Calistoga: Brannan’s Grill for lunch

WIth large plantation windows facing the street to the right, Brannan's Grill is a comfortable, upscale spot for lunch, dinner in Calistoga.
With large plantation windows facing the street to the right, Brannan’s Grill is a comfortable, upscale spot for lunch, dinner in Calistoga.

My wife, Geena, and I were fortunate to enjoy lunch at Brannan’s Grill in Calistoga, California, in late June. There we met a friend, local resident Peter Stetson. As we entered, a hostess greeted, smiled and led us to a booth in front of one of the large plantation-style windows overlooking Lincoln Ave.

Brannan’s decor creates anticipation and an expectation of a top-flight meal. The main space is wide open with wood beams and a pitched wood-planked ceiling. An elk trophy hangs above the large stone fireplace at the back of the raised center dining room. Large area photographs and drawings help create a historical tie to the the 19th century western town made famous by spas and the 1976 Paris Tasting. The large mahogany bar can seat at least 12 and its staff carried on lively conversations with locals and walk-ins alike.

Our meal started with a couple of roasted artichokes. They were braised, had great smoky flavor on their own, but the bed of pesto aioli was to die for. I love artichokes and Brannan’s version kept me thinking of an old Lays potato chip commercial: “Bet you can’t just eat one.” I confess, I ate more than my share.

We enjoyed a bowl of mussels
A glass of Sonoma County Iron Horse Pinot Noir Rosé complimented a bowl of lightly seasoned mussels.

The waiter suggested an Iron Horse Pinot Noir Rosé from the Russian River. The Sterling family out of Sonoma County creates wonderful wines and this one was perfect. This rose petal pink version is a bone dry, 11.8% alcohol, delicate Rosé. After an initial taste, the nose was watermelon and strawberry with a hint of lime. However, in the mouth, green apple became prevalent, but not overpowering the crisp watermelon flavors. This wine is perfect for lighter fare, including our artichoke and bowl of lightly spiced steamed mussels. The perceived sweetness of the Rosé, its low alcohol and structure helped cut through the pepper flakes and spice of the bouillon and fish. A nice foil for the lunch dishes.

The seasoned mussels had chopped tomatillos, Anaheim chilies, feta cheese mixed in a light salsa. The bowl was just big enough for four to enjoy as an appetizer, especially since we had already picked clean the artichokes. Corn tortillas were also provided, but I choose to fork out my share of the seafood.

I must say the poor reviews listed on Yelp did not materialize on our table. The hostess, waiter and staff were pleasant and quick to check on refills. After making suggestions, the waiter delivered our two appetizers to table, allowing us to finish one of the two artichokes before bringing the next one, still warm. The mussels arrived before the second ‘choke was gone. Water glasses were refilled and the waiter seemed genuinely happy we chose Brannan’s for lunch.

Local resident Peter Stetson, left, and Brannan's owner Mark Young share personal passions and stories of Calistoga during lunch.
Local resident Peter Stetson, left, and Brannan’s owner Mark Young share personal passions and stories of Calistoga during lunch.

Perhaps the staff was extra attentive this day or maybe they were “on their game,” but I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy the company of one of the two owners, Mark Young. Mark was wandering through, chatting with the patrons and stopped to say hello to Peter. Evidently though, he is often in the restaurant doing much the same.

Mark quickly became warm and friendly and he chatted about the town, restaurant, day spas and mud baths and recreational opportunities in the area. In fact, he began to share his passion for a once-a-year trip to the desert of Black Rock Nevada called Burning Man. It’s a city in the desert, dedicated to radical self reliance, radical self-expression and art. His passion for community, sharing gifts unconditionally and self discovery was impressive. He was quick to share via his iPad and I learned much about his fervor for living as a restauranteur and community spokesperson.

Just before we finished the mussels, our entrees arrived. Mine was one of the specials of the day: Cioppino. The seafood soup (bouillabaisse) consisted of clams, mussels, salmon and shrimp. I must say I was impressed not only with the Cioppino but with the toasted garlic sourdough bread as well. My wife was surprised I went back to a seafood dish but I heard the San Francisco-based famous seafood stew was special here. The lightly spiced, tomato bisque was gorgeous. Be sure to check with the server as to what the chef includes in this dish as the best Cioppino always relies on fresh ingredients.

WIth a spiced tomato bisque base, I used all my toasted garlic sourdough bread to soak up all of the San Francisco-inspired Cioppino.
With a spiced tomato bisque base, I used my toasted garlic sourdough bread to soak up all of the San Francisco-inspired Cioppino.

While my visit was during lunch, call the hostess a head of time or find out if Brannan’s Grill is featuring a local artist or musician during the dinner hours. This touch adds class to a weekend date. Often Saturdays are smooth jazz nights and other evenings may include local guitarists.

The buzz on the way out from a couple of bar patrons stopped me. “Have you tried a Carlos Lemon Drop? – the best in NorCal!” I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. I should have known to stop at the bar first.

“Not yet,” I answered. “I’ll have to wait until my next visit.”

Brannan’s Grill is located at 1374 Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga, California 94515. They can be reached via their website, Brannan’s Grill, via phone: 707.942.2233 or by email: mark@lcrestaurants.com. Social media folks can catch them through Facebook: BrannansCalistoga or through Twitter: BrannansGrill.

For my previous post, check out TalesoftheCork.com and the Tuscan tasting: Castello di Amorosa 2012 Rosato.

Be sure to return check out my Twitter @TalesoftheCork and on my Instagram (talesofthecork) daily postings. I also would covet those who would suggest a wine, restaurant, chef or hotel to visit. Feel free to contact me through social media or via email at talesofthecork@gmail.com.

Calistoga’s Tuscan medieval castle lures Napa visitors (VIDEOS)

Since the completion of the winery in 2007, a trip to the northern end of Napa Valley is not complete without a tour of the Tuscan medieval-inspired Castello di Amorosa castle.

With three trips to Napa already behind me, it was time to tour some of the winery and castle’s 107 rooms, caves, ramparts, battlements, apartments, prison and dungeon. Besides, I heard owner Dario Sattui’s small lot wines and winemakers have scored well in competitions and U.S. News & Travel writes that visiting Castello is the “No. 4 out of 9 Best Things To Do” while in the Napa Valley.

Determined to make the medieval Tuscan castle authentic, owner Dario Sattui only used old, handmade materials or employing old world techniqus to build Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga, Calif.
Determined to make the medieval Tuscan castle authentic, owner Dario Sattui only used old, handmade materials or employing old world techniqus to build Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga, Calif.

After a lunch visit with owner Mark Young of Calistoga’s Brannan’s Grill (an upcoming post), Geena and I hooked up with long-time local resident, Peter Stetson, and made our way to Castello di Amorosa down Highway 29 to visit the time-warped 13th century castle.

While I was unable to meet owner Dario Sattui, the fourth-generation winemaker’s imprint is everywhere. After nearly a 30-year labor of love, including 15 years of research and 14 years of building his old world castle (VIDEO by ThumbsUpWine), the guided tour of the winery, castle and wines still amaze me two weeks later.

The inspiration behind the 121,000 square foot castle and three acres of rooms resulted from Dario’s fascination with Italian medieval architecture. It began with a passion for Italian ancient properties and grew to an obsession.

The Castello di Amorosa is not just the Disneyland of wineries.

While I foolishly avoided the castle on previous trips, too many outstanding reviews piqued my interest on Castello di Amorosa’s accomplishments since opening. While the $40 million castle on 171 acres, 30 of which are grapes, is all Dario’s vision, the V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena was his first responsibility as he has rebuilt its reputation after his great-grandfather, Vittorio Sattui, one of California’s first vintners, let it fall into disrepair during Prohibition.

Dario Suttui collected and built in all the elements a medieval castle would have possessed, including a moat, drawbridge, high towers and ramparts, torture equipment and ancient armor.
Sattui collected and built all the elements a medieval castle would have possessed, including a moat, drawbridge, high towers and ramparts, torture equipment and ancient armor.

However, as a child, Dario would play among the barrels and tanks in the underground cellars while dreaming of reviving V. Sattui Winery when he grew up. Following college graduation, Dario traveled around Europe for two years in an old VW van. It was during this period his fascination for medieval architecture began to take shape.

Living out of his van, he would visit medieval castles, monasteries, palaces, farmhouses and wineries studying their designs, taking photographs and completing detailed sketches and renderings. And after he rebuilt the V. Sattui Winery, its very success became the impetus for Dario to further expand his dream to create a medieval castle and winery.

After driving up the cyprus-lined drive, Peter escorted us up the grand stone-chiseled stairwell into the castle. The inside main Courtyard was just as impressive, maybe even more, than the outside. The estate has a wooded forest behind the castle and vineyards in the front.

I marveled, smiled and had to think back on my many trips to European castles. I loved how Dario placed his Tuscan-inspired vision on a hill overlooking the Napa Valley. The castle’s “ruined” tower (5 defensive towers in all), high ramparts, courtyards, well, functioning church, stables, vaulted and arched wine cellars ushered me back in time.

After numerous trips to Italy and specifically Tuscany, Dario knew his Napa Valley dream needed skilled old world men and women to create an authentic context for his wine. He hired Italian artisans who crafted all the leaded glass windows by hand and hand-carved all the ceiling beams. In fact, Italian artists made all lamps, iron gates and decorative iron pieces by hand over an open forge. He hired craftsman from Denmark, Austria and France as well. Each room was hand built and original. No room is the same, including the gorgeous antique brick cellars.

My wife Geena and I stopped for a moment to admire The Courtyard, complete with a well, before we moved upstairs to the Il Passito Room to relax and wine taste.
My wife, Geena, and I stopped for a moment to admire The Courtyard, complete with a well, before we moved upstairs to the Il Passito Room to relax and wine taste.

The drawbridge spanning the moat and the gargoyles perched atop the entrance column earn the respect of the visitor. The hand-painted Italian-style frescos and maze of underground rooms, including the 12,000-square-foot Grand Barrel Room, create a sense of awe and appreciation for the varied building styles of a castle created to emulate centuries of building techniques.

As we toured, I saw an authentic stone fireplace from the 14th century, ancient wine press, a wrought iron dragon from the times of Napoleon and an Iron Maiden from the late Renaissance, which dominates the torture chamber. The dry moat, chicken, ducks and sheep and goats farm all add to a wonderful experience.

As the tour guide walked us though the eight levels of rooms, my wife kept telling me to hurry up; I kept getting left behind. At one point I was annoyed. I wanted to wander amongst the 107 rooms at my leisure taking in each niche and nuance. I was definitely transported back to the Italian castles I visited a few years earlier. I didn’t want to reenter the 21st century.

Dario either brought over the building materials from Europe or instructed the craftsmen to create the building out of local materials as old world counterparts did centuries ago. I loved the Great Hall’s 500 year-old fireplace. It is flanked by hand-painted Italian frescoes which took two artists nearly a year and a half to complete.

The 22-foot high coffered ceiling rivals many of the great ceilings in Tuscany. Celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger, former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani Jon Bon Jovi, Joe Montana, Clint Black, Gordon Getty, Jr., Robert Redford, and others have been hosted in the Great Hall.

The Grand Barrel Room uses 40 ribbed Roman cross-vaults all constructed from ancient brick shipped from Europe and includes a 40-foot, hand crafted travertine tasting bar.
The Grand Barrel Room uses 40 ribbed Roman cross-vaults all constructed from ancient brick shipped from Europe and includes a 40-foot, hand crafted travertine tasting bar.

Near the end of the hour tour, we ended up in the 12,000 square foot Grand Barrel Room with its 40 ribbed, Roman cross-vaults containing hundreds of wine barrels and a 40-foot, hand crafted travertine tasting bar. We also viewed other small lot cellars containing wine bottles and large formats from the original V. Salluti collection.

I chose not to spend time in the gift shop or La Fattoria (Italian Farm Store) for olive oil, teas, flour, etc., so we headed up to the Il Passito Club Room to continue our Wine Aficionado Tour.

Just outside of the Il Passito Room is the hidden gem of the Castle. The Il Passito patio secluded terrace has views of our hilltop watchtower as well as our crushpad below. It is also only a few steps from Castello’s Lake Mario. Open to the hillside, but unknown to most patrons of the castle, it boasts some of the best sunset views in the Diamond Mountain region.

Enjoy a guided tour through the castle and winery followed by a private tasting of six of Castello di Amorosa wines, including low production, high end reserve wines. Reservations are highly suggested.
Enjoy a guided tour through the castle and winery followed by a private tasting of six of Castello di Amorosa wines, including low production, high end reserve wines. Reservations are highly suggested.

The three of us finally settled into the Il Passito Room to relax and wine taste perched high above the Courtyard. We were a world away not only from Napa but from the crowds and bustle of Castello’s daily grind. The Il Passito Room normally functions as the Wine Club Member’s room.

However, the millions of dollars spent on the castle and grounds has not prevented Dario from establishing a world class array of wines.

While his vision created Castello di Amorosa, Dario has a team of winemakers and staff to ensure his mostly Tuscan-influenced Italian-style and growing Bordeaux red wine programs continues to produce world-class results. Sebastiano Rosa of Bolgheri, Italy, winemaker at Tenuta San Guido – producer of Sassicaia- one of Italy’s leading Bordeaux-style red wines joined the San Francisco International Wine Competition’s 2012 Winemaker of the Year, Brooks Painter, Peter Velleno and Laura Orozco in March 2012 to form a strong group under the Castello label.

Our host, John, was superb in his knowledge of Castello di Amorosa’s wines and was willing to chat about background, vineyards, soils and technique. I began the tasting with a 2012 California Vermentino. It was so refreshing on a warm Napa afternoon. The traditional Mediterranean white grape is grown in Northern Italy and Southern France. It was very aromatic with plenty of citrus (I’m a grapefruit fan) and a subtle minerality to finish. I loved it! At home I paired a bottle of Vermentino with grilled, chilled salmon salad (dill, capers, celery, onions, raspberry vinegar, red onion).

While not on the wine list, the 2012 California Vermentino is excellent; the dry crisp citrus aroma and flavor is wonderful.
While not on the wine list, the 2012 California Vermentino is excellent; the dry crisp citrus aroma and flavor is wonderful.

For more on my Castello di Amorosa wine tasting experience, return to TalesoftheCork for my July 4 post: Tuscan tasting: Castello di Amorosa 2012 Rosato. Castello di Amorosa wines are only available at the castle or by mail order. They are not available in restaurants. To order Castello wine, visit their web site at CastellodiAmorosa.com or call 1.707.942.8200.

Castle and wine tasting tours
General admission ranges from $18-$43 per person depending on the level of wine and/or castle interest. No reservations necessary for groups under 12 for general admission. However a guided tour through the castle and winery followed by a tasting of five premium wines in one of the castle’s private tasting bars requires reservations.

For more videos on Castello di Amorosa, visit their Video Gallery.

Location:
Castello di Amorosa is open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m.- 6 p.m., March-October and 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m., November-February. The castle/winery is located 5 1/2 miles north of St. Helena and 2 miles south of Calistoga at 4045 N. St. Helena Highway, Calistoga, CA 94515. Phone numbers: Office (707) 967-6278; Reservations: (707) 967-6272.

For another view on Dario Sattui and Castello di Amorosa, read the Sacramento Bee’s article, Sattui’s castle awaits Napa Valley visitors .

If you missed my first post on my Calistoga visit, read Tuscany trip takes Calistoga detour: First stop Fanny’s B&B.