As a teetotaler, I sometimes feel I can never fully appreciate Napa Valley.
Yes, there is still much for the abstemious to admire. We can delight in the rustic homeliness of vineyard houses or the newer, bolder architectural grandeur. We can bike through country roads that arc over jewel-green hillsides. We can sift through antiques in historic main streets, ooh and ahhh at upscale bucolic pleasures, and try inventive cuisine within walking distance of a comfortable bed-and-breakfast inn.
Yet to wander with purpose, to swill amber or golden liquids and murmur adjectives such as “full-bodied, supple and juicy” or carelessly slip phrases like “enticing nuances of black raspberry, with the mellowing smoky flavors of oak” those pleasures are denied to the dull of palate, such as myself.
A reprieve comes in winter and early spring in the form of the Napa Valley Mustard Festival. In its seventh year, the two-month-long celebration is a way to get travelers to stop by during the rainy season. The numbers attest to its success: About 27 percent of all Napa Valley visitors come during Mustard Festival season, making spring second only to the bustling summer season here.
The irony is that although mustards come from around the world to compete in the festival, none of the seeds come from the wine country mustard plants that spring up by the hundreds in open fields and vineyards.
Not that it matters. Just a drive down Highway 29 takes on an exhilarating glow. On the weekend I visited, the weather alternated between thunderstorms and sun, but even downpours couldn’t dull the yellow gold blazing from the roadside. Otherwise dormant, black skeletal vines strung up along wire seemed to revive in a field of flowers. When the sun emerged, the cotton-white clouds, brilliant blue skies and yellow mustards created a landscape of primary colors.
Take your pick
The obliging scenery makes for unforgettable images, which explains why the festival includes a photo contest (entry details below). As for making mustards, producers go for seeds commercially grown in areas such as Canada. White (or yellow) mustard seeds make up most of the American varieties, European and Chinese mustards grind up the brown while English mustard mixes both.
Mustard-tasting can be done readily at outlets such as Dean & DeLuca in St. Helena, which sells the 1999 festival grand champion, the thickly smooth, sweet Robert Rothschild raspberry honey mustard. The Rothschild also came first among sweet-hot mustards; other categories include Dijon, coarse grain, pepper hot, horseradish, herb, fruit, spirit and American yellow.
Excellent restaurants abound, but the Napa Valley Wine Train can claim the mustard-bragging rights for its executive chef, Patrick Finney. Last year, Finney won both festival chef of the year and People’s Choice for his palate-rousing recipe, smoked Sonoma range chicken on crispy won ton with, naturally, a mustard cream sauce (the recipe is posted on the Mt. Horeb Mustard Museum Internet site, http://mustardmuseum
.com). Many of the train’s menus have a mustard component, and a luncheon trip provides a relaxed, window-seat view of the floral spectacle.
Pastry chef Les Carmona of Brix Restaurant baked up a deep-dish apple pie with cheddar cheese streusel and mustard custard; the entry won the most innovative use of mustard award.
Want everything on that?
Be on the lookout for special deals during the Mustard Festival. Visa card users can get gifts, discounts, two-for-one specials and appetizers or desserts with dinner entrees at participating wine country merchants through April 30. For instance, shoppers at Napa Premium Outlets off Highway 29 can present Visa receipts totaling $150 or more and receive a tote bag.
At Napa Valley Bike Tours and Rentals (707-255-3377, www.
napavalleybiketours.com), get two all-day bike rentals for the price of one, and the wine train offers percentage discounts.
I wish I had known about the free mustard-oriented appetizer or dessert at Napa Valley Grille in Yountville. Already surfeited with our mustard tastings at Dean & DeLuca, we opted instead for a mustard-free meal. We split delicate crab cakes, excellent smoked duck breast salad and a creamy potato watercress soup. My Atlantic salmon arrived flaky and moist, and the flavorful mild gaminess of his venison was not compromised. Although I vowed not to have dessert, my downfall came in the form of a hazelnut crepe brule. I actually went into hysterics over the exquisite custard wrapped in the paper-thin crepe.
Oh, and yes, there is an extensive wine list. However, they also serve up a satisfying glass of water.