Monday, October 14, 2013

A Day Trip to Napa Valley



People keep asking me for recommendations for a day trip in Napa Valley. Here is the latest perfect itinerary, which takes just a little bit of preparation. Schedule no more than two winery appointments. It's about quality, not quantity. Spend 2 hours at each winery on average, and let your world slow down for just one day.

While cruising along the main road - highway 29, pick up your lunch at Bouchon Bakery in Yountville or Oakville Grocery in Oakville - two Napa Valley lunch-picnic "institutions" (with picnic tables outside - simply beautiful on a sunny day). I especially love the frenchified ham-n-cheese from Bouchon - the fresh baguette and Dijon mustard make the sandwich. And their tuna nicoise is the best tuna sandwich ever, and a good match for white wine!

The line outside of Bouchon Bakery in Yountville. Allow yourself 10-15 min to get though, and you won't regret it!

Or if you are in the mood for something heftier, stop further up the highway right before St. Helena at Gott's (previously Taylor's Refersher) and get a Texas Burger - that thing is as great an awesomeness of a burger as you will ever find in a "fast food" joint. Everything in all three of these places is very good. But don't eat there - grab your food and head to the first winery for a lunch picnic.

I recommend Joseph Phelps winery which offers one of the most beautiful views you can enjoy from a picnic table while sipping some wonderful Napa wines.

Awesome view from the terrace of Joseph Phelps winery

The key is to make an appointment in advance, and ask for a table. Two different levels of terrace tasting are offered - one for $35 and another for $70. Read more here. Don't gulp down all the wines - you will get drunk quickly, because generous quantities are poured and there are multiple wines to try. I recommend going through the entire lineup, sipping with food, and then coming back to the one or two wines that you liked the best, and lingering with those. Clearly, Joseph Phelps Insignia is the wine to savor. It's a Bordeaux-style blend from six estate owned vineyards from several Napa Valley appellations. For the higher-end tasting option, you get to try two Insignias - the current release (2010), and one from the library (currently 2005). Both wines are delicious - the 2010 offers juicy black cherries, liquid chocolate, mint, lively acidity, and soft tannins. The 2005 with a few years of age has smoothed out its tannins to a velvet, and is drinking so nice right now! Of course, Joseph Phelps is legendary in the Valley. They've been making cabs since the 70's, and their 2002 Insignia was named Wine Spectator's #1 wine of the year, world-wide!

Me with Mary Sugrue, Advanced Sommelier and an awesome instructor at Phelps.
Enjoying 2010 and 2005 Insignia, and a rare 1996 Joseph Phelps Vin du Mistral Syrah (last made in 2006)

To top off the tasting, you might try a crazy-delicious white dessert wine called Eisrebe - made from an obscure locally grown German variety Scheurebe, with grapes that are late-harvested and then frozen. The wine has a floral but dry nose, and an explosive icewine-like flavor with excellent acidity - a delightful finish to a great visit.

Next stop, depending on your level of wine saturation, you may then head on to a second winery, or relax at one of the fancy spas available throughout the Valley, or head to a quaint downtown in Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville or Napa (take your pick - it's all good!) to walk around.

If you go to another winery, I recommend Pride Mountain Vineyards, on top of the Spring Mountain, about 20-30 min drive from Joseph Phelps. This property has a rich history dating back to 1870's when it was known as Summit Ranch. Pride have been making wines under their current label since the mid 90's. Riding the crest of the Mayacamas Mountain Range at an elevation of 2,100 feet, the 235 acre property is bisected by the Napa/Sonoma county line. There is an actual line etched into the concrete between two wine crush buildings, so standing there you can literally have one foot in Sonoma County and another in Napa.



Wonderful views, an interesting tour of the vineyards and caves, the wine-making facilities, and a popular array of wines await you at Pride, culminating in the flagship 2010 Pride Reserve Cabernet, a strong expression of the mountain fruit - deep dark inky mouth-coating wine, with hints of graphite and tobacco, that will benefit from a few years to come into its prime (for me, probably 12 years or so). The basic (non-reserve) 2010 Cabernet is a touch less refined but has similar flavor profile for half the $$. I was also impressed with Pride's 2012 Viognier - an intense and serious wine, with floral and honeyed notes, excellent acidity, good focus, slight minerality covered by orchard, citrus and exotic fruits, and hint of smoke (40% neutral French oak, 60% stainless steel) - a respectable Napa Valley answer to Condrieu, albeit perhaps bigger, and not as minerally or nuanced as the best examples from the Northern Rhone.

Beautiful view from the terrace of Pride, on top of Spring Mountain

Pride offer picnic tables (if you ask when making appointment), and a wonderful veranda to sit on and take in the gorgeous surroundings. Take at least a couple of hours to enjoy. Again, I highly recommend not getting trashed. There are classy spittoons all over the place, or you can carry a paper cup for more discretion. Leave space for a dinner wine later.

Coming to Napa in late September through mid October is especially fun, because ripened grapes are still hanging, and it's perfectly acceptable (in most places) to sample them right from the vines. It's an awesome visceral experience. And they taste so concentrated and good!


Sipping all these wines while enjoying wonderful airy views really whets your appetite.
Then you are ready for dinner.

Oh there are so many options. Here are some of my faves: Ad Hoc (shut up and eat whatever they give you), Bottega (everything is great), Mustards Grill (best-ever grilled Mongolian pork chop and pan-seared lemon-and-garlic chicken), The Thomas (awesome view and an absolutely incredible melt-in-your-mouth oyster po'boy sandwich), Auberge du Soleil (best-ever Liberty Farms duck, great pork belly, nice risotto), The Bounty Hunter (killer ribs and beer-can chicken). There are of course many more options along the spectrum, as Napa Valley is truly a food-and-wine mecca. But when it comes to dinner, I prefer to bring French or Italian wine, after tasting Napa all day. I have documented many of these restaurants on the blog in the past, so feel free to google for "ironchevsky.com napa" plus the name of the restaurant.

Some great dishes at Auberge du Soleil restaurant in Rutherford, but not every dish was spot on.
These three were excellent:

Pork belly
pork belly
Risotto w/ prawns and curry
risotto w/ prawns in curry
Liberty Farms duck
Liberty Farms duck

Maybe the best duck dish I've ever had - perfectly roasted, rare duck breast.
Classic pairing with 2000 Clos St Denis Grand Cru Burgundy from Nicolas Potel.

Take it slow, drink plenty of water, and have a designated driver, so you can doze off on the way back!
Relax and enjoy!

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