Dining Out On A School Night

While we had every intention of preserving our financial resources by limiting our dinners out to weekends only, we couldn’t resist this one, and we are glad we didn’t. Thanks to a posting in the www.napalife.com newsletter (which my old Silicon Valley compadre Paul Franson publishes), we learned of a winemaker dinner taking place this past Tuesday evening at the Farmstead Restaurant in St. Helena. I have long had my eye on this restaurant, which features sustainably-farmed ingredients on the menu, and now that a Chappellet wine dinner was being offered for only $60 per person, including wine, I couldn’t pass it up. Only 30 seats were available, and even though I called just one day in advance, we were still able to secure our spots. It was on.

Tuesday happened to be the day the temperature crested 90 degrees, so it was a wonderfully warm and gorgeous drive for 15 miles up to the restaurant. The restaurant is located directly next to Tra Vigne, the established eatery that is also on our to-do list. The restaurant is adjacent to, and part of, the Long Meadow Ranch winery, also to be visited. Inside, the beautiful restored farmhouse was open, spacious, and architecturally very pleasing to the eye, with interesting light fixtures, open beams, exposed ductwork, and beautiful wood tables and chairs. While there is a gorgeous patio for al fresco dining, our group was assigned to the long community table near the bar area. We were seated and met the guests who had already arrived, and the other guests convened soon thereafter.

As the first wine of the evening was poured (a surprisingly good 2009 Chappellet Chardonnay), I met the folks seated around me: a food and wine writer from West Palm Beach and her husband, a national food and wine writer/editor from Yountville, the significant other of winemaker David Archer  (a boutique winemaker from the Valley, who was not in attendance himself), and the assistant winemaker at Bryant Family Vineyards (one of the true Napa Valley Cult Cabernets, at $325/bottle if you can get it. And you can’t.) Okay then! Just the kind of people we had hoped to meet when we moved here! Further down the long table were a couple of folks from the host winery, including Jon-Mark Chappellet, one of the many offspring who work at this family-run winery. Jon-Mark made the rounds of the table several times during the evening to engage us all in conversation and talk about the wines, but it was otherwise difficult for those of us at one end of the table to get to know the guests at the other end of the table. But we were certainly not wanting for conversation.

Our server, Yousef, explained to us that we would be dining on everything we saw listed on the special menu before us, and it would be served family style, so we did not have to worry about “choosing.” Thank goodness, because we were having a tough time deciding. Soon the appetizers came out on large plates, which we passed among ourselves.

My favorites were the “Potted Pig” with homemade mustard and toast, and the grass-fed beef meatballs with caramelized mirepoix (vegetables) and tomato marmalade. A third starter, cured ham and apple butter sandwiches on warm cheddar biscuits, was also quite tasty.

As we moved to the second course, we shifted to a medium-bodied wine, the 2008 Chappellet “Mountain Cuvee” Napa Valley Cabernet Blend, which I would describe as a serviceable red but not all that interesting. It did go well, however, with the second course, which included a salad of lacinato kale with chile pequin,lemon and toasted grana; homemade cheddar drop biscuits and potato rolls; and roasted beets with redwood hills feta.

For the main course, we moved up to the 2008 Chappellet “Signature” Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which, even at its young age, was tasting very smooth and luscious, with great fruit and nice (but not overbearing) tannins. This was accompanied by passed platters of roasted porchetta with crackling (and if you don’t know what crackling is, you are really missing something), Long Meadow Ranch grass-fed New York steak with cabernet butter, creamy broccoli and potato purée, and a lovely halibut selection. A short time into this course, Jon-Marc surprised us by pouring some of their high-end wine, the 2008 Pritchard Hill Cabernet, which was just featured in the Sunday Chronicle and fetches $135 a bottle. It was a magnificent wine for such a youngster, very full-bodied with a luscious mouth and great length. (I know it sounds like I am describing my wife, but I am actually talking about the wine.) It was a special treat, and I took full advantage of the fact that the bottle was placed in front of me after everyone had been served.

During dessert (some amazing assorted homemade cookies and small chocolate tartlets with whipped cream) a raffle was held among us for a magnum of 2003 Chappellet Merlot. Lo and behold, my wife was the lucky winner, and she has deigned to share the bottle with me if I promise to behave. So, I have a fighting chance.

All in all it was a great evening, at a very reasonable price (I am not even factoring in the free bottle of Merlot) and we made some nice new friends with whom we are already making follow-up plans. We also discovered a great new restaurant to frequent.

By the way, the Farmstead offers a rather small wine-list, although it does feature the highly-regarded wines of Long Meadow Ranch. However, the Farmstead is unique in only charging $2 corkage per bottle, and donates that money to charity. So…. if you spend the day wine tasting and find something you like, you can bring it with you to dinner at the Farmstead. And that is one of the very best deals in town.

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