Thursday, 1 September 2011

Yountville Wineries

Napa is beautiful. We meant to go last year as part of our great USA food honeymoon tour, but we couldn't afford the time that it would take to really enjoy this part of the world. Wine tasting in the states is a real pleasure.
 The wineries we went to were all customer friendly and most had impressive tasting rooms. So, there wasn't much mystique behind them and you never felt like you were discovering a hidden gem, but I'm on holiday and I want things to be as easy as possible. I also recognise that a lot of people will baulk at the idea of a paying $10-20 dollars for a tasting, but the pleasure we gained from talking to these wine makers for 30 minutes and tasting wines we could only taste in that region is worth the price in my opinion. Two for one offers, and shared tastings make the price even easier to handle. Most of the time the tasting fee was waived when we bought a bottle anyway. 

Walking along roads between wineries you are surrounded by grapes and views of grape covered hills

It's a good idea to keep an eye on the path in front of you when walking in California

Here are some of our favourite vineyards in and around Yountville
Goosecross, for their Chenin Blanc and our new friend Jose, the Richard Corrigan lookalike

Steltzner for their lovely pinot and the Sonoma info/gossip! 

Girard Winery for their world class single vineyard cabernet sauvignons.

Robert Sinskey for brilliant pinots, their casual elegance, their friendly and informed knowledge

Other worthy mentions go to Hill Family

A special mention should go to Hope and Grace wines for their refreshing Riesling and their huge floppy tasting room dog.

We had a very relaxing time in Yountville. The emphasis on wine is infectious but be warned, these canny wineries know how to make you feel like you are getting a bargain even though you are shelling  out a lot more money for a bottle that you might back home. In a lot of cases this is price is justified, with very small productions of excellent quality, single vineyard bottles, which you simply cannot outside the state let alone in the UK. 

After a few days in Napa we travelled to the quite different Sonoma. More on that to come.

Yountville Keller Quadrilogy

Hidden sixty miles north of San Francisco deep in the beautiful Napa valley, Yountville is a strange place, barely a town, that seems like it only exists because of a few top class wineries and the restaurants of the chef, Thomas Keller.  

It draws food and wine lovers from afar with the promise of good wine, great food and  if they are very lucky a sniff of a reservation at Keller's flagship The French Laundry
We had more than a sniff. We had waited on hold on the booking line with baited breath, we had confirmed exactly 72 hours before we drove through the California countryside to this picturesque toytown.  The day we arrived we had a leisurely wander through the extensive French Laundry gardens where all of the produce for the restaurants is grown.

But it wasn't time to eat there yet.  The first meal was at Ad Hoc - a restaurant that isn't really supposed to exist.

Ad Hoc serves a fixed menu which changes daily. You only find out what you are going to eat when you turn up (or if you sneakily check online like I did). A bright and bustling room, with chalkboard menus and casually dressed servers leads to a very relaxed atmosphere where you can kick back and enjoy the robust food at your own pace. 

The menu looked great - No sign of the famous Ad Hoc fried chicken but this was more than made up for with the smoked beef short ribs. We opted not to have the additional fish and chips course which turned out to be a wise choice. Keller's legendary obsession with finesse is left at the door here with big, homely style cooking and this set menu without the extra course was plenty for us.   
I'm sorry to say that the photos we took of this and the other meals are of poor quality and I have opted to leave them out. But I can tell you that Ad Hoc left a lasting impression. Finesse might not be the name of the game here but quality certainly is. The salad was a refreshing selection of the best the gardens had to offer. The single short rib, smoked in the back garden, was huge, meaty and deliciously infused with the hickory smoke. Plenty of meat for the two of us and served with a sweet and crunchy maque choux, a first for me. 
The cheddar cheese was good, one of the best cheeses we had whilst in the USA, but even though matured for fives years it still didn't seem to have the depth of flavour of a Somerset farmhouse cheddar.
The monkey bread for dessert was wonderful. Tearing off the sticky, brioche-like lumps of pudding finished us off for the evening. 

I was delighted to see Blue Apron Ale on the beer list - a beer made by Brooklyn Brewery exclusively for the Keller Group. Always a sucker for an exclusive beer I had to have it. Named after the uniform worn by the cooks before service starts, it's a Belgian strong ale weighing in at 7.2% and brewed by head brewer Garret Oliver specifically to go with food. It has a lively carbonation and a nose reminiscent of the best Belgian ales of this type. It is a rich beer with notes of chocolate, liquorice and even a little pipe tobacco balanced with dried fruit, plums and caramel. I had the whole 750mL bottle to myself while Claire had the well matched wine pairing.
We had a very entertaining time time at Ad Hoc and for those seeking a more accessible Keller experience this charming restaurant is a must. 

The following evenings meal was at Bouchon.

I won't lie, we had done a fair bit of wine tasting this day and although I remember the meal being good I am a little hazy on the details. 
All of the bread served at the Keller restaurants is made at the Bouchon Bakery and very nice it is too. 

And what was this on the beer menu? It's only another exclusive beer, this time brewed by one of my favourite US breweries, Russian River. A superb example of a pilsner, refreshing and spicy, with Russian River's typical generosity with hops. I should have had a pint.
We shared a selection of local charcuterie , followed by Veal with grilled lettuce for me and steak frites for she. A little behind trend, I have decided that grilled lettuce is the future so I asked for an extra portion. Service was a little slow; I received my pilsner with my starter and the extra lettuce after I had finished my main/entree. But in my post wine-tasting fuzz I can't remember caring that much. 


As is so often the way in the states, the generosity of the portions left us with scant room for dessert. Even so we shared this, which I think was a brownie type dessert with a fresh milk ice cream on top. It's times like this that I wish I took notes. A satisfying meal but not up to the standard of the meals we had in Bouchon Las Vegas last year

Right next door to Bouchon Bistro is Bouchon Bakery. We stopped in there a few times for breakfast and lunch. In keeping with its surroundings it is an expensive but high quality establishment. Luckily for the locals there is a far more reasonable deli attached to the local market, but if you want a patisserie treat or a quality cup of coffee then you can treat yourself here.

It's like being in Bordeaux!

The Main Event : The French Laundry
We were very careful the day we went to the French laundry. We knew we had a marathon event that evening so we avoided too much midday wine and we denied ourselves the complementary cookies and cheese at our hotel. 

It was time for Mr Keller to bring on the finesse.
Nine courses with extras. From the classic salmon cornets to the prettiest chocolates, the whole thing is a leisurely blur of refined excess. The superb waiting staff brought us Caviar and Oysters, Lobster, sous vide beef with a poached quails egg. All extravagance was there for a reason and of the highest quality, but how much can one man take? Even though it was a perfectly paced meal it still forced me to take a breather in the beautiful candlelit garden to cool off. Damn their jacket only policy.
The only disappointment for me was the composed cheese course. A deep fried tomme de savoie which tasted more like something from a Czech fast food cart. In my opinion, if a cheese is worth importing from France to the best restaurant in California then you bloody well don't deep fry it! 
Composed cheese courses, pah!  

These chocolates were a work of art. Before I ate them. 

One last mention should go to the caramelised macadamias. Our lovely waiter brought us two more bags of these to take away after I he saw me popping them like pills. Indeed, these are so addictive that they have been renamed Crackadamias. A name I will be submitting to Chef Keller for him to use on his menu if he wishes. Finesse!