Kurobuta Pork Chop (and Three Other Courses) @ Auberge du Soleil, Rutherford

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Third Course: Kurobuta pork chop with apples, kale, whole-grain mustard spaetzle, cipollini onion, and apple cider sauce. Kurobuta is Japanese for Berkshire.

Here in the Napa Valley (and I believe in other parts of the country as well), January is Restaurant Month. There’s quite a few deals being offered throughout the area, but the best, by far, is the two-course lunch at Auberge du Soleil. This year, lunch at Auberge in January will cost you $20.14 — just a penny more than last year.

I will admit — at the risk of over-populating California — that today was another 70-degree day, not a cloud in the sky, with a slight breeze. Sorry if you’ve been trying to catch a flight out of New York; I’ve been trying to figure out whether or not to drop the top on my convertible (full disclosure: I don’t own a [… read more …]

Wine Tasting Notes, 2013: St. Supery, Napa

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The first bottle of Napa wine that I ever purchased was St. Supery’s Estate Moscato. Of course, that was quite a long time ago. Life was simple then, and my tastes were simple, too. To paraphrase Dr. Steve Brule, the St. Supery Moscato tasted like fruit (perfectly-ripened apricots, as I recall) and that was enough for me. Although my horizons have broadened over the years, I still return to the St. Supery Moscato because it offers surprising versality. In a formal setting, this wine can be paired alongside aged cheeses (my favorite pairings include San Joaquin Gold, any Dry Jack, and cave-aged Gruyere), or it can pair alongside any salad that features stone fruit. On the casual side, St. Supery Moscato is also an ideal wine for picnics and barbecues: It’s low in alcohol, it’s relatively inexpensive, and it’s refreshing when served at ice-cold temperatures. If you end up [… read more …]

Eating Lunch Up Valley: Napa’s Best Taco Options

Al Pastor Tacos @ La Luna Market, Rutherford.

When I was working as a wine educator in Rutherford and Oakville, quick lunch options were unusually scarce. Aside from an occasional Dean & DeLuca sandwich, Mexican food was the only feasible option up valley — not that I ever complained all that much. Being a native of California, Mexican food will always be a staple for me, and the tacos on this page represent literally hundreds of past lunches, especially the tacos al pastor at La Luna Market, pictured above. Conservatively, I’ve eaten over one thousand tacos at La Luna (at an average of about eight tacos per week for over three years, you do the math). Of course, with that many visits to one taqueria, I’ve sampled La Luna’s entire menu several times over, but at this point, I’ve distilled my go-to selections down to just two choices: [… read more …]

Tasting Notes, 2011: Quintessa Winery, Rutherford, Napa Valley

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Quintessa features a unique and creative set-up for wine-making: The grapes are sorted and destemmed at roof level, then gravity-fed into the winery via the skylights. The custom-made conduit, pictured above, funnels the grapes from the skylights into the fermentation tanks below (click the photo for higher resolution).

I scheduled a wine-tasting session at Quintessa last week, and if there’s one thing that I appreciate about Quintessa’s format, it’s the rare opportunity to taste a three-year vertical of premium Napa Cabernet. At the moment, Quintessa is pouring its 2005, 2006 and 2007 vintages, and I carefully evaluated all three wines side-by-side. My conclusion: The 2007 Quintessa offers lush red fruit on the palate, with elements of cherry and ripe raspberry (extremely approachable for a current release); the 2006 Quintessa remains the most emblematic of the Rutherford appellation, with its long, dry, dusty finish; and the 2005 Quintessa, despite [… read more …]

Banh Mi Monday @ Auberge du Soleil, Napa Valley

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The banh mi sandwich @ Auberge du Soleil, with a yellow and green bean salad (not pictured: Auberge’s unrivaled patio view).

Back when I first moved to the Napa Valley, I took a job as a line cook at Auberge du Soleil, and despite two years of chef school and several years of prior professional experience, Auberge proved to be an education unto itself. It not only redefined my standards, but it also redefined stress and adrenaline. These elements are inseparable, especially with Michelin-star cooking, and I reserve so much respect and admiration for the line cooks who can list two- and three-Michelin star restaurants on their resumes. The folks who ascend to those kitchens are far more passionate and dedicated than I ever was (and they possess far more culinary insight than any food writer, with very few exceptions).

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Having left the [… read more …]

The Napa Valley’s Best Pizza: My Top 12

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Pizzas on Parade (clockwise, from upper left): Oenotri, Solbar, Redd, Pizzeria Azzurro, Auberge du Soleil, Uva, Cantinara Piero, Ca’ Momi, Boon Fly Cafe, Pizzeria Tra Vigne, Papa Joe’s, Bistro Don Giovanni.

If there’s one food that can achieve total global supremacy, pizza seems like the natural front-runner. You don’t ever have to sell anybody on pizza. It just seems to endear itself to everybody, like a wealthy uncle, or a gregarious bartender. Although pizza has only become popular here in America since World War II, different schools of thought regarding pizza have already emerged: Individual preferences towards pizza remain highly subjective, and plenty of effort has already been spent hashing out the pizza-related differences between Chicago, New York, and the rest of the country. However, I chose not to acknowledge any of those debates concerning thin crusts or deep dishes. For this segment, I set out to answer [… read more …]

Cab Tasting Notes: My Favorite Napa Valley Cabernets for $50 or Less

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Having lived in the Napa Valley since 2005, and having worked in kitchens and wineries during that time, I’ve developed a pretty good palate for the local juice. As I’ve spent the years combing the Napa Valley for great wines, over the past few years, I decided to pay special attention to the Cabernets that were priced at $50 or less, hoping to one day compile a list of favorites. I submit the following 10 wines, listed in my order of general preference. Of course, prices are subject to change over time, but hopefully not by much.

• Martin Estate Bacchanal Cabernet ($48) : One of the great unsung wines in the Napa Valley, I have already placed Bacchanal into a blind tasting of Oakville and Rutherford Cabs, pitting it against the 2006 Groth ($58), 2005 Rubicon ($175), 2006 Pedemonte ($39), 2006 Nickel & Nickel John C. Sullenger ($90), [… read more …]

Tasting notes: Pedemonte Cellars, Rutherford

With everything in the Napa Valley finally slowing down to a winter’s pace, I caught up with Chris Pedemonte this morning to taste a couple upcoming releases of Pedemonte Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. A relative newcomer compared to many of its neighbors in Rutherford, Pedemonte Cellars was founded with the 2004 vintage, and has already produced a string of noteworthy Rutherford Cabs. With an annual production that averages only about 300 cases, Pedemonte offers truly hand-crafted wines at an artisanal, almost Old-World scale.  Although the wines from Pedemonte Cellars may a bit difficult to locate in most markets, they can be found at several of the Bay Area’s top restaurants, and they are also available online.

In general, Pedemonte Cabernet represents a terrific expression of the Rutherford AVA, exhibiting the appellation’s trademark “dust” alongside plush, ripe fruit on the palate. Pedemonte cherry-picks his Cabernet grapes from Round Pond’s 350-acre Rutherford [… read more …]

Tasting Notes, 2009: Elizabeth Spencer Wines

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Elizabeth Spencer has been one of my favorite wineries for quite some time now, although I have never actually mentioned that fact here. Frankly, I’m not sure why I’ve never said anything before. But like I have said, the Thirsty Reader is by no means comprehensive: if I happen to discover something that strikes me as noteworthy, then I’ll usually try to mention it here, if I have the time. Sometimes I get sidetracked, or I get lazy. Sometimes, I’ll postpone an entry if I don’t feel like I ever have the time or the energy to do an adequate job.

During this past year, I had probably placed Elizabeth Spencer on the back-burner for any or all of those reasons. However, with their open-house event freshly on my mind tonight, I figured that I should at least mention Elizabeth Spencer, whether I’ve found my muse or not. Truth [… read more …]

Tasting Notes, 2009: Grgich Hills, Heitz Cellars, Duckhorn Vineyards

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I realize that Memorial Day is all about remembering those who served our country, but since I also had the day to go wine tasting, I decided it would be somewhat appropriate to visit a few of the pioneering wineries here in the Napa Valley, in order to sample the current releases from such stalwarts as Grgich Hills, Heitz Cellars and Duckhorn Wine Company (I had Chateau Montelena on my itinerary as well, but they were closed for the holiday).

Since I have lived here in the Napa Valley, I have visited each of these three wineries countless times (not counting the year when I actually worked over at Grgich Hills). As far as I’m concerned, all three of these wineries are good, and for anyone who doesn’t have any specific wine-tasting agenda plotted out (like me, on Memorial Day), then these places are some of the best wineries [… read more …]