The most fun in the wine country is not at a wine tasting . . .
In 1993, I became a regular at Cafe Citti in Kenwood, ancestral home of Jack London, thanks to a recommendation from a cigar-smoking magazine publisher who sold advertising throughout the Wine Country in California. Who better? As for Oakville Grocery, I found it on a random drive exploring Napa Valley with Margaret in, what year was it? 1988? ’89? I can’t remember. Both places became touchstones for us on each visit to the wine country over the years. For me, they will always be at the top of the list. They sit across from each other on either side of the Mayacamas Mountains. Cafe Citti and Oakville Grocery exhibit the key difference between Sonoma and Napa Valley — perfect vs exceptional. First stop, today? Cafe Citti in the Sonoma Wine Country.
Cafe Citti is the same dilapidated old-road-house diner with floors sloping towards San Francisco Bay it was in 1993. It sits in the sleepy little town of Kenwood – a dot on the map if not for Cafe Citti. The food is authentic Italian country — it’s not exceptional but it is perfect. Ride up to the front door where farmers, winemakers, and pop psychologists await you on the other side. Eavesdropping is the off-the-menu item most highly recommended.
I ordered the same thing as always. It was perfect, of course. The down-to-earth Citti family resists noveau innovations that maroon palates on terra incognita. You don’t have to ask for anchovies in your Caesar’s. The rotisserie chicken is golden crisp and salted perfectly. The Italian bread is Italian. The wine, unpretentious and good. The one difference between the Cafe Citti of 1993 and today is the olive oil. Sonoma is on the stage alone now. Pour it in a dish then dip real Italian bread into authentic Sonoma olive oil. The beginning of a perfect lunch.
Heading down 12 after lunch I saw the Trinity Road sign which takes you over the mountains and funnels you down to Oakville Grocery. If you’re willing to suffer switchbacks where locals race old cars over the treacherous mountain pass, it can shave several miles off your trip. Around here, people like their cars the way they like their wine. Vintage. Normally I avoid such roads when on two wheels but today I skidded to a halt and took the mountain pass. Something was pulling me up. I found it at the top of the mountain: “Margie Ln.” The most remarkable things are unplanned. Es verdad. Next stop, Oakville Grocery in Napa Valley.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Oakville Grocery has always stood alone on Hwy 29 in Napa Valley. It was founded in the 1880s, closed somewhere along the line, then reopened in the 1980s by the daughter of successful Napa Valley winemaker, Joseph Phelps. From that point forward the store was about gourmet and the gourmand in all of us — with a wine country twist. The store was restored and upgraded faithful to the original. Like Napa Valley it’s refined, quiet, and self-assured. The food, the wine, the dried meats, the cheese, the bread, the craft beers, craft soft drinks, and yes, craft carbonated water are all cellar-select. The place isn’t perfect – but it is exceptional. It evokes classic Napa Valley la belle vie. I can’t imagine passing this way without stopping and loading up for the day’s ride, the price of living high be damned.
The Kenwood to Oakville Ride – September 10, 2013
Margie (hard “g”) is what we all called Margaret … most of the time. It was eerie but wonderful to come upon that sign.
The Cafe and the Grocery are ancient traditions in “the Wine Country” all over the world. For me, these two are essential stops every time I visit Napa and Sonoma.