In Napa, follow the mustard seeds

April 24, 2013 

Lore has it that the Franciscan friars tossed mustard seed as they were exploring the west coast of California in order that their followers could navigate their path. While beautiful, some environmentalists complain that the plant is not indigenous to the state. During the winter months, the wild mustard growing in the vineyards makes it beautiful to drive through the different wine regions of California.

Throughout the world's wine regions, various plants and even weeds play a major role to the health of the vines and soil. In addition to the wild mustard that grows naturally, some wineries also seed their vineyards with vegetation such as native grasses, legumes and even cultivated mustard.

Driving north on Highway 29 through the town of Yountville, Calif., you come across the aptly named Mustards Grill, an iconic Napa Valley restaurant that is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. When Cindy Pawlcyn opened Mustards in 1983, Napa was far from being the culinary mecca that it is today. Mustards Grill is known for serving simple, comfort food that is prepared and served in a stylish manner.

The Franciscan Estate Winery that is situated a little further north on Highway 29 is also celebrating a milestone this year, releasing the 25th vintage of two of its wines Magnificat and Cuvée Sauvage Chardonnay.

The 2009 Franciscan Estate Magnificat is one of the first Meritage blends produced in California. A Meritage is a Bordeaux-styled wine -- meaning it is a blend that is either

Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot based, with small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and/or Malbec added to the final product. In order to be labeled as a Bordeaux, the wine must be produced using grapes that were only grown in that region of France -- so Napa Valley wine producers began using the name Meritage and the use of this name is strictly regulated, as is the use of their French counterpart.

Magnificat begins with the aroma black currants and contains flavors of dark fruits and chocolate.

The 2011 Franciscan Estate Cuvée Sauvage Chardonnay is produced using a technique that is traditional to the Burgundy region of France -- allowing the wild yeast to ferment the Chardonnay grape juice as opposed to adding cultured yeast and controlling the fermentation process. IThe climate of burgundy is much cooler than that of California, so Franciscan only uses grapes grown in the cool Carneros region of Napa Valley. The Cuvée Sauvage is full bodied and creamy, with citrus and baked apple flavors alongside some hints of minerality.

If you want to see wild mustard in full bloom, try visiting Napa Valley in February or March and while you are there make a stop at Mustards Grill. I suggest you order the grilled hanger steak with red wine onion jam and watercress sauce to pair with a bottle of Franciscan Estate Magnificat.

If can't make it to Napa Valley, pick up a copy of the Mustards Grill Cookbook and prepare the smoked salmon, pasilla corn cakes, and crème fraiche appetizer to complement a bottle of the Franciscan Estate Cuvée Sauvage Chardonnay.

Jim Rawe, a family attorney in Bradenton, is an avid collector of fine wines. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at jimrawe@gmail.com.

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