Napa & Sonoma Wine Country Boozecation
I have resided in Los Angeles for roughly fifteen years and I had never been to the famed Napa Valley wine region before.
I know, shame on me.
In my defense I am a man who prefers whiskey to wine, beaches to valleys. Dingy dive bars to posh wineries. Also, I have never been in a relationship with someone who had an affinity to the area… until now.
Adeye had her wedding in Napa eight years ago and considering that she is divorced yet STILL holds this part of the world dear to her heart, well, that impressed me enough to finally pull the trigger.
So as a second year anniversary / happy birthday to me treat we planned a trip to wine country over the 4th of July weekend.
I have always had a hard on for Airstreams. They are an iconic piece of American culture and automotive history.
They are to me as Harley’s are to others, a symbol of the American spirit; embodying freedom, adventure and straight up American cool.
They gutted the interior and outfitted it with all the enmities that one requires when checking into a bed and breakfast. It had: a very comfortable bed, clean crisp linens, a couch, TV (which we never used), a coffee table, running hot and cold water, shower, toilet, mini refrigerator, coffee maker, and toaster.
And all for $120 a night!
I will spare you, kind reader, of a sip-by-sip, valley-by-valley, bite-by-bite account of the blissful and serene four-day jaunt, as I do believe the economy of words is the cornerstone of good story telling. Haha. (Not to mention that there are pictures).
What I do choose to detail, I can assure you, is the best of the best of the wine, whiskey, food and song.
Well not the song, but everything else is more than worth checking out for yourself.
This, from what I am told, is an institution in Napa and deservedly so. (You may also know it as Taylor’s Refresher). A throw back to 50s roadside burger stands. I half expected to see “The Fonze” pull up on his motorcycle.
Gott’s Roadside was my first meal upon arrival and it set the tone for the gluttony that lay ahead. Gott’s Roadside serves up quality burgers, fries, onion rings, shakes and, wait for it… regional wines. Yes. Wine.
It’s a damn good burger.
I got the Wisconsin Sourdough which comprises of bacon, cheddar, mayo and BBQ sauce on toasted sourdough; I held back on the mushroom and still it was delicious.
I don’t go for burgers everyday because the quality of meat is often questionable but there is no questioning this burger.
Bite in and let the juices flow.
Bistro Jeanty, you are the epitome of why I have grown to love French Cuisine.
There is just so much artistry, care and love in everything that the French do.
From the breads, to the appetizers, to their main courses… Even their butter is better.
Rock salt, bitches.
The menu had a lot of the quintessential items that one comes to expect and adore from a French Bistro: Pate de Champagne, Escargots, Boeuf Bourguignon, Steak Frites, Filet au Poive… All of which I am drawn to like a cat to a pool of warm sunlight, but I wanted to stretch my legs and explore new horizons.
I was on vacation after all.
Which leads me to VEAL.
Yes I know I will lose some of you right now, but once in a great while the opportunity presents itself to order veal and feel completely justified.
This was one of those times.
The dish was a grilled veal chop and morels with a side of Camembert cheese sauce served in a gravy boat to pour over your meat. Or dunk into as I did. It was fantastic. The veal was so sublimely tender and juicy and the morels added the perfect texture and flavor finish to this superior cut of meat.
The sauce, Christ Almighty, I will be thinking very hard and very long about that sauce in the coming months.
It had the rich, velvety texture of molten dark chocolate. I took tremendous pleasure in dipping my fork in and out of it like bread to fondue, sometimes with the veal sometimes with my naked fork.
I just wanted the sauce. It was that good.
Then there was dessert. Leave room for it when in a French restaurant. I normally don’t go for dessert. Normally. But at a French restaurant, especially an esteemed one such as this, you must. And we did.
Chocolate Mouse Crème Brûlée. No joke.
On the bottom was the custard, then chocolate mouse, then the brûléed sugar top. The combination of the vanilla bean custard and the velvety chocolate lends yet another argument for mixed marriages.
In our research for my birthday dinner Adeye and I came upon the steakhouse PRESS in St. Helena, and boy am I glad we did.
It is a gorgeous restaurant and the food is outstanding.
The 28 day, 14 ounce, dry aged rib eye was the perfect blend of red meat and fat, and the flavor streamed throughout the entire circumference of my mouth.
The truffle mac and cheese was infused with both truffle oil and black truffle shavings.
Which should always be the way it is done but unfortunately most places only go for the oil.
The asparagus dish was cooked with bottarga (pressed dry eggs of tuna or grey mullet), a lost delicacy from Sardinia and Sicily, and sprinkled with chopped almonds for texture.
And, of course, you always have to have potato with your meat and that brings me to the PRESS potato cake which is exactly what it sounds like. A cake. A fried, layered, home-style potato cake with a garlic paste spread.
Oh fuck off Flower, who told you it was okay to make a grilled cheese like this. You haunt me.
You fucking haunt me, and my dick points to you like a needle in a compass all the way from Los Angeles.
Perfectly buttered and grilled Costeaux sourdough bread. Perfectly blended white cheddar and jack cheese. Simple yet powerful melt-in-your-mouth goodness.
Adeye had the smoked duck breast sandwich and she said it was the best meal of the weekend. So there.
Go to Sunflower Café in Sonoma Square and load up in between wine tastings.
If you haven’t heard about Chef Thomas Keller’s fried chicken. You should.
You really, really should.
It costs only $16.50 and you get a leg, a thigh and a breast with a piece of buttery cornbread and potato salad.
[Note: They are only open 11am Thursday thru Saturday and they close at 2 pm.]
[2nd Note: They do serve BBQ pork ribs and pulled pork but honestly, for me, the bird is the word.]
It’s almost not fair to use the words “fried” and “chicken” to describe what this dish is.
We have all had good fried bird, bad fried bird and awesome fried bird but this… This should be the only place where fried chicken is called fried chicken because it is the way fried chicken should taste… always.
It’s beyond juicy. It’s beyond crunchy. The breading has the most wonderful rosemary flavor and somehow they have managed to marry that rosemary essence with the chicken as one.
It would be worth getting arteriosclerosis if everybody made fried chicken this fucking good.
My Top Wines & Beautiful Scenery
Originally founded by the Dresel brothers, German winemakers in the mid 19th century, the SCRIBE winery is new on the Sonoma wine scene and it is making serious waves, and pocketing lots of respect across the country.
Located on the Southern tip of Sonoma, SCRIBE winery is perched on top of a grassy hill overlooking its lush and vibrant estate vineyard.
Languid, soothing music plays over their sound system while the blue oxford and khaki clad attendants greet you and show you to your reserved communal picnic tables.
These tables are cast about to enjoy the view while sipping on their variety of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, dry Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon that the informed and amiable attendants pour.
They even provide you with a fruit and cheese plate.
Even more exciting, on that cheese plate they offer castelvetrano olives and I love those little bastards so much.
My favorites of their wines were their whites. That’s just me. Their reds were excellent as well but what I learned on this trip is that I prefer Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling from this region. Ironic because everybody talks about the Cabs and normally I am a bigger fan of red wine.
This is a place of relaxation, quiet reflection and pleasure.
Hidden along a long narrow corridor in the Sonoma Square rests a little boutique family run wine store called BRYTER.
This winery specializes in small-lot, hand crafted wines and the love and care placed into what they do is felt with every sip.
Genevieve, the attendant at the store, was extremely friendly and took my girlfriend and me by the hand, bottle by bottle, and kept our attention for over an hour.
Quite a feat considering my ADD.
Again we really gravitated towards the white wines, specifically their variety of Chardonnays. (We bought the 2012 “Affine” and 2012 “Lux”)
Their taste is light, the flavors supple yet sensitive.
Sometimes you just gotta make love, you know.
Banshee Wines is an ultra-cool new winery heralded by three friends who always dreamed of being winemakers. They’ve got my attention already.
Located in the town of Healdsburg, CA on the northern tip of Sonoma these gentlemen are relatively new to the winery scene and are quickly cementing their brand on the minds of local professionals and visiting wine enthusiasts alike.
Their store, a hip laid-back lounge located on Center Street, is designed to create a more social, collective experience.
I can say that their unique, informal approach to wine tasting was a welcome change of pace.
There is of course a reverence to their product because of its excellence, but they don’t hit that excellence over your head like some cocky ass.
They know they got something really good going on and they are confident enough to know that people will come. Maybe that is because they already are.
Rock out with your cocks out, Banshee. Sit back, relax and enjoy the success.
Bourbon & Cigarettes in Grape & Vine Land
THE GREEN DOOR
Now, I am a bloodhound when it comes to dive bars.
I can sniff the scent of stale beer, the aroma of cheap booze and the perfume of cigarette smoke while on a passing train – or in this case, our rental car.
We were going 70 mph on the freeway coming back from Bistro Jeanty our very first night in town, when my nostril flared like Wolverine and my senses began to tingle. I saw what looked like the making of a sign, hidden by the tree line running parallel to Route 29S.
“Get off the next exit! I think I found one,” I yelled.
We had not twenty minutes ago spoken about the non-existence of bars in Napa. Coming to wine country for years, my gal had never seen one.
I tell ya, drop me on an island, a mountain, shit, drop me in Afghanistan and I’ll find the dive bar.
Behold, not five minutes later we arrived in the parking lot of The Green Door, a local dive bar for the people that actually WORK in Napa.
Now, I am dating myself here but look up Behind the Green Door.
It was a soft-core porn film made in the early seventies.
One that made a HUGE impression on me as a young teen because of its visual reference in the Burt Reyonld’s movie The Cannonball Run. I have seen that movie dozens of times and have watched the opening sequence of Behind the Green Door cut off just as it was about to get nasty.
This pornographic film carried with it a certain level of sexual mystique because I never got to see it. But I always wanted to know what was behind the green door, and now I know. It’s a cool ass dive bar.
I was just as erect by the finding as I was itching for a bourbon break after a long day of wine.
Upon entering you get the feel of a salt of the earth, country dive bar. Coming To America was playing on the television screen above one end of the bar, and Dickey Betts was singing through the jukebox at the other.
But wait, is that smoke I see rising from the hands of the patrons?! Holy shit, we had hit pay dirt!
People were casually lighting up everywhere; it was like Vegas. F’ing score.
We took two seats at the bar, ordered our whiskeys and inquired with the bartender as to how they were able to get around the state law. Apparently if a bar is owner-operated, that is if all the employees have part ownership and they all agree to allow it, the state has no right to interfere.
Loop hole, bitches!
I finally found one to work with me and not against me. We were in heaven and indulged and took delight in being the only tourists in the place. Many whiskeys and many cigarettes later we left, but only because I knew I was coming back the following night.
Never take a good thing for granted.
In Yountville just a stone’s throw away from The French Laundry, one of the most esteemed and expensive restaurants in the world, is also one of the most inconspicuous, cheapest, and the second dive bar in wine country.
Welcome to Panchas.
You could walk by this place a dozen times and never notice it was there as there are no signs to indicate a business, just a dry, sandy colored building with a single, dark, open doorway.
During the day it is quiet, only a few local boozers. But at night it is home for all the line cooks, sous chefs, waiters and bartenders in town.
It’s THE after hours hooch house for all those who slave to make your dreams comes true and I am happy that they have it.
The walls are adorned with currency from all over the world, representative of the Mecca that is Napa Valley. The bar’s mascot is a skeleton head of a longhorn cow donning sunglasses.
It’s a throwback western saloon with a biting sense of humor as there are placards everywhere basically telling the patrons that if they can’t pay in cash and don’t like cigarette smoke then they can fuck off.
My kinda joint.
Jenny, the mid-sixties Native American barkeep is about as no nonsense as the signage plastered everywhere, and entertained Adeye and I with her dry wit while we took in some shade and a booze break in between wine tastings.
How I discovered two bars that I could light up in is even beyond my comprehension.
But I did. And I enjoyed the crap out of it.
Panchas, you’re so cool. You’re so cool. You’re so cool.
Until we meet again Napa and Sonoma. You have won over my belly, and my liver.