Every morning around 10:00 the cloudy duvet that covers the Napa landscape begins to pull back and the valley awakens to herald another day in wine paradise. In the first few days of my sojourn to California’s most renowned wine region, it was hard to break the habit of my usual hectic schedule and realize that I didn’t have to rise at 6 or 7 AM to get the day started. The morning fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean overnight seems like nature’s way of saying “Relax, sleep in and enjoy life”. In fact, with the exception of a very few wineries such as Grgich Hills, that opens for tasting at 9:30, the tours and tasting bars remain inaccessible until the magic hour of 10 o’clock, so there is definitely no hurry to get going.
Today is going to be a bit of a different and exciting way to see Napa’s vineyards. My eager anticipation of the day is attenuated by the fact that my tour doesn’t start until 11:00 so the opportunity to indulge myself in a leisurely breakfast at the Carneros Inn is a welcome one.
Staying at the Carneros Inn is definitely on the “to do” list of any visit to wine country. Each room is a stand-alone cottage sitting in the middle of rolling vineyards at the junction of the southernmost point of both Napa and Sonoma. The food is fabulous and I was still ruminating over the repast of the previous evening in their gourmet restaurant known simply as “Farm”. The Moratini pears and Summer greens served with a 2007 Moscato Giallo was followed by herb-crusted rack of lamb, Japanese eggplant, chorizo-lamb jus paired with a Syrah Bell Sierra Foothills (2007). The offerings were made more flavorful by the fact that all the food is local. The 100 mile diet is alive here and the dessert of white nectarine tart served with goat cheese, honey-lime peach sauce and lime-thyme ice cream put an exclamation point on this farm to table philosophy. And the 2006 late harvest Riesling served with the sweet dish put the meal over the top. For the Prix-Fixe meal with wine the price tag was more than reasonable.
The indulgences of the night before made it simple to awaken at a more leisurely pace today. The outdoor shower refreshed my body while the slowly emerging sun buoyed my spirit and when breakfast arrived; my anticipation of the day grew. As I ate on the patio in my private courtyard, I began to feel like a kid Christmas morning that had to wait until after breakfast to open my presents. I ate hastily so I wouldn’t have to wait even though I knew today’s agenda would not move any faster just because I did.
A short drive east on highway 12 and then north on the main wine route through the Napa valley (highway 29) and I arrive in the town of Napa to board the Napa Valley Wine Train. The route to the station is well marked and takes you through the heart of the old town so you can scout some of the shops to explore after enjoying the train tour. As I pull into the parking lot, the vintage train station and rail cars don’t seem oddly out of place at all. Their unobtrusive presence simply adds to the dolce vita experience that is Napa.
Once inside the well-appointed station, there is a tutored tasting already being prepared so that we may whet our palates for what is to come. The pre-embarkment tasting is to give everyone a refresher on what to look for in the wines and have the benefit of asking the resident sommelier for some guidance on the forthcoming experience. First taste is a sparkler, next a white and finally a red; then the call for “All aboard!” At last we are ready to roll.
The interesting thing about the train is that there is a plentiful mix of tours on board at the same time. Groups are called to the tracks by tour type and I wait as the group headed to Grgich Hills enters their car first followed by those headed for Domaine Chandon and after a few other itineraries are announced it’s my turn. I am on the Vintners luncheon tour so the “Champagne Vista Dome” awaits me.
The 1915 Pullman dining cars and the 1947 Vista Dome car harkens back to the bygone era of rail travel that only the wealthiest could afford but the lavishly restored conveyances are now well within everyone’s reach. Each of the itineraries includes a fabulous three-course meal before you disembark at your chosen winery for a tour and tasting. The price is lowest for the shorter trip to Grgich Hills and there is a deluxe varietal voyage at a premium but the price fairly reflects the quality of the wine served and the food is very well prepared and presented. There is no excuse for leaving the trip hungry or thirsty.
As I am shown to my table I am already impressed with the 360 degree view of the surrounding town. My server introduces himself and immediately offers me a beverage as the antique engine gently nudges us on our way. The expected roar of an old locomotive was noticeably absent and a very pleasant surprise. No need to shout over the ambient growl of the vehicle and the sommelier told me that the engines had been retrofitted to run on compressed natural gas; a move that reduces the carbon footprint of the train while improving on fuel cost and the comfort of the passengers.
Once we begin our 36 mile round trip journey from Napa to St. Helena and back, I am greeted by the vintner who was to be our host for today’s special dinner. He explained to me that not only would we be sampling wines from Long Meadow Ranch but all of the food was from their farms as well. So as we moved up the line from Napa and closer to where the Long Meadow Ranch was situated, the 100-mile diet became closer to the 10-mile diet with every course.
As we approached Yountville the chef had prepared Tuscan Heirloom Tomatoes, shrimp, Mozzarella with organic extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar to start us off. The vegetables, olive oil and vinegar were all from Long Meadow Ranch (LMR as we came to call the property in short order). This was served with a glass of their 2008 Sauvignon Blanc. A perfect match to the mild acidity of the tomatoes and red wine vinegar and the grassiness and grapefruit flavors with a splash of minerality complimented the dish perfectly.
The pours were generous but an additional glass was always available if you so desired. However, pacing yourself in Napa is a skill best learned quickly and applied rigorously.
As each dish and wine is presented, our host wanders from table to table providing insights into the wine making techniques, terroir and facts about how the food was prepared and where it came from. This unobtrusive means of adding value to the wine and food experience was head and shoulders above the typical amplified announcements I’ve experienced at some winemakers dinners. It allowed just the right combination of delivered message and opportunity to probe a bit more deeply into some aspect of the culinary or viticultural offerings.
Passing through the heart of cabernet country between Yountville and Oakville the views are pastoral and wineries with famous names like Dominus, Opus One, Cakebread, Far Niente, and Robert Mondavi float in and out of view while the second course arrives. This time I am presented with an explosion of flavor that I decide must be served once I return home (and I did so to rave reviews). Shaved LMR Beef Carpaccio (I was already proudly using our short-hand) with Meyer lemon and extra-virgin olive oil was presented with grilled baguette, capers, finely chopped red onion and chives. The surprise that made me utter an unabashed sigh of pleasure was paring this dish with their 2005 LMR “Peter’s Vineyard” Sangiovese. This grape was not what I had expected to find in the offering but it was fabulous and there could not have been a better choice for this appetizer. The red raspberry, cranberry and spice tones of this Tuscan-inspired wine had enough acidity to hold up to the lemon – olive oil garnish and the weight was perfect for the paper-thin beef slices.
Along the next leg of the tour between Oakville and Rutherford we roll by Rubicon, St. Supery, Beaulieu Vineyard and Merryvale while the main is served. Braised Beef Short Ribs with baby carrots and turnips all from the LMR properties was presented. The medium tannins of the LMR Cabernet Sauvignon from 2004 were not overpowering for the fall-off-the-bone beef. Its ripe black fruit and cedar notes enjoined the flavors of the sauce to create an exceptional compliment to the grass-fed Highland beef. I learned that Highland beef cattle are the oldest heritage breed whose origins are found in the mountain meadows of Scotland. This makes the species best suited to a free-range grass diet and still produce a very lean but massively flavorful beef product. I had to agree.
The train eases into St. Helena and we have a natural break as the engine repositions to take us back down the valley to Napa. At this point I decide to take a tour of the other dining cars and check out the “bar” car. My curiosity getting the better of me I stuck my head into the kitchen to compliment the chef and try to get some notes for my recipe jar. It’s amazing how such fine cuisine can be prepared in such a small space as these chefs are afforded. Walking the length of the train as we pull out of our brief interlude in the north, I find that the other dining cars are well appointed and a quick check of their menus leads me to believe that their experience was equally sumptuous. When I arrived at the bar car, the sommelier was pouring from their extensive list that included 24 wines by the glass. At the very end of the train, the bar car plays host to a tiny deck outside where you can sip some vino and wave madly at the tourists and locals watching the wine train cruise past.
Once comfortably back at my table the finale was waiting to please my palate. A fresh strawberry shortcake and chocolate pâté was served with an espresso. Guess where the strawberries came from. So juicy and flavorful and the chocolate with the espresso defied the need for a “sticky” wine pairing and by now I needed to remind myself that I still had to drive away from the station when our 3-hour tour ended. When we finally slowed to a stop back at the station I reluctantly arose and bade farewell to the staff who served me so well and to our host who provided exquisite fare for the chef to transform into an epicurean delight. The wine and food combined with the old-world charm of the vintage train was an experience I’d love to relive. Perhaps next time but for now I was on my way to enjoy some methode champenoise wines from Domaine Carneros. I knew they had a great selection of their signature sparkling wines that I could enjoy on their patio while the sunset on a perfect day in Napa. There I could plan my next day’s outing…but that’s another story.