Mustard: Not Just a Pretty Face

The Napa Valley is beautiful to visit at any time of the year.  Each season has it moments that are amazing.  Right now, the vines are “resting” and have been cut back in preparation for the growing season.  Temperature changes are what stimulate the growth, and presently it is chilly.  Bud break, the initial beginning of growth happens, generally around St. Patrick’s Day.  We are still a good month away from that time.

What you will see at this time of the year, which can be amazing, is the vast fields of yellow mustard in the vineyards.  Rows and rows of bright yellow flowers fill many of the vineyards and peak around this time of year.  Glorious bright yellow that spans acres of trimmed vineyards dot the valley.  This is what the vineyard manager terms a cover crop. It is more than just a “pretty face.”

Cover crops, and in particular mustard plants, are an integral part of the vineyard management.  They provide many important benefits to the growing process and serve the vineyard well.

First up on the list of contributions is weed control.  The mustard plants grow so vigorously that they preclude the growth of weeds.  Mustard also produces a high level of glucosinolates that kill off many soilborne pathogens, preempting the need for chemical herbicides.  This reduces the number of insects that make the vineyard their home.  The mustard adds organic matter to the soil.  It also helps redistribute nitrogen to the soil and pulls CO2 from the air.  And if that isn’t enough – it reduces wind and water erosion.  Mustard’s root structure breaks hardpan soils and allows for more new pathways for water.  These taproots can range from 2 to 6 feet in length, which reduces wind and water soil erosion.  And there is no need to plant mustard.  The seeds’ production of the plant is remarkably high; there are hundreds of seeds just waiting for the right time to take root and bloom each season.

Right now is the best time to come and see the vineyards, in all their glory, with yellow flowers spanning many, many rows of the valley floor.  You now have another insightful way to understand the vineyard management of the wineries you visit.  Ask about their philosophy and approach to the use of cover crops.  It will be interesting to understand their view.  Know that nothing in the valley is accidental in the approach to growing a fabulous grape to make wonderful wine.


There’s a Castle in Napa Valley

When visiting the Napa Valley, many people center their experience on wine tasting and the enjoyment of the beautiful vineyards along with the views. Rightly so, as it is one of the premier locations on the planet to offer such great wine and beautiful vistas. Yet there is more to see and do.

One of those experiences is a visit to Castello di Amorosa. Which literally means “Castle of Love.” It is a real castle built from authentic materials to replicate a medieval Italian castle. The visionary and owner is Dario Sattui. This was his dream to honor his Italian heritage.   He did so with authentic old, handmade materials shipped from Europe to the U.S. in 200+ shipping containers. These containers held old bricks, building materials and furniture. This is a magnificent structure that spans eight levels (four above ground and four below) and has over 100 separate rooms. It even has a prison and a torture chamber. The construction began in 1994, and the castle opened its doors to visitors in 2007. This is the real deal!

Touring the castle can be done on your own or with a guide. The guided tours provide greater insight into the castle and access to additional rooms. It requires an appointment, yet they have great capacity. This is also an excursion that you can take your children on. There is much to see, and even the self-guided tour will take an hour. The views from the upper levels are magnificent. They welcome all, and it is a real family event.

What about the wine though? The castle is surrounded by 171 acres, 30 of which are planted with grapes. The focus of the wines is in keeping with the Italian heritage. They craft small lots of Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Sangiovese, and a super Tuscan blend. They also produce Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and a late harvest wine. This is well worth the tasting and experience. Their wines have been well received by reviewers and in competitions, such as one done by the San Francisco Chronicle. It is really cool; and, if your kids accompany you, they will be served juice for their tasting while you explore the wines. The wines are only available at the castle or for shipping to residences or businesses. They are not sold at stores or restaurants. Come enjoy the views and the tour into the past.


Food & Wine at Holiday Time

December is upon us and the time for season celebrations abounds. With friends, family, and co-workers, it’s time to set the table. It’s time to enjoy one another and toast to the season! Wine is a welcome addition to the holiday table.

As a starter, sparkling wines set a festive spirit and brighten any event. There are several types of sparkling wines, and their bubbles will set the stage for a festive mood. They can be modest in price or expensive. One of my favorites is Prosecco, ranging in price from $10 to $25. I have a preference for Ruffino. Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine and can be quite lovely and modest in price. There are several California producers of sparkling wine such as Roederer Estate and Mumm. Of course, there is always Champagne. This is the proper name for sparkling wine from the Champagne region in France. One of my favorites is Veuve Clicquot Brut. And, of course, one could always splurge on a bottle of Dom Perignon.

A better question might be, what about the meal itself? What should be served that best pairs with the main course? Let’s look at a few options.

Riesling is a wonderful partner for rich, gamey birds such as duck or goose. It’s a counter balance to rich, salty meats and meat treatments like ham, sausage or charcuterie. The wine tastes like fruits – peaches and apricots – and has great acidity. Rieslings run from dry to very sweet, so make sure you find one with the appropriate level of residual sugar. One of my favorites is Kabinett from Mosel Germany. Kabinett refers to the amount of residual sugar in the wine that makes it slightly sweet and delightfully easy to drink.

Gewurztraminer is a classic dry white wine that works well with rich dishes and rich fowl such as goose, duck, and turkey. A perfect match whether the prep is classic holiday or more like curried duck with lemon, honey and ginger. The nose on this wine is big – roses, lychees, gingerbread, orange marmalade, fruit-cocktail syrup. Even with the sweetness of aroma, the wine is dry and naturally low in acid.

Viognier works as well to highlight the main course. It offers up stone and tree fruit flavors and can be enjoyed young. It partners well with holiday foods – especially goose, turkey and honey glazed ham. The wine is usually full-bodied with apricot, honeysuckle and gingerbread aromas and flavors.

If you haven’t tried these wines before, please do. Get some help in making sure you get a good example of the varietal. The joy of wine is in the exploration.

Enjoy! Happy Holidays!