Noshing by Nature in the Napa Valley

Clients can cook up a storm and more in the California wine country

By: Maxine Cass

Our small cooking class had just transitioned from the second to third course of a food and wine pairing above Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail. Chef Laura Lee beamed at me. “Perfect!” she exclaimed of the ratatouille I’d just delicately sauteed under her tutelage at Signorello Vineyards.

I smiled with relief. There had been some anxiety earlier this morning that a Napa Valley do-it-yourself lunch would pale in comparison with The Restaurant at Meadowood’s dazzling Michelin two star prowess with food and wine the night before.

I needn’t have worried. I might be a novice chef, but Signorello Vineyards’ Interactive Culinary Class made me seem like an old hand, even in the Napa Valley’s restaurant endowed and wine rich environment.

Gnocchi was next up, calling for cigar-thick palm-rolled dough. Chef Lee’s deft cleaver showed us how to divide the dough into pieces imitating the ‘swish and flick’ motion known to Harry Potter fans. Soon, we had our knives moving like wands.

We novice chefs filled our glasses, toasted our cooking prowess and loosened our black aprons. It was time to move to the table outside with its vista of Napa Valley vineyards spreading below. Chef Lee, one of several visiting chefs guiding Signorello Vineyards’ cooking classes, had seared ahi tuna to accompany our ratatouille. We’d finish off with the herb gnocchi to which the chef would add seared duck breast with many-mushroom sauce. A late morning outing down the Silverado Trail from Meadowood Napa Valley had turned into a country feast, with pride in production and a Signorello wine matched to each course.

Hours before, the rattlesnake warning sign at Meadowood Napa Valley’s trailhead had been a sobering reminder that not everything is sculpted, manicured and tamed in wine country. I’d walked a mere two minutes away from the 28-year-old property’s cottages and lodges and was suddenly hiking in the country past oaks and manzanita where the hotel directory had cautioned that mountain lions and coyotes roam freely.

Golfers on Meadowood’s nine-hole walking course or white-clad croquet players on the lawn may encounter an occasional snake or deer, though I spotted no wildlife. Another option, hickory golf, harks back to a lesser-known form of the game, played as it was during Bobby Jones’ heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. Golf pro Doug Pike has assembled antique and replica clubs for real golf enthusiasts who want to try game strategy where players are more dependent on their swing and skill and less dependent on technology.

Players seemed relaxed. After all, chimed in Meadowood’s champion croquet pro, Jerry Stark, grinning jauntily while surveying croquet players in white on the immaculate green lawn, “we’re in wine country here and players can have a glass of wine while they play.”

That’s been the case since Meadowood Napa Valley was inaugurated 28 years ago as a country club for local residentsvalley vintnerswho wanted a place away from their businesses to socialize. Soon, there were 1,000 members, and 85 cottage-style rooms nestled amongst trees to fill up a destination property. Meadowood’s enticement and guarantee to the vintners was that it would have the most complete selection of valley wines available anywhere. More than 900 wines are in the cellar; many are offered by the glass. I tried the outsider test: could I spot one of the famous local winemakers who sometimes dine here? Master Sommelier and Meadowood’s Wine Educator, Gilles de Chambure, provides an insiders’ view of the wine industry in the Napa Valley in popular on-property Understanding and Enjoying Wine classes as well as during tailored off-site excursions for several hours to a whole day of wine appreciation.

In late July, 2006 after a three-year hiatus and redesign, The Restaurant at Meadowood reopened for evening fine dining Monday through Saturday. Chefs use the property’s own garden produce, local ingredients from Northern California farms and ranches, and seafood from local fisheries. Prix fixe menus with or without wine offer three, four, or five courses, or the seven-course Chef’s Tasting menu. The Restaurant at Meadowood’s Chef Joseph Humphrey smiled with pleasure as I was served a small, exquisitely-arranged warm lobster salad with grilled squab breast, spinach, and zinfandel-onion marmalade followed by a duck course with yellow beets, walnuts, turnip purée, and licorice jus. Two Michelin stars have put a premium on reservations for the already-packed restaurant, one of the valley’s newest destination dining meccas. One way to insure clients a restaurant reservation in Chef Humphrey’s domain is to book the Dining & Wine Seven-Course Getaway package with a wine-paired, multi-course meal customized for two, accommodation, and other amenities. Dessert was a Muscovado sugar blondie with salted caramel ice cream, and I guiltily wondered if a recent volcanic ash mud bath in the old-fashioned tub-style mud bath at Indian Springs up the valley in Calistoga or today’s yoga session, meditation and 90-minute Valley Stone Massage at Meadowood’s own and spa cancelled out that indulgence?

Earlier, I’d tried to anticipate the calorie infusion I knew was coming in The Restaurant’s dessert with a visit to the health spa fitness center’s spread of new sate-of-the-art equipment. Now, I was more than ready for a massage. Flat stones rested on top and underneath me for an hour. Hot basalt stones that warmed my deep tissue alternated with smooth but icy cold marble. The reward was a fine traditional massage of every possible sore or tense spot. Even the massage oil applied by therapist Sarah for the spa’s signature treatment was vintage wine country stuffwarm grapeseed oil.

After pampering and before the complimentary evening wine and snacks at Meadowood’s reception lodge, there was just enough time to escape one mile west to St. Helena. Most shops, including the yellow Woodhouse Chocolate shop, its pure-flavored chocolates wrapped up in Tiffany-blue boxes, are one-of-a-kind boutiques of the food, beverage, or clothing variety. With a box of chocolates in reserve for later, I returned to Meadowood, to my cottage that resembled a tree house with its wood-burning fireplace and soothing layers of duvet bed layering.

In Fall, 2006, Meadowood embarked on a phased lodging refurbishment program, the most comprehensive in the year-round property’s history. The idea, said Ann Marie Conover, who’s been the hotel’s communications director for nine years is “to make the resort ready for the next 20 years.” The first two lodges of this Relais & Chateaux member property were opened after renovation in March, 2007. Thirteen more accommodations will be ready in January 2008.


Meadowood Napa Valley
St. Helena, Calif.
Rack rates are slightly lower December-March and packages are commissionable at 10 percent.

Interactive Culinary Classes
Signorello Vineyards Napa, Calif.
2½-hour classes are approximately $150 per person; advance reservations are required.

Indian Springs
Calistoga, Calif.

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