Oakville Grocery

We have a weakness for old grocery stores that have metamorphosed into gourmet shops serving the wine tasters who have flocked to Wine Country.  There’s Lombardi’s Love Lane Market in Long Island’s North Fork.  We can remember when the Dry Creek General Store was a place to buy work clothes, tins of nails and sandwiches (served only on sliced white or whole wheat).  We still mourn the demise of the Jimtown Store.  The grandaddy of them all is the Oakville Grocery on Route 29 and the Oakville Crossroad in Napa Valley.

Photo courtesy of Destination Wineries.

There’s an Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg and it’s a fine shop.  We go there when we’re in Sonoma County.  But the real deal is located, of course, in Oakville.  According to their website (https://oakvillegrocery.com/) there’s been a store at that spot since some time in the 1870’s.  At various times it specialized in dry goods and farming supplies; then it was called Oakville Mercantile.  Since wine lovers (re)discovered Napa Valley in the 1970s, it has supplied excellent lunches to visitors and locals alike.

Oakville Grocery’s story has intersected with the wine trade over the decades.  Prohibition almost put them out of business; only nearby bootlegging saved the store.  It hosted a Great Chefs cooking lessons program run by Margit Mondavi, the wife of Robert Mondavi.  For many years, beginning in the 1970s through 2003, Oakville Grocery was owned by Joseph Phelps, who also owned one of Napa Valley’s great vineyards.  It t is now owned by a Frenchman, Jean-Charles Boisset, whose roots are in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or.

Photo courtesy of Oakville Grocery.

Today – and for as long as we can remember Oakville Grocery – it specializes in upscale fare.  There’s an espresso bar where you can get freshly ground coffee.  There’s a selection of imported and local cheeses, with California’s products standing up quite well against the French and Italian imports.  Freshly made salads are available, as are hand-made pizzas fired where the hardware was once stored.  This being Napa Valley, they also have  a great wine selection.

But the main attraction is the deli counter which occupies almost the entirety of the middle of the store.  Yes, you can get a ham and cheese, but why bother?  You can do that at home.  There’s a California-fied Muffaletta, the glory of New Orleans reinterpreted for the wine folks.  How about a hot Chicken and Gruyere or Rocky’s Reuben?  A word to the wise: The sandwiches are enormous, enough for sharing.  It’s important to put food in your stomach if you’re going to continue wine tasting in the afternoon, but there are limits.

There is a (mostly) shaded area next to the store where you can eat and drink your purchases.  They try to style it as a picnic area, but there is neither grass nor trees to be seen.  Make sure to get a table in the shade – midday in Napa Valley gets quite hot – but don’t plan on lingering.

We know places in New York and Paris that are as rich in history as in cuisine.  The Oakville Grocery is one of these too, but it is a great deal more rustic than those places, as it should be.  This is a deli in Wine Country, after all.  But if you’d like a great meal in a place your great-great-grandparents might have frequented, then the Oakville Grocery is for you.

Affordable Tasting in Napa Valley

Less than four years ago, Power Tasting’s January 2020 issue contained an article entitled, “How to Enjoy Wine Tasting in Napa Valley without Spending a Fortune”.  It makes rather odd reading today, since at least half the piece is no longer true.  Of course, when that was published, we didn’t know that a deadly pandemic, which closed down California wine tasting for many months, was just ahead.  On this side of those dreary times, as we have noted in a previous edition, wine tasting in America’s prime winemaking region has become so expensive that it prices out many potential visitors.

Photo courtesy of Napa Valley Tours and Transportation.

Today, there are no longer any free tastings; buying a bottle won’t result in waived fees; and the less expensive tasting flights offered are as costly as the pre-pandemic reserve tastings.  Sharing a tasting glass is far more difficult when almost all tastings are seated and served.  Nonetheless, there are some things wine lovers can do in Napa Valley to make the trip more affordable, if not cheap.

  • Pass up the “big names”. It is not unusual to find tasting fees of $125 or more per person at the better known wineries.  Lesser known wineries, such as Cosentino (reviewed in this edition) or Hagafen offer tastings at far lower prices.  You should do some comparison shopping online before you leave home.
  • Look for discoveries. The reason to visit the wineries you’re already familiar with is that you know what you will get.  There is an alternative approach.  If you are already experienced in going wine tasting, try to cast your mind back to when you first started coming to Napa Valley.  You have the chance to discover wonderful wines that you didn’t bother with in the past.  In many ways, we have found that we have gotten the most pleasure from enjoyable wines we had never heard of.
  • Maybe splurge on one expensive tasting. Yes, the fees wineries charge are outrageous.  But that’s what’s happening to many other forms of entertainment.  Consider what you would pay for a Broadway show or a hockey match.  With the way tastings are presented today, it is not unusual to spend more than an hour sipping wine.  Add the time to walk around and look at the gift shop, and you can be at a winery for quite some time.  It doesn’t make the price of tasting easier to take, but it is easier to understand.
  • Choose wineries with interests other than the wine. In addition to tasting, you might find it fun to take in some interesting architecture and beautiful grounds.  Chateau Montelena or Stags’ Leap might be good candidates.  If you’re a shopaholic, Robert Mondavi and Darioush might be just the ticket.  These won’t reduce your cost for sipping wine, but will expand tasting experience.
  • And as we said, there are other great places for wine tasting. Napa is wonderful but it’s not to everyone’s taste.  If you prefer your tastings to be more rustic and laid back, you might find Sonoma County, Central Coast or Amador County more amenable.  Take your dollars elsewhere and maybe the owners of those Napa palaces will lower their prices.

Cosentino Winery

In a sense, there are two Cosentino Wineries (www.cosentinowinery.com), the historical one and the winery as it is today.  It was established in 1980 in other parts of California and settled in Napa Valley after ten years.  The founder was a fellow named Mitch Cosentino, who was both a pioneer and a rather different sort of winemaker.  For one thing, he was a self-taught winemaker (not quite that rare in those days) but more so because he made the wines that he wanted to drink.  If you agreed with him, fine.  If not, buy from someone down the road.

What he particularly liked were Italian-style wines.  He made a Sangiovese and a Nebbiolo, and his best known wines were well-rated Zinfandels that harkened back to a time when Napa Valley wines were made for local consumption by Italian immigrants.  He was also the first to sell a Bordeaux blend labeled “Meritage”.

In 2010, Mitch sold his winery to a big conglomerate, which leads us to today’s winery. In one way, it is as it was, at the same location as ever at the edge of Napa Town.  The winery building is still there, an Italianate (of course) structure covered in vines.  But the name and the building are the main links to Cosentino’s history.  Yes, they do make Zinfandel, but it’s not what they are known for any longer.  Today, their premier red wine is the one that Mitch introduced, “The Poet”, a Meritage, about which more later.

The wine tasting experience at Cosentino is quite pleasant.  The winery is easy to find, right next to Mustards restaurant along Route 29.  There is a wide patio with a large stone wall at one end in which there is constantly lit fireplace.  Seating is well spread out and the view of the traffic passing by is softened by a large hill just across the street with a Victorian mansion on top.  If you go, try to have your tasting on this patio; in our opinion the indoor tasting room is far less inviting.

As everywhere in Napa Valley, Cosentino is “by appointment”.  We were seated without one, perhaps by luck or the fact that we got there before the crowds did.   The servers are eager to please, what we would call “hosts” as opposed to “educators”. A typical tasting flight is two whites and two reds, one of which is the aforementioned “The Poet”, which brings us to the issue of price and quality.

In all honesty, Cosentino does not make the best wines in Napa Valley, but they are pleasant and easy to drink.  They fit the surroundings in that they are the types of wines you might enjoy sitting on your patio with friends on a sunny afternoon.  They cost considerably less than wines made at the better known wineries in Napa Valley, and the tasting fee is also lower, currently $30.  The Poet is unquestionably their top wine (so they say and we agree).  It too is priced well below other wineries’ best offerings.

So if your plan for wine tasting in Napa Valley is to visit the Big Names, by all means do so, but be prepared to pay for the experience.  If, however, you want to have a pleasant experience, sipping tasty wines and at least one that’s worth savoring, Cosentino may be what you are looking for.

Vineyard Tastings

The model for most of our wine tasting experiences over the years was having a drink in a bar.  We would stand up and taste selected wines.  More recently, especially in Napa Valley, the model has been restaurant style.  We sit at a table and servers bring us wines to try.

There’s another model that we have encountered more rarely but have enjoyed quite a lot: a wine tasting in the very vineyards where the wine comes from.  This way of wine tasting is often, but not always, combined with a tour of the winemaking facilities.  There is quite a lot of variety, in fact.

The vines of Chimney Rock

For one thing, many wineries are situated in the middle of or adjoining their vineyards.  There is nothing to stop anyone from picking up their glass and wandering out among the vines.  This is especially fun during the days just before the harvest, when the tasting can be paired with a few stolen grapes.  Once, on a slow day at Chimney Rock in Napa, our server went with us and showed us around the vines.  (We understand that this winery now offers a vineyard tour with a tasting, though we have never taken it.)

Chappellet is a winery that incorporates a brief walk through the vines as a part of its regular tastings.  From experience, we can say that this is a more pleasant experience from March through November.  It gets cold up on Pritchard Hill in the winter.

Most American vineyards are rather protective of their properties, but in many places in Europe, it’s easy to walk through vineyards on your own.  So we have sometimes made ourselves a picnic, bought a bottle of the local wine and sipped while eating and walking.  Those Burgundy wines aren’t bad, y’know, and actually being there added to their luster.

Some wineries, including the recently reviewed Black Stallion in Napa Valley and Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma County have model vineyards so that visitors can get a sense of what the vines and, in season, the grapes actually look like.  These are not the ones that wind up in your glass, but learning to recognize the vines, leaves and grapes is valuable anyway.

Winemaker Jon Priest explains Etude’s way of making Pinot Noir, at their flagship Heirloom vineyard in the Grace Benoist Ranch.

We recently had a unique vineyard tasting experience.  Etude hosted a members-only tasting in its Pinot Noir vineyards in Carneros.  Interestingly, although the Etude winery is in Napa County, their premier vineyards in the Grace Benoist Ranch are in Sonoma County.  We were bussed from the winery to the vineyards and had a barbecue lunch under some shady trees with about 35 fellow members.  The vineyards for the wines we were served were right nearby!  There is a thrill for wine lovers to marry the sights, smells and tastes of the wines we enjoy with the sights and smells of the vineyard.  Added to the pleasure, we were joined by the winemaker, Jon Priest, who explained what we were looking at in terms that satisfied both the wonkiest of wine lovers as well as those who cared far more about what is in the bottle than how it got there.

As noted, there are a lot of ways to combine wine tasting and vineyards.  We heartily recommend taking one.