Our last trip seems like a lifetime ago, as it was well before anyone had heard of COVID-19 and just after the devastating Napa earthquake. Back in that lifetime, we frequented wine country at least every two to three years and spent our days popping into sequential wineries off either the Silverado Trail or the main highway. Most wineries didn’t require appointments, so you simply scheduled a lunch or dinner and visited as many wineries as possible between your daily meals.
The New Wine Country
Since our last pre-COVID visits, most wine tasting rooms now require appointments. Some advertise walk-ins, but about 75 percent state on their Websites that appointments are required. The big difference is that most tasting rooms in Healdsburg, Calif. simply require an appointment, whereas most tasting rooms in Napa require both an appointment and pre-payment, which often isn’t refundable. However, once we arrived at both stops, it became apparent that the appointment requirement was likely a government issued mandate implemented right after businesses reopened once the vaccines became available, and that most tasting rooms took walk-ins as available. In fact, in many instances, we were the only guests in the tasting room.
Well before arriving in Healdsburg, we did extensive Web searches for our itinerary. And one of the “must do” eateries was Journeyman Meat Company, a butcher shop that makes their own charcuterie, serves lunch and dinner in their miniscule shop as well as hosts limited wine tastings. What piqued our interest was the butcher’s cut steak, five ounces of butcher-selected beef for $25 or add another $15 to choose your own cut, and it just happened that the butcher’s cut the day we visited was filet mignon! SOLD! The pizza was no slouch either, with the perfectly charred, thin crust topped with a runny egg yolk. We returned to the 50th with several chubs of their salami.
Marine Layer Wines
Located right next to The Creamery alongside the central square, Marine Layer Wines specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It has a tasting room that looks more like a furniture showroom than a tasting bar. For our tasting, I also opted for the $25 mezze platter from Little Saint, whose sister establishment — SingleThread — charges $425 per person. We likely would have purchased at least a six-pack, but limited our purchase to just three bottles as they don’t ship their wines to the 50th, nor are they sold in retail wine shops. They do, however, offer a six or 12 bottle wine club that ships to California residents three times a year for just a $25 shipping fee.
However, I only brought our eight bottle wine carrier.
Normally, I wouldn’t have scheduled any tastings on the day we went from Healdsburg to Napa since it’s a little over an hour drive, but after communicating with the owner, he agreed to open GrapeSeed an hour earlier than usual so we could arrive in Napa without skipping lunch. We had a great tasting at GrapeSeed! The tasting room sits adjacent to an art gallery reminiscent of The Hess Collection winery atop Mount Veeder and the tasting room looks more like an outdoor hideaway complete with a turntable — on which tasters are encouraged to spin their own tunes — and speakers. They produce the traditional full bodied Napa reds, though also specialize in Italian grape varietals like Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Vermentino, which we purchased to ship back to the 50th.
Little did we know, our wine purchase was discounted by 50 percent. I assume it was a Black Friday special.
Dry Creek Kitchen
Because our trip took place over Thanksgiving, I was a little worried about finding a meal on the holiday, as the Healdsburg Inn only provides breakfast, and I assumed it would be difficult finding sustenance the rest of the day with most businesses closed. I originally proposed purchasing take-out from the Oakville Grocery to Ms. S the day before, so we could have a little Thanksgiving “picnic” in our room, but thankfully Dry Creek Kitchen was serving a Thanksgiving meal on the holiday. We’ve sampled several meals from Chef Charlie Palmer’s multiple restaurant empire and they never disappoint. We enjoyed tender turkey breast roulade and shredded dark meat and a slightly smoked pork chop with the best interpretation of green bean casserole.
Gamling and McDuck
If you visit Gamling and McDuck’s Website, they don’t seem to be a “serious” winery, as their wines have humorous, proprietary names and the tasting room décor is offbeat at the very least with a large Georges Seurat painting of “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” behind the tasting bar. Upon closer inspection, you notice their mascot kitty added to the painting and one of the subjects holding a bottle of their wine. But as our host stated, “we’re serious about wine making but not serious about running the business.”
Their Loire Valley grape varietals of Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc were delicious. We also shipped a six-pack back to the 50th, which included several bottles of their sparkling Cabernet Franc, the first time I sampled a sparkling version (it was delicious).
We performed double duty at Compline, as we sampled wines at the tasting room then subsequently adjourned to the restaurant, which is located a stone’s throw away. Compline is not a winery, but rather has a tasting room/wine bar upfront offering several tasting samplers from multiple wineries and a chilled retail wine store in the back, though envision Neiman Marcus doing the same — very bourgeois!
The restaurant, while not as bourgeois and with a small menu, offered some of the best food during our trip. Their Duck Fat Fries were the best rendition I’ve ever sampled! Duck fat fries often taste like they were simply cooked in vegetable oil and sometimes aren’t even properly crisped, but Compline’s version was very crisp throughout the whole meal and tasted like they were cooked in duck fat. My Porchetta was also one of the top three versions I’ve sampled, with perfectly crisp cracklins on the outside, but not totally rendered connective tissue so that the inner skin stuck to your teeth only as perfectly rendered collagen does.
I only scheduled a tasting at Hestan, since we already had lunch scheduled at Bouchon Bistro and wanted to “kill” time before lunch. I was previously on the Hestan e-mail list so I tasted their wines years ago. Since then, Hestan added to their wine line-up some wines named after their sons — previously they only made Hestan, their main wine and Stephanie, their second wine back during my e-mail list days. Incidentally, Hestan is also named after the founders HElen and STANley Cheng, who made their fortune with the Circulon and Anolon cookware and have since added Ruffoni and their own Hestan cookware.
While the wines were excellent (as I remember and Ms. S mailed a six-pack back to the 50th), because it was Cyber Monday, they offered 20 percent off their complete Hestan cookware line (the tasting room also functions as a showroom for their cookware) which also included free shipping including the 50th, so we “had” to purchase a saucepan from their titanium coated, NanoBond line.
We actually visited many more tasting rooms and restaurants during our trip but I simply included some of the highlights. Hog Island Oyster Co still serves some of the best raw bivalves and Bouchon Bistro still serves some of the best French bistro fair. Accommodations at both the Healdsburg Inn and Bluebird Inn were great (though Bluebird is no longer part of the Four Sisters Inns). The Napa Distillery also has a great operation in their ArBARetum bar serving great cocktails (we had to cancel dinner reservations that evening as we enjoyed their cocktails a little too much). And as usual, there wasn’t enough time to imbibe and eat as we would have wanted.
No tasting at Vintner’s Collective or The Wine Thief. No sampling of cocktails at The Gin Bar at Zuzu or Duke’s Spirited Cocktails. And no meal at Bistro Jeanty, Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin BBQ or Barndiva… but I guess that will have to wait for a subsequent trip…
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a recently retired clinical pharmacist and a budding chef/ recipe developer/wine taster. He writes from Kane’ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.