On my most recent trip to Napa, I came away with a number of fantastic stories and colorful experiences. But, no small feat, the trip also taught me a few lessons. I’ve eaten a lot, and am pretty versed in cuisine. So it’s very strange when a place or meal makes me think twice. For that reason, I’d really like to share four lessons I took away from my time in the valley, because I think they really are hard to come by.
1. Napa Valley is STUNNING
A horizontal expanse of grape vines and trellises, red earth and elaborate estates lie between the two sets of raised, mountainous crust. The topography create the ideal climate: as the sun rises from behind the Eastern slopes, it bakes the valley with enthusiastic rays. But hidden away, between the crags of earth, are pockets of cool air unbothered by the beating sun as well the impending San Pablo Bay to the south. As darkness descends upon the valley, a refreshing breeze seeps from these rocky crevices while a zephyr from bay chills the farmland and those who live in it.
This is Napa, America’s answer to the Mediterranean. Equipped with a rocky yet fertile soil, an intense midday sun, and a cool dawn, dusk, and night, the region is ideal for cultivating grapes. Since it was settled, farmers, craftsmen, and entrepreneurs have been doing just that in the valley.
But in the modern era, the region has grown beyond simply being a great wine producing region. Napa Valley has become a symbol American culinary refinement, presenting the triumvirate of great international dining: local, artisanal products, a heritage of wine-making, and the highest and deepest understanding of food and how to prepare it.
2. Smell Your Wine (and Food)
Feeling shy about swishing your wine is silly; there’s a reason conousiours swirl their wine and bury their nose in the glass. With a bit of confidence, give your glass a good flick and inhale the aroma. Immediately, you should be able gauge the character of a pour by how it smells.
But the same lesson goes for food. Smell everything, even if you feel silly. On my trip, I inhaled the earthy aroma of brie, the pungent burn of whole grain mustard, even the stale air around a wheat cracker. Sure, I may have looked strange contemplating the aroma of a strawberry or avocado; but if you’re seriously interested in experiencing every flavor, smelling your food is a must.
3) Sometimes — Fuck Yelp
For better or worse,the contemporary era, makes it all too accessible for us to let a litany of food websites, travel advice forums, and dining apps to dictate our meals and choose our vacation’s itinerary. But sometimes when you’re hopping between wineries on a rented bike and see an obscure bodega serving mediocre burritos, tamales, and quesadillas, you just need to take that chance to perhaps unearth something that mainstream media hasn’t already discovered. It’s just pure lazy to have the travel channel plan your entire trip to the valley instead of simply allowing your tastes and cravings dictate where you go and what you eat. Spontaneity rewards those who give it their trust.
4) Chefs are Writers — They Have a Voice
Writers strike at their keyboards and scrape pens across paper because they have an idea they want to articulate, a story they want to tell. It’s pretty hard to begin applying the same logic to chefs and their cooking. What does it mean for a dish to be succienent? And when can we say a chef was articulate?
While in Napa, I had the utmost pleasure of eating at Thomas Keller’s casual restaurant, “ad hoc”. Keller built his reputation as the head chef of the French Laundry, America’s most prestigious kitchen. Today, many consider Keller as the the father of modern American cuisine and our country’s most famous chef.
Keller’s style involves taking ingredients harvested hours before service and arranging them in ways that highlight the ingredients over the preparation. The style has been hashed, and re-hashed by chefs like Tom Colicchio, Jonathan Waxman, and Dan Barber to name a few. But the idea that the ingredients are worth highlighting over the chef’s preparation forms the ground for New American cuisine.
I’ve eaten food that purports to advocate for this tenant, but never have I eaten a more articulate dish of this style. At ad hoc, the message was terse: a thick bone in ribeye, cooked medium, served with cherry tomatoes, shishito peppers, and sweet summer corn. The epitome of simplicity, the dish clearly flattered the farmers, the land, and the produce over the men who grilled my steak and cut my corn. It seems strange to say, but Keller’s steak was coherent; and Keller extremely eloquent.
Is it unusual for a small valley to drive such intense reflection on food, wine, the role of chef, and the tale of the land? Once you go to Napa, you’ll understand. With two tender mountain ranges nurturing a rich sunken earth home to some of the best restaurants and wine producing institutions in the world, the answer is undoubtedly no.