I love to plan my travels around the peak of growing season or harvest festivals. My intensive eating and wine tasting trip in Napa last week was perfectly timed. The grape harvest is late this year so farmers and winemakers were available to show me around their vineyards and share leisurely conversations with us. I had fascinating chats with winemakers, fruit and vegetable farmers, olive oil producers and restaurateurs.
I had the pleasure of spending an evening in the Bardessono Hotel’s intimate courtyard, where the Hill Family Estate Winemakers hosted their annual dinner to kick off a weekend of activities called Tomatoville, an annual eating feast that celebrates the tomato harvest . Spending time in Yountville, the little town that is home to the world famous French Laundry, Bouchon, and many tasting rooms for extraordinary Napa wine makers, is always full of culinary discoveries.
If you are vegetarian or kosher like me, attending special dinners is a great way to meet up with like minded people and to partake in carefully crafted events. You love farms? Why not honor the work of chefs who focus on farm to table ingredients? Harvest dinners on the farm have the friendliest vibe put you as close to the source as you can get. You love drinking local wine in the vineyard or nearby?
A winemaker’s dinner like this one may be perfect for you. To avoid disappointment, check the menus in advance and call ahead to see if vegetarian substitutions are available. I generally find the chefs amenable. At the Hill Family Estate
Winemakers dinner only one course needed to be switched out and the chef was more than happy to substitute the beef with beautifully prepared salmon. Remember to scan the menu carefully and ask about soup and sauce bases. The odd new tendency to place a bit of shellfish on gazpacho always surprises me, so head’s up and be sure to ask in detail.
Each course was paired with Hill Family Estate wines. The brilliant winemaker, Alison Doran, addressed the long table of diners as each new course and its carefully selected wine companion was presented. She introduced each wine with lots of descriptive details, helping diners to recognize the characteristics of that particular pour. Her approachable, high spirited and articulate manner added a great educational aspect and energy to the evening.We enjoyed a magnificent heirloom tomato salad, bursting with local, end of summer flavor.
Next up was a perfectly smooth tomato gazpacho with padron peppers, followed by Alaskan halibut poached in grapeseed oil with rhubarb and a confit of Jacobsen Farm tomato and cucumber. The salmon was the switch out for the beef but I would have preferred a risotto or pasta utilizing local produce, rather than two proteins back to back. Dessert was a toasted brioche moistened by strawberry and tomato compote and black pepper sherbet. We were served 6 wines, ranging from the friendly 2010 Hill Family Estate Sauvignon Blanc to the jammy Hill Family Estate 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.
I love to finish with a dessert wine and the 2009 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc presented as tangy grapefruit but was very dessert like with a high sugar content (34%). This is an annual event and members of the Hill Family Wine club are invited first. For $95. pp this is a great way to meet the locals, enjoy a seasonal menu, taste lots of different wines and learn about how and why it all works so well together.
The next morning, we joined Ryan Hill for a tour of Jacobsen Orchards
in Yountville. This densely planted, 1.25 acre plot is a California Certified Organic farm which has been exclusively contracted to provide to the French Laundry for over ten years. Ryan Hill grew up across the path from the farm and his parents still live there, while he lives only a couple of blocks away.
Peter and Gwenny Jacobsen are his godparents and he spent many hours visiting them and working the land as he was growing up. The farm bears 120 different fruit trees, including 10 different kinds of figs, 10 different types of pears, 15 varieties of peaches and nectarines and many more unusual fruits, vegetables and edible flowers. Our tour with Ryan included only 2 other visitors, both of whom are members of the Hill family Estate wine club. We were guided by Ryan, who picked, sniffed, tasted, explained and invited us to do the same over the course of an hour and a half.
The visit is followed by a wine tasting, which we declined., having indulged a little too enthusiastically the night before. As we exited the farm, we noticed a clipboard and an old scale where the chefs weigh the produce themselves and specify what they have taken on a handwritten sheet.
This place is special indeed. It was a privilege to meet with the farmer and learn about a farm that is planted, tended, cultivated, harvested with purpose, determination and love.
Reservations for special events and farm tours may be made by contacting Hill Family Estate Winemakers and Jacobsen Orchards.