While out walking with my dogs, I always enjoyed seeing the Napa Valley Wine Train (NVWT) full of happy, slightly drunk tourists chugging up and down Valley. Never did I imagine that I would be one of those happy, slightly drunk passengers! As a vegan, I made an assumption that there would be no dining options for me. And as I mentioned before, it’s just for wine sipping tourists anyway, right? Wrong! I recently had the opportunity to enjoy an intimate twilight tour on the NVWT’s 36-seat, single car Quattro Vino Pullman thanks to Yelp! And I really had the time of my life!
The experience started at the train station on McKinstry near Oxbow Commons. The staff were all incredibly friendly, excited to help and were a big part in making the evening unforgettable. Prior to boarding, they served bubbles from Domaine Chandon to get the party started! Once I boarded the train, I was drawn back in time! The 1915 lounge car is a lavish reminder of how we travelled a 100 years ago. With only 36 seats it felt very private and is perfect for date night!
The trip up valley included pours of Grgich Hills Estate’s 2014 Fume Blanc, their 2013 Chardonnay and the 2016 Rosé. Along with the wine, I was served a tower of fresh fruits and veggies and salty, crispy bread. The tomato, bread and balsamic made a wonderful combination of flavors. The next course was a delicious plate of grilled veggies & lentils that were warm and hearty. I wish I could describe the view but I admit that I was so wrapped up in the wine, food and conversation that I barely looked outside! And before I knew it, the train had reached beautiful Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford.
It had been about 5 years since I last visited Grgich Hills and I had forgotten what a beautiful setting it offers. The tasting room is surrounded by roses and the view above it is just spectacular. Daniel led us on a private tour of the Estate that included some of Milijenko “Mike” Grgich’s amazing contributions to winemaking and Napa Valley. In fact, Mike first gained international recognition at the celebrated “Paris Tasting” of 1976. This now-historic blind tasting included a panel of eminent French judges who swirled, sniffed, and sipped a collection of white French Burgundies along with a small sampling of Napa Valley Chardonnays. And when the scores had all been tallied and the winner announced, Mike’s 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was named the finest white wine in the WORLD! Not only were the judges stunned but it changed the international wine industry’s perception of Napa Valley forever!
The tour also included tastings of the 2016 Zinfandel and 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet became one of my favorites – fruity and elegant just how I like them. I also learned that their wines are all certified organic, pesticide & herbicide-free. And since bentonite clay is used in the fining process the wines are also vegan! The trip home included a light, delicious dessert of poached Seckel pears with berries drizzled with raspberry sauce. Oh, and more wine! What a perfect finish to a lovely evening!
Whether you are visiting Napa Valley or you live locally, the wine train experience is something that you should not miss. The food and wine are extraordinary & the private winery tour is very special. When you make your reservations, let them know that you are vegan. In fact, since my experience, they have added veg-only tables so you won’t find yourself sitting across from meat eaters or looking at a tower of cheese & charcuterie when you sit down! Schedule your extraordinary wine train tour HERE! Enjoy your train ride of Napa Valley and as always…eat, drink and be vegan!!
I had the opportunity to attend two amazing festivals this summer – the Festival del Sole’s Taste of Napa 2015 and the Sonoma County Vegfest. They were completely different though equally wonderful experiences. The Festival del Sole is an annual event here in Napa Valley that celebrated its 10th anniversary this summer. The Festival offers 10 days of over 60 events; 100 wineries; the stars of music, dance and theater; Napa Valley’s finest wine and cuisine (so say the non-vegans!) all while enriching art, fitness and community programs. The SoCo Vegfest, though in its infancy, has grown and improved in just two years. A celebration of ethical eating, the Vegfest offered almost a dozen speakers and cooking demonstrations as well as the screening of Speciesism– an exploration of filmmaker Mark Devries as he delves deeply into the argument that humans are more important than other species and investigates our treatment of non-human animals in food production. The important similarity between these events is the enrichment that they both bring into our lives – one through art, fitness and sense of community while the other by offering and celebrating compassionate and loving choices through the food we put into our bodies, the products we put onto our skin and the way we treat the sentient beings we share our planet with. Today, in Part I, I’m going to focus on my experiences of the Taste of Napa 2015.
Taste of Napa 2015 was the first event I’ve attended in Napa that I covered as part of the press. Yep, my very first (and at this time…only) press pass. Being my first, I had no idea exactly what to do but figured I could wing it well enough. My husband, Steve, in celebration of my first media credentials, even took the day off to work as my photographer. As instructed, I got to the building formerly known as Copia, found the press table and got my pass. When it was time for the doors to open, my crew and I (ie: husband Steve) even got to enter through the press entrance ahead of everyone else. Believe me, I felt really cool and so excited. Rather than do any research ahead of time on what vegan food and wine options were available, I wanted to attend Taste of Napa 2015 spontaneously just as someone visiting Napa would do. The building offers over 13,000 square feet of open exhibition space as well as terraced space outside that were both filled with food and wine vendors! It was overwhelming and fantastic. I chose to start outside since it was such a gorgeous Napa day and I could see the band outside getting ready to start playing. Since seeing my first live show – Quiet Riot opening up for Loverboy (I was so in love with Mike Reno and his red leather pants!) in the early 80s in Sault Ste. Marie, MI, I have been in love with the energy of live music!
The first table I stepped up to had these luscious looking cherries wrapped in…something. I couldn’t believe that I had found vegan food so quickly. When I asked what the cherry was wrapped in, the response was foie gras! Ugh! I must admit that took the smile off my face for a moment but I knew I had to rally and not let that ruin my experience. So after (very) quickly moving on, I headed for the Keller Estate’s wine table. Anton Matulic, the Estate Ambassador for Keller Estate, poured me some of their amazing pinot noir. While they sometimes fine their Chardonnays with egg whites, their reds are not fined with animal products. So I happily headed off with wine in my hand to continue exploring.
Next I chatted with Bonnie Miluso, the VP of Sales & Marketing for Napa Nuts, etc. Located in the heart of the California Wine Country, Napa Nuts, etc. is one of the largest single providers of dried fruit, nuts and confections in Northern California. They have been providing quality ingredients since 1990 to more than 500 restaurants, wineries and bakeries all around the United States. Though they did not know if the sugar they use is bone char free, I happily filled up on their delicious cashews. My next stop was with Merryvale Vineyards who were really receptive to finding out more about how their wine is made. I am still working on the fining details at Merryvale and will update you when I have confirmation from their winemaker on their vegan-friendliness!
Wandering inside, I noticed a HUGE crowd around the Miracle Noodle table. I had to learn more! This ended up being very easy because they had a huge banner that proclaimed Miracle Noodles to be vegan certified, gluten free, soy, corn and wheat free, calorie and carb free plus non-GMO. Miracle noodle? Absolutely! The rice and noodles are made almost entirely of fiber from the konjac perennial. Native to subtropical and tropical climates the konjac has been known in Japan since the sixth century as a medicinal food and has been eaten for 1500 years. Since it is almost entirely fiber and fiber slows our digestion, it allows for slower absorption of glucose which is why it is beneficial for weight loss and can be beneficial if you have diabetes. I quickly understood why the table was literally swamped with people. As we learn more about where our food comes from, we all want healthier choices! I got to sample both of their options – the delicious rice and noodles – and chatted a bit with Susan Carp the Regional Sales Manager who let me know that Miracle Noodles are available at Whole Foods across the state.
Brown Dog Mustard is a small batch, handmade, artisan mustard producer made by husband and wife team Scott and Victoria Miller right in Concord here in East Bay. Victoria, who is the CMM – Chief Mustard Maker – learned cooking through family recipes passed down from her Dutch and Pennsylvania Dutch Grandmothers. I ate many a pretzel smeared with their Sunny Summer Yellow (contains honey), Balsamic Sweet, Peppercorn and Whole Grain mustards. There is no comparing a grocery store mustard that can (and does) sit in a warehouse for years to this mustard lovingly made with organic apple cider and balsamic vinegars (no distilled vinegar here!).
I followed up my mustard binge with a stop at Salute Sante’s grapeseed oil table. Nanette and Valentin Humer have been spreading the word about the health benefits of grapeseed oil for years. Instead of going to waste, they press the Valley’s grapeseeds and create their delicious and healthy oils and flour. They have been featured in the local Napa Valley Life Magazine, The New York Times and the Pacific Sun. In addition to their gluten-free, high fiber flour, they also offer varietal extra virgin cold-pressed oils made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Syrah, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and French Colombard seeds. Their infused oils line includes five flavors – roasted garlic, basil, chili, rosemary and lemon that are perfect for marinades, salad dressings or for bread dip. I couldn’t decide which my favorite was so I had to keep trying them all! My next stop was with the Harvest Table restaurant. There were no vegan options but I had the opportunity to speak to Chef Levi Mezick. He invited me out to try their new restaurant located in St. Helena and promised he would make me a vegan meal I couldn’t forget. I will keep you posted on the outcome!
It was time to walk some of this off so I wandered outside to the Reserve section. Having a press pass is apparently like having a backstage pass…when the volunteer staff saw the pass they just waved me through! And you’ll never guess what I found…more wine and food! I struck up a conversation with MJ Baird, the Premier Clientele Liasion for Lede Family Wines. She was really excited to discuss her wine and invited me to be her guest at the winery. I will let you know all about my experience very soon!
Living in such a meat and cheese inclined city, I was pretty pleased with the vegan options I was able to find amongst the over 80 wineries, restaurants and food artisans. There is no doubt that having a bit of a wine buzz makes everything just a little brighter and a little happier! By being vocal, asking questions and building relationships with local Chefs and wineries, I hope to see things improve every year!
I want to apologize to you for going silent for the last couple of weeks. I have completely ignored you, my writing and updating my blog. As many of you may have noticed, I have been planning the Eat, Drink and Be Vegan! Benefit for Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch over the last 2 months or so. Chef Joseph Panarello, Executive Chef for City Winery – Napa, came up with the amazing idea to host an all vegan four course dinner. He and his General Manager, Scott generously offered to do this all for the cost of labor and food and to allow me to donate any remaining proceeds to one of my favorite local charities. Of course, that was a tough decision to make since I volunteer for three different local animal welfare groups – The Napa County Animal Shelter, Napa Humane and the Wildlife Rescue Center of Napa County. And I am friends with Monica Stevens, the Founder of Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch. I have to admit that the fact that Monica is a fellow vegan did absolutely sway my decision to make this Benefit all about JARR! I have thrown a pretty awesome party or two in my day but I am no professional event planner. However, after living in Napa for over three and a half years and often being met with lukewarm reception from some of the chefs and winemakers, this offer was something that I could not pass up. I was just excited beyond belief! I felt that this is what Napa needed to bring change to its gastronomic attitudes. If a local Chef, who is by no means a vegan Chef, can offer an amazing meal that everyone can enjoy, my hope was that this would open their minds and menus to more compassionate, plant based options. Chef Panarello was in charge of the menu and I was tasked with the rest. I came up with the title and quickly wrote up a description of the event so City Winery could add it to their website. Then I began contacting everyone I knew, and many that I didn’t, asking for wine and silent auction donations. This was wonderful but had a bit of a challenging twist since all items – food, wine, jewelry…had to be vegan-friendly. I wasn’t daunted though and got to work.
Over the course of the next six weeks, I was absolutely blown away by the generosity of Napa Valley. I received cases of wine from Tin Barn Vineyards, 750 Wines, Luna Vineyards and Topaz to pair with each course. Luna Vineyards even threw in a VIP tasting for 4 on top of the wine donation. I received passes to the 2015 Napa Valley Film Festival generously donated by Marc and Brenda Lhormer. Sweetie Pies Bakery offered a gift certificate for their delicious vegan cupcakes, cookies and muffins while Melodi with Obsessive Confection Disorder provided a sampler of her AMAZING vegan sweet treats. Karen MacNeil, the Director of the Wine Program at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley, gave a signed copy of her book “The Wine Bible”. And the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone donated a Weekend Wine Enthusiast Class for two. Mercedes-Benz of Fairfield gave a Mercedes-Benz for the weekend so the auction winner could enjoy their wine tasting weekend in style! Or for those who wanted to be chauffeured around the Valley instead, Wine Country Limousine offered their services. Kim Beller donated a gorgeous Silpada cuff bracelet and her kind words of encouragement. Stacey with Napa Valley Poop Patrol volunteered to pick up the family’s dog poop for 12 weeks while Taryn’s Traveling Pet Spa threw in a spa day for the family pooch! Not only was Miyoko’s artisan cheese featured on the menu but she also donated a sampler of her delicious nut cheeses. Brenda, with Simple Bliss, provided a spa package to help melt the stress away! And Doug, with Napa Valley Coffee Roasting, gave a gift box of fresh, roasted coffee and mugs. And to top it all off, City Winery not only was providing the entire event at cost but also threw in 2 tickets to one of their many concerts! Frankly, I am consumed by gratitude while I type!
With the help of Monica and her marketing crew and City Winery, we got the word out. You have probably seen it listed on every calendar and online events page in the Bay Area. However, even with all of this generosity and support we were not able to sell enough tickets. City Winery had to make a business decision and cancel the Event. So, after picking up all those generous donations, I have to turn around and take them all back! Needless to say my level of disappointment is high. But I’m going to do what any vegan does when they need to replenish and recharge. I’m heading out of Napa and heading into San Francisco to an all vegan restaurant to eat my cares away. And then, I’ll come home, dust myself off and start over again!
Thanks for being with me through the highs and lows of living in a non-vegan city and as always…eat, drink and be vegan!