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The Ultimate PB&J?

Editor’s Note: This past fall I had the pleasure of participating in the grape harvest in the Napa Valley, one of the most appealing wine regions anywhere. Rather than simply wine touring, I sought to get a deeper understanding of the process of winemaking by participating in the harvest, shadowing Warren Winiarski of Arcadia Vineyard, Michael Silacci of Opus One and Chris Howell of Cain Vineyard and Winery to learn the secrets of making exceptional wine.  It was a fascinating and enlightening experience, learning how they sampled the fruit, made the critical decision to pick, brought in the fruit and carefully crushed and fermented it. In addition, I dined at wonderful restaurants, stayed in lovely hotels and met some fascinating characters. The following stories feature the highlights of the Napa Harvest—the insights, surprises and lessons learned along the way.

Nicholas O’Connell, MFA, Ph.D. is a freelance writer and founder of The Writer’s Workshop. He will teach a Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Tuscany (May 20-26)

Once upon a time, a PB&J was made with Wonder Bread, Skippy Peanut Butter and Welch’s Grape Jelly. But not at VINeleven, the restaurant at the Marriott Napa Valley Hotel and Spa. For a fall back-to-school menu, Executive chef Brian Whitmer makes a PB&J from bread, ground up raw almonds and jelly from Cabernet grapes growing outside the hotel. It’s a high end peanut butter sandwich, a treat for kids returning to school.
Whitmer displays this kind of creativity in all of VINeleven’s dishes. I had the pleasure of sampling some of this creativity in an inspired fall tasting menu that celebrated the harvest. The inspiration for the dinner came from the hotel garden, which yields produce year-round.
"We built this five years ago," he said, giving me a tour of the garden. "A lot of the top restaurants in Napa have gardens. We wanted to be competitive with the free-standing restaurants."
He picked nasturtiums for my salad, a Japanese eggplant (smaller and less bitter than larger eggplants) and cherry tomatoes for the starter.
"The garden is emblematic of the passion we have for ingredients and for cooking," he said as we made our way back to the restaurant. "The influence of the garden flows back into the kitchen."
I took a seat in a booth looking out on the bustling lobby, the central meeting area in the airy, pleasant, well-appointed hotel. I started off with a glass of St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc, fruity and floral, and excellent match for the Garden Eggplant Babaghanoush, Roti Flatbread, and Blistered Garden Tomatoes. It was a wonderful mix of tastes and textures, elevated by the fresh produce.
Whitmer followed this with a Garden Lacinato Kale Salad, with Hobb's Lardons, Rogue Smokey Blue, First Pomegranates, and Tangerines. The range of tastes and flavors made it very satisfying, especially paired with a Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc, rich, clean and appealing.
The next course proved especially appetizing. Whitmer perfectly prepared tiny lamb chops, spicing them with Artichoke-Arugula Pesto and a rich Swiss Chard Gratin. The Artesa Pinot Noir nicely complemented the richness of the lamb.
Though I was stuffed, I made room for a rich and satisfying Garden Lemon Verbena Creme Brûlée paired with a Schramsberg Brut Rose, a fitting finale to a memorable meal!

Note: The preceding story is an excerpt from the forthcoming Crush: Apprenticeship in the Wine Trade by Nicholas O’Connell, M.F.A, Ph.D. He is the author of four books and contributes to  Newsweek, Gourmet, Saveur, Outside, GO, National Geographic Adventure, Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sierra, and many other places. He is the founder of the online and Seattle-based writing program,



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