A Visit to Leonardi Balsamic Vinegar Farm

“We are proud of our vinegar.”  Federica Gibellini is leading me and my husband on a tour of the Acetaia Leonardi balsamic vinegar farm.  Leonardi is a family owned balsamic maker in Magreta, Italy in the area surrounding Modena, home to traditional balsamic vinegar production.  It’s in the Emilia-Romagna region, also known for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Proscuitto di Parma.  The Leonardi family established their business in 1871 and since then their vinegars have become not just well-regarded but famous too, being the choice of royalty, even served at Kate and William’s wedding. Unlike many balsamic vinegar makers Leondari is a “closed cycle” farm, meaning they grow and tend their own grapes, harvest, ferment, age, bottle and sell the balsamic vinegar all on their own property.  That’s an important distinction in the quality and flavor of their vinegar. “We are four generations who produce this special vinegar,” says Federica.  She’s…

Cakebread American Harvest Workshop Day 4 and 5

Today is our last full day of the Cakebread Cellars American Harvest Workshop.  After a very long day of picking grapes, making pottery and cooking dinner for 65 yesterday, we’re up early again, gathering at 6:30 am for a drive to the coast.   We’re visiting three artisan purveyors, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, Hog Island Oyster Company and Della Fattoria, a bakery, and in my opinion the best bakery in the United States.  I love their pumpkin seed and polenta breads.  I have been to all of these places, on video shoots when I was producing the TV show In Wine Country.  But I was always working and didn’t experience it as a regular visitor might. It’s about a 90 minute drive from Napa Valley to Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese, in the Point Reyes National Seashore.  While the marine layer is thick this morning, the scenery, with the water…

Cakebread American Harvest Workshop Day 3

Morning Day 3 On our third day of the American Harvest Workshop at Cakebread Cellars we have a super early call time uggh — 6:30 am so we can go pick grapes.  Lucky for us they didn’t have us get up for a 2 am night harvest.  Breakfast waiting for us in the vineyard again, the sweetest strawberries and pastries from Bouchon Bakery, good fuel for the work ahead.  We’re picking in the Foster Road vineyard in Carneros, and these grapes go into the reserve Chardonnay.  Quite a big responsibility our crew has, we better not screw it up.  The most important thing is that we start and end with 10 fingers.  I’ve picked before, but it’s always fun to be in the vineyard, wrangling clusters from the vine, and tasting a few sweet grapes as you pick.  In no time at all we’ve filled two bins and send them…

Cakebread American Harvest Workshop Day 2

We start day two of Cakebread’s American Harvest Workshop at Suscol Springs Vineyard ranch in south east Napa, where there are vineyards as far as the eye can see.  I’ve never had breakfast in a vineyard and this one is a treat – a Mexican breakfast, huevos with red sauce and tortillas.  Day one was a great introduction and I can’t wait to see what today brings. Mark McDowell, the  chef from Hawaii, brought a gift with him – fresh strawberry papaya – yum!  With full tummies we set off into the vineyards with Bruce Cakebread, who was at one time the head winemaker.  He talks to us about Napa Valley – what makes it unique as a wine growing region, thanks to the soils and climate. Bruce Cakebread. Courtesy Cakebread Cellars Hard to believe this ranch was a cattle grazing pasture up until 2007 when the Cakebreads planted Cabernet…

Cakebread American Harvest Workshop Day 1

Right in the middle of harvest, the busiest time at any winery, Cakebread Cellars in Napa Valley invites five chefs from around the world, a group of local artisan food producers and food and wine enthusiasts to take part in the American Harvest Workshop, a five day intensive on food and wine. It’s a hands-on program, with the chefs and other participants literally getting their hands dirty, picking grapes, harvesting veggies from Cakebread’s winery garden, and creating and cooking two five-course dinners for 65 people. As we gather on day one for orientation and a tour of the garden, I can’t help thinking this feels a little like Top Chef. No, it’s not a competition, but the five chefs will be working together as a team, and this is the first time they’ve met each other. Culinary Director Brian Streeter, who is our leader for the workshop, has them choose…

Top Three Reasons To Visit The Willamette Valley Now

Wine country tourism is on the rise and one of the fastest growing destinations is Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I’ve visited the past two summers (July and August are relatively dry with pleasant if not hot weather) and after my last visit came away convinced that the Willamette Valley is a destination that should be on every wine lover’s list. Why? It’s not just the amazing Pinot Noir, the grape varietal the region is most famous for. There’s more and more to see, eat and drink than ever before, and it’s only going to get better. Wine giant Jackson Family Wines (aka Kendall Jackson) jsut bought a winery in the Willamette Valley, as did French wine house Louis Jadot, its first US acquisition. Here, my favorite experiences. Sokol Blosser’s new tasting room Talk about a destination winery, this is a building for art and architecture as well as wine fans alike.…

the girl & the fig – 15 Years In Wine Country

Photo by Steven Krause

“I love our plats du jour  at all our restaurants, we’ve been doing it forever.”  Restaurateur Sondra Bernstein is perhaps best known for her iconic Sonoma wine country restaurant the girl & the fig.  She first opened it in the charming Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen 15 years ago, in 1997.  Since then she moved the eatery to the square in downtown Sonoma.  the girl & the fig Cookbook was published in 2004 and is now in its 5th printing.  Her latest tome  Plats du Jour:  the girl & the fig’s Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country is truly handcrafted.  “I taught myself book design and I self-published,” she says.  It’s also available in an e-version.

Photos by Steven Krause

Plats du Jour reflects Sondra’s philosophy of eating locally with the seasons.  What is a plats du jour?  Translated from French it means “plate of the day;” or the daily special if you will, but always offered as a three course meal, with an appetizer, entree then cheese or dessert to finish.  Sondra developed a love for the plats du jour menu during her travels through France.  At  “the fig” (Sondra’s shorthand for the restaurant) the plats du jour menu changes weekly.  “It’s a nice cross section of each of the seasons and because we’re doing so much at the farm, it’s a nice way to follow the seasons and see what’s really happening there.”

10 Things You Need to Know About Truffles

I spent the MLK holiday weekend in Napa Valley at the 2nd annual Napa Truffle Festival (I know, tough job right?). This event is put on by the American Truffle Company, a business launched by Robert Chang, who fell in love with truffles at first bite. While truffles grow primarily in France and Italy, Robert is determined to help farmers produce American truffles so that he, chefs and other truffle fans can get them fresher faster.

My main mission was to discover the best type of wine to pair with truffles, but with the 60 Minutes report on truffles airing just before the festival, it seems there’s a heightened interest to know more about truffles. There are some facts and some myths to debunk regarding these ugly, knobby but intoxicating balls. Read more

An Ultimate Girls Summer Weekend in Wine Country

I’ve been on at least a dozen girls weekends. The destinations are always great: New York, Palm Springs, Chicago, Miami, the North Carolina mountains. But I’d not done a girls trip to Napa Valley wine country. I’m not talking over the top 5-star accommodations and 3 star Michelin restaurants; we were more budget minded (we’d rather have money for shopping). We ate and drank well, and even found a nice place to stay that was less than $200 per night (thanks Priceline!)

You probably don’t think of downtown Napa as a destination for style or shopping. People used to bypass Napa on their way to winery tasting rooms and St. Helena. Well things have changed. Now Napa is a must stop for great dining, wine tasting and shopping. Read more