Category Archives: napa

Was on Silent Retreat in Montecito…so what?

Garden Pond 2015I usually blog about the restaurants (you’ll see more soon) or wineries (always more to share), but today I wanted to share something a bit more personal and compelling for me as Chef and Co-owner of The Inn On First, a luxury bed and breakfast inn in Napa.

Annually Jamie gives me one week to go away so that I can spend a lot of time in silence and reflection with my BFF from southern California (Linda, whose husband is also generous in letting her go for one week).  We rent a cottage on a 25-acre retreat property, are self-sufficient for the day in terms of breakfast and lunch, and then gather at dinner to cook and share our thoughts about the day.  Each day we independently choose our theme for the day: what’s on our minds or hearts that is calling for attention?  It could be work, relationship, self, family, friends.  It doesn’t matter.  There is no formula.  You spend the day however you choose (reading a book of reflection, walking at the beach, going for a hike, sitting in your room, sitting by the river, enjoying the views, swimming in the pool, drawing pictures) and trust your heart, mind, and body to lead you through the silence.

My overall theme this year was Joy.  It always seems to elude me.  I feel love and peace so often, so why not joy?  I also know that sometimes I have to work at love:  that some days love really is a decision even though I don’t “feel” it.  That I have to work at peace: taking time to sit for five or ten minutes in quiet and solitude, a moment set aside for my heart to settle down for a bit.  So, where is joy in all of this?  And how do I go about working at it?

Over the week of reflection I realized that I have defined joy as effervescence, a giddiness or happiness that bubbles from within.  How wrong I have been!  I realized that joy is the simple action of appreciation, a moment when I am awed by nature, or touched by a friend’s concern, the deep abiding breath you take when you are simply awed by a view from the mountain top.  I came to understand that it is an “ah” (or “aha”) moment when you are not necessarily effervescent but simply in appreciation for what you have before you.  Thanks and gratitude.  Not overflowing, but simply in appreciation and simplicity.

Garden2015I returned home to The Inn On First from retreat and sat in the garden.  I saw the hummingbird feeding from the salvia flowers in the yard, watched the fish swim excitedly in the pond just before I threw in their food, and enjoyed watching a couple sit at a table, conversing and sharing a glass of wine.  I thought about all the ah-some moments I have had here at the inn over the past seven years and I took a deep sigh in gratitude.  Of course, this is my joy.  People, food, wine, nature, Napa.  All of it put before me.  Not in giddiness.  Not effervescent.  Simply grateful and appreciative for what was right in front of me.

The work of joy for me, then, is to take the time throughout my busy and not always joy-filled day to “look” for those ah-some moments: in the laughter of guests at the breakfast table, in the tenderness of a couple sitting quietly hand in hand in the yard, in the joviality of a couple playing chess over a glass of port, in the sound of a guest playing the piano in the living room, in my surprise at the guests who enjoy throwing the ball for my dogs as much as I do, in the delight of guests who share their appreciation with the morning’s selection for breakfast, in the clink of the glass cookie plate cover (meaning someone else has returned to the jar once more for some chocolate love) multiple times over the course of an evening.  All of this brings joy to me.

So don’t be surprised if you find me glancing your way with a smile as you sit in the yard sipping wine, or see me sitting in the yard with a cup of coffee enjoying a moment of quiet gratitude as you return from your day of wine-tasting, or walking by your breakfast table with an appreciative nod as you eat my food with delight.  It’s just me, working at joy, finding it in every ah-some moment put before me here at the inn, hoping that, maybe, you’ll find some too.

 

Storybook Mountain Winery: Zinfandel Lovers Pay Heed

Storybook TreeStorybook Mountain Winery  Storybook Mountain Winery sits at the northern end of the Napa Valley, about a fifty-five minute drive from The Inn On First, a premier lodging property in Napa.  Best known for Zinfandel, it has been named repeatedly as one of Wine and Spirits Magazine’s favorite wineries for Zinfandel.  Guests of the inn have also raved about this place.

Founded by two brothers named Grimm in the late 1800′s, it closed around prohibition, opened again for a short time until a fire in the 60′s cleared out the buildings.  It wasn’t until years later (70′s) that the current owners came and renamed the place with a whimsical name to reflect the winery’s past history.  They were told at the time that Zinfandel was best with the particular soil type found at the winery, and the advice they were given has proven its veracity.

Storybook View Storybook Picnic

We were given a tour of the property which, amazingly, is only tended to by four vineyard workers; they bring in no outside help.  So you can imagine how carefully the vines are tended to throughout the year.  Once up the small hillside you begin to understand the beauty of the northern Napa Valley, north of Calistoga.  Forested hillsides surround you versus the broad plain of the southern Napa Valley.

Storybook Wines Storybook Caves

Entering the caves we were led to the final tasting room under the hillside where we enjoyed a selection of their wines: the Napa Estate Zinfandel (100% Zinfandel, with cherry tones, balanced fruit and oak), Antaeus (50% Zinfandel, then blended, big fruit flavor with a bit more oak than the first, with a nice oak finish), the Napa Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (very fruit forward, light tannins, toasted wood finish), and the Napa Estate Viognier (beautiful floral, honey nose, little acidity, not buttery, not oaken, just right).

Wines range from $36 to $90.  Picnicking is allowed prior to or after your tasting in a grassy knoll surrounded by redwood trees.  Reservations are a must, and they are closed on Sundays.

Brix Restaurant: still delivering quality food and service

Always a pleasure to return to old favorites, and Brix Restaurant is one of those places.  Only a fifteen minute drive from The Inn On First, a romantic Bed and Breakfast Inn in Napa, it continues to deliver on both quality food and service.  We usually dine for lunch as we love the patio seating that overlooks the Brix Gardens and the mountains, but we went for dinner instead, to share a meal with some friends in town, Sarah and Danny.

We started with the mixed green salad, beet salad with walnut crisps and feta (loved it), and the pork belly as appetizers.  How they get the pork belly to be that delicious and tender is something I still strive for in my own cooking regimen.  The leg of lamb was so wonderful, perfectly cooked.  Not something I usually order, but it looked so delicious at another table I ordered it for myself and was glad I did.  The steelhead trout was the other special of the night, delicious in every day, grilled to perfection.  The burger, of course, a standard there, is always fun to order, and Jamie was oh so glad to have brussels sprouts with his dinner (you know I’m a hater, but can stand it if they are at the opposite end of the table).

Dessert was the weak link this visit, a caramel ice cream sandwich that didn’t quite live up to its hype.  It was tasty; just not what I expected based upon the description on the menu. For cocktail lovers, there is a full bar, and they carry a wide range of Napa wines by the glass.  For the four of us, including wine, the total bill was $325.00.  We thought it was worth every penny.

Spelletich Family Wines: it may look corporate, but really it’s just the family.

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Only a ten minute drive from your romantic Napa Bed and Breakfast Inn, The Inn On First, lies a corporate park of which there are many tasting rooms and even a wine country hotel.  We were invited to come and try out the Spelletich Family Wines, SpellWine.com, by daughter and tasting room hostess, Kristen, and her co-host, Miguel. I would be remiss if I forgot to mention the wonderful greeting from Molly, the house dog.

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On entering the tasting room you immediately sense how much work they put into the detail of the tasting room, providing a seating area with big, comfy chairs and a coffee table, as well as a large table with bar stools.  The colors, the layout, the wine display, have all been carefully crafted together to give you a homey and yet elegant feel to the room.  With nuts and crackers on the table we were escorted to our tasting chairs and presented with a menu of wines we were to enjoy for the day.  From a crisp and yet creamy Chardonnay, to a lovely, toasty Pinot Noir, and even a taste of their soon to be gone Zinfandel Port.

Barb and Tim Spelletich are the creators of these wines, and surprised us with a French Bordeaux they make.  Yes, I said French, not Napa Bordeaux-style.  They import the juice from France and make a Bordeaux of their own with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Wonderful berry notes with a bit of tobacco bring pleasure to the palate as you taste.  Then we were given the 3Spells Cabernet Sauvignon, a seductive wine that is soft, with a lot of fruit and very soft on the finish.

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We liked everything they poured and, even better, their price point is phenomenal: $10 Chardonnay, $35 Pinot, $22 Bordeaux, and $30 Cabernet.  You can’t beat that for these lovely, very enjoyable and drinkable wines.  Tasting fees range from $15 to $40 depending on how many and which wines you want to try.  I know we all think of vineyards and large wineries with spectacular views as part of the Napa experience, but finding great value and flavor in wine is part of that experience too.  The whole winery operation is there, it’s just not surrounded by vineyards.  Especially for those who have been to Napa before, or are looking for something new, different, and unusual, I would encourage you to seek out Spelletich Family Wine Company as part of your stay in Napa.

What color and flavor is Napa in Fall?

All around The Inn On First, a romantic Bed and Breakfast Inn in Napa, are streets filled with Fall Foliage.

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In June, Napa’s color is green when the leaves first break on the vines.  In July the grapes change color and reds and purples are dominant.  Once crush begins, purple and inky black colors flow in the juices being pressed.  When it is all over, though, Fall descends upon Napa, upon the vineyards, upon the streets, and city becomes a vibrant host to a rainbow of colors.

 

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This year has been intensely colorful and as I walked around the neighborhood with the dogs I was surprised by so many opportunities to enjoy what Fall has to offer in Napa.  This is what we call “Cabernet Season”.  When the weather becomes cooler and the focus of food is on stews, roasts, and slow cooked meats, Cabernet Sauvignon comes to mind as the wine of choice.  Of course, with so much to choose from here in Napa Valley it can be difficult to decide what to drink.  Like the colors on the trees, each winery provides a different approach to wine making and finding your palate can be daunting.

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As I turn the corner from The Inn On First to walk toward Jefferson Park I see bright orange colors, which remind me of bright Cabernet fruit being grown on Spring Mountain.  Pride Mountain Vineyards, Spring Mountain Winery, Terra Valentine, Barnett, and so many others.

 

Getting closer to Fuller Park I can see the subtlety of color in different trees, and I remember how different Rutherford District Cabernets are from Stag’s Leap Cabernets as are Coombsville Cabernets.  Oh we love the usual suspects: Far Niente, Cakebread, Stag’s Leap, Nickel and Nickel, Caymus, and the like.  We have also come to discover the diversity found in smaller wineries such as Baldacci, Sinskey, Regusci, Trefethen, Miner, Porter, Whiterock, and Crane Family.  Our general guideline is that if you can find the wine at home, try and find something new, different, and exciting.  With over 400 wineries to choose from, that leaves so many great options to try.

Leave time, too, to walk around the neighborhood.  The Historic District of Downtown Napa where we are located is filled with Victorians homes, Craftsman bungalows, and many other styles of architecture.  Fuller Park provides a 1/2-mile loop around the park for those looking for a short walk or run.

Lastly, as you drive through the Napa Valley, don’t forget to enjoy the great Fall colors on the vines.  Pull over, take a few pictures, and soak up all the beauty that is here for you to enjoy.

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120 breakfast recipes to choose from

I know.  We’ve read about it for years: breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day.  So here at The Inn On First, a luxury Napa bed and breakfast inn, we take it seriously.  Today we have over 120 recipes that we utilize over the course of one year.  We keep track of when you visit, what you eat for breakfast, and ensure you don’t get served the same dish again.  It is our way of keeping you excited for what is about to be presented to you each morning, no matter how often you visit us.

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It is also a way for Chef Jim Gunther not to get bored or complacent. His goal is to develop a minimum of 250 recipes before he retires.  He’s hoping for another ten years to work at it and thinks he can achieve that goal.  For Jim, it is a very Zen-like experience- you eat, you enjoy, you let it go. Something new is coming your way the next time.  ”Knowing you get to eat this breakfast but once helps the guest to savor what is present to them today,” Jim stated.  ”And in case you didn’t really enjoy that particular breakfast,” he added playfully, “you’ll never see it again.”

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So what are some of the more recent creations that have come out of The Inn On First’s kitchen?  Cheese Consomme with Roasted Potatoes and Poached Egg, Corndog omelets, Argentinian Arepas with Eggs in Chipotle Cream Sauce, Macaroni and Cheese, and S’mores French Toast are a few of the items you can expect to enjoy this year.  The key to the inn’s success?  Everything is made from scratch: from macaroni noodles, to the graham cracker bread Jim created for French Toast.  Using fresh, organic, and locally grown ingredients, the focus is on cooking seasonally and creating recipes that have “comfort food” in mind.


Carpe Diem Wine Bar and Restaurant: still producing Grade A innovation and flavor.

Only a ten minute walk from Napa’s luxury Bed and Breakfast Inn, The Inn On First, is Carpe Diem Wine Bar and Restaurant; what we call a “small plates restaurant”, meaning you order to share.  Where else can you be tempted by the daily taco of the day (filet mignon with pomegranate glaze, or shrimp pad thai, or pulled pork with a chipotle sauce, or lamb with pickled slaw- every bite delicious!) that changes all the time according to the chef’s inventiveness and seasonal ingredients.

I’m a fan of their pork steam buns, the short ribs, and their filet mignon with red rice cake.  Yet by the time you get there these may be gone and replaced with some other yummy dish for you to choose.  The fried olives are still a favorite of mine, and the truffled popcorn is downright addictive.  You swear you will stop eating it, and yet your hands keep reaching.  Jamie loved the brussell sprouts flatbread (you know I’m a hater so I don’t touch the stuff!), and the soft housemade burrata with olive oil drizzle and toast points is always fun.

This restaurant is fun, exciting, and always busy, so reservations are a must.  With so many wines by the glass, too, it makes it really interesting to try new wines with these dishes.  We’ve even had guests return two nights in a row just so they could try out other dishes and different wines.  Stephanie and Scott, Owners, Hostess and Chef, make this must-eat stop in Napa.  Oh, and seriously, if they ever take the Twix Bar off the dessert menu I might consider picketing the establishment.


Angele Restaurant in Napa: a great place for romance and dinner

Just a 15-minute walk from The Inn On First, a bed and breakfast in Napa, is the restaurant Angele.  With friends in town we decided to return to the restaurant as it had been awhile since we enjoyed the cuisine.  With a new chef in the kitchen I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I can now report we weren’t disappointed.

The marinated beet salad called to me and I was enthusiastic with every bite, especially with the addition of fromage blanc (I have to admit I have a weakness for cheese in all its forms).  I split that with Jamie as our friends split the heirloom tomato sald with figs and prosciutto (gladly they shared and we loved it).  The quail was my main course, as it sounded just too yummy to pass up with figs and pancetta-leek au jus.  Just delicious.  Jamie obviously enjoyed the braised rabbit with tomato confit which he reluctantly gave up a bite to me.

Thankfully our friend ordered the Duo de Bouef with a small filet and braised shortrib and the pork shoulder with quinoa.  To my disappointment no one ordered the sea bass, and when it was delivered to the table across the way I was sorry we couldn’t squeeze in one more dish.  Check out the full late summer menu on their website.

We still think Angele is one of the great romantic restaurants in Napa, right along the river, with great food, perfect ambience, and wonderful service.  A great value for your money.


Lunch in the mountain vineyards: a most spectacular event and only $80/pp

As we left for the day from The Inn On First, a luxury Napa Bed and Breakfast, we knew we were in for a real treat with our upcoming vineyard lunch.   You enjoy as much wine as you want from each bottle they open for you to try.  You eat to your heart’s content with incredible food from Ken Frank of La Toque.  You look down upon the beauty of Napa Valley and think: “Oh my!  I’m so lucky to be in Napa!”  You are one of the few who have discovered and enjoyed the uniqueness of Napa Valley at its best.

Chateau Patel-VGS.  Vineyard Lunch. It began with a drive up Mt. Veeder and down a long, dusty road to a gated vineyard.  We met Tony, an affable man with a great smile, and he opened the gates and invited us to follow him.  We traversed the rows of cabernet grapes, and when we spotted the pink flag on one of the stakes he proudly proclaimed: “Pick a row!  Climb the mountain.”  We did.  It wasn’t a long climb, about 50 yards, through the vines ripe with fruit, purple and luscious, hanging, waiting for you to enjoy their bounty.  I can see why tennis shoes or good hiking shoes are a must.

We found a dirt road on top and followed that up another 50 yards until we found the arbor, built specifically for this purpose.  A table, white linen table cloth and napkins, with wine glasses, silverware, and plates awaiting the diner.  As well as a gorgeous view of Napa Valley and the surrounding vineyards.

We started with a salmon spread and toast points served with their VGS Explorer Sauvignon Blanc ($25).  A crisp wine with smells of lightly buttered toast and hints of lemon went well with the salmon.  We followed this with a lovely green salad, blue cheese, candied pecans and a balsamic vinaigrette served with the VGS Chardonnay ($45), with notes of pear, green apple, and honeydew.  A beautiful combination of food and wine.  We also paired this and the next course with their cabernet-zinfandel blend called “Illegitimate” (2009) ($37).  Fruity, with flavors of tart cherries and spice, very fruit forward and big fruit flavors.

Our main course was beef carpaccio, potato salad, and marinated vegetables served with the Illegitimate and their VGS Syrah (2009) ($75) with big fruit flavors, lightly spiced, and extremely delicious.  Of course there was still the cheese course with cranberry nut bread, nuts, and three beautiful cheeses.  All that could be paired with what we already had open.  But then Tony opened a bottle of their late harvest zinfandel, called “Zinie” (2010) ($28).  Low in residual sugar and not at all like many of the dessert wines we’ve had elsewhere, it was an incredible pairing with the cheese and bread.

I have to admit that it wasn’t just the food and the wine and the view that made our day special.  Tony is an incredible host, funny, and willing to engage you in conversation about many things.  He makes you feel comfortable, even about the fact that there are no restrooms: “Just find a nice spot around the bend in the road,” he encouraged as we each took turns finding our private hideaway.  Rustic, yes, but with the views of vineyards and mountains, it didn’t matter.  For $80/pp you would be hard pressed to enjoy such a wonderful experience at any restaurant in the valley with this caliber pairing of wines for anything less.  And remember, you also get all those views on your way down the mountain!  Oh, and don’t forget to ask him: “What does VGS stand for anyway?”


Balloon Ride over Napa Valley: is it worth the money?

The Inn On First, a romantic Napa bed and breakfast inn, is happy to say that ballooning is absolutely worth the money.  Jamie is afraid of heights, was still willing to go, and would do it all over again.  Granted he won’t look over the edge of the basket and down to the ground, and yet admitted the views are stunning and incredible.  On a clear day you can see all the way to San Francisco to the south and to Mt. St. Helena to the north.  The vineyards dotted below you are just magnificent in the morning sun.

Our preferred vendor is Balloons Above The Valley.  You can be picked up for a fee, or meet at a nearby location.  They ride you out to the site (Yountvile was our starting point) and you ride for a full hour.  It is so much fun!  The largest basket holds 24 people, and even though it is tight quarters, you are not overcrowded.  It is gentle on the way up and you just float, float, float- why, just like a balloon!

They follow up their ride with a lovely champagne brunch with scrambled eggs, potatoes, bagels, sausage, bacon, cold cuts, rolls, waffles, and so much more.  Know that it requires an early morning rise (anywhere from 5:30 am to 7:00 am depending on the season) as the morning is the only opportunity they have to fly.

To contact the company visit http://www.balloonrides.com

For those who want more, watch a 4-minute Flip Video on YouTube we created:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phgUfF9S-wI&feature=g-upl