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.” Continue reading
BY KEVIN NELSON
Here we are, in a darkened dungeon deep underground, watching as our tour guide shines a flashlight on various torture devices and explains how they were used to spike, stretch, suffocate and inflict pain on sufferers in the Middle Ages. Not your typical Napa Valley winery tour, I’ll say.
Then again there is nothing typical or ho-hum about Castello di Amorosa, a spectacular $40 million Calistoga winery built in the style of a medieval Tuscan castle. Besides the dungeon it has 106 other rooms, a chapel, church, farmhouse, dry moat, drawbridge, hidden passageways, courtyards, massive stone walls and towers that rise in the center of picturesque hills and acres of grapevines.
It is not mandatory to take a tour of the castle when you go, if you go, although there are so many wonders and curiosities about the place you really don’t want to miss any of them. We are there as part of the Napa Valley Wine Train’s “Castle Winery Tour,” and our guide greets us in the chapel with an introduction you don’t hear every day.
“Hi,” he says. “I’m Mark. I’ll be your tour guide and bartender.” Continue reading
One of the unexpected pleasures of a visit to wine country is how much art there is to see, and these pleasures include the Grape Crusher Statue, a landmark monument at Vista Point in Napa Valley.
Since its erection in the 1980s millions of cars have driven by it and hundreds of thousands of people have stopped to see it. In this sense it is like the “Welcome to Napa Valley” signs on Highway 29—a place to meet up and shoot selfies and have pictures to show the folks back home that you were there, you really were in the land of wine.
At least one couple has gotten married at the Grape Crusher. And its creator, sculptor Gino Miles, jokes that one or two babies may have been made up there too. There is a small parking lot there, a perfect spot for having lunch, enjoying the views, and apparently doing other things as well.
“I’m not from around here,” a woman visitor told this writer as she was trying to find the right angle to take a picture of the Grape Crusher. “But I saw it driving by the other night when I was going to a concert, and I had to come back and see it.”
Those who do what she did—stop and get a closer look at the Grape Crusher—are rewarded by picturesque views of the surrounding hills, Napa River and the wetlands of San Francisco Bay. It is not called Vista Point for nothing. Continue reading
BY KEVIN NELSON
Many Napa Valley travelers begin their day with a stop at Domaine Carneros winery in Napa. Many travelers also end their day there. One reason for this is the winery’s strategic location almost equidistant between the twin capitals of northern California wine country—four miles from Napa and five miles from Sonoma.
There are, of course, many other reasons to stop at this lovely hillside winery built in the style of an ancient French chateau. Only the state’s second-smallest volume producer of champagne, Domaine Carneros nonetheless has a giant reputation in the world of quality sparkling wines, winning many awards for its products. For those who love Marilyn Monroe’s favorite drink, here are five things you must do when you visit Domaine Carneros:
The hilltop chateau of Domaine Carneros.
Robert and Margrit Mondavi.
They held the annual blessing of the grapes at Robert Mondavi Winery Wednesday, and it turned into a tribute in words and song to Margrit Mondavi, who died in early September at age 91.
Margrit was the wife of Robert Mondavi, the late founder of the landmark Napa Valley winery, an artist, and a cultural and artistic ambassador for Mondavi wines and Napa Valley for decades. Her passing added a special poignancy to the formal ceremony that marks the beginning of harvest.
Employees at the Oakville winery, the media and others gathered in the To Kalon Cellar as Mondavi’s General Manager Glenn Workman began the ceremony with a toast to her, noting how this was the first harvest in nearly a half-century in which Margrit did not participate.
“While it does bring sadness that she’s not here, we know how she loved to celebrate,” he said as he and the 75 other people who were there raised glasses in her memory. Small tastes of Fumé Blanc, Mondavi’s trademark version of Sauvignon Blanc, were handed out to celebrants as they arrived for the ceremony. Continue reading
Today the very popular international travel site, Dave’s Travel Corner, published a wine and travel piece of mine entitled, “7 Hidden Treasures of Napa Valley.” The treasures include the Bufano statues at Robert Mondavi Winery (one of which is at left, in the barrel room), a surprising find near the deli counter at Oakville Grocery, a leafy tribute to a wine master, a unique Abraham Lincoln bust, a schoolteacher’s legacy roses near the French Laundry in Yountville, and more. Click over here to the site if you’d like to see more.
Being a wine and food writer and author—my two latest books, Foodie Snob and Running Snob, will be published by Lyons Press in 2017—I am always on the look for a good wine book to settle down with while enjoying a good glass of wine. Here are two recent ones I’ve read:
- Sideways, Rex Pickett, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004.
Not exactly recent, is it? Oh well, I was inspired to go back and read this comic novel—confession: I never did, when it first came out a dozen years ago—upon hearing the news that Pickett, whose day job is as a Hollywood screenwriter, has released a new sequel, which came out this summer. It’s called Vertical: Passion and Pinot on the Oregon Wine Trail, and it catches us up on the lives of Miles and Jack all these years later, no doubt chronicling many more wine-soaked adventures and misadventures in the process. An earlier version of the book was released years ago; this is a newly edited and revised edition, says the publisher. Continue reading
BY KEVIN NELSON
Owning a vineyard and making your own wine is a dream shared by people in all walks of life, including professional athletes and coaches.
Here are six sports superstars and one coach—a Formula One world driving champion, Heisman Trophy-winning Pro Bowl NFL cornerback, four-time NASCAR Cup champion, Hall of Fame pitcher who led the New York Mets to their first World Series title, a Rose Bowl and Super Bowl-winning coach, another race car driver and an elite PGA golfer once ranked No. 1 in the world—that have turned their dreams into a reality by establishing wineries or wine brands.
Despite their varied backgrounds, all share one thing in common: a love of wine. Known mainly for their sports achievements, they would also like to be known as the makers of excellent Cabernets, Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs.
Mario Andretti looks every inch the consummate winemaker: hale, hearty, in robust good health. If you did not know better you would not suspect he was one of the fastest men to ever drive a racing car, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 and Formula One world racing crown, among many other titles. Long retired from racing, the 76-year-old oversees a Napa Valley winery that goes by his name. Andretti Winery’s Montona Reserve wines are named after the area in Italy where he was born and raised before immigrating to the U.S. as a teenager. Continue reading
Travelers are forever in search of the authentic, and if that describes you, you must seek out the Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Company in St. Helena. It’s as authentic as it gets.
It’s on Charter Avenue just as you come into town, which is where Michelin 3-star Chef Christopher Kostow is opening his new restaurant, Charter Oak, at the site of the old Tra Vigne. Turn right off the highway and go to the end of Charter and there it will be, a little piece of Italy in Napa Valley. Continue reading
BY JENNIFER KAISER
Even before you enter the lovely dining room of Solbar, the surrounding Solage Resort has begun to work its magic. Comfortable outdoor seating and contemporary fountains—some with flames rising from the water—set the casual, upscale tone.
Michelin-starred Solbar is a hotel restaurant, but looks like a chic bistro, and the superb service and food live up to expectations.
We started lunch with a beet salad ($15). The beautifully prepared beets were prepared four different ways, including in chip form, and served on watercress. An unusual green goddess dressing had a strong cinnamon note.
Spicy shrimp lettuce wraps ($17) are highly recommended. Tamarind-sauced rice noodles and shredded carrots nestle on avocado slices, and a traditional nam pla sauce spikes up the simply prepared shrimp. Continue reading