The Best of Napa

We came, we tasted, we once again surrendered to the wines, the foods and the experiences of Napa Valley in California.  We provided blow-by-blow (o at least winery-by-winery and restaurant-by-restaurant descriptions of many of our favorite tops from our two week stay in Napa. Following are our three favorites in each of four categories:

  • Napa Wines;
  • Napa Winery Experiences;
  • Napa Restaurants; and
  • Napa Art Venues.

Napa Valley Wines

Although we enjoyed (and bought) wine from many, many wineries  during our stay, a few wineries consistently seem to match our tastes with virtually every wine offered at their tasting rooms.  Our three favorites for this trip were:

  • Chimney Rock. Our favorite winery of our favorite Napa appellation. As discussed in our previous blog, an afternoon at Chimney Rock was a great way to decelerate and begin to tune our body clocks to Napa time. Although we certainly enjoy and often buy some of it’s refreshing Sauvignon Blanc-based Elevage Blanc and its Merlot-based Elevage, we are especially partial to its Cabs. We always enjoy its Stags Leap District Cabs (we’re especially partial to its 2006 and 2010) and many of its premium vineyard designates. This visit’s favorites included its 2010 Clone 4 and 2011 Alpine. Good thing we got our 2010 Tomahawk in a previous shipment, since they are now sold out of almost all vintages. We returned the next weekend (when the member’s lounge is open) and re-tasted some from the previous week and tried others including 2001 SLD Cab (from a Magnum) and the huge 2010 Ganymede. Another wonderful tasting session.
  • Hall. Always among our favorites, this year’s stop was at their beautiful, new St. Helena tasting room. After tasting 15 wines, I don’t even know where to start. So, I will just focus on those we bought. We have always enjoyed the Hall Sauv Blanc, and the 2013 was no exception. Then came another white, a lobster-friendly 2012 Walt Chard, and two reds; the interesting, amazingly affordable 2010 Craig’s Cuvee red blend and two lovely food wines—a 2011 T Bar T Ranch Cab and especially, the single-vineyard, 2011 Eighteen Seventy Three Cab.
  • Caymus. We’ve known about Caymus for years. What’s taken us so long to visit this wonderful winery? A lovely site off the beaten path with incredible, reasonably priced wines and for our visit, an incredibly knowledgeable, totally non-intimidating tasting guide, Ezekiel. We did exercise will power in buying only four of the five wonderful wines our tasting. The 2012 Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Vineyard Pinot brought us in, after tasting it at Pinot Days San Francisco). From there we had the 2012 Napa Valley Zinfadel, 2012 40th Anniversary Cab and the powerful 2011 Emmolo Merlot. The only wine we managed to pass on (reluctantly) was the Mer Soliel Reserve Chardonnay. A wonderful stop.

For a complete overview of our Napa Tasting Experiences, see the following posts:

Napa Winery Experiences

Wines are one thing. A chance to experience the atmosphere and the learn the histories of some of the valley’s pioneering wineries is something else. Since we have toured enough wineries that we typically pass on the tours in favor of just tastings, some wineries bundle them together in a way that it is hard or impossible to skip the tours. A few—such as Inglenook on this trip—have such long and interesting  histories that we  requested tours. Our three most memorable experiences from this trip were:

  • Inglenook. Believe it or not, this was our first visit to this historical winery. This called for a tour and an explanation as to how Francis Ford Coppola reassembled and is attempting to recreate the old Inglenook and Gustave Niebaum mystique—including by hiring the number two winemakers at Chateau Marguax to reinvent Inglenook as a premium vintner. We tasted five wines of which we enjoyed three. The 2011 Edizione Pennino Zin, the very interesting 2012 Blancaneaux white Rhone blend (Marsanne, Roussane and Viognier) and its elegant flagship Rubicon Bordeaux blend.
  • Nickel & Nickel. We have wanted to visit Nickel & Nickel for a number of years. We finally made it and now can’t wait for a return visit. A great estate, consisting of wonderfully restored 19th-century buildings, seamlessly integrated into a state-of-the-art winery, powered by net carbon- and cost-positive solar power. After an welcoming taste of Chardonnay and tour of the technologically and architecturally impressive facility, we returned to the main house for a tasting. Where to start: the wonderful 2011 Hayne, CC Ranch, Sori Bricco or State Ranch single-vineyard cabs, the three incredible artisan cheeses, the informative and engaging discussion? Expensive, yes. But overall, one of the most professional, educational and comfortable tasting experiences we have ever had. The wine, while expensive, is wonderful and well worth the price. The tour and tasting, ours led by Brendan, was a not to be missed wine experience.
  • Kuletto Estate Winery. This was our second visit to Kullettos. Our impressions were similar to our first a couple vintages ago. The Pat Kuletto (a renowned restaurant designer and developer)-designed Tuscan-style winery, the mountaintop site and the views are absolutely spectacular. The tour of the grounds (and the description of the 8,000 foot home (one-quarter of which is kitchen) was lovely and the five artisan cheeses (each paired with a different wine) delicious. As for the wines, somewhat less so. As with our previous visit, we found the Syrah (this time, a 2010) to be the most interesting.

These experiences are included in the same three posts as in the above section.

Napa Valley Restaurants

Napa Valley is loaded with good restaurants, many of which we frequently return. Staying in Napa Valley for two weeks allowed us to reacquaint ourselves with long-time favorites, explore new additions and even get to a couple of established restaurants to which we had not previously been. Our three favorites for this trip were:

  • Torq got incredibly strong recommendations from a San Francisco couple that said they would drive up to join us if we decided to go, and middling recommendations from a Napa couple. We went along with our friends and sampled across the entire menu. We loved it. Among our favorites: squash blossom frito misto, chilled corn soup, soft shell crab, squab and especially the deviled eggs with bacon and the beef short rib. And our friend, who loves Italian wines, was very impressed with the wine list and found two wonderful bottles, including a stunning 208 Muncagota Barbaresco.
  • Archetype (St. Helena). What took us so long to discover this two-year old restaurant? We shared two dishes: peanut-crusted soft shell crab with hearts of palm and green tomato relish; and bacon-crusted Alaskan halibut with manila clams, grilled ramps and marble potatoes. Both were excellent, as was our server who helped us begin the evening right by helping us decide between two Pinots, proactively offering to exchange it for the other and, when he saw that we weren’t drinking much, offering a free glass of the other wine. (We both preferred his recommended wine; Tom just didn’t need much more wine, after another day of tasting.
  • Angele. This restaurant has been on our “To Try” list for about a decade, we finally made it.  We had two very good dishes: Roasted Quail with quinoa stuffing and Scallops with forbidden black rice, saffron cream and charred leeks. The service was also very good. So good that we kept asking ourselves, why it took us so long to get there?

For a complete overview of our Napa Valley Restaurant Experiences, see the following posts:

Napa Valley Art Venues

Although few would choose to visit Napa Valley specifically for its art, it is home to some very good galleries and collections. Clos Pegase, for example, used to have a lovely collection of modern art, before it donated it to U of C Davis. Others, such a Hall, still have great collection, both at its lovely Rutherford estate and its modern new St. Helena facility—which is now marked by a giant, stainless steel rabbit which virtually leaps onto St. Helena Highway.However, three permanent art venues should not be missed by anyone interested in modern art or, in the case of one venue, historic (especially Ansel Adam) photographs. These venues are:

  • Hess Collection Museum. A Mt. Veeder gem of a collection of contemporary art, from Abstract Expressionism to current genres. Artists including Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg and Gerhardt Richter are well represented.
  • DiRosa Preserve, another, much larger collection (more than 2000 pieces) of California contemporary art in a large, beautifully-sited Carneros estate filled with an eclectic selection of art, largely from young, emerging, largely unknown artists, collected by wealthy patrons Rene and Veronica diRosa. While the quality of the work is far more mixed than is the case with the Hess Collection masterworks, it is certainly quirky, engaging and personal. It provides a great picture of how the patrons lived and entertained.
  • Mumm Photography Gallery, where we visited an exhibition of 1940’s photos from students of a San Francisco Art school (whose photography program was established by Ansel Adams) and the collection’s highlight, a series of photos by Adams himself.

For an overview of this trip’s  Napa Valley art and music experiences, see the following post:

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