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  • Writer's pictureKamille D. Whittaker

New Favorites in Napa Valley

Great wine grapes, it is said, need sun to aid in the production of sugars (via photosynthesis), color development and heat accumulation for overall ripening. The amount of afternoon sun it receives combined with elevation and proximity to damp soil and arid air all determine a wine’s acidity, sweetness, tannin, body and other flavor components. Over a creamy lobster dish that married well with Antica 2013 Chardonnay, the Antinori family’s buttery white from Foss Valley, I was told that there existed a Chardonnay of almost mythical proportions that tasted like … wait for it … butter popcorn jelly bellies; and all because of the meticulous cultivation, aging and barreling process — perfected and improvised upon over decades, centuries even.

Four more courses later at the Flavor! Napa Valley Festival welcome feast at the Silverado Spa and Resort — more culinary discoveries and mashups:

Chef Dean Fearing was charged to pair his dish with Storybook Mountain’s 2013 estate Viognier. The wine’s silky fruitiness proved the perfect complement to the chef’s barbecued Texas prosciutto-wrapped quail, served with jalapenos and a West Texas “chow-chow” made of green tomatoes, chopped cabbage and bell peppers.

Given Reynolds Family’s 2010 Carneros Pinot Noir, Chef Charlie Palmer chose a savory four spice duck breast with a jus prepared with the Pinot Noir, joined by roasted Gravenstein apples and toasted farro.

Larry Forgione — who guides Culinary Institute of America understudies — served a 42-day-aged Five Dot Ranch strip loin with bone marrow gremolata and Dancing Bear polenta — all paired with Sullivan Vineyards 2010 James O’Neil Cabernet Sauvignon.

Duff Goldman, owner of Baltimore’s Charm City Cakes and renowned for the Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes,” was challenged with pairing dessert with Robert Mondavi dessert wine, Moscato d’Oro from vintage 2013, meeting the challenge with a three-layered panna cotta — each containing bits of banana/cardamom, pumpkin butter and maple pecan cookies — topped with a giant ginger snap.

It was as if Napa Valley Wine Country had a lore all its own, all steeped in the possibilities of the best wine and cuisine pairings. There is always one better — obscure though it may be — always the specter of the perfect pairing looming above every encounter with favorites ever-changing. In search of a go-to vino where the perfect Bordeaux’s and Malbec’s have been otherwise elusive, I found myself asking throughout the five-day festival: Is this the one?

The Silverado Trail, the main artery through Napa Valley, is surrounded on both sides by rolling hills covered by fog with miles and acres of vineyards as far as the eyes can see. Each wine house — lodged in the middle of perfectly manicured rows of wine as a beacon — a nod to old world Tuscany, Italy or France. Some with creeping vines, others with tilted, ceramic rooftops. The scenic route that travels 29 miles along the Eastern edge of the Napa Valley is parallel to and several miles to the east of California State Route 29. The road began as a trail built in 1852 after flooding made the main Napa Valley road impassable. Later, it served as a wagon trail to link cinnabar mines on Mount St. Helena to San Pablo Bay, the northern portion of the San Francisco Bay, and was the first permanent road from Napa to Calistoga. Silver was discovered in Napa Valley in 1858, and wine production began in the 1870s, making the road an important trade route. Prohibition forced most but not all of the local wineries out of business. The area thrived with the growing prominence of California wine and today, at least 40 of the Valley's more than 200 wineries are along or near the road.

My first winery visit was about 12 winding miles “off Silverado” at The Brown Estate Winery, one of nine African-American-owned wineries in the country.

I was told to make a detour at the Auberge Du Soleil resort for a visual treat before heading further uphill to the Brown Estate. The lure: Tables on the famous terrace are some of the best and most sought-after in Napa Valley where one can enjoy panoramic views of the neighboring vineyards and stunning sunscape. It was.

Once at the winery, I sampled the 2012 Chiles Valley Zin — paired with a sweet potato confection. Nutmegy, hearty, rustic — Yes. I was schooled here, as well, on the importance of orientation — the grapes that grow on the westside of the property get more afternoon sun, so the finish is smooth. Whereas their Sirah has an inky coat and is full-bodied.

In close company, the winery is known as “The Ranch” because in the late ‘70s, the original proprietors were seeking a place where their kids-turned-owners, Angelenos by birth, could experience something akin to their own rural upbringings in Panama and Jamaica respectively.

When they found this place, its notable features were its far-flung location, a long-neglected walnut orchard, two dilapidated structures — an 1859 stone and redwood barn and an 1885 Queen Anne Victorian — and terraced topography dense with tangled shrubs and thorny bushes. Thirty-five years later, the abandoned walnut orchard was replaced by vineyards, the two structures were preserved and restored, and the topography transformed.

By the time the children took over the farming operation in 1990, they had settled in as growers, content with cultivating 50 acres of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay grapes and selling them to established producers. But they soon realized the quality of fruit the land consistently gave them called for something next level — namely, that they make their own wine. In 1995, they began laying the groundwork with feverish research, and in 1996 David, working with then-consulting winemaker Duane Dappen, crafted their first vintage of Napa Valley Zinfandel — the original Brown zin.

The following afternoon, after an hour-long morning Yoga session in the vineyard at Domaine Carneros and a sparkling wine tasting to follow, I joined proprietor Giovanni Scala and executive chef Scott Warner at Bistro Don Giovanni, one of Napa Valley’s most beloved restaurants, for a master class in pizza making. Warner has studied the art of the pizza pie extensively, and shared his knowledge during the hands-on class — we twirled and patted down; sprinkled and tasted Margherita after Margherita. According to Warner, legend has it that the Italian queen, while staying in Naples' Capodimonte Palace, tired of French gourmet food that was the royal standard across Europe at the time.

She summoned the most famous pizza-maker in Naples, Raffaele Esposito, and had him bake her three pizzas in the palace kitchen. She did not like the one with garlic (pizza marinara) or anchovies (pizza Napoli), but she loved the one with tomato sauce, mozzarella and a sprig of basil. Esposito immediately named his invention after the queen — whose name was Margherita — and asked only to put the royal seal on his pizzeria. The pizza is known to bear the colors of the Italian flag.

There’s no science here, according to Warner, no elusive ideal to seek out, no perfect pairing, “just balance all of the ingredients and Mangia!” — which made the Butternut squash, caramelized onions and kale pizza we made next make perfect culinary sense, and too, the Mom and Pop pizza pitstop at “That Pizza Place” off main street that I made prior to the Appellation Trail tasting later that evening. I wanted to prime my stomach for what I knew would be an evening of high-class imbibing — small eats and small tastes. A stark contrast from the fancy pizza fixings of earlier that day — I opted for my favorite: cheese, olives, minced garlic. From frou frou to functional, “Nothing fancy,” said its tagline, “Just the good stuff”— balance indeed.


The Appellation Trail

The “Trail” featured nearly 100 wineries (representing the region’s 16 iconic sub-appellations) and fare from 25 of the Valley’s restaurants. Winemakers personally poured their favorite vintages and reveal how the soils, microclimates and topography influence the wide array of distinctive grapes in this premier wine-growing region — the amalgam of history, science and social tradition theme reigned throughout.

Interactive Lunch with Rocco Dispirito The interactive lunch with Rocco Dispirito on day two had the antidote for the otherwise rich offerings that often get paired with vino. DiSpirito first demonstrated a three-course meal, offering tips on transforming Italian favorites into low-calorie sensations. Then, we moved into the CIA at Greystone’s Teaching Kitchen where we recreated one of his innovative recipes which we later paired with wine selections from Beringer, Etude and Stags’ Leap Winery.

Fried and True: A Fried Chicken Tasting

There’s more than one way to fry a chicken and at this multi-chef tasting event, the iconic bird was prepared in unimaginable ways. CIA alumnus and author of the cookbook “Fried & True: More Than 50 Recipes for America’s Best Fried Chicken and Sides” (Clarkson Potter, May 2014), Lee Brian Schrager (CIA 1979) hosted a talented group of Napa Valley chefs showcasing their poultry-prowess in a traditional picnic-style setting.

Grapes and Grills: Napa Valley's Best Burgers and Wines

Burger lovers, rejoice! Eight beloved Napa Valley chefs flipped their signature burger creations, starring an array of toppings and meat blends. A selection of world-famous wines from Napa Valley estate wineries were expertly paired to each creation. -- Kamille D. Whittaker

Originally published in Atlanta Tribune: The Magazine


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