Monday, March 27, 2006

Casual Dining in St. Helena

The restaurant I most frequently recommend to my guests for a nice, casual lunch in the Napa Valley is Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena. Cindy's is perfect for visitors who want a good meal, but one that will not take two hours and set them back a chunk of change.

Lunch entrees include a burger to die for, a Chinatown duck burger, tasty Cobb and chicken curry salads, and more substantial fare that usually includes fresh fish and a "Big Beefy Cab Dish." The restaurant has a fine selection of local wines, plus many non-alcoholic beverages for those who want a break from winetasting. The No Heat-O and fresh squeezed limeade and lemonade are favorites.

Cindy Pawlcyn, co-owner of the restaurant, has been cooking in the Napa Valley for over 20 years. She opened Mustard's Grill, one of the first quality restaurants in the Valley, in 1983.

Cindy's is located at 1327 Railroad Avenue (one block east of Main Street; thus, "Backstreet Kitchen," in St. Helena. I recommend calling ahead for a reservation at (707) 963-1200.

Want a Napa Valley tour that includes a stop for lunch at Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen? Then call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Friendly Tasting Room in Carneros

Carneros is the wine growing region (American Viticulture Area (AVA)) that spans the top of San Francisco Bay. The nearby Bay provides for cooler temperatures; thus, making Carneros (sheep or ram in Spanish) an ideal locale to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Growers have also been experimenting with other varietals, such as Syrah.

Carneros' beautiful rolling hills and proximity to San Francisco (approximately one hour by car) make this a great place to taste wine. One of the friendliest tasting rooms to visit is
Nicholson Ranch, a small, family-owned winery that produces about 6,500 cases of Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and a very small amount of Merlot. The land is owned by Socrates Nicholson. (Ellis Island officials Anglicized the family's Greek surname.) Soc's daughter, Ramona, owns the winery. Both are frequently in the tasting room and available to answer your questions.

More likely you'll encounter the regular tasting room staff, which includes Bruce, Bill, Charles, Donna, Mark, and Susan. All are enthusiastic about Nicholson's wines; extremely knowledgeable about wine in general; and, most importantly, welcoming to all visitors.

Nicholson charges $10 for a flight of six wines, which you may keep to yourself or share with your companion. It's fun to compare and contract Nicholson's various Chardonnays, Pinots, and Syrahs. The staff will help you select wines that will appeal to your palate. Nicholson is open daily from 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. Tours of their caves may be arranged by prior appointment.

If you want to take a private, custom wine country tour that includes a visit to Nicholson Ranch, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking

Friday, March 10, 2006

Rubicon Estate

Yesterday I took my first guests to the new Rubicon Estate (formerly known as Niebaum-Coppola Winery). Prior to the changeover on February 1, anyone could stop into the winery; wander around the historic estate, Chateau, and museum; have a beverage at the cafe; and/or taste wine. There was a fee for tasting wine, but access to the estate, Chateau and museum was free. As a result, this was one of the most crowded wineries in the Napa Valley.

Yesterday, the facility was nearly empty. There is a $25/person fee to enter the grounds. This fee grants you access to the Chateau and museum and a tasting of five Estate wines, including their signature wine -- Rubicon. My guests enjoyed the wines, but the experience was too regimented for my taste.

Upon entry to the grounds, a staff member briefly describes the new rules and gives you an audio guide that explains them in more detail as you drive down the entry way. A second staff member takes back the audio guide. You then go to the valet stand, where you hand over your keys and receive your passport. Upon entry to the Chateau, your passport must be stamped at the concierge desk. After your tasting and visit, you return to a different valet stand, pay your $25/person fee, and get your car back. (Designated drivers are not charged.)

While the wine may be top notch, the team at the winery forgot one rule -- Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS). Winetasting is a leisurely experience. While the absence of crowds is a real plus, the experience comes across too much like an army drill.

Rubicon Estate is located Rutherford. The Chateau is open daily from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (6:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday between Memorial Day and Labor Day.)

If you want to take a private, custom tour of the Napa Valley, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Lunch in the Russian River Valley

The Russian River Valley is home to wineries producing some of California's best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I always recommend visiting this part of wine country to my guests who love Pinot. However, lunch options are limited.

Last week, I was invited to lunch at a wonderful restaurant on the east side of the Valley: John Ash & Co. Located in the Vintners Inn, John Ash features the best of California Cuisine. This restaurant was one of the first in northern Sonoma County to feature fine dining utilizing the freshest of ingredients. My group was treated to wonderful crab cakes and pork loin. Dessert options included the biggest piece of chocolate cake I have seen in many years and a tangy meyer lemon cheesecake. Vintners Inn is owned by the Carano family, who also own Ferrari-Carano Vineyards. So lunch was accompanied by three of their fine wines including their well-known Fume Blanc and a Black Muscat dessert wine that was too sweet for my taste, but loved by everyone else in my group. We enjoyed all of this great wine and food while gazing out at beautiful vineyards.

John Ash & Co. is located at 4350 Barnes Road, near the River Road exit off US 101. Reservations may be made by calling (707) 527-7687.

If you want to taste some great Pinot Noir and have lunch at John Ash, take one of my Hidden Vineyards Tours. Reservations may be made by calling (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mailing me by clicking here.