Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wine Country in Winter (Part III)

Follow these links for Part I and Part II of our adventures, read on for Part III:

The last few days of our trip to wine country were spent in Sonoma, specifically in the town of Healdsburg and at wineries up in the beautiful Dry Creek Valley. Included in this review are: Hotel Healdsburg, Spoonbar, Scopa Restaurant, Preston Vineyards, Quivira Vineyards, and Cyrus Restaurant.

One of the first noticeable differences between Napa and Sonoma is that the latter is substantially quieter, less built-up, and (if possible) even more relaxing and laid-back.

The town of Healdsburg is really lovely; centered around a pretty central square are shops, restaurants, and tasting rooms. Nothing is much more than a few blocks from the square. There's even a convenient UPS store for shipping all your liquid treasures home (depending on what state you live in, and provided you've built up the requisite immunity to sticker-shock after a week in wine country).

We stayed at Hotel Healdsburg, a slick, modern property situated on the edge of the town square. It was very similar to the Bardessono in aesthetic, with lots of wood, stone, and glass. The bed was divinely comfy, the little patio a welcome source of sunshine, and the hotel quiet (again, only because it was wintertime). The lobby was a standout part of the property, scattered with sink-into-their-depths sofas situated around a huge, gas fireplace. Breakfast was served here each morning, which was a pretty damn nice way to start the day.

Our first evening in Healdsburg we went to Spoonbar for cocktails. This spot had been recommended to us and did not disappoint. The bartenders were more knowledgeable about their craft than their counterparts in Brooklyn and New York, and they poured a mean drink.

Next stop: Scopa.

We'd actually planned to eat at Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen, but so many locals pointed us towards Scopa that we changed our plans. Unsurprisingly, the locals were right. Scopa was pure awesome. A tiny little alley of a space (which reminded me a lot of restaurants here at home in NYC), Scopa serves up fabulous, rustic Italian fare paired with (of course) local wines.

In fact, they even had one of the local winemakers in house that night to talk to each table about the wines. We started with one of the best salads I've ever eaten (toothsome spinach, salty diced pancetta, pickled red onions, and creamy blue cheese) and followed it up with a really hearty and delicious spagettini with beef and pork rib ragu. We had not a spare millimeter for dessert.

They next day we headed out of town and up the Dry Creek Valley to check out a few family-owned wineries.

Though pretty much everywhere in Napa and Sonoma is beautiful, the Dry Creek Valley struck me as the prettiest - rustic, lonely (in a good way), and unspoiled.

It's also got some really great wineries along its narrow, winding roads. First up for us was Preston Vineyards.

Preston is located at the end of the end of the end of the road. It's not just a winery, but a biodynamic farm as well. They make their own bread and olive oil, raise chickens, play host to a veritable herd of friendly barn cats, and also make some really delicious and unusual (for Napa) wines.

Specializing in Rhone varietals, Preston poured us some wines I'd tasted often in blends but rarely on their own: Mourvedre, Carignane, and Rousanne. All were complex and compelling. They also make a great Viognier. We left here with more wine bottles in our trunk than any other winery we visited (RSV being a close second).

Our second stop was Quivira Vineyard. Similar to Preston (family-owned, biodynamic, down-to-earth), Quivia also makes some Rhone varietals, as well as Zinfandel, Sauvingon Blanc, and other more typical Napa wines.

One thing they do here that I'd not heard of before is co-fermentation (in which different varietals are blended before being fermented, rather than after). Their Savingnon Blanc-Viognier co-fermented blend was yummy and their Mourvedre and Zinfandel were both dark, jammy, and delicious.

After tasting, we had to spend a little time wandering around in the garden before we were fit to get back in the car and navigate the winding roads home to Healdsburg.

Following a well-deserved afternoon nap, we geared up for our last (and biggest) dinner out: Cyrus Restaurant.

Recently touted as a challenger to Keller's French Laundry, Cryus lived up to our high expectations. The dining room is right out of France, yet somehow not stuffy. Choices are between a 5-course and 8-course tasting menu. Being at least 4 pounds heavier than when we began our trip, we opted for the 5 course, beginning with a glass of Champagne.

Before bringing the amuse bouche, our server set a tower of little tastes on our table. Each represented one of the five flavors (sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umani) and was meant to stimulate the palate. Rather than being a gimmick, this was executed wonderfully and really set a great tone for the meal.

Standout dishes included a silky foie gras torchon with quince paste, a wonderful yuzu-infused John Dory, and a irresistible butterscotch sundae with chocolate "soil" (microplane-grated, salty chocolate merengue). The mignardises are were also really outstanding - we ate them until (unfortunately) painfully full.

We went to bed that night dreaming of Rhone varietals, Champagne, crisp sunny days, friendly cats, foie gras, and the detox we'd undoubtedly have to do upon arriving home.

So, to sum up a week spent indulging in wonderful food and wine, meeting all sorts of interesting people, soaring on the winds in a hot air balloon, and driving through some of the prettiest country out short, wine country in winter: go, now.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Wine Country in Winter (Part II)

This review contains our musings on Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Cakebread Cellars, Redd Restaurant, Gott's Roadside, and Schramsberg. For Days 1-2 (Napa & Yountville), click here.

Day Three of our adventures in Napa & Sonoma counties started with the aforementioned delicious room service at the Bardessono (including their unusual granola with pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, oats, puffed crisp rice and dried fruit).

After a leisurely morning, we headed out to our big event for the day, a Farm to Table tour and tasting at Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Located up in the hills overlooking the Napa valley, RSV grows a lot of white varietals and Pinot Noir, making it a little unconventional among the crowd of Rutherford Cab producers. We were the only takers on the tour that morning, so we had the place to ourselves.

A winery staffer poured us each a glass of their blended white, the 2009 Abraxas (golden and dangerously drinkable), and took us through the property, including their garden and gorgeous caves. When we hit the tank room, they happened to be filtering their limited production 2010 Rose. We got a glass right out of the tank. It was soooo delicious; arguably the best glass of wine I had on the whole trip.

RSV emphasizes pairing food and wine, and they have a beautiful garden and charming, enthusiastic chef who prepares pairings for visitors. We sat down to taste with a sumptuous board of house-cured olives, cheeses, charcuterie, caramelized onion tarts, homemade crackers, jams, and flavored nuts. It all paired gorgeously with the rich Three Amigos 2009 Pinot Noir, the POV 2008, and the beefier Syrahs we were poured. The tasting finished with a clever ricotta gnudi scented with Meyer lemon and paired with a rich, red-wine braised lamb ragu.

In our first critical error of the trip, we'd decided to squeeze in an extra tasting, this one at Cakebread Cellars. This was a straight-up tasting (no food or tour) of their reserve wines. We were poured recent and older vintages of the same wines for comparison.

This tasting was interesting and informative, the most important thing we learned being that we're not the biggest fans of chewy, savory, tannic Cabernets and Petit Syrahs (no matter how expensive or impressive). Our most delightful take-away from Cakebread was a cookbook put together by the elderly owners of the winery, the Cakebread Cellers American Harvest Cookbook. The recipes hail from an annual chef's workshop they hold at the winery during harvest and reflect a focus on local ingredients and simple, yet flavorful, preparations.

Dinner on our last night in Yountville was at Redd. What to say here? We enjoyed the food, but weren't blown away. In fairness, though, after a long bout of eating and drinking at RSV, followed by more wine at Cakebread, we may not have been in the best condition to really enjoy a rich meal.

We began dinner with two raw preparations, a hamachi crudo and a tuna tartare. Both were large (larger than necessary for something so rich and so raw). The tuna tartare, while well-seasoned, was not very well prepared. Some of the pieces were not diced so much as smushed, leaving the consistency a little mealy. Entrees included a duck confit that was a little dry and a truffled risotto with lobster. The risotto was very rich and had an overly truffle-y aftertaste. Dessert was probably our favorite course: a light and airy butterscotch pudding with toffee and pretzels.

The next morning we reluctantly checked out of the Bardessono and headed north. Our first stop was the charming little town of St. Helena. Here we browsed the shops on Main Street, working up an appetite for what turned out to be one of our most delicious meals of the trip: lunch at Gott's Roadside (formerly Taylor's Automatic Refresher).

Holy hell was the food good. Sitting in the sun at one of their picnic tables along Route 29, we indulged in a huge chocolate shake, a big, gooey burger with onion rings, and a spicy chicken sandwich slathered in cilantro slaw, avocado, and jalapeno mayo. This meal was truly a treat; everything was fresh, perfectly balanced, and explosively flavorful. Proof that sometimes the best food comes at the least fancy restaurant.

After lunch, we gathered some supplies for an afternoon picnic (a crusty baguette, Nostrano salumi, and some fresh Cowgirl Creamery Mount Tam cheese) and headed north to Schramsberg.

Schramsberg is a producer of sparkling wines made in the style of French champagne. The tasting included an in-depth tour of their dark, winding caves, a demonstration of the riddling process (the procedure by which particles are removed from the bottles) and a flight of 4 champagnes, including their $100, scrumptious Reserve.

The wines are swilled by candlelight amid the towering stacks of aging bottles. Totally awesome. Afterwards, a little tipsy and very happy, we ate our bread and cheese on a bench outside the winery in the sun. One take-away that we'd really learned at this point on the trip was that wineries were much more enjoyable to visit if they included more than a simple tasting. In-depth tours that educate as well as provide a sampling of wines offered a good balance, and those that paired the wine with food (often after or during a tour) were best of all.

After departing Schramsberg, we wound our way up the highway, over the Mayacamas Mountains, and into Sonoma County. For the continuation of our travelogue, and our adventures in Healdsburg and the Dry Creek Valley, click here .

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wine Country in Winter

Winter may seem like an upside down, backwards time to visit Napa & Sonoma counties. I'm here to argue it might be the best time of all.

True, the vines are bare of leaves and fruit. True, it gets downright cold at night. True, some restaurants and businesses may be closed for renovations or vacation. But these disadvantages are well offset by the perks. There is no one here. You have balloon rides, tasting rooms, and the streets of quaint towns to yourself. Hotels upgrade you because, heck, why not? They've got the space. Reservations are easy to get. Best of all, people in the winemaking and hospitality industry are laid back and relaxed when they aren't being mobbed by tourists. You are a welcome guest rather than a locust-like invading army.

In this review, I'll cover the first few days of our trip, which were spent in the Napa Valley. Included are: Bouchon Bistro, Mustards Grill, The Bardessono Resort & Spa, Napa Valley Balloons, Round Pond Estates, Frog's Leap Vineyards, and Morimoto Napa.

Our journey began in the Napa Valley, eating, drinking wine, and admiring the austerely beautiful winter landscape. Though wine country seems remote from New York City, we were able to get there quickly and easily. We flew out of New York at a civilized, mid-morning, hour and were zipping up the Saint Helena Hwy towards Yountville by mid-afternoon. Napa is only about an hour drive north of San Francisco, so we had our first glass of wine in hand by 4pm (a delicious Stolpman 2009 Sauvignon Blanc handed to us upon check-in).

We decided to stay in teensy-tiny Yountville because it's centrally located, putting both St. Helena and Napa in easy reach, and because it's a culinary mecca. Unfortunately, since we were visiting in January, many places were closed. Of Thomas Keller's 4 Yountville restaurants (French Laundry, Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc, and Bouchon Bistro), only Bouchon Bistro was open. Still, even with the Keller empire shut to us, there were plenty of great dining options.

Our first night, we hit Bouchon Bistro for pre-dinner drinks and appetizers. The place is small (read: crowded even in January) and very French. I think there were only two local wines on the menu; the rest were from France. I had Sancerre and Sid had an Autumn Capirhana. We shared a charcuterrie board (with a standout pate and gorgeous pickled veggies) and Sid slurped some oysters. Not a bad way to kick off our vacation.

Dinner was at the famous Mustards Grill, which we found inconsistent. We were welcomed warmly, but our server had an off-putting air about her and messed up our order, bringing my entree with appetizer course (I know, wtf?). The food was hit and miss, too. A Caesar salad was crisp, tangy, and hearty, but the pan-fried crab cakes were literally cold in the middle. The hangar steak, though, was blood-red and gorgeous, smothered in a silky red wine sauce. The wine list was, unsurprisingly, pretty exhaustive.

For accommodations in Yountville, we went for broke (literally) and shacked up at the Bardessono, a new eco-chic resort that is, hands down, one of the most beautiful, luxurious places I've ever been. Since it's winter and Napa is blessedly quiet, we got upgraded to an even larger, more ridiculous suite than we'd booked. The room was, quite possibly, bigger than our apartment in New York. There was a steam shower, a huge spa tub, a fireplace, an enclosed patio, sheets on the bed that made me realize (for the first time) why people care about sheets. Anyway, nice place. Very posh. Also: delicious room service:

As much as Napa is about wine, there are a surprising number of non-wine-related activities too. First up, hot air ballooning. This was something I'd wanted to try for a long time and it exceeded even my high expectations. Again, because it's winter, the usually crowded ballooning groups (8-16 to a basket) were empty. We got a private ride, which was incredible. Being in the balloon was literally magical. Lifting up (seemingly with the sunrise), weightless and without the sensation of motion, floating over the valley, drifting towards the was just awesome. There are a bunch of balloon tour operators in the Valley. We chose Napa Valley Balloons because they work with Domaine Chandon and the package includes a champagne brunch at the winery after the flight. It was a good choice. The brunch was yummy, our pilot an interesting long-time valley resident, and the ballooning a singular, unforgettable experience.

Next up was a visit to Round Pond estates. A relative newcomer to the wine-making scene (though they've grown and sold grapes to other producers for years), Round Pond attracted us not for its wines, but for its olive oil. Thousands of Spanish and Italian trees have been planted across the Round Pond vineyards and each year they are harvested, milled, and blended into a variety of intensely flavored, extremely fresh olive oils. We went for a tour and tasting, in which the oils (as well as homemade red wine vinegars) were paired with produce fresh from the garden (yes, even in winter), bread, and cheeses. This tour was informative, interesting, and scrumptious. Our favorite tastes were their lemon and blood orange infused oils and their vivid and intense Merlot/Cab vinegar.

After Round Pond we drove past fields of silent vineyards, traveling up Conn Creek Road to visit the iconic Red Barn at Frog's Leap.

The wines here are solid, but the real attraction is the tour. Warm, friendly, and laid back, the winery staffers lead you around the gorgeous property, explaining the wine-making process and Frog's Leap's history and approach to bio-dynamic production. The tasting takes place en route - in the barrel room, out in the vineyard, and as you wander through the garden (beautiful even in winter). Brilliant yellow mustard luxuriates beneath the gnarled, bare vines, roosters crow, and the winery cat sprawls lazily on the sofa in the house, waiting to have his belly rubbed. This experience was a real highlight.

Dinner that night took us down to the relatively bustling town of Napa itself. After an abortive trip to Oxbow Public Market (closed for renovations), we finished the evening with drinks and dinner at Morimoto. First off, this restaurant is beautiful. Steel and glass are softened by polished wood and the walls are adorned with petrified merlot vines. For the food, we experienced some real highs (and one horrifying low). The cocktails were great - fresh, inventive, and highly (dangerously) drinkable. Dinner was more hit and miss.

The first two appetizers we tried were among the more delicious things I've eaten. Luscious, plump rock shrimp were enveloped in feather-light tempura batter and coated with spicy sauces (a riff on a buffalo wing sauce, which perhaps sounds gross but tasted awesome, and a wasabi mayo, which was the real standout). Next came a perfect cube of meltingly tender pork belly, glazed and sweetened with soy, served over soft kongee, and topped with crispy burdock. This was devoured instantly. The low was an Asian inspired bone marrow. Now, we are big bone marrow fans, but this was pretty much inedible. The marrow itself tasted funky and was topped with a thick crust of caramelized onions and panko that clumped and gunked up the whole works. A real disappointment. We finished the meal with sushi. It was good. Fresh, beautifully presented, and all that, but not as spectacular as I was expecting from a place like Morimoto.

All in all, though, a wonderful start to a great vacation. Click here to read about our continuing adventures in Napa.