Napa Valley R&R
by Roberto Friedman
Out There loves trains, and Out There loves wine. So when we were invited to take a trip on the Napa Valley Wine Train , "All aboard!" was pretty much a no-brainer. The Wine Train is an antique train that takes a 25-mile route through the Valley, from Napa to St. Helena and back. It boasts two engines, three kitchens, and a diverse collection of early-20th century railcars. We had a luscious lunch and wine onboard, then disembarked for a tour of the Grgich Hills Estate Winery.
Founder Milijenko "Mike " Grgich was the winemaker who created the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that bested France's White Burgundies at the historic 1976 Paris Tasting that put California wines on the map. His winery is big on natural grape-growing and sustainability. We toured the facilities, which was in the throes of fall harvest, then repaired to the VIP tasting room to sample the wares.
Then we were back on the rails for dessert, the train's return trip to Napa, and more fruit of the grape. We loved walking the length of the train and scoping out the various examples of Pullman car design. We loved the ever-changing view of the beautiful Valley. And mostly we loved our reason for being there: a relaxing, restorative sojourn out of the city with our main man Pepi .
Each March the Napa Valley Wine Train becomes the Big Gay Train, an LGBT winemakers' dinner on board. This special event, hosted by Out in the Vineyard, includes a multiple-course meal designed to pair with wines from prominent LGBT winemakers in Wine Country. The winemakers join guests on board to socialize and answer questions. The Big Gay Train is a seated-with-others event, which helps with meeting new people and mingling. We hear it's fun and popular, and sells out every time. Go to winetrain.com/big-gay-train.
That night, chef Ken Frank, owner of La Toque, the Michelin-starred restaurant in the Westin Verasa Napa hotel, invited us to sample the chef's table menu. The offerings turned out to be spectacular: rosti potato with California white sturgeon caviar, served with Verve Cliquot; big eye tuna, kampachi, spot prawn and ankimo, paired with sake; sablefish and matsuake in seafood broth, with Vouvray; sweet corn with Maine lobster, chanterelles and Australian black winter truffle, with Ramey Chardonnay; rabbit ballotine with beans and morels, paired with Premier Cru "Les Epenottes"; beef tenderloin with bone marrow and red wine sauce, avec cabernet sauvignon; ending with a cheese plate, salted caramel chocolate pot de creme, and figs with brown sugar creme fraiche sherbet.
This sounds like a boatload of food, but the courses were portioned so that we never felt overfed. The wine pairings were skillfully chosen and presented by sommelier Richard Matuszczak so that there was always a surprising but well-coordinated sip to follow up a bite. The seasonal, fresh produce and organic meats sourced from local farmers and purveyors always hit their mark. La Toque is an elegant destination for dining in Napa town.
We stayed at the equally elegant Churchill Manor Bed and Breakfast in a quiet residential district of Napa. So we were treated to not only a delicious breakfast, but baked cookies in the afternoon, and evening wines and appetizers. Pepi and OT lazed happily on the mansion's wrap-around veranda, enjoying wine and each other's company. Pepi rolled around on the perfectly manicured lawn like a puppy cocker spaniel, then set up the house croquet set and knocked balls around solo when OT couldn't be bothered.
The Churchill Manor, the largest residence built in Napa Valley during the 19th century, was the first house in the Valley to be listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. It feels distinctive. All of the interior woodwork is original and unpainted, including six solid redwood Corinthian columns. Our room had a king-size bed, a loveseat and a working fireplace. The place is a Victorian marvel. More info at churchillmanor.com.
The new album by all-male a cappella chorus Chanticleer will be released on Oct. 1. Someone New is something they've never done before in their 35 years, an all jazz/pop album of new a cappella arrangements made just for them. Songs are by composers Jobim, Dave Brubeck, Freddie Mercury, Peter Gabriel, Keane, Elbow, M83, Paul Simon, Gotye, Tom Waits, Jaco Pastorius, Kern, and Ravel. There are two grand old arrangers at work, but also new, "virgin" arrangers in composers Michael McGlynn and Mason Bates.
Out There attended the album's launch party on Monday night at the sparkling new SFJAZZ center, a gathering enlivened by the group's performance of disc selections. Our favorite sequence on Someone New is Waits' "Temptation" leading into "Ring of Fire," by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore. In liner notes, the producers note the album's inspiration "came from listening to our basso profondo Eric Alatorre improvising low notes and bass lines to the car radio while on tour." These are new sounds from talented voices.
Maestro Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the prestigious Last Night of the Proms, the BBC's annual late-summer music bash, on Sept. 7. It's a concert of British-themed revelry, making it the more remarkable that the two stars of the occasion were fellow Americans Alsop, a lesbian, and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, the girl from Kansas who now rules the world of opera and whose new best-hits release ReJoyce is making her an Internet sensation.
DiDonato capped her performance with a righteous "Over the Rainbow," her thank-you to all the LGBT people who have helped make her career sensational and, more politically, her way of giving voice to those whose calls for gay rights have been silenced, a reference to the grim news of homophobic aggression in Russia. In a Tweet from backstage, she proclaimed: "Sending this up for all the brave LGBT warriors, recluses, fearful, fearless, fabulous, voiceless and out & proud souls – love you!" Alsop, in her final remarks from the stage, capped her expressions of gratitude with a zingy comment of her own: "I'm shocked that it can be 2013, and there are still firsts for women."
Quickly, three cheers for the 18th Annual Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival. It got Pepi y OT up to Fisherman's Wharf, who knew there was such a thing as double chocolate vodka (360 Vodka)?, and 100% of profits were donated to Project Open Hand. Hot chocolate!