The Red Thread™ | Napa for Normal People©
by. L.M. Archer, FWS | Bourgogne ML
Is Napa for normal people? Or for just the rarified – those willing to dole out $35 tasting fees to sample $150 bottles of wine in multi-million dollar facilities owned by multi-billion dollar corporations and family empires?
I first pondered the question of a ‘Napa for Normal People’ while listening to an International Guild of Sommelier’s podcast about Napa’s history. The podcast, a frank, free-wheeling discussion with Tim Mondavi of Continuum Estates, John Williams of Frog’s Leap, and Press Restaurant sommelier Kelli White, centered around Napa from the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 to the 1990’s.
This roundtable recalled a Napa of collaboration, curiosity, and collegiality among mostly family owned wineries – wineries dedicated to quality and innovation. I wondered – what about Napa today? The answer surprised me. Hopefully it will you, too.
Bellying up to the bar at JoLe Restaurant in downtown Calistoga, my partner in crime and I sensed we’d happened upon something special.
Subdued conversations thrummed through the scrums of tightly packed tables arranged French bistro style – the clientele a mix of locals and visitors – always a good sign. We took a place at the prep bar overlooking the place.
An upbeat, impeccably attired server brought the wine list and menu. Forget the usual big name Napa Cabernet makers we’d driven by en route to dinner. This place featured gems from off-the-radar wine makers like Shypoke, Shafer, Jericho, Larkmead, and Laura Michel.
And the food matched the same innovative vibe, featuring well-paired fare like locally sourced grilled asparagus with strawberries and lamb tongue with watermelon.
By the end of the evening, I realized I’d stumbled down the rabbit hole into another Napa – where wines reflect terroir, not Wine Advocate tout sheets, and food reflects local flavors, not Food Network soundbites.
And then it hit me. ‘Napa for normal people’ does exist – a quiet revolution burgeoning within Napa today, similar to its post-Prohibition Renaissance.
Intrigued, we chatted with the person behind the prep bar – owner Matt Spector. I learned about his journey from Pittsburg to Napa with his wife and pastry chef, Sonjia – a tale laced with passion, peril, and perhaps a bit of profanity. A story built upon hard work, humility, humor – and a commitment to quality. A story worth sharing on the Red Thread™.
RT ™ : Who or what brought you to the Napa region?
MS: I joke that my wife Sonjia brought us here – she is from Northern CA., and had worked in Napa before moving to Philly, where we met. When we would visit her parents, we would always stop here first for a few days. The same things that bring so many tourists here are the same things that brought us: Lifestyle, landscape and of course the food and wine. We always thought we would settle here, and when we had a chance to sell our restaurant in Philadelphia we figured it’s now or never.
RT ™ : Tell readers a bit about the history of JoLe Restaurant – what makes it unique?
MS: JoLe actually begins in Philly where Sonjia and I met. After working for other people, we opened our own restaurant called Matyson ( Matt & Sonjia). Fast forward 5 years – now we’re in Napa looking to open our second place, and we need a name. We have to boys Joseph, who was 4 at the time, and Jacob Levi, who was 6 months. Put their names together you get JoLe, so from Matyson – JoLe was born. At our restaurant in Philly we did themed tasting menus every week; they became the biggest part of our business. Those menus inspired our menu here, where you can design your own experience by choosing from the a la carte menu to make your own tasting -with or without wine pairings. Our feeling was you have limited time in the Valley – why not be able to try as many things as possible – especially with the wine, two 5 course dinners offers the diner a chance to try 10 different wines?
RT ™ You have an incredible wine list, featuring many of Napa’s under-the-radar rock stars and burgeoning artisans. Tell readers a little bit about the process that goes into creating JoLe’s eclectic wine list.
(Answered by James Cerda our wine buyer and GM):
JC: Our wine list really begins with our open tastings that we hold each week. Each Wednesday and Thursday between 3-4:30 p.m. we hold open tastings where any distributer, sale representative or even winemaker can stop by and pour whatever wine they have with them. In any given session, we will taste between five and twenty-five wines, usually from all over the world. About 90% of the wine we purchase come from these open tasting. What I’m really looking for during these tastings are distinctive wines. Something has to jump out at me, but I’m not looking for one thing specifically, but if I’m still thinking about a wine a day or two later, I either purchase it that week, or add it to my list of wines to be purchased in the future. With each week that passes, the list of wines to purchase in the future grows longer and longer.
When it comes to what wines make the list at any given time, I try to shape the menu around a multitude of different palates. We usually have around 60 different wines by the glass, and I like to think that no matter who walks through the door, I will have a wine by the glass that will fit their palate. This means that with the most popular varietals like Pinot, Cab and Chardonnay, I usually have two to three different offerings of each, all in different styles, and usually from different areas of the globe. Other popular varietals such as Merlot, Zin Grenache, and Syrah are also almost always represented on our list as well. After that, I get to fill out the list with quirky wines that I like, like a Gruner Veltliner from the Von Strosser winery, possibly a Mueller Thurgau from Alto Adige, or Charbono from right here in Calistoga. Price point is important as well. Our by the glass price ranges from $7-$35 per glass, and I think that one can find some great values at whatever price point they are looking at.
My favorite aspect about our wine list are the small local projects that we get to highlight. Many come from wine makers who have cut their teeth at other wineries, and are now just starting their own projects. These are sometimes the most interesting wines on our list and often times they are some of our best sellers. It’s really great that we get to offer these phenomenal wine makers a platform to showcase their wines.
With so many wines from all over the world and so many producers right here in our back yard, there is no possible way to showcase every great wine at one time, so we have taken on and embrace change when it comes to our wine list. The wine list is constantly evolving. This means that each time a guest returns to JoLe, they are likely to discover at least a couple of new wines since their last visit, and sometimes a completely new menu. Our goal is to create an exciting and ambitious by-the-glass program that is ever-changing, and focuses on smaller producers who have something to say. Often guests will come in twice in one trip and be able to have a different menu then the night before.”
RT ™: JoLe’s inventive, farm-to-table fare pair perfectly with the wines offered. Tell us about how you and your wife Sonjia collaborate on the menu – do you have specific flavor profiles you each/both favor, or is it more improvisational?
MS: Improvisational would be the best way to describe our menus. I always tell people we do American food that way we can take from the melting pot that is our country. Aside from myself and Sonjia, there are only 6 other cooks in the kitchen, and we ask all of them for input. As things come into season, we will get them on. We change pieces of the menu at different times, usually within 5 weeks the whole menu will have change.
RT™: JoLe offers a taste of first-rate food, wines and staff without the hype or high prices typically associated with Napa. Did you deliberately set out to offer a ‘normal side of Napa?’
MS: We just do our thing cook the food we like and by the wines we enjoy. We work at a high level on both sides of the line but we implore a Mom & Pop attitude. Someone wrote about us in Philly and deemed our place “casually sophisticated,” that still our goal.
RT ™: You have great staff – they really add to the dining experience at JoLe. How are you able to attract and retain such great people?
MS: Of course as business grew, we were able to attract more quality employees. While we want people to bring their own personalities to the table, we ask that they check their egos. I think people who work with us understand that they are part of a dream that is being realized by us. It is a special thing to be a part of.
RT ™ : What is/are your greatest challenge(s) running a restaurant in the Napa region?
MS: Our greatest challenge is being a seasonal business. After six years we have learned to manage it, but I will never get used to slowing down in the winter.
Care to share your thoughts about ‘Napa for Normal People’? Leave your comments below.
For more information about JoLe Restaurant:
www.jolerestaurant.com | 1457 Lincoln Ave, Calistoga, CA 94515 | (707) 942-5938
Matt & Sonjia Spector, JoLe Restaurant – Calistoga, CA
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