On my many visits to Northern California one thing I hadn’t managed to tick off my bucket list until recently is a trip to Napa Valley. It’s a beautiful part of the country and the best place to try some local Californian wine. The main hinderance to this plan however has historically been that none of my friends and colleagues wanted to volunteer to be designated driver. This time we lucked out and a tee total colleague of mine offered to drive a few of us up there on the condition that we also got to have lunch at The Culinary Institute of America’s latest opening at Copia. This seemed like a very reasonable deal to me.
Just north of San Francisco Napa Valley is one of the most well known wine growing regions in the world. With its rolling hills, stunning landscapes and glorious weather it’s a beautiful place to visit. The countless wineries and award winning restaurant also make it the perfect foodies day out.
Our first stop was at the Sutter Home winery known for its White Zinfandel. Many wineries require reservations for their tasting rooms but walk-ins are welcome here. And at $5 to try a flight of 6 house wines it’s a real bargain. My personal favourites here were the Pinot Grigio and the red Zinfandel and we bought a bottle of each to take back and share with the rest of the team. Sutter Home also has a really beautiful garden that visitors are free to explore at their leisure.
Next stop was the Sterling vineyards where we had to get in a cable car to reach the winery perched up in the mountainside. This stop really is for the views. A much larger establishment than our first stop this vineyard offers a self guided tour where you can follow a trail that takes you through rooms where you can see the wine making process in action as you top up your glass at each stop, learning a little about each wine as you go. The final stop on the tour leads you to the South View Terrace with spectacular views of the valley. You can order charcuterie boards and more of your favourite wines and stay up here for as long as you wish. We spent a little while taking pictures and enjoying the incredible views but held off on the food since we were saving ourselves for the CIA at Copia. The self guided tour here is $35 which includes the cable car ride, all of the wines on the route and you get to take your glass home with you. They also offer a reduced rate for designated drivers as well as silver and platinum tours that include guided tastings and food and wine pairings. Whilst Sutter Home was my preferred spot for a bargain and some really delicious wines, I’d highly recommend Sterling for the overall Napa Valley vineyard experience.
After an obligatory group shot at the Napa Valley sign we made our way over to Copia.
Unable to resist a peek at the menu as we ordered a cocktail at the bar while we were waiting for our table, we also ordered a delicious bowl of chilli mussels. Cooked in a mild chilli sauce and drowning in garlic aioli, the mussels were big and juicy and the perfect teaser to get us excited for the meal ahead.
After getting settled into another glass of delicious glass of Napa Valley Pinot Grigio we ordered a selection of starters to share. Savoury clams arrived sizzling at our table with fennel sausage and grilled butter beans. Seasonal tempura vegetables came with a tasty yoghurt dressing and we also ordered a salad of rocket, frisée, roasted pear, hazelnuts, pecorino and a balsamic dressing.
The tempura vegetables were my choice and didn’t disappoint, with sprouts, fennel, broccoli, and squash there was a really nice selection. The dish that surprised me though was the salad, it’s so easy to dismiss a leafy salad as boring but the flavours on this were great. The pears didn’t make it too sweet and the balance of the nuts and cheese made the whole dish very moreish.
Lastly the clams were a real delight as it was one of those dishes where you can truly say ‘I’ve never had anything like this before’. The clams were big and juicy and the aniseed flavour from the sausage quite strong yet somehow perfectly balanced with the rest of the dish.
I had locally caught rockfish from Half Moon Bay for my main course, which was served with a potato purée and caramelised roasted veg. The fish and the seafood is one of my favourite parts of Californian food, it’s always really fresh and the clams and mussels in particular are some of the biggest I’ve ever seen.
Roasted romanesco, pan fried brussel sprouts and garden potatoes made great sides to share, we all know how much I love my vegetables and I love getting the chance to eat varieties I can’t usually buy at home so the romanesco was a real treat for me.
Despite being full to the point of bursting, we were absolutely determined to try everything we possibly could from the menu and ordered three desserts to share. First up was my choice of almond torte with a berry coulis. I love anything almond, marzipan, amaretto… give me the lot. The cake was moist and light and perfectly complimented by the berries. Sorbet and granitas was the ideal dessert to end a slap up meal as it’s light and refreshing.
Lastly we shared the lemon semifreddo which came on a bed of kataifi (shredded filo pastry) and served with boisenberries and pistachios. This was definitely the most unique of the three desserts and the one I’ll remember. Mediterranean flavours were really brought into Autumn by the winter berry coulis.
I was extremely impressed with the standard of food and cooking at the CIA at Copia. I’ve not really experienced ‘fine dining’ in the US before and this was a great introduction. Excellent food, simple cooking, great flavours all presented in a really accessible way. It was a great way to top off our Napa Valley experience.
Having finally made the drive up to Napa, I’m so eager to go again. The area was just so beautiful and the day out so enjoyable. I’m definitely going to try and squeeze in an overnight visit next time I’m in California and I’d thoroughly recommend it for any foodie visiting Northern California and the Bay Area. If you’re visiting San Francisco, it’s just a short drive away and totally worth tacking an extra day or two onto your trip.