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Detours off Britta Blvd

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3 days in Napa Valley
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My work team has been so busy we have not done a nice offsite since August 2005 when we went overnight to the Sonoma Mission Inn, which was very nice & very fun. I saw a Rachel Ray Tasty Travels recently that highlighted the two Sonoma restaurants where we ate! After rescheduling many times since March, they finally could get our now almost 20 strong entire group to come out from Wednesday through Friday last week with only one person in Colorado unable to join us. Many came from the East Coast, one from London & one from Hong Kong, so for everyone to be there was quite a feat. Thursday was all day presentations, mostly very interesting since we had guest speakers instead of just ourselves, but the rest was good food, good wine, and good times. I did come back with 4 bottles of wine and promptly refrigerated them since my house was 94F INSIDE on Friday evening...ugh!



Wednesday lunch at Bistro Don Giovanni and wine tasting at Miner, Peju & Alpha Omega

I had been assigned to carpool with two guys from out of town who were stuck in morning meetings when we were all supposed to leave, so my former boss offered for me to ride with them. Lucky me since as we made decent time to Napa, about an hour before our wine tour bus was to leave, they started talking about their favorite Napa restaurant. The phone rings and it's the big boss asking if we wanted to lunch with them at the very same place! Bistro Don Giovanni was beautiful, with even a resident tabby enjoying the sun on the steps on the patio dining area. I had a pineapple martini with the big boss, and since I'd had no breakfast, I ate my whole personal fig, carmelized onion, balsamic vinegar & gorgonzola pizza. Hey, it was not only absolutely delicious, but I also needed a full stomach for all the wine tasting that afternoon! ;)

We had a bus leaving the Napa Valley Lodge at 12:30 for a 3-winery tour, but a few people were late, so we left more like 12:45, and let the real stragglers meet us at the winery. Our first stop was Miner Family Winery, as beautiful as everywhere in Napa of course. As we were led through the tanks, showing how they rent out their tanks to other wineries since they have extra production capacity, our guide asked if anyone knew what "racking" meant, and thinking I wouldn't be the only one in this wine-savvy group I raised my hand...and was the only one! He said my "taking the liquid off the dead yeast" was the perfect answer...heh! Miner built their winery early enough they were still allowed to dig into the hillside for wine cellar storage for all their barrels. Very impressive they have no energy costs for keeping those caves 63F and constant humidity, but they do have lighting. Everyone wants to dig into the hills now but they're being strict so newer wineries aren't allowed. Miner has a couple cave tasting rooms, and ours had a nice medieval-style wooden banquet table that our large group fit around, and 6 wines each in their own special shaped glass were pre-poured for each of us before we arrived. I liked the cheapest ($20 Viognier) & most expensive ($70 The Oracle red blend), but since I knew we'd visit plenty more wineries, I didn't buy anything.

Next stop was Peju, with unsurprisingly gorgeous grounds, Old World castle-like structures, and a fabulous giant stained-glass window inside, setting off the private tasting room. I bought a tasty French Colombard for $16, which is sweeter like Riesling but not too cloying, at least in my opinion. No winery tour here, just the tasting, but I've gone away from most reds in recent years and started to favor whites, just not chardonnays or dry whites. There was a fruity rose blend that might as well have been Arbor Mist or sangria, very tasty like juice when nice & cold, but not cheap enough to buy! ;)

Our last stop, Alpha Omega, was the "wild card" on our tour, since none of our group had been there and it was fairly new. Their tasting room was still under construction so we tasted around the tanks. Since it was chardonnays and reds I wasn't very fond of, I didn't buy anything there. When they proudly said how they're making wine like the monks did, with only natural yeast on the grapes, I asked them if they have problems with consistent results from batch to batch, and gave my natural yeast cider being such variable results as an example. I think that plus my racking comment earlier had some of my team wondering about me! haha...Little did I know I would end up regretting never taking advantage of the world-renowned fermentation science department at UCDavis! ;)



Wine cave tasting at Miner Family Winery, Napa Valley, California



Wednesday dinner at Tra Vigne

We got back to our hotel with enough time to either hang out at the pool, change or nap. Since I was already in my halter dress I planned to wear for dinner, I took the chance to rest my eyes, which was very helpful to last the evening. I've been in this group long enough to know you must pace yourself, since you are expected to be bright-eyed & bushy-tailed for the meetings no matter how much fun you had the night before! We got back on the bus for Tra Vigne for appetizers & wine then dinner at 4 tables in their beautiful Tuscan courtyard. Thank goodness I have developed a taste in the past year for Sauvignon Blanc since it's usually that or Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, and I still haven't tasted a cab I actually like. :P

Tra Vigne was great food and the weather was spectacular for outside dining under their lighted trees. They have a hilarious fountain sculpture that looks like someone left a table mess with a bottle of wine spilling onto the ground, so of course I had to capture it for posterity. I had a tasty salad, then asparagus risotto that had me almost bursting. I honestly don't remember what dessert was, but I'm sure it was tasty. Except two people who left on the first bus, the rest of us stayed for awhile chatting and enjoying wine until going back around 11pm or so. I heard the grand total was $3195 for all 20 of us - wow! Of course when we got back to the hotel the pool was officially closed, with an electronic lock on the gate, so we had to climb over gates & walls to get to the hot tub. No one ever came to kick us out, and some were feeling their wine more than others to the point of actually falling, so the climb back out had some minor injuries. ;) Considering I was expecting a much later night, getting back to my room at 12:30 I figured the next day would be easy since I'd have plenty of sleep...but the heat wave hadn't hit yet...



Dinner in the Tuscan courtyard at Tra Vigne, Napa Valley, California




Thursday all-day meetings, then dinner at Redd, plus local hangout Panchas

Thursday we had our all day meetings at the Napa Valley Lodge poolhouse, with margaritas and fajitas for lunch buffet. I'm sure the food coma enhanced by margaritas didn't help, and the 1am bedtime wasn't very late considering that was a tame night compared to most trips with this group, but the room was so warm in the afternoon, I was chewing ice to stay awake! We got our choice of 4 varieties of Peju so I chose the sauvignon blanc, had a little break after the meetings, then some drove while I and others walked down the street about 15 minutes to our dinner at Redd, a swanky place that unfortunately didn't have a private room, and we can be a loud group. The potato & leek soup was great, I ate the good stuff out of my linguini & left a lot of pasta behind since I was already getting stuffed, but my bite of the tritip I tasted had me wishing I had ordered that even though I'm not a big beef eater. The peanut butter & chocolate dessert was to die for, with the lightness in the peanut butter "bar" amazing when I would expect the peanut butter to keep it heavy to have that much flavor remain. As a special treat our big boss ordered Dolce dessert wine for everyone, so the two at my table who tasted & didn't like it offered me theirs. Yum! After dinner we went to Panchas, which is a total dive bar across the street from our hotel where all the cooks & wait staff hang out after the restaurants close. It was really smoky inside, but I was roped into a pool game as partner to my new boss. I warned him I was terrible, and all the easy shots I blew, and the one shot I made had all their eyebrows up because it was angled, so supposedly more difficult I guess. He ended up scratching on the 8-ball anyway so at least it wasn't all my fault we lost! ;) Our group found a couple benches out back by a tomato & pepper garden and stayed out there with various people fetching rounds of drinks from inside until they closed down at 2am. Some interesting people there for sure, but a fun time, and a relatively early night again.



Playing pool at Panchas, Yountville, Napa Valley, California




Friday cooking class at Cakebread Cellars

Our special activity on Friday was a cooking class, tour & wine tasting at Cakebread Cellars, which was a lot of fun even in the roasting heat of the day. Our class was led by Brian the culinary director, and he was kind of abrupt and stiff when he started, until he heard we went to Panchas so some people were still hungover. He was honestly shocked that a bunch of tourists on a company trip would go to Panchas! haha... They had coordinated a menu of 4 appetizers, salad, main course & dessert for us to make, paired with certain wines of course, so it was a very busy kitchen prepping everything. Since my partner had never cooked anything before, I let him do the fun chopping & things while I did the drudgery of washing lettuce since we were salad duty. After about an hour of prepping, we were told they'd bring us back to finish our dishes after the winery tour, so we went on the tour still in our aprons, including seeing some sauvignon blanc grapes on the vine and a beautiful garden with blooming artichokes, asparagus "trees" before the plants are old enough to harvest the new growth as spears, and the largest sunflower bush I have ever seen. When we got back, it seemed we weren't all required to come back on duty, since the crabcakes were finished and SO tasty, the empanadas were coming out next, the fried green tomatoes after that, and the only ones who finished their own dish were the grilled ahi tuna skewers. All very tasty, especially in the shade from the 100+F heat with nice chilled sauvingnon blanc to wash everything down. All the time the appetizers kept coming out I kept asking the servers, "Do you know when the salad team needs to come back on duty?" and they didn't know. When the last appetizer was done, I dragged my partner with me into the kitchen to ask if we were needed. They said they would have someone come gets us. After the last bites of appetizers were gone, one of the servers finally said "ready for the salad team" so we went in to sear our sea scallops. The ktichen staff had the rest of the salads already assembled with the boiled fresh white corn kernels, fresh cherry tomatoes, cut endive & greens we had prepped earlier, the scallops were seasoned with salt & pepper on cooking sheets, and they had a giant non-stick skillet for each of us already roaring hot over the flaming cooktop. Just a drizzle of olive oil, then we placed our scallops no closer than 1" apart otherwise they would steam each other instead of getting a nice carmelized sear. We were also warned that supermarket scallops would often have too much liquid in them so wouldn't sear. While I was cooking I asked would you drain them or dry them somehow, but maybe he didn't answer because I was supposed to avoid supermarket scallops in the first place? ;) We kept checking progress with our tongs until we saw a nice crust forming, then turned them over. Once the other side was almost done, we added the gremolata we had prepped earlier of finely chopped parsley, garlic & lemon zest and tossed to coat. The pan was so huge I couldn't toss it using one hand! We had so many scallops it took two pans each with them washing the skillets between, then heating up again. Since the rest of our group was now waiting around the dining table in the next room, a couple people came in to check on us, joking "what's taking so long?" Chef Brian said "They INSISTED on doing it themselves and practically kicked us out of the kitchen!" haha... Guess I should have taken all the hints earlier, but I didn't want to shirk my duty & be a lazy tourist, and I wanted to learn since searing the scallops was something I hadn't done before! We tossed the scallops into the mixed salad with our hands, as Brian drizzled olive oil, then he added a good hand of salt & pepper after tasting, then we plated with our hands scooping salad onto plates as fast as possible. Talk about a mess! The servers were cleaning the plate edges behind us, and a few people got a ton of scallops, since they told us 3 scallops per plate so we were being careful, then ended up with a bunch of scallops at the end but the servers had already started taking them to the table. I didn't think of taking a photo with our completed dish until after we were all done eating, but that was a mighty tasty salad, and the favorite dish of many around the table! I was even impressed with the first chardonnay of the trip that I liked that was paired with our salad. For the main course we had tritip over polenta paired with merlot, which meant for some they had had tritip three days in a row, then a crushed rose petal & sparkling wine sorbet with cardamom shortbread. We were all so full I couldn't finish my tritip but I was able to squeeze in the sorbet. We got to keep our aprons & the recipe booklets, and I think I will be trying the crabcakes at some point, just not for my usual giant party crowds, since knowing how much effort it was to make for only 20 people, it would probably not be worth it trying to feed upwards of 50 or so!



Making green salad with seared sea scallops in the cooking class at Cakebread Cellars, Napa Valley, California



After the class others left for home, but my carpool, a couple others & the big boss went down the road to their favorite winery St Supery, and since they're club members there, we got free tasting upstairs. Good for their business since with the 40% off the sauvignon blanc & moscato, I think everyone left with at least 2 bottles or more! I liked the moscato and it was clear enough on the palate that I thought my friends who are not fond of syrupy dessert wines might enjoy it too. We finally got on the road back to the office about 4:30, and even with traffic we made decent time to get to Foster City by 6:25pm. The worst was the rental car air conditioning only working sporadically in the 104F heat as we left Napa!

(Of course you'll notice there are very few photos with me in them because I was photographer. Other people were taking photos & getting group shots, but I haven't seen those yet, so if any are good enough I'll edit later. The complete collection of my photos are in their own Gallery album here if you'd like to see.)

(EDIT 6/24: a few co-worker photos have been added to the end of my Gallery album if you want to see me in some photos.)

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Mmm...Napa. One of the best chardonnays I've ever had was from Peju. We'll have to go back for a tour - they have a nice little art gallery on the premises. Tra Vigne is outstanding, too. Are you going to work a wine fridge into the new kitchen?

- fishgirl

Well I have recently acquired an 11-bottle wine cooler cabinet by redeeming some credit card bonus points which has been positioned out in the patio bar, so I think that'll be sufficient wine storage for me for now. I now think the kitchen is still too much in design flux so my mental plan is get my crap together to try to get it started immediately after Mardi Gras 2009... I still need to pick your brain more too! :)

mmm ... i went to cakebread cellars when i did a wine tour of napa 4 years ago. it was delish!

sounds like a wonderful offsite!

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