All I wanted for my 40th birthday was a good glass of wine (or two), a nice meal with my husband, maybe a little jewelry, and lots of love from my children. This would be the classic “understating it”. Perfect! This is very “me”. I hate attention. But wait, what about that certain wave of depression which follows the classic understated “Big” birthday? I wouldn’t wish that despair upon my worst enemy. Oh, what to do, what to do?? Right about this time my lovely husband stepped in and told me he had it all under control, reminding me why I love him so. His plan? He whisked me away for a fun few days in my favorite spot: Sonoma, California.
Sonoma and Napa are perfect almost year-round. Spring temps are around the mid-70’s to low-80’s, summer is in the 90’s and fall is gorgeous in the low 70’s. Winter time is more chilly, but still a pretty time to visit. Fortunately for me, my birthday is in August (thanks, mom and dad). Perfect California weather time!
But the real reason I love this resort is the spa. All over the property you will see couples walking around in matching white terry cloth robes and slippers. Morning, noon, and night, the spa is working out all those icky wine toxins from their guests’ bodies and sending them out fresh into the world to live to drink another glass. Pinch me!
So we made our spa reservations, then set out for a day of wine.
My favorite white wine of all time is the Russian River Sauvignon Blanc by Ledson. Not too formal or overpriced ($26), this wine is perfect with crab, steamed clams, salads, chicken, lunch, brunch, and even breakfast. Yes, in our house, this is known as my “breakfast” wine. This is not because I have a habit of drinking wine for breakfast (really!), but because of a trip a few years back to Sonoma when my husband and I were checking out of our room at the Sonoma Mission Inn. We had this open bottle of Sauvignon Blanc sitting in the fridge that we couldn’t take on the plane. Never ones to waste wine, we thought, “Why not?” and we polished it off with our breakfast of eggs and fruit. It was a perfect complement, and the rest is history. Now I serve this when we host a breakfast or brunch at our house and it’s always light, fruity and perfect.
Ledson Winery is fantastic. They make some amazingly powerful reds that we enjoy, particularly the Tiamo, Bellisimo and Alexander Valley Cabernet. And since Ledson does not distribute, we come straight here to sample their latest offerings and order several to be shipped home. We are never disappointed when UPS shows up with Ledson wine (or any wine, for that matter) and this is a good one to pull out when you want to be sure it will be perfect. We allow plenty of time at this winery because their offering is so huge, and almost two hours later, we are on our way.
Another good stop for us is Chateau St. Jean. Sure, we love their Cinq Cépages and some of their other reserve red wines, but the real reason for this stop is to admire the sheer beauty of the grounds and peruse their well-stocked gift shop. They sell great items and wine-related products that are sure to tempt you. Like Ledson, Chateau St. Jean also features a gourmet deli which sells yummy picnic treats like cured meats, salads, cheeses and baguettes. This is a fabulous place to stop for a light lunch and glass of wine, while sitting outside amongst the roses in the California sunshine, or continuing on for a picnic in the Valley. But since it’s nearing 5pm, when most tasting rooms close, and we don’t have time to continue up the Valley, we stop in here for a quick peek, without even a sampling of wine, then head back to the Mission Inn to freshen up and head off to our dinner at Terra.
Terra is a restaurant we’ve been hearing a lot about in Napa. Led by Chef Hiro Sone and his wife Lissa Doumani, the dishes are exquisite and fun, and the restaurant has a 1-star Michelin rating. After a long drive to get there, our meal did not disappoint! And Chef even signed a Terra cookbook for me (which I’ve already used with great results), wishing me a happy birthday. Yes, we will be coming back to this little gem on future trips!
My husband, knowing me oh so well, planned the day out perfectly. I woke up fearing plans of hot air balloons, or horseback riding, but instead, Andy had arranged a private cooking lesson, lunch and wine pairings with the owners of Deerfield Ranch Winery in Sonoma. Wine, food, travel…. this man is good. We drove up to the home of PJ and Robert Rex (yes, it was right in their own kitchen!), and we were greeted by PJ, chef and winemaker’s wife, with a tour of her beautiful herb and vegetable garden.
The views from the Rex’s property are breathtaking, and actually were the inspiration for their logo and wine bottle designs. We pulled up a stool around the island in PJ’s kitchen and she began steaming artichokes and preparing a homemade aioli sauce for dipping. Pouring us a glass of white wine, she shared stories about Sonoma and their history. Her husband Robert soon joined us and began making the most wonderful beef stock I have ever had (recipe to follow in my next blog) that begins with eight (yes EIGHT) bottles of wine. Step-by-step, he carefully showed me how to build and layer the flavors and, for time’s sake, had some already prepared so that we could sample the final product and use it in our lunch course. While we continued tasting several of their red wines, Robert reduced the stock down to a demiglace and PJ prepared a fresh pesto sauce with ingredients from her garden. Our lunch consisted of polenta triangles with fresh roasted corn, caramelized onions, shallots and parsley, with a spoonful of each sauce on top and a little touch of green onions and sautéed mushrooms. Wow!
The four of us grabbed our wine glasses and plates and made our way out to their terrace to enjoy the weather, the view, the food, the wine and the company.
Thinking this was some sort of class they offered regularly, I innocently asked them how they made time for this type of thing in their busy schedules. They shared with us that it was the first time they had ever had such an intimate cooking lesson in their home, and that they had agreed to it as a favor to our hotel’s concierge, whom they know quite well. Wow. Our love and thanks go out to PJ and Robert Rex, as well as the concierge at Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, for helping make my birthday a once-in-a-lifetime experience! It was so special! And thank you, dear husband… I’m not sure how you pulled it off, but I find these things are better left to mystery with you. What an experience! After a tour of their caves and tasting room, we were on our way, armed with a very special wine for my birthday dinner.
Some of the best restaurants in all the world are located right here in Sonoma and Napa Valley. But for certain, the best, most highly acclaimed restaurant, is The French Laundry. Owned by Chef Thomas Keller, this impossible-to-get-reservations-at restaurant is world-famous. It is consistently 3-star Michelin rated, the most prestigious of all international culinary awards, and it is more than a dining experience. It is a lesson in elegant and artful mastery of flavor, style, technique and ingredients. Practicing what is called “molecular gastronomy”, The French Laundry perfects very forward-thinking culinary techniques, breaking food down to its most basic level of flavor and using surprising and unconventional methods and techniques to make each taste the most delectable it can be in your mouth. It is sublime, for sure, and a “bucket list” must.
Now my hubby is good, but even he could not get us into this restaurant. They take reservations two months out, to the calendar day, and they try to tease you with one or two possible reservations each night on OpenTable.com. But odds are you’ll never get in that way. We’ve tried many times and they are always booked by the time we get thru. So how did my husband manage to finally get reservations, and for my 40th birthday, no less? By using…(drum roll)…the American Express Platinum Concierge service. These folks are hands-down, the best resource for getting you into where you want to be. We have used them several times and they always come thru. So in addition to Andy dialing all morning on the day reservations opened up, he had AmEx calling on his behalf, as well. Well guess who got the tickets?? Not Andy. Love, Love AMEX!
Dinner here is VERY expensive, $270 per person, not including wine! However, it does include the gratuity. If you plan to bring your own wine, there is a $75 corkage fee. We chose to bring our own, but also enjoyed a glass of their champagne with our first course. There are nine courses here, in total, not including several amuse bouche offerings, presented periodically by the chef, and tasty house-made breads, my favorite being a little Gruyère cheese puff. When the courses came, they were so beautifully displayed that I felt guilty even eating, but I dutifully obliged. I can only say it was all amazing and the ambience was romantic, candlelit and magical. And yes, I did get a little bling. A new watch! What a wonderful way to end one of the best days of my life! I love you, Andy!
The evening ended with a signed menu by Chef Keller, himself, and a surprise tour of their busy kitchen. Talk about a well-oiled machine… Each sous chef was at a station and everyone was turning plates out like clock work. Gleamingly clean and brimming with top-notch tools, this kitchen was an inspiration.
Ahhh… getting the actual birthday behind me, my anxiety level mellowed and we had a lot of fun our last few days in Sonoma. We visited several other wineries, including Merry Edwards and Marimar Estate, which offered up some great whites we couldn’t pass up. Gary Farrell, Rochioli and Copain in the Russian River Valley had some amazing Pinot Noir and Syrah we had to have. And what does one have to do in Sonoma at the end of a long day of wine tasting? Take a nap, yes — but, also, enjoy more yummy gourmet food. So off to Madrona Manor we went.
A few years back, I was tasked with organizing a dinner in Sonoma for my husband and about 25 of his work associates, plus spouses, who were flown in for the weekend. After reviewing many of the best restaurants, I settled upon a gem in Healdsburg called Madrona Manor. This beautiful, old mansion, dating back to 1881, houses a bed and breakfast, gorgeous flowering grounds fit for a royal wedding, and spectacular food prepared by Chef Jesse Mallgren. It was the highlight of the trip for many of us, and my husband and I make it a point to return to Madrona Manor every time we are in the area (this last trip even taking all four of our children). I wouldn’t miss it!
In some ways, I enjoy Madrona Manor even more than The French Laundry. We prefer to eat outside on the terrace at Madrona Manor, and it’s much more relaxed and pleasant. Also, the food comes in the same style (think: molecular gastronomy) as The French Laundry, and features small, amazing bites, course after course. The difference is, there is an air about Madrona Manor that is more “us”. The maitre d’ is named Josef, and he always remembers us and spends most of the evening speaking in French with my husband. His stories are so fun and his manner is jovial, all the while paying close attention to every detail around him, assuring guests of a stellar evening. Josef is half of the experience for us, and Chef Mallgren’s food is the rest.
If you find yourself in the Sonoma/Napa area, do yourself a favor and book a dinner at Madrona Manor. It is also VERY pricey (about $400 per couple if you get all 7 courses, plus wine parings, not including gratuity), but sooo worth it. Make sure you have the signature cheese course! And also dessert. They make a chocolate sundae that includes freezing sweetened cream with liquid nitrogen, tableside. Fun and yummy! Oh, and you must get a seat outside, it makes a world of difference between the slightly stuffy indoor rooms. They have lots of heaters on the terrace and it is open almost year-round. I’d love to hear about your experience there, so please send me a note!
Our final two days are spent visiting a few Napa wineries. On this visit, we have two private tastings arranged. The first is at Seavey Winery, which is a little out of the way, and therefore very quiet. It feels like a day in the country, rather than a slight detour off busy Silverado Trail, the main road thru one of the world’s predominant wine regions. We spend a few enjoyable hours there with Alex Kajani, the Director of Sales & Marketing, and are escorted on a tour of the caves, barrel room and production facilities. Alex is kind enough to pull several library wines for us to try, making the trip a very memorable stop.
A library wine is a wine that is special, well-aged, and usually off the current marketing materials. It is typically only found at the winery itself, and even then, is sparingly offered for sale, much less for sample.
Seavey simply makes some excellent 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines that grab our attention and make us pull out the credit card asking for more. Our favorites here were a 2000, 2004, and 2006 Cabernet, and a 2008 Chardonnay. Thank you, Alex, for a fun afternoon and a very enjoyable visit!
From here we continue on to Anderson’s Conn Valley for a private tasting in the cave with owner and winemaker, Todd Anderson. This guy is a character. Cowboy hat, boots, big belt buckle and bottles and bottles of delicious red wine. Definitely not the normal vintner. And an over-the-top personality, to boot (pardon the pun). Half way thru the tasting he had his feet propped up and was offering my husband a cigar. It was hilarious! Well, we had tried his Éloge before, a beautiful Bordeaux blend (65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot and 3% Merlot) and knew he was a rock-star winemaker, so we were thrilled to sit with him and enjoy more of his fantastic wine and company. “Éloge” means “praiseworthy” in French, and this wine is very “Éloge,” indeed. It is full-bodied, heavy on the tannin with strong black cherry coming thru and a hint of spice. We came home with more bottles of the 2006 Éloge (rated 95+ pts by Robert Parker), as well as some 2007 Estate Reserve Cabernet and 2007 Right Bank Merlot. Magnifique!
Todd has started another winery operation called Ghost Horse Vineyards. This wine is all 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and it is really amazing. The problem is, the marketing efforts are a bit over the top (surprise, surprise) and the prices are insane ($500-$3,500 per bottle!). I’m not sure how well this venture is going, but we did buy a couple of bottles of his least expensive Cab. At the time, we paid $100/bottle, however, at last check, the bottles we purchased for $100 are now selling for $500. What’s more, the website sells a barrel of his finest Ghost Horse Spectre for $1,000,000. Seriously? There’s a lot I can do with a million bucks! At about $80 per bottle, I’ll stick with the Éloge. Trust me, it’s a fantastic wine on its own. But good luck with that, Todd. I hope you completely sell out of all your Ghost Horse and are wildly successful! You deserve it!
After leaving Todd, we make a quick stop at the Bouchon Bakery for the kids (ha, ha), to pick up some more of the yummy shortbread cookies they served us at The French Laundry. Chef Thomas Keller, in addition to owning The French Laundry, owns Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, and Ad Hoc, in Napa Valley, as well as Per Se in New York. And the trend at the finer restaurants in this area is to send you home after your meal with a packaged treat. The French Laundry sends shortbread cookies, and they are to die for! If you can’t make it to Napa for a stack of these cookies, you can now buy the mix at Williams-Sonoma. They sell several Thomas Keller items here, as well as all of his cookbooks.
Alas, it’s time to head back to SFO and fly home. I can’t believe this trip is over. I know something this magical can never fully be re-created, but we sure will have fun trying! This was the best birthday I have ever had and, hey, 40’s not so bad! Trust me, Sonoma and Napa are the cure for any dreaded “Big” birthday.
OK, for fun, I dug out my menus from The French Laundry and Madrona Manor, and thought it would be neat to share. Try not to drool on your keyboard. Also, the descriptions to these dishes do NOT do them justice. I stopped focusing on the descriptions, and just enjoyed each one as they arrived. They were absolutely amazing!
The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
There were two menus to choose from, the Chef’s Tasting Menu and a Tasting of Vegetables (a vegetarian option), each offering a few options per course. The following was our menu for the evening:
Chef’s Tasting Menu
“Oysters and Pearls”
“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar
“Salade de Fenouil”
Cape Gooseberries, Piedmont Hazelnuts, Summer Truffle and Mâche
Moulard Duck “Foie Gras en Terrine”
Pickled Blueberries, Caramelized Cipollini Onions, Watercress and Aged Balsamic Vinegar ($30 supplement)
Sautéed Fillet of Daurade
Globe Artichokes, French Laundry Garden Filet Beans, Jingle Bell Peppers, Parsley and Chorizo Emulsion
Cucumber-Cured Kanpachi Belly
Bing Cherries, Roasted Lily Bulb, Pine Nuts and Mizuna
Sweet Butter-Poached Main Lobster Tail, Caramelized Romaine Lettuce, Garlic Melba and “Bottarga di Muggine”
Four Story Hill Farm “Poularde”
Summer Squash, Marinated Toybox Tomatoes, Fairytale Eggplant and Squash Blossoms
Snake River Farms “Calotte de Bœuf Grillée”
Bluefoot Mushrooms, Petite Corn, Potato Confit, Purslane and “Sauce Bordelaise”
Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Rib-Eye
“Collier d’Agneau,” Black Rice, Cauliflower, Nantes Carrots, Marcona Almonds, Cilantro, Medjool Date and Curry “Jus”
Whole-Grain Mustard “Pain Perdu,” Hobbs’ Bacon, Red Beets and Mustard Greens
Manila Mango Sorbet
Compressed Summer Melon, Chili, Persian Lime and Garden Mint
“Crémeux Aux Fruits de la Passion”
Silverado Trail Strawberries, Pistachio “Pain de Gêne,” and White Chocolate Sorbet
“Peaches and Cream”
Santa Rosa Plums, Honey-Mascarpone and Tahitian Vanilla Bean-Basil Ice Cream
1001 Westside Rd.
There were two menus for the night. The first one featured up to eight courses, with usually two options per course to choose from. The courses were called: caviar; clean and crisp; soft and delicate; grain; smooth; meaty; fromages; and sweet. The other menu was the Chef’s Tasting Menu, also allowing for some options, and including wine pairings with each course, which we chose. The meal begins with hot, house-made dinner rolls and a small pot of house-churned butter. An amuse bouche might be salmon caviar and scallions in crème anglaise or something equally amusing. Our menu was as follows:
Chef’s Tasting Menu
Kindai Toro Crudo
*Paired with MV Heidseick & Co, Epernay Champagne
Estate Squash Blossom
*Paired with 2008 Lambert Bridge Viognier, Bevill Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley
Foie Gras Tasting
seared~terrine~torchon~apricot~lemon verbena~popovers~watercress ($8 supplement)
*Paired with 2008 Heymann-Löwenstein Riesling Auslese, Schieferterrassen, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer
Wild King Salmon
*Paired with 2008 Dutton Estate Pinot Noir, Carmen Isabella, Russian River Valley
Liberty Farms Duck
roasted breast~crispy confit~onion~cherry~lobster mushrooms
*Paired with 2008 Rochioli Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Grilled Beef Striploin
potato~beans~buttered radish~red wine essence
*Paired with 2006 Ridge Meritage, Santa Cruz Mountains
Madrona Manor Signature Cheese Course (Optional)
served table side~around the world “en formages”~artisinal and farmhouse cheeses “du monde”
*Paired with 2007 Rafanelli Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley
Santa Rosa Plums
corn ice cream~caramel steusel~almond-corn cake
*Paired with 2006 Greenwood Ridge Late Harvest Riesling, Mendocino County
Cart “à Glace”
ice cream sundae hand “churned” tableside using minus 320° F nitrogen~chocolate sauce~almonds~whipped cream~cherries on top ($7 supplemental)
*Paired with 2008 Alvear, Pedro Ximenez, Montilla-Moriles, Spain