A Guide to Wine, Food & the Good Life


John Tilson • 11/16/18        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share



My wife Laurie and I have been traveling to Northern California for over 50 years. In this time we have seen many things and many changes – some really good, some good, some not so good, and some bad. But, it is always an interesting and scenic trip that gives us a chance to see people and places that we really like and do not get to see that often.


This trip centered around a visit to Napa Valley to meet up with some friends from Los Angeles who were there for a few days and to pay a visit to Diamond Creek Vineyards and visit with Boots Brounstein, her son, Phil Ross, and his wife Susan, and Phil Steinschreiber the Diamond Creek Vineyards wine maker.

All of our trips to Northern California are motor trips. The drive is beautiful with many places to stop and a lot more relaxing than flying. Almost all our trips north from Santa Barbara begin with an overnight stop in Carmel. Except for perhaps being a bit more crowded, Carmel has not changed much in all the years we have been going there. Beginning in the late 70s, for some 25 years we visited Carmel almost every year in August for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and all the related activities that revolved around it. Many of these trips were in a sports car on Highway 1 along the coast. But, as the event and everything else in the area got more and more crowded, we stopped going to Carmel. Our last August visit to Carmel was some 15 years ago and today things are so crowded there in August that we no longer have an interest in going at that time. But, except for the summer months, Carmel is relatively quiet. That works for us.

In recent years, when we go to Carmel we arrive in the late afternoon and stay at Briarwood, a modest small inn where we have been staying for many years. It is conveniently located in town surrounded by shops and restaurants. There are lots of interesting shops in Carmel and many nice places to stay. And, over the years, restaurants in Carmel have come and gone with an occasional great one appearing now and then. But, mostly there are several very good restaurants from which to choose. Most recently we have had dinners at Il Fornaio which is an Italian Restaurant located a few blocks from where we stay. We went to one of the first Il Fornaios when it opened in San Francisco some 30 years ago. The Italian food was really good and we visited there many times.  Il Fornaio has now expanded into a chain of 23 restaurants and we have found the food consistently good in all the Il Fornaio restaurants that we have visited. In Carmel, I take in a bottle of Champagne and we usually have calamari fritti, carpaccio, and usually a fresh pasta dish for dinner (these are all things we really like, but rarely eat at home).

For this trip we originally planned to stop overnight in San Francisco to have a meal at Zuni Café. But, we cancelled our hotel reservation when we learned that San Francisco was going to be jammed with thousands of people attending a big convention.  However, we will not ever miss the opportunity to have a meal at Zuni Café so we booked a reservation there for lunch on our way home when we thought it would be less crowded (more on that later).

The next day we traveled from Carmel to Sacramento where we met our long time friend Darrell Corti and his partner John for dinner at Biba Restaurant. Darrell is world renowned for his knowledge of food and wine and is the proprietor of Corti Brothers, a great grocery store in Sacramento. It is always a pleasure to visit with Darrell and shop at Corti Brothers. There are also several really good restaurants in Sacramento. At the top of our list is Biba which Darrell introduced us to many years ago. Owner and Chef, Biba Caggiano came to the US from Italy in 1969 and founded Biba in 1986.

Biba is renowned for its fresh and creative food with many fabulous dishes including great pasta, meat, and fish. One of my very all-time favorite pasta dishes is Biba’s Lasagne Verdi alla Bolognese which is composed of ten layers of housemade pasta laced with a Bolognese meat ragú and creamy Bechamel sauce and served only on Thursdays and Fridays. We planned on a Thursday visit to have the great pasta. We also enjoyed several other dishes including calamari fritti, fresh pasta with shrimp in a fresh tomato sauce and Darrell had his saltimboca “jump in the mouth” which is thin veal with a slice of prosciutto and a sage leaf sauteed.  I brought a delicious and rare special bottle of Champagne – 2000 Launois Blanc de Blanc Cuvee Maxime and  two old California wines from Ritchie Creek Vineyards – a 1990 Chardonnay and a 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon. The Champagne was stunning and both the Ritchie Creek wines were superb (to read an article featuring Ritchie Creek click here). Darrell brought a unique, delicious, and great Italian red wine – 2017 Nebbiolo G.D. VAJRA CLARÈ J.C. which is made in the style of the Nebbiolo tasted by Thomas Jefferson on his visit to Italy in 1787 (to read more about that wine and Darrell’s Fall 2018 Newsletter click here).

The next morning we went to Corti Brothers to do some shopping. Corti Brothers is a grocery store, but unlike any other. Darrell Corti is the driving force behind Corti Brothers. Darrell has spent his life traveling the world finding the finest in foods, spirits, and wine. He is certainly one of the most knowledgeable persons in the world on these subjects (to read a note from Darrell based on his review of the early history of California wines click here). Shopping at Corti Brothers is like going on a treasure hunt with treasures lurking in every nook and cranny. On this visit I bought many things including several olive oils, tamari almonds, fresh local melons and pears, and, of course, wines including some old Spanish wines and some bottles of the great 2017 Nebbiolo G.D. VAJRA CLARÈ J.C  that Darrell brought to dinner at Biba.

If you’re in the Sacramento area I highly recommend that you visit the Corti Brothers store and you can also visit online by clicking here. Also, be sure to get on the mailing list to get Darrell’s newsletter. Always an interesting read, it is filled with information and offers a wide variety of wine and spirits and foods for sale.

After shopping, we drove to Napa Valley to meet our Los Angeles friends, Matt and Stacey Kravitz, at Mustard’s Grill in Yountville. Founded by Cindy Pawlcyn in 1983, for us this was the first really good restaurant in Napa. Before then, when we visited Napa Valley we would travel through Sonoma to pick up some food items and then over to Napa. At that time there were only a few places in Napa for really good food items (Oakville Grocery – an old country store from the 1880s that went upscale after Joe Phelps bought it, the 1870 shopping complex in Yountville where a few items were available, and V. Sattui Winery which began selling cheese and bread). After gathering our provisions, we would take them to a house that we rented in St. Helena and my wife Laurie and I did the cooking! Often we would invite other friends, winery owners, and wine makers to join us for dinner. What a contrast to today with many places for food and a lot of  really good restaurants from which to choose.


Mustard’s Grill has been great from day one and continues so until this day. The menu has many very appealing dishes. I really loved the Crispy Calamari with curried slaw and fresno chilis and Sweet Corn Tamales, wild mushrooms, tomatillo-avocado salsa, and pumpkin seeds. Although not as varied, I would say that the food at Mustard’s Grill compares favorably with Zuni Café, and that is very high praise indeed!

After lunch we continued to Diamond Creek Vineyards in Calistoga where we met up with our long time friends at Diamond Creek – Boots Brounstein, Phil and Susan Ross, and Phil Steinschreiber.


We tasted the 2017 Diamond Creek Vineyards wines from barrel (to read my article with notes on the great 2017s click here), toured the property and settled in. That evening we all enjoyed dinner at Market Restaurant in St. Helena where we had several very good dishes including Chopped Market Salad, Crispy Calamari, Ahi Tuna Poke, and Grilled Steak. The food was very good and I brought some wines for us to drink including 1995 Krug Champagne and 1984 Diamond Creek Lake Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The 1995 Krug is drinking beautifully and the 1984 Lake is a marvelous old California Cabernet with great flavor, complexity, and balance with a long life ahead.

The next day Laurie and I and our visiting friends, Matt and Stacey, went in different ways which included a cooking demonstration at Meadowood, some shopping, and sightseeing.

That evening, again with our friends Matt and Stacy, we had a great meal at Charter Oak. Charter Oak is a beautiful new restaurant in Saint Helena with Christopher Kostow, the chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood, partnered with Nathaniel Dorn to produce what is described as a celebratory, family-style dining experience, with simple, approachable, and seasonal food.

We had several wonderful and unique dishes including Grilled Cucumber with Sea Beans and Dill, Summer Sausage with Raw Turnips and Coarse Grain Mustard, Crudo of Halibut, Heya-ha Party Wings, and Smoked Beef Ribs.

For wine I brought a 2000 Drappier Champagne Cuvee de Millésime 1995 and a 1986 Diamond Creek Vineyards Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. The special bottling Drappier was gorgeous and at a peak with marvelous flavor, complexity, and balance. The 1986 Volcanic Hill Cabernet was a wine of intensity and depth with lots of fruit and, while showing beautifully now, it has a very long life ahead.

We all parted ways the next morning, and Laurie and I drove to San Francisco for lunch at Zuni Café.

Zuni Café was founded in 1979 by Billy West as a southwestern restaurant. In 1987 Judy Rodgers was invited to join as a chef/partner. Judy had wide ranging experience including first with the Troisgro family at their great restaurant in France and later with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse as well as other stops along the way. At Zuni Café, she first asked for a brick oven and once that was installed Judy transformed Zuni Café into one of the most incredible restaurants in America. The Zuni Caesar salad was retained and is still on the menu today. But, with Judy’s devotion to perfection, the menu became more Eurocentric and was completely transformed using honest, local, fresh, and seasonal food. She created dishes that, while amazingly simple with few ingredients, also were unique and creative as well as being complex and delicious. Over the years, Judy Rodgers and the Zuni Café deservedly received wide spread critical acclaim. In 2002 she published The Zuni Café cookbook. And in 2003 she received The James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year. That year Zuni Café also won the award for Outstanding Restaurant in the country followed in 2004 when Judy won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef.

In 2006 Judy became partners with Gilbert Pilgrim, a longtime friend and devoted customer of Zuni Café. For some 20 years Gilbert had worked at Chez Panisse as a cook, chef, partner, and then general manager. Sadly, Judy died in 2013. However, her passion and vision has been maintained by Gilbert as owner/executive chef. Zuni Café continues today with the same amazing consistency and excellence that I have known for the many years that I have been privileged to eat there. And, for sure, I have had many fabulous Zuni Café dining experiences. In my business days up until to 2005, I was in San Francisco a lot. And, including our many other recreational trips, I have had a very large number of meals at Zuni Café over the years. Zuni Café is simply amazing. Below is a photo of the brick oven kitchen taken from the vantage point of our favorite table in an alcove on the 2nd floor.

The Zuni Café menu changes every day with several regular items always on the menu and new items making up the majority of the menu. Zuni Café makes some of the best pizzas anywhere. Pizza with ricotta salata, tomato sauce, and oregano is excellent and on the menu every day. However, the real news is that every day there is a new pizza which is never the same. And, having enjoyed many dozens of these daily pizza specials I have never had the same one twice. Moreover, every pizza has been unique and excellent. On this visit it was pizza with Wagon Wheel cheese, wild nettles, red onion, and Buddha’s Hand citron zest. And, as usual it was unique and absolutely delicious.

Also, there is always a new unique and delicious salad and many other unique and delicious dishes as well.  At this lunch we also enjoyed Manila clams and Pircicaba broccoli a la plancha with salasa verde and radishes and  Langier Ranch Bronx grapes, a Devoto Gardens Asmead’s Kernel apple, and raspberries. Other favorites always on the menu are Zuni Caesar Salad, Chicken roasted in the brick oven; warm bread salad with scallions, garlic, frilly mustard greens, dried currants, and pine nuts. Also, the Shoestring potatoes, the bread and butter, and the iced tea are always delicious. For dessert we had a fruit granita. The Zuni Café fruit granitas vary with the season and there is always a delicious expresso granita on the menu as well. And, although we rarely drink wine for lunch, Zuni Café has an extensive and very reasonably priced wine list with lots of  really good wines (including rarities not often seen on restaurant wine lists) that are great accompaniments to the food.

Zuni Café is one of my favorite places in the world to eat and especially for lunch. If you have never been to Zuni Café you owe it to yourself to go. The lunch menu from our visit is shown below:

After lunch we had planned to go shopping at Rainbow Market which is a wonderful grocery store in the Zuni Café neighborhood, but this did not work out. It was September 30 and, we did not know this then, but later learned, that this was the date of the annual Folsom Street Fair. It turns out, the Folsom Street Fair is the third largest single day event in California and the world’s largest leather event and showcase for BDSM products and culture. The Folsom Street Fair brings thousands of people into a small area off Folsom that is blocked to traffic (to read more about that event click here).  The congestion was terrible. It was almost impossible to move, much less park, so we skipped our shopping. And, I must say that time has passed us by to participate in things like the Folsom Street Fair. But, I also say,” If it rings your chime, go for it!” After all, it is San Francisco and ANYTHING goes in San Francisco! As for us, we savored our memory of the great meal at Zuni Café and simply headed for the highway to drive to Carmel with a stop in Monterey to do some shopping. That evening it was back to Il Fornaio for dinner accompanied by another bottle of Champagne from our cellar to go with our favorite dinner items.


The next day we decided to drive back on California Highway 1 which was recently reopened after flood damage had closed it for an extended period of time. Highway 1 runs along the coast and is a very beautiful and, in parts, a very windy road. Back in the 1970s I bought the first of two 1956 Mercedes Benz Gullwings that I would own. I bought the 1956 Gullwing based on an ad in Road and Track from a man who lived in Los Gatos and flew there to pick it up.  The seller told me he was selling the Gullwing to buy a 1954 Ferrari with a race history (those were the days!). I drove the Gullwing home on Highway 1 and what a drive that was. Along the way I got tangled up with a Jaguar XKE and we had a great time roaring along on the virtually deserted road! And, over the years, I have had great fun driving  sports cars north and south on Highway 1. Today the traffic on Highway 1 can sometimes be horrible, but on an early fall Monday morning it was an easy and beautiful drive home. This time, not roaring through in a sports car like in the past, but taking our time and enjoying the drive in our Infinity QX80 full of bottles of wine and a lot of food items. After all, age does have some privileges.

So ends another trip North. It is always an adventure! But, it is also always nice to be home!! And, after all, there really is no place like home!!!





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