Walking through Yountville, California on an early September evening, I smelled honeysuckle, sage, a touch of wood smoke, and something peppery. The bungalow-lined side streets were sleepy and quiet, while the main drag was alive with tourists on their way to dinner or chattering about the day’s vineyard visits. Located in the heart of Napa Valley, the small-but-vibrant burg is the epicenter of wine country.
I was visiting to take part in Cakebread Cellars’ 30th annual American Harvest Workshop, a deeply immersive experience that brought together fans of the vineyard and five chefs from across the country, including Proof’s executive chef, Austin Fausett. The goal was to teach participants about every step of the winemaking process and introduce them to some of Cakebread’s favorite purveyors, who they frequently feature in their culinary events. So for five days, I shadowed the group from sunup to well past sundown as they drove up and down State Route 29, which runs through the valley, eating and drinking at every opportunity. I know, tough job.
Our first stop was at Cakebread Cellars’ impressive headquarters, just down the road from the much-photographed “Welcome to this world famous wine growing region” sign. The centerpiece of Cakebread’s sprawling 560-acre empire houses the vinification operation, the tasting room, and an artfully maintained garden overseen by Anton Ginella. The rows are alive with dozens of types of herbs, artichokes thrusting upwards from their woody stems like exploding supernovas, and Rubenesque tomatoes in every shade of yellow, red and orange. We were encouraged to taste anything we wanted, including a rare variety of blue salad greens that possessed the briny tang of oysters and tiny gherkins sprouting miniature yellow flowers.
Even if I had been able to score a reservation at Napa Valley’s most famous dining destination – Thomas Keller’s the French Laundry – I would have been hard-pressed to explain to my wife why I spent so much money on a meal that didn’t involve her. So I opted to get a taste of the chef’s magic with a visit to the original Bouchon Bakery. There’s almost always a line, but if you can skip it if you call ahead to place your order. The breakfast pastries are unparalleled; especially the danish forged out of flaky golden croissant dough, packed with fig jam, topped by a swirl of cream cheese frosting, and finished with a fresh fig. Frankly, it was sweeter than most desserts – not that I was complaining. I filled my bag with treats for the rest of the day, including giant peanut pocked cookies sandwiching peanut butter buttercream known as Better Nutters and a rainbow of macarons.
One day, we visited the family-owned Bellwether Farms, which produces a variety of dairy products – from sheeps milk yogurt and whey ricotta to crème frâiche and fromage blanc. Their goods are available at farmers markets, Whole Foods, and Raley’s supermarkets throughout the valley. Their Blackstone cheese – a combination of cow and sheep milk – comes in large black wheels rubbed with black pepper, rosemary, and vegetable ash. Cut into the firm cheese and you’ll find it’s pocked with peppercorns, making it a perfect complement to Cakebread Cellars’ 2013 Guajolote.
We followed this whey cool – sorry, couldn’t resist – visit with lunch at Della Fattoria. The bakery’s wood-fired ovens at have been turning out the best bread in the valley for over two decades. Bread making started as a hobby for founder Kathleen Weber, but in 1995 she began baking loaves for restaurants. Her second client was Thomas Keller – the rest is history. Today, the bakery continues to flourish. The Weber family has expanded their operation by opening cozy café located in downtown Petaluma inside a 19th-century building that once housed the U.S. Bakery. The sandwiches are simple, but exceedingly delicious. Their fillings – such as line-caught tuna and Italian cold cuts – are chosen with the same care that went into making the bread that holds them. For dessert, there are chocolate chip cookies that balance chewiness and crispiness.
On my last morning in Napa Valley, I make a pell-mell pilgrimage to Model Bakery in St. Helena, which a friend assures me has the best English muffins west of the Rockies – maybe even in the entire country. The well buttered, golden griddled, and cornmeal dusted discs serve as bookends for the shop’s blue-ribbon breakfast sandwiches. The springy dough with just the right amount of chew is an excellent containment system for scrambled eggs, creamy avocado slices, Canadian bacon and two layers of gooey cheddar cheese. It’s the perfect last bite – until I get to the In-N-Out Burger by the airport, because you can’t fly back East without one last Double Double Animal Style.