Chef Michael Chiarello: My Perfect Day in Napa

The chef, restaurateur and vintner knows how to make the most of a wine country trip.

You might recognize St. Helena resident Michael Chiarello from his Food Network show “Easy Entertaining With Michael Chiarello” or from his appearances on “Top Chef Masters” and “The Next Iron Chef.” The James Beard finalist and author of seven cookbooks owns the Italian restaurant Bottega in Yountville (also home to Chiarello Family Vineyards and his NapaStyle boutique) and the Spanish restaurant Coqueta on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

Bottega

What’s the best meal you’ve had recently in Napa?

My friend has a tapas bar, La Taberna, that just opened, and it’s dynamite. My favorites are the tetilla and honey empanadas, crispy pig ears and smoked black cod. I also had some good food lately at Archetype. The flat iron steak and boneless baby back ribs are off the chart.

What are your favorite restaurants?

I like Redd. It’s just down the street from Bottega, and at the end of a long night at work I sit at the bar. Richard Reddington does a dynamite job year after year. He has some steamed buns that are made like tacos. Frank Altamura has a little Southern Italian place called Ciccio that opened last year. It’s beautiful and very, very tasty.

Bottega

What local wines have you been enjoying lately?

Rivers-Marie, the brand. Thomas Brown’s the winemaker; he’s super talented. He does a Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast that’s fantastic. And I enjoy the Ribolla Gialla, a white wine made like none other in the country, from a winery named Matthiasson. They actually share a ribolla gialla grape vineyard with my winery. There’s very little of it in America. It’s an Italian grape from the far north. Steve Matthiasson just does a beautiful job with it. 

What are your go-to tasting rooms?

I just did Peter Mondavi’s 100th birthday in the new tasting room, which used to be the old barrel room, at Charles Krug Winery, founded in 1861. It’s a spectacular spot. Howard Backen, a very famous architect, did the design. I was blown away by it. On the flipside is the avant-garde lounge at Raymond Vineyards. It’s called the Red Room. It’s just that—not a window in it. It’s super sexy. It’s the exact opposite of everything else in Napa Valley. So for a traditional, beautifully designed classic tasting room, it’s Charles Krug Winery, and for something very, very different and super high energy, it’s Raymond.

Where’s your favorite overlook in the Napa Valley?

At Outpost Winery. It’s a little self-serving in that it’s where we make our wine, but it’s truly the best view in the valley, at the very top of Howell Mountain. It’s the highest elevation that you can find, and looking down you can see from Napa to Calistoga and all the mountains around. It’s just an epic view. And the wine’s phenomenal.

What’s your favorite activity in Napa that’s not related to food or wine?

I’m a big cyclist, and it’s gotten to be a good-sized sport here. Cycling is just an amazing way to see the Napa Valley without being in a car, whether you ride 50 miles or five miles. You have a really great chance to feel the microclimates, stop and see the different vineyards, enjoy the diversity of views and get a little exercise—work off that five-course meal from the night before. We actually have our own Bottega Gran Fondo, with five celebrity chefs, five celebrity winemakers and five best-of-class professional cyclists. It’s a 40-75 mile ride, and one of the chefs hosts every rest stop, so it’s the best food on any ride like that in America. 

Any tips for travelers to San Francisco who are planning a day trip to taste in wine country?

It’s nice if you’re traveling with people with similar interests, so you don’t have a very experienced taster on one side and a novice who’s just getting into wine or the wine country on the other side. That way everybody can enjoy it. And don’t over do it. Give yourself some break time. Go for a hike. I would do whatever you can to book a private tour. Pick three wineries and a lunch stop and make sure you do another activity. If you book dinner a little on the later side, you can actually get one of those red wine naps in the late afternoon. 

 

Chef Chiarello's Perfect Napa Day

Oxbow Public Market

Morning

Start off at Oxbow Public Market in Napa. It’s a beautiful collection of small vendors, and if you catch market day, you can see all the fresh produce in the Napa Valley at the same time. The food’s dynamite, like at the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

Late Morning

Champagne’s always nice in the morning after breakfast. Schramsberg is a beautiful facility where you can learn about the Davies family, who spearheaded the agricultural preserve in the Napa Valley to keep it from being paved over from one side to the other. It’s a historic winery from 1862 and the first best in class sparkling winery in the Napa Valley, or in the country for that matter. It’s nice to know more about what you’re tasting than just the wine. A quick hop across the middle of the valley are two of my favorite whites. Visit Duckhorn for a little Sauvignon Blanc, and for big Chardonnay drinkers, Rombauer is just a half a mile up the road. 

Chateau Montelena

Afternoon

Lunch at Solage, a beautiful spot outside. Brandon Sharp is such a talented chef. And then go to Chateau Montelena for the wine that won the Paris Tasting in 1972 that put America and Napa Valley on the wine map.

Late Afternoon

I’d take a break at Indian Springs in Calistoga. Back in the day, Calistoga was what Palm Springs is now. The famous Italian boxer Rocky Marciano had a training camp up there. They have a 50-meter pool with cabanas—you can just imagine the Greta Garbos and Cary Grants inside. It’s just a throwback to 80 years earlier. It’s a perfect place for a mud bath or massage, but the pool—my wife and I use it all the time—is a great getaway for locals as well.

Bottega

Evening

Dinner at Bottega. I’d sit by the fireplace outside afterwards and have some beautiful dessert wines from Southern Italy and a couple cookies and some long conversation. There’s something about a fireplace surrounding good friends that puts the pin in the perfect day.