Cookbook author Q&A: Recipes inspired by wine country’s edible gardens

Kate Bradshaw, The Mercury News on

Published in Entertaining

Diving into the world of wine country’s edible gardens, Napa-based author Janet Fletcher invites readers to explore the intersection of food, wine and gardening in her cookbook, “Gather: Casual Cooking from Wine Country Gardens” (Harry N. Abrams, $40).

Fletcher – whose other titles highlight her expertise in cheese, wine and farmers market cooking – transports readers to idyllic wine country, where farm-to-table fare is woven into the fabric of daily life. Its pages offer more than 60 recipes, structured around stories of the region’s wineries and their gardens in Napa, Sonoma and Livermore.

At Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena, for example, golden beets become a sunny gazpacho. Wente Vineyards in Livermore serves a risotto with pancetta and arugula and blood orange creme brulee. And at Cakebread Cellars in Rutherford, cedar-plank grilled salmon gets a dollop of a roasted tomato butter that goes with everything.

Below is an interview with Fletcher, edited for length and clarity.

Q: You have a long history of writing books about cheese, food and wine. What inspired the approach for this book?

A: The book came out of a magazine article I was asked to write a few years ago about wineries that had edible gardens. That just flipped a switch for me. I gradually realized there might be a book there that would showcase these wineries and the way that gardens enhance their hospitality. In almost every case, that’s the reason for the garden – to make a more beautiful visitor experience and to provide really fresh fruits and vegetables for their guest programs.

It was a dream project, because it brought together all my interests: food, wine, gardening and farm-to-table cooking. I discovered that these gardens exist in a range of styles. Some of them are very modest, and some of them are really ambitious. And they’re a real enhancement to the visitor experience in Napa Valley, Sonoma and beyond.

Q: What makes this book different from some of your others?

A: These are not my recipes. Usually the recipes are recipes that I’ve developed, but these were created by, in most cases, chefs who are either employed by the winery as the winery chef, or they’re a chef that the winery has a longstanding relationship with. The Alexander Valley Vineyards recipes are from family recipes. Chefs understand that when they have such beautiful produce coming right out of their garden, the best thing to do is to treat it simply and showcase that produce.

These are recipes generated by professional chefs, so they have a level of polish to them and a beautiful presentation. But many are very approachable. At Robert Mondavi Winery, they made what looks like a sheet of pasta, but it’s actually a cracker dough that the chef rolled through a pasta machine with edible flowers. Flattened out, it looks like stained glass – it’s gorgeous.

Q: Are these dishes that people can order at the wineries?

A: Wineries don’t really have restaurants, with very few grandfathered exceptions. These are dishes that chefs created, in some ways spontaneously for this book, based on what they had in the garden. In some cases, they made signature dishes. These are dishes that chefs have often figured out are good to go with their wines.

A lot of wineries have a chef on staff or somebody on call that they have a relationship with because they do so much entertaining. Wineries understand that their wine tastes better when it’s served with food, and people are enjoying it around a table. So it’s very common for wineries to have a chef or a very accomplished cook on staff, even just sometimes to make tasting plates. But most of these wineries have a more ambitious food program.


Q: I saw that some of these wineries also use their gardens to provide produce to their workers. Can you expand on that?

A: At Trefethen (Family Vineyards), that’s really what the garden is for. I mean, they do use the produce for their entertaining, but most of the produce goes to the employees.

Q: You talk about how these winery gardens have different uses – including as sensory gardens. What are some of the typical plants that you encountered in these sensory gardens and how do they enhance the experience of the wine?

A: One of the most interesting examples of that is the Prisoner Wine Company in Napa Valley. They have a garden that’s very herb-focused and some amazing varieties of thyme and basil that I had never seen before. Their wine educators will bring visitors into the garden and say, “Here smell this,” and try to educate consumers about all the aromas that can be found in wine. They use the garden as a link to the wines and the possible aromatic compounds that develop in wine. But the garden is also there to give the chef a lot of fun things to play with that can scent his dishes and also call to mind some of the scents that are in the wines.

Q: Were there any gardens that inspired you in your own cooking and gardening?

A: One of the gardens that most impressed me is Regusci Winery. It is fantastic. Laura Regusci has a masters degree in agricultural education, and she taught organic farming and gardening at the junior college and high school level. One thing that I learned from her is that you can grow a garden that’s both very productive but also beautiful, filled with color all season long.

Q: The book also highlights some interesting edible plants that people might not be as familiar with…

A: I loved that the chef at B Cellars made a dish with parsnips two ways, both puréed and as chips, because parsnips are definitely an underappreciated vegetable. I loved the wide use of edible flowers. One chef at Prisoner (Wine Company) made a vinaigrette using umeboshi, the Japanese pickled plums, in a really delicious spread. Another dish I really loved is a Turkish way of cooking vegetables – cooking them fairly slowly for a long time with a good amount of olive oil, potatoes and onions. They get soft, silky and no longer crunchy, and they’re infused with the olive oil flavor. They’re just divine.

Q: Did you come away with a favorite recipe?

A: There are some that I have made multiple times. One I really love is from the Clif Family Winery. They don’t have a restaurant, but they have a food truck that sits outside their winery called Bruschetteria. The chef makes a lot of different kinds of bruschetta, and the one he made for the book has burrata on top – so how could it go wrong? On top of the burrata, he puts a variety of vegetables in the brassica family – whatever they have in their garden – and it’s quite delicious.

Another recipe I really liked that’s fun for summer is a Meyer lemon curd parfait. It’s kind of a deconstructed tart. There are layers of the creamy curd and the crunchy pie crust and blueberries.



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