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March 15, 2010

Napa Valley - Day II

Quintessa Wines Dominic Armato

The downside to nabbing a reservation at The French Laundry, not that I imagine it will quell the ire of those who have been unsuccessful, is that it kind of puts a damper on the rest of the day's food festivities. Getting in the door often means taking an early 5:30 or 6:00 reservation, and who wants to have a big lunch a scant few hours before a nine course meal prepared by Thomas Keller? Similarly, you could tour a bunch of wineries, but hitting the French Laundry in a state of inebriation where a quarter pounder inspires the same reaction as a perfect torchon of foie gras hardly seems like an efficient use of your dining dollar. So we mostly dedicated our second day to other pursuits -- my ladylove, the spa. Me? Markets.

Oakville GroceryDominic Armato

Napa Valley is primarily known as wine country, and while it's true that the area doesn't have the kind of awesome food density of many other culinary destinations, it's inevitable that good food follows good wine. But it seems like there's a certain air of simplicity to the food scene in wine country. Of course, we're talking on a relative scale here, but avoiding complication seems to be a local mantra. Though a little higher rent than most, this IS still farm country, and local chefs seem dedicated to making sure the food doesn't get in the way of itself -- or the wine. So it should come as little surprise that there are some rather nice markets to be found as you cruise down the highway. When ingredients are paramount, so are their purveyors.

Oakville GroceryDominic Armato

I'm actually rather disappointed by what I didn't get to this trip, market-wise. More than anything, I wanted to get down to the new-ish Oxbow Market, especially to check out The Fatted Calf, whose meats both fresh and cured are starting to border on legendary. Sadly, Napa proper is nearly an hour's drive from where we were staying, and every time the opportunity to slip away presented itself, it seemed like kind of a long haul that would rush our leisurely pace. Ah, well. You have to have something to go back for. Instead, I dropped into a couple of markets in the Oakville area, starting with the semi-famous Oakville Grocery. It's cute! Tons of bottles and jars of specialty concoctions that I've no doubt are delicious, a nice cheese selection, decent deli, selection of wines, coffee bar up front and a lengthy list of prepared-to-order sandwiches. I'm not sure I understand why it's become a stop for tourist buses, but it's a great little grocery that's undeniably quaint.

Cheeses... Lots Of ThemDominic Armato

Less so is import Dean & Deluca, which should need no introduction. It's big and modern and looks like it could have been airlifted right out of SoHo. And as much as I'd love to sneer at the big city interloper while championing the local upstart, if I put on my +1 hat of impartiality, I have to admit that I'm kind of floored by the New Yorkers. Not to honor quantity over quality, but when the image on the right represents half of the cheese case, it's hard not to be impressed. There's much more, too -- more cheese, more charcuterie, a small (if lovely looking) produce section, etc. Dean & Deluca is also where I snagged my second taste of Jamon Iberico de Bellota about a year back. (Opinion? Machine slicing kills it.) Really, I shouldn't even compare the two. They're very different. But if I can hit one or the other to pick up items for a specialty foods picnic, I know where I'm going.

Market Lunch Dominic Armato

As it was, I got some goodies from both and put together a little spread back at the hotel room. It seemed in keeping with the spirit of the surroundings and made for a light-ish lunch. Prosciutto San Daniele, spicy sopressata, coppa, a couple of cheeses, crusty bread and crackers, eggplant spread -- lunch is served! Incidentally, one of the cheese selections only further bolstered my opinion that Cypress Grove Chevre can do no wrong. This was my first crack at their Midnight Moon, and it's a doozy. That's a cheese that keeps on giving.

Absurdly ScenicDominic Armato

After lunch, it was time for a little education. The sun, which had remained notably absent until this point, picked the ideal time to poke its head out, and we were treated to some beautiful weather for a few hours while checking out the Quintessa winery. Here is where I need to come clean on a subject I may or may not have already visited here: I don't know a damn thing about wine. I mean, sure, you can't spend a ton of time around restaurants and reading about food without picking up a thing or two, but once you get beyond the very, very basics, I'm bordering on clueless. Give me a plate of food and a glass of wine and I can tell you if they pair well. But give me a plate of food and a wine list and I'm pretty much useless. Red or white? Of course. Common characteristics? Yyyyyyeah, so long as we stick to the most basic varietals. Which will perfectly complement my main course? *pffft* Search me.

French Oak CasksDominic Armato

And so, a goal for the trip was to try to gain a little bit of basic working knowledge when it comes to wine. I'm not so sure our visit to Quintessa did much to help achieve that goal (I suspect the true solution is to drink, drink and drink some more), but it was a lovely way to spend the afternoon, nonetheless, starting with the grounds, which are stunning. We heard all about how the estate's topography is unusually varied for the valley, providing the Huneeuses with a broad palate of fruit from which to work, about how the lots exposed to constant sun will develop thicker skins, how those growing at lower elevations near the water will be subjected to slightly lower temperatures, how those growing on the hillsides will devote more energy to root growth and produce smaller fruit -- okay, so maybe I did learn a thing or two. I'm not sure that any of it will help me navigate a wine list, but it's all fascinating stuff, nonetheless.

The CavesDominic Armato

We toured the dormant facility, seeing massive fermenting tanks of both steel and French oak, hydraulic presses for extracting additional juice (which we were assured, due to their process' lack of a first crush, was of uncommonly high quality), cave walls lined with countless aging casks, and eventually four glasses in the tasting room, which were accompanied by a few cheese pairings selected by Douglas Keane of Cyrus. Was the purported excellence of the wine lost on me? Ashamedly, yes. This was complex, bold wine. And as an educational point, I could discern the difference between the raw product taken from the same vintage but different areas of the estate, which is fascinating stuff. But in truth, I was more excited by the cheese. One hour, unsurprisingly, does not an oenophile make.

Of course, this didn't quite bring day two to a close. But The French Laundry probably deserves its own post, huh?

Napa - Day I   |   Napa - Day II   |   The French Laundry   |   Napa - Day III   |   Napa - Day IV

Oakville Grocery
7856 St. Helena Highway
Oakville, CA 94562
Mon - Thu7:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Fri - Sat7:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Sun8:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Quintessa Winery
1601 Silverado Trail
Rutherford, CA 94573
Tue - Thu5:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 1:00 AM
Sun4:00 PM - 9:00 PM


You sir are a god damned pornographer and you know that. With a trip to the French Laundry coming, you have certainly warmed us up—indeed, I nearly hit the fast forward, waited until I saw the familiar blue door or some such before I even bothered to read a word. I am glad I did not.

Am debating whether to read the Laundry post or not. Had the good fortune to dine there five years or so ago; it lived up to all expectations. With no Napa plans in the near future, though, it might be too much of a tease to read about what I imagine was a spectacular meal.

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