Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Navarro Nirvana!

Winebottles1220_2Have 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.

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