Napa Valley Dinner Party


It’s a glorious, late spring morning in Napa Valley. I’m decked out in a borrowed camouflage jacket two sizes too big, crouched on the ground in a vineyard in Oakville, rubbing two pieces of wood together and hoping to God the noise it creates resembles the sound of a female turkey, or hen. Finally, the guttural gobble from a male turkey, or tom, suddenly becomes clear and gains volume as he quickly moves in upon us, in search of his afternoon tryst.
 
My heart beat rapidly, as I was excited to see his full wingspan, which can be up to six feet in length. I also wanted to see how long it would take him to notice we were not hens in heat. A turkey is considered prey, not predator, so its eyes are situated on the sides of its head giving them almost 360º vision. However, I would have the opportunity to witness neither, as my impatient hunting partner stood up and put poor old Tom down with one expert shot. It was time to dress the bird and cook.
 
A group of us, all Napa Valley friends united through a love of food and wine and its preparation, get together every couple of months to hunt and gather for a fine meal. Other members of our non-turkey hunting troupe, including chefs, winemakers and photographers, foraged in a less stealthy manner in several gardens for fresh fava beans, asparagus, and spring garlic; in their wine cellars for mature treasures; and out on the Sonoma Coast to dive for fresh abalone and search for morel mushrooms.
 
Inspired and laden with our culinary finds, we descended upon the home kitchen of a chef, as his was the most well equipped with appliances, gadgets, condiments, herbs and spices.  We squabbled about the menu, which was finally written up on the newly liberated abalone shells by a graphic artist friend:
 
Fava Bean Purée on Crostini
Asparagus Spears with Candied Lemon Peel
Fresh Peas with Pancetta and Morels
Pan Fried Abalone with Meyer Lemon and Maldon Sea Salt
Brined, Roasted Napa Valley Turkey au Jus

The house was enveloped in the perfume of comfort as we began chopping, slicing, and searing. The winemaker opened two bottles of Sauvignon Blanc to sip while we worked and nibbled on crostini of fresh fava bean purée with fresh ricotta, mint, and a hint of garlic: 1997 Rochioli Sauvignon Blanc from Russian River Valley and 2003 Araujo Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley. Several of us expressed our skepticism about the Rochioli pairing, assuming the mint and garlic would overshadow the delicate flavors of the older wine. Instead, the wine displayed great character of earth and stone fruit with an integrated but bright acidity, which managed to perfectly contrast the textural richness of the purée.  The bulls-eye, however, was the Arajuo Sauvignon Blanc. The fresh grassy and herbal notes perfectly complemented the fresh green qualities of the fava beans, mint, and spring garlic; its bright acidity easily handled the density of the puree.
 
1996 Domaine Leflaive Puligny Montrachet ‘Pucelles’ was uncorked with the abalone. Respecting the bivalve’s freshness, the preparation was kept simple: pounded thin, dredged in flour and pan-fried in butter. With a drizzle of Meyer lemon and a sprinkle of fine British sea salt, this was the ultimate luxury. The gentleman who dove for the abalone off the Sonoma coast regaled us with tales of choppy waters, sharks, and low visibility, only adding to the thrill of enjoying such a rare treat. The Leflaive worked its magic spell with the abalone, unwinding in the glass and revealing heady minerals, smoke, a mysterious note of the ocean, and a steely nerve of acid.
 
With the freshly caught and brined bird and assorted spring vegetables, we opened a 1989 Chave Hermitage and a 1985 Leroy Chambolle-Musigny ‘Les Charmes.’ Both took their sweet time to awaken, even after a fairly vigorous decant. Although brined, the wild bird was delicious; slightly gamey and begging for a complex wine. Both the Pinot and Syrah were up to the task. The power and concentration of the Hermitage was made approachable by its maturity; its notes of earth, game, smoke, and mushroom were well suited to the meal. The true marriage, however, was the Leroy. The notes of wild berry, earth, and mineral were very fine and its delicate complexity was well suited to the bird and fresh spring vegetables.
 
We were all quite sated. The winemaker insisted, however, we each have a glass of 1971 Rieussec Sauternes. How could we possibly refuse this incredible liquid dessert?  Its deeply honeyed color belied its freshness. Notes of hazelnut, flowers, honey, and spice ravished our palates for many minutes after the last sip was taken. 
 
Spring had come to Napa Valley.