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Dining: Cook, Drink, and Be Merry

Tara Weingarten

Anyone can sidle up to a winery tasting room bar in Napa Valley, lay down $5, and sample a few new releases. However, if you are looking for access to more exclusive California vintages along with a more intimate wine country experience, consider one of the region’s phenomenal cooking schools; you do not have to love cooking to enjoy them, but it helps.

Meadowood’s Exploration of Wine & Food, which launched this year, is pure foodie fantasy camp. Offered twice yearly, this two-day program is headed by Patricia Wells, author of several popular cookbooks and a restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune. Although the instruction here is serious, the program is not just about cooking. Students are guided on an eco-hike around the wooded Meadowood property; given wine lessons by the resort’s wine tutor, John Thoreen; and taken to cult wineries such as Rudd, Spottswoode, and Opus One for special tastings and garden lunches.

As for the cooking instruction at Meadowood, Wells is fanatical about encouraging each student to contribute something to the meal. “Interest and enthusiasm are more important than cooking expertise,” she says. “I hope they learn a handful of important tips to take back to their own kitchens.”

At Beringer’s Master Series on Food and Wine, a litany of James Beard Foundation Award–winning chefs are scheduled to teach and cook, including Gary Danko, Lidia Bastianich, Thomas Keller, and Nancy Oaks. Students learn in the private kitchens of wineries such as Stags’ Leap Winery, Grace Family Vineyard, Shafer Vineyards, and Far Niente. As in the other programs, there are barrel tastings, plenty of fine meals, and lessons on food and wine appreciation. But here, students also have an opportunity to blend their own reserve Bordeaux-style wines. A special label designed for the class is placed on each bottle, and students take home their creations.

The Great Chefs at Robert Mondavi Winery program, which is the valley’s most established, has featured in past years chefs Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Wolfgang Puck, Julia Child, and Alain Senderens of Paris’ three-star Lucas Carton. This three-day event is similar to Meadowood’s in that it pampers guests with elegant meals and frequent wine tastings. It differs with more classroom instruction and fewer off-property visits to other wineries. Lessons here are more armchair than hands-on, with students seated in a comfortable theater setting. “I appreciate the students here because most seem to have some knowledge about cooking,” says Child. “And I like it that Napa seems to be getting very serious about food, maybe even becoming America’s food and wine capital.”

Beringer Master Series on Food and Wine, 707.967.4451, master.series@beringerblass.com
The Great Chefs at Robert Mondavi Winery, 707.968.2100, www.robertmondavi.com
Meadowood’s Exploration of Wine & Food, 800.458.8080, www.meadowood.com

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