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Cooking With Myra: Vineyards, villages, food make trip memorable

By Myra Starkey
April 30, 2013 at midnight
Updated April 29, 2013 at 11:30 p.m.

Taos Tamale Pie

About a year ago, we went to the jubilee fundraiser for St. Joseph High School. This is an annual event, and the school depends on it to fund scholarships and other school expenses. My three kids went to the school, and we were very pleased by the experience they had, so we continue to support St. Joseph.

Anyway, Taylor and I were sitting around with Jerry, Kim, Mary Ann and Robert at the event and really enjoying ourselves, and a great auction item came up for bid. It was a trip to Napa Valley in California.

We all donate money to the school anyway, and we were determined not to be outbid - and we won. So this past week, we finally took the trip, and we had a great time.

The auction item was donated to the school by Chalk Hill winery. One of the hospitality staff there, Jesse Barter, is a graduate of St. Joseph, and he apparently convinced them to donate the package. It included the use of a very nice house at the place for three nights and wine tasting at three different wineries.

These are all owned by a guy from Austin named Bill Foley. He is an attorney who made a large amount of money in the title insurance business. He must love wine because he owns a bunch of wineries.

Some people occasionally drink wine; others collect special wines, but I guess if you are really wealthy, then you can collect actual wineries. I don't even drink a significant amount of wine, so I can't really relate to any of this.

I taste it sometimes, but I can't tell good wine from really cheap wine.

I don't object to wine consumption. In fact, one of my favorite people once turned water into wine at a wedding some years back.

After we completed the long flying/driving journey, we arrived for our first tasting at the Chalk Hill winery. The tasting room is in a very large and elegant building perched on the side of a hill overlooking the actual vineyards. There were several hundred acres of neatly manicured and tended rows of vines growing all sorts of grapes including chardonnay, cabernet, zinfandel, merlot and pinot noir.

There were green, rolling hills with large, scattered oaks and eucalyptus trees dotting them. Fragrant, cool air was breezing through the open door to the room with the bright California sun adding just the right amount of warmth. It was enchanting.

Before I progress further, I should describe what is involved in a "wine tasting." Your group will sit around a table or bench or maybe belly-up to the bar, and the host from the vineyard will pour a small tasting of one wine and then another into your glass. They start with the milder whites and then progress to the bolder red varieties.

The host will describe how each wine is made and all the subtle flavors they contain such as blackberry, currant, leather, oak, tar or graphite. Of course, the wines don't actually contain any tar or blackberries or oak (I hope) but only fermented wine juice. You are just supposed to pick up on these subtle flavors once you "do the research," which apparently is code for "tasting a lot of wine."

The goal for the winery letting you taste the wine is that you actually buy numerous bottles of it from them, sort of like a guy at the farmers market giving you a slice of peach to taste. I was not so much there to taste wine, because that's not really my thing, but more to be the designated driver if needed.

There is much to do in Napa besides going to wine tasting. We actually only went to four wineries during the entire trip. Napa Valley is home to some of the finest restaurants in the United States.

There are many scenic villages with great shopping. The lush valley has so many old buildings and farms with olive trees and all sorts of other landscaping.

The daytime temperatures don't get much higher than 74 degrees, so it feels perfect to be out looking around.

The neatest vineyard we visited was up on a mountain that overlooked a lake and the valley far below. It was named Kuleto and has about 90 acres of vines. It was landscaped with roses, orchards, berries, fountains, ponds, rock walls and picnic areas. I think the wine connoisseurs in our group thought this place had the best wines on the trip and even brought some home.

It was interesting to note that some wine makers ferment the grapes with the stems and others remove the stems and seeds. The process of making the wine, the fermenting along with the types of soil, climate and rainfall all contribute to the quality of the wine. After the second day, my brain was saturated with facts, and I was ready to move to the olive oil tasting.

Olive trees are grown in this region, and I had the opportunity to taste many varieties. The olive oil was for sample and sale in numerous shops. Taking a cue from my compadres, I abandoned the customary dip of the bread square and began to drink the oil, mostly using small tasting spoons.

It is amazing how different olives oils are. Some have grassy overtones and a peppery finish while others are smooth and lemony. Most of the flavor depends on the blending of the types of olives, but again I was told that the soil plays a huge part in the taste.

On the trip back, we stopped in Taos, New Mexico, for lunch at Graham's Grille. The chef/owner produced a cookbook, and while I was waiting for a table, I looked through it. I could not pass up the tamale pie. This is the recipe from her cookbook. It is as beautiful in the bowl as it is delicious.

Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or email myra@vicad.com.

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