Paleo & Primal Food, Wine, Travel & Living

Posts tagged “napa

It’s Always Time to Visit Wine Country!

I’ll never forget last October (2017). It was a month of great loss. The strange thing was that only days earlier, Andy and I had celebrated our marriage at Caverna 57 with my mother and about 50 or so friends. We were so happy on the last days of September.

Then October came. Las Vegas (where we married in March) was rattled by a great tragedy that Sunday evening. I had to take my mom to the airport so she could fly home on Monday morning (this is never easy, BTW). I went from a great state of joy to being bummed out for the world. Then exactly one week after the Las Vegas incident, wine country caught fire. For a little while, I thought the world was going to end. Smoke drifted all the way to Sacramento by Tuesday and we all knew just how serious the situation had become, however, we faced the heartache of helplessness. Since the fires had popped up all over wine country, and the unusual winds howled on, the fires spread and became unmanageable despite the efforts to fight them.

What do you do when your favorite place on Earth is burning down? It seemed like a nightmare, but how could I even say that? I was not there or displaced from my home. I was not a first responder who had to battle the smoke or the flames. I was sitting safely on the sidelines in Sacramento, a place that would have more of a chance of floating away in a flood than burning up. When the fires were finally extinguished and the smoke cleared, I sent myself on a mission to visit Napa. I realized that reports of the damage had been highly exaggerated in the media. In fact, there were only about 50 wineries with any direct damage, and less than 5 wineries with significant damage! I felt it was my duty to visit, spend money and publicize on social media that Napa had not burned down and was open for business!

It was October 27th when I finally made it out. My real job gets very hectic until the end of the month, but I came as soon as I could. As I was driving through the valley, it was as beautiful as ever! The air was so clear and the sun so bright! All of the wineries on Highway 29 were all still intact and sort of majestic looking in a way.

I scheduled to meet a friend (now one of my very best friends) in St. Helena at Ehlers Estate. I tasted several phenomenal wines there, and even bought a few bottles (though out of my normal price range). If you’ve never been to Ehlers Estate, its located on the east side of Highway 29 on Ehlers Lane. The tasting room is in a beautiful old stone barn surrounded by 42 acres divided into five blocks (based on soil type) and 25 sub-blocks, defined by clone and rootstock combinations. 25 acres are are home to six different clones of Cabernet Sauvignon planted on multiple rootstocks. The vineyard also produces sub-blocks of Merlot, four of Cabernet Franc, two of Sauvignon Blanc and a block of Petit Verdot.

Another notable factoid: Proceeds from tasting fees/sales of wine at Ehlers Estate help support the Leducq Foundation‘s international cardiovascular research programs.

Below, I’ll share a view photos from my tasting at Ehlers Estate. I was impressed with the way they greet each guest with a little personalized sign. Bonus points for spelling my name correctly! 😉


I’m not going to jump into reviewing all the wines, but the most notable one at Ehlers Estate (in my opinion), is the 2014 Merlot. If you know anything at all about contemporary wine culture, you know that Merlot has suffered a bit of a backlash, but it’s finally making a comeback. But drinkers of good Merlot will tell you this varietal never went away! October happens to be International Merlot Month, and International Merlot Day is on November 7th. Worldwide, there are 600,000 acres of Merlot planted. If you happen to be a fan of Merlot, this is the one to try. I am really looking forward to opening it with my mom when I go visit her this year.

My friend and I had lunch at Brasswood Bar + Kitchen, (literally a stone’s throw from Ehlers Estate). We both ordered the diet-friendly Warm Brussels Sprouts Salad, with bacon, carmelized onion, parmesan, and soft cooked egg. I sipped a Diet Coke because I knew I was off to more wine tasting later in the day. My friend had to return to lunch after work, but I was on to Mumm Napa for sparkling wine!



Driving to Mumm Napa down the Silverado Trail was the first time I noticed fire damage or any sign that a fire had come through at all. If you can imagine my trajectory, I was headed south from St. Helena on the Silverado Trail towards Napa, so the damage I began to see was on my left hand side, from the Atlas Peak fire. Still, I was surprised at how little damage there was overall, compared to how much damage had been reported on the radio, internet, and television. Here I was with dozens and dozens of wineries open around me on a gorgeous day, and hardly anyone in them because all of the Valley had (allegedly) burned down. I was giddy to be there and see for myself that it was business as usual. When I arrived at Mumm, I was ready to buy some more wine! But, first, more tasting. 🙂

 

The wine on the far left is the Brut Prestige, made with 45% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Gris & Pinot Meunier. Lately, it’s my go-to sparkling wine at a restaurant for a starter glass (I usually get the split) because it’s on so many menus and I know exactly what the wine will taste like and that it will make me smile. It’s just under $20 for wine club members, and $24 for non-wine club members.

The DVX is a blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir. The name of the wine honors the late Guy Devaux, founding winemaker of Mumm Napa. The grapes for DVX come from a half-dozen of the winery’s vineyard sources. The wine is available to wine club members only.

The Brut Rose is a 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay sparkling wine with the most lovely blush/coral/salmon color. It is my favorite sparkling rose under $25, and I bought 3 bottles to enjoy myself when Andy is out of town or is on a “bro date”. 😉






I also bought a bottle of the most interesting wine I tasted while at Mumm. It was a sparkling Pinot Noir. It is made from 100% Pinot Noir and is dark in color like a still Pinot Noir (ruby/garnet). Suggested pairings on the sell sheet for this wine are rack of lamb and prime rib, but Andy and I will open it this Valentine’s Day and we plan on making a turkey breast to pair with the wine. I am pretty sure as of November 2017 this wine is completely sold out.

Following my tasting and purchases at Mumm, I made my way to my home for the night at the Napa River Inn. They were kind enough to extend a media rate to me.

The Napa River Inn is located within the Historic Napa Mill (built in 1884, and is a National Registered Landmark). The Inn spreads into three buildings with 66 rooms that are designed and decorated to reflect the period (1800s). Most rooms overlook the river and have romantic views. The Inn is located next to restaurants such as Angele and Celadon, Silo’s Jazz Club, Napa General Store, and Sweetie Pies Bakery. For more information/a flashback/torture ;), you can read my post on the Napa River Inn on cakegrrl.blogspot.com located here. NAPA RIVER INN

This time I was in Room 212 and had enough time to take a bubble bath and recharge before heading downtown for more wine tasting and dinner.

Below are a few photos of my room, equipped with a fireplace.



The Napa River Inn also hosts nightly wine tastings, free to its hotel guests. Pietro Family Cellars was the featured winery on the evening of my stay. You can find and try their wines in downtown Napa at the Gabrielle Collection tasting room and store on Opera Plaza at 1000 Main Street.


Backroom Wines must have known I was coming to Napa, because that evening they held a sparkling wine tasting. So close to Halloween, I figured this would be my trick-or treat! Even better was that once I parked my car at the hotel, I didn’t get in it again until I checked out at 12pm the next day.

I headed out to walk over to the tasting, and on my way I spotted a large wooden chair next to a jack o’ lantern ghost. This really was like trick-or-treat! I saw another couple sit in the chair and try to do selfies, but I stopped them and said, “Hey, I’ll take your picture, if you will take mine!” They nodded in agreement.

On a placard at the bottom of the chair, it asks you to tag #riverfrontchair if you post your picture online. Here’s a look at some others who have posed in the Riverfront Chair for Instagram. Fun!


OK, no more shenanigans, let’s get down to real business… more wine tasting! As I said earlier, this tasting was tailor-made for yours truly. I sauntered into the wine shop and plunked my 20 spot down on the bar! Let’s do this thing!


OK, so I did NOT take formal notes at this tasting, nor do I remember a lot about what I had, but I do remember how much fun I had at Backroom Wines, especially because I struck up a conversation with a couple visiting from Reno. I was wearing my GIANT Garmin running watch and it caught their eye. I didn’t end up buying any wine at the store, mainly because I was headed to dinner after, but I highly recommend Backroom Wines for tasting and shopping in downtown Napa!

After I left Backroom, I remember sort of stumbling around and not being 100% sure where I wanted to go for dinner. I finally settled on Carpe Diem, surely lured in by the $%&#! Truffle Fries on the menu. 😉 Yes, I’m that person. I’m the one who orders “truffle” anything.

I snagged a table in the bar, even though the server wanted to give me a giant table. Nope, just me, only need a hightop. Then I ordered a big glass of rosé. Since it seemed like I had already participated in the Winolympics® that day, I was content with one glass with dinner. 😉


My dinner that evening was composed of two small plates: a tuna tartare with seaweed salad, avocado and taro chips and a giant plate of truffle fries. For me, shame would quickly set in, but both dishes I highly recommend!



OK quick selfie at Carpe Diem! 🙂

The next day I woke up to join my friend Elizabeth for a Body Boot Camp workout at Napa Fit Body Boot Camp. After, I ran on the Napa River Trail to make it 8 miles total for the day.


The Napa River Trail is something I had no idea existed! I found it by accident when I was running back to my hotel from the boot camp class. I’ll certainly be running on it a lot this summer when we go back to Napa for the Napa Valley Jazz Getaway on my birthday weekend!


It was a whirlwind trip, but I packed so much food, wine, fun (and exercise) in 24 hours! Before I close, I wanted to let you know a few facts about the fires in Napa I collected while at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Rosa (in November). I wanted to list them to encourage people to continue to come to Napa and also to continue to buy Napa wines. This includes even the 2017 vintage when it is released.

  • 90% of the grapes were harvested before the fires began.
  • Winemakers are very optimistic about the overall quality of the grapes.
  • It was mainly Cabernet left on the vines, but it is a very resilient, thick skinned grape.
  • There are many unknowns about the possible effects of smoke on wine.
  • Winemakers are using rigorous and repeated lab testing and will continue to do so.
  • Only the highest and best quality will go to market, because the wineries’ reputations are at stake.

There are also a few new places in town, and a few specials going on at places to stay. The Napa River Inn has a specials page located here, but since it’s timely for an upcoming Valentine’s Day trip, I will share their Romance Package, which includes Chocolate Dipped Strawberries, a Bottle of Champagne, and Breakfast in Bed from Sweetie Pies Bakery.

A new restaurant/wine bar has opened called Compline. The name Compline refers to end of the working day, when things get quiet and evening settles in. You can sneak a peek at their menu here.

Also, 2018 Napa Wine Tasting Cards are available now. For $15, you can pick up a tasting card and check out ten of Napa’s best downtown tasting rooms (all within walking distance of each other), enjoying wines for half the price. Cards can be re-used with no limit throughout the year. You can buy them here.

In closing, I want to thank the Napa River Inn for offering me a discounted stay and the staff there for making everything perfect, Elizabeth Smith for leading my tasting at Ehlers Estate and joining me for lunch at Brasswood. I’m so glad we met and I can call you my friend. I’d also like to extend gratitude to Tessa at Mumm Napa for her incredible hospitality and service, the staff at Backroom Wines (please do MORE bubble tastings, and I will be there!), and the staff at Carpe Diem. All of these people depend on your visits to make a living. I’ll be back as soon as possible.

With much love… please continue to stay #napastrong #sonomastrong #winecountrystrong!
Beautiful video done by 3 Rock Marketing and Wildly Simple.

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10 Tasting Room Tips for the Aspiring Wine Lover

10 Tasting Room Tips for the Aspiring Wine Lover

No matter if you are new to wine or wine tasting, or if you visit tasting rooms often, it’s useful to remind ourselves of good etiquette and read up on ways to improve your experience. Whether you are a first time visitor to a winery, or if you know enough about wine to impress your friends, this list of tips is for you!

1. Avoid wearing heavy cologne/perfume/body spray.

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This is without a doubt the number one tip. When you are tasting wines, you need the ability to smell what is in your glass without any interference. A key factor in tasting a wine (as it is in tasting food) is smelling it. Many wines have floral, herbal, spicy characteristics that can be masked when a stronger scent is present, so it’s important that the wine is the only thing you can smell! If you must wear a cologne, apply it at least 2-3 hours before you plan to head to the tasting room. P.S.: Do wear deodorant, but make it unscented if possible.


2. Wine with friends!

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Wine is always more fun with friends! Groups of 2-4 people work really well for a number of reasons:
A. 2-4 people do not overwhelm a tasting room associate like a larger group might. Imagine if a bus load of people all arrive at the same time and the craziness that would ensue.

B. A group of 2-4 is bound to have different opinions on what they thought of the wines. One person might hate something that you loved, but that is totally OK! Learn to discuss the wines and get different perspectives at the end of the day.

3. Take a photo of your favorites!

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Sometimes you might not be in a traditional tasting room, but at an event where there are nearly hundreds of wines being presented. Maybe there is not an opportunity to purchase the wine at the tasting, but there will be at a later time. This is the perfect opportunity to whip out the camera or cell phone and snap a picture of what you loved so you can make it a part of your cellar later on!

4. Take notes.

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Remember when we used something called a pen and paper? Jot down your favorite wines if you don’t have a camera. Write down what you liked about a wine or what it brings to mind. If the tasting room associate says something important (like a food pairing or their recipe for meatballs) get that on paper, too! The most important thing is to document your experience, because most of us have been on tastings and have forgotten parts of them.

5. Use the dump bucket.

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But not like that. Part of why we sometimes can’t remember what we tasted is because we have not used the dump bucket to its full potential. The plastic or metal container sitting on the bar beside the wines is there for a reason. So you can taste and spit and keep a sound mind. By all means, taste as many wines as you can, but don’t feel obligated to drink the entire pour. Keep your taste buds refreshed so you can still distinguish wines even if you are at your 3rd or 4th stop. Additionally, a winery is really the only place where spitting in public is NOT frowned upon, so sometimes I have a smaller cup I spit into and then pour it into the main dump bucket, so I am not directly spitting into the bucket. Trust me, I have seen this technique go awry and the liquid ricochet into the spitter’s face when they spat into a mostly full bucket. And they were wearing a white shirt. Not pretty.

6. Get your taste, then step aside for the next person in line.

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Be aware of others around you who might be thirsty. It’s really rude to monopolize a tasting room associate when there are other people behind you waiting to taste the long awaited release of Matchbook Arsonist Chardonnay. You can always get back in line for another taste, but don’t just stand there like an oaf and prevent someone from getting one! (I am only 5’1″ tall and have been corkblocked many times!)
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7. Ask questions.

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Tasting room employees are not there to intimidate you. They are there to share information with you and to hopefully sell you tons of wine and maybe convince you to join their wine club. Ask questions about the wine. Ask about wine in general. Ask about the wine club. Ask about the perks of the club. Joining a wine club might be a great deal of savings to you if you like the winery and the wines they make. Sometimes wineries through big parties during releases of a particular varietal they make and the parties are for wine club members only. PS: Do ask questions, but adhere to rule #6 and do step aside as to no monopolize the tasting room associate so others can taste/ask questions, too.

8. Plan your day ahead of time.

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Plan to visit 2-3 wineries maximum and spend quality time at each. Most tasting rooms have put time and effort into making their property somewhere you might like to be for while (maybe even all day). Visit the winery website (almost all of them have some sort of web and social media presence) before your visit, and learn about what makes the winery you choose unique. Some wineries have food and wine pairings/tastings. Some have live music or get food trucks to come by to provide food for purchase. If you like food and music (like I do) those are the most attractive! If you do find a winery with musical entertainment, there will also be comedic entertainment by someone who has had a little too much to drink and has decided to bust out some awesome dance moves!

9. Pack snacks and water!

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So if the places at which you are tasting do not offer food, call them and see if you can bring food, more appropriately snacks to the tasting room or winery grounds. I am not talking about getting a Domino’s pizza and having it delivered to the winery, or rolling up a Weber BBQ next to the bar, but I do suggest calling the winery ahead of time and asking them if it is OK if you bring cheese, crackers, dried fruit, etc. with you. Sometimes there might be food sold on the premises, and in that case outside food might be frowned upon. In all cases it is best to call the particular winery ahead of time and ask. If you are bringing something to snack on, keep it classy and bring in a nice picnic basket or small cooler. Water is a no-brainer when it comes to drinking and helps prevent a hangover if you do accidentally overindulge.

10. Buy at least one bottle of wine from each place you visit.

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You don’t have to always follow this rule, but it’s just good practice. When you buy a bottle of wine after a tasting, almost always the tasting room will refund your tasting fee. It’s a very strategic move especially in places that charge more than $10 for a tasting. At the very least you get to take home a memento from where you have been that day.

And it’s always nice to have a souvenir from a great trip you had. When you open the wine, you can relive your tasting room visit all over again. Invite your friends over (if you have not gravely embarrassed them from the winery visit and they are still speaking to you) and have a great dinner built around the wine. There are recipes all over the internet geared to almost any common varietal you can buy.

Hopefully my tips have prepared you for your next visit to wine country! Cheers!


Heritage Fire Napa Serves Up a Blazing Food and Wine Feast

Do you remember what it was like when you were a kid at a BBQ? Growing up, we had so many family gatherings in my parent’s backyard and many times they were on my birthday and involved a pool.

Last Sunday at Cochon 555 Heritage Fire brought back those nostalgic smells, sights and tastes for me. The thick smell of smoke and various meats in the air and several blazing hot fire pits alongside the vineyard at Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena. Though I did not ever see a vineyard for the first 25 years of my life (I was deprived, I know), my dad had an enormous garden back home and used to set bonfires in the area next to it.

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Before I get into the fun we had and the images I captured at Cochon Heritage Fire this year, I want to tell you a little bit about the man who organizes the event, Brady Lowe. He started Cochon in 2008 in Atlanta and quickly expanded the event as a tour across the country with stops in Napa, New York, Seattle and Miami.

He grew up in Iowa and as a child, grew a fondness for reading his mom’s cookbooks. She had everything from Martha Stewart and Betty Crocker to Mickey Mouse Disney cookbooks. He preferred browsing the cookbooks instead of reading books and loved the process of recipes. His mom was an experimental cook who liked to try out recipes and tweak them slightly. Brady’s father would cook recipes exactly as printed in the book and repeat them over and over until they were perfect. It sounds a lot like my parents, except my dad was the mad scientist and my mom was more methodical. Either way, food became a core and important part of life for Brady.

During college, he sold premium cigars, and then bought wine with the money he made. He became a sommelier of sorts to his college friends, who preferred beer, but he was able to open their minds to drinking wine. Brady enjoyed grilling and parties and continued throughout college and beyond.

It really struck me when he spoke this year during our media tour of the event. In a sense, he referred to the “good ole days” before the age of the George Foreman Grill. He even mentioned our ancestors and how they cooked with fire. It is our heritage to cook with fire. And we can cook anything (meats, vegetables, even fruit) with an open flame. It’s so true, and in my opinion, tastes the best!

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During the tour, Brady also spoke about Cochon’s beneficiary, Piggy Bank. Piggy Bank is a farm, a genetic sanctuary for heritage breed pigs, where all pigs are gifted to farmers in need. Piggy Bank helps build a future for independent family farms as a community working together to develop and share business plans that promote responsible farming practices.

Annual contributions help the organization give pigs to new and existing farmers in need of free genetics (breeding stock) and send pigs to culinary schools for research. Contributions are used to pay for a livestock facility, feed and labor to raise the heritage pigs in a safe and protected environment. All gifts are a 100% tax-deductible gift.

You can find Piggy Bank on Facebook here and follow them on Twitter here.

I don’t know if you have ever tried a Heritage breed pig, but I can tell you the flavor is incredible. A common breed is the Berkshire, which was discovered over 300 years ago in Berkshire County in the United Kingdom. Berkshire pork (prepare to salivate) is sought after because of its texture, marbling, juiciness, tenderness, and above all its FLAVOR. Berkshire is also referred to as Kurabota. It’s important that we support organizations that help farmers who breed these pigs!

I’d like to point out that this particular Cochon had some of the best food dishes of all the past ones I have attended, but it really turned into a major wine tasting with several premium brands coming out to pour. This year, Del Dotto, Clif Family, Faust, Lake Sonona, Valley of the Moon, Silver Oak, Rombauer, Robert Craig, Inglenook, Rocca, Jigar, Wines of Germany, and of course Charles Krug (the location of the event) were there.

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As you can see, we tasted multiple dishes and had some really incredible food. Don’t miss the Cochon 555 Tour when it heads back our way (if you are located in Northern California) with the Heritage BBQ event on October 16th in San Francisco. Magnolia Brewery at Dogpatch will be the venue. You can purchase tickets here.

You can follow Cochon 555 and all of their events on Facebook here or on Twitter here.

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Over $60,000 Raised for Charity at the 7th Annual HALL Wines Cabernet Cookoff and an Interview with Duff Goldman!

Here’s a little press release (combined with some photos I took that day and some of my comments) on the recent HALL Wines Cabernet Cookoff from my friends at the winery. After that, scroll down to read my interview with Duff Goldman of Charm City Cakes and Food Network’s Cake Masters!

On Saturday, April 23rd, over 700 hundred wine and food aficionados helped raise over $60,000 at the sold out 7th Annual Cabernet Cookoff at HALL Wines in St. Helena. Thirteen impressive Napa and Bay Area Restaurants teamed up with a nonprofit of their choice with the goal to create the best dish to pair with 2013 HALL Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Competition was fierce, the wine was inviting, and the weather paired beautifully with this lively philanthropic event.

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“Our team is humbled that such talent, both in competing chefs and judges, clear their schedules each April to help us raise money for these noteworthy charities,” says Vintner Kathryn Walt Hall. “Thank you to our generous sponsors and loyal attendees for joining our efforts to make a difference in our community.”

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Five judges, Duff Goldman, Celebrity Chef from Food Network, Leslie Sbrocco, host of “Check Please!” Bay Area, Virginie Boone of Wine Enthusiast, Ian White, SF Magazine, and Ken Frank, Chef at La Toque, took on the impressive task of choosing a runner up and first place winner from dishes like “Cherry Marinated Skirt Steak with Broccolini, Point Reyes Blue, Chive Blossom” or “Black Currant and Rose Macaroon with HALL Cabernet infused Geleé”.

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Mark Dommen from One Market Restaurant in San Francisco took first place with his mouth-watering “Pancetta Wrapped Passmore Ranch Sturgeon Du Puy Lentils, Smoked Garlic, Thyme Jus” benefiting nonprofit Collabria Care of Napa (re-create here). Sorry for the obscene shadow! 😦

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Ca’Momi placed runner up with a delectable “Heirloom Pork & Veal Agnolotti, Savoy Cabbage, Napa Valley Cabernet Pan Jus and Parmigiano Reggiano” aiding organization Do It For The Love of Napa.

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Judges Choice Runner Up Do it For the Love

Restaurants also had the opportunity to raise money for their charity through People’s Choice, a voting system by corks serving as the tallies. First place for People’s Choice was Napa restaurant, Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin’ BBQ, preparing “Fried Chicken with Spring Succotash” with the winnings benefiting Napa Humane.

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Paula LeDuc Fine Catering of San Francisco took runner up of People’s Choice with the “HALL Cabernet Roasted Strawberries with White Chocolate Crumble and Mascarpone Cream,” partnering with nonprofit St Helena Hospital.

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Proceeds of both ticket sales from attendees and 15% of purchases of 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2014 Sauvignon Blanc and 2013 Coeur Cabernet Sauvignon were also donated to the participating winning charities. Sponsors of the event included at Magnum Level: San Francisco Magazine, Bright Event Rentals, Certified Parking Attendants, MyOffice Products, and Nixon Peabody. At the Harvest Level: Signum Architecture, DP&F, Benefit Marketing, Harvest Sanitation, Snap Fiesta, Napa Valley Tours and Transportation, Print Inkorporated, Frank Zimmerman and Co LLC, and Culligan Water. Bergfeld Sponsorships included Yelp, Alkar Staffing, UpOut.com, Napa Valley Engraving, Tre Posti, Barbier Security Group, The Lux Productions and Villagio Inn & Spa. Local radio station The Vine, 99.3 was on site to capture the excitement, led by personality “Good Morning Bob!”.

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For more information about the event, please visit HALL Wines. To re-create the winning recipe visit HALL’s Recipe section. Check out the exciting sizzle reel courtesy of Flynn Kelleher here or more pictures from the event available here. Next year, the 8th Annual HALL Cabernet Cookoff will take place on Saturday, April 29, 2017, tickets available now! The event sold out this year, so make sure to reserve your spot for next year.

I had the chance to sample many of the dishes at the event, but my favorite was the Cabernet Braised Short Rib with Cranberry Beans and Horseradish created by Brix on behalf of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. I make short ribs with a wine sauce at home quite frequently, so this was just a dish I already like to eat. 🙂

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I also had the chance to chat with Duff Goldman, star of several Food Network TV shows such as Cake Masters, Duff Till Dawn, Ace of Cakes, Iron Chef America and Kid’s Baking Championship.

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I asked him a few questions about the event and his latest show on Food Network, Cake Masters, which currently airs Monday evenings on Food Network at 8pm EST.

ME: So, how did you get involved with the HALL Wines Cabernet Cookoff fundraiser?
DUFF: Well, I’m not really sure, uh… you know, I went to school here, uh for culinary school (CIA), and I probably do (appear at) about 3 events in Napa every year and my name is around, I’m a friend of the valley, and this is the place where I became a chef.

ME: So your new show is Cake Masters. Please tell me a little bit about that.
DUFF: It’s a really cool show, it’s a lot like Ace of Cakes, you know, it follows my staff, we make big crazy cakes, uh, but it’s in Los Angeles instead of Baltimore, so we really up the stakes. So now what we do is partner with special effects houses, so these cakes are really just wild.

ME: Yes, I heard about the Fantastic Four cake, and that it was pretty cool.
DUFF: Yes.

ME: So what cake project were you most excited to do?
DUFF: Uh, well we just made a life-size working R2D2.

ME: That’s so awesome, that’s great. So you’re know for cake decorating, but what on the savory side do you like to make/cook?
DUFF: Well, right now I’m writing a book about soup. I’ve got a soup brain right now.
ME: Yes, I’m sure you probably have soup a lot living in Baltimore, especially during winter.
DUFF: We do, and I actually grew up in Cape Cod, so you know it’s a big soup country up there. It’s cold.

ME: I was reading a little bit about you, and found you started out bread making. How did you transition into making cake and not just cakes but cakes that are really works of art?
DUFF: Well, I was a graffiti artist when I was younger, and I started cooking to make enough money to pay for my spray paint. Uh, I got arrested a lot.
ME: Oh!
DUFF: Yeah, so I had to stop doing that. So then I started doing metal sculpture, bronzing, welding making giant things like that bunny out front (Duff is referring to Bunny Foo Foo, the large metal rabbit sculpture in front of HALL wines created by artist Lawrence Argent). And then, I started working on cars since a lot of my friends liked working on cars–and I was a really good welder, and they were like, hey can you come over and fix this thing, it’s like you know asking an artist to come over and paint your house, and I really liked doing it, so that’s how I kind of got into mechanics…I’ve been a working pastry chef my whole career and then I’d say when I was about 25, I was in a band in Baltimore and the band was doing really well, we were starting to get looked at by record labels.
ME: And you’re a bassist?
DUFF: Yeah, so I quit my job and I started selling cakes out of my apartment to try and help pay the rent while I was trying to be a full time musician.

ME: You’ve always had the pastry thing in the background and you were in Colorado for a while?
DUFF: Yeah, I used to carve ice out there.

ME: Well it was really cool to hear a little bit more about your background and I appreciate your time.
DUFF: Absolutely.
ME: My blog is kind of small and out of Sacramento…
DUFF: Well send it (the link) to me, I want to read it.
ME: *faints* (KIDDING!) Oh I will! Totally, totally. Thank you so much!
DUFF: Nice to talk to you.

Well, isn’t that something? 🙂 Truthfully, I just didn’t want to take up much of Duff’s time, so I kept it short. It was really warm that day and we were standing outside in direct sunlight and he was wearing long pants and a long sleeved shirt so probably not the most comfortable place to be and get drilled with a bunch of questions from a nervous blogger. And yeah, I was nervous about interviewing Duff, I admit it. The funny thing is, I had met Duff before a few years ago at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco when he was kicking off his line of cake products (pic to prove it below!), and he was super nice and complimented me on my pink chef coat. But then I met Thomas Keller the next year (if you want to call it met) and I tried to ask him a question and he basically dissed me. So, the encounter with Thomas Keller (famous person) made me nervous that the Duff (also a famous person) thing would go awry. And well, I’d say it went alright. I want to thank Duff again for coming out to HALL and for putting up with me for about five minutes. 🙂

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I also want to thank HALL Wines for inviting Andy and me out again. We always have an incredible experience.

Don’t forget to visit www.hallwines.com or follow their social channels on Instagram here, Twitter @hallwines and on Facebook here. CHEERS!!


Cochon Heritage Fire Napa’s “Meat Up” Takes Place on August 2nd!

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Heritage Fire is an annual wood-fired meat-laden feast featuring chefs and farmers working together to spotlight traditional outdoor cooking techniques.

This event takes place on Sunday, August 02, 2015 at 03:00 PM at Charles Krug Winery and features over 45 chefs + 3,000 pounds of sustainably raised, wood-fired meats! The event will also showcase over 40 wineries.

A portion of the ticket proceeds will benefit the St. Helena Farmers Market and The American Institute of Wine & Food. A group of celebrated butchers will host a Pop-Up Butcher Shop where 100% of the proceeds will benefit the students of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Heritage Fire features chefs and farmers working together to spotlight traditional outdoor cooking techniques paired with amazing wines, ice-cold brews, and crisp ciders. While Cochon’s flagship event, Cochon 555, brings chefs together in a friendly competition, Heritage Fire is a collection of culinary champions cooking together for a crowd of meat and wine loving gourmands. The list of heritage and heirloom foods to be featured include dry-aged beef, spit-roasted sturgeon, whole pigs, lambs, goat, lobster, squab, rabbit, duck, chicken, artisan cheese, oysters and heirloom vegetables.

“I’m passionate about promoting food sources that support a more natural, sustainable food system,” explains Brady Lowe, creator of Heritage Fire. “One event cannot change the system, but together we can celebrate the chefs and farmers who continue to tilt the scales back towards responsibly grown food.”

Tickets are $105.95 per person and are available here.

You can follow Cochon 555 and all of their events on Facebook here or on Twitter here.


Kathryn Hall Release Party Set for Sept. 13th, 1-4pm

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The “Kathryn Hall Release Party” date has been set for Saturday, September 13 at HALL Wines in St. Helena where the 2011 HALL ‘Kathryn Hall’ Cabernet Sauvignon will be released for a crowd filled with wine lovers, foodies, fans, members and tourists alike. The party will take place on the newly designed Great Lawn from 1pm – 4pm PST.

I have been to another event at HALL Wines, their Cabernet Cookoff, which took place in May this year, and I can tell you that they know how to throw a party, and the grounds at HALL are just beautiful.

The Release Party with feature great music from DJ Adam Jobe, farm to table seasonal fare from Feast Catering and a clutch of wine lovers, foodies and fans coming together to celebrate HALL’s winemaking excellence.

It’s HALL’s largest annual event of the year and they are setting the bar high! Get your daytime sip, stroll, and lounge on at HALL, St. Helena.

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Schedule:
Vertical Tasting & Kathryn Hall Release Party
12-1PM: Vertical Tasting of 2008–2013 Kathryn Hall lead by Director of Wine Making Steve Leveque

Kathryn Hall Release Party
1-4PM: Kathryn Hall Release Party including plentiful food and artisan wines, DJ and dancing, photo booth, and special signing and photo opp with Kathryn herself.
As an added bonus: Kathryn will be available for a photo opp with you, and will be signing all bottle purchases of “Kathryn Hall” that day.

Tickets are $200 per person for the Vertical Tasting & Release Party: BUY TICKETS HERE, and $90 per person for the Release Party only: BUY TICKETS HERE

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HALL Wines is located at 401 St. Helena Hwy S, St Helena CA.
You can find HALL Wines on Facebook here and follow them on Twitter here and on Instagram here.


An Evening in Napa: Dinner Aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train and a Stay at The Meritage Resort

And we’re back! Happy 2014! Andy and I took a little overnight trip to Napa a few weeks ago, sponsored by The Napa Valley Wine Train and The Meritage Resort. What a way to kick off the new year.

Us
Back in Napa again at last and a return to one of our favorite places to stay: The Meritage Resort. By the way, at the end of this column, read about the inaugural Masters and Makers @ Meritage event being held at The Meritage Resort in February over Valentine’s Weekend. Attention couples, a great way to celebrate!

Here’s the lobby at The Meritage, and a shot of the room in which we stayed.

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After checking into our room, we had a glass of wine to kick off a romantic evening. I was so excited to return to the Napa Valley Wine Train for dinner, and this time I was able to bring Andy as my guest. I originally wrote about The Wine Train on my other website: cakegrrl.com. You can read the entry by clicking here. 🙂

The Wine Train Depot is located at 1275 McKinstry Street in the Oxbow district, just 5 minutes from downtown Napa on foot.

boarding ticket

TrainDiagram2013This is a diagram of the wine train. The Napa Valley Wine Train consists of nine rail cars and two engines on point: Lounge Cars (3), Lounge Car with Wine Tasting Bar (1), Gourmet Express Dining Cars (2), Silverado Car Al-Fresco Style Dining(1), Vista Dome Dining Car (1), Power Car (1), Chef de Cuisine Kitchen Car with Glass Observation Corridor (1)

Andy and I were assigned to the beautiful Vista Dome.

The Vista Dome is a 1952 Pullman domed rail car that offers the most private dining experience. The Vista Dome Car is an elevated observation style dining car expertly refurbished using Honduran Mahogany paneling and brass accents. Perfect for a private function or one of our special events, this domed rail car hosts up to 56 dining guests.

inside vista dome
Above is a picture taken inside the Vista Dome! I was feeling so spoiled and lucky to be sitting beside Andy. 🙂 Especially when the server brought out the welcome glass of Chandon. All guests on the wine train get a glass of sparkling wine included with their dinner.

chandon
Corkage on the Napa Valley Wine Train is $15.00 per 750ml bottle and $30 for a Magnum sized bottle. If you bring one bottle of wine on board and buy a bottle
on board, they will waive the corkage for that bottle. FYI, most of the wines on the Wine Train menu are very reasonably priced.

Andy brought a bottle of 2010 Bell Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon to share with our dinner. You can read more about the wine as well as buy it here. We highly
recommend!

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Our server was Petar, and here is a photo of him explaining the courses featured in the dinner we were to be served.

petar
menu
Here’s a picture the dinner menu we chose from. It is slightly different from the other dining car. Executive Chef Kelly Macdonald offers a unique menu for this dining option with all selections prepared in the kitchen located on the first floor of this car. The meals are freshly prepared on the train using fresh, environmentally responsible ingredients, humanely raised, hormone free meats and fresh, line caught fish. For a closer look, you can click here.

For our appetizers, Andy went with the Salmon Crepe and I chose the Rabbit Confit. The lighting in the Vista Dome was dim, but I did not want to use a flash, so please forgive the photos I took of our meal. They are slightly dark.

The Salmon Crepe is served with Crème Fraîche, American Caviar and Honey Onion Marmalade.

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Here’s a picture of the rabbit confit. Paleo? Heck no, but delightful and such a great treat. The Rabbit Confit is served on Porcini Toast with Wine Poached Mangoes and Fried Leeks.

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For our second course, I chose the salad, and Andy went with soup special.

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It was a shrimp and seafood bisque, and though we have been experiencing warmer than normal temperatures this winter, the temperature had dropped enough by the time we boarded the train to appreciate a delicious soup. 🙂

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The salad was not for dieters. 😉 It was a Red and Green Apple Endive Salad with Gorgonzola Cheese, Hazelnuts and Mustard Vinaigrette. I was happy because I am on a real hazelnut kick right now and have been for a while.

After our second course, a sorbet trio was brought out. I forgot to snap a photo of it. The flavors were mango, pineapple, and mixed berry. They are made by the chefs at the Wine Train and were a wonderful intermezzo.

Then it was time for the entrees. Andy and I both chose the Roasted Beef Tenderloin on Potato‐Fennel Gratin topped with Fried Lotus Root and Red Onion Marmalade in a Red Wine Cabernet Reduction. I had reviewed the menu ahead of time and chosen my entrée and that is mainly why Andy brought the Bell Cabernet. The wine pairing was excellent. And though I gave a little bit of my beef portion to Andy to finish, it was all so good I had nothing left on my plate.

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After dinner, we were welcome to explore the train as the servers were busy plating our desserts. Below is a photo of the other dining car.

inside dining car
And here’s a picture of the very narrow kitchen and a cook who obviously loves his job!

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It was quite the adventure walking from car to car and fun to catch some fresh air between courses. It sort of felt like we were in a James Bond movie! After that, we were re-seated to enjoy our desserts, as well as a glass of port that Andy and I shared.

Below is a picture of the dessert I chose, a Chocolate “Pot Pie” and below that, Andy’s dessert: a Blondie with Mint Ice Cream. This job is so tough, isn’t it? In typical fashion, I had a few bites and then shoved my dessert over to Andy, who did not object to finishing it. I was eying the blondie on his plate and asked for the chocolate-dipped edge. He gladly shared with me. I love eating meals with my best friend. 🙂

Chocolate Pot Pie
Blondie with Mint Ice Cream

Wine Train FAQs I found particularly interesting:
Q: Is a tip included in the price?
A: Optional tipping is solely based upon the guests’ experience on board. It is not unusual for guest to leave 3%-8% additional based upon receiving excellent service. Your tip should be on your food and beverage service (the value of your on board pre-paid meal is $55.00) per person tax included, and not the train fare.

Q: Is Wine Included?
A: One glass of welcome wine is included with every Wine Train package for guests who are over the age of 21. Wines are included during the Vintner’s Lunches and the monthly Moonlight Escape Dinners. Cocktails, beers and wine can be purchased on board throughout your journey. More than 100 wines are on the wine list and in the Wine Tasting Car.

Q: Do you have to drink wine on the Napa Valley Wine Train?
A: No, you do not have to drink wine on board the Napa Valley Wine Train.  For our guests who do not want to drink wine, we also offer juice, soda, non-alcoholic wines, beers, cocktails and brandies.

During the 3-hour-long, 36-mile (58 km) round-trip between Napa and St. Helena, passengers can choose to enjoy a gourmet  meal prepared on board. They can also sample several of the region’s wines available at the wine bar located in one of the lounge cars. The train offers optional stops for tours of Domaine Chandon Winery in Yountville, Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford, and a motor coach tour of Raymond Winery in St. Helena and ZD Winery in Napa for an additional fee. The train hosts several special events throughout the year including murder mystery dinner theater, vintner’s luncheons, appellation dinners and holiday excursions. Guests are invited to explore the rest of the train after the entree and prior to the dessert.

The Napa Valley Wine Train has been in operation since September 16, 1989 and has now carried more than 2 million passengers.

Here’s a list of special events on The Wine Train, including a special Valentine’s lunch and dinner.

You can find the Napa Valley Wine Train on Facebook here and follow them on twitter here.

Since I was a return guest, I was presented with some chocolates as a parting gift. (Some guests around us were repeat customers and also got chocolates as well, not just the journalist!) Since I was a little sad my mom (who lives in Ohio) was not there to enjoy this experience with us, I decided to send them to her and they are currently en route to the midwest. 🙂

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The next morning, it was time to pay for all those glorious calories and the night of indulgence aboard the Wine Train. 🙂 Lucky for me, The Meritage Resort has a killer gym with a great view. And I put in over an hour on this bad boy:
treadmill
Then it was time for a well needed shower, just in time for check out. Thanks for everything to the staff at The Meritage Resort and see you next time!

door meritage
And now some information (provided by my public relations contact) on an upcoming event being held at The Meritage Resort!

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The Meritage Resort and Spa will host the inaugural Masters and Makers @ Meritage Napa Valley food and wine experience February 14 to February 16, 2014. This celebration will showcase Napa Valley and Sonoma County wines and farm-fresh foods through creative wine tasting experiences, seminars, culinary classes, a wine maker dinner in the Estate Cave, a wine tasting gala and more. Join The Meritage Resort’s Executive Chef, Krisztian Karkus, Master Sommeliers, including Gillian Balance from Treasury Wine Estates/Beringer and Fred Dame with Southern Wine and Spirits as well as some of the best and most well-known wine makers in the region.

The weekend of events is aimed at teaching each attendee, no matter their wine tasting background, from novice to aficionado, more about the wines the Napa Valley is famous for. Guests are able to choose from a variety of educational and fun activities throughout three days of tastings and events with master wine makers and master sommeliers making this the wine event that is not to be missed.

Masters and Makers @ Meritage begins Friday, February 14 with The Master and The Makers Tasting, an Amuse Bouche set to highlight five quintessential blended wines from the Napa Valley. Guests will taste the wines and listen as a Master of Wine and Master Sommelier taste and review each of the wines, giving their opinions and helping guests understand the art of wine tasting. The Friday night Reserve Wine Dinner in the Estate Cave will be led by Master Sommeliers as they take attendees on a food and wine journey and featuring Pine Ridge Vineyards.

On Saturday, guests are able to choose from one of three activities during the day and attend the evening wine tasting gala. The daytime activities include a Custom Wine Tour set to visit three classic Napa Valley wineries with tours and tastings at each, plus a picnic lunch. The Perfect Blending, an educational and hands-on course about what makes the perfect Bordeaux Blend including lunch and your own “Meritage Blend” with a custom wine label. Foodies may want to choose Cook to This! Trinitas Cellars Cooking Class and Wine Pairing, giving attendees the opportunity to create their own multi-course lunch with the help of culinary experts perfectly paired with wines selected by Trinitas Cellars.

The Gala and Grand Tasting on Saturday evening will transform The Grand Ballroom at The Meritage Resort into a majestic tasting room with live music and over 65 wineries from Napa Valley and Sonoma County to showcase many of the finest wines produced in the region. Alongside the wines will be endless culinary creations from the chefs at The Meritage Resort including a selection of seafood, caviars, cheeses, meats and decadent desserts.

Masters and Makers @ Meritage will close on Sunday with the farewell Bubbles & Brunch and a casual afternoon of tasting 30-40 wines at the Appellation Tasting paired with cheeses and charcuterie.

“We’re looking forward to bringing all of the premier wineries to one convenient spot to offer a premiere wine and food experience,” said Michael Palmer, general manager of The Meritage Resort and Spa. “Our goal with the Masters and Makers @ Meritage is to give attendees an exclusive weekend wine and food experience that only Napa Valley can provide.

Masters and Makers @ Meritage 3-Day All Access Passes are $509 per person, and include entry into all events on Friday, two events on Saturday (one daytime event and the evening gala) and all events on Sunday. Guests may also choose to purchase events and activities individually. Discounted room packages are also available, the $950 package includes a 3-Day All Access Passes for two and a two night stay, valid February 14-16, 2014 only. A portion of all ticket sales from The Gala and Grand Tasting will be donated to the Napa Valley’s COPE Family Center. Complete Information is available at TheMeritageResort.com/Napa-Valley-Restaurants/Masters-Makers/.

About The Meritage Resort and Spa
The Meritage Resort and Spa is an extraordinary four-diamond Napa Valley luxury resort set against a hillside vineyard. A destination unto itself, it features 322 Tuscan-inspired guestrooms and luxury suites, seasonal farm-to-table cuisine at the Siena Restaurant and wine tasting in the Estate Cave featuring Trinitas Cellars. Regain a healthful balance with curative treatments at Spa Terra—a lavish underground spa with steam grottoes, soaking pools, treatment alcoves and tranquil walls of water. The resort boasts the most comprehensive event and meeting space in the wine country, including the two largest ballrooms in the Napa Valley, the Estate Cave and three covered terraces. Crush Ultra Lounge offers guests a chance to relax with a full bar, sports entertainment and six bowling lanes. Far more than a place for relaxation, our unique property is an Old World escape from the ordinary. The Meritage Resort and Spa experience is the perfect blend of gracious hospitality, unrivaled amenities and peerless personal care. The Meritage Resort and Spa, We are Napa. TheMeritageResort.com.


Tarla Mediterranean Grill: My New Favorite in Downtown Napa

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Well, I just found my new favorite restaurant. Unfortunately for me, it’s in Downtown Napa, so I won’t be able to visit as often as I would like. The name of the restaurant is Tarla Mediterranean Grill and they serve cuisine that is a beautiful blend of Turkish and Greek influences. It also happens to be located in the same building as one of my favorite places to stay in Napa, the Avia Hotel.

I picked Tarla Mediterranean Grill not only because of its close proximity to the Uptown Theatre (where we were headed later to see Robert Cray and his band), but it was also a nod to Andy’s heritage. Andy is half-Greek, so I thought it would be the perfect choice for his birthday celebration.

Tarla Mediterranean Grill opened last year, and is owned by Yusuf Topal and his wife Breanna. Yusuf’s background is in hospitality, as he was a former maitre d’ and manager of various cruise ship restaurants.

The head chef is Gerry Castro. He attended CIA and has worked for the likes of Far Niente Winery, Ceja Vineyards, Farmstead Restaurant, and Murray Circle (a Michelin starred restaurant in Sausalito).

The restaurant seats only 46, and has a great patio area if you prefer to dine outside. The interior has a clean, informal, and inviting look with tangerine and olive hues in the decor. There are nice touches to each table including candles and turkish white copper cups (in which water is served to guests).

We kicked off the birthday dinner with a half bottle of Malamatina Retsina, and began the meal with Tarla’s Greek salad. I also ordered a side of hummus to use as a dip for the tomatoes and cucumbers in the salad.

Then we ordered the Meatballs served with caramelized eggplant, bell peppers, and fresh tomato sauce.

For my main course, I ordered the Tiger prawns and diver scallops, served with parsnip puree and pomegranate currant sauce. Everything in the dish is Paleo, and it was the first dish that caught my eye on the menu. It was almost like the chef called Andy, asked him what all my favorite foods are, then put some of them together. It was as wonderful as I imagined.

Andy chose the Fresh Alaskan halibut, which is pistachio crusted and served with vegetable ragu and white wine butter sauce. Again, every ingredient was Paleo and once again, unbelievably good.

We finished our meal with 2 desserts. This usually works because I take one or two bites and then pass over to Andy to finish. That way, nobody is deprived. And it was a special occasion, so what the heck. 🙂

The first dessert was poached apricots stuffed with mascarpone cheese and rolled in pistachios. The sweetness was balanced with the cheese filling, and pistachios just make something that already tastes great, taste even better.

At this point writing my post, I am realizing we really ate a lot of food that night! But wait, there’s more…

The owner brought out a second dessert for us like nothing I have ever seen or tried before! It is called kunefe (shredded phyllo dough baked with shredded coconut and sweet cheese). Not primal or even Paleo, but a nice treat nonetheless. I had a few bites and had Andy finish the rest. The texture and flavor was unlike anything I have ever tried before. Baklava might sound good and traditional, but trust me… try the kunefe. You can thank me later. I liked it so much I am going to work on a gluten-free, sugar free version. 🙂 Just wow.

Other dishes on the menu include spanokopita, calamari, saganaki, chicken and lamb shish kebabs, Turkish stuffed eggplant, and musakka (a traditional dish in both Turkey and Greece). By the way, if you’ve never had saganaki, just do it. It’s amazing.

The other wine we shared at dinner was a 2011 Peju Sauvignon Blanc. The wine list is so reasonable it’s unreasonable! My alcohol bill for the retsina and the sauvignon blanc was only about $35. Also, every Wednesday, the restaurant features a select wine list with bottles 50% off until 7:30pm.

No entree on the menu is over $20, and as you can see in the pictures, the portions are generous.

Tarla Mediterranean Grill  is located at 1480 1st Street, Downtown Napa. To contact the restaurant, call (707) 255-5599. Their happy hour is Monday-Friday 3-6pm, and late night happy hour is 8:30-10pm. They are open Monday-Thursday 11am-10pm, Friday 11am-11pm, Saturday 10am-11pm, and Sunday 10am-10pm.

You can find them on Facebook here and follow them on twitter here.


Opus One Winery: One of the Best!

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Our latest trip in Napa centered around a birthday present for my boyfriend Andy. It was tickets to a Robert Cray show at the Uptown Theatre. Once I found out about the concert, I obtained the seats, and then immediately started planning the rest. I knew just the show and possibly getting a place to stay would be more than enough, but I wanted to plan some wine tastings the day of the show.

There are literally hundreds of wineries from which to choose when you visit Napa, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, etc, but I wanted to choose an extra special tasting. Last time we visited Napa, we went to Nichelini Winery for their Rosé of Cabernet release. We talked to one of the tasting room managers, Doug, at length about the area wineries and which ones were the best. Andy brought up Opus One and asked Doug if he thought that Opus One was worth the hype. And he said it was. He urged us to visit. Andy’s eyes widened and he promised Doug we would go there.

Of course, seeing Andy’s reaction… that curiosity and wonder…I wanted to make sure the visit happened sooner than later. I won’t lie. I had never tried Opus One, and I too was curious. I wanted to learn more about the classic wine and the history behind it. So, even before I booked a place for us to sleep for the night, I set our tasting appointment at Opus One. A full two months from the day we were set to visit. I was so excited about the tasting, but I kept it to myself for as long as I could! Eventually, none of the Napa Valley trip I had lined up as a birthday present would stay a secret. I had to begin promoting the Robert Cray concert, the Best Western Inn at the Vines, Opus One, Far Niente, and Tarla Mediterranean Grill. I wanted the first birthday that Andy spent with me to be extra special, and I think it was!

Opus One
We met our host Adrian at the front desk inside the Opus One facility. We checked in, and then Adrian took us outside to the vineyards out front. He began to tell us the story of how the wine was born. It was a joint venture of Baron Phillippe de Rothschild (of Château Mouton Rothschild) and Robert Mondavi. They started making the wine in 1979 and in 1984, released the 1979 and 1980 vintages simultaneously. Phillippe chose the “Opus” (a musical term) because he wanted the name to have a Latin origin and be easily recognized in different romantic languages.

As soon as 1985, Opus One became known as America’s first ultra-premium wine, establishing a category of wine priced at $50 and above per bottle. In 1989, a year after Baron de Phillippe’s death, ground breaking for Opus One Winery takes place (July). Construction of the winery is finished by 1991.

I didn’t even come to California until 2004. That’s when the winery’s board of directors placed CEO David Pearson in charge and wholly responsible for Opus One. Michael Silacci is named the winemaker, the first winemaker that would oversee both viticulture and winemaking. That same year, Constellation Brands, Inc. purchases Robert Mondavi Corporation and with it, 50% ownership of Opus One.

In 2005, an agreement between Baroness Phillippe de Rothschild and Constellation Brands allows Opus One to uphold operating independence in the areas of: vineyard management, sales and marketing, and administration.

And in 2012, there we were. Standing in front of the magnificent structure and looking out across the vineyards. The fruit was nearly ready to be picked and a deep purple. I was intoxicated by the experience without yet having a sip! Adrian led Andy and I into the lab where corks are tested for TCA (the compound responsible for a “corked” wine). The testing done on the cork samples is so successful in detecting TCA, that less than 1% of all Opus One wine produced ends up “corked”!

We went on to tour the production facility, and saw some of the machines used to de-stem the fruit and kick out any less than perfect fruit. Then we were taken to another room where the barrels are laid out several single rows. It reminded me of a theater, only instead of seats, barrels lined the ground. And then, it was time to taste the wine. We were led into a little boutique with a table and three chairs, and six glasses poured for the three of us. Two vintages of Opus One each. The 2004, and the 2008.

The 2004 is a blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Malbec. It has 25 days skin contact and was barrel aged 17 months in new French oak barrels. (PS: The barrels used to age wines at Opus One are not re-used for Opus One. They are used once and then sold to other wineries.

The 2008 is a blend of 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Petit Verdot, 4% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Malbec. It has 22 days skin contact and was barrel aged 17 months in new French oak.

I could list the tasting notes written in my press kit, or even list some of mine, but I really believe wine tastes different for everyone. I will tell you that I preferred the 2008 over the 2004, even from the first smell. Even as both wines oxidized in the time we were sitting there. From beginning to end, for me, 2008 won hands down. I won’t go as far as to say that the 2008 Opus One was the best thing I have ever tasted, but I will definitely put it in the top 3. I will put the experience and the tour and how thrilled I was to be there with Andy as my favorite so far.

Another point I want to make is that this wine is so balanced and brilliant, it doesn’t need food. In fact, food would definitely mess things up.

We sat in our tasting room and sipped the wines and reflected on them. We had containers in which to pour any wine we didn’t want/like, etc. Who ever uses those? Especially tasting Opus One? 😉

At the end of the tasting, Adrian directed us to the terrace on top of the building. We stood there and enjoyed the view, and then Adrian brought us another tasting! This time it was the 2003 vintage of Opus One. The 2003 is a blend of 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot, 2% Merlot, and 1% Malbec. I liked it the least of all the vintages I tried, but even at that it was still divine!

The 2008 retails at $210.00 per bottle. You can follow Opus One on twitter here and like them on Facebook here.

I highly recommend the tour and tasting, as it is only $40 per person at the time of this column. It’s one of my best memories in the Napa Valley/Oakville area. 🙂 Cheers!!


Robert Cray Plays Uptown Theatre in Napa, September 8th

Five-time Grammy Award winner Robert Cray will be making a stop in Napa at the Uptown Theatre on September 8th, 2012.

Recently inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame (at 57 years, the youngest living inductee) Cray is considered “one of the greatest guitarists of his generation.”  Rolling Stone Magazine (April 2011) credits Cray’s Strong Persuader with reinventing the blues with his “distinct razor sharp guitar playing” that “introduced a new generation of mainstream rock fans to the language and form of the blues.”

Cray has recorded fifteen Billboard charting studio albums, performed thousands of sold out shows, and has written or played with everyone from Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan, from Bonnie Raitt to John Lee Hooker.

With over 12 million records sold and his own line of Fender guitars, Cray has established himself as a genre defining artist- breaking through the pop ceiling with his gate crashing/blues-edged trademark sound and distinct style that has become a signature blend of r&b, pop, rock, soul and traditional blues.  The New York Times says, “his voice, alternately smooth and craggy, is often richer and more emotive than Mr. Clapton’s, and he knows the best ways to use it,” while Guitar Player Magazine noted, “Robert Cray is not only making great music he’s making history…”

The show at the Uptown Theatre begins at 8pm.
Tickets are $35 and$45 dollars each. You can buy tickets by clicking here.
The Uptown Theatre is located at 1350 3rd Street, Downtown Napa.
You can find them on Facebook here and follow them on twitter here.