By Jenny Peters
There’s no better time to take a road trip from Los Angeles to the Napa Valley than in November, just in time for the annual Flavor! Napa Valley extravaganza – organizers call it “a celebration of food, wine, fun” and they are not kidding.
The leaves are changing and there’s a crisp coolness in the air as thousands of people from all over the U.S. and beyond descend on Napa to experience everything that America’s premiere wine valley has to offer. Flavor! Napa Valley has been wowing visitors for the last four years, which is, astonishingly, the short time that Napa has presented the world with their very own food and wine festival.
But despite being only a few years old, Flavor! Napa Valley, which is presented by Visit Napa Valley, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone (CIA) and Napa Valley Vintners and hosted by Silverado Resort and Spa and Dolce Hotels, sure knows how to put on a rolling party. From the Wednesday evening opening-night celebration known as First Taste Napa to the Sunday afternoon closing event Terroir to Table: A Sustainable Brunch, Flavor! offered up 30 different delectable events over the course of five days (from November 19-23 in 2014).
Famed graduates of the CIA and/or chefs who have restaurants in the Napa Valley led the festivities; only those top tocques meeting one or both or those criteria are invited to participate. And only Napa Valley wines are poured at all the events, ranging from sparkling bubbly to creamy whites, luscious reds and sublime late-harvest dessert wines.
With most events averaging about $100 per ticket (with higher tariffs for some, including the massive Appellation Trail food-and-wine tasting, the Winemaker Dinners held at a top-shelf winery and the posh Welcome Dinner presented at Silverado Resort), you can learn hands-on how to cook from the best, sip the valley’s top-rated wines, watch world-class chefs demonstrate their art or actually blend your own Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – and take that bottle home with you.
BLEND YOUR OWN WINE
That Winemaker for a Day blending seminar happened at Conn Creek Winery on Thursday, November 20, and was a completely fascinating “Barrel Blending Experience” led by winemaker Mike McGrath, in that winery’s specially designed consumer blending room.
Fifteen barrels of the valley’s world-class Cabernet Sauvignon line one wall of the inviting room, each one representing a different American Viticultural Area (AVA, or “Appellation of Origin”), ranging from Carneros to Calistoga and from designations that include “soft,” “supple,” “complex,” “rich” and “bold.” Plus, there are four more barrels along the other wall, filled with Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc; those can be used to approach classic Bordeaux blend in the wine.
“What you want to do is make a blend for yourself,” encouraged McGrath, after offering everyone a taste of his award-winning Anthology, Conn Creek’s classic Cabernet blend. It’s a tough act to follow, but we all jumped right in, tasting samples from the barrel, then choosing the ones we thought would make a wine we would be proud to call our own.
Mine consisted of five Cabernets (dominated by wine from Clos du Val, located in my favorite Napa AVA, the Stags Leap District) and a touch of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Others chose completely different mixtures; then all 20 of the convivial group then put their wine in bottles, hand cranked the cork in and finally created a special label for this special wine. It was an experience to remember and one that the winery offers regularly, not just for Flavor!
COOK WITH THE STARS
Having bottled our own wine, next up was learning to cook. And the choices to do that during Flavor! Napa Valley were endless. There was Sushi and Sake . . . Morimoto Style, taught at that famed chef’s restaurant located in downtown Napa; World’s Best English Muffin hosted by Model Bakery owner/chefs Karen Mitchell and Sarah Mitchell Hansen; Classic Pizza Napa Valley Style, taught by Bistro Don Giovanni’s geniuses Giovanni Scala and Scott Warner; Cake Decorating with Duff Goldman; Cheese Making with Shaena Davis; and our favorite, the Interactive Lunch with Rocco DiSpirito.
DiSpirito, whose “Healthy Italian” cooking is designed to give diners all the pleasure without nearly as many calories or fat grams, first showed the large crowd assembled in one of the CIA’s teaching classrooms how to make three dishes (ricotta gnudi with pomodoro sauce, pork saltimbocca with polenta, and chocolate and hazelnut espresso budino), then everyone headed for the CIA’s huge teaching kitchens to try making them ourselves.
“The whole point is diet without deprivation,” DiSpirito preached.
The result was a delicious meal, one with plenty of flavor yet still mostly good for us – and our hearts. Of course, the Etude Carneros 2012 Pinot Noir, the Stags’ Leap 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon and the Beringer 2008 Nightingale Late-Harvest Dessert Wine paired with the dishes conspired to add delicious calories to the repast!
Other cooking possibilities at this year’s Flavor! included culinary demonstrations presented by some of the world’s top chefs, all held in the CIA’s massive instructional lecture hall. There was Morimoto one day, then Dean Fearing, three-star Michelin chef Christopher Kostow (from The Restaurant at Meadowood) and Todd English along with Michael Chiarello the next.
SIP AND SAVOR THE BEST
And for those who wanted to just enjoy, letting others to do all the work, Flavor! Napa Valley 2014 had plenty of possibilities. First Taste Napa started it all off with four courses from Angele Restaurant and Bar (Chef Rogelio Garcia), City Winery, Napa (Joseph Panarello), Kitchen Door (Todd Humphries) and Oenotri (Tyler Rodde), paired with wines from Ancien, Atalon, Saintsbury and Robert Mondavi.
The Welcome Dinner on Thursday night at Silverado Resort brought out the big guns, as chefs Charlie Palmer, Dean Fearing, Larry Forgione, Melissa Perello, Jeffrey Jake and Duff Goldman worked their magic during a groaningly delicious five-course meal (Perello’s California Spiny Lobster served with squash, persimmon, chicories and honey was the big winner of the night), complete with wine pairings. The Sullivan Vineyards 2010 James O’Neil Cabernet was a standout pour.
Friday’s massive Appellation Trail Grand Tasting, held in the Barrel Room and Teaching Kitchen at the CIA, was a challenge for foodies and oenophiles alike. Over 100 Napa wineries poured tastes of their best – we loved the Shafer Vineyards One Point Five red blend, the Rombauer Vineyards Chardonnay, the Spring Mountain Vineyard Elivette Cabernet blend and a new discovery, the Bougetz Cellars The Cairn Pinot Noir. Morimoto proved his skill with a raw tuna pizza that disappeared fast and Philippe Jeanty’s (of Bistro Jeanty) short ribs were divine.
Saturday brought the ultimate wine-lover’s experience, as Flavor! presented Dinners with Napa Valley Winemakers, intimate affairs (10 people or less) held at select wineries. Ours was at Viader (pronounce that “Vi-a-dare”), a stunning place on Howell Mountain. Hosted by siblings Janet and Alan Viader, the dinner included a visit into their caves and a spectacular meal created by Chef Peter Hall, all enhanced by their spectacular Cabernet blends, including the 2007 Viader “Liquid Cashmere,” which really is just that.
Finally, to top off the incredible five-day extravaganza, those still standing and still hungry returned to Silverado Resort for the grand finale on Sunday morning, the Terroir to Table: A Sustainable Brunch event, which showcased the Napa Valley’s commitment to local sourcing and sustainable practices. Chef Trevor Kunk of PRESS presented a four-course meal that culminated in a Red Kuri Squash Mousse – one of the week’s most incredible taste sensations – served up with a spectacular glass of Schramsberg “J Schram” Sparkling wine.
Ending the marvelous Flavor! Napa Valley week with a toast of bubbly was the perfect way to cap off the experience. And it’s no surprise that everyone has already marked off the November week before Thanksgiving in 2015 for a return engagement. (Check the website for the exact dates.)
All photos by Jenny Peters.