Napa Valley in the heat of harvest is something very special. The last few weeks I have been spending some time in the valley, for the Staglin Music Festival for Mental Health, and classes for the National Pork Board and last week for Mastering Wine I at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone in St. Helena at the northern end of the Napa Valley. The valley is absolutely bustling with the excitement of harvest and grapes are not the only thing being harvested!
While fermentations simmer and the threat of a big storm in the Bay Area looms, the last few weeks have been balmy and downright cool, a very unusual harvest, but as I reported to my class last week, it really seems that the grapes know what is best and man just has to be paying enough attention to do the right thing. I remember being awakened on the day of the Staglin Benefit for Mental Health to the sound of thunder (my WORD!) and raindrops, so unusual for the valley. I had heard that veraison (the point at which grapes begin to turn color and ripen) had been early, but this was truly unique, to have an overcast cool day for this event had not happened in the nine years I had worked it. Overall the season was cool and in the last week I heard from many vintners that Brix levels (level of sugar at harvest) are lower than normal but with exceptional maturity. This means lower alcohols with just as much flavor! (to read more about why go to http://www.winebusiness.com/wbm/?go=getArticle&dataId=17093) It just goes to show that sometimes the vines have forewarning as to when they should get their fruit ripe and hunker down for winter. From what I hear many were spooked by the storm warning predicted for Tuesday and have harvested. For Twitter updates head to @NVGrapegrowers to find out who is harvesting.
But Napa Harvest is not just about grapes! One of my favorite things to do whenever I am in the valley is to hit the LMR Rutherford Gardens. Operated by Long Meadow Ranch they are a produce pavilion right in the heart of Rutherford, across the way from Grgich Hills Winery on Highway 29. While known for great wine and free-range beef the bounty at the gardens is the produce, and although summer is high-season, I love their fall offerings. They have a newsletter that you can sign up for if you are interested in knowing what is in season in advance, but I prefer to be surprised! Recently they had amazing nobby potatoes, five varieties of garlic, zucchini, an abundance peppers and possibly the last of amazing heirloom tomatoes. If you hit the stand at just the right time you may be able to get some eggs! I was lucky recently and grabbed a set of pullets, small sized eggs, in pastel colors that would put any Easter basket to shame. And they were $5 a dozen and delicious! Plus Long Meadow Ranch makes great wine! They also offer jeep tours of their vineyards and cattle ranches!
Further down valley I make another stop as I turn towards Sonoma onto 121 headed back to San Francisco, Stanly Lane Marketplace. This country store has amazing coffee, they do a fabulous iced Americano that almost lasts until I drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. They offer some foods and seasonal crafts from local artisans including adorable gourd art for Halloween. Its a fun way to break up the drive. They also sell used barrels and if you are lucky staves and barrel tops, which I am fond of (I make them into lazy susans). In the same parking lot they have a farm stand offering produce from many Bay Area farms, and are nice enough to specify the origin of every piece of produce on its sign. In the height of summer they usually have Brentwood corn and nice heirlooms, peaches and nectarines in season. My favorite time of the year, though, is when they create their incredible field of pumpkins for Halloween. It is awash in oranges but they also stock multiple heirloom squashes in an array of untraditional shapes and colors, at much cheaper prices than most markets. Plentiful wheelbarrows are available for rides for the kids and the pumpkins. Pigs are on view carousing over smashed gourds for the kids to watch (and smell). This year I was super excited to see that they added a corn and sunflower maze to the scene. At five o’clock as the sun was exhibiting a much different angle in the sky than usual, it really made it feel like fall. Hurry! These places shut down seasonally!
LMR Rutherford Gardens 1796 So. St. Helena Highway Rutherford http://www.longmeadowranch.com/Gardens/Rutherford-Gardens
Stanly Lane Marketplace 3100 Golden Gate Drive Napa, at the corner of Stanly Lane and Hwy 121/12, Napa 707 253-7512
D&S Produce Stanly Lane Pumpkin Patch, at the corner of Stanly Lane and Hwy 121/12, Napa 707 480-4479
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 10-6pm, Saturday and Sunday 9-5pm