Bui Bistro: French Vietnamese cuisine that is fresh, fresh, fresh.

A ten minute walk from The Inn On First, a romantic Napa Bed and Breakfast Inn, is a restaurant called Bui Bistro, a blend of French and Vietnamese cuisines.  There was a distinct “freshness” to every bite.  You could just taste it in every dish, something I cannot say for every restaurant in town.  They have traditional noodle dishes, stews served in large bowls with fresh fish, vegetables, and noodles (lunch only), as well as spring rolls, salads, and soups.

I highly recommend the green papaya salad with its little kick of pepper at the back of your throat, and the sauteed pea shoots that were just wonderful.  We also enjoyed the spring rolls, both Imperial (deep fried) and fresh.  The French side comes out with the duck confit or beef carpaccio, but with an Asian flair that nuances the flavors; or in dessert such as the Kaffir Lime creme brulee.  You’ll find sea bass in tamarind coconut sauce, and if they offer anything in the clay pot, take it; it is always delicious.  The seating is casual and the prices are reasonable ($9 to $12 for appetizers and $12 to $22 for entrees).

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Barnett Winery: great wine, great views, really nice people.

About 40 minutes from The Inn On First, a luxury bed and breakfast inn in Napa, is Barnett Vineyards Winery.  Snuggled up on the hillside we call Spring Mountain, and at the end of a narrow, winding road lies the beautiful estate of Barnett.   Fiona and Hal Barnett created this vineyard and winery in 1983 with the intent of producing small amounts of hand crafted Cabernet Sauvignon wines from their estate.

The vineyards are located at the top of Spring Mountain, at elevation 2,000ft, planted on steep terraces that follow the contour of the land. The vines struggle to reach nutrients and water in the soil and, as a result, yield only one to two tons per acre (versus four to five tons per acre on the Valley floor). Grapes are harvested by hand; vineyard row by row, as optimum ripeness and maturity is reached. Fermentation is done in small batches.  Producing no more than 6,000 cases per year this is a very small operation.

Don’t be fooled, though, in thinking that small is not great.  Just the opposite is true.  We were pleasantly surprised to taste two different Pinot Noir releases, one with grapes from the Anderson Valley and another with grapes from the Russian River Valley.  Both were big on the nose and I expected them to be big on the palate but I was wrong.  They surprised me by their lightness, good fruit flavor, what I would call a great jazzy wine (playful on the palate).  The Savoy Chardonnay had great butter on the nose, but was evenly balanced with oak on the palate, a nice balance for Jamie (who loves butter) and me (who loves acidity and/or oak).

After tasting these three wines in the barrel room our hostess, Nicole, took us to the caves and the brand new tasting area in the nook of the mountain.  She brought along 2 cabernets for us to try, the Spring Mountain Cab (estate grown) and the Cyrus Ryan Cab (grapes from Valley floor),  Personally I found the Spring Mountain grapes had brighter fruit flavor, while the Cyrus Ryan Vineyard grapes held strong earthy notes, especially cinnamon which I loved.  As Nicole gave us the history of the vineyards, the Barnett family, and an overview of their flagship wine, Rattlesnake Cab, she walked us through the caves to a most stellar view of the Napa Valley floor.  With tables and chairs to sit and enjoy our wine and each other’s company, we stayed awhile soaking up the ambience.

The bulk of their wines range from $30 to $70, with a couple of their single vineyard cabs going for as much as $140.  These are wines you will sit on for 7, 10, or 15 years to allow the aging process to bring out the best of the fruit and to reduce the tannins.  Overall, a lovely experience and well worth the drive.  Although it is not mandatory, Jamie and I place a high expectation upon our guests to purchase when you visit.  This is true of most small, family-owned vineyards, and especially those up in the hillsides.  Tasting fees for Barnett run $40 per person and is worth it considering the great wines you get to try.

Aroma Challenge: want to learn how to identify aromas in wine?

Joseph Phelps Winery is now offering an Aroma Challenge, a 90-minute course on how to identify aromas in wine.  Tasting 6 different wines over the course of 90 minutes, even with the help of a “wine wheel” that lays out a long list of potential aromas in different varietals, was quite a challenge.  The obvious up-front aromas were easy (blackberry, cherry, etc.) but the underlying aromas were much more difficult to identify.  With the help of our wine educator (Luba- you were great!), though, we were taught how to identify those more subtle aromas.

In the middle of this seminar you are also presented with 12 glasses of wine with clear liquid, each filled with the essence of aromas you find in wine (6 red wine aromas, 6 white wine aromas) and are challenged to identify what you smell.  The wine educator even presents you with identifier cards with pictures representing potential aromas (green apple, pear, banana, or cherries, strawberries, licorice), including a few extra misleading ones.  I really thought I had it nailed, scored 100%.  Then came the answers- ugh!  I scored 50% on the white wine aromas and 80% on the red wine aromas.  Boy do I have a lot to learn!

Understand that not only do become more educated, but you also get to drink some really great wine.

Total cost of the seminar: $50 per person.  Well worth the money and the time.  Call Joseph Phelps today and reserve your seminar.

ALEX- upscale Italian comes to Rutherford

A 30 minute drive from The Inn On First, a luxury Bed and Breakfast Inn in Napa, is a lovely restaurant named ALEX.  It is small, intimate, with a very comfortable elegant decor followed up with excellent service and superior food.  We usually don’t go up valley often for dinner unless a particular restaurant is calling for attention.  Alex, a new restaurant in Rutherford, connected to the Rancho Caymus Inn, is worth noting for those who want something more upscale and less crowded (read that quieter) than Bottega (don’t get me wrong, I love Bottega).  I’ll sum it up in one sentence: I enjoyed absolutely every bite!

From the fried vegetable platter with aioli, to the beet and potato gnocchi with gorgonzola cream.  I also was able to snag a spoonful of really delicious broccoli soup, a bite of the housemade burrata with speck, and the farro stew.  Oh my!, and that was just the starters.  We ordered the Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil on the side for the bread (worth the order) with its fruity flavor.  Then came the roasted rabbit with housemade fettucine (as are all the pastas), the veal and beef ragu with cavatelli, and the grilled octopus salad (love, love, love it), and grilled pork cheeks (yummy!).   The fireplace, the comfortable chairs, the overall setting, and the service, also set this place apart from so many others in the valley.  Quiet, quaint, romantic.

For wine we ordered the Pahlmayer Jayson Chardonnay to start and finished with a lovely Italian red, Planeta Cerasuolo di Vittoria.  We finished the meal with a semifreddo di torrone, a light frozen whipped cream dessert with coffee.  It was perfect.

Prices range from $12 to $15 for starters and $15 to $30 for main courses.  If you don’t mind the drive and want something really nice and romantic, I would recommend this restaurant.  It’s worth the drive.