Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Supporting Local.

As everyone is well aware, the Napa Valley was hit hard by a rockin' 6.0 earthquake this past month, leaving much of downtown Napa and its businesses in shambles. Over the recent few weeks, people have been working tremendously hard to regain strength, shelter and safety amongst the chaos of our crumbled tourist mecca. 

Restaurants, shops, services and staffing have all been affected by mother nature's furious rattling- some have closed completely, some are in limbo, some haven't even started to discover what lies ahead. Red, Yellow and Green tags stare back at your reflection in the windows of almost every downtown address. It's hard to comprehend until you see it in person, but I've settled on the idea that the streets and sagging buildings somehow resemble the leftover remnants of a once glamorous Hollywood sound stage.

And the wineries... Oh, the wineries. Of course not all were impacted by this whopper of wiggle, but so we've heard so many stories of crushed barrel rooms, wine flowing like rivers down the drain and simply impassable cellar doors being jammed shut by mountains of livelihood-- like Lincoln logs falling to the ground, gallons of precious wine have been lost. 

The hubbs and I feel extremely lucky to have came out relatively unscathed-- our apartment was tossed absolutely upside-down and we kissed goodbye to most of our breakable belongings. The days following were rough indeed, but in the end, we are safe and things are just things. Not all can be replaced, but we are hoping to move forward and replace the old memories with new ones. We have fallen absolutely in love with this magical valley and we continue to rebound, grow and live full lives amongst our many friends here.

Part of supporting our community mean getting out and supporting local businesses, especially in this crucial time of healing. Local folks need our help and love. Whether it is just a hug and a smile or laughing over lunch or a just an extra bill in a tip jar, we've been trying to spend as much of our free time as possible out and about our beloved town as we all regain our pre-earthquake confidence.

Don't stay away because you think we've fallen apart. Don't pass over wine tasting because you think the tasting rooms are closed. Don't cancel your reservations and say you'll come another time. Napa needs you. Napa needs some good, good lovin'. Come say hello.

I've put together a list of some of our favorite local spots, in case you'd like to visit...

3253 Browns Valley Road, Napa

Come for the excellent pizza, pasta and excellent breakfast. Bring friends, have a relaxed brunch, enjoy a beer out on the patio or a cocktail at their rustic bar. Smiling faces and great comfort food, not to mention some killer happy hour deals.

3383 Solano Avenue, Napa

Home of the famous "cheese skirt". Need I say more? Oh, and their deep-fried hotdogs are to die for. Super casual, fast and beyond tasty- you'll get addicted just like we have to their burgers, fries, dogs, sandwiches and beer specials just like we have. It's so unfair. I wake up on weekends absolutely craving a squeeze with cheese.

829 Main Street, Napa

Craving tapas? This is a must visit. Super authentic Spanish tapas & hard to find Spanish wines tucked into a small, cozy loft-like space. Sit at the bar and enjoy a snack or relax and have chat with friendly bartenders. Share a family-style table with friends upstairs and eat your way through the extensive menu. Beware, no reservations here but they'll do their best to get you in fast.

610 First Street, Napa

Specializing in truly authentic Napoletana pizzas, this place will ruin your for life. The hubbs and are obsessed with sitting on their patio for dinner and revel in the super fresh ingredients they use of their stunning pizzas. Pasta, antipasta, soups and selection of interesting wines await you at this small oxbow gem.

3425 Solano Avenue, Napa

Afraid to eat at a hotel bar/restaurant? Don't be. Located inside the Napa Valley Marriot, these guys know what they are doing. With everything from sliders to lettuce wraps to my favorite, the goat cheese stuffed peppers, they've got something for everyone. Local wine & beer list, super friendly staff and strong cocktails make this our home away from home.

4050 Byway East, Napa

As favorite spot for locals serving seafood, pasta and steak at a reasonable, tasty price. They have a great outdoor patio with fireplaces and are pet friendly! Awesome happy hour deals and darling little bar create a big draw on weeknights. Great local wine list and corkage is on them if the wine is from the valley.


I've run out of time for now, but believe me, I'll be back with more local favorites soon. There's a fresh batch of tacos on the stove calling my name... Stay tuned for our Yountville and Calistoga picks, as well as some secret winery spots that you'll definitely want to explore.


Monday, July 28, 2014

2014 Wine Bloggers Conference- Intro.

Just a few weeks ago, the hubbs and I packed our bags and headed down to beautiful Santa Barbara county to attend the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference in Buellton, California. Having missed the previous year in Penticton, British Columbia, we were excited to be joining our hundreds of fellow writers on California's central coast to sip, savor, discuss and discover wine from SB county and circling the globe.

With so much of the conference to cover, I really had to edit my photos and stories down to a select few due to sheer capacity of wines tasted and fun had. From the various appellations in Santa Barbara county alone, to Portugal and Spain, it was delight to sample so many unique wines amongst some of the best citizen and industry wine bloggers around. The hubbs is an old hand at this event, having attended six of only the seven overall conferences, but this time I was in tow- not quite sure what to expect (since I'm not exactly labeled a wine blogger), but thrilled to be attendance nonetheless.

Begin at the beginning...

Oh the glory that is Pea Soup Anderson's . What is there to say about this magnificent place? It's an institution amongst those of us who had to endure the long journey between Northern and Southern California on a regular basis during our youth- a beacon of solace in a sea of pea green wonderment, decked out with wooden shoes and cuckoo clocks, a putting green, tiny swimming pool and giant neon soup bowl. We were able to snag a room here for a great price and with the recent renovations, it wasn't too bad at all for a few nights of wine soaked sleep. Clean, comfortable and quirky, PSA was our homebase of sorts for the length of conference. It suited us well and was just a short & sobering five minute walk from the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott, where the conference was being held.

Pre-check in to the conference and post our six and half hour drive from home, we needed some sustenance and refreshment to help prep for the days to come. It is here we discovered an oasis of hops and ale, a dark and metallic cave of coolness, the fantastic Firestone Walker Taproom. A taproom that will haunt me endlessly as I sit up here in the north, unable to waltz into the modern, yeasty, air-conditioned heaven. 

"The Taproom specializes in brewhouse bistro cooking with an emphasis on local flavor. The Taproom is ultimately an extension of the Firestone Walker brewing philosophy—the finest and freshest ingredients, prepared with care and presented from a distinctively regional perspective."

"The Taproom features our four award winning Firestone Walker beers in addition to eight alternating beers on tap. Patrons of the bar may enjoy 1/2 pints or imperial pints of our beers."

And so we did. We started with lunch and a few different pints of frothy goodness. We shared one of their Cobb Salads with local greens, chicken, tomato, avocado, bacon, bleu cheese, egg & ranch dressing and split a plate of the Seared Ahi Wontons with pan-seared rare sushi-grade Ahi tuna, served with Asian slaw, avocado & crispy wontons. Both dishes were exceptional, considering the that pub food has the tendency to be too heavy and greasy- the cobb salad was seasoned well, presented nicely and tasted fresh and crisp. The seared ahi was delicious and delicate, pairing very well with my tall glass of Firestone Walker 805 Beer.

"A beer crafted for the coast. 805 is a light, approachable brew. Born from an all malt recipe and finished with a touch of hops, it's slightly sweet with a clean finish. 805 is the perfect followup to that ultimate surf session or to reward a hard day's work."  

This beer is addictive. Like summer in a can. I've already researched where it can be found up here in Northern California and was thrilled to learn that we'll be able to get our hands on it within a few miles from home. Hooray! Thank goodness for that. We can stock up and bring to all of our favorite summertime bbq's and pool parties- such a great match for grilling and chilling this season.

With over 40 beers under the Firestone Walker label, it's hard to choose just one.  For you brew junkies out there, check out www.firestonebeer.com for more info on the brewery, the taproom, the barrelworks and where you can find your own 805. Trust me, you'll be happy you did.

Stay tuned, there's much more to come regarding the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference...


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Holman Ranch.

On a sun-drenched Monday afternoon, the hubbs and I found ourselves rambling down the road deeper and deeper into the heart of Carmel Valley. After a the hustle and bustle of a busy weekend and a relaxing Sunday stay at The Quail Lodge, it was time to head towards our destination, located high above Carmel Valley Village. We were on our way to visit the beloved Holman Ranch- a huge homestead, winery and event location perched like a modest castle amongst the oak trees and rolling hills of the valley.  Rich in history and well known for its rustic hacienda, sprawling gardens and breathtaking vistas, Holman Ranch shines as a beacon of beauty in the majestic Carmel Valley appellation.

"The story of Holman Ranch is truly unique; a special story about a wonderful place that began when California was still part of Mexico. Under the Crown of Spain, the ranch was part of the lands bestowed to the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo. When the Mexican government secularized the mission lands, one of the first ranchers in Carmel Valley, Don Jose Manuel Boronda, was granted the Los Laureles Rancho—6,625 acres that included what is now Holman Ranch. Their ranch passed through many hands until the Pacific Improvements Company acquired it in 1882.

In 1928, a San Francisco businessman, Gordon Armsby, was attracted to the rich farmland and leisurely pace of Carmel Valley, and purchased 600 acres in the Los Laureles area of the Valley, including what would be Holman Ranch.

Armsby hired Clarence Tantau (of Del Monte Hotel fame) to design the home that would reside on his new property. Tantau and Armsby chose a classic Spanish-style hacienda, which proffered impressive stone walls—all built from local Carmel stone. They installed handmade Mexican terracotta roofing and hand-carved oak-beamed ceilings. Nestled in a stand of mature oaks, nicknamed “Casa Escondida”, or “Hidden House”, the estate served as an exclusive hideaway for many Hollywood celebrities including Charlie Chaplin and Theda Bara."

As we reached the entrance to the ranch, located up rural Holman Road (of course)- a modest sign greeted us, along with a cow crossing and creaky steel gate. Our jaws dropped when we rolled to the top of the dusty road, marveling at the expanse of the ranch itself. We slowed the car to bask in our surroundings and took deep breaths of the fresh Carmel Valley air. I was overcome by sense of calm and serenity, much needed after a hectic few months of scheduling and social chaos.

Acres and acres of rolling green hills, horse stables big enough to hold nearly one hundred beasts, a shimmering lake surrounded by olive trees, beautiful oaks towering over brightly painted barns and outbuildings... It was like a rancher's dream world, all country and sky. Endless as far as the eye could see, you would never know that Holman Ranch existed so closely to touristy Monterey or crowded Carmel-by-the-Sea. This place, alone in the hills, is the very definition of bucolic paradise.

"Tucked away in the rolling hills of Carmel Valley, historic Holman Ranch provides a unique and memorable setting for weddings, special events, family gatherings, corporate retreats, and team-building events. With its charming gardens, stunning mountain views and serenity, this private estate affords old-world charm while providing modern day conveniences. This impressive property includes a fully restored stone hacienda, overnight guest rooms, vineyards, olive grove, horse stables and a tasting room where guests can sample our wines."

Having been invited to the ranch was a lovely surprise. Finally seeing the ranch in person was absolute eye-candy. Experiencing all that Holman Ranch had to offer put me in awe. Well, that and I was feeling quite content thanks to an earlier stop by the Holman Ranch tasting room, where we were able to sample their beloved wines...

"100% estate-grown wine varietals are planted on approximately 21 acres of undulating terrain. The wines produced are unfined and crafted to deliver the true varietal of the grape from harvest to bottle. The climate and terroir of the appellation has played a critical part in the success of our wines. The warmth of our inland valley coupled with the cooling marine layer has established itself as an ideal microclimate for the production of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Our Burgundy Clones have thrived from the perfect blend of ideal climate, southern exposure and thin rocky soils. The estate wines of Holman Ranch include: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Rosé of Pinot Noir."

At the very tip top of highest hill on property lies a hacienda, the crown-jewel of Holman Ranch. Flanking that hacienda are quaint accommodations for overnight guests (reserved for wine members & event attendees only)- our home for that particular evening. Our room was rustic and charming, decorated in an old Western theme, complete with cowboy boot lamps. Clean, comfortable and completely private with perks like front porch rocking chairs and expansive valley views, this certainly was no bad way to spend the evening. We settled in and met up with the rest of our fellow media companions to enjoy a tour.

The main interior walkway- perfect for weddings and large outdoor events. The unique beauty of the Holman Ranch venue is that the various spaces can be completely customized to suit your individual needs. Notice the dual-entry carriage house in the distance? We were treated to a twinkle-lit buffet dinner that evening inside. Perfect area for a dance floor! Often used for receptions, with it's barnwood floors and country charm.

A beautifully manicured lawn is the perfect setting for an outdoor wedding, with one of the most spectacular views of the entire Carmel Valley.

The gardens are impeccably cared for, with native plants, fruit trees and shrubs.  Steal a moment in the shade of the giant oak trees or bask in the blaring sunshine on top of world.

Guests of the Ranch are also welcome to take a dip in one of the oldest, most historic "in-ground" pools in existence within the county. This pool served as a day spa getaway in the early 20's for those privileged enough to visit. 

Walkways wind around the property, making for a delightful afternoon stroll and enchanting background for photography. Horseshoes pits, a relaxing pond and an entire private game room are also on the grounds for your enjoyment.

The love and good energy Holman Ranch exudes can be seen and felt in every aspect of it's existence.

Wandering- what I do best.

Roses planted as part of the original Hacienda, with blooms as big as softball. The scent was intoxicating.

"Holman Ranch is full of romance and history. It is rustic and sophisticated, secluded and amazing. This stone hacienda offers the charm of its native gardens, the breathtaking vistas from every angle, the wonder of its olive groves and vineyards as well as the serenity and privacy of the historic estate itself. A world away yet close enough to everything our guests could need or desire, Holman Ranch offers unlimited possibilities for weddings, family reunions, corporate retreats, and any other special occasion. Holman Ranch is a place for togetherness, celebration, good friends, and family. It is truly the perfect place to create great memories."

Other fun details of Holman Ranch's event spaces...

-Game Room
"An old-fashioned game room equipped with all the modern amenities. A pool table, dart board, plasma TV, bar, jukebox, roaring fireplace and antique bar to entertain and amuse guests."
-Carriage House
"A rustically elegant space with a lofty, open-beamed ceiling, perfect for dancing or dinner for your event."
-Great Room
"Classic Mission architecture with original terracotta tile and beautiful views of the gardens greet you upon entering. A perfect location for intimate dining, enjoying cocktails, or lounging by a roaring fire."
-Conference Room
"Our fully furnished conference room offers a complete, modern and integrated system including a drop-down screen, projector, Wi-Fi signal, conference phone and sound system."
"Our private Hacienda chapel is beautifully adorned with relics salvaged from abandoned churches. Serene and intimate, this space is perfect for a ceremony of up to 50 people. Baptisms, blessings and memorials are also welcome in our chapel."

For more info on Holman Ranch, check out www.holmanranch.com or contact the ranch at:
(831) 659-2640 | info@holmanranch.com 

The ranch's tasting room is located at 19 E. Carmel Valley Road, Suite C, Carmel Valley, CA 93924. You can visit the tasting room to sample their wines, get more info on their wine club and find out more about how to plan your event at their stunning property.

Many thanks to our lovely hosts at Holman Ranch, our experience was one to remember and share with others near and far...

Be well,

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

étoile at Domaine Chandon.

Nestled on a ethereal hilltop in the heart of Yountville, Domaine Chandon sits regally amongst giant moss-covered boulders and aging oak trees, with vast sprawling lawns surrounding.  Vineyards cover most of the property, along with the winery, tasting rooms, and their prestigious Michelin starred restaurant, étoile.

"In 1973, Domaine Chandon became the first French-owned sparkling wine venture in the United States. But Chandon’s beginnings date back to 1690 with the father of champagne. A Benedictine monk and cellar-master at the Abbey of Hautvillers, named Dom Pérignon, set out to unlock the secret of sparkling wine and ultimately developed the traditional champagne method."

We visit the property often, sometimes riding our bikes up the hill for a refreshing glass of their sparkling rosé, other times with family and friends as a way to begin our wine tasting adventures. It is a Napa Valley institution, one with a presence, favored by many locals and visitors alike. Perhaps that is the reason they are the only winery in the valley with a restaurant on-site... The allure of Chandon is so strong, they are able to highlight not just their wine, but the spectacular food of étoile as well.  We were most certainly in for a treat that day, and I was beyond thrilled to be graciously hosted at one of the finest restaurants in town.

After a short but sweet tour of the facilities and a relaxed, sit-down sampling of Domaine Chandon wines in the garden, the hubbs and meandered over to the restaurant itself and were greeted warmly by the staff.  We were both equally as excited to finally sample the dishes of Chef Perry Hoffman, a kind young man we were introduced to at a previous wine event and had fun chatting with extensively.

"After joining the culinary team at étoile Restaurant at Domaine Chandon in 2007, Hoffman was quickly appointed Chef. There he captured critical attention in 2010, as the youngest American chef to be awarded a Michelin Star at age 25. Since then, étoile has maintained one Michelin Star for three consecutive years, in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Hoffman was also named a “Rising Star Chef” by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2010, and was a James Beard Foundation Semifinalist for “Rising Star Chef of the Year” in 2010 and 2011. In 2012, Hoffman was named one of Zagat’s “30 under 30,” and also received recognition from Food & Wine, as he was voted “The People’s Best New Chef: California.”

"étoile crafts its contemporary Californian menu around the wine experience and recommends pairings for every dish, both from the property's own label and beyond. The kitchen's accomplishments have a hint of French influence and a flair for originality worthy of its celestial name."

We were seated at one of their elegantly dressed tables with a serene view of the winery's oak grove and ponds and were introduced to our outstanding waiter, Scott. At étoile, service is intimate and very personalized, meaning every detail of the meal is thoughtful- it just so happens that Scott was training another member of staff that day, but her presence was subtle and professional with a cheerful smile.

The restaurant itself is sublime, decorated with modern accents, spacious windows and peekaboo views into the tasting room. When the weather improves, the seating will move outdoors, onto their expansive patio, complete with cafe lighting and a shade covered terrace that also overlooks the pond and gardens. Inside, beauty can be found in the floral arrangements by Kathy Hoffman, Chef Perry Hoffman's mother, also a local. She's well-known throughout the valley for her work in several different majorly influential restaurants for her use of color, texture, and visual wow. Succulents as far as the eye could see, along with fresh citrus of every kind, all grown on the property in étoile's gardens, orchids and tillandsia.


We began our meal with a dozen Beausoleil oysters, complimented by a bitter orange mignonette. The oyster were briny, yeasty and paired well with our Chandon champagne. We've both fallen in love with oysters in recent years, but have difficulty finding the freshest-of-fresh bivalves in the local area, much to our dismay. These oysters were certainly fresh and consistent, which was a delightful surprise, as we've been disappointed with different restaurants' standards in the past.

Next up, I chose the Dungeness Crab Salad with asparagus, sorrel, rhubarb and watercress sauce.  The crab tasted amazing- so fresh and sweet. The combination of vegetables garnished with beautiful edible flowers not only made my tastebuds happy, but the presentation brought a huge smile to my face.

The hubbs decided on the Chilled Spring Onion Soup with roasted sunchokes, preserved lemon creme fraiche and society garlic. A delicious introduction to Chef Hoffman's spring menu, bursting with flavor, practically tasting like the color green, as I've always imagined.

As a gift from the Chef, we were treated to this amazing dish of Sweetbreads with green garlic sauce, fried egg and dandelion. This was a surprisingly accessible way to enjoy sweetbreads- the green garlic and egg yolk made for a decadent burst of savory goodness. Again, the plating was impeccable.

Gift number two from Chef took both of our breaths away. Delivered on a plate of sea-blue glass, the Moroccan Spiced Octopus with page tangerines, petite radish, puffed quinoa and crystalline. As this dish was being delivered to us (thank you Chef!), other patrons in the restaurant turned their heads and whispered.  It was unbelievable. The octopus was cooked sous vide, making it incredibly tender. The Moroccan spice, mixed with tart tangerine and crispy radish was a delight on the palate. By far, one of my favorite dishes I've ever enjoyed in a restaurant. Period.

For our main courses, the hubbs went full throttle and chose the Pacific Sea Urchin Fettucini with fava leaves, black radish, yuzu and kumquats. A seriously luxurious pasta. I'm normally squeamish about sea urchin, but this sauce tasted as smooth as cream, buttery with hints of the ocean, sweet yuzu and crunchy radish.

I was utterly curious as to how Chef Hoffman would prepare a simple cut of fish, so my main course choice was the Scottish Salmon with heirloom beets, winter citrus, red orach and petite chervil. I was blown away by the crispiness of the salmon- achieved by using an extremely hot cast iron skillet. The hollandaise sauce was airy, almost puffy, and the beet puree blended well with the tangy citrus. 

Sweet, sweet dessert was a Dark Chocolate Torte with coffee ice cream and a chocolate bark dipped in gold dust powder. Like the name étoile (meaning "star" in french), the treat sparkled upon arrival and didn't last long on our plate.

The hubbs and I were absolutely taken aback by the quality, care, attention to detail and service at étoile. The careful craftsmanship that goes into Chef Perry Hoffman's food, combined with his presentation of superb dishes like the one's we were fortunate enough to relish, makes Domain Chandon's restaurant étoile universally celebrated destination. 

Many, many thanks to staff of Domaine Chandon and étoile for a truly memorable experience.