It’s Cabernet season in the Napa Valley. Cabernet season is a marketing program like wine month or international [insert-wine-name here] day in that it tells you it’s timely to drink (and eat), but it also speaks authentically to the history and identity of the Napa Valley and its signature grape.
Photo by Bob McClenahan, courtesy Flavor! Napa Valley
Visit Napa Valley President and CEO Clay Gregory explains candidly about Flavor! Napa Valley, the five day series of events that forms the centerpiece of Cabernet season. “We wanted to bring visitors into the valley at a time when there were not a lot of people, and it’s a really good season to come because it’s a little bit colder, and our chefs are making those heartier dishes like roasts and stews, the kind that go best with our flagship wine, cabernet sauvignon.”
Wine and food pairing may not be novel or unique in today’s wine industry, but when Visit Napa Valley in partnership with the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and Silverado Resort and Spa launched Flavor! Napa Valley in 2011 a key ingredient was to create an event that could only happen in the Napa Valley.
To achieve that they took advantage of the extraordinary abundance of prominent chefs and restaurants in the valley. “Every year it’s different chefs that come to Flavor! Napa Valley, some from as far away as New York,” says Gregory, “but they all have to be either Napa Valley chefs or graduates of the CIA.”
Gregory attributes the origins of the valley as a culinary mecca to the early work of Robert and Margrit Mondavi. “It all comes from Robert Mondavi and his quest for international quality, and to do the best things that he thought that we could. Robert Mondavi Winery started a program called The Great Chefs, and in the beginning it was all chefs from France, mostly 3 star chefs.”
The Great Chefs culinary series grew respect for California wines among European chefs like Paul Bocuse and Jean Troisgros, and today Napa Valley has more Michelin Stars per capita than any other wine region in the world.
“So we attract a lot of entrepreneurs that want to do great things,” says Gregory. “When people like Thomas Keller (French Laundry) are so involved in the valley, it shows that people want to come here and eat that level of quality food.”
Many wineries in the valley have embraced the tradition started by Robert Mondavi Winery and partner with chefs to create memorable customer experiences. Hall Winery hosts a monthly Taste of Hall event where they invite a local chef to create a menu around a specific theme.
“We highlight the chef and they create a menu that pairs with a current wine release. It’s a great experience that highlight their skills,” explains Diem Doonan, Director of Membership for Hall & Walt Wines. “We also have a garden at Hall St. Helena that some of the chefs will actually use, and they base some of the dishes on what we have available in the garden.”
Laura Fox, the chef and owner of Winery Chefs, worked with Hall Winery at last year’s Taste of Hall at Flavor! Napa Valley, and she works with other wineries as well to create unique culinary experiences for winery guests.
“Our first goal is to begin to understand the winery’s marketing, branding, and company culture. We really want to understand what their business goals are, so we can align with that,” says Fox. “At our events the goal is to sell wine 100% of the time. It’s certainly about the food and the experience, but at the end it’s about what the winery is trying to express to their visitors.”
Fox and her husband are originally from Florida, and she’s educated at the CIA in New York. Before starting Winery Chefs a couple of years ago, she worked at a few different fine restaurants in the valley, and she understands the draw Napa Valley has on food entrepreneurs. “We absolutely fell in love with Napa, this valley literally revolves around food and wine, and we knew there was no other place for us to be. It’s a pretty unique destination.”
Fox points out that there are hundreds of high quality food and wine options available to visitors, which can be intimidating to guests, but also raises the bar for the businesses. “The big goal is distinguishing yourself,” Fox says. “Everyone is looking to distinguish themselves and draw visitors to have a different experience.”
One of her favorites is the cooking classes they do, because they break down the barriers and engage the guests. “We’re teaching people about the food in a different way, that’s not all rules. You learn about the food and learn about the wine, and then decide for yourself,” Fox explains. “It creates more than just an experience of Napa Valley. We’re really creating a memory that they can bring home with them. We really focus on that memory, because we want people to go home and drink that wine and eat that food again and not only associate it with a Napa experience.”
Gregory echoes the growing importance of the kind of unique and engaging experience that also make up Flavor! Napa Valley’s program. “More and more people want experiences. They don’t just want to stand behind a bar and get tastings, they want to do things like pull vegetables out of the garden and then see chefs cook them, or do a blending seminar.”
The Taste of Hall events go on year-round, but once a year Hall Winery invites restaurants from Napa and surrounding counties to compete in the Hall Cabernet Cookoff (April 29, 2017) by creating a small dish that pairs well with a select Hall cabernet.
“The whole purpose of the Cab Cookoff is to focus on non-profit and charity in the community,” Says Doonan. “Each chef team chooses a local non-profit to compete for, and 100% of the ticket sales for the Hall Cab Cookoff go to those winning organizations.”
Likewise, the proceeds of Flavor! Napa Valley go to the Culinary Institute of America, and Gregory points out that there’s a tradition in the Napa wine industry epitomized by Auction Napa Valley to donate to nonprofit organizations in the community. “It’s the right thing to do to have a charitable cause. The CIA is a non-profit, and the fact that they’re developing new chefs to come into the valley is really important.”
“Philanthropic efforts are very important to the Halls,” says Doonan. “We have a great lineup of wines at Hall and pairing such great wines with food is synonymous with the Napa Valley, so we figured it would be a good platform.
“We try to meet the expectations of Napa Valley visitors and raise the bar each year. We’re seeing Michelin starred judges and almost celebrity chefs compete, and it’s all for a really great cause. It’s just a win-win for the community, for the chef teams, and the non-profits.”
Flavor! Napa Valley is mostly sold out, but there are still select events that have availability including the Grand Tasting at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, which features a selection of sweet and savory bites from more than 25 Napa Valley restaurants, paired with wine from more than 80 Napa Valley wineries.
In the Napa Valley, wine and food is more than a pairing, it’s a partnership forming the brand and success of the valley. “Our visitor profile study says that both the food and the wine are right up at the top of things that people like when they come here, along with the natural beauty,” Gregory points out.
It is undeniable that wine and food are a natural pairing, and other wine regions should not shy away from copying that successful approach, but it is also worth noting the constant effort to make experiences authentic by drawing and building on what’s unique and traditional to the region, the winery, and the brand.
By Kim Badenfort