Lining a high shelf at Carpe Diem is a collection of wine bottles; each is a story in his own evolution as a lover of wine, said Steve Distler, who is one of the trio who has launched Napa’s newest wine bar and restaurant.
Even better, however, than the story of the Scarecrow and the Heitz Martha’s Vineyard cab, is the tale of how three young people — Steve, and Scott and Stephanie Kendall — pooled their talents and with the enthusiastic help of their families, followed a dream.
The idea of Carpe Diem — “seize the day” — grew over several years along with the friendship between the New Yorker and Kendalls, a California couple. Steve, a former history teacher who fell in love with wine, became a sommelier, and left his job, family and friends to drive across the country.
“Napa was my goal,” Steve said.
He found a job at Del Dotto Winery in St. Helena. “Wine was a hobby, then a passion, and now it’s my way of life.”
Stephanie and Scott Kendall both grew up in Sonoma County but met — fittingly — at a restaurant in San Diego State University. Scott, the son of a home economics teacher and grandson of one of the original recipe creators for Sunset Magazine, learned to cook from these ladies and had worked in a variety of restaurants before going off to study business at San Diego State. Stephanie, the daughter of a pilot, had been able to travel extensively with her mom and sister. With a love of food, wine and traveling in common, the couple set out to travel around the world after they graduated.
“It was our last hurrah before we knew we were going to have to join the real world,” Stephanie said.
After traveling for a year, exploring the food and wine on various continents, they landed in Napa. Scott worked as a chef, and Stephanie went to work in the wine industry, at Del Dotto Winery.
The three became friends. “For two years, we talked about opening a place in Napa,” Steve said. “We kept making plans.”
The trio had in mind some place fun and friendly, where guests could enjoy food and wine as much as they did. This is when parental help kicked in.
“I told them, ‘Come up with a business plan and I’ll back you,’” said Stephanie’s mother, Laurie Pederson, who now lives in Victoria, B.C. “And they did it.”
They agreed Steve would be the wine director, Steve the chef and Stephanie would manage marketing and the front of the house.
They found the empty space on Second Street in downtown Napa — the Gondola Restaurant had closed some time earlier. In October 2009, they signed a lease and went to work renovating the dark and dated space into the light, bright, stylish home of Carpe Diem. The new space is divided between a bar with a television on one side, and a dining area with tables on the other. They’ve also added outdoor seating.
“It was nine months from the time we started until when we opened (in June),” Steve said. “This place is our baby.”
Celebrating one month
This week, a month after opening, the group hosted an open house to celebrate and to thank bed and breakfast owners who have been sending guests their way. On hand, as well, was Stephanie’s mother, Laurie, who had come south to help with the opening, and Scott’s mother, Karen Kendall, who was helping serve the dishes her son was cooking up in the kitchen.
“I have been having a blast,” Laurie said. “We’ve been so happy to see so many locals coming in — and coming back. We’re happy to have everyone come in but we are really here for locals.”
Karen Kendall said her son would definitely get high marks in her home economics class, as Steve sent out platters of dishes that have already become favorites, including deep fried olives, short rib sliders, (braised for 18 hours in cabernet sauvignon), and salmon tatare, mixed with cucumber, jicama and grapefruit and served on a wonton crisp.
The idea is to serve simple, but great, food that pairs well with the wines, Scott said. He added that creating the menu was a collaborative effort, based on lots of tasting and experimentation. “We’ve already changed the menu. We want to keep it seasonal,” said Scott, who added that he incorporates produce grown organically on his mother’s Sebastopol farm into the menu.
Other hits that will likely be staples on the menu include truffled popcorn made with Marcona almonds and truffle salt; fries tossed with harissa spices and Parmesan cheese, Kobe corn dogs, and flatbreads baked in the stone oven.
The restaurant also serves a selection of cheeses, charcuterie, other small plates, a “soup of the moment” and desserts.
The group agreed they tried to keep prices reasonable and appealing to a local patrons. These range from $3 for a dish of spiced almonds to $26 for a “Big Deal” cheese and charcuterie board, but most of the dishes are around $10 or under.
Steve estimates he might have tasted 3,000 wines before choosing the 80 that are on their opening list. “I wanted an array of interesting wines,” he said, “but they had to go with food.”
His mother comes from the Puglia region of Italy, he said, and long before he set out to study wines, he’d learned, growing up in an Italian family, that wine is meant to go with food, and “the best wines aren’t always the most expensive.” Food and wine pairing in Italy, he noted, grew from putting local wines with the local foods.
He keeps a flexible attitude toward pairings; he noted, for example, that they might recommend a cabernet to go with the cab-braised sliders, but that doesn’t mean a diner can experiment with another varietal.
As with the food, he said, the goal was to keep prices fair. “We didn’t want to do the triple mark-up,” he said.
Wines by the glass range from $7 for San Permis Etoile, a Semillon Roussanne blend from the Central Coast, to $17 for a Jayson Sonoma coast pinot noir. Wines by the bottle range from a 2008 Innocent Bystander from Australia for $22 to $95 for a Lancaster cab — with lots in between, and an impressive reserve list including a 2007 Scarecrow ($600) and a 2003 Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” cab ($200.
There are plenty of wines, however, that won’t break the bank, and Steve is happy to discuss options.
While the focus of the wine list is on California wines, there’s a good representation from Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and South America as well.
Tastings are also offered in flights, and Fridays include a special face of of two wines from the same varietal They also serve beer on tap and coffee.
“I don’t follow scores,” Steve said. “I just want people to enjoy wine. I don’t want people to have to analyze a wine for three hours before they drink it.
“This all fits our philosophy,” he concluded — “Eat, drink and be merry.”
Another way of saying, “Seize the day.”