Local Flavors: Napa Valley, California - #101

For decades, people have been saying that the United States doesn't have its own cuisine  that all our gastronomic traditions were brought in from other cultures.  But in fact, there is no country with a significant culinary tradition that hasn't taken major elements from other places. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It's just that they borrowed them so long ago and used them so often that they think they belong to them.  Like my son Stephen and my winter gloves.

But from time to time, there is a point in the history of a nation’s to eating and drinking where the quality of the ingredients and the talent of the chefs become so high that they take that borrowed base and make it into something completely new.  Something that becomes an indigenous cuisine for the nation.  That's happening in a number of places in the United States, but no more so than here in California's Napa Valley.

So join me, Burt Wolf, for a look at the local flavors of Napa Valley, California.

This simple building in Napa Valley is actually one of the hottest restaurants in the United States.  It's Thomas Keller's French Laundry.  Now, there are a number of things that can produce top quality restaurant cooking in an area.  Cooking which can evolve into a distinct culinary tradition.  First is money.  If people will not pay for top ingredients and talented chefs, not much is going to happen.  The second is a local agricultural tradition.  The area must be producing good things to eat or drink, wine, cheese, beef …something. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: New York City has some of the greatest restaurant cooking in the world.  But to tell you the truth, the only thing that New York City grows is money.  And they use that money to bring in great chefs and great ingredients.  But those chefs are primarily interested in their own creativity rather than creating a local cuisine.  The one place in the United States which appears to be developing a distinct cuisine which might turn out to be a truly American style is Napa Valley.

For the last 150 years, it has been an agricultural area, and recently it has begun to attract people of considerable wealth.  The first wine makers in California were Catholic missionaries who brought vines from Spain so they could make wine for their religious ceremonies. Today there are only nine Catholic churches in Napa Valley, but more than 240 wineries.  It has become the most densely concentrated wine producing region in the world.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  For the first 100 years, the wines of Napa Valley were much better off at mass than they were at meals.  But all that changed in 1976.  That was the year that a group of California wine makers organized a comparative tasting of their California wines against French cabernets and chardonnays.  The tasting was held in France.  And the judges were French wine makers and French wine journalists.  The Americans won in both categories.  The world's perception of California wine was permanently changed. You know, when it comes to the making of food and wine, there's something very special going on in Napa Valley. 

A good place to take a look at the modern history of wine making in California is the Beaulieu Vineyard in Rutherford.  During the early 1900s, Georges de Latour, a chemist from a French grape growing family, founded his own winery in Napa Valley.  During Prohibition, Beaulieu prospered while other wineries were forced to close.  Georges happened to hold the contract to supply altar wine to the Archdiocese of San Francisco.  And churches across the country looked to the Archdiocese in San Francisco for their own altar wine. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Archdiocese referred those requests to Georges.  And Georges shipped hundreds of boxcars filled with his finest wine to the churches of the Midwest and the East Coast. 

And even though Georges was making wine for religious purposes he always made the finest wines he could.  And as those boxcars passed through Chicago, many of them mysteriously disappeared!  It seems like the fine vintages that were being presented in the mornings at mass were showing up at speakeasy meals at night.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, Beaulieu was producing excellent wines and Georges' socially connected wife began promoting them to San Francisco society.  But Georges was always interested in improving his wine.  So in 1938, he hired Andre Tchelistcheff, a Russian born, French trained wine expert who had studied at the Pasteur Institute.  Andre revolutionized wine making throughout California.

BURT WOLF AND JOEL AIKEN WALKING: Today, one of his students, Joel Aiken, is the Director of Wine Making at Beaulieu Vineyards.  Joel is also one of the great experts on how the barrel that a wine is aged in affects the taste of the wine. 

JOEL AIKEN ON CAMERA: Well in a small oak barrel, you get flavor from the wood.  It's a beautiful flavor.  The wood is aged and toasted to get a smoky, toasty, woody character that complements the wine.

JOEL AIKEN:  It's wood, so it actually breathes a little bit and it turns a very young, green, harsh wine into a nice, mature, full-bodied wine that you would want to drink.

BURT WOLF: One of the indications of the importance of wine making in Napa Valley is that the most famous wine barrel maker of France, Seguin Moreau, has set up a classic barrel making facility in the Valley.  Visitors can come in and see barrels being made with the same procedures and the same tools that have been used for hundreds of years. Our best guess is that barrel making techniques

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  were developed by prehistoric boat builders to keep water out.  But by about 2000 B.C., we see that barrel makers are using them to keep water in.  The first written reference we have to barrel making was actually Julius Caesar when he described the ancient Gauls of France rolling barrels filled with burning pitch at his troops.  In the 300s, it got to be big business.  The Catholic Church was ordering huge vats with deep submersion baptism of the newly converted.  And in the 1600s it gets to be an even bigger business when international trade and intercity trade expand and everybody wants to ship something in a barrel. 

The barrel maker is known as a cooper.  And he starts his work by selecting about 30 oak staves that were harvested two years ago, dried, and matured in the company's wood yards.  They're assembled into the shape of a barrel and held in place with metal hoops.  This process is called raising the barrel, or making the rows.  For the next half hour, the barrel is heated over a wood fired flame where the cooper sprays water inside and out.  The heat and the humidity give the wood flexibility. 

A winch is used to gradually tighten and arch the staves  producing the traditional barrel shape at which point additional metal hoops are set in place.  The dome shape that results is exceptionally sturdy and resistant to stress.  When it is lying down, which is its natural position, the entire mass of the form rests on a few square inches.  A child can easily maneuver a full, 350 liter cask with one hand.

The newly formed barrel is ready for a 15 to 20 minute toasting over an open flame.  Only the inside is toasted, and the amount of toasting is set by the winery that ordered the barrel.  Toasting changes the chemical makeup of the wood.  Hundreds of different compounds are developed, each with its own flavor and aroma.  Vanillin is the most dominant flavor, but every compound imparts some element to the wine that will be stored in the barrel.  Each wine maker has slightly different specifications for toasting all part of his attempt to control the final taste and aroma of the wine. 

After toasting, the staves are trimmed, and grooves cut in place for the barrel heads that close the ends.  The heads are cut and measured and set in place.  The final hoops go on.  Some sanding and finishing to bring out the beauty of the oak.  And finally, as coopers have done for hundreds of years, the master craftsman signs his work which means, it's time to barrel along.

The first restaurant in Napa Valley to develop an international reputation for good cooking was Mustards Grill.  It opened in 1983 with a menu that was based on regional American cooking ... which was unusual for the time.  Mustards is as easy and friendly a place as you can find.  The first course was crispy rounds of calamari with curried slaw and arugula.  Next, a grilled Mongolian pork chop with mashed potatoes and red cabbage.  The chop was marinated in hoisin sauce which adds a sweet, caramelized flavor.  For dessert lemon lime meringue pie garnished with candied lemon zest - best I've ever had.

Mustards Grill is located in the town of Yountville, which is also where you will find my favorite spot for breakfast, a down home diner cleverly called, "The Diner."  Locals love this place.  It's comfortable, friendly, and it has a great collection of art deco Fiestaware from the 1930s.  Kaaren Gann runs the place and her specialties include cornmeal pancakes with smoky linked sausage; huevos rancheros with home made enchilada sauce and chicken apple sausage; her renowned buttermilk milkshake; and last but not least, the Yountville scramble.  Scrambled eggs, feta cheese, sweet peppers and onions served with seasoned potatoes, grilled onions and melted cheddar along with focaccia bread.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And what will the crew be eating?

KAAREN GANN ON CAMERA: They can eat anything they want. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Because this is all mine.

KAAREN GANN ON CAMERA: That’s all yours, okay.

A dramatic way to get a look at Napa Valley is to take a ride in the wine plane.  Jim Higgins and his wife Kim will take guests on a private aerial tour.  It gives you a unique view of how the vineyards, mountains, lakes and canyons come together to form this beautiful valley.

JIM HIGGINS: I find this to be a particularly interesting and beautiful part because of the way that the vines kind of hang on to the hillside.  They have to really struggle to grow.  There is such fantastic drainage here that the root system actually has to dig down and work very hard.  When the vine has to work hard, it produces a more flavorful, intense grape.  And it typically works out that whatever looks good from the air typically tastes good in your glass as well.  And down to the right, you'll notice as we circle around Meadowood Napa Valley nestled in the hills.  It has its own private little valley, and you can see it clearly defined here by the golf course.  And then if you look at the large green spot in the middle that's a perfect square, that's the croquet lawn.

Meadowood is one of the great resorts in northern California, and its chef, Pilar Sanchez

will resort to any means to make a great meal.

PILAR SANCHEZ ON CAMERA: This is why chefs don't go to the gym.  We just work out.

BURT WOLF: Her opening course was a warm radicchio salad.  And the first thing that Pilar did was make a vinaigrette.  The vinaigrette is made from balsamic vinegar, sage, thyme and tarragon.  And the tool that she is using is an all-purpose wire whisk.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The job of a whisk is to multiply a single stroke into many  and that's what these wires do.  If you’re going to get an all-purpose whisk, the classic pear shape is best.  You want to make sure that there's a water-tight seal here at the top of the handle so your dishwasher can do the job it's nice to have a hook at the bottom and an ergonomic, easier grip handle is a good idea, too.

PILAR SANCHEZ: So, to this we add our radicchio that I've quartered, and then this is going to go on to the grill.

BURT WOLF: How long do you cook it?

PILAR SANCHEZ: Uh, just a couple of minutes.  Like I said, I'm just going to char it on the end, it's going to end up raw in the center.  What I'm looking for is that charred flavor.

BURT WOLF: If I don't have an open grill like this at home, can I do it in a grill pan?

PILAR SANCHEZ: A grill pan would work great.  Yes. 

PILAR SANCHEZ ON CAMERA: All right.  So, we're just going to rough chop that into bite sized pieces, like so, and then what makes this salad so special is this wonderful goat cheese that is made here in Saint Helena and I'm going to shave a good amount into it.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Pilar was using a potato peeler.  Now, potato peelers were originally designed to cut a paper thin layer of potato skin off a potato, or skin off a carrot.  When you're picking one out, best of class will usually be a swivel blade and two blades so you can draw it across it towards you.  And make sure it has a really good grip.

Next the radicchio is plated into the center of a dish and garnished with dried figs that have been poached in port wine and some thin slices of pancetta,  an Italian bacon that has been baked.

PILAR SANCHEZ: And then to finish it off,  red balsamic syrup.

BURT WOLF: Beautiful.


BURT WOLF: The main course is a pork tenderloin that is served with sweet potatoes, yams, bok choy, mushrooms, and a shallot and sake sauce.

PILAR SANCHEZ ON CAMERA: So, we're going to start by salting and peppering, which I can use some help with ...


PILAR SANCHEZ: I’ll put that over for you …

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Let me tell you what to look for when you're buying a pepper mill.  First thing is a comfortable grip.  Second, the system for refilling the mill should be different from the system for setting the grind.  You want to be able to open it up, have a wide mouth, get the peppercorns in easily, and then close it up independently of the screw that adjusts the grinds.  Because if it's the same screw that opens it to refill, then every time you refill it, you're going to have to re-find your spot where you have the grind that you want.  You also should have blades that are either stainless steel or ceramic, they will really hold their edge for a long time.  And you want it to hold at least a half a cup of pepper if you're going to put it in the kitchen.  It can hold less if it's at the table.

PILAR SANCHEZ: All right.  So, we're going to put it in my hot pan here, that I've got olive oil ready so, I'm going to just give it a nice color on all sides.  And then this is going to go into the oven for about five to seven minutes.

BURT WOLF: Mushrooms are sautéed.  Bok choy, also known as Chinese cabbage, is sautéed.  Sweet potatoes and yams are baked and then sliced.  A cylinder shaped mold is placed in the center of a warm plate.  The potatoes go into the bottom, then the bok choy, then the mushrooms ... finally, slices of the pork are fanned out on top and the mold is removed.

Wow. The shallot and sake sauce is poured around the dish, and it's ready to serve. 

Dessert was a lemon soufflé with chocolate ice cream.  The recipe starts with milk, slices of lemon peel and vanilla beans being scalded in a sauce pan.  Egg yolks and sugar are beaten together.  Pilar is using a heavy duty standing mixer

BURT WOLF ON CMAERA:  which will whip, beat, blend and knead.  And if you do a lot of baking, you're going to need one.

Next, flour is blended into the egg yolk mixture.

PILAR SANCHEZ ON CAMERA: Now, the flavors have infused into our milk it's nice and hot so, I'm slowly going to add it to our egg mixture.

BURT WOLF: The best mixers are operated with planetary action which means that the beater rotates around its own axis in the same way the Earth spins around.  And at the same time, the beater also orbits around the bowl the way the Earth revolves around the Sun. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Planetary action produces better contact between the beater and the ingredients, and the beater and the sides of the bowl which means you have to spend less time pushing down the ingredients with a spatula.

Next, egg whites are whipped with sugar until they stand in peaks.  If you're into body building,

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: you can whip those egg whites into shape in a copper bowl.  There's a chemical interaction between the copper and the egg whites that produces a thick foam texture that will hold its shape better when additional ingredients go in.  When you're picking out a bowl, you want one that is twice as wide as it is deep.  It should have a thick rim that will hold its shape when you bang against it and about a 12 inch diameter is the best for the home cook. 

Then the milk mixture comes out of the fridge.

PILAR SANCHEZ ON CAMERA: Right.  This is our pastry cream and then about one part of pastry cream, I'm going to add three spoonfuls of egg white.  And then since we're making a lemon soufflé, we'll add lemon zest.  And it goes into our prepared mold which has been buttered very thoroughly, and then into a 350 degree oven it goes.  And it comes out looking something like that.  Now, to present it to your guests, I use ice cream.  So, I'm simply going to pop my chocolate ice cream into that and that serves as my sauce and a conversation piece.

BURT WOLF:  Pilar's dessert may be a conversation piece but in Napa, a piece of almost every conversation is devoted to wine.  In these days, that includes the glassware that the wine is being served in.  The makers of Riedel Glassware believe that the shape of a glass affects the taste of the wine you serve it in.  In fact, they feel that each grape variety requires its own distinct glass.  While I was in Napa, I invited a group of wine experts to join me for a test.  We tasted the same wine in different glasses.  Ellie Mitchell walked us through the process.

ELLIE MITCHELL: We perceive sweetness at the tip of the tongue, acid and salt at the sides and underneath, and bitterness at the back of the tongue.  And our glasses are designed to direct the flow of the wine to the proper taste zones of the tongue to accentuate fruit and de-accentuate acid.  This glass is designed for sauvignon blanc go ahead and take a sip.  Sauvignon blanc is high in acid.  This glass directs the flow of the wine right to the tip of the tongue so that the fruit is accentuated.

JOHN THOREEN ON CAMERA: There's a core of fruit and just the right amount of acidity.

ELLIE MITCHELL: The acids are there for a really important reason and once the wine's in your mouth, the acids and tannins kick in and balance out at the proper time to give you a completely balanced wine.      

ELLIE MITCHELL ON CAMERA: Let's pour all of your sauvignon blanc into glass number one and smell it and tell me what you're smelling.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I can hardly smell it in this glass.

ELLIE MITCHELL: It's gone.  Now, go ahead and take a sip of it.

BURT WOLF: Completely different.  From the Riedel glass, I had the acidity across the front of my tongue and quickly down the side.  And I'm not getting any of it in this glass.

RICHARD WILLIAMS: It feels almost dead.


ELLIE MITCHELL: Now, let's move on to the Bordeaux glass.  And this glass is great for any Bordeaux style wine.  And what we're tasting right now is the Beaulieu Vineyards, and it's the Georges de Latour, it's their Private Reserve, 1996.

JOHN THOREEN: Gorgeous stuff.

BURT WOLF: Today, Riedel makes dozens of different glasses for dozens of different wines.  And most wine lovers agree that they clearly affect the taste of the wine and for the better.

ELLIE MITCHELL: Does anybody need a little bit more wine?


ELLIE MITCHELL: Is there another bottle?

BURT WOLF: I am going to get another bottle.


BURT WOLF: And my favorite wine opener.


BURT WOLF: Don't anybody drink until I get back.

All right. 

BURT WOLF: Okay.  And this is a Screwpull so we lock it on there and you pull it like that and that goes down into it.  I think it's coated with a non-stick surface and then you reverse it and it comes out.  And then you reverse it again and you lose the cork out of it.  And as long as you're here, I will point out to you when you're looking for a good corkscrew, whatever it is look right down the center and it appears to be hollow that will do a much better job for you because it gets a better grip on the cork.  If it just looks like a nail with ridges around the outside, it's much more likely to rip the cork apart.

One of the great things about Napa Valley is its gastronomic range and the extraordinary quality throughout its spectrum.  You can sit down to a formal meal at La Toque where chef Ken Frank will present a magnificent menu.

KEN FRANK ON CAMERA  AT TABLE (WITH BURT WOLF): Well, we have three different dishes here.  The first one is an unusual onion soup in that it's an old French recipe with some Roquefort cheese and a little splash of Armagnac.  The second dish here is a roast saddle of lamb with pear poached in red wine and then a sauce made from that spiced red wine and what we call our double-fried tarragon potatoes.  They're really just little square cut French fries, but they're really tasty, as of course, French fries would be, too.  And the third dish here is a deep toasted pineapple fritter with a hot buttered rum sauce and coconut ice cream.

BURT WOLF: Of course, if you're not in the mood for roast saddle of lamb, you can get on line at Taylor's Refresher for what many experts believe is the best drive-in, take-out hamburger in the country. Great fries, onion rings and milkshakes ... I strongly recommend it.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Well, that's a brief look at the local flavors of Napa Valley.  I hope you have found it refreshing.  And I hope you will join me next time.  I'm Burt Wolf.

If you would like free copies of the recipes from this program, or hundreds of other recipes from Burt’s programs, to read his special reports from around the world and interviews with leading food authorities or to order a copy of The New Cooks’ Catalogue, a critical guide that tells you what to look for when purchasing cooking equipment and utensils, with over 1,000 color photographs and recipes, just visit Burt online at BURTWOLF.COM.