If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to attend a food and wine festival in Napa Valley, I’m here to tell you: it’s good. Let’s face it — even an average eating and drinking excursion there ought to be a happy-making experience. Yet it’s more so if you drive about 60 miles north of the San Francisco airport to encounter a high-end wine and food adventure set in the beautiful part of our country recognized as one of the finest wine-growing regions of the world.
Photo Credit: Rob Rosenthal
Napa Valley is home to about 400 wineries, as well as some serious food. Thomas Keller’s legendary The French Laundry is located here, as is a vibrant branch campus of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA), to cite just two examples of the many prestigious institutions in the area. Only 30 miles long by five miles wide and flanked by mountains, Napa Vally is traversed by two main thoroughfares (Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail) throughout much of the wine growing region, making it easy to navigate the scenic, vine-filled terrain and its charming small towns.
Oddly enough, though, it wasn’t until quite recently that Napa had a proper wine and food festival to call its own. I came in late November to the Fourth Annual Flavor! Napa Valley, a multi-day celebration featuring tastings of the area’s delicious assets, together with demonstrations from some of the nation’s most revered culinary talent.
The welcome dinner held at the Silverado Resort and Spa was an extraordinary five-course meal assembled by a veritable all-star team of CIA alumni. Each signature dish was paired with a fine Napa Valley vintage. Dean Fearing opened with a delectable barbecue quail wrapped in prosciutto; Melissa Perello followed with her standout California spiny lobster; host Charlie Palmer offered succulent four-spiced duck breast and pinot noir jus, paired perfectly with a superb 2010 Reynolds Family Winery Pinot Noir; Larry Forgione delighted carnivores with a 42-day dry-aged strip loin and bone marrow gremolata over polenta. Finally, Ace of Cakes’ Duff Goldman completed the fabulous meal with his playful, multi-flavored Panna Cotta Stratificato, accompanied by the fragrant, lush, and lightly effervescent 2013 Moscato d’Oro from the Robert Mondavi Winery.
The cleverly titled Appellation Trail event is an opportunity to sample multiple wines from 95 Napa wineries and 25 of the Valley’s restaurants, all stationed side-by-side in the CIA’s handsome and historic Greystone building. One could bring a strategy to this display of abundance, deciding beforehand in what to partake, or… one could amble semi-aimlessly from one table to another, mouth slightly agape, allowing inspiration to determine which varietal and delicacy strikes one’s fancy. Whichever the method, it’s virtually impossible to go wrong among the stellar selection of cabernets, sauvignon blancs, chardonnays, zinfandels, et al., whether quaffed with bites of rabbit terrine en croûte, bœuf bourguignon over creamy polenta, butter poached lobster, tuna pizza, roast duck char sui, tripe tacos and tamales, sunchoke soup, baked risotto arancini with roasted winter squash and Parmigiano-Reggiano, or braised oxtail with porcini flan and crispy shallots, to name just a few.
If you crave a good burger with a glass of vino — and who doesn’t? — you might attend the aptly named Grapes & Grills. Hosted by the ebullient Katie Hamilton Shaffer and housed at the stunning St. Supery Estate Winery, this event is your chance to bite into eight different burger creations accompanied by eight respective regional reds. Of the many tasty entries, I particularly enjoyed the opulent beauty from restaurant 1313 Main (grass-fed beef burger on a truffled brioche bun with melted Gruyère and sherry caramelized onions, accompanied by smoked black truffle chips) and a superb 2012 Estate Syrah from Cuvaison.
Apparently, there is more to a food festival than eating and drinking alone. Flavor! Napa includes demonstrations from famed celebrity graduates of the CIA, local restaurateurs, and winemakers. I watched Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto (who has a restaurant in Napa), break down a 20-pound fish and prepare it six ways. Think of it as live food porn. The charming Dean Fearing (CIA 1978) delivered a more engaging session, complete with practical insights. He showed how to “build flavors” in a classic tortilla soup and explained how to “cold smoke” while preparing his barbecue shrimp taco with mango and pickled red onion salad. Chef Rocco DiSpirito (CIA 1986) came with an important message (“healthy = delicious”) and a truly interactive experience. After demonstrating a reduced-calorie three-course meal, about 200 of us moved into the impressive CIA kitchen to make his ricotta gnudi before sitting down for a complete lunch — with wine, of course.
More to do in Napa
I’m a kid in a candy store at the Oxbow Market in Napa. Exactly the kind of "food hall" you’d expect in this town, i.e., one purveyor of deliciousness after another gathered under a single roof. Whether you’re in the mood for Mexican breakfast burritos, the steak of your choice grilled to order, luscious looking gluten-free baked goods, or sitting at the counter of the Hog Island Oyster Co. slurping down a dozen just shucked oysters with a cold microbrew, this place has it all, and then some.
Photo Credit: Rob Rosenthal
In fact, if you walk just one block from the Oxbow, you will discover two more gems. The Model Bakery is so famous for its homemade English muffins that they’re generally sold out by late morning. Right next door, step into greatness. The Fatted Calf is a (takeout) charcuterie, which is the fancy French way of saying they make salami, sausage, prosciutto, pâtés, and other delicacies of that ilk. The place would horrify vegetarians, but if you want to experience pure bliss, order a portion of porchetta roast, still warm from the oven. It comes in a small paper box and I suppose it’s only right to let them weigh it first before you break into it. Plastic utensils are available — but not mandatory at this moment — as are a few stools and tiny counter in the shop, with more picnic-style seating outside. So sit and savor what is arguably the ultimate preparation of pork: fragrant, melt-in-your-mouth meat with intensely crackling skin, redolent of garlic, rosemary, and fennel. Savory. Umami. Sensational.
To work all that off, go biking! May through October is the main tourist season, but even in late November daytime temperatures run in the 60s, ideal for pedaling through wine country. You can rent good bikes in Yountville at Napa Valley Bike Tours and set out on your own or as part of a guided group. Stop into wineries for tastings along the way, although some require a reservation in advance. You could bring your own picnic lunch — perhaps porchetta with a loaf of your favorite bread type from The Model Bakery — or pick up appetizing comestibles in town itself. If you don’t want to wait in the inevitable line at Bouchon Bakery, you could pop into Napa Style across the street for inventive salads and sandwiches to go. Or just ride until you drop, walk a few steps from the bike return, and reward yourself with soulful French cuisine at Bistro Jeanty.
Photo Credit: Rob Rosenthal
After all this activity, you’ll need to chill. Head over to the iconic Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford to enjoy a sip of something sparkling. Sit on the outdoor terrace and take in a resplendent view of the valley beneath you.
Go back to school! From its bucolic setting in St. Helena, the Culinary Institute of America offers a wide range of avocational classes. You can take a tour of the historic building (built in 1889), catch a cooking demonstration, or spend a weekend in CIA Boot Camp for some hands-on training.
Stay and Play
The Silverado Resort is ideally suited to groups and events, making it one of the two ideal bases of the festival. It’s also a very good option if you play golf, tennis, or appreciate a deep tissue massage. Golfing legend Johnny Miller and partners own the resort, which offers two championship courses, a Peter Burwash tennis academy for its 17 courts, and an exemplary, full-service spa. Professionally managed by Dolce Hotels and Resorts (which operates 23 properties across the U.S., Canada and Europe) it’s also clear that chef Jeffrey Jake and his team take their fine food and beverage seriously.
If you haven’t been to Napa Valley, the well-run Flavor! Napa festival is certainly a good reason to go. But even if you have been before, it’s also a nice excuse to return.