Napa Valley is the center of American viticulture. It is also home to world-class restaurants. However, due to a long-standing ordinance, the two do not mix – until now. Napa Valley wineries are taking advantage of a loophole allowing for educational food and wine pairings for consumers. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, one of the oldest and most iconic wineries in Napa Valley, is leading the way with its Cellarius Kitchen Experience.
No matter where you look on Highway 29 in Napa Valley you will see museum-like wineries – sprawling structures with manicured lawns adorned with million dollar works of art – nestled among endless acres of vines. Pull in to any one of them and find yourself in a gorgeous tasting room bustling with activity, a sea of bottles lining the walls and standing room-only tasting bars. But unless you eat before you get to the winery, you’ll be tasting on an empty stomach.
According to the Winery Definition Ordinance passed in 1990, Napa Valley wineries “may include food service without charge except to the extent of cost recovery when provided in association with such education and development.” The ordinance was designed to keep weddings and large social functions out of Napa Valley wineries. Ultimately it has limited wine lover from enjoy meals at wineries.
Today, Napa Valley wineries are starting to rethink their obedience to the almost 20-year ordinance, seeking to offer fuller experiences to visitors. However, providing proper food and wine pairings is a costly investment. Outfitting a restaurant quality kitchen and hiring a top chef and staff is expensive – and considering the endeavor must be non-profit, and the experiences must essentially pay for themselves, it is cost prohibitive to many.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is synonymous with challenging the system. Its 1973 S.L.V. cabernet sauvignon won the 1976 Judgement of Paris, beating four top-ranked Bordeaux, forever drawing the world’s attention to Napa Valley. Now the winery is once again leading the way – this time when it comes to wine and food pairing.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has joined forces with chef Travis Westrope to create the Cellarius Kitchen Experience. It begins with a tour of the property and the caves, and highlights the history of the winery and Napa Valley. Next, a gastronomical journey with a four-course culinary experience delights the senses. Just don’t call it lunch.
Chef Westrope puts the axiom “what grows together, goes together” to work in this dining experience. He sources as many ingredients as possible from the Stag’s Leap property, with the rest coming from local farmer’s markets and butchers. The Cellarius Kitchen Experience includes a four-course pairing, featuring Stag’s Leap chardonnay, followed by three of Napa Valley’s finest cabernet sauvignons – Fay Vineyard, S.L.V. Estate and Cask 23.
Chef Westrope enjoys having “carte blanche” to create a menu without constraints. Being a winery instead of a restaurant, he can create any style of cuisine he desires, even from one course to another.
“My biggest challenge is constantly pairing with red wine, but I try to test the norms” to create unique combinations, he says.
Enjoying a young Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon vintage poses challenges. The wine’s youthfulness can overpower the palate and the tannins can be robust. While these elements integrate beautifully with bottle age, chef Westrope calms them in their youth with food. In the spring, he paired spicy linguica sausage with melted baby leeks, marbled potatoes, pickled mustard seed, garlic aioli and egg yolk to calm the bold currant- and cassis-driven 2015 S.L.V. cabernet sauvignon, for example.
The summer menu pairs the elegant and expressive 2015 Cask 23 cabernet sauvignon with foie gras torchon, porcini mushroom two ways, roasted beets and red fruit, cherry compote and shiso. It is a complicated pairing that hits on every level.
The Cellarius Kitchen Experience is $175 per person and offered by advance appointment Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at noon, April through December, and can host up to 12 guests.
Two other wineries have joined Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar in taking advantage of the ordinance’s loophole. Round Pond Estate offers Il Pranzo ($125/pp), a multi-course food and wine pairing. It includes a vineyard tour and lunch on the terrace. Ashes & Diamonds offers its Vintage Experience ($250/pp), a private tour of the vineyards, cellar, and winery, a private library wine tasting from the 60s and 70s along with recent releases, and a five-course classic steakhouse meal.