Saturday, November 6, 2010

wineless in wine country

Contrary to the title of this post, we were not completely wineless on our last day in Napa.  However, Wednesday began without the wine tastings of the previous two days.  After checking out of our hotel, we headed to the Round Pond Olive Mill in Rutherford for a different kind of tasting.  I had come across Round Pond while looking at travel websites.  They have a winery across the street, but I was trying to find some options for things to do that didn't involve wine.  A tour and tasting at the olive mill turned out to be a nice switch, and it gave us a rest from the alcohol.

round pond
We got there around 10am for the tour, and we ended up in a group of about 10 people.  The tour itself was interesting, but it didn't travel very far.  We spent a while right outside the building, standing next to one of the olive trees.  There, we learned a little about growing olives: the main kinds they have (Spanish and Italian), the things they have to do to avoid pests (keep the ground free of dead fruit and trim the trees so that there's more space between the top part of the trunk and the branches), and how best to harvest the fruit to avoid bruising (by hand).

Having covered all that, we went back inside and examined the working part of the building.  We were told that Round Pond is one of the only olive oil producers in the area with its own mill, so they don't have to transport the olives before processing them or work around a shared mill's busy schedule.  As a result, higher quality is retained, and the oil doesn't get the bitterness that comes from bruised fruit. There was a machine with big stone wheels for crushing the olives, old school style, as well as more modern centrifuges for separating the oil from the water.  I didn't actually take any pictures of the machinery; it didn't seem particularly photogenic to me.

tasting spread
The tasting part of the tour and tasting, however, was indeed picture-worthy.  At the table, we each had two blue glasses, which contained tastes of olive oil.  The first was the Italian Varietal, and the second was the Blood Orange.  The blue glasses were used so that color would not be a factor in the tasting.  So we tried each of the olive oils, after a little instruction in the correct way to do so.  We warmed the cup in our hands a bit, took a sip, and then slurped in some air—not unlike Hannibal Lecter with the fava beans and chianti.  It was kind of silly, but it did make it easier to taste the flavors in the oil without it simply coating the tongue.
I ended up liking the Blood Orange better than the Italian.  The Italian Varietal was more assertive and spicier, while the Blood Orange was made with the more mellow Spanish olive varieties.  The blood orange flavor was also better incorporated than I might have expected.  Rather than just infusing olive oil with flavor, they actually grind the fruit peels with olives to get more of their oils thoroughly melded with the olive oil.
Next up to taste was red wine vinegar.  Round Pond makes two kinds, which makes sense, since the winery has plenty of red wine and red wine grapes.  We tried the Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot vinegar first, but I preferred the Sangiovese-Nebbiolo-Petit Verdot, which just seemed better balanced to me.  Again, the tasting involved some tricks.  For the vinegar, we were provided with two sugar cubes.  The idea is to get a drop of vinegar on a sugar cube and then suck it out.  The sugar is supposed to compensate for the acid of the vinegar and make it more palatable.  Of course, if you accidentally get too much vinegar on the sugar cube, it disintegrates into a sticky mess.  Not that one of us would ever do that... (Steve.)

ready for tasting
After the official tasting of the oil and vinegar, we were left on our own to mix and match with the various Round Pond products and the food on the table.  There were pieces of bread, salad greens, cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, strawberries, blue cheese, and pecorino cheese.  I made myself a nice salad with my favorites of the oil and vinegar and tried the two oils again, with bread this time.

In addition to the oils and vinegars, Round Pond produces meyer lemon and blood orange syrups.  (Presumably, they're using the parts of the fruits that aren't getting used in the flavored olive oils.)  They were pretty sweet, but they went well with the salty pecorino cheese.  The meyer lemon syrup was also tasty with the strawberries.

In the end, we bought a bottle each of the Blood Orange Olive Oil and the Sangiovese-Nebbiolo-Petit Verdot Vinegar.  They also had these adorable little bottles, so we got one of the Italian Varietal and one of the Meyer Lemon Olive Oil.

mini bottles

After Round Pond Olive Mill, we made a quick stop at nearby Honig to purchase a bottle of their Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc.  We had done a tasting there last year, by appointment, but we didn't bother to do one this year.  Still, I wanted to bring home a bottle of the dessert wine, so we dropped by and bought one.
By this time, it was almost noon.  Despite our little snack at the olive mill, we were hungry enough to stop for some lunch before driving back home.  We decided that Bottega would be good for that.

We ate dinner at Michael Chiarello's restaurant in Yountville at the start of our trip last year—the picture above is from that evening.  Unfortunately, we had eaten too big a snack too late that day, so didn't feel like we had really done the place justice.  Lunch was a good chance to try again and taste some more dishes.
We each ordered a glass of wine—sparkling for me and red for Steve—and started with one of the specials: a salmon tartare.

salmon tartare
I should mention that we were seated outside on the covered patio.  I was excited to sit outside, because it seemed so picturesque.  What I didn't think about beforehand was the effect that the orange canopy would have on pictures taken under it.  My camera (and Lightroom) tried its best to compensate for it, but all of the pictures ended up exceptionally red-pink.  It took all of my meager skills at using Lightroom to make them look like they weren't radioactive.  The first and third pictures of the meal still aren't quite right, but believe me, they're a whole lot better than they were.
The picture of my lunch entree fared a little better.
Swiss Chard & Ricotta Raviolo, farm fresh egg yolk & sage browned butter parmigiano

When I ordered this, our waiter made sure that I knew that it had runny egg yolk in it, which oozes out when the raviolo is cut open.  I guess they're used to tourists, many of whom are scared of anything that's not fully cooked.  I have no problem with it, as long as the chef knows what he or she is doing.  My only problem with the raviolo was that the dough was a little gluey around the edges.  Other than that, the flavors were great.

Steve also got a pasta dish:
Garganelli with tomato braised rabbit sugo, wild mushrooms & ricotta

Again, not the best picture, but Steve enjoyed the food.  It was more his style of pasta, though: braised and earthy.  I tend to prefer cheesy and/or lemony.
We didn't see Chef Chiarello at all during our lunch, but apparently, he was at work in the kitchen.  We heard our waiter talking to a table that arrived a while after us, introducing a new appetizer special that Chiarello was testing out.  It must have been really new, since it wasn't being offered when we arrived.  The other table was asking about a dish that they had seen on the Food Network show The Best Thing I Ever Ate.  They were told that that dish wasn't on the menu at the time, but they could try this new appetizer, made by Michael Chiarello himself.  Not a bad consolation prize, really.
After lunch, there was just one more stop to make: Bouchon Bakery, across the street.  I wanted to get some cookies to take home with us.  We had gotten a TKO (Thomas Keller Oreo) the year before, so I wanted to get some of those for sure.  But last year, I hadn't known if I was allergic to almonds or not, which prevented me from trying the macarons.  This year, there was no such deterrent.  We left with an assortment of French macarons, several TKOs, and a foie gras dog biscuit to give to Dan and Carmen's dog, Enzo.  Steve's parents were going on a camping trip the next weekend with Dan and Carmen, so we sent along a TKO and a vanilla macaron for each couple to share.  (They were all pretty big cookies.)
The day after we got back, I did the obligatory photo shoot with the remaining macarons.  We had eaten the caramel one already, but we still had coffee, vanilla, chocolate, and raspberry.  In case you're wondering, they tasted as good as they looked.

And thus ends the recounting of the second anniversary Napa trip.  (Finally.)  It was a lovely visit to wine country, and although we didn't experience as many wineries as last time, the food more than made up for it.  I would gladly return to any of the restaurants we tried, especially the Restaurant at Meadowood, which just earned its third Michelin star.  The French Laundry is the only other three-star Michelin restaurant in the Bay Area, so that's quite an accomplishment.

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