It was all going swimmingly for Michelin-starred chef Roger Jones until he actually got to Napa Valley, a wine region he has often loved but never visited. Our Napa ‘virgin’ arrived in CA full of BA’s First Class wine selection, something he will never, ever brag about in front of other wine experts. But just as Roger was settling into the thought of having a week tasting the delights of Napa along comes a pizza-making competition which is red rag to a bull-headed kitchen maestro.
A Michelin-starred chef, Bruce Cakebread, and the simple task of making a pizza to pair with Bruce’s fine Napa Valley wines. What could go wrong?
Having got through a 10 hour flight with BA entertained royally with prestige wines ranging from a very fine Henriot 2009 with grilled kippers in the First Class lounge to a tasting of worldwide labels on board such as a superb St Aubin 1er Cru Les Cortons, Roux Pere & Fils, a luscious mouth-tingling Marcella’s White Blend, Fess Parker Winery, Santa Barbara to a very fine Pinot from Radford Dale in Elgin, things came to a shocking crescendo.
In Napa we were greeted with a glass of the prestigious Schramsberg Tognetti Brut whilst we were introduced to our hosts and the Canadian Wine entourage, who were just like our varied British entourage but with Canadian accents and, of course, slightly louder.
But things then took a dramatic turn, when we were taken to the beautiful garden setting of the Silenus Winery on a warm Napa evening where it was announced that we would be split into six teams and matched up with six winemakers and tasked with making a pizza to match a specific fine wine from each winemaker.
Once completed the whole group would vote on their best pairing (of course one could not vote for themselves). As the teams were drawn out of a hat we could feel the tension building especially as I was drawn into Bruce Cakebread’s team who was the current holder of The Napa Valley Pizza Pairing Trophy.
My 11 years of experience as a Michelin Star Chef was being challenged under the Napa skies.
The Cakebread team was confident that this would be their night with Bruce taking the trophy home for a historic second time, but, alas, with the results in and the voting checked it seems that the Cakebread team had cheated and were stripped of the title. Bruce is currently lodging a complaint with his lawyer, Robert Parker Jr. So a disastrous introduction for this Michelin Star chef, was only softened by the wonderful wines and welcome from the Napa Valley Vintners team.
It had long been an ambition of mine to visit Napa Valley, having collected many of their iconic wines in the past including from the likes of Sir Peter Michael, Tor, Fisher Insignia, Rudd, Far Niente, Larkin, Tongi and Kongsgaard, many of which now highlight in my restaurant served by the Coravin glass, ranging back to the 2000 vintage.
A wine region that produces such a tiny amount of wine (less than 0.5 % of world production) certainly knows how to make a noise, from the dramatic Judgment of Paris in 1976 to the worldwide reputation it has for premium wines sitting on the finest wine lists and cellars globally.
So I look forward to facing the team again this morning despite last night’s disaster and travel through the Napa this week to experience the wines, people and what makes the Napa Valley so unique.
The wines served at the Napa Valley Pizza Pairing Trophy
Schramsberg, Tognetti Brut 2012
42 months on the lees gives this wine a lovely refined texture and complexity, controlled bubbles and a gentle but toasty feel and aromas of tropical orange zest, brioche, acacia, with a palate of crisp pineapple, lush pear and a creamy finish.
Silenus Winery, Dry Riesling Los Carneros AVA 2015
A classic Alsace-style Riesling, bone dry with textured fruit, floral, structured, wet river stone, aromatic, a beautiful example of Riesling, Scott Meadows who owns Silenus was rightly very proud of this wine.
Blackbird Vineyards, Proprietary Red Arise, Napa Valley 2014
Black fruit from currants to berries, gentle cedar wood, spices, soft tobacco, layers of fruit combine giving a luscious savoury feel, with cherries and ripe figs on the main palate. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, this is a polished wine showing well already but will age gracefully.
Cakebread Cellars, Merlot, Napa Valley 2014
Aromas of blackberries and cherries, with a dash of dark chocolate. Bright clean but rich berry fruits on the palate, a luscious Merlot which has a small proportion of Cabernet Franc. In its youth now but showing great signs to age, I love the spices and savoury background that balances well the the pot purri of succulent fruit.
Raymond Vineyards, Chardonnay Reserve Selection, Napa Valley, 2015
Sourced from both their own vineyards in Jameson Canyon and select Napa Valley growers. Gentle and balanced, a refined Chardonnay that has a gentle palate of honeydew melon, lush ripe pear William fruit with a touch of lemon zest. There is no malolactic fermentation, gentle use of oak giving the fruit the showcase very much in the Chablis Grand Cru style.
Silenus Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District 2013
Elegance, layers of cherries, raspberries, fig and chocolate, a juicy wine that evolves beautifully on the palate
Vineyard 7 & 8 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate, Spring Mountain District 2013
Wesley Steffens has produced a masterly wine here, a wine of immense purity, depth and stunningly beautiful. Dark chocolate on nose, spiced, aniseed, black pepper fresh ground tobacco, then the acidity gives this wine a seamless texture. Blackcurrants, blueberries and a wealth of small precise berries evolve, mixed with dark mocha cherries.