Thursday, January 14, 2010

California State Capitol: Gallantry Lives On

Sacramento, CA -- The camellias are budding, the oranges are ready for picking and Arnold is finally taking down his Christmas tree—just another day in the Golden State’s capitol building. While the mild 60 degree climate is inviting, the draw for me is inside the dome. After passing through the metal detector I am now standing in what could be the most romantic notion in government. It is the marble statue of Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus—a testament to her belief in his mission.

He is kneeling by her side and she is draped in a form fitting gown, a crown atop her head. Etched in marble are these words, “I will assume the undertaking,” she said, “for my own crown of Castile, and am ready to pawn my jewels to defray the expenses of it, if the funds in the treasury shall be found inadequate.”

Is there a cause in your life that you believe in with all your heart, that you would pawn your jewels? 

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ride, Wine & Dine: Biking Napa’s Wine Country

Yountville, CA – In my mind, bike riding and wine tasting don’t really mix. Kind of like peanut butter and banana sandwiches, it’s an odd pairing. However, I’m always willing to try anything once. So here I am on a winter’s day, sitting on a touring bike with a wide, comfortable seat, riding past boutique vineyards in Napa Valley’s wine country. It’s a cool 45 degrees, my nose is running, my ears are freezing, and I am bitter with envy as my friend Koleen rides in comfort with her wool gloves and thermal head band. I mock her preparation skills—Ms. iPod, she’s probably wearing thermal underwear, too. Still, I get over myself long enough to marvel at the stark beauty of the dormant winter vines. I promise myself to come back here in early spring when the mustard blooms and the temperature is mild. Or maybe during fall harvest, when I can pluck a juicy grape off the vine as I whiz by on my bike, wearing nothing more than a flowing skirt, a skimpy t-shirt, and, of course, my trusty helmet.

Leading us on this survival challenge is Nick Wierzba of Napa Valley Bike Tours. Nick tells me his love of wine and passion for biking is a good fit. “The people I guide on bikes are on vacation, they are already happy, and it’s fun to show my backyard to everyone.” Nick’s “backyard” includes hidden wineries that a visitor might not otherwise discover. “Biking is a good way to see the Napa Valley,” says Nick. “If you’re in a limo or car, the vineyards look like corn rows.” I ask Nick what the policy is on drinking and biking. “We cycle an average of four miles between each wine tasting. It gives people time to burn off alcohol—we’ve had zero accidents related to people being drunk.”

I actually like the thought of being drunk on my bike—might take the edge off of our chilly winter’s afternoon cycling adventure, which thankfully is only two hours long. We stopped and imbibed at the hip and tony Cliff Lede (pronounced Cliff Lady), a 60-acre winery set in the Stags’ Leap District. This quintessential Napa Valley winery’s got it all: indoor art gallery, outdoor sculptures, state of the art gravity-flow conical tanks, and acres of hidden caves filled with single-layer barrel storage. Owner Cliff Lede, who acquired the property in 2002, put some serious coin into this bucolic slice of heaven. Repeat after me: swank-tastic. I recommend their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (15.2 percent alcohol content—yum!), which conjures exotic spices, old leather, and new money—a winning Napa Valley combination.

Alas, it is time to get back in the saddle, and continue this unique two-wheeled adventure. By the time we get back to our hotel, I discover that bike riding and wine tasting do mix after all. My suggestion is to wait until warmer weather prevails when it's enjoyable rather than just endurable. Next time I’ll tear a page out of Koleen’s Girl Scout book and be prepared—Sunscreen and Chardonnay anyone?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Bistro Jeanty: Enchanting French Cuisine

Yountville, CA – There is every reason to visit France, but if your cash-flow limits your real-world travel, treat yourself instead to a bona fide French meal at Napa Valley’s Bistro Jeanty. You’ll be enchanted by the authentic, old-world feel—you might even visualize yourself sporting a beret, black turtleneck, and colorful scarf; researching a recipe for cassoulet; and greeting visitors with the charming word for “pleased to meet you,” Enchanté.

“If you read old French books and see classic French recipes, they’re all on our menu,” says Chef de Cuisine, Joel Ehrlich. “People come here because, in my humble opinion, our restaurant is the most classic French bistro in America.” D’accord. Agreed. This classic French bistro decorated with vintage 19th century Parisian posters, hanging fryer copper pans, and a roaring hearth is more than just atmosphere—the food is first-rate.

I sample appetizers of escargot with garlic butter, foie gras pâté served with a port-poached pear, and Miyagi oysters—which, coming from nearby Pt. Reyes, don’t really seem like classic bistro fare until I dab a French-style mignonette potion of vinegar, chili, parsley, and onion on the freshly shucked oysters and voilá—another French star is born, California-style.

At the helm of Bistro Jeanty is owner and chef Phillipe Jeanty, who grew up in the Champagne region of France and opened his 100-seat restaurant in Yountville nearly 12 years ago, adding another coveted Michelin star to the epicurean capital of California—Yountville. “I wanted to recreate all my favorite childhood dishes and opening up a bistro was one way to do it,” says Jeanty. Bravo, Phillipe—bien fait; well done.