Discovering California Wine Country

Erwin Hüsken, Head Chef at Screaming Eagle Restaurant, and his buddy-colleagues Sven Schneider, Marcel van Berkum and Raymond Kock from the Flying Fishbone Restaurant were recently invited to tour California’s wine country as guests of an insider, a man who can open all tasting room doors and uncork any bottle in Napa Valley, Patrick Burke, a national wine sales man working with the Aruba Trading Company here.

Burke comes to Aruba frequently to introduce chefs and restaurateurs to the wonders of California’s wines. He personally asked the foursome of brilliant professionals to take some time off their busy schedules to tour the vineries responsible for the excellent wines on both restaurants’ wine cards.

Burke explained that to taste top California wines at the Screaming Eagle Restaurant or at the Flying Fishbone Restaurant is a wonderful thing, however, to experience these exquisite wines in their home environment, in California, can be an amazing and memorable experience. As it turned out, he was right.
“We were treated like celebrities, in Napa Valley, just like rock stars,” says Erwin, who is truly a master chef, a talented, inventive and highly educated professional. “We arrived in San Francisco after a long flight from Aruba, and drove ourselves to Napa Valley, then Patrick Burke took over the leadership,  arranging our visits in over 30 wineries and the tasting of more than 150 of the world’s best wines. It was an off-the-chart experience,” he adds.

Headquarters at the Cuvaison Estate, the Arubans made themselves comfortable in a stylish cottage overlooking the estate vineyard. The view was spectacular, vines as far as the eye can see, crisp cool weather at night, warm Mediterranean climate, with cloudless skies during the day.

The guys who are usually short on words, gave long descriptive reports of vibrant flowers and trees, which they observed everywhere, and really liked the pleasant, balmy nights, perfect for wine drinking and nibbling.

“As we visited the area,” says Sven, a financier by day and restaurateur by night, “we immediately got it why Napa valley became such a wine producing center,  the air is fresh and fragrant, the mornings and evenings are crisp, with great temperatures during the day, and abundant sunshine, they really have it all,” he concludes, “the vines love it, and we loved it .”

Under Burke’s watchful eyes, each of the following three days spent in Napa Valley was filled with amazing discoveries, sipping the hand-crafted, elegant Napa Valley wines, in their very prestigious addresses.

Their voyage of discovery took them to the Carneros tasting room of Cuvaison and to the historic winery in Calistoga. They visited the Pine Ridge Vineyards, a pioneer establishment inspired by the famous wines of Bordeaux, France, that started believing in Napa Valley’s potential to produce wines of similar quality.

Sipping at least three kinds of wines in each of the wineries they visited they lingered longer, and tasted more at the Boisset Family Estates, introduced to the collection of more than twenty historical and unique wineries. Of course they loved the Pinot Noir, and the interesting history, identity, and style of President Jean-Charles Boisset, who grew up in the vineyards and developed a life-long passion for wine – both its production and its enjoyment. They spent some time at the Raymond Vineyards, one of Napa Valley’s iconic, pioneering wineries admiring the commitment to maintaining this family’s legacy and tradition.

Between tasting-tours they shopped at legendary Dean & Deluca store for home supplies, taking goodies back to their cottage at Cuvaison, buying some more California Napa Valley wines, and filling up their fridge with gourmet everything, fresh, organic, and home-grown.

The Frank Family historic vineyards left an impression, and so did Bouchon, a restaurant by the highly acclaimed chef Thomas Keller, of French Laundry fame. The Arubans enjoyed Bouchon, an excellent French bistro, with exciting cuisine in a dining room offering a wonderful Parisian ambiance, and they loved the authentic country-style boulagerie on the side, stocking up on goodies at the Bouchon Bakery

Chef Erwin came away impressed by the passion and the perfectionism exhibited by all the people they met, who combine  age-old wine growing techniques with science, oak barrels, new and old, and stainless steel vats, all thinking out-of-the box in an effort to create a new style, or a more sophisticated presentation.

Of course you hear about Malolactic fermentation everywhere, says Marcel. The process where tart tasting malic acid, is converted to softer tasting lactic acid, which creates the famous rich and buttery taste of California wines with enhanced body and flavor. They all keep talking about this magical transformation, and you can taste it in the wine, immediately, especially when the process occurs in the oak barrels, he states.

At Silver Oak, the Arubans liked the modern tasting bar, and the gorgeous views of rolling hills and sprawling vineyards. The family winery promotes its Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and offers tours in combination with delicious seasonal food pairings.

The Nickel & Nickel winery, in Oakville, Napa Valley, dedicated exclusively to producing 100 percent varietal, single-vineyard wines offered them an amazing Cabernet sauvignon, also Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel, which were all memorable, and made in a beautifully restored, historic Napa winery.

The RSV Tasting Room, which was named Tasting Room of the Year, lived up to its name, the foursome informs, serving Robert Sinski ‘s fancy wines with a plate of small bites from the Vineyard’s kitchen.

The Aruban also enjoyed the Cave Raider Tours which took them past the production area to the caves, where they couldn’t possibly begin to count the number of caves they have seen, a fascinating, and incredibly exciting area, many feet below the earth, created to safeguard and mature stacks of barrels full of wine, preparing to be served at tables all over the world.

At Rombauer, the Aruban toured 1.6 miles of cellars, in a “must visit winery” not just because of the noble wines it produces but also because of the surroundings, with amazing gardens  where expert horticulturists grow hundreds of plant and flower varietals, which frame the spectacular view of the Mayacamas mountain range.

Needless to say, they couldn’t visit Screaming Eagles Winery, because the property cannot accommodate tours due to the extremely small quantity of wine produced, which results in no tastings! We expected that, says Marcel, we bring it in for the Screaming Eagle Restaurant, privately bought in the US from members of the Screaming Eagle Winery subscription list so that the wine can always be found on our wine card.

Raymond reports that Far Niente, which was founded in 1885, at the time of the California Gold Rush, was most impressive. The winery fell into disrepair after that but was reopened in 1979,  fully restored with 13 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens and caves also dating from 1885, when they were chiseled into solid rock. Far Niente caves were the first to be constructed in North American starting a sprawling new industry in Napa Valley, resulting in world famous California Wines, Raymond explains.

The Aruban received great hospitality at Far Niente, recognized as a benchmark producer of Napa Valley Chardonnay and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and learned about its equally famous sister wineries Nickel & Nickel, Dolce, and En Route.

Of course, the Opus One Winery, created in 1984, by the Baron Philippe Rothschild, his daughter Philippine and Robert Mondavi, was unforgettable, making wine of subtlety and grace.  The building of the winery literally rises out of the earth, Erwin Explains, and through a mix of classical European and contemporary Californian elements, gradually shows its distinctive beauty.

“Our visit in Napa Valley was an education,” the Arubans agree. “The winemaker’s goals of making great wines reflecting tradition but promoting innovation can clearly be observed in every winery we visited. Napa Valley pays great attention to details and is totally committed to planting and maintaining sustainable vineyards, with American flair and great marketing savvy, it’s a fantastic spot,” they confirm.

Beringer? Not  impressive, however, nothing to write home about.  And yes, they visited Chateau Montelena, most famous for winning the white wine section in 1976, in Paris, when the Chardonnay was in competition with nine other wines from France and California. “We saw that winning bottle of Chardonnay on display, it was fun because we also saw the movie, Bottle Shock,” Marcel says.

Erwin who cooks with wine all the time, is now on the mission, to use even more wine in his cooking. Sven and Marcel report they will be making some additional changes on their wine cards to reflect what they have tasted, and Raymond adds he will borrow some service concepts from Napa Valley and import them into the Flying Fishbone.

“We lived in a postcard for three days, filled with picnics, barbeques, fancy restaurants, vintage car collections, sunflowers, olive trees, and eccentric millionaires,” they say, “thank you Patrick Burke!”