March 26, 2016

Napa Valley

How does a landscape cultivate mildness? You can find out if you go to the Napa Valley in California during spring. It is a composition of vineyards, small towns, wineries, forests and low mountain ranges that slowly narrow until you reach Calistoga. You will find some of the best restaurants in the world, expensive hotels, and rich tourists. This culture of living well is embedded into a traditional California country-side, with small towns that show their wealth through a display of modern art, beautifully maintained gardens, and vineyards that seem to belong to the surrounding nature forever.

Napa county today has around 135,000 inhabitants. The first settlers, a southern branch of the Wintu tribe, came to the valley about 10,000-12,000 years ago. They were hunter-gatherers who consumed local seafood, deer, rabbit, fowl, acorns, and roots. They lived along the creeks and rivers in small villages, and were generally peaceful. Due to the abundance of food and vegetation, a basket-making tradition emerged early on among the Indians. The Spanish arrived in the 1820s; they began to conquer and settle the area and created large cattle farms. After the 1846 war between Mexico and the United States, California was annexed to the United States,  and in 1850 California became the 31st state in the Union. Napa county was one of the original 27 counties that formed California.

The main town is Napa, with a population of 80,000, strategically located next to the Napa River. In the early years, settlers could go by boat from San Francisco all the way north to Napa, which made the town the main trading center with the rich agricultural areas further north. The first steamboat arrived in Napa from San Francisco in 1850. Commercial wine production started in 1858, and by the end of the 19th century, there were already more than 140 wineries in operation. Major setbacks came through the infestation with the Phylloxera louse that killed many of the vines throughout the valley. And when the prohibition of alcohol in the US went into effect in 1920, most wineries had to close. But Napa valley bounced back, and began to thrive again after the Second World War. The warm and protected Mediterranean climate is ideal for wine-growing, and in the 60s and 70s large-scale industrial wine-making was introduced, spearheaded by Robert Mondavi. The region got a boost from the Paris Wine Tasting competition of 1976, which included a Napa Valley Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines won in a blind tasting comparison, and this success cemented the region’s reputation as a producer of world class wines.

With the vineyards came the tourists and the restaurants. The best restaurants today can be found in the small villages north of Napa, like Yountville, Rutherford, or St. Helena. Yountville is a small town of 3000 people, but it houses 18 restaurants, and three of them have Michelin stars. The leader is still the French Laundry, a restaurant with three Michelin stars that was several times considered to be the best restaurant in the world. 1 It offers an expensive, sophisticated and yet simple menu. How do you reach and maintain a level of perfection in cooking? What happens in the kitchen is only the endpoint in the chain of production, as the French Laundry Cookbook demonstrates.  Finding and selecting the ingredients is integral to the success, and being a high-end chef today is a very intense and complex profession that has little in common with the way people cooked even 50 years ago. 2 Due to the success of his restaurant, the owner and chef Thomas Keller opened several “step-down” restaurants nearby: The Ad Hoc, and the Bistro-style Bouchon. He also opened a bakery that constantly has long lines of customers waiting outside. Other noteworthy restaurants in the valley are the Meadwood Restaurant in Rutherford, Terra in St.Helena, or in Napa La Toque, and the Japanese Morimoto.

Wines and restaurants bring a never-ending stream of tourists. Almost 4.5 million people visit Napa Valley each year, making it one of the top destination in California, and “The World’s Best Wine and Food Destination” as awarded by TripAdvisor in 2010. You can spend an entire vacation going wine-tasting and dining! (They even have a wine train that will transport you up and down the valley.) There are about 400 wineries with tasting rooms in Napa Valley, and around 600 if you include neighboring Sonoma too. Vineyards have evolved into major attractions: they offer tours, explanations, wine-making activities, nice restaurants, and, of course, shopping. In spite of so much tourism, the area has kept its low-key feeling of casual elegance, where time flows slowly, just as the grapes ripen.

At the northern end of the valley is a small town, Calistoga. Famous for its mud-baths, it is more town-to earth, and also worth a visit. If you go even further north, you will reach the large areas that were destroyed by major forest fires in 2015.

Here are some pictures from my recent trip:

Notes:

  1. The process by which these titles are awarded is questionable.
  2. For the readers who question the connection between cooking and philosophy, I like to quote from the Meadwood Restaurant’s website: We strive for seriousness, for meaning, and for permanence in our cooking. We attempt to cook in service to the place in which we find ourselves–hoping that, if we succeed in doing so well, that we may cement our legacy within this greater thing. We hold the thread of the multitudes of collaborators and of a history shared by chefs and cooks that have preceeded us. We try to do things right in how we shop and cook; how we approach the sanctity of the products that we grow and procure; how we teach and mentor and support our team. We are relentless in trying to make the food better, more delicious, more relevant, more singular, more personal. We are smart enough to know that this is a forever task, yet impetuous enough to try to still do it all today. Our food is what we give of ourselves. It is at once our daily efforts and their culmination.

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