A lot of books about the Napa Valley land on my desk — everything from ghoulish murders to the latest tasting guide. Most of them remind me of an adage one of my journalism profs at Cal was fond of saying: “You can write about a place when you have been there eight days — or eight years.”
Eight days — you’re an admitted visitor, passing through. With more time than that, but fewer than eight years, you might be tempted to think you know the place.
Most of the books, however appreciative the authors are of the joys of wine country, definitely fall into the “fewer than eight years” category.
And this is why it was all the more of a joy to find “Seasons in the Wine Country.” It’s a cookbook that has the rare touch of creators who really know the subjects — food and wine, and also this little valley we call home.
“Seasons in the Wine Country” represents a new direction for the Culinary Institute of America, which has published a wide range of “how-to” books, sharing with home cooks the renowned expertise, well-tested recipes, and insider techniques students pay thousands and thousands of dollars to learn. This is a cookbook about a place, with a voice that tells its story.
In 1990s, the school decided to expand its base of operations from Hyde Park, N.Y., and acquired the Greystone building in St. Helena, a historic, imposing stone edifice that looks out over the vineyards of the north valley.
Since its opening in 1995, the west coast campus has built up an impressive catalogue of classes, beginning with its baking and pastry program and advanced classes for chefs, to its offerings today that include intensive wine studies and the basic chef training program also offered in New York, as well as bootcamps and specialty classes for the public.
Cate Conniff, the author of “Seasons in Wine Country” has been with the CIA at Greystone from its beginnings, although it was love, not work, that first brought her to wine country. She was living in Boston, working at the groundbreaking Bread and Circus, a natural food (and toy) retailer in the Northeast that set the standards for organic living in advance of Whole Foods, which acquired it.
A trip to Napa Valley led to a date with a local guy named Michael Dobrich. “When I saw that he had Wusthof knives and All-Clad pots and pans in his kitchen, I thought, ‘Hmm, this might go somewhere.’” Conniff recalled.
Married to Dobrich and settled on a hillside in St. Helena, Conniff came upon what she called, “the chance of a lifetime,” as marketing manager, part of the team that opened the CIA at Greystone.
Living in wine country, California, opened up whole new culinary worlds, Conniff said, from her first taste of Dungeness crab to the wonder of seeing trees in winter full of citrus fruit.
In addition, she was working with the stellar pros of Greystone, the instructors, the international visitors who came to participate in the annual CIA Worlds of Flavors conference and the chefs from the Wine Spectator restaurant at the CIA.
An avid cook and gardener, as well as walker of the back roads with her Rhodesian ridgeback, Tazo, “whose noble spirit kept me company along the way,” Conniff came up with the idea of “Seasons in the Wine Country” about three years ago, and Chronicle Books liked it.
“The CIA is all grown up now,” she said, “and ‘Seasons’ is a celebration of that. It’s the work really of a lot of people.”
Chief among them, is photographer Faith Echtermeyer.
Echtermeyer came to St. Helena in the 1970s, after studying at Mills College and the San Francisco Art Institute. A kid who’d grown up in a mobile military family, she decided this was home. “I bought the last fixer-upper in St. Helena,” she said. “I won’t tell you what I paid for it. But it’s all paid off.”
Echtermeyer’s career photographing food, wine, and landscapes, grew with the Napa Valley in the ’70s, ’80s and beyond. As photographer for Robert Mondavi Winery’s innovative Great Chefs program, she gained a culinary education from the likes of Julia Child, Paul Bocuse, Joel Robouchon and Alice Waters. She married chef and author Bruce LeFavor, with whom she has collaborated on projects, and over the years has become a familiar face at the CIA, as well as at Copia, in Napa, and at the Napa Valley Vintners’ Auction Napa Valley.
Echtermeyer’s evocative landscape shots of the valley, recipes and advice from the CIA chefs, food shots by Annabell Breakey and wine pairing notes from Traci Dutton are all pulled together in one book by Conniff’s quiet, detail-perfect prose.
The book is divided by wine country’s own rhythms, and the recipes celebrate the best of local bounty, with a focus on cooking techniques that suit the season.
“Bud break” when “spring comes early to the Napa Valley” is the time for dishes like Parsley and Mint Artichokes with Spring Garlic and Lemon Aioli, Spring Pea and Ricotta Gnocchi with Pancetta and Mint, or Roasted Leg of Lamb with Herb and Mustard Crust, Lemon Glazed Poundcake with Rose Water Strawberries. It’s the time for rosé wines and light cooking methods, steaming and blanching.
“Ripening,” that “long arc of sun and heat during the day, with cooler, often fog-infused nights” calls for grilling and simple recipes Agua Frescas, Green Mango Salad with Grilled Beef, Chilled Yellow Tomato Soup with Lemon Balm and Mint or Eggplant Sandwiches with Tomato Jam or Peach Upside-Down Cake with Raspberry Sauce.
“Harvest” — when “the urge to gather reaches a frenzied pace, then slips into cooler moods,” Conniff writes, is the time for “the slow steady heat of the stove” for dishes like Hanger Steaks in Pinot Noir Sauce with Crispy Shallots and Point Reyes Blue Cheese or Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Apple and Bacon Compote.
Finally the season of “Dormancy,” the brief, quiet interlude of “softened sun and deepened shadows,” a time for opening a Napa cab and drinking it with a rich braise, or make classic Cioppino or a Wine Country Winter Salad.
What sets “Seasons in the Wine Country” apart from other wine country tomes comes from the tone of its creators — a sense that it’s grounded in some thing real, best expressed by Conniff herself, who at a celebratory gathering at Go Fish not long ago put it this way: “We don’t have a lifestyle — we have a life.”