Day 1: Napa – Trains, Wine Tastings, and Steaks

Food Adventures, Napa & Sonoma

For our two-year dating anniversary, Martin and I decided to take a week off and journey across northern California – wine tasting in Napa and Sonoma, dining at local hot spots, visiting oyster farms and a creamery, and strolling through roadside fruit stands and farmer’s markets. The vineyards, with their rows and rows of perfectly straight and symmetrical formations of grape vines, appealed to my OCD tendencies as we zoomed past, watching the seemingly endless lines play tricks on our eyes.

All aboard!

Our first stop in Napa was the Napa Valley Wine Train Station. Touristy, I know, but who could resist the promises of a gourmet lunch aboard a vintage restored locomotive that cruises through Wine Country and serves as a giant designated driver for the inevitable winery tour and tastings? We sure couldn’t.

The wine started flowing early as we ticket holders partook in the first tasting at the station itself… at 10:30am. Shortly after, we boarded the Le Petit Gourmet dining car to feast on our three-course lunch, accompanied by a lovely couple who was celebrating their honeymoon. The food itself was a bit unremarkable, but I was impressed by what the cooks were able to accomplish aboard a moving vehicle.

Broccoli Soup

Halibut Special

Beef Tenderloin

The cream of broccoli soup was good but overwhelmingly cheesy. Martin had the beef tenderloin, which looked stunning but had a strange texture (probably from being prepared en masse and steaming a bit in a catering chafe or something); I had the halibut off-menu special which was drizzled with a delicious orange flavored beurre blanc but the halibut itself was sadly overcooked.

Before we knew it, we had arrived at the Grgich Hills Estate and welcomed to the so-called “petting zoo” consisting of a few small rows to show off the many varieties of grapes grown on the Estate. It was at this point that we learned we arrived in Napa at the perfect time of year (in my opinion) – when the grapes are still on the vines and undergoing veraison (the process of turning color from green to purple, with some bunches caught in the middle holding grapes of both colors, which I thought is just lovely!) and just before the valley gets too busy with harvesting and “crush” season.

So many French oak barrels!

We were escorted over to the crush pad and on through to the cellar where barrels and barrels of pressed grapes were slowly turning into wine. Eventually we made our way to the tasting room where we sampled some of Grgich Hills’ newest releases, including a fascinating sauvignon blanc that had strong jalapeno notes. I ended up purchasing a bottle of the 2009 Violetta, the delicious late harvest wine that was paired with our dessert at the Melisse foie dinner.

Creme Brulee

Chocolate Tart

Soon the train arrived to take us back to Napa, and on the return voyage we enjoyed our dessert course. Martin selected the chocolate pecan tart which was topped with a wonderfully decadent ganache which was the only good thing about the it since the crust was thick and hard. I chose the crème brulee and was again impressed by the kitchen’s ability to work on a moving train when my spoon broke through the caramelized sugar with a beautiful cracking sound.

We returned to the station and wanted to continue our Napa adventure, so we hopped in our car and drove up the 29 ourselves to squeeze in a few more wineries before closing time. Our first stop – Domaine Chandon. As we approached the building, we crossed an adorable wooden bridge overlooking a manmade pond and a beautiful landscape of plants and flowers. The tasting room was a partially enclosed building that welcomed the gorgeous sunshine passing over the gardens immediately adjacent. Thanks to my Yelp Check-In offer, we got 2 for 1 tastings and selected the Reserve Tasting series.

A big fan of bubbly, I was most looking forward to trying the winery exclusive 2006 Mt Veeder Vintage Brut. I love reading the descriptions, especially when my palate happens to detect similar subtleties, and such was the case with this one. It was described as having the flavor of toasted brioche, and indeed it did!

The Oakville Cab we ended up bringing home

Onward to Robert Mondavi Winery just before the tasting room closed. We shared a tasting this time, and Martin enjoyed sampling both the 2009 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and the 2009 Oakville cab, ultimately deciding to bring home a bottle of the Oakville. I loved the 2010 Moscato d’Oro and snagged that as well as a bottle of 2001 Botrytis, the last late harvest that they bottled. As you can see, I’m a big fan of sweet and/or sparkling wines so words like “late harvest” or “ice wine” or “moscato” are key buzzwords.

The grapes undergoing veraison (changing color from green to purple).

Wine Country slows its pace after 5pm when most tasting rooms close their doors. It was a perfect chance for us to check into our hotel and get refreshed for our anniversary dinner at Cole’s Chop House. We heard great things about CCH on Yelp and were looking forward to some meaty goodness. Located just off the main hustle and bustle of downtown Napa, CCH has an industrial look to it with its high, exposed ceilings.

12oz Rib Eye

10oz Filet Mignon

We opted to skip the appetizers and dive straight into the meat – 12 oz rib eye for me, 10 oz filet mignon for Martin, both rare. (Props to CCH for clearly defining the cooking temperatures!)

Potato Gratin

Sauteed Spinach

The sides are served family-style a la carte, reminiscent of Lawry’s Prime Rib. We decided to share the off-menu Yukon gold potato gratin and the spinach sautéed with garlic instead of creamed. The steaks arrived perfectly cooked to temperature and beautifully charred, but each steak looked a bit forlorn sitting in the center of such a large plate. I guess we’re just partial to a more complete, plated presentation that we’re so accustomed to. The potatoes in the gratin were tender and layered generously with gruyere, and we found ourselves passive-aggressively fighting over the toasted crunchy top layer. The spinach didn’t really have much garlic flavor, although we later found whole cloves tucked away among the leaves which was unfortunate.

Crisp with farm-fresh nectarines and raspberries, served a la mode

For dessert, our server Brett told us about that day’s off-menu special – a white nectarine and raspberry fruit crisp served a la mode with vanilla gelato. Hot-out-of-the-oven dessert topped with ice cream? SOLD! The crisp arrived piping hot with a wonderful oat and cinnamon crumble lying atop a smoldering mixture of fruit. The gelato had just started to melt over the crumble and lent just the right amount of creamy sweetness to balance the tartness of the fruit. It was absolutely delectable. Partway through I secretly wished I had a second one all to myself.

The decor of the place was definitely more rustic and looked better at night with the high ceiling dimly lit by indirect-facing bulbs. There were two elements about the interior, however, that left something to be desired — the wood with glass panel dividers that separated the bar area and the main dining room reminded Martin of the ones typically used at Chinese restaurants and the double red lights hanging over the top of the mantle of the bar looked a bit demonic and turned out to be incredibly distracting.

Regardless, we enjoyed ourselves and especially loved our dessert. It was a great way to celebrate our two-year anniversary!


Check out Cole’s Chop House:

1122 Main St
Napa, CA 94559

See their Yelp reviews here!

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