Local Tastes

Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, Tim Carl and I were having lunch and talking about this place where we both grew up, the place we left and returned to, Napa Valley. One of the questions I am asked a lot is: Hasn’t it changed so much? The answer, oddly, is yes and no. Napa, the city, and Napa, the valley, continue to surprise old-timers, yet I think the heart of it remains the same. At least, I hope it does. One of the results of this conversation is Tim’s new column, which will look at where we are, and where we might be going, as well as where we’ve been, all in search of the heart of Napa. We welcome any tips, ideas and suggestions.— Sasha Paulsen

Is the Napa Valley defined by its food and wine, or is it vice versa?

Food and wine are intimate creations. At their best they are made by individuals who care deeply about their craft and have an intimate understanding of the link between what they make and the people who consume it. Wine and food also reflect the place and, ultimately, the values and priorities of a particular area. It is with this in mind that “Local Tastes,” a new column, explores food and wine throughout the Napa Valley.

When I was growing up in St. Helena, the valley had just started to find its footing as a region that had the potential for making exceptional wine and food.

At that time, “fancy food” might include tinfoil-wrapped baked potatoes, and the consistency of our best wines was just stabilizing beyond a few select producers.

Years earlier, in 1938, the Russian-born winemaker André Tchelistcheff, who purportedly walked around the tiny town of Rutherford wearing a white lab coat, had been on a mission to make the Napa Valley a world-class location for fine-wine production.

Tchelistcheff had been trained with a new generation of winemakers in Europe who believed that enology and microbiology could be combined with art, science and the latest technology, all utilized to improve wine quality. By the 1960s, his view had gathered steam.

At about the same time, in 1963, the cooking program by the influential American-born, French-trained chef Julia Child first aired on public television. Although the idea of celebrity chefs was years away from becoming a reality, the idea that fine culinary fare was not un-American became popular.

By the mid-1970s, the Napa Valley’s wine prowess had increased to the point that our wines had won the Paris Tasting. Winning such awards showed the world that wines made here could compete — and even surpass — some of the finest in the world. Wine in the Napa Valley had found a growing and receptive audience, but it had taken time and many dedicated and selfless hands to make that happen.

Meanwhile, people were beginning to notice Northern California as a culinary hotspot. In 1971, Paul Aratow and Alice Waters founded Chez Panisse in an Arts and Crafts house on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Their influence focused more on the ingredients rather than techniques, which was a departure from the culinary trends at the time.

Out of this cauldron of change emerged what was called “California Cuisine” and “Big Wines,” often initially used in a derogatory manner. But by the early 1990s, those same terms were considered a badge of honor by many, including restaurateurs and vintners from around the world who co-opted the terminology for marketing purposes.

By 1994, Thomas Keller’s French Laundry had opened in Yountville, and a year later winemaker Heidi Barrett’s first vintage of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon was awarded 99 points by the newly influential wine reviewer Robert Parker Jr.

So there we were — the Napa Valley thrust onto the world stage.

Since then, the country has experienced war, two recessions, the collapse of both the Internet and housing bubbles, and changes in tastes for both wine and food. What was good enough in the past is nowhere near good enough now. People’s tastes have evolved. “Organic,” “social media,” “smartphone” and “low carbon footprint” are terms that did not exist in wide use 20 years ago, but now they are ubiquitous.

Now we have rock-star chefs such as Brandon Sharp in Calistoga and Christopher Kostow in St. Helena, each apparently building his own townwide empire. We also have an influx of celebrity chefs: Charlie Palmer (Harvest Inn in St. Helena) and TV chefs Morimoto Napa and the soon-to-be opened restaurants by winners of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, Douglas Keane (former Cyrus chef who is now opening a Yakitori-style restaurant at the newly renovated Freemark Abbey just north of St. Helena) and Chris Cosentino (San Francisco’s Cockscomb chef, reportedly opening St. Helena’s forthcoming Las Alcobas hotel property). And, of course, we have such existing uber-talent as Thomas Keller, Cindy Pawlcyn and Michael Chiarello among many others.

On the wine side, we have the stalwarts: Thomas Brown, Philippe Melka, Robert Foley, Bob Levy, Helen Turley, Paul Hobbs and the aforementioned Heidi Peterson Barrett. But there is a new crop of winemakers right on their heels: Alisa Jacobson, Helen Keplinger, Jeff Ames, Bibiana González Rave, Austin Peterson and so many others, each of whom seems ready and willing to push the envelope if given the chance and the support.

It’s not just the chefs and winemakers: Owners, farmers, managers and an army of craftspeople bring an important piece of the magic to the table.

Up to this point, the Napa Valley has been able to remain at the cutting edge. Some may argue that we created — or at least greatly influenced — the current trends in both food and wine around the country and even the world. In any event, we’ve certainly had a role to play in that transformation.

The question is, “Where do we go from here?” What do we have to offer the world in terms of vision and direction for the future of food and wine? Of course, we could just sit back and live off our past glory, reminding ourselves that we’ve done plenty already. But that doesn’t sound like the Napa Valley I know. Taking such an approach would not be in line with our heritage of innovation and iconoclastic exploration.

In “Local Tastes,” I’ll explore the area to discover who is more focused on the past and who is embracing the future. My goal here is to honor these different approaches by acknowledging their unique points of view.

I’ve been a chef, a vintner and a few other things in my life, and now I’m exploring food and wine in the Napa Valley and telling stories of the people who are dedicated to creating products that touch the lives of others. I’ll present the information as objectively as I can — and then you can be the judge.

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Originally published in the Napa Register, March 2016