June 29

Vegan Adventures on the Napa Valley Wine Train!

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!

 

Date night on the train!
Tower of fresh fruits & veggies

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!

Dessert!

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!!

 

 

July 16

Napa Valley Vegan at the 2016 Taste of Napa!

festival NV useHi friends! You have no idea how happy I am to be back. My life has been so full of joy, stress, loss and excitement over the last several months. Overwhelming! After five years out of the business, in February, my husband and I decided that it was time for me to get back to work selling real estate. We realized that after 5 years with his current company, his career was dying a very slow (often painful) death and living paycheck to paycheck had finally lost its allure! I began reading 1,800 pages of California real estate practices, procedures and legal aspects. Yep, it was as mind numbing as it sounds! On the last day of March, while on my way to pick up my passes to the amazing Sonoma Film Festival, I was rear ended by a 95-year-old man. My first thought was, “Wow! Kudos to you for still being licensed and independent”. My second thought was “F@ck! My back hurts.” Luckily, within a couple weeks my back and range of motion in my neck were almost back to normal. The downside was that since I had both of my hands on the steering wheel at the moment of impact, both of my wrists were sprained and swollen. That has taken much longer to heal but they are finally almost never sore or swollen. YAY! Within a couple days of this excitement, we got a call from our property manager to let us know that our landlord had recently passed away and we now had 60 days to vacate the home we had lived in for almost three years. We were sad for his family and knowing the current rental market in Napa just a little concerned about finding a place in just 2 months. On top of that, rent had increased by about 20% since the last time we had signed a lease. Sheesh! The hits just keep on a coming! And then things got really sad. My mother-in-law Jenelle, who had been ill and battling Parkinson’s disease for a couple years, finally lost her battle. In so many ways it was a relief to see her finally at peace and no longer suffering but that is easy for me to say. My husband lost his Mom. Now with both of his parents gone his sister Barb is the only person on this planet that has known him his entire life. Sad times. But just as quickly as it seemed that everything was going wrong, wonderful things were happening too! Though the real estate board is still weeks away from processing my application for the exam (I guess everyone wants to be an agent again!), with the help of a friend, I found a job at a small local real estate office. I’m working as an administrative assistant until I’m licensed. I wouldn’t call it interesting or exciting but it is helping me get used to being back in the work force. And thanks to another friend, we found the perfect little oasis in Old Town Napa. A charming little home with the sweetest backyard full of towhees, hummingbirds, bumble bees, butterflies and a little opossum we named Dixie after one of my favorite 90s bands Possum Dixon. In fact, I’m sitting outside right now with my lovely little doggie Violet sitting in my lap! And did I mention that I’m less than 2 blocks to Fuller Park and downtown?!!

TasteLogo400pxTo celebrate my return, I’m participating in Napa Valley’s annual music, food, wine and art festival – Festival Napa Valley (formerly known as Festival del Sole). Tomorrow, I’ll be covering the 2016 Taste of Napa. The event is being held at the new Cairdean Estate upvalley in beautiful St. Helena. Cairdean Estate offers estate wine tasting, dining, shopping and a perfect destination to meet up with friends! It was one of my favorite locations for screening films at the 2015 Napa Valley Film Fest. The event will be featuring dozens of exclusive wineries and just about every local Chef you could imagine including Alpha Omega, Caymus Vineyards, Cliff Lede Vineyards (one of my favorite spots in Napa!), Baldacci Family Vineyards (oh, another favorite), The Hess Collection (a definite favorite!) Aroma Indian Cuisine, Basalt and Carpe Diem. What does that mean to us vegans, you ask? Well…that’s why I’m going to be there. Just like last year, I will be tasting and sipping and chatting up every Chef and winemaker I can meet. It’s a tough job but I am here for you! My next blog post and videos will feature all the vegan-friendly moments so you can enjoy yourself on your next visit to Napa Valley!

I’ve missed you all and am so grateful that you are reading this post. I can’t wait to share the 11th Annual Festival Napa Valley with you! And as always…eat, drink and be vegan

March 23

JuJu’s Mediterranean Kitchen -Bursting With Flavor, Health & Love!

IMG_3547My first experience with JuJu’s Mediterranean Kitchen was several years ago. Steve and I were very new to Napa and noticed JuJu’s after leaving our insurance agent’s office. JuJu’s is tucked back on California Way and unless you’re taking a short cut to California Boulevard, at the time, there wasn’t really any reason to head down California Way. When we went in, we met Joumana Shweiky (JuJu), for the first time. She was very friendly but explained that they didn’t offer much in the way of restaurant services but were more into catering. We headed off from there and I have to admit I looked at it longingly every time I drove by over the years! Fast forward four years, and my Facebook friend, Cassandra, mentioned that JuJu’s Mediterranean Kitchen had plenty of clearly labeled vegan choices on their menu and that I should add them to my Eat! page. So I did what anybody interested in learning more about a restaurant would do, I checked the Yelp reviews! Sure enough…JuJu’s still offered their catering services but since my last visit have added tables and are now offering sit down service. Yay!

 

Yum! The Mezza Combo plate!
Yum! The Mezza Combo plate!

Besides the addition of 4 or 5 tables, JuJu’s Mediterranean Kitchen is much as I remember it from my first visit. A large open kitchen, a small market specializing in Middle Eastern products, a large glass front cooler displaying house made salads sold by the pint and a very homey atmosphere. JuJu is just as friendly and welcoming as I remember. With the Lebanese music playing in the background, Steve and I both felt like we were sitting down in her kitchen at home. Though she was busy cooking, she took time out to go over the menu with me. This is really a vegan’s food heaven. There are 7 mezza favorites that can be purchased for just $5 for a ½ pint that range from Mujadara – a blend of lentils, cracked wheat & caramelized onions; Tabuli made with chopped parsley, fresh mint & cracked IMG_3545wheat; freshly made Dolmas wrapped with grape leaves and stuffed with a savory mix of rice, fresh mint & pomegranate molasses, Hummus and much more! I’m going to stop for just a moment here and mention that her Dolmas are the best I have ever eaten! JuJu’s Signature dishes include a Mezza Combo Plate (just mention that you are vegan and she will substitute grilled veggies for the non-vegan baba ganough), a Falafel Plate and she will also make Veggie Kabobs if you ask! The vegan wraps include the Falafel Wrap and the Greek Wrap (if you skip the feta). The Fatoosh Salad is vegan and the Mediterranean, Kale & Greek Salads can be with some slight adjustments. And then comes the A La Carte section – of the 16 choices, 8 are vegan! The Hummus plate, Foul M’Damas plate, grilled Tomato & Onion Skewer, side of olives, pita bread, garlic cilantro home fries, Falafel with tahini sauce and IMG_1632Dolmas. Steve and I enjoyed the Mezza Combo plate – a perfect taste of the Mediterranean with homemade Hummus, Muhamara, Mujadara, Falafel, Dolma and Tabuli served with warm pita bread. I loved having a little bit of everything on my plate. As I mentioned, the grilled veggies made a lovely substitution for the non-vegan baba ganough. I especially enjoyed the hummus, mujadara, tabuli and the dolmas!

 

Though JuJu has been a part of Napa Valley for 30 years, she is originally from Lebanon so the flavor of the food is very authentic. It is all made fresh daily using local produce, exotic spices, extra virgin olive oil and the Chef’s love! Some of her favorite things are to entertain and cook and introduce others to new cultures. This is really reflected in the IMG_3561experience I had when I visited her restaurant. She proudly talked about her 6 children who all grew up in St. Helena and are now lawyers, teachers, fashion designers and world travelers. I really loved that she shared with me her cookbook Soup for Syria. With so much physical distance between Syria and the U.S., I admit that I am somewhat disconnected from the turmoil and suffering that is happening. It does seem that the world has failed the Syrian refugees; the world’s wealthiest countries have turned their backs on this humanitarian disaster. While JuJu’s home country Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq have opened their borders to more than four million refugees. This has created a huge need for food relief. To assist, many world-acclaimed chefs and cookbook authors from around the world have come together to help alleviate the hunger of the Syrians by contributing a recipe. It is another great example that we don’t need to wait for our government to make a decision. We can help change the world all on or own!

 

Hanging out with JuJu
Hanging out with JuJu

With two decades of experience in the very demanding Napa Valley culinary industry, JuJu’s Mediterranean Kitchen is well worth the stop whether you are looking for casual dining, catering, lunch or dinner take-out or you need a boxed lunch for your next wine tasting excursion. JuJu’s is located at 3375 California Way and is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m to 8 p.m. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did and as always…eat, drink and be vegan!

 

*You may have noticed that I am a big fan of Mediterranean food. I’ve enjoyed it from Small World Café and Heritage Eats to Tarla Mediterranean Grill and JuJu’s Kitchen. I’d love to hear your feedback on your favorite spot in Napa Valley for Mediterranean food. Please leave your comments below!