North Napa Wineries(And Great Food!)

Our annual New Year’s tradition in Napa Valley began by responding to a “Living Social” offer for a bed and breakfast/spa package in Calistoga, a small town in the north valley that served as a regular get-away decades ago.  Friends and fellow “foodies”, Rosemary and David, carefully selected some restaurants of recent note and we were off for a mini “fork and cork” experience that began with lunch at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen.

Chef Cindy Pawlcyn, beginning 25 years ago with the infamous Mustard’s Grill on Highway 29, has developed three restaurants in the Napa Valley, including Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, located in a quaint historic building along the railroad tracks, east of St. Helena.   The charming old supper club atmosphere is enhanced by a very unique menu that includes such dished as the “Chinatown Duck Burger with house made shiitake mushroom ketchup and French fries” and “Adult Grilled Cheese, mostly vegetarian NO CRYBABIES! and polenta fries”.    They feature a very diverse choice of fine wines by the glass and bottle, micro brews like “Death and Taxes” Black Lager from Moonlight Brewing and creative cocktails such as their “Thai-gin-tini”.  What a wonderful start to an entire weekend of gourmet experiences.

The town of Calistoga is historically known for its spas that feature naturally hot mineral and volcanic ash baths.  Over the past decades, restaurants, B&B inns, elegant spa hotels and boutique wineries have become mainstays of the local landscape.  Our first wine tasting stop, the Vincent Arroyo Winery, fits the local persona with wines as unpretentious as they are bold and supple.

Entering the barn at Vincent Arroyo Winery, after an official greeting by black lab, JJ and chocolate lab, Bodega, their tails wagging, you are reminded that this is a small working winery and, amid a relaxed environment are friendly staff that are very serious about their wine.  We tasted several current releases, beginning with the 2010 Vincent Arroyo Chardonnay ($24), two-thirds fermented in stainless steel tanks and the rest in French oak barrels resulting in a very crisp flavors with hints of vanilla.

JJ - Vincent Arroyo greeter

Tempranillo has become a very trendy varietal and seems to be expanding in very diverse regions throughout the state.  Of Spanish origin, the grape typically generates nice, heavy fruit

Vincent Arroyo Tempranillo 2009

bouquet and flavors and, like Cabernet Sauvignon, enjoys the company of oak.  The 2009 Vincent Arroyo Tempranillo ($28) delivers all the features of a dry Cabernet, with ripening fruit flavors at a relatively moderate price.   Moving to blends of French descent, the 2008 Vincent Arroyo “Nameless” ($30)is a left-bank Bordeaux blend of merlot (62%) and cabernet

Bodega - unofficial host

sauvignon (38%) that is well-balanced, semi-tart and great to pair with food.

Another varietal expanding throughout California wine regions is petite sirah, a dark inky-colored grape with rich texture and very soft, accessible flavors.  Of the three produced, we enjoyed the 2009 Vincent Arroyo Petite Sirah Rattlesnake Acres, from a vineyard at the winery entrance.  Exhibiting all the traditional qualities of the varietal, the flavors were very forward with a nice lingering finish.   The 2008 Vincent Arroyo Petite Sirah “Winemaker’s

Vincent Arroyo Petite Sirah "Rattlesnake Acres" Vineyard

Reserve” ($50) aged three years, is still young, but has a structure that will continue to mature.

The flagship wine of our day was the 2009 Vincent Arroyo “Entrada”  ($65), an unusual blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah with bold flavors and near perfect balance that is drinking well now, but will continue to develop structurally with time.

For our first dinner, Rosemary had reserved a table at the Michelin-starred SolBar, on the Solage Spa grounds, just east of town.  We are pleased that she did.   Upon entering SolBar, one is immediately immersed in an understated elegance that is inviting for fine food and wine.  It is a modern, sleek, but homey room where everything seems to work the way it should.  Carrying a bottle of Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Garys’ Vineyard 2009, we were definitely in the mood to sit, relax, select and enjoy.   One look at my wine and our young female waiter suggested that we decant it right away.  That’s apparently what happens at a Michelin-starred restaurant.   The pinot noir opened up and paired perfectly with the wild, sustainable sea bass as well as the beef confit salad. The SolBar experience was my best in recent memory.

SolBar restaurant

Laura Zahtila Swanton’s story is a somewhat familiar one, one that has a happy ending.  Working at Cisco Systems in Silicon Valley, she purchased the property of her estate vineyard and winery, relied on her technological skills and set out to produce limited-quantity boutique wines along the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley.  Coming upon her property, with no prior knowledge of her wines, we decided to make the short trek to a quaint tasting shack only to be pleasantly surprised by many of her recent releases.

Laura Zahtila "Odone Vineyard" Zinfandel 2005

We began with a comparative tasting between the 2004 and 2005 vintages of the Laura Zahtila Vineyards Zinfandel “Odone Vineyard” ($40), revealing vast differences in flavor and structure.  The 2004 was well structured, soft and a bit tannic while the 2005 was much more fruit forward with nice vanilla and cinnamon hints.  Both wines need decanting for a few hours.  Decanting is also recommended for the Laura Zahtila Vineyards Zinfandel “Oat Hill

Laura Zahtila "Oat Hill" Zinfandel 2008

Vineyard” 2007 ($45), much more jammy with plum and blackberry.

This is the Napa Valley.  While winemakers are experiencing with different varietals and terrior, cabernet sauvignon is still king.  As we were tasting the Laura Zahtila Cabernet Sauvignon “Barlow Vineyard” 2007 ($50), a nicely structured wine aged in 40% new French oak, our hostess opened a library bottle of Laura Zahtila Cabernet Sauvignon “Beckstoffer and Georges III Vineyards” 2002 ($60) from two famed valley vineyards.  This wine expressed a very unique bouquet and an earthiness indicative of the fine wines produced from these Rutherford vineyards

Our final carefully selected culinary destination was “Farmstead”, the gourmet, comfort-food restaurant by Long Meadow Farms, a 650-acre ranch above the valley that produces grass fed beef, eggs, heirloom fruit and vegetables, olive oil, all in a sustainable, organic and responsible way.  Having supplied top American chefs with fresh products, they developed “Farmstead”, south of St. Helena to showcase their mission of healthy, responsible food that tastes great.  Dishes like “Brick-cooked chicken with savory spinach with rancho gordo beans and salsa verde” and “Salad of kalcinato kale with chile pequin, lemon and toasted

Farmstead Restaurant in St. Helena

grana cheese” are rare recipes that are not duplicated anywhere else.

Our final tasting was at Summers Estate Wines, a small boutique winery, north of Calistoga, producing 8-9,000  multi-varietal cases per year, mostly from their 28-acre estate vineyards.  My first contact with Summers wines was a glass of their “La Nude” Unoaked Chardonnay 2008, recommended as being crisp, but with softer flavors.  The Summers Estate 2008 Reserve Chardonnay ($22), dissimilar from others we had recently tasted, was aged for 10 months in French oak, infusing a rich vanilla essence with nice orchard fruit flavors.

Among other fine attributes, Calistoga apparently has good “terrior” for the rare, once abundant Charbono grape that suffered from an identity crisis in its early California years.  Story

Summers Estate Wines Charbono 2009

has it that Italian immigrants brought the grape here during the Gold Rush, thinking it was barbera.  Although widely grown throughout the Napa Valley in those early years, Summers reports that their 80-acres are the only Charbono vines left on the planet.  The Summers Estate Charbono, Villa Andrianna Vineyard 2008 ($28), aside from deep ruby color, has rich berry and spice flavors that pairs well with pasta and tomato-based sauces.

Zinfandel is a varietal that generally thrives on mature vines that have adapted, over the years, to their soil conditions.  The Summers Estate Zinfandel “Four Acre Zin” ($34) is one of those wines, made from 40-50 year old vines, creating a wine that effectively balances the sumptuous flavors of strawberry jam and the spiciness of cracked pepper.  Our last wine, the Summers Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($48) expressed multi-layered flavors and nice texture.  Unlike the Charbono and jammy Zinfandel, this wine must compete with the multitude of other Cabernets that have made the Napa valley famous.

Synonymous with renowned names like Mondavi, Stag’s Leap and Spottswode, the Napa Valley has also become, over the past 30 years, a region that can still be accessible to small production, boutique winemakers who rarely get the ratings and major press, but nonetheless are serious and talented in their craft.  These and other north valley wineries are worth exploring, using Calistoga as a home base, whether in a local B&B such as the Calistoga Wine Way Inn or the Mount View Hotelon Lincoln Avenue.  Memorable food, good

Calistoga's "The Wine Way Inn"

wine, spa treatments and other outdoor activities are at your fingertips in the north Napa Valley.

About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner. View all posts by Lyle W. Norton

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