The magic of the holiday season has arrived! While we don’t get snow here in Napa, local businesses do get very into twinkly lights and decorations. There’s tinsel and holly on every evergreen, and giant, crimson bows adorn every lamppost. In St. Helena, you can even find a 32-foot barrique “tree” blocking the intersection of Pope Street and Main, proclaiming “Happy Holidays from St. Helena.” It’s quite impressive, really!
In addition to all the normal end-of-year cheer, this particular year boasts a boosted sense of togetherness. 2021 was challenging for the hospitality industry, although it was a better year than 2020, and we are all just happy to be working and open to the public again. Last year, we at least knew that many of us hoteliers, restaurant workers, and winery associates would be jobless for a while after the initial lockdown in March. 2020 was filled with endless days of isolated boredom. 2021 was filled with endless days of constantly shifting mandates and operating parameters. Every week something changed, and the public expected us to have all the answers immediately after each new mandate was announced. How could we begin to explain that contingencies weren’t drafted beforehand because we couldn’t predict what the restrictions would even be?
Coming into this holiday season, many local venues were still under modified operations, mostly just to be cautious and not because of governmental mandates. But holiday parties have returned! And while they certainly aren’t as large in scope as they used to be, it’s delightful to be able to celebrate with food, wine, and friends again.
My first stop of three, during what I’ve dubbed ” Winery Holiday Party Week,” was Laird Family Estate for their Club Social Hour. Laird was the first winery I went to in Napa that checked all the boxes – rich history; delicious wines with purposeful winemaking; vineyard views; snacks; birds! And with all the boxes checked, I decided I wanted to be able to get a steady year-round supply of their wine and visit whenever I wanted. Thus, I joined the wine club. Before the pandemic, wineries often hosted member-exclusive events, but due to multi-household gathering restrictions, these parties became unfeasible for almost two years. Due to the lapse in time between get-togethers, this Holiday Social Hour was highly anticipated. Even the winery staff was excited! The weather on the day of the party was abysmal, but the drenching rain certainly played into the holiday spirit, as attendees were bundled in puffy coats and knitted scarves like Randy from A Christmas Story. The interior lights of the tasting room shone through the clear glass walls like a beacon of warmth in the chilly gloom. Inside, there were tables stacked with trays of savory delights, with enough cheese and bread for a feast. They were pouring a great selection of their portfolio, and guests could choose their favorite wine. When I opted for chardonnay, I was asked if I preferred Cold Creek or Red Hen, and I chuckled. Such a members-only question! And I had the answer right away. Red Hen was my choice tonight, evoking the flavors of my great gran’s famous, butter-soaked apple pies. At the reds station, the choices were current release cab, current release pinot, or a sip of the coveted 2012 cab. I’m sure you can guess which one I picked. I do like my reds old as dirt! The inside seating was jam-packed already, so, covering my glass so as not to dilute the wine with rain, I scurried outside under the patio awning and settled next to a heater and the wine bottle Christmas tree. Illuminated from the inside and artfully designed with bottles of every style, the tree was the perfect centerpiece for the event. At the end, I went home with a souvenir stemless glass and my winter allocation.
The next day saw my concierge team jaunting across the highway to Chandon. It was yet another miserably drizzly afternoon. Although the worst of the storm had passed, it was chillier and windier than the day prior, and our noses would have been dripping if it were not for the mandatory facemasks. Throughout November and December, Chandon was inviting concierge teams to the winery for afternoon tastings, in order for us to get acquainted with the current offerings. As usual, I had procrastinated in coordinating our adventure, but we managed to squeeze in during the penultimate day of the invitation. During good weather, tastings are hosted exclusively outdoors, but due to the rain, they had reshuffled their indoor spaces to accommodate. Now, I should mention that I’m not very fond of sparkling wine, mostly due to the carbonation. It’s just not a texture I jive with. I also don’t like soda or mineral water. But Chandon has so many cuvees that I did eventually find a demi-sec blanc that I liked! The experience is highly recommendable, however, so Chandon is always at the top of my list for bubbly fans. Plus, Schramsberg is nearly impossible to get into these days. Chandon’s holiday flare is subtle. On the way in, through the sleek, modern hallway between the retail shop and check-in, there is a simple, triple evergreen display advertising the Chandon merchandise. I think all three trees were fresh cut, too. Very classy, just like the rest of this architectural wonder.
The last, and arguably best stop was Pejuville, a celebration of great wine and creatively delectable cuisine mixed with Dr. Seuss. Year-round, Peju Winery is synonymous with Seussical whimsy, from the “Truffula” trees along the drive, to the charismatic and bubbly staff. So, when the Grinch showed up at the top of stairs (Events team member Nicole in a perfectly fuzzy green fo-hair sweater), I knew this would be a night to remember. In the tower atrium, smoked salmon focaccia mini-sammies, tuna rolls, and green bleu cheese tarts awaited us, as did patently crisp chardonnay and everybody’s favorite Beaujolais-style red blend, Province. The slightly buttery, stone-fruit forward white wine perfectly balanced the saltiness of Chef Nic’s scrumptious creations, and I was enjoying myself so much I didn’t want to move on to the next room! But I heard the words “cab franc” echo out from around the corner and I couldn’t move fast enough. Peju’s cabernet franc is my favorite wine, second only to The Last Hour by Faust. This velvety, chocolatey, bramble berry forward creation by winemaker Sara Fowler is just divine. If I had to choose one wine to drink for the rest of my life, it would be this one. Host Harvey, a wine industry and hospitality veteran whose devil-may-care, joke-cracking attitude plays perfectly into the Peju sense of place, had just uncorked a fresh bottle, ready for pouring into my glass. The treats in this room were umami inspired, including a mushroom spread on crostini and a pork belly slider. I don’t normally eat four-legged meat, but I broke my rule for this special occasion. I hate to say it, but it was worth it. The final stop was the barrel room and balcony with a thick shot of merlot hot chocolate in hand. The consistency of the beverage was like melted fudge, a gooey glob of delicious flavors gumming up the carafe. And yes, I now have the recipe.
This year’s “Winery Holiday Party Week” was a delightful success. If anything, it gives me hope that next year will be filled with even more celebrations of food, wine, and the hospitality that Napa Valley is famous for. Cheers another year in the bag!