An Offer You Can’t Refuse
If you have not had the opportunity to take a trip to Sonoma County to experience their Food and Wine I think you are missing out. We all know the Napa Valley is home to world famous restaurants and produces some great wine, but Sonoma is not that far behind if at all. If you are driving from Sacramento then you’ll drive a bit farther but I do not think you’ll be disappointed.
My trip started by leaving Sacramento for Geyserville, located deep in Sonoma County right off of Highway 101. There are 2 ways to get there but I went up the St. Helena Highway through the heart of the beautiful Napa Valley and once past Calistoga cut through the Alexander Valley to our destination. This was an amazing drive and the most difficult part was to not stop at any one of the tempting wineries along the way. As we pulled up I was imagining in my mind some background Italian music playing, yes the music of arguably the greatest trilogy ever made…The Godfather. I was at Francis Ford Coppola Winery and as we pulled up the drive with grape vines along both sides of the path, I knew that this was going to be a unique experience. When parked, we were surprised to see kids…yes, kids. Moms with their kids, families; not was I was used to when wine tasting. When we went up the stairs to the entrance we noticed that the kids were all excited to go swimming and then we saw this huge pool! I was thinking to myself, how great is this? Mom and dad want to relax and enjoy some wine; the kids want to swim…everyone’s happy! Little did I know that we were just scratching the surface of the experience at Coppola.
Well you know that I have to talk about food, correct that, I love to talk about food! So I sat down with the Executive Chef of Winery, Tim Bodell and the Director of Hospitality and Restaurant Operations, Eddie Heintz. As we talked for about 45 minutes I was impressed by the passion that exists for going beyond serving food. The vision comes from Mr. Coppola himself and that is to give his guests a memorable experience by recreating food that is very close to his heart and home in Italy. You will find that the menu will remain consistent from season to season; therefore Chef Bodell is tasked to source the highest quality ingredients that match the vision of each and every dish (read more about sourcing fresh product consistently in the Concierge Corner at the end of this article). It was the most amazing setting as we talked, sitting in the garden with peppers, herbs, tomatoes, Lemon Verbena and more…lots more, the seamless transition of the garden to grape vines closely following the contour of the hills surrounding us. Among the many things that stood out to me was that there is such a passion for bringing to life the vision and memories of Mr. Coppola so that his guests can share the experience. To highlight that even further, members of the staff are occasionally challenged to tell the story of each dish without discussing the ingredients. Of course you will be able to know what you are eating but I like the theme of creating new memories by recreating old ones. Before we ate I was able to get a tour through the kitchen and rest assured that they keep the kitchen very clean and organized, there was no yelling and panic like you may see on TV but rather, they were very calm and focused. Chef Bodell showed me the Parrilla (pronounced pah-ree-sha) which is something between a BBQ pit, a grill and a piece of art. The Parrilla is open to the indoor dining room so you can watch the grill master (known as an Asador which is the Argentinean name for that position, the Parrilla is from Argentina) at work. They are also in the early stages of reorganizing the kitchen to add a high quality, wood stone pizza oven. They already have a very nice selection of pizza on their menu, especially nice for the café out by the pool…and they feel that this will help elevate the pizzas to the artisan level.
Are you ready to talk about the food? Me too…but I would be remiss to not mention some extremely cool things that you might like. The winery tour was cool; they took us by the bottling, labeling and packaging area and what an operation that is. It is like a dance, watching the bottles gracefully follow their path to be filled and labeled. The barrel room is very impressive…but although it might sound weird that was not the highlight. Alright, fine; the food and wine was the highlight and I promise to tell you all about it, but there are so many things both big and small that I could talk about. For instance, they have a Pavillion (sort of like a gazebo) from the wedding…yes THE WEDDING! Remember the Lake Tahoe wedding in the Godfather trilogy? The Pavillion has the actual painting from the movie and you can do more than just look at it from a distance. They have live bands that come and play on that stage out by the pool in the evenings…how cool is that? They also have ‘the desk’ from the Godfather as well. Inside the facility they not only have their tasting room and production facilities but it is part museum as they have one of only 47 Tucker cars in existence and it is the first time I have ever seen one in person. Mr. Coppola owns 2 of the remaining Tucker cars and word has it that he will occasionally drive them both. They have props and costumes from movies like Bram Stoker’s, Dracula and Marie Antoinette as well as Apocalypse Now. Outside at the pool they have these little cabines you can rent. I really like the system they have because you can rent the cabines for $75 which is for 2 adults and 2 children and that includes the cabines (a small room where you can place your personal items and not have to worry about keeping things in your pockets by the pool and allows you to shower and change inside as well) a winery tour and a tasting for 2 adults. If you have 4 adults then the price is $85 and all 4 adults get the tour and tasting. If you have interest in the pool then just a little tip…make sure you call ahead and rent your cabines because once they sell out, that’s it. This is to prevent overcrowding at the pool which is designed not only for your enjoyment but for safety as well! Like I said, all the details are addressed, and yes, there are lifeguards on site.
I have to admit that I was not expecting too much from the wine. Was I going to get your basic red table wine or was the wine going to be bold and ‘in your face’? I’m not really a fan of either but little did I know that I was in for a treat! I’m only going to tell you about the wine you cannot get in the stores because I think you’ll want to make the trip to Geyserville. I tasted 7 wines and I’ll go through them quickly:
- Blanc de Blanc – this is a lightly sparkling wine that is a blend of Pinot Blanc, Muscat and Riesling. I thought it was a nice start, a great wine for a toast…light and crisp hints of apple with a slight lemony finish. (you will notice that there is not a vintage, or year, associated with many sparkling wines as they usually are blends of several vintages as not every season produces excellent sparkling wines – if you are able to find sparkling wines or even Port wines of a specific vintage than you will typically pay a premium)
- Reserve Viognier, 2009 – From grapes grown in the Russian River valley, the wine is very nice summer wine as it is floral and fragrant…white peaches and a clean finish. Pretty cool as well that the label is like a piece of artwork.
- Reserve Chardonnay, 2009 – 100% of the grapes are from Dutton Ranch in the Russian River Valley and the wine was not your traditional ‘buttery’ texture and taste that many Chardonnay wines of the ‘New World’ carry but rather it was a fairly full bodied wine with the aroma of pears and a bit of mild oak and some spice on the palate that I really enjoyed.
- Director’s Cut Zin, 2009 – 82% Zinfandel and 18% Petit Syrah from the Dry Creek Valley. This wine too was very balanced and smooth. I noticed hints of tobacco and clove along with the balance of cherries.
- Cinema, 2008 – Grown exclusively in Sonoma County the wine is a blend of 48% Zinfandel, 47% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Syrah. This was a more full wine with the taste of dark cherries, a bit of spiciness and the characteristics of the oak barrel that gave this a richness I found appealing.
- Director’s Cut Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008 – 100% Cabernet Sauvignon grown exclusively in Sonoma County and aged 15 months in French Oak barrels I found this wine to be very aromatic and smooth. It truly did carry the body of the oak and the flavor actually seemed to build as I tasted.
- Director’s Cut Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009 – 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 1% Cab. Franc. Grown in the Alexander Valley this wine was a very nice blend, a bit of spice and a bit of smokiness, this was not a ‘fruity’ wine but very nice nonetheless.
We chose to purchase 3 different types…the Viognier, the 2008 Cinema and the 2008 Director’s Cut Cab. The wine far exceeded my expectations and these wines have enough character to work with everything from salads to pasta, fish and hearty steaks. Are you ready? Let’s talk food! Chef Bodell had an excellent tasting prepared and I’m going to go through everything as it arrived at the table:
- Bread -You always expect bread service, right? Yea…not like this, a white paper bag comes to the table with what looks like a little donut, fried in canola oil you get this 2 bite treasure that is still hot, has a touch of salt and a savory but light texture that makes you want more. Thank goodness I didn’t have more because we were just getting started.
- Appetizer -We next received a Spinach Fritter that was almost like a savory beignet (donut ball freeform in shape common in New Orleans and of course France). This wasn’t just Spinach flavor but you could see the spinach and the fritter was well seasoned and had a mild crunch but was like a soft pillow inside.
- Appetizer -We tasted one more appetizer and that was Carmine’s Stuffed Mushroom. Everything has a story but I am not going to spoil your experience by telling EVERY story. Suffice it to say that the stories are integral to the experience. That said, this mushroom was stuffed with parsley, dried chilis, mushroom stems and bread crumbs. It’s baked and comes to the table with a crispy top and a full savory bite that made me wish I could go get that 2009 Reserve - Dutton Ranch Chardonnay to pair with it.
- Pasta - Next dish was the Spinach and Sun Dried Tomato Cannelloni with fresh basil. This is fresh, scratch made pasta with farm fresh tomatoes right from the garden we were just in 2 hours earlier. The sauce carried an initial sweetness but not too much so as there was a full body to the sauce as well. The spinach and ricotta filling was creamy and the cannelloni was rolled like a ‘taquito’, assembled and then baked. There was a nice balance in texture as the edges had a bit of a crisp bite and the soft creaminess of the ricotta. The pasta was a perfect ‘al dente’ so there was no mushiness but what I thought was a perfect execution of the dish.
- Fish - Even though I’m half Italian and a passionate foodie I’ve never had what I next experienced…what a treat! Branzino!! Yes, fish…the whole fish! Relax, it’s not a huge fish but the presentation is very impressive. Obviously, the fish is fully cleaned but kept whole. Branzino is a white flesh fish with a very delicate texture…but some people will use Sea Bass instead. I for one was happy to have the real thing! The preparation of this dish is to take salt that is mixed with egg whites and completely encase the fish and roast it whole. The dish is prepared for 2 and as it comes to the table you will enjoy the tableside service. The crust is carefully cracked open and removed. Maybe you think this will be an overly salty flavor but it’s not (not unless you do like I did and just include a piece of the salt in your bite of fish – which the waiter warned me not to do) the flavor is very delicate and light. Served with mixed greens and a white bean salad this creates a bite that truly excites the palate. I’m a huge fan of contrast and this dish brings it…the creamy texture of the white beans, the crunch of the fresh greens which are both served as cold elements and then you get the warm, flakey fish. This is a rock star dish! The only way I can describe the feeling of having this dish is that you will want to be around friends and family, laughing and relaxing on a Friday night.
- Pasta - We next tasted another pasta course, Carbonara pasta which is spaghetti pasta. This dish is served with a savory cream sauce accompanied by pancetta and parmesan cheese. Very simple but nicely executed. You will appreciate that each and every order of pasta is cooked to order! Most restaurants will par cook (basically cook within 60 seconds of finish) their pasta and simply finish them off when ordered. This is not the case at Rustic, they cook each order as it comes in so that you get a freshly prepared dish with perfect texture. It takes a bit longer but it’s worth it…plus, why are you going to be in a hurry in these surroundings, right? Enjoy the view, enjoy the wine and relax.
- Meat - Braciole with Rigatoni – I’m not going to give away the whole story, but I will tell you that this dish is truly a Francis Favorite…memories of Sunday dinner with family and he looked forward to it every week. This is thin slices (or regular slices that are pounded thinly – a term called paillard) of beef and veal that are wrapped in Prosciutto and rolled up with a hardboiled egg, raisins and pine nuts then braised for 3 hours in red wine/tomato sauce.
- Meat - The final savory course we tasted was mercifully a small portion…just a taste that Chef Bodell wanted us to try, the Rack of Lamb Madame Bali. The lamb chop is marinated in pomegranate juice for 3 days and then grilled on the Parrilla. The lamb was cooked exactly how I would request…medium and was mild in flavor, not the gamey aggressive bite you might expect. Very tender and full of flavor, simple but an elegant flavor and texture.
- Dessert - We thought it was over but there was a little more…we got to try a trio of their dessert offerings. Chocolate Mousse was actually dark chocolate so it was not very sweet and carried full flavor of the dark chocolate and it was rich and amazingly creamy. In the middle of the plate was a Cream Puff filled with ricotta and orange zest. The cream puff (profiterole) was light and airy and was also not overly sweet but the brightness of the orange zest really made this dish pop. Finally, we get to something near and dear to me…lemon! I didn’t tell Chef Bodell that I love Lemon desserts and it’s on the menu for everyone to enjoy, but just for a moment I felt like this was just made for me, a Lemon Tart! This was the sweetest of the 3 desserts I tasted and as I put my fork into the tart I watched this beautiful crust crack with a light flake that made my level of anticipation rise. Yes, the crust was buttery and flakey and the lemon filling was almost like custard and although sweet, the lemon carried a zing that will make you pucker up! You know how sometimes big things are in little packages? This little bite carried a full lemon punch that I cannot wait to try again.
If you are looking for something unique then you might want to visit Coppola on a Tuesday. Every Tuesday the Chef mentioned that they feature A Tavola, which is Italian for ‘to the table’, an opportunity to be creative with dishes that bring a unique element to the restaurant. Tuesday features scratch made pastas which are near and dear to the heart of Chef Bodell. What was very cool for me was that I had the opportunity to taste the scratch made pasta and all I can say is that I’m a fan. I do not mind dried pasta, in fact the al dente texture is next to impossible to replicate on fresh pasta, but so is the taste. ! I’m not sure yet if anyone where I live in Sacramento knows how to make pasta or is willing to take the time and effort to do so…but when I find them I’ll let you know. In the mean time…the scratch pasta at Coppola was perfect! On any other day but Tuesday, the menu is consistent. The menu features items beyond the borders of Italy which makes perfect sense because Mr. Coppola has traveled extensively and wants to have some of those memories shared with his guests. That means that you will have the opportunity to taste Moroccan and Armenian flavors and much more. Another interesting fact was that Chef Bodell mentioned that they were in the final stages of preparation for the James Beard House Awards on August 3rd in New York. I heard from him upon his return and the event was a huge success! What an honor to be selected to cook the meal for the James Beard House Awards. Coppola wines were also featured at the event. From what I tasted, this honor was well deserved. If this article entices you to take the drive to Geyserville then I think you will be rewarded with a fantastic experience. The food is affordable…you can easily eat in the restaurant for under $20 per person or you can go above that if you choose. A bottle of their top wine is around $30 and the experience is fun for the whole family. From Sacramento the drive is between 2 ½ -3 hours but if you make the drive then I think you will not be disappointed.
Concierge Corner: There is talk all over the place about ‘fresh’ ingredients and you hear terms like ‘farm to table’. In Sacramento we probably have over 100 restaurants that say they are farm to table. Where is the farm? Who is the farmer? When was the item harvested? How was the field maintained? Were there pesticides or if you are referring to proteins, did the farm use probiotics or hormones? If you are truly going to sell the ‘farm to table’ concept then the chef needs to have the answer, and in my opinion, the right answer to every one of those questions…and then I’ll have 5 more questions. Personally, I would rather a business say: “We do our absolute best to get the highest quality ingredients from wherever possible and get them on the table for you to enjoy at a price that is affordable for everyone”. So many ingredients are just a commodity. That means that if you buy pork, you can go to the huge box store and get a pork chop that is amazing and the very next time the product is priced the same but the quality is nowhere near equal. This is because the product is not sourced from a specific ‘farm’…they want pork and they get pork, whether from a 2000 acre ranch in Arkansas or a small rancher in Iowa that prides himself on raising his hogs without the use of hormones, antibiotics or probiotics. If a hog gets sick then he may treat the animal to get it healthy but he’ll sell it off to a big vendor whereas his healthy animals are sold to smaller specialty meat companies like Preferred Meats where they guarantee quality and can source every product they sell right down to farm and feed. So if that sick animal that they treat is able to get healthy then it will go to the big vendor and into the big store and will be the best piece of meat they have in the building…and you’ll taste it. But you have no guarantee that you’ll ever see that quality again or when it will come. Much of the same is true with vegetables. Technology allows 3 Michelin star restaurants in New York to serve organic greens in December that are grown in controlled environments in California, picked today and on the table in New York tomorrow. This is much of what Coppola does. To keep the menu consistent they source each and every ingredient to get the highest quality in their doors as fresh as possible. I have no problem eating food that has ingredients sourced in South America or Australia because I know that that item can be on my plate less than 30 hours from harvest. If you’re talking about prime beef then it will no doubt be aged for 21-28 days anyway, so why do I care that it was not raised across the street. I would much rather know what the beef was fed, how it was treated, how it was processed and all of that will translate to flavor. So don’t be fooled by a great sales pitch or fancy terms, just look for quality and integrity in the food and when you find a source for that (whether in your grocery store or from a restaurant chef) stick with them and tell your friends.
Restaurant Review by Torrence Crable
Look for More Restaurant Reviews Here Soon!