Ristorante Allegria: Italian within walking distance of the Inn.

One of the great advantages of Napa is that the restaurants are within walking distance of the Inn.  Allegria is a lovely Italian restaurant built into an old bank, with a private room called The Vault (because it was!- but don’t ask to be sat there if you get claustrophobic or worry about the vault door shutting) that requires reservations in advance.  The other advantage of Allegria is that it is dog-friendly with an outdoor patio for canine lovers.  The food is good and the ambience is inviting.  They sent out a little appetizer of deep fried mozzarella with a tomato sauce that was just lovely (we have free appetizer cards available).  I ordered the beef carpaccio and was not disappointed.  It was a perfect beginning to my main course which was a soft polenta topped with portabello mushrooms and a lovely tomato sauce.  Jamie enjoyed the linguine with seafood, and my nephew and niece enjoyed the mussels and clams as an appetizer (indeed delicious, as I snuck a bite…or two…or maybe even three); and one of them asked for the pollo ripieno, a stuffed chicken breast, and the other wanted a pasta dish from the child’s menu but in adult portion and they were kind enough to accommodate (always a plus in my book).  We weren’t going to order dessert but couldn’t resist the homemade spumoni ice cream (yes, an absolute must if you go), the brownie pie (rich and delicious), and the tiramisu (I’ve never seen a piece so large).  We enjoyed a lovely Sequoia Grove Cabernet with dinner and all of us were happy and satisfied with the meal when we left.

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Schramsberg Vineyards: a most fascinating cave tour.

Walking into a cave that has been hand-dug by Chinese immigrants in the late 1800′s is just the beginning of your experience at Schramsberg Vineyards.  Looking at the pickaxe marks still etched into the wall gives you a greater appreciation for how far back the caves were dug with no technology, but just the backs and hands of human beings.  The property is beautiful and is soaked with history as you learn about these immigrants, the original owner and how he came to purchase the property, and how Jack London’s writing was influenced by the time he spent there.As you turn the corner you see a wall of bottles lying on their sides, stacked in perfect formation.  The real secret, though, is just how deep that wall of bottles is, and then to turn and look at all the walls surrounding you and realize just how much sparkling wine is sitting around you waiting to be opened.  In case of nuclear attack I know where I’m headed.  The tasting takes place in the cave and that is the other gift of this tour.  A sampling of various types of sparkling wine from low to mid to high range.  With each sip comes an explanation from the pourer of why the wine is made a particular way, what they were trying to achieve, and a listing of what foods would go well with each bottle.  After 90 minutes you will feel much better educated about “champagne” or “sparkling wine” as we call it here in the U.S. and have had an experience of cave tours like no other in the Valley.  Reservations are required.

Saddleback: what a surprise- I liked everything I tried.

I don’t often say that I like everything I tried, but this was an unusual place.  A world-class winemaker producing wines that are reasonably priced.  Now, that is the real surprise of this place.  I won’t drop his name- you’ll have to discover it for yourself; but he is consultant to many wineries here in the Napa Valley because he is one of the few who has produced a 100-point wine out of Napa.  We were encouraged to visit by a friend of ours and finally made our way to this small, unassuming winery with a very small and intimate tasting room.  The pourer, Jim, was just delightful and very informative, and let us also taste the winemaker’s son’s wine.  To be honest, the son has a ways to go, but is making some nice wine; just not as lovely as his father.  Anyway, if you are looking for an unassuming place to drink some really nice wine that is affordable and unpretentious, then this is the place for you.  If you are looking for splash, and pizzazz, and a major tour, please go elsewhere.  The winemaker’s son also produces wine out of Saddleback under a different label.  His wine was good but, in our opinion, not as good as his father’s wine- and, it was more expensive!  And in today’s times, less expensive is good especially when the flavor in your mouth is popping.  By the way, they have some tables and umbrellas outdoors for picnics, and I would highly recommend this as a place to enjoy your lunch.  As with any winery it is common courtesy to buy a bottle of wine when using the picnic grounds.

Private versus Public Wineries

Anyone who has been to Napa knows that out of the 400+ wineries, many of them are listed as Private, which often means you cannot access them……unless, of course, you know someone…or someone who knows someone else.  We have some of those connections in the valley, connections that would allow guests to have access to very private and exclusive tastings not offered to anyone unless you are “in the know”.  We often don’t publicize the fact because the prices on some of these private wines can be $75 to $150 and up, and the expectation of the winemaker is that the individuals coming to the winery are on a “wine-buying” trip and are serious about buying a case or more of wine from them.  Most of these wineries only produce one thousand cases or less, which means there is very little to go around.  There are “cult wineries” that have started like this- Screaming Eagle, for one.  It was a small private winery and in 1992 it received 100 points from Robert Parker- high praise indeed.  With that rating came higher prices, and a waiting list for the wine.  It doesn’t matter that the original winemaker is gone; the cult-following is there.  Look for anything on a menu with Screaming Eagle and you can see upwards of $1500 or more for a single bottle of wine.  Today there is a waiting list to be put on the wine club members list, a wait of up to 3 years, we’re told.  Anyway, other private wineries are producing great wines and some of them are providing really unique experiences.  One place we visited (and you can too, for the right price of course) was up on Diamond Mountain.  We took a dirt road, parked, and then walked through some sagebrush to a 3-tier platform that had the most magnificent view of Napa Valley.  One section was covered with a trellis, with a table and chairs set up for formal wine tasting.  This winemaker only produces one wine, but he had 3 different years for us to taste and purchase.  It was a fascinating exercise in how wine changes over the years, and to speak to him about why he made it different each year and what he was trying to achieve; this was the real bonus.  Not to mention the VIEWS!  Then he told us that he is willing to do private lunches and dinners at the vineyard with the following stipulations: you have to hire a driver to take you there and back home (dinner drivers run about $100 for the evening).  I can understand why, as you are able to drink as much wine as you like, meander through the 13 acres of vines, or to just stare and gawk at the VIEWS.  Did I tell you about the VIEWS?  Okay, so that is really what you are paying for.  The other stipulation is that you wear comfortable walking or hiking shoes as you have to walk on this trail approximately 50 yards to get to the platform.  This is not a place dressing up; this is meant for casual dress for dinner.   Also, your bathroom (which is extra if you want it) is an outhouse that he will put on the property.  He also has plenty of lanterns and lighting for night events so you won’t get lost getting back to your driver.  For $125 per person for lunch, or $150 per person for dinner, you get wonderful VIEWS, as much wine as you want to drink (the wine is about $70/bottle), and a gourmet meal (beef wellington was the last meal he served).  He is willing to do it for 2 people up to 12 people, exclusively for The Inn On First.  If you want to go, all you have to do is ask.  We’ll be glad to set you up.

Bleaux Magnolia: be prepared for a wild party in your mouth!

We sometimes refer to this restaurant as our home away from home.  It is one of those restaurants we frequent often, and if we cannot sit and have a meal, we’ll order out.  The flavors here continue to entice our palates and we have yet to walk away disappointed.  My personal favorite is the Osso Bucco on sweet potato fries, with the meat falling right off the bone.  I still enjoy the seafood gumbo and the duck jambalaya, and now their ‘tweener (1/2 gumbo and 1/2 jambalaya). This last time they offered us the Super ‘tweener, with a large duck leg on top, and Matt, the chef, joked that he wanted to improve that with a Jumbo ‘tweener that would add a crab cake on top of the duck leg.  We split the Osso Bucco and Super ‘tweener and with each bite I felt as though my mouth was at a wild dance party where the spices become the music which cause my body to jump with pleasure.  And who can forget the deep-fried butterscotch pudding with a green apple salad and vanilla vinaigrette and a scoop of green apple sorbet.  That was perfect.  I give you fair warning, though: going to any other restaurant after this one is like attending the ballet after a night of dancing to rock and roll.  You need to be prepared for more subtle flavors and nuanced dishes.  If you think every restaurant is going to offer what Bleaux Magnolia has to offer, you will be disappointed.  For us, this is another “not to be missed” restaurant in Napa.