Once upon a time in Napa Valley, people had to go up valley to Yountville or St. Helena for fine dining. Those days, thankfully, are long behind us.

One of the top restaurants in Napa Valley—indeed, in all the Bay Area—is La Toque, which is inside the Westin Verasa Hotel in downtown Napa, on the same street as the Oxbow Public Market. Known for its creative and oft-inspired pairings of wine and food, it is a Michelin one-star restaurant and has been for more than a decade.

Ken Frank in action. Photo courtesy of La Toque.

Late last year Jennifer Kaiser and I had an exemplary meal at La Toque and sat down beforehand for a talk with its executive chef and owner, Ken Frank, who noted that his favorite word appeared between “delicatessen” and “delight” in the dictionary.

“Delicious is my favorite word,” he said in our interview, which was published in the current issue of The Preiser Key magazine. “Food has to look good. It has to be interesting. And at the end of the day it needs to be flat-out delicious.”

Mission accomplished. The Chef’s Table Tasting Menu, a nine-course, seven-wine extravaganza, was a kind of luxury cruise around the world, with wines from France, Italy, Germany, and of course, the US of A. There are 2,300 selections on La Toque’s wine list. Dining at La Toque is not inexpensive (there are four- and five-item tasting menus available too), but Frank and the staff are aware of this and treat their customers accordingly.

“People need to know, when they come here, they’re going to be well taken care of,” he said.

The current issue of Preiser Key contains the interview with Frank; Jennifer’s dining review is scheduled to appear in a future issue. The Key is a guide to Napa and Sonoma wineries and restaurants; it’s available free at hotels, restaurants and other gathering spots in those areas. My favorite spot to pick one up is the stand in front of Oakville Grocery in Oakville, which is also a nice spot to stop for delicious delicatessen offerings for lunch.

Jon Priest, shown here at a media luncheon.


Monty and Sara Preiser, the husband-and-wife wine aficionados who publish and edit the magazine named after them, are fans of Etude winemaker Jon Priest, who, they say, creates “wines of distinction.” Indeed. One of our favorites is the Rosé of Pinot Noir. Etude is holding a release party for its latest version of the wine Saturday, May 13, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. All welcome, no rezzies needed.

Nils Venge. Courtesy of NilsVenge.com.


This year Winesong, a food and wine festival in Mendocino, will honor Nils Venge, the Danish immigrant who, after serving a combat tour of duty in Vietnam, came to Napa Valley to become a winemaker. His 1985 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve earned a perfect 100 point score from Robert Parker, Jr., the first ever for a California wine. In his early seventies with a jaunty gray mustache and goatee, Venge is now the Cabernet king of Saddleback Cellars. But Winesong will have lots more going on besides the Venge tribute; it’s held September 8-9 around harvest time.


If you were ever in doubt about the influence of California on America’s wine drinking habits, all you have to do is look at the latest Nielsen report on wine sales. According to the market research company’s April 2017 findings, nine of the top 10 best-selling wines in the U.S. are produced in California. They are: Barefoot (1), Woodbridge (2), Franzia (3), Sutter Home (4), Kendall-Jackson (6), Beringer (7), Black Box (8), Apothic (9) and Cupcake Vineyards (10). Only Yellow Tail, ranking No. 5 in sales in the U.S., is the outlier, hailing from Australia. No doubt premium wine sales in this country show a similar weighting toward the Golden State.—Kevin Nelson