It’s one thing to sit down to a meal of seared Alaskan halibut drizzled in Meyer lemon beurre blanc and plated over wild arugula puree alongside herb salad.
It’s another to have harvested the produce fresh from a sun-dappled garden, prepared the meal with a professional chef in his private kitchen, and enjoyed the repast with fine wines overlooking one of Napa Valley’s most legendary vineyards.
Yet each Saturday through August, all this is on the menu for guests at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. In a new cooking class series, visitors can join winery chef Jeff Mosher for an intimate tour of and harvesting from the winery’s new organic garden. After selecting fresh produce, guests help cook in the winery kitchen. Then, it's time for a stroll through the vineyards, and a look at the Mondavi winemaking machine.
Guests may be joined by Mondavi winemaker Genevieve Janssens, and perhaps even a drop-in from Margrit Mondavi before everyone sits down on the patio or in the Vineyard Room for the meal they helped create, paired with newly released wines.
During a recent sneak preview, chef Mosher welcomed us with scissors, and sent us straight to work. He identified the produce he wanted; we snipped and plucked and obediently filled our stainless steel bowls.
Mondavi zeroed in on the strawberries, swooping her scissors amid an 18-bed array of tomato and pepper starts, edible flowers, turnips, beets, squash, spinach, pole beans and rainbows of herbs like Mexican tarragon.
“Amazing flavors,” she announced, “And none better than Napa’s,” recalling the thousands of berries she has tasted on her travels around the world.
Then we marched into the kitchen to perform sous-chef tasks like stemming parsley, washing greens, and sorting all scraps for the specialty worm-populated compost pile. “Quick, quick,” urged Mosher, reminding us not to spend 50 minutes chopping an onion, and pointing out that the furry purple things I was fumbling with were chive blossoms.
As Mosher continued with the real cooking, we were led away, past the endless vineyards and into the massive Mondavi winemaking building. It’s a mammoth, of 56 vats at 5,000 gallons each, the facility temperature and humidity controlled with timed misters like in the produce department of a grocery store.
By the time we returned to the vineyard patio, lunch was served. The first course: that seared Alaskan halibut, presented atop pan-crisped pork belly in red-wine soy sauce. For the entrée: pan-roasted Niman Ranch rib eye with roasted fingerling potatoes, green garlic, king trumpet mushrooms, baby carrots, broccoli rabe and bordelaise sauce.
For dessert: Mondavi’s personally picked strawberries, the juicy fraise des bois fruit showered over shortcake, topped with a dollop of garden tarragon cream, and a scoop of strawberry balsamic sorbet.
“It’s a thing everyone loves,” shrugged Mondavi as chef Mosher came out for congratulations and toasts. “Great food, great wine, it’s hard to go wrong with that, yes?”
Details: Programs start at 4 p.m. Saturdays, Aug. 7, Aug. 14, Aug. 21 and Aug. 28, wrapping up around 8 p.m. Cost is $150 per person (21 and older, please). For reservations, call 888-766-6328.
Robert Mondavi Winery, 7801 Saint Helena Highway, Oakville, 707-226-1395, robertmondavi.com.
Tip: Mondavi’s cooking classes are great for small groups. Make your outing an affair with your favorite friends, and for even more fun, reserve a limousine or small charter bus with Pure Luxury.