Varied welcomes in Napa Valley

Travellers' tales continue...

When we arrived at 3 pm at the Wine Country Inn in the Napa Valley straight from Melbourne we were, not surprisingly, tired, hungry and thirsty. ‘Don’t worry,’ I told Jancis, ‘we’ll get a biscuit and a cup of tea at the Inn.’

This observation was based on our last visit in early 1981 when we stayed there to buy wines for the soon-to-open L’Escargot restaurant in London’s Soho. Then what was on offer was overwhelming.

We were to be terribly disappointed. The receptionist said that there was nothing to eat. Not even a cookie. Nothing. Not even a kettle in our room to make a cup of tea, although she failed to point out that there were teabags and hot water in the reception. This was a fundamental lacuna in their notion of hospitality, of welcoming their newly arrived guests.

More were to follow. Their breakfast offer is pretty basic – the smell of the bacon that had been cooked much earlier and had been left out in a chafing dish pervaded the stairway – and there was no coffee machine on offer to make a cappuccino or a latte.

The reason for this is presumably because there is no need for investment, no need for continuous improvement. Napa Valley is continually busy; the hotel rooms are always sought after (the Wine Country Inn was not our first choice); and therefore demand is always extremely strong. The room rate here was a staggering (to us) $368 per night. The Inn sells itself on offering a romantic stay surrounded by the glorious Napa vineyards, which its location delivers (the Wi-Fi password during our stay was 4romance). But in many other respects, other than a comfortable bed, the Wine Country Inn needs major and long-overdue investment so that it meets the expectations of its customers.

Our spirits were soon to be raised however by an early supper.

En route from the airport, Jancis had gone online in search of restaurants in nearby St Helena. Thanks to its menu, her interest was piqued by a restaurant called Goose & Gander and we booked in there for 5.30 pm (12.30 pm the next day Melbourne time). We arrived to discover that we were not their first customers.

This pretty large restaurant occupies a corner site on Spring Street (see above), just off the main street, and fills it most effectively. The tables outside must be a delight to sit at when the sun is shining. Then, once inside, there is a wide range of tables in front of an open kitchen. Finally, there is a smaller cocktail bar downstairs (a rarity in Napa Valley) where the full restaurant menu is served. I saw numerous locals repairing here, followed by as many waiters carrying plates of burgers and chips down the stairs.

There is an indubitable charm and warmth about the place. Built in the early 20th century, it is all wood with many old plates and shooting memorabilia on the walls. Twenty years ago it became the Martini House before it was taken over by Andy Florsheim and his wife Trisha and it became Goose & Gander.

This restaurant’s approach to making its customers feel welcome comes via its very open approach to its drink lists. Its featured cocktails, such as a Coastal Pimm’s Cup (US$15), in an area not renowned for such drinks, are listed at the top of the menu. But it was their wine list, printed on a much larger piece of paper, that really excited us.

When we ate there it was headed ‘Featured Winemakers – Heidi and Bo Barrett’. He is based at the family’s Chateau Montelena, while she consults far and wide. We passed on the Montelena Cabernet North Coast 1975 for $500 and chose instead a bottle of La Sirena, Aviatrix Grenache Calistoga for $72 that hit the spot for the night. The label features a helicopter, a form of transport which Heidi pilots herself to reach her many clients.

There’s a long list of wines by the glass and then, most surprisingly, a long list of half bottles, including many from Napa but as many imported wines. The back page is stuffed with gems  some very expensive such as Screaming Eagle 2007 for $7,500 but many less so including the 2014 Alpine Vineyards Pinot Noir from Rhys in the Santa Cruz Mountains for $175 and a Ridge Zinfandel 2017 for just $75.

Vietnamese sticky pigs ears at Goose & Gander

We began with a plate of Vietnamese sticky pigs’ ears (above) that were quite delicious, coated in a sweet and sour sauce, and the kind of laborious dish that it is well worth ordering in any restaurant. We continued with a salad of shaved Brussels sprouts encircling a fried duck egg (below); three slices of bread topped with pimento cheese spread and spicy pickled green tomato; an enormous plate of blistered peppers topped with bonito flakes that were curling on the plate as they were served; and a pasta dish with Italian sausage in a too-liquid tomato sauce. We finished, as it was barely 7.15 pm and jetlag was really kicking in, with a couple of desserts and a glass of 10-year-old Broadbent Malmsey (to help us sleep, of course) and a bill of $249 including service.

Shaved sprout salad at Goose & Gander

The difference between our dinner here and that the following evening at The Charter Oak restaurant on the other side of Main Street is best exemplified by their wine lists. While Goose & Gander’s is enormous and printed on a single sheet of paper, the latter comes bound in brown leather and has been chosen with the food far more in mind.

That is principally because three years ago the former owners of this site, which for 30 years had traded as Tra Vigne restaurant and continues at Tra Vigne Pizzeria on Main Street, lost their lease to this property, allowing chef Christopher Kostow to take it over. Kostow, best known as chef at the extremely smart and expensive Meadowood Country Club a few miles to the east, has simplified the interior design, putting in a large and obvious grill in an open kitchen and making this the kind of casual place that the locals feel comfortable dropping in to.

But Charter Oak takes its food and wine seriously and we ate and drank extremely well. We began with a salad of bitter greens with slices of apple and chestnuts and a farm egg which came soft boiled, sliced down the middle and was coated in sea salt and Hudson olive oil. Together with their own bread and cultured buffalo butter, these got our meal off to an excellent start.

Jancis then chose another simple first course for her main dish, a dish of crisp potato tostones, potatoes that had been sliced down the middle and then twice fried in the Puerto Rican style. I chose a far more adventurous main course, a dish of sturgeon caught on the Sacramento River, two fillets of which were served on an oval metal plate with a sauce described as a ‘lily pesto’. With this, we drank a terrific bottle of Ted Lemon’s Littorai 2017 Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley. We finished with a stunning dessert, a meringue case that sat on a red fruit purée and contained the most delicious lemon cream.

Dessert at Charter Oak, St Helena, Napa Valley

There has never been any doubt about the wine or restaurant experience you are likely to encounter in the Napa Valley. Only the welcome in the places you stay may disappoint.

The Wine Country Inn 1152 Lodi Lane, St Helena, CA 94574 +1 (707) 963 7077

Goose & Gander 1245 Spring Street, St Helena, CA +1 (707) 967 8779

The Charter Oak 1050 Charter Oak Avenue, St Helena CA 94574 +1 (707) 302 6996

Goose & Gander exterior in St Helena, Napa Valley