A few weeks ago Jeremy and I were finally able to take a brief trip up to Napa valley. We’d been wanting to go for a few years now but the scheduling never seemed to work out until early last month when we found ourselves driving up the interstate on our way to wine country. Huzzah! We did airbnb for the trip and stayed in a beautiful farmhouse in downtown Napa with Tom & Judy, who were the greatest hosts (there were a couple adorable farm cats roaming the property, which was an instant plus over any Napa hotel). We were just there for the weekend but were able to visit three wineries during that time; Sequoia Grove Vineyards, Frank Family Vineyards, and Del Dotto Vineyards, the latter of which was where I fell in love with port, hence this tasty, sprightly cake.
The first day we went to Sequoia Vineyards bright and early, around 10:30 am. We drove past the grape vines lining the entry way and pulled up to a beautiful wooden building surrounded by a grove of sequoia trees. Upon entering we met Dean, our awesome host, and some adorably friendly couples from Louisiana. We were able to do some food and wine pairings later in the tasting, but first we learned all about the signature wine of Napa valley, Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa valley has a very unique growing climate; it doesn’t rain very often so it stays fairly dry, and it gets a lot of sun during the day. However in the early mornings there is usually a “marine layer”, aka fog, settled on the ground which keeps the grapes cool and moist. This type of climate is ideal for growing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, which is the main grape grown in Napa. The valley lies between two small mountain ranges (originally formed by volcanoes) and the valley floor is divided into lots that are owned by grape farmers. The grape farmers sell their grapes to the wineries, and often times the wineries will own a lot or two themselves, but they will still buy grapes from other lots to create the right blend of flavors. Each lot gets varying amounts of sunlight based on where in the valley it is located, and because of the volcanic history of the area, the soil is high in mineral content. The composition of the soil also varies drastically 100 yards in any direction.
At the winery, the vintner (main winemaker) chooses what grapes to blend together to make their wine. There’s five critical considerations that go into this decision; the grape type, the soil type, the amount of sun exposure that particular lot receives, the temperature during the time the grape was grown, and the amount of fog that was present. For the most part, the wines made in Napa are Cabernet Sauvingons, but sometimes they’ll mix different types of grapes together to make a wine, and this is called a blend. For blends, the grape varieties will be listed out on the bottle (Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Syrah, etc). As far as what the vintner is looking for in flavor, there are five components that they taste for in a wine: fruit, oak, alcohol, acid, and tannins. Tannins come from the skins and seeds of the grapes, usually the darker red the wine, the more tannins it has. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have very thick skins, so the wine they make is high in tannins, whereas the skins of the grapes for white wine are usually removed before the winemaking process, so white wines have almost no tannins. Tannin levels can also be increased depending on the barrel time. Wine is almost always aged in oak barrels prior to bottling to impart the flavor of the wood into the wine. Tannins in the wood will impact the flavor of the wine, and the wood can also absorb some of the harsher tannins in the wine over time, creating a symbiotic relationship between the two.
|My copious note-taking.|
And all throughout the learning session, we were tasting their delicious wines (if only all lessons could play out this way), my favorites of which were their Napa Valley 2010 Cabernet Sauvingon, and their Morisoli Vineyard 2008 Cabernet Sauvingon, full of just the right balance of fruit, oak, and spice. And at the end of the tasting Dean had us do a little experiment where we tasted a food item and then took a sip of the same glass of wine to see how the flavor of the food affected the flavor of the wine. We did this with lemon, salt, vinegar, and a raw sweet grape. Everything made the Cabernet Sauvingon taste wonderful except the actual sweet grape, which made the wine taste very vinegary right afterwards. This is because a chemical reaction takes place between sugar and tannins that results in a terribly bitter flavor, and since Cabernets are high in tannins, it has a very strong effect on the wine. So if you like drinking red wine with dessert, try having a glass of port, (a sweetened dessert wine), rather than your traditional red, which won’t taste so great mixed in with the sugars of the dish on your palette.
After the tasting at Sequoia, we drove over to Dean and Deluca, which is basically an amazing gigantic gourmet grocery store. They had every kind of salt you could imagine, (in bulk!), goat’s milk butter, quail eggs, caramels, actual fresh truffles (the mushroom kind, not the chocolate kind), and so, so much more that I can’t even remember. I wish I could live in that store. Being the only location in Califonia, I took my sweet time walking around the isles, taking everything in. We were driving back, so we couldn’t pick up anything perishable, but I’ll be damned if I don’t find that goat’s milk butter for sale somewhere in Los Angeles. But we did have a couple of chocolates before leaving, giving a sad wave goodbye to the facade of the marketplace. We’ll meet again, goat’s butter, just you and I and a pan for brown butter-making.
Then we drove a couple miles down the road to the incredibly popular Frank Family Vineyards, where we pulled into a space in front of their endless fields of grape vines. The buildings on the vineyard felt very old-world Italian; beautiful with touches of stone, and a friendly, welcoming air to them. I think the warm and friendly feel is the most appealing thing about Frank Family Vineyards, and is what brings the same families back to the tasting room year after year (aside from the incredible wine). They really welcome you with open arms and make you feel like family. This tasting took place in a lovely rustic home on the property that was remodeled to suit the purposes of wine tasting. We were greeted by a staff member who introduced us to our host, Dennis, and brought us into Dennis’ office where we sat all sat at a large table in front of his desk. He asked us all about ourselves and the conversation began flowing steadily (much like the wine). It was a wonderfully informal tasting and we felt completely at home the entire time, many thanks to Dennis’ humor which kept the mood light and fun while we got to know the couples from Nebraska (several financial advisors and their wives) with whom we were having the tasting. There was no question that all of their wines were ridiculously delicious and smooth, but my favorite of all was their 2010 Rutherford Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. It smelled richly of blueberries and I tasted hints of clove, which must have been the allspice in the flavor profile. The layers of flavor kept peeling back with each sip, it really opened my mind to just how complex and delicious a good bottle of wine can really be.
After the tasting we wandered around the beautiful grounds for a bit and then headed over to downtown Napa and browsed the unique little shops and cafes, stopping for a couple tasty chocolates at Woodhouse Chocolate. Then we went back to the room for a wine-induced nap, and woke up in time for dinner at Bistro Jeanty. Jeremy had eaten there once before when he was in Napa for work, and wanted to take me there for dinner because he’s well-aware of my deep love for home-cooked French food. When we were talking to Dennis about our Bistro Jeanty dinner plans, he recommended we order the tomato soup to share, so that’s what we did for the starter, and my sweet, sweet Lord was I glad we did. It came out in a beautiful white bowl with a piece of puff pastry baked onto the top of it, so you have to pierce through the buttery puff pastry to get to the creamy tomato-y soup. Then of course you mix in the tasty pastry flakes into the soup and they get all soft and it’s just heaven. We became pretty obsessed with this soup, so much so that I googled it later and was ecstatic to find that they shared their recipe for the soup on their website, so I ended up making it the next weekend for Jeremy’s birthday dinner with some tomatoes we had from the garden (and slightly less cream to make it a schmeensy bit healthier).
The options in barrels combined with the options in choosing the harvested grape create a ridiculous amount of options for the vintner to choose from, making their job incredibly difficult. All throughout this discussion, Simon used a long glass tube called a wine thief to pull the wine from the barrels for us to taste. We got to try some Cabernet Sauvignons that were made from the same grapes harvested from the same lot, but one tasting from a French oak barrel and one tasting from an American oak barrel. The French oak was definitely smoother and more subdued, but I liked the intensity of the American oak barrel, even though that’s considered subpar to French oak in the wine world. While walking around the caves, we got to take a peek at the little alcove where they age various cheeses and charcuteries. I’ve been wanting to try my hand at making salumi for a while now (but haven’t because the constantly fluctuating temperature of my apartment probably isn’t the best thing for aging meat), but seeing all the meats hanging from the rafters ended with me purchasing this book the next day on amazon, so I might try my hand it at after all.
After the tour was through we went back up to the main lobby and they came out with a tray of assorted cheeses and meats from the cave as well as some pizza, chocolate, and port. I’d never had port before, but we tried it with the chocolate and good God, it was love at first sip. Port is a sweet red dessert wine that pairs ridiculously well with anything sugary, which makes it a great option for red wine lovers since the tannins in red wine make most reds unpalatable when paired with sweets. We ended up ordering the 2011 Cave Blend for my parents and a bottle for ourselves from a barrel that was still aging, so we’ll end up getting it in a year or two when its ready. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that port during the long drive home.
So, I immediately went out and got a bottle once we were settled back home and set about creating a dessert that would bring out the tastiness of port in full splendor. I ended up making a raspberry brown butter cake with goat cheese buttercream and a raspberry port reduction, inspired by the many goat products at Dean & Deluca. The result was one of the most delicious and beautiful cakes I’ve made yet, I just loved the way the raspberries baked into the cake layers and how the subtle tanginess of the goat cheese buttercream played with the sweetness of the port. I think it would be great in cupcake-form too, especially with a single raspberry garnish on each one with a little bit of the reduction. Perhaps I will make some again at Christmas! Regardless, the cake was the perfect ending to the perfect trip, sweet, saucy, and with a generous portion of wine.
Raspberry Brown Butter Cake
6 ounces raspberries, an optional garnish for the top of the cakeClick Here For Printable Recipe
First, brown the butter. When making browned butter, it is best to use a stainless steel pan so that you can see the color of the butter change. Heat the butter in a large shallow frying pan over medium heat until melted. Swirl the pan around a bit every couple minutes to help it cook evenly. Over a period of several minutes, you’ll notice the foam at the top of the butter start to change from light yellow to a dark tan. Once it reaches the dark tan stage and the butter looks light brown and golden, smell it. It should smell nutty and similar to toffee. Remove from heat and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the brown butter, eggs, and sugar until blended. Add the vanilla extract and milk and mix until combined. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Gradually add the flour mixture to the batter, mixing at medium-low speed until fully incorporated. Add the raspberries and stir in by hand. Evenly distribute the batter between 3 well-greased and lightly floured 8-inch cake pans.
Place the pans in the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until they’re golden around the edges and a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean (don’t insert it into a raspberry bit though, that will always come out rather jammy). Allow to cool for 10 minutes before removing the cakes from their pans and setting them on a wire rack to cool completely.
Once the cakes have cooled, layer and frost them with the goat cheese buttercream. Drizzle the port reduction over the top of the assembled cake and top with fresh raspberries. Serve immediately.
Port & Raspberry Reduction
Bring the ingredients to a boil over medium heat in a small thick bottomed pot. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and strain out the raspberry seeds with a mesh sieve. Return the syrup to the stovetop and simmer for another 10 minutes. Allow the syrup to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until use to help it thicken.
Goat Cheese Buttercream
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together the butter and goat cheese at medium low speed until smooth. Add the powdered sugar and milk and blend at medium speed until a smooth buttercream frosting forms. Cover and set aside until ready to use.