What is the recipe for magic? One beautiful, benchmark Napa Valley winery, one iconic producer of Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany, Italy, and one gorgeous late summer afternoon. Like many of the restaurant owners, country club managers, wine directors and sommeliers in the crowd, I had never been to Far Niente. It’s no surprise, really. Despite the estate’s well-earned recognition, it was closed to the public for twenty-five years, and is now open by appointment and only for small parties.
It was unusually cool and overcast as we were seated lakeside near the foot of the estate. It had been downright cold in the morning—too chilly to go swimming in nearby St. Helena, in fact—even though it was August 7th. The weather was to our good fortune, however, as it was ideal for our 3-hour lunch with some pretty spectacular wine, food and company*. Far Niente Executive Chef Trevor Eliason graciously welcomed Honorary Chef Rosalba Vitanza, Owner and Winemaker of Tenuta Vitanza, to his kitchens, where she labored for hours prior to our luncheon.
How did this come about, you might ask? This somewhat odd pairing of the legendary Far Niente and faraway Tenuta Vitanza of Montalcino, Italy? As it turns out, Guido Andretta, co-proprietor with his wife Rosalba Vitanza, is an old friend of Far Niente partner Larry Maguire.
The Tasting Begins…
As we sat down at the elegant and lavishly set table, we were offered crisp, cool glasses of 2011 Far Niente Estate Bottled Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($63) with foccacia and rosemary fresh from the brick oven. Biting into the soft, delicate bread and sipping the elegant wine set the tone for the meal to follow. Obviously a lot of thought went into the pairings. Kudos to all involved for taking this extra, often overlooked step. Far Niente Winemaker Nicole Marchesi, the fourth winemaker in their 30 year history and the second woman winemaker in attendance along with Rosalba, joined us at the table from the bottling line, where the 2012 Chardonnay was being bottled as we spoke. She shared that the upcoming release was well-received, garnering high points for its “oily” texture.
Smartly dressed and very professional servers then offered our first course, Parmigiana di Melenzane and Crostini Toscani, paired with the 2011 Vitanza Rosso di Montalcino ($32). The eggplant dish was rich and earthy, and the 100% Sangiovese from the estate’s younger vines was perfect—light, tart, and full of cherry and licorice notes.
Next up came a pairing of Lasagna from the brick oven, with the 2008 Vitanza Brunello Tradizione ($68), firm and complex with notes of dark cherry, tobacco, white mushroom and dried Italian herbs, and only a hint of cedar as this release is aged in “traditional” neutral oak; and along side it was the 2007 Vitanza Brunello di Montalcino Firma ($76), the estate’s signature wine, which marries cherry and sun-dried tomato notes with vanilla, smoke and cedar from time spent new French barrique. Both wines paired beautifully with Rosalba’s Lasagna—with freshly made pasta, of course, and a hearty ragù.
Now that we were full, our main course was served—a bowl of “Scottiglia,” which means “just burned”. It’s a classic dish. In the old days, all of the neighbors would bring their bits of meat to the one house in the neighborhood that had a fire, and they would throw everything into a pot and socialize while the lady of the house cooked it. Chunks of three types of meat in a savory tomato sauce paired beautifully with the 2006 Vitanza Brunello di Montalcino Riserva ($140), the richest wine of the day, with gorgeous flavors, a plush texture and a fine build up of tannins, especially on the long finish. This powerhouse red is delicious now, and obviously has a long life ahead.
At this point, Rosalba waltzed out after six hours in a hot kitchen with her hair flowing, voluptuously beautiful and feminine in a way only Italian women know how to be, and began to socialize with the group. Servers arrived just then with platters of Cantuccini, classic Tuscan biscotti, and Ossi di Morto, or “bones of the dead” to celebrate life. Both cookies are dipped in wine, as demonstrated by Rosalba; and not just in a sweet wine like a Tuscan Vin Santo or the decadent 2007 Dolce, Napa Valley ($85 for 375ml). She dipped her cookie into the Brunello Riserva and munched happily!