Sunday, October 16, 2011

Napa Valley, California

Very few places in the United States, and maybe worldwide, are so rich and charming when it comes to food and wine culture. One of the things that I miss the most since I moved from Italy and relocated to California is sometimes the lack of appreciation, or maybe knowledge, of traditional cuisine and food culture in general. I was somewhat disappointed on how the fast food industry was able to establish itself as the mainstream choice, maybe due to convenience, when it comes to enjoying a meal. On this perspective, Napa Valley represents a gem . This incredible viticulture area dates back to the nineteenth century and it is really remarkable how some of the original wineries still fully operate today with success.It wasn't without struggles throughout this long period of time that Napa Valley came to be what it is today. Prohibition certainly didn't help and a lot of wineries were forced to close during that period. NapaValley can also pride itself on being able to be preserved as an agricultural area, while neighboring counties such as Sonoma and Solana have allowed more extensive commercial building through the last few decades.
The first time I went to Napa Valley, the immediate impression was of disbelief of how such a view looked and felt so familiar, in such a remote place away from home. The hills on both sides of the main road are gently sloping down, reveling an endless patters of vines that continue from hill to hill, making almost impossible to define where a winery property starts, and the next one begins.
I also really enjoy the distinctive scent of grapes that permeates the entire valley, from the small city of Napa at one extremity, to the most upper little charming town of Calistoga where I usually stay, home of a nice looking Geyser, worth a visit.
Right between Napa and Calistoga, there is St. Helena, a very cute and small town with little shops and nice walks. It is also probably the most expensive, if you are looking for a place to stay in the valley.
So, since you most probably come here for food and wine, I 'd like to mention a few places that in my opinion stood out during my three trips.
The winery that more than other got my attention is Hess. Their varietal of wines are very enjoyable, especially the reds , and the locations is absolutely beautiful, right in the middle of Mount Veeder. It takes a good 20 minutes of meandering roads to reach the location, but once you get there , you are in for a treat. The building is a mix of modern and traditional architecture and it blends perfectly with the surroundings. The staff is very friendly and professional. Inside the building there are also three floors dedicated to an extensive art gallery, where the exhibitors change quite frequently, something really remarkable  that I have not found in any other winery I visited. The wine is really good, so good that I decided to subscribe to their wine club and receive their monthly shipment at home. This is probably the best and only way to get their Mount Veeder Block Cuvee, definitively my favorite among reds.



Another winery that I liked for the combination of quality of products and scenery was Sterling. The interesting part is that in order to get to the winery, you can choose to go on a small gondola ride, worth it just for the spectacular view which is only a preview of what it will be revealed once you are up the hill. The tasting area is really cozy, on a small patio, where you have a nice view on the north side of the valley. You can also go on a self directed tour, following the well indicated path to follow and see different steps of the wine production, to end up in a beautiful terrace with a 180 degree view of the South side of the Valley ( this is where you want to take your pictures.)
Their variety of wines is also really good. I highly recommend their Chardonnay and Cabernet.
Next I'd like to mention a couple of restaurants. I'd like to point out the fact that I'm a little bias toward Italian food , which I consider one of the most satisfying and complete cuisines worldwide ( but I'm open for a debate..)  .
I really enjoyed a place called TraVigne ( among vines in Italian) located in St Helena. The food is really good traditional Italian and the ambience is really nice with an inviting outdoor area and a side building or "pizzeria" dedicated just for pizza. I really enjoyed their home made mozzarella and the sage infused pappardelle with rabbit ragu'.
Another place that's worth mentioning is Mustard's Grill. As soon as you enter the restaurant the scent of burning oven will hit you right away. I love that, because it remind me of a lot of Trattorias in Italy. Don't escape a drink at the bar. I love the bartender laugh, loud and thundering ! I enjoyed the grilled hanger steak, It was cooked to perfection.
It is really hard for me to sum up in a few paragraph such an incredible place and mention only couple of wineries and restaurant, because, seriously, it is very hard to go wrong once you're up there !!