If you ever want to give yourself the best treat in the world, rent an apartment in the Napa Valley for a month. It will be, hands down, one of the best months of your life (unless, of course, you already have the pleasure of living in a wine-growing region). My stay in downtown Napa began after my agency’s Big Sur conference the first weekend of December.
Why Napa? Why December? Why me? Why the hell not! I work from home. I’ve always wanted to get more into wine and deepen my oenological education (and have the excuse to say things like “oenological”). I’m bouncing around in terms of a living situation right now anyway, and December is the off-season in wine country. I roped my friend Gordon into the adventure (he grew up in the valley) and we were off!
I can’t take credit for the above, which is courtesy of my best friend Lauren Burris’s Instagram genius. This is at the Joseph Phelps winery and their amazing Insignia red blend used to be in that glass but it didn’t stand a chance around us. This is just a sample of the grueling lifestyle of wine country. Driving or biking around. Sampling wine. Eating delicious local food. It’s a tough job but someone’s gotta do it.
Too many wonderful things happened to me in December, so I will just cherry-pick some highlights for you.
Two of my favorite meals:
Ad Hoc: Lauren and I hit up the Thomas Keller outpost in Yountville on a night when they were serving an amazing veal tenderloin. Veal is a rare beast in my culinary pantheon and this piece was sweet and juicy, yet with a formidable sear (the best of both worlds), served with wild mushroom polenta. There was also bread pudding. Case closed.
JoLe: I went to JoLe in Calistoga for my birthday and it did not disappoint a second time. The foie and uni combination was pure silk on the tongue (and also something they’re doing at Morimoto, only that one is uni, foie, and oysters…), the spicy kale and chorizo stew was a dish my other best friend Cassie and I quickly went home to try and replicate, and it was my first taste of the faintly briny and refreshing Kistler “Les Noisetiers” 2009 Chardonnay. (I quickly bought a bottle.)
Something I learned about wine and me:
I hate oaked Chardonnay. Hate it. Hate. It. Just ask the fine people at Alpha Omega Winery, who, at the end of a long tasting day, got to see my rather ungracious “oakbomb face.” If you find any good and oaky Chardonnay, please send it to Lauren, who inexplicably enjoys the stuff, and give me the unoaked, white Burgundy-style wine any day. One I really enjoyed during my tenure is the Lioco Chardonnay, which says in bold on the back of their label (no oak). Fantastic!
Best wine tasting moment:
It turns out I actually have a palate. It’s alive! I’d been reading for years that you sometimes get a whiff of green bell pepper in Cabernet Sauvignon. When I tried the 2005 Bella Oaks cab from Heitz Winery, I actually picked up on it all by myself. For the first time. And it was just the kind of spicy, mineral-y, complex old world red that I like to drink. Call me a nerd, but it was a special moment. Which brings me to…
My favorite wineries:
Joseph Phelps: A stunning view, a really relaxed tasting experience out on a gorgeous patio, and some of my fondest memories from the month. Their Insignia cab-heavy red blend has the sensual texture of rose petals and tastes lush, balanced, and decadent, which is a tribute to their winemaker as blends usually strike me as one-note.
Heitz: I bought one of everything they would sell me, including two cases of their remarkable 2008 Grignolino (it’s shocking affordable at $15/bottle, so I could swing this purchase). It’s a rare-for-Napa-Valley red Italian varietal that produces a floral aroma that makes you think a lighter dessert wine, but the juice itself is light-bodied and refreshing, with no tannins to speak of. It’s better served chilled and is exactly the type of casual bottle you can enjoy during a sunny summer picnic. Their 2005 Bella Oaks cab, as already mentioned, was probably my favorite purchase. And they do a rock star Port. Maybe I’m drinking some Heitz Kool-Aid, because I’m high on pretty much everything they do, but I can also tell you for sure I’m drinking lots of their wine.
Scribe: A smaller old world-style winery off Napa Road between Carneros and Sonoma. They do a killer Syrah and (rumor has it) some Sylvaner that I want to try once the new vintages become available. Lauren there is hip and knowledgeable and they do small group tastings on a picnic table overlooking the vines. They really take the time to talk wine and I love it. I went to one of their tastings in Athens, GA over the summer and continue to be a huge fan. Can’t wait for the new releases!
Hess Collection: They grow several Italian varietals that I was smitten by. In particular, their Malbec was fantastic. They also have an art collection on the grounds. My favorite piece was a typewriter with a gas line run through it so that it’s on fire. It is now the lock screen image on my iPhone. When you go tasting at Hess, try to get Larry. He made the whole experience absolutely amazing, and has personality for miles.
Best place to relax:
Unless you can find a local house party to go to (which we did on several occasions), my favorite place to relax is Indian Springs in Calistoga. This spa and resort has a near-Olympic-sized hot springs pool that hovers around 100 degrees. It’s like the hot tub of your dreams. I went there twice, once with my friend Rachel (we also indulged in some mud baths) and once with my family on Christmas Eve. My favorite hot spot, if you will.
I know I’m forgetting everything about the month because there was just that much wonder to it all. There are thoughts scribbled down for 91 different bottles of wine on my phone and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We must’ve tried twice that, in all. (The last thing you want to do at a friend’s BBQ is whip out your notes and be a nerd.) Here, in no particular order are other things I will miss and remember about my December, 2011: Gordon’s incessant (yet delicious) breadbaking and persimmon-oatmeal cookies, making kimchi, grilled kale salad with Face, who just happened to be in town from NYC, the Model Bakery, the Fatted Calf, yoga at Ubuntu, “nothing good ever happens at Pancha’s,” makin’ bacon, biking along the Silverado Trail to This Is Not a Winery, the most boring man on Earth (a wine educator, and I’m not naming names), “This ain’t no Phelps!”, Henry’s, Topflight, the Bounty Hunter, and many other amazing people and places.
Many thanks to Gordon, Lauren, Cassie, Rachel, Rosie, Scott, Brian, CT, Austin, Patrick, Sue and all the other crazy and/or wonderful people who conspired to make December absolutely unforgettable. As for the wine, I’ll keep drinking it and learning about it. I’m thrilled to be just one small step further along on this lifelong journey.