Earlier this year I had the chance to explore Napa for the first time as the guest of Hilton HHonors. The trip was a preview of the Seven Tickets to Your Paradise Sweepstakes, in which one lucky person won a Ticket to Dine; five delicious days exploring the best Napa has to offer. The sweepstakes was open to members of Hilton HHonors, the loyalty program for Hilton Worldwide’s 10 hotel brands. Before leaving on the trip I had certain expectations and of course a winery tour was at the top of the list. I mean, it’s Napa, the American capital for wine growers and oenological aficionados. There are more than 400 wineries in the narrow 30 mile long valley, creating an odd melange of style and substance. What I didn’t expect in Napa Valley was to be wowed by was a flight of olive oil.
The Round Pond Winery is a family owned estate located in Rutherford, the storied heart of Napa Valley. This region has a long history of producing excellent wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon. Round Pond is one of the most popular wineries in Napa and is an excellent place to spend some time relaxing, trying new wines and breathing in the rich Napa air. Our table was set for us when we arrived and instead of five different wines, there was an array of vinegars, syrups and olive oils. Sure we enjoyed their wine, and it was truly excellent, but the star of the visit was learning about and tasting the oils.
In the middle of our plate were two sugar cubes, an odd sight to say the least. Our host Connie smiled as we each inspected the cubes, endlessly confused about their function. Connie then lapsed into an explanation; the cubes were to aid in the proper tasting of vinegar. Vinegar by its nature has an intense flavor and if sampled straight from the bottle, one’s mouth would pucker up and the nuances of the flavor would be lost. In order to help your taste buds, the vinegar is poured over the sugar cube and then one sucks the vinegar from the cube. The sugar helps keep the taste buds open to the variety of flavors present, as long as you mentally forget the sugary taste. Finesse is key though as I quickly learned.
I tried to follow Connie’s lead, but I just wasn’t as adept and ended up inhaling the entire dissolved cube. But the taste explosion was extraordinary. It was vinegar, yes, but the nuances and flavors were astounding. Who knew?
But then came the star of the show, the olive oils. At first blush, the idea of drinking several glasses of olive oil may not seem appealing but believe me, the practice is an amazing culinary experience. The oils are traditionally served during tastings in cobalt blue glasses so that the taster can’t be influenced by the color of the oil. As we learned, color has no bearing on taste and it can only distract. We began the tasting by cupping the glass, gently warming the oil ever so slightly. Then Connie demonstrated three short “bunny” sniffs, followed by three more sniffs and then the taste itself. The first sip is to coat the tongue and the second should be enjoyed by sucking in air across the tongue. Just as with wine, this breaks open the molecules and allows for a more robust and intense flavor experience.
All three: basil, rosemary and garlic, were amazing, but the crowd favorite was the garlic. It’s hard not to fall in love with the heady garlic taste and using the oil in cooking or just on its own truly elevates the dining experience. The tasting though wasn’t just a short class, it also included practical application of our yummy knowledge. A light lunch of salad, fresh vegetables, cheeses and roasted chicken emerged, allowing us all to experiment with the vinegars and oils as dressing and impromptu marinades. What surprised me most though were two bottles we hadn’t tasted yet, but which would come to define the afternoon.
In addition to the line of oils and vinegars, Round Pond also produces two syrups: Meyer Lemon and Blood Orange. The syrups are rich and intense, but I couldn’t figure out how to use them at first. Then I saw the cheese and fruit and it all came together. I would never have guessed it but the syrups, the blood orange especially, when served on fresh strawberries from the garden and artisanal cheeses created a truly unique and delicious taste sensation. I wasn’t alone either, everyone around the table added huge amounts of the syrups to their plates; we would have drunk them straight if we could.
After we sucked the last bottle of syrup dry, we reluctantly said our goodbyes, purchased our bottles of syrups and oils, and journeyed on to the next winery. As we drove up the road, surrounded by verdant green vineyards and super healthy cyclists on the Silverado Trail, I thought about Round Pond. Sure, they had good wine, but that’s not too uncommon in Napa. What would always make it a special place for me was more than the wine, it was their approach to creating the perfect, tasty and healthy meal. Learning about oils and vinegars and how to incorporate them into my own cooking was a lesson no one else would teach me that day, and it was that simple class that oddly enough came to define my own personal Napa experience.
Have you ever experienced an unusual food class? What was it and where were you?