Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Guest Post | reservations at The French Laundry

Before Stefie and I finish up our main entry for The French Laundry, we figured it'd be worthwhile to first write a short post detailing the reservation process. We spent a great deal of time researching everything online in order to figure out the best way to score a table -- so we hope our efforts will be informative, as there is a lot of outdated/incorrect information floating around out there.

Getting a reservation at The French Laundry is incredibly difficult. There are only sixteen tables in the entire restaurant (some of them for two people, others for four or more), and a given meal takes anywhere from three to four hours. Couple that with world-class fame, and you've got a real challenge on your hands. You typically need to make your reservation two months in advance either by phone or through OpenTable. For instance, if you wanted to eat on June 6, you'd need to make the reservation on April 6. You can try to snatch tables earlier than two months in advance with a decent concierge service (such as the kind that come with a Black American Express card if you just so happen to sweat diamonds for a living). Another option is to go with a group of 8-10 people and book a private reservation up to a year in advance in order to circumvent the mayhem entirely. The phone lines open at 10 AM Pacific Time, and OpenTable reservations are released manually at either midnight or from 8:30-10:00 AM at the restaurant's discretion. An agent from The French Laundry explained to me that OpenTable reservations are released in the morning hours more often than they are at midnight. Cancelling can be done at any time, but if it's done within 72 hours of the reservation, there is a opportunity-cost penalty of $100 per person that doesn't show up. The same logic applies if you show up as a party of two having reserved a table for four (you'll get charged an extra $200).

Stefie and I were planning our entire trip to San Francisco around our potential reservation. On March 19th, we whipped out our phones at 1:00 PM Eastern Time (three hours ahead of the west coast) and began dialing with fingers of fury. Even when I ran my phone's speed-dialer at a rate of one call every 6 seconds, I was unable to penetrate through the inhumanly-thick wall of busy signals for over half an hour (yes, over 300 calls!). By the time I got through, all of the tables were inevitably taken. We were offered a chance to hop on the waitlist, but even then, the list doesn't move very quickly since people don't cancel often.

On March 20th, the same thing happened again -- busy signals for half an hour straight. The situation looked bleak. What made matters even worse is the fact that securing tables for two is even harder than securing tables for four. The restaurant makes more profit from serving larger parties, and so there are simply fewer tables for two available, making an already-precious commodity that much more elusive.

Needless to say, the phone approach doesn't really cut it. OpenTable is a bit more forgiving. However, you need to be fast. Not only is it essential to spot the table the moment it pops up on the screen, but you also need to click it, enter in your information (name, address, credit card information, etc), and confirm the reservation in order to actually seal the deal. Lunch is served from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday only, and dinner is served every day from 5:30 PM to 9:15 PM. OpenTable performs a two-hour sweep in each direction centered on the time you search for, so you should either enter 12:00 PM for lunch availabilities, or 7:30 PM if you'd prefer dinner instead (the lunch and dinner menus are the same). Tables for two are most easily achieved during lunch hours. Keep in mind, though, that it's pure chance when it comes down to which tables are actually available on OpenTable. It's entirely possible that no tables get released at all because they've already been booked for whatever reason, and so getting a reservation online still requires luck -- just not nearly as much luck as the phone route because you have a bit more control over the process.

Luckily for us, we managed to claim a reservation for lunch at 11:15 AM on May 21!

It also happened to be the only lunch table released online that day (nothing else had been released at either midnight or from 8:30 onward). This reservation was acquired just after 10:00 AM Pacific Time on March 21, 2011.

Findings: Definitely do your research before you plan your meal at The French Laundry, especially if you're going to leverage the OpenTable approach. Be flexible, above all -- we found that to be the most important part of the process. We were lucky that we planned our trip around a Friday and a weekend, giving us multiple opportunities to nab any/all possible lunch reservations along with potential daily dinner reservations. Parties of four seem to be "easier" to obtain, so try to shoot for that if possible. Also, patience is key. You will most likely experience frustration when you start the reservation process. Just take it one day at a time, get friends to help you out, and take whatever reservation you can get (figure out the details later). Good luck!

Price point: free to sign-up for an OpenTable account, and varying costs for concierge services or making domestic calls to Yountville, California.

--March 21, 2011

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
call (707) 944-2380 or visit the French Laundry OpenTable page for reservations
also review the restaurant's reservation policy on its official website


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Chef's Tasting | ad hoc

After a long afternoon wine tasting at a couple vineyards in the Napa Valley (posts to follow), we headed over to Chef Keller's ad hoc in Yountville (down the road from The French Laundry) for dinner.

I love the signage that ad hoc decided to use as its logo (along with the clever tagline)--very appropriate once you know and understand its back story. ad hoc was originally intended to be a very different type of restaurant--ad hoc, meaning "for this purpose," was chosen to literally fill the purpose of being a temporary restaurant while the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (TKRG) was working on the design of the originally planned restaurant and its accompanying space. The idea behind "ad hoc was simple--five days a week, it would offer a four-course family-style menu that changed daily, accompanies by a small accessible wine list in a casual setting reminiscent of home." There was such a positive response in the community to ad hoc that the TKRG simply couldn't close it, abandoning the space's original plans. I'll explain more about the logo's design when I get to ad hoc's menu.

Really cute pails of flowers and clementines at the mâitre d' desk.

The other "trademark" of ad hoc--this pig!

The bar at ad hoc.

Inside the dining area of ad hoc.

View from our table inside ad hoc.

Here's the logo infused with the restaurant's physical menu--a tabbed folder label! How awesome is that?!

The menu is formatted like a temporary construction agenda--it even has those dual prongs to indicate that changes can change (in ad hoc's case, daily) at a moment's notice. Included in the menu is the dinner menu (left) and the small, accessible wine list (right).

A closer look at the dinner menu--love the construction hat on the pig! Plus, the date is right on top and the day of the week is marked with a red markered X!

Bread basket!

Since we had gone wine tasting all afternoon, we all opted for non-alcoholic drinks. Bill had the dry meyer lemon soda by Grown-Up Soda. I had a sip of this, and it was very citrusy. It reminded me a lot of the limonata by San Pellegrino.

Marcus went with the dry cranberry lime soda by Grown Up Soda. Marcus enjoyed the citrus hint to the sparkling cranberry juice.

I initially wanted the Waialua mango soda, but ad hoc was sold out, so our server recommended the Blenheim fresh ginger ale to me. There certainly was lots of fresh ginger in it! The ginger flavor was very biting yet had a nice refreshing aftertaste. Once I got closer to the bottom of the bottle, it was a lot stronger than it was initially, making it hard for me to finish the rest. So if you're a ginger lover, this soda is for you!

The first course on the dinner menu was a frisée and watercress salad with smoked duck breast, pixie mandarins, toasted hazelnuts, Kalamata olives, shaved red onion, breakfast radish, and citrus vinaigrette. It reminded me a lot of the smoked duck salad I had at The Ginny Lee over at Wagner Vineyards by the Finger Lakes last month. This frisée and watercress salad was a nice blend of smoky (from the duck), citrus (from the mandarins and dressing), bitter (from the watercress and other greens), and crunchy (from the radish and hazelnuts). It was a great summer salad--filling yet refreshing. The hazelnuts were also lightly toasted, bringing out its crisp flavor out even more! The simplicity of the ingredients within this salad is what makes it so great, proving you don't need crazy fancy ingredients to make a really good salad.

We were served Snake River Farm's Kurobata pork short ribs with marble potatoes, cippolini onions, English peas, white corn, roasted broccoli rabe, fried hen egg, and Fuji apple mustard as our second course. These short ribs had the most tender and softest meat I've ever had (with pork). Juicy with a bits of fat on the side--so delicious! The charred bits on the skin of the short ribs were my favorite part--definitely gave the ribs some ruggedness! The medley of marble potatoes, onions, peas, and white corn was very fresh and seasonal, and after breaking the sunny-sided eggs, the runny yolk and the fried whites, the mixture just got even better! Like a spring time potato hash, it went great as a side to the short ribs. This course really reminded me of something served at a farm dinner--very much in tune with the theme of ad hoc.

There was an additional (but optional) course (putting the total courses at five) as a $16 supplement to the dinner prix fixe--it consisted of stuffed piquillo peppers with garden cabbage, Carolina rice, and gulf shrimp. We were already feeling kind of full when we arrived at the restaurant, so we opted out. If I ever make it back to ad hoc, I will definitely try to come with a relatively empty stomach so I can enjoy the whole experience with the possibility of an additional fifth course, for sure!

The third course was a cheese dish--patacabra (Spanish for "goat's leg"--the meaning stems from the cheese's unusual shape) with palladin toast and Marshall's Farm wildflower honey. Patacabra is a Spanish cheese from Zaragoza located in the Aragón region. I was a little apprehensive about trying the cheese (I was worried about how my taste buds and how my body would react to it), but after Bill tried a piece with the palladin toast and a little drizzle of wildflower honey, he urged me to have a bite, reporting that it wasn't too strong and that I'd be able to handle it. I wanted to be braver on this trip than I've ever been before, so I just went for it. I sliced a little bit of cheese and added a drop of wildflower honey--all on top of the toast and went in for a taste. The cheese was tolerable for me, even though it was pretty pungent. It was also very smooth in texture and robust in flavor. I could only take a couple bites because it ended up being a bit heavy for me (you see, I was getting to be quite full at this point). It actually reminded me a lot of the crostini di fichi that I had at Maialino a little under a year ago--more specifically, the concept of cheese with a good amount of artisanal honey. If I hadn't been so full, I think I would've enjoyed it a bit more (as well as tolerated a few more bites).

For dessert (as well as the last course), the kitchen served us strawberry rhubarb crisp with vanilla ice cream. For having not really been exposed to much rhubarb in cooking before, I really liked this dessert and how it was done--a great balance between creamy and tart. It reminded me of a summer fruit pie a la mode, only more relaxed and casual in construction, as if the crust was just crumbled on top instead of enveloping the contents.

Right as we were leaving, Bill spotted Chef Keller having dinner with another guest at one of the tables in the dining area! Last time Bill was at ad hoc (also his very first visit), he and Pam were having dinner when they found Chef Keller having dinner at the bar! Crazy how both times he's been to ad hoc, Chef Keller is present! I know Marcus and I haven't finished our post on The French Laundry (I promise it'll be up in the next week or so), but I need to mention that we weren't expecting Chef Keller to be at either French Laundry or ad hoc, let alone in town at all. I know he had been in New York in the previous weeks for the opening of Bouchon Bakery near Rockefeller Center as well as for the 2011 James Beard Awards, so I was totally convinced he would still be on the East Coast. But somehow, Marcus and I saw him coming out of the kitchen at The French Laundry (will fill you in on this later), and now there was a second sighting (for us and for Bill)--Chef Keller having dinner at his very own ad hoc! What are the odds?! Pam likes to say that I have really good "chef-dar"--I wonder if that's what it is, or if it's just pure luck that I seem to run into chefs so randomly. In either case, just thought I'd note that here!

Findings: The dinner menu at ad hoc was really well done. It was a meal comprised of simple ingredients and straightforward preparations--just like how a meal at home with family would be. It was nice to see how Chef Keller can leave the realm of high cuisine (though, not saying that ad hoc doesn't require the same skills, talent, and knowledge) to tackle the field of traditional home, family-style cookery, successfully executing both with elegance and detail. The seasonality of the ingredients here on the West Coast is so phenomenal--there are so many varieties and kinds of produce and such that I've never even heard of or knew existed! It is so awesome to see these newly discovered items used to their potential in vibrantly tasting (and looking) dishes at restaurants like ad hoc. So I'd say making a stop at ad hoc is well worth it--especially if you're looking to take a break from all the rich and savory meals you'll probably be having during a visit to San Francisco and the Napa Valley. The flavors here are straightforward and easy to understand with some nice surprises added in for good measure.

Price point: $4-5 for each soda, $52 per person for daily dinner menu.

--May 22, 2011

ad hoc
6476 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

Friday, May 27, 2011

Lunch | Ubuntu

During our second day trip to the Napa Valley, Marcus and I went to Ubuntu with Bill in the actual town of Napa. Unfortunately, Pam couldn't make it out with us, but I hope to return again with her next time I'm in town!

You may ask what kind of restaurant is housed in the same building with the same name as a yoga studio. In fact, you may have guessed correctly--Ubuntu is a vegetarian restaurant. Now, don't laugh. It's really not what you think--let me explain.

I first heard about Ubuntu via Frank Bruni, during a book signing at Barnes & Noble Lincoln Triangle back in the Fall of 2009. After briefly discussing his new memoir at the time, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater, there was an audience Q&A in which someone asked him what his favorite restaurant was. He responded saying he couldn't name one favorite but instead listed noteworthy meals he has had in the last couple years. He briefly mentioned Ubuntu and how the vegetarian restaurant affiliated with a yoga studio blew he and his carnivore ways (as well as his doubtful preconceptions) out of the water, completely changing his appreciation for non-meat focused cuisine. I later found out he named Ubuntu as the second Best Restaurant in the U. S. Coast-to-Coast (i.e., excluding New York City) in 2008, after an early visit there that year.

I also remember having a conversation with Bill and Pam about Ubuntu prior to attending Mr. Bruni's book signing. Bill told me how it was a very transformative meal for him. His meal at Ubuntu totally changed his view of the common notion that vegetarian meals will always feel like it is missing something--that something being meat. He didn't even feel like anything key was missing from any of the dishes--they seemed complete as standalone courses. I am a lover of veggies, so I wanted to see what Chef Aaron London could do with vegetables and non-meat ingredients to change the minds of these two intense carnivores (i.e., my cousin, Bill, and Mr. Bruni).

Just a little background on Chef London. He attended the Culinary Institute of America and staged at the renowned kitchens of Daniel and Café Boulud in New York City, Restaurant Au Pied Cochon in Montréal, as well as Blue Hill at Stone Barns of Pocantico Hills in Upstate New York. After working at these establishments, Chef London traveled to Europe where he staged at a few restaurants along the way. During his time in Europe, his father mentioned the opening of Ubuntu, and seeing Ubuntu as a potentially his "dream restaurant," he headed back to the U. S. with the determination to work there. Finally landing a place in the kitchen at Ubuntu, he worked from line cook all the way up to executive sous chef followed by a promotion to chef de cuisine under Chef Jeremy Fox, the restaurant's former executive chef. Chef London remained chef de cuisine for about a year before assuming the lead role in the Ubuntu kitchen.

Inside Ubuntu. The name of the restaurant comes from ubuntu, "an ethic or humanist philosophy focusing on people's allegiances and relations with each other emphasizing community, sharing, and generosity." The word has its origin in the Zulu people of southern Africa and was introduced to Ubuntu owner/founder Sandy Lawrence during her work in South Africa over a fourteen-year period.

When given the option of sitting inside or outside, we opted for outdoor seating as the weather was gorgeous up in Napa.

We started with an order of the local Marcona almonds seasoned with homemade Vadouvan spice and sweet herbs. Vadouvan is a French spice derivative of Indian curry. This French derivative takes a variant of a masala and adds additional spices, such as shallots and garlic. We immediately became addicted to these Marcona almonds--they were freshly roasted with the Vadouvan spice and had an interesting oil drizzled lightly throughout. I don't believe I've had Vadouvan with anything before this meal--it has a surprising zinging initial taste that is rounded out after a few chews of the almonds when the shallots, garlic, and sweet herbs wash in. These almonds had an especially mesmerizing effect on Marcus. In fact, we had to ordered another so his craving for them could be sated, but I still think he's craving them! Highly recommend these to be shared among the table (or whoever gets to them first)! Warning though--addiction formation very likely!


I ordered a fresh squeezed lemonade. Very subtle lemon flavor and slightly sweet, which was a nice alternative to being drowned in sugar.

Marcus had the orange-carrot juice with a spiced rim. The juice was really refreshing with the added clean and natural flavors of carrot juice. The balance with citrus and root worked very well here. The spices on the rim of the glass livened up the juice a bit as well.

Bill had the Ubuntu vegan milkshake made using house-made almond milk, bananas, and spices. This drink was also refreshing, but in a heavier way, as almond milk was used as the shake's base. Very strong banana flavors and the spice gave the shake a little more depth than just nutty creaminess, which was great.

We got four courses to be shared family-style, all per suggestions by our server, who was both patient and helpful in our ordering process. Her first suggestion was the roast and raw asparagus with cool burrata coated with salt-n-pepper potato chip crumbs, potato skin puree, pine nut and currant soffrito, and Surrey arugula. Served on the colder side, the asparagus was tender and had a cool, roasted taste to it--not at all bitter. The cool burrata (i.e., fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream) was so incredibly soft, having that elastic creaminess of soft melted fresh mozzarella. The coat of salt-n-pepper potato chips was fun and added a crunchy contrasting texture to the burrata. This dish made for an interesting twist on the typical salad that you find on most menus--it wasn't overwhelming, but instead a light mixture of fresh and new flavors.

Our next course was today's fresh extruded Seville orange fregola (i.e., a Sardinian toasted pearl pasta) with Hakurei and Scarlet Damsel turnips, green garlic, and Parmesan broth. The fregola was a different texture of pasta than I am used to having. The fregola was slightly chewy with a hint of orange and moist from the Parmesan broth. It reminded me of a barley soup but the barley is softer and less grainy and the soup portion is mostly a sauce. I also thought the cheese and the Parmesan broth would be overpowering (as many dishes coated in Parmesan are for me), but it was just enough for a bit of flavor. I'd love to work with fregola in the future--it definitely has a lot of potential as a pearl pasta to be featured in many dinner options.

This dish had organic Arbuckle grits cooked with goat’s milk whey and blistered fava beans served with English peas confit in allium oil, pistachio, assorted mints, and lemon balm. The texture of the grits reminded me of freshly-milled polenta--creamy yet a little grainy. The fava beans and English peas gave the dish some color as well as some vegetable crunch. The lemon balm added a fresh zing to the overall taste of the dish. This was definitely one of my favorite lunch dishes we had.

We were still a little hungry after having shared the first three courses, so we ordered one last dish--the warm focaccia with truffled pecorino from Florence (shaved thinly on the side) and apricot-almond agrodolce served with ping-pong radish, crudité, Sylvetta arugula, and golden pea shoots. I wasn't sure how I'd take the truffled pecorino, so I requested it on the side. After Bill took a bite of the focaccia with a few shaved pieces of truffled pecorino and advised me to do the same because it made it that much better, I trusted his judgment, and I'm glad I did. It really made that much of a difference! Even before placing the cheese on top of the focaccia, you can certainly smell the wafting aroma of the truffles infused in the pecorino shavings. The shavings were soft, almost like air, that would meld right into the contents atop the focaccia, bringing all of the ingredients together to make a cohesive opened face sandwich. You could also taste the freshness of the other ingredients--as if they had just been picked!

Findings: Surprisingly enough, this lunch at Ubuntu was quite filling for the three of us. Marcus and I had a feeling that we'd leave wanting to grab a burger at In-N-Out or something to satisfy the remaining hunger we had anticipated on having upon leaving. Ubuntu really proved us wrong there. In Mr. Bruni's review of Ubuntu, he notes that he and his dining companion found it strange there wasn't "a grain of brown rice" or "tofu" to be found on the menu--the stereotypical ingredients that the general public believes to be found in these "alternative/vegetarian" restaurants. That's just it though--Ubuntu's forte. It is in the business of subtly converting these stereotypes and preconceptions into belief and trust that "meat" isn't essential to making a great meal; that there doesn't need to be "substitutions" (i.e., synthetic meat and the like) or "reductions" (i.e., taking out where meat typically would be) to do this--just really fresh produce and ingredients creatively fused and crafted. Even though it was a light lunch, I didn't feel hungry any more--just pleasantly full. Sitting outside in gorgeous weather added to the great lunch we had. Everything we ordered illustrated the potential that vegetables and non-meat ingredients have to create wonderful and delightful dishes without that feeling for omnivores (particularly carnivores) of a massive void in which the traditional meaty protein belongs. The service at Ubuntu is also noteworthy--our server was happy and willing to answer all of our questions about all menu items and provided many great recommendations. In fact, the four main courses we ordered were all thanks to her aptly chosen suggestions. My faith has been restored to the power of other ingredients besides traditional proteins holding their own. It's no wonder that Ubuntu was award with one Michelin star for 2011 ("a very good restaurant in its category"). So in summary, if you have trouble figuring out what to order, please at least opt for the marcona almonds, the orange-carrot juice, and the warm focaccia. You'd be crazy not to love those!

Also, thanks to Bill for taking us out to Ubuntu for lunch! We really enjoyed it!

Price point: $5-7 for each non-alcoholic drink, $7 for each bowl of almonds, $15-18 for each garden menu item.

--May 22, 2011

1140 Main Street
Napa, California 94559

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tastings | Swanson Salon

After our epic meal of a lunch at The French Laundry (post to come soon!), Marcus and I drove around on St. Helena Highway for a bit before making our scheduled stop at Swanson Vineyards.

For the two of us, I made an appointment for a "Bon Vivant" tasting at the Salon at Swanson Vineyards, "a formal tasting experience exploring the breadth and depth of our cellar" advertised on its website.

When I turned into Manley Road, where the Swanson Salon is located, I had missed the entrance, originally thinking it was a private driveway. In fact, it was the right one! Luckily, someone down the road was able to point me back there!

When I turned into this private-looking driveway, I had to ring in to the reception to confirm my reservation at the Salon. Such an interesting touch to the whole experience, adding a little tasteful pretension and exclusivity!

Once we confirmed our reservation, the opened the gates to this beautiful lot, surrounded by gorgeous wildflower gardens.

Once we parked, the salonnière (i.e., the keeper of the Salon), Rosemary Walls, welcomed the two of us with two glasses of Swanson's Rosato, a 2010 rosé made with Sangiovese grapes. For me, it had a really nice peach aroma to it, which I love in a summer wine. It is very fruity all around--for taste, it is dry on the palate and surprisingly full-bodied. There are tastes of bing cherries on the finish. Per our Salon tasting host, the Rosato works well as an aperitif and pairs very nicely with lighter fowl, especially turkey, chicken, and Cornish game hen. I couldn't help myself--I picked up a bottle of this refreshing wine on my way out!

Outside of the Salon is a beautiful courtyard with antique looking patio furniture and fixtures.

Outside the entrances to the Salon (left doors) and the Swanson Sip Shoppe (right doors), a "whimsical shoppe" that "showcases sips of Swanson Vineyards' finest library of vintages paired with the perfect morsel."

The Sip Shoppe features its own tasting menu, offering different tastings to sate any palate!

A lemon tree just outside the Sip Shoppe.

Sip Shoppe tastings are served in charming glass “Dixie” cups, mini Riedel Os, and tiny crystal cordials in 1.5 ounce sip sizes.

Advertised as a "candy store for adults," the Sip Shoppe also "showcases carefully curated gifts and select wines available by the case and the bottle." Its interior is "from the vision of some of America’s finest talents." Swanson Vineyards' partners include retail genius Andy Spade; renowned illustrator Jean-Philippe Delhomme (as previously mentioned); interior designer Thomas Britt; illustrious chocolatier Katrina Markoff of Vosges Haut Chocolate; singer Vanessa Carlton and her exclusive stationery line (unique to Swanson Vineyards); avant-garde florist Torryne Choate; and renowned California painter, Ira Yeager.

More of the beautiful goodies offered at the Sip Shoppe.

Let's rewind a little bit before I proceed to the Salon tasting. I had first heard of Swanson Vineyards through Oh Joy!'s design blog. Joy had blogged about the whimsical wine maker last September, and I fell in love with its illustrations and "Modern House Wine" collection of "occasion" wines (what a brilliant idea)! After perusing the website, I stumbled upon something that couldn't have been more perfect at the time. An explanation regarding this little something requires me to backtrack into the annals of my personal history (well, maybe not that far back)!

I don't think I've mentioned here on Four Tines as to how Marcus and I met. A little over a year ago, we both met on a little dating site called eHarmony (I guess not so little, haha). I signed up on a random Sunday afternoon, just as a little experiment to see what dating was like via the interwebs, and I honestly didn't expect anything to come of it. After thoroughly completing a somewhat confusing personality test, I began to fill in the required fields of my dating profile. That was when I was determined to be different and original, which meant that no matter how much I love long walks on the beach and similar cliché activities, I would go the route of mentioning things that were truly "me," as a way for me to stand out from other possible matches. One of these little things I had disclosed was that I keep a list of words that I like, listing a few of my favorites, which include crestfallen, nosedive, crepuscular, and lovelorn.

One of my good friends told me that I shouldn't include something so arbitrary like that. "It isn't a good idea, Stefie," she said. "You might scare them away." I'm glad I went with my gut, not heeding that advice at all. Little did I know that the inclusion of this little tidbit about myself would be my key to finding the guy I've been search for all along--the one who knows exactly how to hold my heart (you can thank Sara Bareilles for that beautifully written line).

I had barely been on eHarmony for twenty minutes, and there he was--Marcus, my first match. Tall, mysterious, and one for loving to try new food--he sounded very promising. After answering round of standard questions on both ends and following the proper steps on eHarmony in less than a day, we finally started exchanging real messages via e-mail. The first thing he said to me after greeting me hello was followed by this: "Before I say anything, there's something on your profile that I just have to point out because the coincidence is just too awesome not to mention. 100% serious--I also keep a list of words that I like, and 'crepuscular' has been #2 on my list since high school (#1 being 'effervescence'). I almost couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that."

Needless to say, I only went on one "first date" using eHarmony (with my first match, no less!), and we've been happily together ever since, attributing the crazy serendipity of how we met to one beautiful word: crepuscular (essentially meaning "resembling twilight"). With that being said, this whole story has a point, I promise--it brings me back to how Swanson Vineyards comes into play, i.e., how I stumbled upon something in its online shop that relates to our love for the word crepuscular.

Swanson produces a dessert wine called Crepuscule (French for "twilight"). Crazy, right?! It was so hard to keep this a secret from Marcus. I knew we had discussed a possible visit San Francisco and the Napa Valley in the near future at that point in time, so I didn't want to spoil the surprise by simply blurting it out. I wanted him to experience it firsthand with me, both through vision (seeing the French equivalent of the word on the bottle) and taste (experiencing the delightful sweetness of Swanson's premiere dessert wine). And if we didn't make it to California as planned, I figured I would just order a bottle for us to enjoy back in New York for our one-year anniversary at twilight (yes, I'm indeed a sucker for puns--sue me, haha). In either case, it required me to keep it a secret, which was so freaking difficult, because I wanted to share it with him so badly. Nevertheless, I remained strong in keeping it a surprise. Luckily, we did make those plans for San Francisco and the Napa Valley after all, and after coordinating with the lovely people at the Swanson Salon, I was able to arrange for a tasting of the Crepuscule (more on that shortly).

One of the walls of the Salon, decorated with gift packages made by Swanson. Love that box that reads "For The Person Who Has Everything"--so cute!

The fireplace that is on the opposite wall of the Salon. I love the starfish that line the fireplace mantel. There is also a bottle of Angelica, its rare nightcap made from Mission grapes.

We sat at a hexagonal table with eight other individuals participating in the tasting, all seated on the fanciest and elaborate of hardwood chairs and benches. Typically, a "Bon Vivant" tasting at the Salon consists of eight people, but they squeezed in two extra people at the last minute as a favor to one of the parties. It turned out to be a lovely and fun group!

Tasting notes!

The Swansons began their venture in the wine industry back in 1985, when Clarke Swanson, the proprietor of Swanson Vineyards, "purchased a 100-acre properly on Oakville Cross Road in the heart of the Napa Valley. He was fortunate to obtain the services of André Tchelistcheff, one of the 20th century’s most sought-after winemakers, as a consultant, and in the bold business style long associated with the Swanson name, planted Merlot in the heart of Cabernet Sauvignon country," making the Swansons one of the earliest producers of Napa Valley Merlot. Today, while its wines are extraordinary, the mission of Swanson Vineyards is straightforward: "to celebrate the simple pleasures in life, made better with wine." Even the eldest Swanson daughter, Alexis (also the Creative Director), says it best: "We take our wines very seriously, but passionately believe in glorifying the mundane, every way we can." Her role in the marketing and the creative side of Swanson Vineyards has "elevated the rudimentary wine tasting experience to an inventive concept" brought that includes by-appointment-only tastings, intimate branding and more recently the establishment of the Sip Shoppe.

Our Salon tasting host, Lynn, began the tasting with a little background of how and why this Salon at Swanson Vineyards came to be. First opened in 2001, the Swanson Salon was inspired by the Parisian salons of the late 1800s, where they were the places to gather at the end of the day to discuss various items, including the art that hanged on the walls of the room, literary fare, politics, travels, libations, and the like. It was in these salons of 19th century Paris where "educated discourse and passion for the good life reigned." Clarke, and his wife Elizabeth, wanted the Salon to be an "in-depth, involved experience" as well as a "destination for people who share passions for wine, food, and travel." The art on the walls of the Swanson Salon depict peasant and royal life, which I think is meant to say the Salon is for individuals from all walks of life.

It is the entrepreneurial spirit of Clarke Swanson paired with the creative energy of his wife, Elizabeth Swanson (given the all-encompassing title of "dream maker, tastemaker, opinion-maker, keeper of the most special fairy dust"), that makes Swanson Vineyards so special. It is clearly evidenced by the centerpiece of the Salon tasting table above--the burlewood and inlays of the table influenced by Mr. Swanson and the center candelabra and surrounding accoutrement" aptly placed by Mrs. Swanson--what those at the family winery refer to as "elegance with a wink." The angels on the table are surrounded by flowers picked directly by Mrs. Swanson from her garden outside the Salon.

It had been Mr. Swanson's dream to own a vineyard but one with their family's added sense of humor, humor that is affectionately displayed all over the Salon, the Sip Shoppe, and the brand as well. Most importantly, the Swansons wanted all wine tasting guests to feel as if they were walking into part of their home, as if they were being entertained by the Swansons themselves (which in essence, they are). This is definitely evident in the way guests are buzzed into Swanson Vineyards territory behind the rustic, wooden gates as well as being welcomed by the salonnière herself with glasses of Rosato to begin the Salon tasting.

As I didn't have a chance to snap photos of the beautiful vessels that hold Swanson's lovely wines, I found this painted rendering of its different wines and their respective bottles by internationally recognized illustrator, Jean-Phillippe Delhomme, as noted in Swanson's fact sheet and his informal bio here. This way, you can see which bottle refers to which wines we tasted during our "Bon Vivant" Salon tasting.

The first wine of the Salon (1, above) was the Rosato, a 2010 Sangiovese rosé from the Napa Valley, which Marcus and I tasted upon entering Swanson Vineyards.

The second wine (2, above) was the only white wine in the tasting--a 2009 Pinot Grigio from the Napa Valley. It is a screw-cap summer wine that pairs well with savory chicken, seafood, and light pastas. With this Pinot Grigio you will find aromas of lychee, ripe pear, and lemon zest as well as the taste of fresh Pinot Grigio grapes. The wine is also very long and smooth on the palate.

The third wine (3, above) was its Sangiovese with a 2006 vintage from Oakville in the Napa Valley--a wine that remains a Salon selection with no outside distribution. In fact, there are only five barrels produced per vintage! Lynn told us this is a great summer red wine that is best served slightly chilled. The Sangiovese is best paired with lighter dishes such as ceviche, jambalaya, caprese salad, and a pasta primavera. The wine is fruit-driven but also complex, giving off the aromas of dried cherries and raspberries as well as bright, multi-faceted tastes on the tongue, "with just enough oak to marry with the underlying fruit." I really enjoyed this wine--it had a round, complex flavor to it, giving it lots of character and potential with pairings. Accordingly, I picked up a bottle of the Sangiovese for Bill and Pam to enjoy since they weren't there with us!

The fourth wine (4, above) was its flagship Merlot with a 2007 vintage from Oakville in the Napa Valley. This wine is found in restaurants and boutique wine shops, and it is also a very "tightly-focused ode to the wines of the Right Bank of Bordeaux." Flavors like raspberry, black cherry, and red licorice contribute to the complex flavors of the Merlot. I found this to be a good red wine, but overall, it didn't jump out at me like the Sangiovese did.

The fifth wine (5, above) was the Alexis, a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville in the Napa Valley. This wine is named after the Swansons' oldest daughter (and Creative Director), whom I mentioned previously. Its flavors are complex, elegant, and "aromatically beguiling," dominated by ripe black currant, anise, and blackberry. As for taste, the wine is very long in the mouth with a thick but well-balanced finish of cassis and espresso along with "sweet oak" in the background. Lynn noted that while it is very drinkable now, it will continue to age gracefully through another ten years. Actually, the wine was not fined nor filtered in order to maintain maximum flavor intensity and texture, thoroughly explaining why its color reveals a shade of dark garnet. I found this Cabernet to be really smooth with many layers of interesting tastes and flavors. It was definitely on par with the Sangiovese for me!

The sixth wine (6, above) was the long-awaited (for Marcus and me) Crepuscule, a 2006 vintage dessert wine that combines Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. There is an interesting story (like the one I told of how Marcus and I met) about how this wine came to be and why it is aptly named Crepuscule. The Swansons took went on summer holiday in Paris, and they were having dinner at a bistro one night, around twilight. They were enjoying themselves very much--great food and wine, lovely atmosphere. They wanted the warm feeling to linger a little longer. More specifically, Mr. Swanson wanted something to punctuate his light meal like this on a hot evening--a piece of fruit just wouldn't be enough. This was when the idea of creating a wine like the Crepuscule came to be. Truly embracing the spirit of this story with the wine it created, Swanson describes the dessert wine as such: "Like the summer twilight in Paris, Crepuscule lingers long beyond the final sip."

It was a beautifully done dessert wine--tasting sweet like nectar, but not so powerful as to render you into a sugar coma. However, its aroma isn't compromised--there are redolent hints of fresh honey, almond, citrus, honeysuckle, and light peach. It is light and refreshing, meant to be paired with seared foie gras or any creamy light blue cheese. Mr. Swanson nailed it--the Crepuscule is a lovely alternative at the end of a summer's evening meal, when a piece of fruit just won't cut it. In the twenty-five years that Swanson Vineyards has been around, there have only been eight vintages produced of the Crepuscule, making it even rarer and more special. The winery's high standards and meticulous process in determining whether vineyard conditions late into the growing season are optimal for producing Crepuscule. These conditions that it keeps an eye for are the "tiny blocks of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc with the most precious gift of all: botrytis, the 'noble rot' which offers up some of the most exquisite dessert wines on the planet." It is this detailed approach that landed Swanson's current position as "master of the dessert" wine category among its many esteemed peers in Napa and California in general.

Maybe it is mixed in with a little biased from why the wine's name means so much to me (and Marcus, too), but the Crepuscule was my favorite one of all the ones we tasted. It was better than I imagined and dreamed it would be. I took the liberty of ordering a bottle to be shipped back home so Marcus and I will have it a year from now, when we celebrate our second anniversary, embracing the special place crepuscular and now the Crepuscule dessert wine holds in our hearts.

As a side note, the last two wines we tasted (mentioned below) were not originally included in our Salon tasting, but the host that day felt bad for some minor mishaps that occurred during the tasting that she threw in these two tastes.

The seventh wine (7, above) was the FACE Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon with a 2006 vintage from Oakville in the Napa Valley--another one of Swanson's flagship wines! This wine is unfined and unfiltered, exhibiting a blackish ruby color along with intense aromas of cassis, black licorice, vanilla, and black cherry. Lynn recommended having this wine sit out for at least thirty minutes to give the aromas of the wine to aerate and show its true colors. I liked this one as much as the Sangiovese and the Alexis--perhaps even more! The FACE Cabernet was really smooth and full-bodied, having a really nice balance of intense berry flavors. Along with the Alexis, the FACE Cabernet is best for aging, with its expected maturity to be in 2015. Even Swanson Vineyards says this is perhaps the "most harmonious" wine it has ever produced.

The last wine (pictured on top of the chimney mantel in one of the above photographs) was the Angelica, one of Swanson's unique dessert wines--very reminiscent of Tawny Port. Through the Angelica, the
Swansons' attempt to marry "traditional Old World winecraft with the revival of a revered ritual: the decadent nightcap." Even though for a small winery to make many or even to specialize in dessert wines is unheard of in the wine industry, Swanson Vineyards really believes in the revival of the nightcap. Even the vessel that holds the precious Mission grape concoction blends a relic with a modern look! Swanson even took it to another level--"For The Person Who Has Everything" is emblazoned on the gift box that houses the Angelica! Very cheeky!

Lynn advised us, before opening the Angelica, to heat up the vessel's white cap for a few minutes using friction from our hands. Once it is opened, it can be kept out for a year as it is fortified with brandy. She also mentioned to us that the vines from which the Mission grapes are picked for making the Angelica were planted in 1865, making these grapes much older than the French and Italian varietals out in the Napa Valley. It actually takes a total of seven years to make this Port-like dessert wine! As for tasting this wine, the very strong aromatics after the initial swivels is really strong, but it actually sits really nicely on your tongue with the smooth sweetness of raisins to it. Marcus and I enjoyed this port very much. I think what I liked most about the Angelica was that it wasn't strong or biting like other Ports I've had in the past.

During the Salon tasting, the Pinot Grigio was paired with American hackleback sturgeon caviar over crème fraîche and a potato chip. The caviar was not briny or overwhelming, settling well into the crème fraîche and the crisp of the potato chip. It went amazingly with the wine--probably one of the better pairings I've had during a tasting. The wine and the caviar enhanced each other's flavors and tastes more when taken together--making me love the wine even more! I even loved that the chip was served on a clam half-shell--very playful!

During the Salon tasting, the Sangiovese was paired with thin Midnight Moon white Danish cheddar (right), the Merlot was paired with aged gouda (left), and the Alexis was paired with a "rose petal taco" of blue cheese and honey. I found these pairing to be pretty good, but none really stood out to me too much.

This is the famed Alexis bonbon, created by Vosges Haut-Chocolat, with an Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon chocolate ganache at its center as well as spiced curry sprinkled on top. It was aptly paired with the 2007 Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon, which really brought out the similar flavors in the bonbon's ganache center. The spiced curry added a punchy spiciness to the chocolate, which was different than most ganache filled truffles/bonbons I've had. Vosges did an awesome job creating this Alexis-inspired chocolate for Swanson! This also went really well with the Crepuscule as it was made from dark chocolate, offsetting the sweetness of the nightcap wine. I highly recommend picking up a box of these if you find yourself at Swanson (I know I couldn't resist)!

Close of up Swanson Vineyards on the Napa Valley map placemat we each had under our glasses.

This is Hugo. He belongs to Ms. Walls, the salonnière. He was roaming the grounds of Swanson Vineyards, in and out of the Salon and the Sip Shoppe, greeting all of the guests hello. He is as cute as you can imagine.

Findings: Marcus and I had a wonderful time at Swanson Vineyards, especially at the Salon and the "Bon Vivant" tasting we had there. The staff at the Salon was so great and welcoming--they were just as excited as we were to be there, which I really, really love when I'm visiting a winery or attending a tasting. I was a big fan of all the meticulous details that Swanson embraces with respect to customer service--especially buzzing in and personally welcoming us with glasses of rosé! The outdoor and indoor spaces were beautifully decorated and arranged--you can definitely feel Mrs. Swanson's presence everywhere! I definitely felt like I was a guest over at the home of the Swansons--just over for an afternoon tasting of wines and some nibbles. The Sip Shoppe was so nicely done as well--a real candy store for adults!

Additionally, the quality of the wines produced by Swanson Vineyards really lived up to my expectations, undoubtedly justifying the higher price points than you may be otherwise used to. The playfulness of the brand also adds to the happy and fun experience I had at the Salon. I highly recommend making a stop at Swanson Vineyards if you happen to be in the area, especially the Salon if you have time (make sure you call ahead as reservations book up fairly quickly)! Otherwise, the Sip Shoppe is also great, as you get to taste the same wines as you would in the Salon but in a more casual, less guided setting. And if there's one thing you must taste, it is the Crepuscule--I swear it'll turn you onto dessert wines instantly!

I just wanted to thank Swanson Vineyards for making Marcus and I's extended anniversary so special--the Crepuscule couldn't have been a more pleasant and wonderful surprise. We had an amazing time, and we hope to come back again soon!

Price point: $60 per person for a "Bon Vivant" Salon tasting, $24 for a bottle of 2010 Rosato, $75 for a bottle of 2006 Sangiovese, $90 for a bottle of Crepuscule, $35 for a box of Alexis bonbons.

--May 21, 2011

Swanson Vineyards
Swanson Salon
1271 Manley Lane
Rutherford, CA 94573



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