Saturday, October 24, 2009

Calistoga: Schramsberg Vineyards

Champagne is a historic province of France famous for champagne houses like Moët & Chandon (Dom Pérignon), Krug, Vueve Clicquot or Louis Roederer (Cristal). Schramsberg is located in Calistoga, CA and known as America's first house of sparkling wine.

Jacob Schram founded Schramsberg in 1862 after purchasing a large piece of land on the mountainside of Napa Valley. By 1870, Schramsberg had 30,000 vines and hires Chinese laborers to dig Napa's first hillside caves after realizing the summer heat in the area. Although Herman, son of Jacob and Annie Schram, continued to run the winery after their death, phylloxera and Prohibition brought the end of the Schram era.

The winery was later sold off to a number of individuals from the 1910s to 1950s. In 1957, the winery was registered as a historical landmark and in 1965 sold to Jack and Jamie Davies whose family currently owns the winery to this day.

Schramsberg is the first hillside winery in Napa Valley. When you drive up to the property, you are greeted by a long narrow road which will lead you to the top of the hill.

You have arrived when you see this mash-made champagne bottle and other historic cabins and sites.

In 1875, Schram built this Victorian mansion with a veranda that was used to entertain guests.

In between the mansion and the tasting room resides a frog pond which inspired the Schramsberg logo of a frog having a night on the town with a bottle of Schramsberg bubbly.

When the Davies purchased the winery, they didn't want to make any ordinary wine. The goal was to create America's most prestigious sparkling wine to be served for special occasions, special guests, gifts, etc. They intended to create wine with richness and complexity using authentic Méthode Champenoise which is the classic way of producing sparkling wine.

The best way to taste the Schramsberg wines is to take a tour of the winery which includes a tasting of 4-5 different sparkling wines. The tour will give you a thorough history of the winery and takes you through the wine caves.

Schramsberg wines have been served by every subsequent presidential administration. On display are photos and menus when the sparkling wine was served. In 1972 the 1969 Blanc de Blancs was served at the "Toast to Peace" in Beijing, between President Richard Nixon and Premier Chou Enlai (Source: Schramberg Vineyards).

In the wine caves, there are essentially two million bottles stacked from floor to ceiling. This is just one corridor of bottles. You can easily get lost here.

Here's a closer look at the bottles stacked next to each other.

Our tasting took place in the wine caves. Our tour guide Art showed us how to properly open a champagne bottle as well as sharing instructions on how to open a bottle with a saber/sword.

The sparkling wines that we tasted were:
  1. Blanc de Blanc
  2. J. Schram
  3. Brut Rose
  4. J. Davies
Unfortunately, didn't get to meet the master riddler, Ramon Viera, who is tasked to riddle (or turn) 48,000 bottles each day to get the yeast sediment to move down the neck of the bottle so that it can be disgorged when frozen. It takes 30 small turns (about 6 weeks) to complete the process.

After the tour, we were directed to the new tasting room where we can purchase bottles of Schramsberg sparkling wine.

Here is a price list of their current releases (click on image to enlarge).

Schramsberg is an iconic vineyard with a great deal of history. From the lush greenery of the grounds to the millions of bottles stacked floor to ceiling in the wine caves. This winery is one of the best in Napa Valley and should be on your itinerary when visiting the region.

Things to know:
  • The winery offers 5 scheduled tours daily for $35 per person. Tour times are: 10am, 11:30am, 12:30am, 1:30pm and 2:30pm. The length of the tour is a hour and 15 minutes.
  • Reservations in advance are necessary. A credit card is required to hold a reservation.
  • To book a reservation, call 707-942-4558 or book online here.
  • Be sure to arrive at least 15 minutes before your tour. Allow time to drive up the hill to the winery.
  • To get to Schramsberg: When driving north on Hwy 29, turn left on Peterson Dr and veer right onto Schramsberg Dr. Look for a small sign directing you to Schramsberg. Download driving instructions here:
  • Sparkling wines range from $20 to upward of $700.
  • The wine caves are chilly so bring a light sweater.
Schramsberg Vineyards
1400 Schramsberg Road
Calistoga, CA 94515

Friday, October 23, 2009

St. Helena: The Culinary Institute of America @ Greystone

Grant Achatz, Anthony Bourdain, Michael Mina, and Duff Goldman. What do these individuals have in common aside from being renowned chefs? The CIA.

We dropped by this institution of culinary greatness which is located in St. Helena, CA off of Hwy 29. The campus is the West Coast branch of the CIA in Hyde Park, NY. This particular location sits around the Greystone Cellars building which was built in 1888. Greystone Cellars was formerly owned by the Christian Brothers where it was used for sparkling wine production. This place is also listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places.

The main building is a three-story Greystone Cellars building which houses the teaching kitchens, Ecolab Theatre, Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant, Spice Island Marketplace (campus store), the DeBaun Theatre, the Ken and Grace DeBaun Cafe and administrative offices.

Inside on display is Brother Timothy's Corkscrew Collection. Brother Timothy is the world renowned cellar master of the Christian Brothers and has shaped the development of the Napa Valley wine industry since the 1930s. The collection contains over 1,800 corkscrews from around the world dating back from the 18th century.

Pictured above is the Original Cornerstone of Greystone. The original cornerstone was laid in 1888 but it was not marked or commemorated. It was later uncovered in 1982 by workers maintaining the building and is now on display alongside Brother Timothy's Corkscrew Collection.

The Vintners Hall of Fame was closed when we were here. Below is a family wine press built by Antonio Stratta of San Francisco in 1906.

If you go south of the building about 100 feet, you will find the campus store, Spice Island Marketplace. Here, you can purchase CIA souvenirs, cookbooks, linens, kitchenware, cook tools, etc.

Before we left, we found where the original cornerstone was located which was near the campus store.

I always wanted to visit the CIA. It's like stepping foot at the Harvard of culinary excellence. Although the tuition has a heavy price tag, I wouldn't mind attending this school had I pursued a career in the culinary arts. This is a must stop for any foodie looking to know where culinary greats learned their craft (although majority of them attended the Hyde Park campus).

Things to know:
  • The campus is open to the public when the school is not closed.
  • The Corkscrew Collection and Vintners Hall of Fame is open to the public.
  • Purchase CIA souvenirs in the campus store located on the southend of the main building. Their online store is found here:
  • The CIA at Greystone hosts an abundance of cookbook authors every year. You can purchase autographed books, but quantities are limited.
  • The campus has an on-site restaurant called Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant. Basically, the students are the chefs. We didn't eat here.
  • The World of Favors conference is held on campus annually in November. Registration for the 2-day event is nearly $1K.
  • Looking for a place to host your wedding, why not have it here. You can have your ceremony in the Herb Terrace or Historic Barrel Room. For information regarding weddings at the CIA at Greystone, go to their website here or you can email
The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone
2555 Main Street
St. Helena, CA 94574

Monday, October 19, 2009

Yountville: Ad Hoc

The first dinner on our Napa road trip was at Ad Hoc by Thomas Keller. Thomas Keller is practically a culinary superstar in this region so you wouldn't have thought that he would open an unpretentious, comfort-food joint on the Yountville Strip (aka Washington Street).

Ad Hoc is essentially the first place that you see when you get off of Hwy 29 in Yountville. When you walk into this place, it's definitely not like Keller's other famous restaurants such as Per Se in NY and French Laundry down the street. Casual, yet modern and refined.

You'll notice the Pig motif throughout the restaurant. Marc wondered about the "pigs" so I did some research and found that Keller's motto for all of his restaurants is "Be the Bacon". First off, who doesn't like bacon? Bacon can make any dish worthwhile. So I assume "Be the Bacon" can be interpreted as, do what you can to make the diner's experience satisfying. In terms of bacon, pretty damn good.

The premise of Ad Hoc is family-style comfort food in a casual environment. Menus come in brown filing folders but the ingenious innovation of this restaurant is you're feasting on what is being served that day. You have no choices. The prix fixe menu will not be disclosed until earlier in the afternoon before the doors open. So basically you are coming here blind and reservations are highly recommended. Above is a copy of the menu of the night, a four-course prix fixe menu.

Ok, moving on to the food.

It was deathly hot earlier in the afternoon (well over 95 degrees) so I opted for a glass of Rosé champagne (I forgot the name but I know it's from Lodi, CA). Shown above, it was served in a drinking glass instead of a champagne flute.

As we were seated, our server bought us freshly baked bread, obviously from the Bouchon Bakery. I liked the rustic crust of the bread slices. I ended up devouring the entire basket by the end of our meal.

Course #1 - Endive & Watercress Salad
endive & watercress with toasted cashews, shaved green onions
and k & j orchards white pomegranate

Course #2 - Snake River Farms’ Kurobuta Pork Loin
pork loin with poached osborne figs, roasted fennel, braised leeks, tfl garden cherry tomato confit
and olive tapenade

Above is closer look at the pork loin, figs, leeks and cherry tomato

Course #3 - Cowgirl Creamery’s Inverness
Inverness cheese with palladin toast and jacobson orchard bartlett pear jam

Course #4 - Chocolate Fudge Brownie
chocolate fudge brownie with strawberry ice cream and candied walnuts

Overall impression, very good. Marc enjoyed the pork loin. Probably the best we've had in a long time. For a 4-course meal, we were stuffed, but leave it to me to try to finish everything in sight. I didn't get to finish the Cowgirl Creamery cheese though. It had a dense, creamy mouth feel that spreads evenly on the palladin toast (cream cheese and toast, my fav combo snack).

Would I come here again. Sure! Maybe next time we'll try to make a reservation on a Monday night when they serve their famous Buttermilk Fried Chicken.

Things to know:
  • No valet parking. Street parking and a parking lot in the back of the restaurant is available.
  • The cost of the 4-course prix fixe menu is $49 per person.
  • Picky eaters need not apply. You won't know what is being served until a couple of hours before the doors open.
  • Often the restaurant is closed for special events, check the restaurant's website to find out if they will be open on the day you are visiting Yountville.
  • Dinner is served on Monday, Thursday-Sunday from 5pm to 9pm. Closed on Tuesday & Wednesday.
  • Brunch is served on Sundays from 10:30am to 2pm.
  • Reservations are highly recommended. You can make an online reservation at Open Table or call 707. 944.2487. Walk-ins are accepted but I would call before arriving.
  • I recommend making a reservation on Monday for their Fried Chicken meal or Sunday morning for brunch.
Ad Hoc
6476 Washington Street
Yountville, CA
707. 944.2487

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Yountville: Bouchon Bakery

When you think of Napa, what comes to mind is food, wine and Thomas Keller. A trip to Napa is not complete without stopping by this infamous bakery in the heart of Yountville, home of the French Laundry. We've already had a taste of Bouchon Bakery in Vegas a few months back but this is the real deal.

Before our dinner at Ad Hoc (another Thomas Keller establishment), we drove a few more blocks to find this little bakery. If you can imagine, the line was out the door and it was only 4pm. I had Marc wait in line for me while I snap this photo. I wanted to take photos inside but there was simply too many people. Only a handful of folks can fit in there.

Keller's other restaurant, Bouchon, is located right next door. Keller has a number of restaurants on Washington Street what I consider "the Strip" in Yountville. Yountville is a small town, but boy it has big city restaurants. The epitome of fine cuisine.

Now for the sweet goodness of Bouchon Bakery:

Thomas Keller's rendition of the Oreo cookie. It is made using chocolate stable dough and a sweet white chocolate ganache filling.

Macarons (photo from Bouchon Bakery in Vegas)
A classic French pastry filled with buttercream. Pictured above: Raspberry, Orange, Lemon, Vanilla, Mocha and Chocolate. Flavors change with the season.

Chocolate Bouchon and a Chocolate Chip Cookie (foodie favs!)
A small, moist chocolate brownie-like treat named for its resemblance of a cork.
Keller's famous chocolate chip cookie made from the finest chocolate and baked to perfection.

Things to know:
  • Bouchon Bakery serves up many selections from salads & sandwiches to breads, chocolates and pastries (scones, muffins, croissants, danishes, tarts, cookies, etc.)
  • Your pets can also indulge with a selection of pet treats. The treats are enriched with foie gras, chicken stock and diced bacon. Wow! Talk about 'haute-pet treats'.
  • Plan ahead and expect long lines. Service is quick but you should already know what to order once you're inside.
  • Foodie Favs: TKO, Chocolate Bouchon, Chocolate Chip Cookies and Caramel Macarons.
  • One of the few places I've seen that serves gigantic macarons.
  • Prices somewhat pricy. Expect to pay over $20 if purchasing multiple items.
  • Some of the Bouchon breads can be purchased at Dean & Deluca, particularly the Epi Baguette and brioche.
  • Can't make it out to Yountville, a Bouchon Bakery is located at the Venetian Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. It's hidden. Look behind the escalators adjacent to the hotel's theater entrance.
Bouchon Bakery - Yountville
6528 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Oakville: Opus One Wineries

Being our first road trip to Napa, I had to do my homework when selecting wine tours. Our first choice was...

Opus One.

Opus One Wineries is a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Rothschild loved the working conditions in Napa Valley and thus sought out one of the best winemarker in the region, Robert Mondavi. Mondavi and Rothschild first met in Hawaii in the late 1970s where Rothschild proposed a joint venture. A plan was agreed upon in 25 minutes.

The first vintage was made at the Robert Mondavi Winery in 1979 but ten years later, ground breaking took place to create a new Opus One Winery which is located right across the street from the Mondavi Winery in Oakville off of Hwy 29.

So what makes this winery so unique? Well, there are several reasons.

1. This winery produces only ONE wine; a
proprietary Bordeaux-style blend.

2. When looking across the vineyard, you can tell there's a difference. The way the vines are planted, cultivated and tended to is far more meticulous than other vineyards.

3. The grapes are hand sorted and uses gravity to move the berries from the destemmer into the stainless steel fermenting tanks in the lower level.

4. Architecture and design: Simply stunning.

Check out the construction of this place. Absolutely beautiful. Baron Philippe, his daughter Philippine and Robert Mondavi selected Scott Johnson of Johnson, Fain & Pereira as the design architect of the Opus One Winery. The steel-looking terrace and pillars are not made of steel at all. It is actually made of redwood but painted to resemble steel. You will find redwood, stainless steel and limestone as key elements in the structure of the building.

Our tour began in the Salon, the most formal room in the winery. The space is furnished with French opulence and modern contemporary flair. The room brings together the sense of Old World meets New World.

The artwork on the right was created by Susan Roach Pate. She was hired to design the Opus One logo (shown below). The design consists of a sketched image of two profiles back to back, Robert Mondavi on the left and Baron Philippe de Rothschild on the right.

[image by Fine Wine House]

From the Salon, we were escorted to an area where the grapes are sorted and destemmed. Notice how clean the facility is.

On the lower level, gravity is used to bring the berries down into the stainless steel fermenting tanks. Each tank is used only once during the harvest and can be dedicated to one lot of grapes. Once the grapes are ready to be barreled, the tanks are raised and the free-run wine flows into new French oak barrels.

Next, we are escorted to the Tasting room and Grand Chai. 1,000 barrels are lined up side by side in the Grand Chai. This is where the wine is nurtured and aged in new French oak barrels.

Lastly, the Tasting. At the end of the tour we got to taste the 2005 Opus One Vintage. I'm not a red wine fan, but I actually enjoyed this wine. It was quite smooth and it didn't have the aftertaste that I usually dread with red wine. Marc enjoyed it as well since he likes red wine. We took our wine glasses upstairs to the rooftop terrace to enjoy the view. This is such a beautiful vineyard that everyone should experience once in their lives.

I know there has been mixed reviews about this place being pretentous, unfriendly, snooty, etc so here is my take. This place is NOT for everyone. If $30 for a tasting is expensive for you, then don't go. This winery is one-of-a-kind and I appreciate the history behind its legacy. I didn't find the staff snooty or unfriendly. I think I've gotten much more not-so-nice service at Neiman Marcus compared to this place. All and all, it was a great experience. Would I come here again? Sure! Probably to taste the current Vintage and purchase a bottle of Overture.

Ok, you can't leave this place without souvenirs. So here is what we got:

Opus One Overture - $60.00 and Opus One Etched Riedel Crystal Glass - $25.00

Opus One Overture is produced from classic Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Its aged for eighteen months in French oak barrels with an additional eighteen months in the bottle.

Things to know:
  • Tours and Tastings are by appointment only. $35 for the Tour (1 hour tour includes one tasting of the current Vintage). The first tour is at 10:30am but I believe there is another tour later in the afternoon. Need to call to confirm.
  • Visitors can purchase and taste Opus One in the Partners' Room from 10:00am to 4:00pm by appointment only. The cost per taste is $30.
  • To make an appointment, you must call 707-944-9442 during regular business hours from Monday-Friday. They will not take reservations on the weekends. You will be required to provide a credit card number to hold a reservation.
  • The gates of the winery will open at 10:00am.
  • The cost for a 750ml bottle of the current vintage is $160. Opus One Overture is only available at this winery for $60.00.
  • There are two Opus One Etched Crystal glasses available for purchase: Red Wine: $25.00 & Magnum: $39-$42 (I forgot the price, but I know it was expensive).
  • Best time to visit Opus One, in the Fall - Mid September, early October.
Opus One Wineries
7900 St. Helena Highway
Oakville, CA 94562