Have you ever had a hand-crafted, premium grape juice? I reckon the vast majority of you think "hand-crafted, premium grape juice" is an oxymoron (or that I'm a moron for even raising the question). Whatever the case, it exists...and not in the same way that Bigfoot or Chupacabras exist.
Now before you click to another site, give me a minute to explain. The grape juice I'm talking about is light years from the shelf-stable, electric purple stuff you see in plastic jugs or the oh-so-effervescent "sparkling" grape juice found in Champagne-style bottles.
On a trip to California wine country this past fall, a meal at one of my favorite restaurants unexpectedly revealed an untapped world of grape-based pleasure.
A little more about the trip. I was in Sonoma for a few days to meet with wine makers from Benziger (stay tuned for an upcoming post on what this family's doing in the area of biodynamic viticulture), Kunde Estate, J Winery, and Imagery Estate Winery. (It's worth mentioning that all of these wineries are producing some outstanding wines.)
Anyway, on my way back to the airport in Oak-town, I decided to pamper myself before the long flight east to Birmingham with a quick bite at the Café at Chez Panisse. (Note: If you don't know about Chez Panisse and its founder, Alice Waters, read up -- as soon as possible -- on her and what she's done for American cuisine.)
I know this sounds odd, but I really wasn't in the mood for wine. I stick to water before and during flights -- call me a geek or maybe it's just my inner runner, but I try to practicing good hydration. I didn't have long, so I ordered a plate of olives and an amazing salad of baked Andante Dairy goat cheese with fresh garden lettuces (and I mean, like, still-warm-from-the-garden fresh).
As I sat there nibbling on bread and feeling the weight of being a table for one, I quickly realized I was the only person in the building without a glass of wine. Feeling my anxiety, the server stopped by and again asked if I'd like to see the wine list. I reckoned my hard and fast rule on hydration could be put on hold for the experience of dining at Chez Panisse, so I gave a nod and the list was in my hands lickety-split.
I dreamingly strolled down the list...and what a list it is. And there at the bottom was "Grape Juice" -- specifically, grape juice from Navarro Vineyards, the well-respected winery in Philo, CA (in the Anderson Valley in coastal Mendocino), which produces, among other things, absolutely quaffable non-alcoholic wines. I spied their Gewurztraminer, which sounded like just the right match with my salad. I ordered a glass on faith -- I mean, how bad can anything be that Chez Panisse supports, right? Well, I can safely say the Gewurztraminer was a true revelation. Crisp, complex, floral, balanced...everything I look for in the varietal, but without the alcohol.
Navarro Vineyards was all I could think about on the flight home, so when I touched down, the first thing I did was check out their website, only to find out they make an incredible non-alcoholic pinot noir as well. Go figure. These folks do it right. I ordered a few bottles of each ($11/bottle). You can't imagine how liberating it was to order something from a California winery, not have to worry about Alabama's ridiculous shipping laws, and have the "wine" delivered to my front door. A hollow victory, I know, but it felt good.
A week or so later I was having a bite at Chez Fonfon (the best way to spend the lunchtime hour in Birmingham) and ran into the restaurant's renown chef/owner Frank Stitt, who cut his teeth in the Chez Panisse kitchen. I told him about my meal at the Café and how my eyes were opened to the world of Navarro. He knew about Navarro's grape juices and gave me a reassuring smile. I guess I'm not crazy after all.