Food and wine lovers are familiar with the bounty of California’s Napa Valley. Oenophiles wax eloquent over the muscled cabernets and rich chardonnays, and foodies flock here to dine at “the Laundry,” or more specifically the French Laundry, that haute temple of California gastronomy that ranks among the top restaurants in the world. From its bakeries, to its stylish pizza places, to its Michelin-starred restaurants, to its hundreds of vineyard tasting rooms filled with expert sippers, Napa is nothing short of a gastronome’s paradise.
For the past three years there has been another reason for gourmets to make a pilgrimage to Napa: Flavor! Napa Valley, a celebration of food and wine. Held this year from November 20 to 24, this festival counted an impressive lineup of cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, dinners, and tours that provided an unparalleled overview of the Napa food and wine scene. The festival is ideal for both novice and advanced cooks and wine drinkers (as well as all you star chef groupies) and included events like a two-day wine tasting “boot camp” where amateurs were put through the paces of professional wine tasting by Robert Bath, one of America’s rare master sommeliers and an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone in St. Helena, California, where the event is held.
Those seeking a more focused tasting on the gems of the Napa appellation signed up for events with the head winemakers from vineyards such as Cakebread Cellars, Joseph Phelps Vineyards’ Insignia, Louis M. Martini, and of course, Robert Mondavi Winery. Want to learn about terroir, harvesting, varietals, ripeness, and why that young sauvignon blanc tastes like pink grapefruit and the older chardonnay tastes like tropical fruit? This is the place to do it. (Hint: it’s all about the wood.)
Participants sampled a vast array of local wines and dishes from the top Napa restaurants at the festival’s premiere event, the Appellation Trail Tasting, which drew a crowd 1000-strong this year. Guests spilled over three floors of the magnificent, high-ceilinged and stone-walled CIA reception rooms to enjoy the wares of some 100 wineries and 25 local restaurants. In between bites of braised wild boar by Hurley’s Restaurant in Yountville, California and poached halibut from Morimoto Napa, attendees sipped world class wines from vineyards such as Caymus Vineyards, Grgich Hills Estate, Blackbird Vineyards, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. For those weary of driving after imbibing, shuttle buses were provided between the CIA and the Silverado Resort and Spa, one of the sponsors of the festival.
Participants also flocked to culinary demonstrations by the likes of modern Italian master Scott Conant, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, California cuisine icon Cindy Pawlcyn, and up-and-comer Christopher Kostow of the exquisite three-Michelin-star Relais & Châteaux restaurant at Meadowood. Many demos were held in the state-of-the-art CIA kitchen theatres, where the crowds oohed and aahed over the sight of Morimoto butchering a monkfish and Kostow roasting guinea hen in a salt and herb meringue crust. Fans of Mediterranean cuisine specialist Todd English flew in from as far away as New York and Miami to cook alongside this renowned restaurateur, author, entrepreneur, and television personality at an interactive cooking class held in the school’s kitchen, before sitting down with the Boston-based celebrity chef for lunch.
Flavor! Napa Valley is not only a good time, but also a rare opportunity to sample the best of Napa food and wine in one of the United States’ most prestigious cooking schools, which also counts a wonderful kitchenware and cookbook store on site, as well as the superb Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant. There is a charitable aspect to this festival as well, as net proceeds from the events are used to fund programs and scholarships at the school.