Final day- Just Grapes!

My cousin Jason, knows wine.  He researches it for hours, he meets the wine makers and owners, he explores different parts of the region and actually MOVED his family to wine country two years ago. HE KNOWS WINE!  He has been such an amazing resource over the last few weeks. He literally set me up with online map of the wineries and would gentle remind me with a text each day about what year or wine to ask for at each location.

For my last day in Napa he scheduled four wineries for us to tour and taste.  These were not your typical bar tastings nor your typical wines.  They don’t bring these wines out for just anyone … and typically you wouldn’t open these up on a week night.

Jason, his lovely wife Kim and their two sweet kids met Tracy (college besty) and I at Chateau Boswell. An amazing property off of the Silverado Trail.  We quickly entered into their caves and walked through barrels and barrels of wine until we turned into a small alcove.  Tucked behind several more stacks of barrels was a glass table filled with several wine glasses, a HUGE arrangement of fresh flowers and an amazing presentation of a “boutique” winery called Realm Cellars.  We all sat down with our jovial french guide Didier who spoke to us about the wines.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand his english—:( And if you know me, you know that I can’t hide my feelings from my facial expressions. (it’s a terrible quality) My friend Tracy laughed because she could totally tell that I had NO idea what he was saying!  Either way, the wines spoke for themselves. It’s amazing, like off the charts, amazing!!   I could have easily been persuaded to stayed and just DRINK- but we had more vineyards to get to!


Next up we headed to Schramsburg Winery to try to some sparkling wines.  Although we had an OVERLY perky wine guide;  Jason, Tracy and I survived the tour and enjoyed their maze of caves. They store over 3 million bottles in their caves and didn’t lose a single bottle in the big earthquake last year. It’s really unbelievable in there.   he sparkling wines were good, better than I’d expected as I  generally don’t prefer sparkling wines/ champagne.


Next up LUNCH!  Jason and Kim picked a great place that the locals go to, Oakville Grocery. Highly recommended. Cheese, fresh bread, and other easy to-go items.

We headed up the mountain after lunch to Pritchard Hill.  This area of Napa is highly regarded, mountain fruits can/should be aged longer than valley fruits.  (This little tid bit of knowledge is one of the many that I learned this week)  As we crept up the mountain we passed fields and fields of grapes but no cars- this area is not a touristy area. We later learned that that the winery is only allowed 2 visiting cars per day on their property.

We pulled into Continuum and I took a deep breath.  WHAT A PROPERTY!  Continuum is the baby of Tim Mondavi, so — they have some experience behind their wines. 🙂  Our host greeted us at the front of the enormous glass tasting building.  The doors on each building had to be 20-30 feet tall, all glass with dark metal framing.  Although huge, the furnishings and setting is so intimate that it wasn’t overwhelming. We walked outback and saw the outline of buildings in San Fransisco. Literally, Ana Marie our guide said that in 4 years she had never seen it so clear.  I wish I had bought my big camera with me. We walked through their processing building which had several large wood vats and a concrete fermentation tank. The room is pristine, I can’t imagine what it looks like during harvest.


Then it was time to TASTE,  we moved back into the all glass tasting room and sat down at a gorgeous table, filled with cheese, bread and wine.  Then we tasted and oh, it was so smooth and velvety. (wine people use that word a lot, but it was true here) Try this wine even if only once… try it. If you have a chance to go- go,  the views were epic and the wine worth, every penny!


Cardinale was out last stop of the day.  It’s tasting building is in the valley but on a hill, so it has a great view of the valley and the surrounding mountains. I LOVE being surrounded by mountains.  Jason and Kim personally knew our wine guide at Cardinal so again we were totally spoiled. (Cheeses, nuts, fruits, pâté … and WINE!)  We sat around a huge wood table with 3 poured glasses in front of each of us. The first wine was an unexpected one for me … and you may even think less of me, but it was good, really easy to drink. It was a Merlot. THERE I said it!  MERLOT! lol I’m not even sure the last time I had one.  I don’t prefer Pinot Noir either, so it’s not just Merlot. I just really like a full bodied wine, which traditionally is a cab. (If you read my earlier blogs, you’ll note that I have found a couple Pinot’s that I like here) The other 2 were cabs, but from different years.  Erik wanted us to try the wines side by side so we could tell the differences between the two.  What’s interesting about their cab is that it’s a blend of cabs from 4 different mountains. They were SO good, and there is possibility that I didn’t spit out each sip I took! These wines were $300, yes $300, not a typo—a bottle! I hated to leave any amount in the glass …

As our day wrapped up at 5pm, we headed to dinner dinner at Press.  A very high-end place with great food and wine choices. Unfortunately, I think we were all full from all the cheese, fruit and breads that we had eaten throughout the day.  It was a great dinner though and nice to relax with the kids and talk about our day!

Thanks again to Jason and Kim for taking me to so many places today, I’d have never found those by myself, let alone been invited in!!! It was a once in a lifetime experience.


Day 5- CIA/ Wine Tours

With my last day upon me, I headed out HWY 29 up to the Larkmead Winery.  I met my guide as I walked up to the lovely glass building. It’s decor had splashes of the color red everywhere -I LOVE red, so I knew this was going to be a great place to start my day.   I was greeted by a wine “enthusiast” and given a brief tour of the property.  It was great to walk through the vineyards and see the vines. At Larkmead, they are just starting to release moisture and will begin to bud over the next 30 days.  I also learned about those HUGE/TALL fans that I have seen throughout wine country. They literally are turned on for 3-4 days, during the cooler spring months and bring the warm air down to the vines if there is a concern about frost. They only warm up the ground temperature 3-5 degrees but it helps protect the new buds from frost.

My guide today was definitely a wine NERD and as he talked and talked …I daydreamed and tried to blink until he started to pour the wine!  I tried three different cabs and loved each of them. I mentioned to Sunny that I hadn’t seen Larkmead’s wines before and shared with me that they don’t sell to distribution companies because they lose so much profit.

Next up was Joseph Phelps, a larger, more commercial winery. I had a wine and cheese pairing up set up which was pretty great because I have yet to meet a wine that I don’t LOVE.  Again, I was solo –so at a table that could have fit 20, it was just me… and the wine guy.  He started the session by telling me that he was going to show me a video- I swear my head almost popped off.  Video’s are not what people with a short attention span want— we want WINE and CHEESE. NOW! Being the blunt person that I am, I asked — HOW LONG IS THE VIDEO.  Thankfully just a few minutes!

Next up, we went through a few wines/cheeses and then moved onto their Insigna label which is their higher end wine.  I tried two different years, side by side which is always interesting to me, they totally taste and smell different.  Their highest end wine is called “Backus” isn’t offered to taste as it’s only sold to their members.  Although I like there wines there – I’m not sure they will be apart of my first order.

After that I drove up the long road to Plumpjack and passed by several workers, who were hand pruning the vines.  I entered into the tasting room just before lunch and thought I’d entered a HUGE group of tasters.  Instead it was 4 moms- who were having a ball and were NOT spitting out their samples!   I tried 5 of their reds and then moved on to Frogsleap.  Another large producing winery.  When I waited tables in college I sold a lot of those bottles.  Their corks say “Ribbit,” which I always thought was creative.   This was another wine/cheese pairing and it was a beautiful setting over looking their wineries.  I cruised through those tastings and called it a day!

I headed up to Greystone, the CIA.  I walk much more confidently into the building then I did on my first day.  The students in my class all joke that although all the other chef students KNOW we are rookies the tourists don’t and they think we are REAL CHEFS!  Someone told us that the full 24 month program costs 80k! Yes, I said 80k!   Chef Durfee had another class to teach that day so we were introduced to Chef Aaron Brown.  I think some of the students were bummed as he WAS amazing but I thought it was a great opportunity to meet and learn from another Chef.

For our last class, our plan was to finish up a few things from the day before, (sauces for our Bavarian Cream and Fruit Mouse) then work on tempering chocolate and make soufflés. Chef Brown started our day out with the typical lecture.  He is a bread baker by trade and was very detailed oriented and kept us on schedule!  We made 4 different sauces and learned how to professional plate our desserts.

Next up,  tempering chocolate. This is something that I have an interest in and it was really fun to watch and get a lot more details/ tricks about how to do some “Decor.”  Ill be doing this at home!  I have tried to make those “cigarettes” before and they just look like chopped chocolate!  😦  After dipping and coating about 100 truffles we headed to dinner, ON TIME!  Literally the first time all week that we weren’t the last class to dinner.  Tonight’s meal was prepared by the Wounded Warrior program.  I don’t know all the details but it’s pretty cool that they offer a program like that.  Instead of our usual buffet,  tonight was banquet style. So each “Area”  served a full plated meal  the first one was vegetarian! It rocked!  I so rarely get a full meal that is vegetarian and I SO appreciate it.

After dinner, we worked on two different types of soufflés. Who doesn’t like a chocolate soufflé?  The Chef gave us the recipe from a famous Chef in NY, who developed the idea of making the soufflé, baking it for 7 minutes and then RUNNING it to the freezer.  Then when someone orders it, you bring it out, bake it and serve it— so it has that warm/soft inside. (think molten lava)  These were awesome and as a home cook, it’s always so nice to find part of a meal that you can do ahead of time.

Then he said— YOUR DONE!  Done early, in fact.  Listen, we ALL really wanted to learn and soak up as much info as we could over this week– but literally we were also all so EXHAUSTED after such a long week.  We cheered for each other as we were given out “certificates” and said our goodbyes.

Thanks to my husband for his support and encouragement to do this. He travels each week, so to actually get a planned full week at home took some work.  Thanks to my mom for afternoon and evening duties- (homework with two boys, isn’t always fun) and to the rest of my village.  It’s easy to go across the country when you know you have lots of mom’s who will have your back and your kids best interest at heart.


Bake on-

Day 4- CIA

Our day started as they have been, 90 minutes of lecture/question time on … CHOCOLATE MOUSSE!  Oh yes, that is one of my most requested desserts, so I was excited for today’s class.  I have made chocolate mousse too many times to count and each time I’ve had a different outcome. Some good, some not so good … luckily however I screw it up– it’s still dark chocolate and cream and that ALWAYS tastes good!

A quick side note:  I started taking classes at Sur La Table about 5 years ago. I took several (10+) and then moved on to classes through the University of Richmond, Continuing Studies Program.  They offer cooking, baking and a food safety program.  Each of those programs consist of about 20 days of work.  I didn’t realize how much I had learned from those program until I got here.  I’ll be sending a note to my former instructor to thank him for giving a great foundation.

We started our kitchen time by “finishing” our puff pastry dough. We made Palmiers, which are light, sweet and caramelized with sugar. You may not recognize the name but if you saw them, you’d say – OH!!!   Then we made a dessert that is pronounced, “PA- T- V- A!”  It has a beautiful round presentation with a flower like border.  We filled itt with almond cream and then added another layer of the puff pastry on top. Besides a nice presentation, it tasted AWESOME!  I will definitely be making one/ or several of those when I get home.  Lastly we glazed our fruit tarts that changed the look from a home cook, to a shiny restaurant presentation!

Then we moved onto the MOUSSE demo!  He asked that when we got back to our groups, (3 in each) that we TRY to do something a little different to the recipe and then share what we had done.  I’d actually asked him if we could make it correctly, since I screw it up all the time at home, he said yes and even TRYING to make it correctly we screwed it up.   Side note, the chefs in the baking department ONLY use fine sugar. Another tip I learned was that you don’t need the BEST chocolate for a mousse, because you are flavoring it with eggs, sugar, vanilla and cream. If you are making truffles, that only have a couple ingredients you’d want the better brand of chocolate, but like wine. It’s what YOU like…

Next up- Fruit Mousse and Bavarian cream.  I don’t really understand why anyone would want a fruit mousse … it’s actually hard to write those two words together. Mousse is SUPPOSE to be made of chocolate. That’s that! The Bavarian cream we will piped into small glass cups and then covered with a sauce we will prepare tomorrow.   It’s made by using a Swiss meringue instead of an Italian meringue.  I literally know more than I need to know about different egg combo’s… all the same ingredients but again it’s about the order and amounts.  Italian Meringue can be turned into an amazing buttercream frosting. It has the best stabilization of all the buttercreams. (it will hold up in warmer weather)  The Bavarian cream in our recipe and the fruit mousse both had gelatin in them, so unfortunately I won’t be tasting either. (gelatin is made out of animal by products bones etc.) NO THANK YOU!  The dark chocolate mousse doesn’t need a stabilizer because it has so much butter fat from the cocoa.  (That wouldn’t be true for milk or white chocolate.)

We ended with about 300 palmiers sitting in front of us before we finished up for the night.  I was baking duty for those and learned how to tell when they were done.  (it took me taking them out of the oven and putting them back in the over per his instructions … TWICE! ) Okay, I lied there were only 297 palmiers-I ate 3.  Yes, embarrassing but they were so good.

Bake on and then HIT THE TREADMILL- for awhile.  My jeans hurt- thankfully my chef’s pants have SPANDEX!

Days 3 and 4 Wineries- Napa Valley

I’ve decided that I love having wine snobs as friends and family, it has allowed me to discover some great wines that I would never have heard of!  Most of the wines you can’t find at or local wine shop.  In fact, a few weeks before my trip, I went to Total Wine with my list of the 20ish wineries that I was going to tour.  I handed my list over the to the wine guy and asked where I could find them. He said we have TWO-  Cayman and Joseph Phelps.  I didn’t understand until NOW why that was … if you sell to a distribution company- you lose a lot of your profit. It’s hard to give that up if your a small winery and don’t plan on making 70k cases of wine each year.

Today I headed up the mountain to start my morning at Viader.  This winery was literally designed and built by hand by a woman.  It’s an amazing but LONG story, I won’t bore you but just know that her wines have been getting high ratings for year and she knows how to use dynamite!  Plus, she has been on the Top 100 list for International Wine Makers!  The setting at Viader is like a national park.  Flowering trees, blooming flowers, grass, and sage– how I miss fresh sage.  I miss taking a small branch in my hand and rubbing the light, bright green leaves between my fingers and that smell.  You don’t even have to put it up to your nose to smell that light floral but earthy scent. I digress  Viader- great red wines, amazing wine cave AND an amazing story!

Next up I hit a small family owned winery called Chateau Morlet. I think my cousins order quite a lot of wine from them because one of the owners, gave me the tour!!   About seven years ago, the Morlet’s bought the land and several buildings (stone house, garage etc.).  The stone house where the tasting room is now, had been a winery back in the late 1880’s and then when prohibition started it they closed.  About a year after they bought the place, they started to hear stories about the original winery and that there were caves on the property- SOMEWHERE. Literally like a treasure hunt they searched. (They have had a company come in and take aerial views, another company take “X-rays” through the soil to see if they could see where they caves would be … none of that has worked.) Last year, they hired a genealogist to trace the family history of the original winery owners and found a 95-year-old grandchild of the originally owners.   He excitedly filled them in on WHERE the caves were.  I know you want to know where the caves are, right — you’ll have to go visit Chateau Morlet and find out!  They have a variety of great wines and they were all really good!   I didn’t get to taste their chardonnay because it’s all SOLD out! I did taste their white burgundy which I was surprised by, it was great, not too sweet. ps: Luc, the husband/winemaker is French!

I have enjoyed driving through each of the small towns and have tried to take the roads that are off of the main HWY, so I can really see how the locals live and see all the amazing  landscape.  Spotswood was my next winery and the family house which is featured on their bottles was built in the 1800’s.  Because they are tucked in neighborhood they are limited to how many tastings they can do per day. Spottswood is different in that they have been organic for decades. They plant mustard and root vegetable seeds in each row to provide nutrients for the soil. The will till those back into the ground once they have bloomed with the help of a sweet horse.  When the horse gets tired, the send their 3 goats out to help. The also use bird feeders to attract birds who will help with any small rodents. My group sat down at a lovely large table in their new tasting build and began to try each wine they offered.  This one I actually hesitated before I spit it out in my ole, Starbucks cup!  Did I mention that they love labs! Oh yes, 3 big black labs run through the vineyards each day and then when they tire out they mosey back to the main house and chill in the pool. It was really funny to watch and thankfully we weren’t close enough when they SHOOK!  Speaking of shaking- I learned that I should decant a younger wine, because it will help open it up.  And when I say shake — the wine person literally shook the wine until it “foamed” in a decanter.  I am going to try that at home.  (If you have an aged wine, you gently pour the wine into the decanter right before you serve it.)

Great wines go with … just about anything.

Drink up then Bake on!  I’ll be ordering from all 3 of these places!

Day 2/3 CIA- St. Helena

I am definitely feeling like less of a dork in my outfit and hat, probably because everyone else is wearing them too!  Less of a dork doesn’t mean that I’ll be wearing that outfit to the grocery store anytime soon though.  (We used to have a neighbor that wore his full scrubs out mowing … I mean REALLY!)

Anyway, we start each day with an 90 minute lecture in a small classroom and talk about what we will be working on. Sometimes we have carry over items from the day before, because most pastries get better by chilling them or allowing them to “rest.”

Tuesday we worked on finishing up our Pate a Choux and turning them into eclairs and cream puffs. Our batter had a bit of milk in it which turned the eclairs a dark mahogany brown color.  This was on purpose and he kept telling us NOT to take them out of the oven yet as they really need to dry out, so you can fill them.  (pate a choux by itself doesn’t taste good but it’s a perfect structure to hold filling!) None of us were used to that dark color on the outside. Once they cooled, we filled them with pastry cream. (We used a large chop stick to poke two small holes in the bottom, roughly 2 inches apart. You fill up the first hole in your hand until you can actually feel the weight change then you fill the next hole until a little cream comes out the first side, wipe it down and move it to a clean sheet tray!) Lastly dipped them into chocolate ganache.  I have made a lot of chocolate desserts, because my husband loves chocolate. Our chef’s passion is chocolate, so I learned more details on what to look for in a ganache. It’s not just melted chocolate and cream!  It must be shiny and the chocolate must be shaved into very small pieces so it will quickly melt.  There shouldn’t be a broken glass shimmer on the top either- who knew!

We also made two different types of cakes, a genoise and chiffon. The genoise is a very dry, tasteless cake that you add simple syrup too … even with a flavored simple syrup its- dry.  The chiffon cake had a better texture and taste, better to use for a birthday cake. (You also can add a flavored simple syrup)  So much of what we have learned is that once we get the principal down of how to make the item– we learned that we can easily change the flavor by adding cocoa,  liquor, or another flavoring. We also noticed that these cakes both have the same ingredients but different amounts and how that changes the product.  To frost our cakes we made an Italian Buttercream, my team was able to use a huge commercial mixer. It was kinda dream like for me! Really I love seeing a commercial kitchen.  I need to get a picture in front of it!! My team did have a minor glitch with the buttercream. Slim chance that we had our thermometer on celsius— when checking our heated sugar which we gently pour into the egg whites.  Embarrassing, especially since it was the Chef who had to tell us. LOL

Although this is just a week boot camp and we have some leeway on our skill levels the chef is always reminding us about the small finishing details of the product.  Each step takes time, the pastry cream that fills the eclairs is labor intensive, piping out 50 eclairs shells so they are all sized evenly takes time, filling them so there isn’t pastry cream all over takes time AND dipping them into ganache takes a slow hand.  If you move to quick on one of those, then why bother…

Yesterday we worked most of the day on making Puff Pastry.  He picked the most labor intensive item for us to make and then laughed and told us the chef’s never make it by hand they always buy it! However, he said that if we can make puff pastry, we can make any other type of laminated dough product. Croissants!

We finished up the day by completing a fruit tart with some dough that we made yesterday. 123 cookie dough that you can make cookies or tart crusts with.  We filled our tarts with pastry cream, a layer of chiffon cake, another layer of pastry cream and then the fruit. We will glaze them and eat them tomorrow!

LESSONS LEARNED:  I can’t frost a cake like the wedding cake guy Albert who is in our class!!  I need NOT panic when the temperature of the sugar is 230 and then drops to 70 something. AND I need to eat less at the nightly dinners! Did I mention there is tofu each night?  Last’s night was tofu with an amazing walnut cream sauce.  I rarely get good vegetarian food … YUM

Eat Less- then BAKE ON!

Day 2 -Napa Wineries

Hello Again,

So I am staying about 20/30 minutes away from the school.  Which “SOMEONE” thought I was crazy to do… I however have loved my morning drives into the area. I am learning where the areas are and the relationship to each other.

I love wine but am totally out of my element here in Napa.  I can’t imagine “storing” wine— but only because I can’t imagine my husband and I not drinking it ALL up before we can store it!

I started my morning at Staglan, referred by a friend and was totally impressed!  Not only was the Becker House  amazing but the winery is fully organic, solar panels, crop rotations and more! These wines are not an everyday wine they are more of a weekend wine!   The woman who talked with that morning gave me some interesting things to think about. I was asking her about how long one can store the wine. (yes, that is a question I learned to ask) and she said– well do you like older cabs?  I laughed because– I HAVE NEVER STORED WINE BEFORE!!!  So, I told her I have no idea. She laughed and gently told me that before I store a bunch of wines, I should try a few older wines because some people like the taste of the younger wines.

Next up, I headed to Del Dotto!  An interesting castle-like building with a really nice wine guide. I didn’t love all the wines but I enjoyed chatting with the wine guide. Doing solo tastings has been an experience for me, I am a PEOPLE PERSON and when I have done wine tasting before – I have DRANK THE WINE with friends and had a blast.

The people who I have met are so nice, they ALL really want to be here and to share their knowledge about wine.  I was SUPPOSE to head to another winery but ended up meeting my cousin at a great restaurant called Archetype.  Great, phone, great atmosphere and totally California. YUM!  (hmm – I wonder who the wine snob is?)

Drink up then spit it OUT

CIA Napa- Day 1 Class

As I walked up the steps to the old stone building, I took a long breath.  I entered the tall doors and saw a sea of future classmates.  I knew I’d shortly get my chef’s clothes …and I was ready to feel like a real — DORK!  Oh yea, full outfit, including a really TALL hat!


The day started with a “lecture” from our Chef.  It was the best lecture I’ve ever had.  Finally there were words and phrases that I not only knew but understood.  Plus there was more information that I actually WANTED to learn.  I am SO not a classroom learner. Never have been, never will be — but this class was doable!  Oh wait, did I mention that my Chef is a James Beard Award winner, and – he worked at the French laundry as the Head Pastry Chef for 6 years.  NO KIDDING.

There are 16 of us, including a lady from Venezuela and another from New Zealand.  They came ALL that way JUST for the class!  There’s a cute family of a dad and his two daughters- he’s 80!  Sweet old guy takes breaks when he tires out.  Pretty cool family trip though.  Then there are a few of us stragglers that aren’t in a group but we still feel connected because we all want the same thing.  To learn as much as we can through the class and each other.  We each come with a different background, and different experiences.

After our lecture, we moved to the kitchen— when I say the kitchen. I mean it’s 50 kitchens in a room that is the size of a football field. I have never seen anything like that before.  EVER.  The highest end appliance I have ever seen, all perfectly lined up! We were among the students who are working through a 2 year cooking program. We are all dressed the same,  really like an army of chefs. (the instructors wear black pants so we can tell who they are. It’s pretty intense, a lot of rules, no jewelry, hair pulled back, crazy tall hat on in certain area, crazy tall hat off in others.  We began our day by making pastry cream, cream anglaise, pâté a choux, crème brûlée, crème caramel, and pot do crème!  Needless to say, there is a reason that I LOVE to bake— I LOVE TO EAT!


The highlight of all of that was actually the night was DINNER.  lol At 7pm all the chefs from all the classes come together and eat what the “cooking” chefs have made though out the day.  It’s literally a 50 ft long buffet (I hate Buffets, my husband and I call them trough eating!) But this one– oh this one with its amazing spread of over 200 items (meats, seafood, tofu, veggies, starches, breads) that were all made by people who really CARE about food and presentation was PERFECT.  I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 25 years, and although I am very against killing animals I still appreciate an amazing presentation.  I literally ate like I was “PIG.”

Two things I walked away with — one was that my cheeks hurt from smiling so much.  It was so nice to be with “my” people. People who really care about SUGAR!! You know, the things that I CARE about.  And on a serious note– as a baker we weigh our ingredients, which I have talked about on this blog. (The reason we weigh is because if 10 of us scooped up a cup of flour and then weighed it – the weights would all be different even though the flour is in that one cup container)  I weigh by ounce but need to start weighing my gram, for a more accurate measurement!

Thanks for reading my note, I just don’t want to forget …

Weigh– then Bake on!