The most fun in the wine country is not at a wine tasting…
In 1993, I “discovered” Cafe Citti in Kenwood on a recommendation from a cigar-smoking friend – a magazine publisher who sold advertising throughout the Wine Country in California. Who better? I found Oakville Grocery on a random ride exploring Napa Valley with Margaret – the year escapes me. The two places sit across from each other on either side of the Mayacamas Mountains that divide Sonoma and Napa. Cafe Citti and Oakville Grocery evoke the basic difference between Sonoma and Napa. First stop, Cafe Citti in the Sonoma Wine Country.
Cafe Citti is the same dilapidated old-road-house diner with floors sloping towards San Francisco Bay that it was in 1993. It sits in the sleepy little town of Kenwood – a dot on the map 20 yrs ago that you’d easily miss if not for lunch at Citti’s. This is authentic Italian country food – it’s not exceptional but it is perfect. Ride up to the front door and find yourself right at home among farmers and winemakers and pop psychologists. Eavesdropping is the best off-the-menu item.
I ordered the same thing as always and by God it was perfect. The down-to-earth Citti family resisted the kind of noveau innovation that maroons palates on terra incognita. You don’t have to ask for anchovies in your Caesar’s. The rotisserie chicken is gold and salted perfectly. The Italian bread is exactly Italian. And just-right unpretentious wine muses the lunch away. The only real difference between the Cafe Citti of 1993 and today is the olive oil. Sonoma owns the stage now when it comes to olive oil. Do not adulterate it with salt or balsamic vinegar or garlic. Pour it in a dish then dip that exactly Italian bread into authentic Sonoma olive oil.
The Sign That Couldn’t Be Ignored
Heading down 12 after lunch I saw the sign for Trinity Road which takes you over the mountains and spits you out near Oakville Grocery. It can shave several miles off your route back to Napa Valley if you’re willing to suffer insane switchbacks and eccentric locals racing old cars over the treacherous mountain pass. Around here, people like their cars the way they like their wine – vintage. Normally I avoid such roads when on two wheels but that day I skidded to a halt and took the mountain pass. Something was pulling me and I found it sticking up at the top of the mountain: “Margie Ln.” Some rides you can’t plan. It was one of those days. Next stop, Oakville Grocery in Napa Valley.
One Hundred Years in the Making
Oakville Grocery was founded in the 1880s and reopened in the 1980s by the daughter of successful Napa Valley winemaker, Joseph Phelps. From this point forward the store would be about gourmet and the gourmand in all of us but with a wine country twist. The store was restored and upgraded faithfully. 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 even craft carbonated water are cellar-select. The place isn’t perfect – but it is exceptional. It’s the essence of the Napa Valley zeitgeist. We 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