FINDING SHANGRI LA IN NAPA VALLEY – Part Two(read part one here)
PRESTIGE IN A BOTTLE
Each afternoon between 4:30 and 5:30 the lobby of Meadowood transforms into a marvelous Happy Hour venue, with a large fireplace and grand piano as the backdrop. In Napa Valley they call Happy Hour ‘wine tasting’, of course, and it comes free for hotel guests. The event also includes much appreciated wine education with a charming French accent.
By Bettina M. Gordon, publisher Photos: (c) Meadowood Resort and Bettina Gordon
Gilles de Chambure is not only a wine coach and sommelier, he was voted a Master Sommelier 12 years ago – the 44th in America, the 100th in the world! Thus it stands to reason that Gilles knows his métier. I am confident he can defeat a mountain lion with a thorough spray of Magnum Champagne!
Visibly more relaxed, I snuggle into the huge sofa cushions and learn from Gilles that America, after France, Italy and Spain is the fourth largest wine producer in the world. 80% of the wines produced in the United States come from California. About 150 years ago Napa’s hills were already overgrown with vine planted by 300 vintners, but the phylloxera louse, Prohibition and the Great Depression cut the flourishing industry short. After World War II and especially in the 70s the area started to thrive once again.
Only four percent of California’s wines come from the Napa region, but vintners like Robert Mondavi, Dominus Estate, Duckhorn Vineyards, Screaming Eagle, Diamond Creek and Harlan Estate are world renown. Their creations make Napa Valley a mecca for wine aficionados attracting five million visitors each year – second only to Disneyland.
“Owning a vineyard is for many ultra successful business people the ultimate prestige”, says Gilles who, with his distinguished hat and constant hand gestures, is undeniably French. He also knows what he is talking about since Gilles himself was an investment banker before entering the world of wine connoisseurs.
I am sure he is handsomely paid to educate the Meadowood guests, and especially the rich and elusive Meadowood owners and their friends. The Meadowood also offers private memberships and attracts an exclusive group of people that surely appreciate and challenge Gilles’ Master title more than I can. I am happy with any wine he pours for me. The Meadowood, by the way, is the only resort in California that indulges in the luxury of a Gilles.
Many of the best known vintners were well known and well off long before they had their own name on a label. Like filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, real estate tycoon and Meadowood owner Bill Harlan and Kathryn Hall, the former US Ambassador to Austria, who now runs the impressive Hall Wineries in St. Helena and Rutherford not even 10 minutes away from Meadowood. ‘Gentleman farmers’ Gilles calls the vintners, who can buy prestige in a bottle and sometimes create extraordinary wines that win top prize.
Good quality comes with a price. A bottle of Harlan Estate Meadowood costs $500! But there is a long waiting list for the maximum of three bottles which wine enthusiasts are allowed to purchase each year. And that’s nothing compared to what happens on the first weekend of June when Meadowood’s yearly wine auction is in full swing. In 2000, a slender Asian man with a huge bank account won the bid for the most expensive bottle of wine – a Screaming Eagle – for $650,000. “All in all, this man, who had made his fortune in technology, purchased wine for two million dollars,” says Gilles. This impresses me immensely. I quietly wonder how many trips I could make to my local wine store with resources like that.
Taste explodes on your tongue
During my second day at Meadowood I check out the pools, spa, and then Napa Valley itself, but I made sure to get all dolled up and ready to eat at 8:00PM at the Meadowood’s celebrated restaurant, aptly named The Restaurant. The resort’s public relations manager, Jennifer Chiesa, had kindly secured a table for me. “It’s to die for,” she said to me in the morning.
Her opinion, by the way, is shared by the legendary Guide Michelin, which has given The Restaurant and its young chef Christopher Kostow 3-Stars for three consecutive years. The Restaurant is now one of only two Michelin 3-star restaurants in the Western United States (The French Laundry is the other.) I am no culinary expert, but I know that is no greasy spoon diner.
As the Maitre D’ guides me to my seat I glance at the other guests. Shoes, dresses, slacks, hairstyles, and jewelry – Napa Valley is fashionable and understated at the same time. There is old money in the room and celebrities that like to fly under the radar. The atmosphere is upscale casual.
As I sit down at my table I realize that I like to travel by myself, but not eat that way. Especially not in a romantic gourmet temple. It seems so unnatural. I clutch my notebook to my heart.
When the server brings the first appetizer – “a welcome from the chef”, which looks like a small pocket with filling – he bends down to me and explains the origin and filling of the pocket. Unfortunately, what I understand is basically “blah, blah, blah.” He waits until I bite into the pocket and then says: “It explodes in your mouth and stimulates your senses, doesn´t it? “ Expectantly, he awaits my reply. “WOW” is all I can muster up. He moves on.
At this point it’s worth it to note that I’ve never written a restaurant critique before. The notebook is just decoration. I need a prompter because I completely lack the vocabulary needed for the culinary world. Luckily, a more eloquent food critique of the San Francisco Chronicle (that awards Christopher Kostow with four stars) had visited The Restaurant two weeks prior and wrote about it:
“The tasting menu at The Restaurant at Meadowood began with a waiter bearing a brown velvet pillow on top of which rested an amuse of house-made crackers, garnished with a minuscule flower and leaf from the restaurant’s gardens. It looked like what a ring bearer might carry down the aisle. Was it edible, or was it a jewel?
As I popped the bonbon into my mouth and chewed, the initial crunch gave way to a gush of warm, salty goat cheese. It provided a dramatic start to a beautifully paced and executed dinner…”
There you have it, I could not have said it better. Only more concisely, with three letters. The evening takes an unexpected turn when the chef’s parents and his then-fiancée invite me to join their table. They obviously took pity on me so alone. Or they just wanted to make sure “that you write something favorable about Chris”, says his father Gary Kostow with a smile. I instantly find this man likeable. “How can I bribe you? What can my son prepare for you”? Child labor, this man is old school!
Gary and his wife Karen still seem surprised with the success of their youngest son, who played rugby, studied philosophy and flipped hamburgers during his summer break in Chicago’s famed Ravina before rising to become a highly decorated chef.
“He did not get if from us, we didn’t even do scrambled eggs much”, says Karen while shrugging her shoulders and taking another bite of the Fois Gras in front of us, prepared in four different ways. Karen might not know where the talent came from, but she obviously doesn’t mind it. Neither do I. What appears on our table is simply glorious. Poached CK farm eggs with morels, fava leaves and congee, then suckling pig with compressed pineapple, taro and sorghum, followed by…. the next mystery that knocks your socks off.
I ask Christopher’s wife, Martina Lohman, a beautiful American of Asian descent and a “foodie” like her husband, for help. After all, I cannot describe everything with WOW. Martina gets going and talks about “composition…marrying opposing textures and flavors… intricately constructed…palate cleansing…” And that is just the presentation; we have not even advanced to the taste of the dishes yet.
Minutes later Martina pauses. “One thing I can say for sure, food is the other woman in the relationship between Chris and I.” Now that makes sense to me again. Around the world it’s always the same: Men are focusing on their careers, while their girlfriends and wives come as dessert.
In the meantime the server brings wines from Austria, my home country – Grüner Veltliner by Loimer in the Kamptal valley and Riesling Smaragd, from the vineyards of Lagler, Andreas Lehensteiner und Prager in the Wachau valley – and Gary offers couples therapy: “Couples should not spend more than two hours a day together anyway, right darling?” Karen raises an eyebrow in amusement. After three decades of marriage to this man she obviously has mastered the art of taking him seriously only in exceptional cases.
After many hours the evening comes to an end. I suggest that as soon as you have a reservation in the brand new renovated (first opening night March 23rd 2012) The Restaurant, ask if Christopher’s parents will be there that evening and insist on sitting at their table. Also, look for Martina at the bar, tasting and evaluating Christopher’s newest creations. Make friends with her and you might be able to taste the heavenly creations that are not even on the menu yet. Trust me, it’s sooo worth it!
MEADOWOOD Napa Valley
900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena, California 94574
Tel (800) 458-8080 Tel (707) 963-3646, Fax (707) 963-3532
Category: Explore the World With Me