How to Visit Northern California Wine Country Like a Top Chef Master

Where to go in Napa Valley and Sonoma County, according to critically acclaimed chef Chris Cosentino.

How to Visit Northern California Wine Country Like a Top Chef Master

Chef Chris Cosentino recommends a visit to the Clif Family Winery on a trip to Napa Valley.

Courtesy of Clif Family Vineyards

Anyone looking to understand how local Napa Valley’s food is should trail Chris Cosentino on one of his many bike trips in the region. The critically acclaimed chef (Cockscomb, Jackrabbit, the dearly missed nose-to-tail den Incanto) often sources wild herbs, fruit, and vegetables straight from the side of the road. That goes for everything from leaves from towering bay trees to bunches of Meyer lemons, persimmons, mustard flowers, and mixed greens. Some folks have even offered to trade fresh ingredients from their garden for gift certificates at Cosentino’s new hotel restaurant in St. Helena (Acacia House, an all-day affair inspired by the Napa-defining wine regions of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal).

“It’s an old-fashioned way of doing things,” says the Rhode Island native and longtime Northern California resident. “You’ll walk by an orange tree and people will be like, ‘Do you want these?’ It’s a really cool thing—something you can’t do in Manhattan or downtown San Francisco.”

For travelers who would rather enjoy an exemplary meal than source its produce themselves, we asked the Top Chef Masters winner to share his favorite spots to eat, drink, shop, and explore throughout California’s iconic wine country.

Where to eat

“Miminashi is a beautiful Japanese restaurant in downtown Napa, a super fun izakaya setup. It’s locally owned by a chef [Curtis DiFede] who had started traveling to Japan quite a bit. He has this beautiful wood-fired grill area where he does yakitori skewers. When I was in there the other day, he was drying persimmons on the ceiling. There’s so much care and detail going into the product that he’s using—how it’s being handled and delivered. It’s just very special. Every time chefs come to town and ask me where to go, I take them there.

The dishes at Miminashi are easy to share.

The dishes at Miminashi are easy to share.

Photo by Emma K. Morris/Miminashi

“You have to get the okonomiyaki [a savory Japanese pancake]. He makes them to order—nice and slow—but it’s worth the wait. I usually get a bundle of skewers, too, because I love the variety and he changes the menu a lot. Sitting down with a slew of people is really great because it’s all super shareable.

“The soft serve [ice cream] is smart because it’s his dessert, and when they’re not open during the day, kids come up and order it from a [take-out] window. The black sesame is the flavor I like the most, just because it’s such a unique flavor profile. Getting the sesame honeycomb topping is also super delicious.

“Kollar Chocolates is a really unique little space; you’re literally watching Chris Kollar make everything right there. He truly is a Willy Wonka, with a great sense of humor. He’s done Millennium Falcons. And he does something around the Tour de France every year. They’re hysterical. He does the yellow, polka dot, and green jerseys. The yellow jersey literally has what looks like a needle in it, where you would squeeze in dope or booze.

“The truffles are not the same old, same old. The fennel pollen is delicious. The Espelette chile is dynamite.

“Chris looks at chocolate from a consumer’s as well as a pastry chef’s perspective: ‘How can I create a well-rounded experience?’ Like he focuses on how the room smells when he works, and when a guest is purchasing chocolate, he really tries to make you feel at home. He wants to basically enrobe you in chocolate once you walk in the door.”

Hit up Diavola Pizzeria in Geyserville for a tasty margarita pizza.

Hit up Diavola Pizzeria in Geyserville for a tasty margarita pizza.

Courtesy of Diavola Pizzeria

“Diavola Pizzeria is in a unique area of Sonoma. It’s a little bit out of the way, but tons of winemakers and chefs go there on their day off. Sometimes I ride my bike, have my lunch there, and go home.

“[Chef/owner Dino Bugica] is really, really talented. He does a lot of charcuterie in house, but I always get his Neapolitan pizzas. They are spectacular. He’s also got one called the Sonja. It’s tomato with mascarpone, prosciutto, and arugula—clean and simple. If I’m on a bike ride, that’s what I’m going to have. If I’m there for dinner and going to drive home, it’s a different story. Then I’ll do something like a Bambino. It’s Sicilian style: sausage, olives, basil and oregano, a little heavier. I always do the spaghetti with pork cheek ragu, too, and he does a killer tripe with a fried egg on top. I love tripe. It can either be done really well or go to the other end of the spectrum and be beyond horrible. His is so good—really classic.”

Where to drink

“The daughter of my duck farmer—Liberty Ducks, who supplies both Cockscomb and Acacia House—started making stunning wines like a really cool orange. I’ve known [Jennifer Reichardt] forever, going on 20 years. Her winery is called Raft, which is like a herd of ducks who follow the mom around after her eggs hatch. It’s funny because she also helps her father run the duck farm.

Clif Family Winery is owned by Gary [Erickson] and Kit [Crawford] of Clif Bar. It’s a great place to start the day—a cool environment with cycling memorabilia on the wall and cookbooks for sale, along with honey and jam from their farm. They also do beautiful bruschetta and salads; the menu changes on a regular basis at the whim of the farmers’ market.”

Snag some fresh bruschetta at the Clif Family Winery’s food truck.

Snag some fresh bruschetta at the Clif Family Winery’s food truck.

Courtesy of Clif Family Winery

“For the best selection of unique wines to take home, check out V Wine Cellar in Yountville. The key is asking for [owner] Scott [Lewis]. He’s going to kill me for telling you that, but he’s awesome. There’s a wine bar inside so you can do private tastings with him and see what you’re looking for. He also has an unreal wine list. He can do verticals of crazy cabs, killer rosés, or some of the more esoteric stuff. He gets all of the small producers—all of the funky and weird stuff you’re not going to get at the wineries. It’s nice to be able to talk with somebody who has such a huge range of knowledge about the history of wine and Napa Valley itself. To me, that’s what people are looking for when they come to Napa. Not everybody wants to go to the same old wineries.

“There’s a really cool place called Cadet in Napa proper. They do beer, wine, and cider, and simple food like sliced ham and crackers, olives, or tinned fish. It’s the industry hot spot—super cool and a little drawn back from one of the main strips.

“Another thing that may be interesting to people is Sinskey Vineyards. Maria Helm Sinskey is a super rad chef who married Robert Sinskey; they have a beautiful winery where she cooks and he makes incredible wines. Their rosé is off the charts. That is one I will consistently say is amazing—very crisp, so refreshing I keep going back for more.”

What to do

“If you want to rent a bike, there’s a place downtown called St. Helena Cyclery, and Napa Valley’s Bale Grist Mill is not too far away. You can go there and actually watch them grind grains on the weekend, but there’s also hiking paths behind it, too. We end up bringing whole grains in and they grind them for us.

“If you’re a movie buff, Francis Ford Coppola Winery [in Geyserville] is worth a trip on its own. If you don’t want to drink wine, that’s fine; you can see costumes from Dracula in the Movie Gallery instead. That alone is pretty freaking cool, although it weirds me out a bit because let’s be honest—that film’s a little creepy.”

In addition to its wine, Francis Ford Coppola Winery offers a full-service restaurant and movie gallery.

In addition to its wine, Francis Ford Coppola Winery offers a full-service restaurant and movie gallery.

Courtesy of Francis Ford Coppola Winery

“Having the opportunity to see memorabilia from somebody like Francis Ford Coppola is pretty rare, but he also has original stuff like old cameras and films that are on spin wheels and lit by a candle. So you’re able to see the history of film production and understand how things actually work. Seeing that variation—from the past to the present—is overwhelming for me. “The wine options are endless, too, because they are such a big organization. There’s lower-priced wines, super high-priced wines, and even a food line. There’s a whole slew of things to taste in the tasting room.”

Where to shop

“After being in Napa for a bit, I noticed all of the stores were specifically geared towards women, so A Man’s Supply is a great [alternative] in Calistoga. I know it sounds cliché—A Man’s Supply—but they carry great stuff if you’re an outdoor camper and aren’t afraid of getting your hands dirty, like fly-fishing gear, flannels, Filson, Smith Optics glasses, Levi’s, Danner Boots, and all of the other brands that I’m usually looking for. And the place is just cool, the kind of store you’d expect to see in a mountain town.

“For food shopping, I’d go down to Oxbow Public Market, where you can get local coffee, beer, wine, meat, and jam all in one place. And then you have the Fatted Calf for charcuterie to go. Everything is in there. Oxbow is kind of a hotbed—a really cool spot, your big one in Napa. Pretty much everybody tells you to go there.”

Where to stay

“There’s two options in my mind. You could stay with us here at Las Alcobas if you want to go high luxury. Or you could stay at the Calistoga Motor Lodge if you prefer a modern take on a more traditional motor lodge.”

>>Next: Savor Napa Valley Like a Master Sommelier

Andrew Parks is a content strategist for Explore Minnesota and sometime writer for such publications and brands as Afar, Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, New York Magazine, Bandcamp, Apple, Red Bull and Bon Appétit.
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