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The Food-Based Vacation: A Few Days with Chefs Joe and Susanna

Some couples go scuba diving, some go camping. But when two chefs get married, they go wining and dining.

Joe and Susanna Rueter met while they were students at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York, the best cooking school in the country. While falling for each other, they were also falling for the Northern California culinary scene during their internships at top restaurants (the French Laundry and Auberge du Soleil) in Napa Valley. With its unique combination of favorable microclimates (which encourage the cultivation of everything from avocados to zinfandel grapes) and a continual influx of new people and ideas, northern California has become an epicenter of foodie culture. So for a second honeymoon, Susanna and Joe returned there for a vacation centered around the table and vine.

While Joe and Susanna are a bit more knowledgeable than most, they are not alone in planning a vacation this way: A recent BusinessWeek article noted that 27 percent of all tourists to San Francisco now also take a wine tour, and, according to a Wine Institute news release, in 2004 almost 15 million tourists visited wineries in California (of which there are now around 1,400). Napa Valley is now, remarkably, the state's second-most-popular tourist destination after Disneyland -- all of which, however, makes it even more important to figure out how to narrow it down.

Joe and Susanna's first base of operations was Sonoma, with a number of restaurants and wineries. They breakfasted at the Basque Boulangerie Café, an award-winning bakery also rated among the "best places for intelligent conversation" by local radio station KVON. After discussing the relative merits of regular vs. clarified butter in classical French cuisine, they walked over to Sebastiani winery, family-owned for more than a hundred years. Many of their wines are available nationwide (and online), and they have won numerous accolades. The 2002 Sonoma County Cabernet had enjoyed the "rave in Wine Spectator effect," i.e. quickly sold out, but Joe and Susanna still found an '03 Cab and an '04 Barbera that they liked enough to buy.

Also very enjoyable was J Vineyards & Winery up in the Russian River Valley area of Sonoma County; their forté is their sparkling wines, but taking advantage of the cooler microclimate in the valley, they are making still wines with the pinot noir and chardonnay grapes as well. (A note about nomenclature: The French have claimed ownership of the term "champagne," so that only bubblies that originate in that region of France may properly be referred to as such; elsewhere in the world it is technically "sparkling wine.")

The philosophy at J is that "wine belongs on the table with food," and part of their approach is offering a tasting flight of one sparkling and three still wines, each paired with a fine hors d'oeuvre created from local, organic, seasonal ingredients, for example the 2000 J Vintage Brut paired with some Tsar Nicoulai caviar, smoked salmon, and crème Fraiche.

Back in Sonoma for a few evenings, they ate dinner twice at the in-house El Dorado Kitchen, as the chef is a friend of Joe's -- and, as it turned out, it was some of their favorite food on the trip. EDK features, in Susanna's words, "classic California-French dishes," meaning curry fritto misto, pot-au-feu glazed lamb, charcuterie, and the like. The open kitchen means that guests can watch the action (or, in Susanna and Joe's case, heckle them and critique their sautéing skills).

Joe and Susanna spent a number of days over in the adjacent Napa valley, including breakfast at Yountville's Bouchon bakery, owned by Thomas Keller, chef at the world-renowned French Laundry. Before hitting a few choice wineries on the Silverado Trail, they lunched at local favorite Gordon's Café & Wine Bar, where you can nosh on Napa's version of casual fare, such as asparagus tarts and sesame crusted salmon with noodles.

Joe and Susanna had the goal of covering as many of the individual districts in Napa and Sonoma as they could, and tasting vintages mentioned in Wine Spectator's annual buying guide when possible. Right outside of Napa proper, in the Stags' Leap district, they stopped at Chimney Rock, a great place to find a paradigmatic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This district helped put California wines on the map in 1976, when a cabernet from the district beat the most prestigious French reds in a landmark blind tasting in Paris.

In between wine tastings, Joe and Susanna popped in to the trés chi-chi Dean & Deluca's, which stocks the requisite local organic produce and 1,400 California wines, in addition to typical picnic ingredients such as black truffle honey and free-range venison. D & D's encourages tasting of many of their delicacies, which is how Joe and Susanna ended up with a quart of Spanish olives, "the best olives we've ever had." (Another "if you go" note: many wineries encourage picnicking on their grounds if you buy a bottle to have with lunch; the picnic nicely breaks up a rigorous afternoon of tasting, and helps one soak up some of the alcohol from the first vineyard or two.)

Up Highway 29 a few miles in Rutherford, they visited another winery which they really liked, Grgich Hills. Grgich Hills was founded in 1977, after Mike Grgich (then winemaker at Chateau Montelena) shocked the wine world by winning the white category with a chardonnay at the famous Paris tasting. Since then, Grgich Hills has continued to create world-class chardonnays, and Joe and Susanna were happy to secure a bottle of the 30th Anniversary Commemorative vintage.

They ate dinner one night at St. Helena hotspot Martini House, which features an inviting combination of low, romantic lighting, fireplaces, and chef Todd Humphries "adventurous and delicious use of wild, foraged ingredients." Susanna and Joe were especially impressed with the tasting menu devoted entirely to exotic mushrooms (also available with the sommelier's wine pairing.)

To take a break from wine, Susanna and Joe headed over to the coast near Point Reyes National Park (about thirty miles north of San Francisco), where cheese fiends congregate at Cowgirl Creamery, an award-winning artisanal, organic cheese maker. (They'd gotten to taste a sample at Dean & Deluca's earlier.) For a small charge guests can tour the creamery and taste obscenely flavorful samples like the "Pierce Point," which is not only washed in muscato wine, but also coated in local herbs, then aged.

Next up was the nearby Tomales Bay Oyster Company (where we began our story), California's oldest continuously operating shellfish farm, celebrating a hundred years of business in 2009. In addition to impressing Joe and Susanna, the company also supplies many élite Bay Area seafood restaurants, and is known nationwide for its oysters.

Near the end of their vacation, Joe and Susanna circled back around to the Bay Area, for a visit to Scharffen Berger chocolates. Founded only a decade ago, they quickly earned acclaim as one of the best dark chocolates in the world; akin to fine coffee, wine, liquor, and cheese, this superlative chocolate results from several key factors: the best equipment, hours of loving human expertise, and fanatical control of the entire process from raw ingredient to finished product ("bean to bar," as they say in the industry). After the popular and informative factory tour (available to the public, reservations recommended), Joe and Susanna enjoyed samples, from the workhorse 70% cacao bar ("great citrusy and raspberry notes," commented Susanna), to the top-top-shelf "single plantation" Jamaica bar.

About thirty dollars worth of chocolate later, they were off to yet another top-shelf orgy for the taste buds, a craft distillery. Located on an old air force base in Alameda, Hangar One will convince liquor aficionados that paying $36 for vodka is really quite reasonable. While even the better mass-market vodkas are generally produced in machine-controlled column stills, the folks at Hangar One, Joe and Susanna found out, use the old-fashioned, human-controlled pot stills. That, combined with wheat from a top-secret Midwestern location, and exotic fruits for the infused spirits, make some dangerously smooth vodka.

You don't have to be a professional chef, of course, to go on a food-and-wine vacation, and of course Northern California isn't the only great destination, either -- there's great shrimp and barbecue in Texas, beer, brats and cheese in Wisconsin, seafood in New England, Cajun in New Orleans -- and the list goes on. A few helpful resources for brainstorming your foodie vacation might include Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, Food and Wine, Wine Spectator, and Wine & Spirits.