Brussels

Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is a handsome city with many interesting things to do there.  But to be honest, it’s not a wine city.  Oh, for sure, there are excellent wine lists at some restaurants.  But there aren’t many Belgian wineries scattered around the country, so if you’re going to do that much driving, maybe you want to travel for around three hours and go to Champagne in France.  Or, maybe vice versa, you could tag Brussels on to a Champagne visit.

The Grand-Place or Grote Markt.  Photo courtesy of MakeMyTrip.

The best place to start a trip in Brussels is the Grand-Place, which is also known as the Grote Markt.  [The Belgians have a great language divide.  The Walloons speak French; the Flemish speak their own language, which is close to Dutch.  You’ll see signs everywhere in both languages.]  The Grand-Place has a lot of history, going back to the 11th century.  In 1695, Louis XIV’s troops destroyed it, so the good burghers of Brussels vowed to reconstruct it even better than it was.  They did it in about five years and so it remains today.

The Big Market (for that’s what it means in Flemish) is surrounded by opulent guild halls, the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) and lots of places to eat and drink.  The Belgian make great beer, and they serve it by the liter.  There are few things more pleasant on a warm summer afternoon, than enjoying a beer amongst the architecture, watching some Belgians and even more tourists going about their lives.  A word of warning: The Belgians like some of their beers with fruit flavors (Kriek is lemon; Frambozen is raspberry; and Cerise is cherry.)  Most Americans find these fruity beers to be awful, but some of us do like them on a hot day.  Think of them as Kool-Aid with a kick.)

A few blocks away is the city’s symbol, the Mannekin Pis.  It’s a small statue of a little boy, well, pissing.  You ought to see it but you’ll find it a bit disappointing if you were expecting a Belgian version of the Statue of Liberty.  Some enterprising Bruxellois erected another statue, of a little girl, the Manneka Pis.  (You figure it out.)  It’s in a 19th century covered shopping arcade, several of which are near the Grand-Place.  They’re worth seeing just for the architecture and the window shopping.

The Ilôt Sacré.  Photo courtesy of The Brussels Times.

Also just off the Grand-Place is l’Ilôt Sacré, or Sacred Island.  It is neither an island nor sacred, but it is packed with seafood restaurants, with remarkable displays of shellfish and the finned fish.  The restaurateurs take special pleasure in displaying a monkfish, arguably the sea’s ugliest creature, with a grapefruit in its mouth.  Ugh!  But the seafood is fresh and well prepared, so try a meal there.  With wine.

Other sights worth taking in, also in the center of town, are the Grand and Petit Sablons, a neighborhood full of boutiques and excellent restaurants.  There’s a fence surrounding the Petit Sablon, and each post is topped with a statue of a tradesman.  There are 48 of them and it’s fun figuring out how many you can identify.

There are two well-known art museums, one for older (ancien) art and another for the modern.  The old art includes the world’s best collection of Breughels and the modern one has the same for Magritte.  Finally, this is where the world-famous singer, Jacques Brel, was from.  Of course there’s a square named for him and if you are or were a fan of Jacques Brel, just to be there makes you feel close to him.

Sebastopol

One of the most attractive wine tasting features of Sonoma County is that different sections of it specialize in certain grapes.  For instance, Alexander Valley is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek for Zinfandel and Russian River for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  As you drive further west in the Russian River area, you encounter subsections, such as the wineries on River Road, the heart of Russian River AVA, and Chalk Hill, on the other side of Route 101.  Perhaps the most remote section is Green Valley, quite rustic, with quite a few wineries to visit.  Among the best known are Dutton-Goldfield, Hartford Court, Kosta Brown, Merry Edwards and Iron Horse.

Downtown Sebastopol.  Photo courtesy of Visit California.

The “seat” of Green Valley is the small town of Sebastopol (population around 8,000).  No one is quite sure how the town got to be named after a Ukrainian city in the Crimea.  There used to be several California towns of that name.  One became Yountville; this Sebastopol was originally named Pinegrove.

Founded when prospectors came to Northern California for the Gold Rush of ’49, Sebastopol soon became the market town for apple and plum orchard keepers.  The region is still known for one apple in particular, the Gravenstein, which is becoming rarer and rarer, even in California’s stores.  Beginning in the 1970’s, vineyards began to replace orchards, and today that transformation is nearly complete.

The town of Sebastopol was transformed as well.  Apple farming doesn’t generate the same kind of revenue as does winemaking, so Sebastopol was until fairly recently a dusty, slow-moving village.  And apples don’t attract tourists like wine does, so soon tourists arrived in Green Valley for tastings.  (They were more a trickle than a flood; still today Sebastopol is not as heavily visited as Sonoma town or Healdsburg.)  Visitors to Wine Country everywhere want to live and eat well, so along with tasting rooms came restaurants, inns, art galleries and just a little bit of traffic along Sebastopol’s Main Street.

Today, as we see it, Sebastopol is a strange mixture of sleepy Healdsburg, circa 1995, and St. Helena today.  All three towns are able to maintain the feel of a rural village, but with all the amenities of a town that has been discovered.  Healdsburg was transformed by the wine trade and is now a destination itself. St. Helena has become rather ritzy.  If the demand for Green Vally Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays expands the way that it has done in the rest of the Russian River area, Sebastopol may become more of a mecca.  But it hasn’t happened yet.

Photo courtesy of The Barlow.

One of the signs that Sebastopol is seeking more visitors is The Barlow.  It’s a twelve-acre market, on the site of the Barlow family’s apple sauce factory, similar in style and function to the Oxbow Market in Napa town.  Kosta Brown has a tasting room there, as do brewers of both beer and cider (apples do survive in the region), plus restaurants, boutiques and specialty food shops.  For our part, we prefer the less touristy ambiance of the restaurants and shops on Main Street and the side streets nearby.  We recommend that you come and visit soon, before the 21st century catches up to Sebastopol.

Gallipoli, Italy

We specify that this is the Gallipoli in Italy, because there is a far more famous Gallipoli in Turkey, where a notable battle was fought in World War I.  This Gallipoli is a seaside village in Puglia (which some have anglicized to Apulia) near numerous vineyards where the principal grape is Negroamaro.  There is a new town, which you can ignore, but the old part offers a tourist a number of reasons to stop there.

The antecedents of the town are from ancient Greece, not Rome; in fact, Gallipoli mean “beautiful city” in Greek.  Over the centuries, it has been ruled by many foreigners, including the Goths, Byzantines, Normans, the dukes of Anjou, Venetians and Spaniards.  Each of them has left a trace on Gallipoli. 

The Castle still guards Gallipoli’s harbor and the ancient bridge to the mainland.

The most impressive monument to Gallipoli’s past is the Castle.  It is a huge, round fortress that overlooks the harbor.  The old town is actually an isthmus, with a narrow bridge connecting it to the mainland.  The castle hovers over the bridge and was intended to keep invaders, like Saracens and Tripoli pirates, at bay.  We’re not sure it always worked, but conquests seem to have come from the land side, not the sea.

The Cathedral of Sant’Agata was erected in the 17th century in a plateresque style, reminding you of the Spanish overlords who were in charge at time.  The exterior has statues of some martyred saints, but it is the frescoes on the interior walls and ceilings that dazzle the eye.  They are so large and there are so many that it is hard to take them all in.  We found it best to choose one or two and just focus on those works of art.

The grindstone for making olive oil.

An interesting attraction is a museum of olive oil, or more formally, the Frantoio Ipogeo di Palazzo Granafei.  There were once dozens of underground olive mills in Gallipoli; this is the only one remaining.  They were below the streets in order to keep the olives as cold as possible in Southern Italy’s heat.  The work of pressing the olives, collecting the oil and purifying it was grueling.  Local lads would work there for a year, because they were paid so handsomely for their labor that they were set up for life.  The donkeys who went round and round endlessly to drive the presses were not so lucky.

Alas, tourists have discovered Gallipoli, so as you walk along the town’s narrow streets, you’re as likely to hear English being spoken as Italian.  You’ll find shops selling t-shirts and the like, but you’ll also find enough other things to keep you interested for a while.  However, this shouldn’t stop you from wandering around.  The well-maintained buildings are alluring and some of the shops are rather interesting.

As a parting stop in Gallipoli, we recommend the fish market, naturally down by the harbor.  It smells a bit (more than a bit), but you can eat fresh seafood there and you know that it really is for the locals, not for the tourists.

Sarlat

In writing about Sarlat, we need to be rather specific.  We’re talking about Sarlat-la-Canéda, located in the Dordogne region of France.  Names can be a bit tricky in France; there are at least three other villages named Sarlat and the Dordogne is also known by its more ancient name, the Perigord.  (We Americans shouldn’t sneer.  There are 41 US cities and towns named Springfield.)

The Place de la Liberté in Sarlat.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

There are three reasons to visit Sarlat and its environs: architecture, gastronomy and history.  The architecture of Sarlat is that of a well-maintained medieval village.  Before the French Revolution, Sarlat was a large commercial center but later the trains passed it by, commerce died out and it fell into disrepair.  André Malraux, the novelist and Minister of Culture in the 1960’s poured funding into Sarlat for its restoration.  Today, visitors can wander narrow cobblestoned streets and view homes and businesses looking much as they did in the 15th century.  The focus of interest is the main square, the Place de la Liberté, which is ringed by shops selling things to the tourists, where markets are held on Saturday and Wednesday mornings.

A typical Sarlat foie gras shop.  Photo courtesy of Sarlat Tourisme.

There are more than shops on the square and in the town.  There is food, often with the most famous products of the region around Sarlat: truffles and foie gras.  Dishes served perigourdine are flavored with those back gastronomic diamonds: truffes noires or black truffles.  There are other locales in France where truffles are found, not grown.  (See Power Tasting’s article about Carpentras.)  Truffles go so well with foie gras, and foie gras is really what Sarlat is all about,.  You can have it so many ways: sautéed, au torchon, mi-cuit, entier, pâté, terrine.  And they’re all for sale in Sarlat’s shops, along with implements like silver knives that looks a bit like coping saws for slicing foie gras and silver spatulas for serving it.

If you travel just outside Sarlat, you can visit farms where they raise the ducks and geese that are used for foie gras.  Yes, we know the arguments for the mistreatment of these birds, but from what we’ve seen, they look pretty well taken care of right up to the end.  And a flock of geese running around and honking like mad is a natural comedy show.

And as long as you’re traveling outside Sarlat, take in a little of the history of the region.  The most ancient on view is at the famous cave at Lascaux, full of prehistoric paintings.  Actually, you can’t see the actual cave, because exposure was erasing the artwork.  But they have built an exact replica nearby.  More recent, there are the châteaux of Beynac and Castelnaud…only 900 years old.  They face each other across a broad valley, and during wars of the Middle Ages, they fired back and forth at each other.  At Castelnaud you can actually see replicas of the weapons they used in those days.

It isn’t easy to get to Sarlat.  It’s almost a three-hour drive from the Bordeaux airport and 2½ hours by train.  You can shave off an hour if you start from St. Emilion.  However you get to Sarlat, it’s worth the trip.

Carpentras

There is a town 13 km south of Vacqueyras and 22 km east of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the south of France, which one might think it would be the center of the local wine trade.  In fact there are some nearby wineries, but they’re only part of the generic Mont Ventoux appellation.  The town is Carpentras and it is famous, but not for wine.  It is the place to go for another French specialty: black truffles.

These delicacies are prized by chefs and home cooks for their exquisite aroma of…what? Some say onions, others cabbage or forest floor.  They are earthy, mushroomy, wild and ultimately indescribable.  Some people like them in everything from salads to sauces; others don’t like them at all.  The people of Carpentras like them because they sell a lot of them, at rather high prices.

The Carpentras truffle market.  Photo courtesy of See Provence.

If you are in Provence on a Friday between late November and early March, you can visit the truffle market and then dine at any of the nearby restaurants all of whom, so it seems, specialize in three course truffle menus.

There are other reasons to visit the town and its surrounding area the rest of the year.  As noted, Carpentras is at the foot of Mont Ventoux (Mount Windy, in English, a name very well earned).  If you ever drive to the top of Mont Ventoux, you will encounter a lot of goats on the road on your way up and on the top of the mountain you’ll see the regional weather station.  One of the best known wines from this appellation is La Vielle Ferme, which has been internationally popular for over 40 years.  From what we’ve tasted, there’s been a great improvement in recent years and Mont Ventoux wines are a good value for the money.  Wine tasting here is very special, with this mammoth mountain hovering over you.

There are quite a few in-town attractions in Carpentras, but they are similar to many other spots in French Wine Country.  There’s a Roman arch, a former hospital (Hôtel Dieu) turned library that has architectural interest.  A cathedral.  Boutiques.  Interestingly, Carpentras was once a center of Jewish population and still hosts France’s oldest synagogue, in use since 1367.

Aside from the truffles, there are year-round markets featuring fruits and flowers.  The town is also known for a hard candy called berlingots, striped hard confections that were once thought to have medicinal value.  Anyplace that’s known for truffles, candy and wine has to be worth a visit!

A typical Carpentras Café.  Photo courtesy of Booking.com.

What sets Carpentras apart, in our opinion, is the lifestyle.  It is what you would expect a Provençal market town to be.  The town seems dedicated to la belle vie, with seemingly innumerable cafes and restaurants.  In good weather, which is most of the year, the terrasses are always full with people having a coffee, a glass of (local) wine, a lunch, a snack, an aperitif, a dinner, a digestif.  In other words, whatever time of year that you are there, you’re welcome to take a seat and feel that you’ve arrived in the heart of Provence.  Because you have.

Carcassonne

The Middle Ages always had an attraction for us when we were kids.  Knights, damsels in distress, jousts and big feasts in castles halls just seemed so wondrous.  Robin Hood, El Cid, and Joan of Arc were our heroes and the Sherriff of Nottingham was the evil villain.  Later in life, Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt (both the Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branaugh versions) thrilled us yet again.  If you were anything like us, you ought to take a trip to Carcassonne when you’re wine tasting in southwest France.

Carcassonne viewed from afar.  Photo courtesy of European Waterways.

As you drive up to the town, you’ll see this magnificent walled city on a hilltop.  There is a modern-day town surrounding the castle, but it’s of no particular interest.  It’s the imagery of battles and courtly love that will rush back into your mind as soon as you see Carcassonne.  And it’s real.

Well, almost real.  There was a walled town there in the Middle Ages and it did figure in some significant battles, particularly in the Albigensian Crusade, that pitted the Papacy versus the Cathars.  (The Pope won.)  But by the early 1800’s, the town and its castle had fallen into disrepair and was going to be torn down.

Then along came Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.  He was a French architect, a visionary and someone who must have had the same childhood fantasies we did.  He set about restoring great medieval buildings, not least of which was the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.  When he turned his attention to Carcassonne, he took what was still a military stronghold and turned it into a Middle Ages wonderland.

The lovingly restored Basilique de St-Nazaire.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

For today’s visitor, there’s no reason to concern yourself that Viollet-le-Duc wasn’t exactly archeologically correct in restoring Carcassonne.  If what we see today isn’t exactly as it was, it is what it should have been.  Soaring walls, towers with arrow slits for the archers, tessellated ramparts, inns (well, they’re really restaurants) where you can quaff your ale (or enjoy a glass of wine).  They’re all there in Carcassonne.

Entry to the old town is free, but parking isn’t.  And if you get there at any reasonable hour, you’ll find the nearest empty lots are quite a walk away.  Of course, that gives you the chance to approach the great walls and turrets slowly and take them in at leisure.  Once inside, you’ll find a whole town’s worth of genuine medieval buildings, buffed up and gleaming.  Unfortunately, you’ll also find the usual run of shops selling knickknacks, tee shirts and junk.  But you’ll also encounter bookstores with a considerable collection of material on the Middle Ages and the events that have occurred around Carcassonne.  Many are in French, but enough are translated to keep you interested.

You can walk the walls of Carcassonne.

We recommend that you pay the fee to tour the walls around the city.  It’s not too hard to imagine hordes of English troops approaching from afar and the sturdy Carcassonais defending their fortifications.  By the way, those enemy troops might also have been French, because Carcassonne was part of Spain in medieval times.  You should also see the Basilique de St- Nazaire, begun in the 11th Century.  It’s fine gothic architecture, suitably embellished by Viollet-le-Duc.

If you ever dreamed over Prince Valiant on a Sunday morning, you’ll love Carcassonne.

 

 

Dubrovnik

Due east of Rome and across the Adriatic Sea you will find the small, historic city of Dubrovnik.  In its long-past commercial heyday, it was a colony of the Venetian empire.  There are still many Italian influences in its architecture and cuisine, while the language is most definitely of Slavic origin.  It was a popular tourist destination in the 19th and early 20th centuries, welcoming travelers such as Lord Byron and Agatha Christie.  War and ethnic rivalry kept visitors away until after the Second World War, and even then a trip to Tito’s Yugoslavia wasn’t everyone’s idea of a good time.  With the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s, Dubrovnik suffered terribly from Serbian attacks.  It was only with peace that the “Pearl of the Adriatic” was (re)discovered.

The main square of Dubrovnik

Most visitors are attracted to Dubrovnik’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  This was where the Venetians reigned and it still has vestiges of Venice, without the canals.  There are a few squares, some grand and some petite.  Most of the Old Town is in a narrow valley between a small hill on one side and a really steep one on the other.  The streets are narrow and packed with tourists following guides with their ubiquitous flags and umbrellas held high.  We understand that the streets are impassible in the summer.  Even in cooler weather, there are many visitors.

Dubrovnik’s harbor, with a portion of the walls.

The most renowned monuments in Dubrovnik is the first that you see when you approach the Old Town, the medieval walls around it.  These are as much as 25 meters (around 82 feet) high and more than a mile around the town.  Visitors can tour the walls but be prepared to climb 25 meters of stairs to get there.  Still, there are many pleasant sights and vistas all around the town.

Of course, where there are walls there must be gates, and there are two into the Old Town.  You get to cross an actual drawbridge and consider how difficult it must have been for attackers to breach the city before artillery and airpower.  Once inside, there are more than enough shops and restaurants to keep visitors occupied for days, though there is a limit to how much octopus, squid and Plavac Mali wine anyone can take.  Many of the restaurants are on narrow streets on the hillsides.  It can feel cozy or claustrophobic, depending on your outlook.  We particularly enjoyed the ones that had a view of the harbor.

A view of the coast of Dubrovnik.

There is another aspect of Dubrovnik that should not be overlooked.  It is a coastal city with excellent beaches and paved promenades that run along the cliffsides.  Many Europeans consider it more of a resort town; they have enough history where they come from.

The promenades are not made for dedicated hikers.  They are well paved and lit at night.  But they are for those who enjoy seeing natural beauty.  It is possible to go down rather vertical stairways to sit on the rocks on the sea.  We preferred to stop at wine bars along the way and look at the sea from above.

Continue reading Dubrovnik

Roman Enotecas

You can find great wine bars around the world, as Power Tasting’s irregular series on such places evidences.  But in Italy, in Rome in particular, bars called enotecas fill a special niche.

Around Italy, especially in towns in wine making regions (which is most of the country) you’ll find wine stores offering degustazioni, or tastings.  These are primarily meant for the tourists; you almost never see local people in them.  The idea is to pour a little of four or five wines in order to entice potential buyers to come inside to purchase some bottles.  That’s not the same thing as an enoteca.

Likewise, there are plenty of bars, in Rome and elsewhere.  There you can get a Scotch or a glass of wine.  Italians don’t just drink wine; they too like a stiff one every now and again.  But these bars are not enotecas, either.

Outside a typical enoteca in Rome.

The real thing is a wine store with tables and a list of wines by the glass or the bottle.  There are tables and often some food to eat, but they are not really restaurants, either.  The menu is more for snacks and sliced meats and cheese, not complete meals.  People do sit at the tables to drink their wine, but just as many take their glasses outside to mix and mingle with their friends.  Tourists are not made to feel unwelcome, but more attention goes to the customers who will be back tomorrow, and for years after that.

Hanging out inside a typical Roman enoteca.

Enotecas fill the spot in Roman lives that pubs do for Londoners.  Yes, alcohol is involved and people do choose specific enotecas based on the wines they serve.  But more often, the local enoteca is just the place they go because it’s close and, well, everybody else is there.

In many restaurants, we have found a predilection for serving wines from the local region.  Some enotecas have wine lists that constitute an education in Italian wine.  Most enotecas have wines from all over the country.  Of course, quality differs from place to place, but for the most part we have found that most enotecas serve wines that are reflective of their grapes and terroirs.  Thus, you have everything from a northern Lagrein to a Sicilian Nero d’Avola (and everywhere in between) available to you and most are quite drinkable if not the very best of their sort.

When foreigners arrive in an enoteca, they are marked as tourists immediately because they consult the list of wines by the glass.  The regular clients seem to have the list memorized and, moreover, they know that they want the Verdicchio or the Montefalco because they always want the Verdicchio or the Montefalco.  We have found that if you act like you are guests in someone else’s house (or bar), the servers are quite friendly and willing to help you select something to your taste.

And then there’s the matter of price.  Enotecas are, at least to those of us who are used to the cost of drinking wine in American bars, ridiculously inexpensive.  It is rare to find a glass of wine priced at more than 10 euros (around 11 US dollars at current rates) and most run between six and eight euros.  And the pours aren’t skimpy, either.

So when in Rome, do as the Romans do.  Stop by an enoteca.

Napa Town

As you travel up the Napa Valley, you drive through several small towns, including YountvilleSt. Helena and Calistoga.  They are charming, but they are generally one main street, four or five blocks long, that feature restaurants, tasting rooms and galleries.  They are not small cities.  But at the bottom of the valley there is the town of Napa.  With a population of nearly 80,000 people, Napa is a small city with all the plusses and minuses the term implies.

The view from the Napa River.  Photo courtesy of Hotels.com.

Napa has a distinct downtown of about thirty square blocks.  Unlike the other towns mentioned, there is a definite urban feel to Napa.  At one time, not so long ago, there wasn’t much to interest the visitor.  Those days are long past.  Today there is a vibrancy there that owes a lot to wine tourism, of course, but also to some civic decisions to make the town more attractive to visitors.  Alas, this has resulted in nearly impossible parking near places you might want to go, although valets and large parking lots have eased the situation.

In 2015, we wrote about wine tasting at Napa’s in-town tasting rooms.  The overall tone was, well, less than exultant.  There weren’t many places to go and the quality was spotty.  At last count, there are now about thirty places in downtown Napa where you can have a tasting.  We haven’t visited all of them by any means, but we can say that there are some fine wines to be tried there.  Some of the better known labels are Alpha Omega, Buena Vista and Mayacamas.

The Oxbow Public Market.  Photo courtesy of Candlelight Inn.

We have written before about the Oxbow Public Market.  It falls somewhere between a tourist attraction and a local food and wine resource.  A bit away from the downtown area (or maybe now an extension of it), the market is certainly worth visiting, both for wine tasting and dining or both together.  And the views of the city are superb.

Napa is the seat for the county.  Therefore, there are all the public services there such as the county government, police and fire departments.    In that same vein, it’s where you will find doctors, dentists and barbers.  It is unlikely you will need them and they aren’t among the reasons for which you would visit Napa, but it’s good to know where they are, just in case.

Much of the renaissance of Napa Town has been led by the restaurants, of which there are many.  We have long had our standbys, including The Bounty Hunter and Cole’s Chop House.  We also like to experiment with new places, and as with all experiments sometimes we have been happy and sometimes not.  As with much of California, there is a large Mexican population in Napa, so there are now several Mexican restaurants.  In fact, as you drive into town along Soscol Avenue, you will see truck after truck selling Mexican fare.

If you are touring Napa Valley, you ought to include some time in Napa Town.  As we have previously counseled, it is often a good idea to avoid Route 29 on weekends and spend time doing in-town tastings.  For that, Napa should definitely be on your list.

 

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.