee Roasters, one of the stands in the marketplace. The barista effectively forbade us from putting milk or sugar into our flavorful coffees, each of which was brewed individually.

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The rest of the market was not fully open yet, so we headed back to Highway 29 and drove north again. We stopped at the Oakville Grocery, a gourmet food market that my mom had recommended we check out. We filled our shopping basket with picnic wares in order to prepare for our final vineyard visit.

We drove out to Rutherford Hill, a vineyard not on highway 29. As the name implies, the vineyard is somewhat up in the hills, giving it a fantastic vantage point. Beautiful scenery while wine tasting? Check. Because we had our picnic to attend to, we opted to buy a bottle rather than do a tasting. We were graciously permitted to try all of the wines before purchasing, so we kind of got the best of both worlds. Armed with a bottle of uncorked sauvignon blanc and a loaner of real wine glasses, we headed to the vineyard’s delightful picnic tables and unpacked our basket.

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Our gourmet mid-morning meal included a baguette, pate, two recommended cheeses (one hard, one soft), roasted tomato bruschetta, blue-cheese-stuffed olives and crackers. It all complemented the wine beautifully, and the view was excellent.

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IMG_4689We also managed to procure awesome wine tote bags, which I put to great use throughout the rest of the trip. They make for very convenient carry cases! (Thanks to Gabi for buddying up to the friendliest of the sommeliers we met and asking for extras.)

We returned our wine glasses, bid farewell to Rutherford Hill and dropped Gabi off at her car. We planned to meet up again in San Francisco later that day, but we had a few detours to make first. And so we waved goodbye to the grape vines and left the slightly surreal world of wine country.

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Sampling the grapes of Napa

Written by Emmy on 29 September 2011

When we arrived back at our campsite Saturday night in a bit of a food coma from dinner at the Ahwanhee, we were shocked to discover that our seemingly quaint campsite was pretty much at the base of a campground mudslide brought on by the rain and hail earlier that day. Our tent had been splattered with mud on all sides, an issue we decided to ignore until the next morning. So on Sunday we rolled each piece of our sleeping apparatus into separate garbage bags and, as soon as we got cell service, began Googling for tent cleaning techniques.

After our muddy adventure, we were in the market for a hot breakfast. What we really wanted was Seaplane Diner, but since a drive to Providence would have added a few more miles to the odometer than we were prepared for, we settled on the first establishment we found: PJ’s in Groveland, Calif., not too far outside the park. I had a mixed veggies omelet while Chaz opted for a more unusual creation, a chili omelet. After indulging in PJ’s unlimited coffee, we were ready to hit the road.

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The three-hour drive careening around mountains on two-lane roads was a good reminder of just how far removed the beauty of Yosemite had been.

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After traversing several of California’s many highways, we arrived in Napa at the appropriately named Chardonnay Lodge, our kick-off spot to a day and a half of wine tasting. Gabi, a friend of Chaz’s from high school, drove up from San Francisco to partake in the adventure. After showering and returning to a hygienic state, we set off.

Our first stop was at Gott’s Roadside, a destination lunch spot in Napa. The burger place is connected to a farm further up the coast, where much of the food comes from. Gott’s was previously named Taylor’s Automatic Refresher and gained acclaim in food magazines, blogs and TV shows. It was apparently a major controversy when the name changed a few years ago.

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As we read the menu, we informed Gabi of several rules. There would be no duplicate orders, everything was to be shared and the bill would be split evenly. We settled on three very different items: fish tacos with Mexican slaw, salsa and jalapeño cilantro sour cream; a spicy chicken sandwich with avocado, Mexican slaw, cilantro sour cream and jalapeño mayo; and a blue cheese burger. (OK, so there were some accent overlaps.) And because the stand is best known for its burgers and fries, we added on an order of sweet potato fries. Everything was delicious and full of flavor.

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Full of food, we were ready to begin our oenophiliac journey.

We began driving up Napa’s Highway 29, which is lined with vineyards on all sides. Everywhere we turned, there were more grapes! The whole scene was a bit overwhelming, so we tried to attack our wine tasting agenda with some organization. Chaz was the most experienced vineyard visitor of the group and so he laid out his criteria. We needed well-priced tastings at beautiful vineyards conducted by pleasant sommeliers. Armed with our usual cadre of guidebooks, we began to make choices.

Our first stop was at V. Sattui, a giant vineyard regarded for its food shop, wine museum and extensive grape selection. The basic testing allowed each person to sample five different wines from a list of twelve different varieties. Thinking we had bested the system, we ordered three tastings and rather than each only try five wines, we ordered all twelve and passed them down the line. We decided that the final tasting could be each person’s individual favorite. (The checkpoint is nothing if not a little OCD.)

Guided by Don, who was a bit sassier than what we were looking for in a sommelier, we made our way down the list, sipping dry whites, sweet whites, table reds, harsh reds, dessert wines and ports. We asked questions about things like sweetness and blend, but mostly we just passed the glasses and made comments about the accents we supposedly detected in an effort to seem like real wine experts.

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Unable to deviate from what I know I like, I chose the driest of the whites, a riesling, for my fifth glass. Gabi got the bang for her buck and chose the port, which gets its intensity because it’s mixed with brandy, something I never knew. Chaz was going to opt for the port too, but in accordance with previously stated checkpoint rules, did not duplicate an order and instead had a blended red. After downing our final tastes, we bid Don farewell and stepped back into the sunlight.

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Our next stop was at Mumm, a vineyard noted for its sparkling wines. This visit offered some of the beautiful scenery element so crucial to a good tasting.

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IMG_4602In recovery from our marathon with Don, we decided to split one tasting of the vineyard’s three most notable sparkling wines. The first two were both dry, though one was white and one was a rose. The third was much sweeter, although not as sickeningly so as I was expecting. Plus as a perk our wine came with crackers, so we made a big show of cleansing our palettes between tastes. Very important.

Despite the beautiful scenery, we didn’t linger too long at Mumm. Napa vineyards end tastings on the early side — most are shut down by 5 p.m. — so we wanted to make sure we could fit one more in. Our third vineyard was thus chosen because a sign out front proclaimed they had tastings until 6.

As a total bonus, our mystery third choice was actually two vineyards in one. The tasting room offered selections from Folie a Deux and Napa Cellars, plus when you bought a tasting, bonus free samples were included. Several glasses later, we had maxed out on our wine sampling abilities for the day.