Napa & Sonoma Wineries & Dining

Napa & Sonoma Wineries & Dining

Napa & Sonoma Wineries & Dining

California in the 1770's

When a group of Franciscan missionaries arrived in California in the early 1770's, they found a community vastly different than that they had left behind in Spain. The houses in the village of Sonoma were built primarily from blocks made from mud and even though they had windows, none of those windows had glass. The streets were unpaved, there were no sewers and only the wealthiest man in town had a bathroom in his house.

The monk in charge of the delegation, Fra Cosimo, decided that he would civilize the townspeople. With the help of the Spanish soldiers that accompanied the missionaries, the locals were convinced not only to adopt Christianity but to learn to read and write, build toilets, install running water in their homes, and even to put glass in their previously open windows. The monks even convinced the locals that bathing was not bad for their health. To make the revolution complete, the monks planted thousands of the grape vines that they had brought with them from Spain. The red, sweet, strong and coarse wine that the Franciscans made was probably not very good but it was those European vines that started California on the long road to becoming one of the great wine producing areas of the world.

Fast Forward to California in the 1880's

Since those early days, California vineyards have gone through several upheavals. During the 1880's the vineyards were devastated by an attack of phylloxera, a blight that destroys not only the grapes but the roots and the vines. In 1933 the passage of Prohibition outlawed the sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States and sent most California winemakers into the bankruptcy courts. It was only in the 1970's when Americans became truly interested in wines that new wineries began to appear everywhere, especially in the Sonoma and Napa Valley. Finally, instead of the truly mediocre wines that the state had been producing, winemakers started making wines that met the highest international standards.

Traveling through California wine country is to travel through history. One can start, for example, in Sonoma at the Franciscan Mission where the original 18th century winery still stands as a low orange and peach colored adobe building, with wood beams and an orange tiled roof, heavy wood doors, all sitting in the still sleepy town of Sonoma. A view of the vineyards and the nearby Russian Rive is visible behind the winery. Standing outside the long, low building is the original bell installed by the monks. The bell was meant to serve two purposes - to call the brothers from the fields for lunch and to warn the community in case of Indian attacks. Happily for the monks and Sonoma county, no Indians ever felt the need to attack them.

The Future of Wine Production is Now

From there you can make a leap in time and space to the Napa Valley winery of Opus 1, the $27 million joint venture of Californian Robert Mondavi and the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild (of Bordeaux's famed Chateau Mouton-Rothschild). Constructed in 1988 with the idea of producing California's first Bordeaux style wine, and with architecture that has been justifiably compared to a cross between a Mayan temple and a rocket launch-pad, this stunningly beautiful winery rises majestically from the valley floor, almost calling out to be recognized as California's calling card to the 21st century.

opus one

Opus 1

Although nearly every part of California is now planted in vines, the two leading areas remain Sonoma and Napa. The Napa Valley, a long, lazy arc with its foot in San Francisco Bay and its head on the shoulders of Mount St. Helena, is barely 32 kilometers from end to end, and sometimes less than two kilometers in width. What is amazing is that within this miniscule area one can find an enormous range of climates, winds and soils that allow for the growth of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and others of the world's great wine grapes including Zinfandel, the grape most often thought of (incorrectly) as "Californian".

For many years, Californians gave credit to Agoston Haraszthy for bringing this grape from his native Hungary. A few years ago, relying on DNA tests, researchers at the University of California at Davis realized that the credit for introducing it to California belonged to mid-19th century Italian immigrants who brought with them (quite illegally) Primitivo grapes from their native land so that they could drink the same wine in the New World as they had in the Old.

Californians like to say that "as Napa developed, Sonoma fell under its shadow". It is true that until the mid 1970's Sonoma wines were overshadowed by those of Napa, but as investors realized that the large, sprawling Sonoma county held an enormous potential for producing fine wines, the catch-up has been remarkable. Located north of San Francisco, and far larger and even more geologically and climatically diverse than Napa, it was Sonoma that was the first county to introduce the use of French oak casks in which to ferment and age wines. Steep hills on both sides of the valley make the area physically beautiful.

Countrified Elegance and Fine Dining

In addition to ever-present vineyards and wineries, wherever one travels in Sonoma or Napa one can expect to travel along countrified roads and come across sleepy villages. Even today, a few one-room schoolhouses in which a single teacher holds class for pupils from the age of 5 - 15. The small city of Napa still boasts a stable at which the blacksmith will re-shoe horses or fix wagon-wheels. Sonoma even houses several cobblers, the descendents of the town settlers who still make leather boots and saddles entirely by hand. What is perhaps most amazing about all of this is that these towns and back roads house some of the most exciting restaurants in the world today. Along with the awareness of wine that developed in the 1970's and 80's, Californians also developed a passion for adventurous and unusual food.

The first years of the California culinary revolution were not so much successful as they were outrageous, reflecting the daring-do and freedom of life style that began to develop during the heyday of the Hippies. During those early days it was not at all unusual to find restaurants offering absolutely outrageous dishes such as walrus sushi with raspberry sauce or whale blubber steaks on a bed of sweet corn and hot peppers. California's name for excess did very well in the culinary field until a few chefs, notably Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters, who began to realize that California's potential strength lay not in outrageous imitations of French cuisine but on using local ingredients in ways that were truly American. The next leap forward was when chefs in San Francisco, Berkeley, Napa and Sonoma realized that they could use their imagination freely to blend together Native American ingredients with French, Mediterranean, Far Eastern and Latino cooking styles to evolve a new genre that while not always exquisite invariably makes for exciting dining. At first it was called California Cuisine. It then came to be known as "fusion cuisine", but as that term became hackneyed and overused, it settled in and today is known as American cuisine at its very best. To fill out the revolution, the most inventive and best chefs of Napa and Sonoma loaded their menus with the best wines that California has to offer, and many of the meals and wines at these places are indeed superb.

Today, with increasing attention to the relationship between health and dining (one might think of this as a California obsession), chefs are focusing more and more on the use of Mediterranean ingredients such as fresh herbs, garlic, couscous and olive oil. To show how far this movement has gone, perusing Napa, Sonoma and San Francisco menus it becomes clear that the most popular Californian side-dishes these days are tabbouleh, couscous and taramaslata, the first originating in the Middle East, the second in North Africa and the third in Greece, but all with a uniquely American twist all reflecting imaginative and talented chefs, fresh ingredients, healthful combinations and sophistication. Below are several highly recommended Napa and Sonoma Valley restaurants. Keep in mind that reservations are invariably required at these places and that dress, while it should be fashionable, does not call for ties and jackets.

The French Laundry: 6640 Washington Street, Yountville. Tel 707-944-2380. Chef-owner Thomas Keller has made this charming establishment one of the most exciting and very best restaurants in the world today. So popular is the place that there is no sign in front and it has been said that not even former Presidents can come here without reserving at least three days in advance.

french laundry

Thomas Keller's French Laundry Restaurant

Mustards Grill: 7399 St. Helena Highway (Route 29), Yountville. Tel 707-944-2424 . So taken for granted is this eatery that some Napa Valley residents think it has been there forever. The truth is that it has been here only since 1983, but it remains one of the most popular restaurants in the Napa Valley. An overall good wine list and one of the best collections of Zinfandel wines you will find anyplace.

Terra: 1345 Railroad Avenue, St. Helena. Tel 707-063-8931. A fashionable but fun place that gives fusion cuisine its best name.

All Seasons Cafe: 1400 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga. Tel 707-942-9111. An informal but chic meeting place that offers often exquisite Mediterranean style dishes. Better yet, there is a wine shop on the premises that offers some of the very best California wines (and a few excellent Burgundy wines as well).

Auberge du Soleil: 180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford. Tel 707-963-1211. Set on a hillside, and with an exquisite view of the vineyards, this is the ideal place for a sunset dinner. Sophisticated and beautifully designed in ways that will call to mind Nice, Cannes and Monte Carlo, the cookery here is a fascinating blend between Spanish, Italian, French, North African and Far Eastern. Also a good choice to visit for wine tastings, where selected wines are available by the glass. Whatever, very, very good and very, very expensive.

Wineries Open For Visits

When visiting wine country, few experiences are as pleasant or rewarding as visiting wineries. In Napa and Sonoma, as in Burgundy, Tuscany or Bordeaux, the areas in which grape vines grow are among the most beautiful of any country and the roads that wind through the vineyards are as scenic and idyllic as one could want. Wherever one travels, the plains and hillsides that are patterned with vines are a delight for those with an eye for landscape. They are also marvelous areas for hiking or bicycling and, for those with a love of nature, there is a fascinating variety of wildlife and plant life to observe. Equally important, the people you meet as you stop to ask directions tend to be a warm and friendly lot, many of whom will patiently take time to explain which grapes they are growing, how long a wine takes to mature or simply how to find a good place to eat. Best of all, one need not be a wine expert to make the best of such outings. Below is a partial list of Sonoma and Napa wineries, all of which offer tastings, the chance to purchase wines and that are equally open to visitors of either great or little sophistication. The list was devised so that those wanting to could visit those in Napa in a single day and then Sonoma on a second day. In the case of the Napa wineries, it is considered courteous to phone in advance to let them know when you are arriving. The Sonoma wineries are less formal, and most listed are open to visitors between 10:00 am - 5:00 pm every day except Sunday. View their web sites for exact times and prices.

Napa

Robert Mondavi Winery: 7801 Saint Helena Highway (Route 29), Napa California: Tel 707-226-1395. Housed in a stylized and Spanish style hacienda and with an exquisite view of the vineyards and surrounding hills, this is one of the most welcoming of all wineries, offering an extensive tour, intelligent dialogue and broad tastings.

Opus One: 7900 Saint Helena Highway (Route 29), Oakville California: Tel 707 944-9442. Directly across the road from the Robert Mondavi winery, and producing one of the best (and most expensive) wines of California, a place definitely worth visiting, but expect to be charged $45 for the tour and a tasting. Tours only by advance appointment. Call 1-800-292-6787 to make arrangements.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards: 200 Taplin Road, St. Helena. Tel 800-707-5789. Tucked into an oak tree forest this simple but architecturally lovely winery has an exquisite view of the Mayacamas Mountains in the background. Tours start with a glass of wine on the terrace, a tour of the winery and then a more serious tasting of several wines. Tours by advance appointment only. Call 800-707-5789 to make a reservation.

Rombauer Vineyards: 3522 Silverado Trail, St. Helena. Tel 800-622-2206. Situated on a richly forested hill, this is an excellent place to see the entire winemaking process as well as to have a tasting.

Sonoma

Gloria Ferrer: HWY 121 (Arnold Drive) Sonoma California. Tel 707-933-1917. Operated by the Spanish family that operates Freixenet, this lovely winery produces only sparkling wines. Designed beautifully and in a lovely setting of vineyards and low hills, an ideal place for tasting sparkling wines.

Jordan Vineyard and Winery: 1474 Alexander Valley Rd, Healdsburg, California Tel 707-431-5250 A Bordeaux style chateaux that happens to find itself in California. Interesting Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and a fascinating sparkling wine called "J".

Ridge Vineyards: 650 Lytton Springs Rd, Healdsburg, California Tel 707-433-7721. Producing some of the best California Zinfandels an wines, this charming winery offers a complete tour, wide tastings and the opportunity to buy the wines of some of their better vintage years.

Dry Creek Vineyard: 3770 Lambert Bridge Rd, Healdsburg, CA 95448 707-433-1000. An old fashioned winery but with distinctly modern wines including some of California's best whites (be sure to taste their Fume Blanc). Also sometimes exquisite Cabernet Sauvignon Zinfandel and Chardonnay.

Many of these vineyards offer their own custom wine glasses with their logo etched into the glass. These glasses can make terrific keepsakes, since they are fairly affordable and available at almost every winery. Some of these wineries make the wine glasses bulk order themselves, but many consult The Tipsy Grape for the best prices on wholesale glasses. Whether you're one person looking for the perfectly memorable gift, or a winery or restaurant looking to order thousands of glasses, The Tipsy Grape has got you covered.