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!!

 

 

June 2

Indulging Your Vegan Palate at Signorello Estate

Perfection…We have all had days that we’ve been able to label as perfect. The food extraordinary, the wine exquisite, the weather sunny and warm, the views breathtaking, the songbirds serenading and the service flawless. Perfect is the only way I can describe my experience at Signorello Estate. I was recently invited by Estate Sommelier Ron Plunkett to enjoy their Enoteca estate experience. This includes a chauffeured tour of their 100 acre estate and the 5-course guided pairing.

Until this visit, I had never been fully immersed in a true food and wine pairing experience. My fellow vegans know exactly what I’m talking about! It is rare to find a Sommelier and a Chef who will collaborate to provide a meal that not only indulges the palate of the plant based crowd but also pairs perfectly with the wine. But the collaboration between Chef Michael Pryor and Estate Sommelier Ron Plunkett have ended that dilemma forever! This is truly a wine and food experience unlike any other in Napa Valley!

Signorello Estate is located high above Silverado Trail – one of my favorite locations in all of Napa Valley. As I turned into Signorello Estate, I was surrounded by a gorgeous, symmetrical row of green trees and deep purple Japanese maples with the rows of grapevines just beyond. As I arrived at the tasting room, I was greeted by a shining infinity pool and the breathtaking views of the Vaca and Mayacamas mountain ranges with unparalleled views of the Valley below! Words like stunning & beautiful don’t even begin to describe the setting – it is all of that and more!

Before the tour began, I was welcomed with a glass of their 2013 White Uvaggio Estate wine. A unique blend of Semillion, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chardonnay grapes that is only available at the winery. With complex flavors of peach, citrus, apple and roses, this was the ideal wine to sip while sitting in the sun and gazing at the views! My small group then loaded up on the 6-seater, customized off-road vehicles and we were off. The tour included the Sauvignon

Chef Michael Pryor

Blanc and Chardonnay vines planted at the bottom of the hill in the sandy loam valley. The Chardonnay vines were originally planted in 1980 and are some of the oldest in Napa Valley. Because of their age, they tend to offer a lower yield

Estate Sommelier Ron Plunkett sharing the view!

than younger vines which makes this micro-winery experience even more special. Next, we headed up the hill to take in the extraordinary views. A unique feature of Signorello Estate that I’ve never experienced at other wineries is the fact that they own both “sides of the hill”. Not only were we able to see what is at the top of the hill and beyond but it also allows them to grow east and west facing vines. The soil is very different from the soil at the bottom of the hill. It is shallow & rocky and lends itself to the red varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. With part of the vineyard benefiting from eastern exposure and the other from western exposure, the grapes have a diversity that leads to very complex and balanced wines. Sixth generation Winemaker Pierre Birebent grew up on his family vineyard in Corsica, France and studied viticulture & enology in Burgundy. He utilizes the French wine making method known for its balanced wines. He is also the vineyard manager so is very in tune with his grapes. The wines are not fined or filtered prior to bottling which guarantees they are always vegan-friendly.

Standing next to the RV taking in the sights!

While on the tour, Ron pointed out many of the environmental practices they have implemented to receive the Napa Green Certification. To control insects and rodents, instead of using toxic chemicals, they have added bat, blue bird and owl nesting boxes. In fact, the blue birds are small but fierce. Not only do they eat up the grapevine moths that can decimate grapevines but also run off the grape-loving crows that are 10 times their size! They even have a family of rattlesnakes that eliminate pests as nature intended. And their free-range chickens fill up on the insects that the blue birds leave behind. The land Signorello Estate sits on now even used to be a rescue for retired racehorses. And they use left over grapes for mulch. What’s not to love about this place?

Upon the conclusion of the tour, my group headed into the private dining room. Allowing a maximum of 8 guests, the food & wine pairing is a very intimate experience. Relying on his on-site garden and the local Napa & St. Helena Farmers Markets to offer fresh, in-season produce, Chef Michael Pryor’s menu generally changes weekly.

The Primo course of spring vegetable ragout, fennel broth & sliced radishes paired with the 2014 Seta Estate wine started the meal off with a bang. Seta is Italian for silk and that is exactly what it felt like. The simple combination of spring vegetables and broth was absolutely bursting with flavor.

The Secondo course was an amazing pairing of the 2014 Vielles Vines Estate Chardonnay with bruschetta topped with almond cheese, grilled peaches, toasted walnuts & smoked sea salt. The old vine Chardonnay flavors of apple & vanilla were exquisite with the grilled peaches & sea salt. Until I reached the 5th course, this was my favorite pairing of flavors.

The Terzo course of king trumpet mushrooms, roasted cherries, cipollini onions, spinach, pistachios and the 2013 Pinot Noir Las Amigas was the most aromatic portion of the meal. And the delicious combination of flavors brought out the black pepper note of the pinot.

Course Quarto was an Italian farro pasta with deconstructed pesto & wax beans paired with the 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Again, the aroma was incredible and the pasta brought out the bold, full flavors of the wine. As delicious as it was, I knew I needed to save room for the final course!

Final course Quinto was pan seared eggplant, caramelized squash, olive oil roasted potatoes with salmorejo sauce. Even though I knew this was vegan, the weight, feel and taste of the pan seared eggplant was reminiscent of fat. This pairing was absolutely exquisite with the 2013 Padrone Estate blend. The blended Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc was elegant and well deserving of its 96+ rating.

The Enoteca experience is 2 1/2 hours of bliss. Beginning with the views, the location, the tour and finishing with the 5-course pairing. I have had many wonderful wine tasting experiences since arriving in Napa in late 2011 but I can say with confidence that this is the best yet. In fact, the wine was so incredible that I joined their wine club and brought my bi-annual allotment of 6 and an extra bottle of the 2013 Estate Padrone home with me!

To schedule your own Enoteca experience, visit Signorello Estate and reserve your spot HERE. Be sure to note that you are vegan and ask for Estate Sommelier Ron Plunkett! His knowledge of the wines and the history of Signorello Estate is wonderful. And ask him to explain why he is called the Cop Somm. You’ll love the story of his journey! As I was leaving, I had the opportunity to chat with Chef Michael for a few minutes and was really excited to find that he has recently joined the whole foods, plant-based diet program sponsored by our local hospital and not only feels great but has also lost over 50 pounds! What an incredible win for him and the animals!

Whether this is your first or tenth time visiting Napa Valley, be sure to include this experience in your schedule. And as always…eat, drink & be vegan! Cheers!

July 23

Taste of Napa 2016 Gets Vegan-Friendly!

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Taste of Napa 2016 selfie!

For those of you who are new to my blog or just can’t quite remember a post you read a year ago (believe me, I get it!), Festival del Sole’s Taste of Napa 2015 was the first local event that I attended as an actual member of the press. I can still feel the excitement I experienced when I got the approval from Fuller & Sander Communications! I was legit. A credentialed media type. I was perfectly giddy when I put that lanyard around my neck. Oh, and when the event volunteers waved me into the Reserve Tasting Salon (ie VIP section)? I compare that to the thrill I felt the first time I flew first class. I was 19 and naïve, flying from the tiny Cherry Capital airport in Traverse City, Michigan to the Dallas/Ft. Worth International airport. The American Airlines ticket agents were awesome and upgraded me so I could enjoy the experience. I had maxed out my credit card to get to Dallas to interview for a flight attendant gig with American’s tiny hub – American Eagle. The attendants were friendly and kept asking me if I wanted a drink or anything to eat. Of course, I kept saying “no thanks”. I had no money and had no idea how I’d be able to pay for it! Okay, so I wasn’t nearly as naïve getting into the VIP section but definitely just as excited!

The gorgous Reserve Salon.
The gorgous Reserve Salon.

A bit has changed since last year – Festival del Sole is now called Festival Napa Valley. And instead of being held at the large venue formerly known as Copia in downtown Napa, the Taste of Napa was held in the gorgeous food and wine village Cairdean Estate in St. Helena. Though my history with the Taste of Napa doesn’t run very deep yet, with only 2 years under my belt, this location was an absolutely stunning choice! The smaller, intimate feel of Cairdean Estate changed the entire dynamic of the event. I never felt overwhelmed or jostled like I had the year before. The Reserve Tasting Salon was located inside so when the weather began to heat up it was a welcome respite with a spectacular view.

 

 

Now onto why you are reading this – the food and wine! I was excited to see that Miracle Noodle was back again. I met Susan Carp, a member of the Miracle Noodle team, last year at the Taste of Napa. The couple of times we’ve spoken by phone since we met last year she continues to be a huge advocate of the health benefits of Miracle Noodle. And quite frankly, they are delicious too! I was thrilled to see that the crowd around the Miracle Noodle table was just teeming with attendees. I would have loved to stop by and have a chat and a sample (or two) but I didn’t want to break up their flow!

Solbar's compressed watermelon. Refreshing!
Solbar’s compressed watermelon. Refreshing!

Next, I moved onto the Solbar at Solage Calistoga display. They had a gorgeous mountain of delicious, refreshing compressed watermelon nibbles. They made mine to order minus the cheese and it was a mouthful of fruity bliss! Joe Odgie, Director of Operations, assured me that their menu is vegan-friendly and they strive to offer an appetizer, entrée AND dessert to their vegan customers. I’m so excited about exploring their menu more in-depth!

My wanderings next took me to one of my favorite Napa restaurants – Aroma Indian Cuisine. I had the pleasure of enjoying a couple delicious veggie pakoras with vegan-friendly plum sauce served by Chef Jeet Bhangoo and his team. I’m never sure if it is the food or his beautiful aura that keeps me coming back for more!

Aroma Indian Cuisine Chef Jeet & his team.
Aroma Indian Cuisine Chef Jeet & his team.

Napa Valley Extra Virgin offered an amazing tasting of local extra virgin olive oil and cask aged balsamic. The balsamic is produced from the juice of just-harvested white grapes (typically, Trebbiano) and aged for 12-18 years! While the oil is created by Napa Valley’s other famous harvest! I see why Napa Valley Extra Virgin has won numerous awards in the four short years they’ve been producing.

Estate Events by Meadowood, located in the Reserve Tasting Salon, offered a delicious and refreshing cold heirloom gazpacho that was absolutely bursting with flavor. I made a point to wander by the table a couple of times. Mallorey Bischof, Wine & Cuisine expert, explained that Meadowood Napa Valley is always happy to provide their guests with anything they request – whether that is because of their vegan lifestyle choices or issues with gluten intolerance or allergies. I look forward to discussing this more with her and visiting their restaurant very soon!

Napa Valley Tea Company
Napa Valley Tea Company

Though each tasting was amazing in its own way, my favorite experience at Taste of Napa 2016, was with Napa Valley Tea Company. Founder/owner E. Agnes Ramos has created a beautiful fusion of grapes with the soothing and healthful benefits of tea. Absolutely brilliant! Her tea infusions embody the calm and simple lifestyle of Napa Valley. She guided me through a tea tasting and explained the properties and benefits of each combination. Really incredible. 

Meadowood's Heirloom Gazpacho. The veggie stuff always goes first!
Meadowood’s Heirloom Gazpacho. The veggie stuff always goes first!

Though, I wanted to spend more time sipping wine, I took some time out to listen to Dr. Melina Jampolis. She is an M.D. and one of only 200 board-certified Physician Nutrition Specialists. In a country where the majority of our physicians receive little to zero nutritional training, I was really curious to hear what a doctor trained on nutrition had to say. Before becoming vegan, I spent decades eating food that I thought was good for me that it turned out wasn’t especially healthy. Because of this, I wasn’t feeling very generous and was doubtful as to what she would contribute. It turns out that the majority of her seminar was based around the benefits of us all eating more phyto-nutrients – a fancy term for plants. What a pleasant surprise! Though it was off to a bit of a rocky start when she assured everyone that she was not advocating a vegetarian or vegan diet. She explained that she had tried to “go vegan” for a day for her blog but only made it to about 10 a.m. due to poor planning. She did spout the usual rhetoric about being so hungry that she had to give up. I stuck it out though and with a few exceptions agreed with what she had to say! Let me assure you that I am not a doctor nor am I formerly trained in nutrition. But here’s the reality, I am more educated than most of the doctors on the benefits of plant based nutrition. Even Dr. Jampolis commented that most “doctors don’t know what the hell to eat either.” And she really won me over when “food is medicine” came out of her mouth. The fact that she was so adamant that processed meat is a known carcinogen and should be eliminated from our diet and stated that “red meat has a not great impact” on our gut bacteria, kept me listening. It’s taking time but the benefits of a whole foods, plant based diet are becoming apparent even to the mainstream!

E. Agnes Ramos - Founder/Owner of NV Tea Company!
E. Agnes Ramos – Founder/Owner of NV Tea Company!
Napa Valley Extra Virgin made with our local harvest.
Napa Valley Extra Virgin made with our local harvest.

By then I was completely parched. Parched for wine anyway! I found two of my favorites – the wonderful vegan-friendly Sauvignon Blanc by Cliff Lede Vineyards and Duckhorn’s Paraduxx red blend. While Duckhorn Wine Company cannot guarantee that any of the Library or older vintages are vegan, anything beginning in 2011 is ours to sip (or guzzle!).

I ended my afternoon sitting in a Tesla Model X SUV complete with Falcon Wings! I learned later that the car I sat in had their new vegan upholstery. I was drawn to it for a reason. And not just because it’s a gorgeous vehicle.

Duckhorn Wine Company - vegan-friendly since 2011.
Duckhorn Wine Company – vegan-friendly since 2011.

Taste of Napa 2016 was an absolute success! I was thrilled that so many meat-centric restaurants chose to provide plant based optios. What a change from my arrival in Napa five years ago! This is a huge win for animals and the vegan community…and people’s health, our planet’s health…It’s just a wine…period! I invite all of my vegan readers to join me next year at the 2017 Taste of Napa. We can celebrate, socialize and as always…eat, drink and be vegan!