Napa Valley Cooking Class

August 7, 2020

A visit to the Napa Valley today would not be complete without a meal at one of its fine restaurants. Some of the world’s best chefs call Napa home, but this was not always the case. Though hard to imagine now, on its first visit to Northern California wine country in the 1970s, Condé Nast labeled the region “a culinary desert.”

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This posed a problem for the early winemaking families of Napa Valley. As Janet Trefethen recalls, “The awakening of the American palate started with fine wine. It naturally led to an interest in fine cuisine. Chefs were not appreciated like they are today, though. There was no Food Network, no concept of a ‘celebrity chef.’” The quality of Napa’s restaurants in those early years rarely lived up to the quality of its wines.

 

And so a quiet revolution began in the private kitchens of the Napa Valley. A cottage industry of amateur cooks began to take advantage of the agricultural bounty of Napa, inspired by the success of its wines, the occasional trip to Europe, and the phenomenon of Julia Child. Recipes and techniques were traded, and soon there were delicious rustic meals to be found in Napa, but only if you were invited to the family table. Ever magnanimous and with their curious palates fully awakened, the tight-knit winemaking community were central figures in the growing community of Napa gourmands, and they started to host not only dinner parties, but informal cooking demonstrations, where they would show off their new tricks. In 1973, Catherine and Janet Trefethen offered up a permanent place to host this semi-occasional gathering: a newly-built open kitchen next to a covered patio adjacent to the family home which Janet playfully christened “La Villetta”. For the next twenty-five years, the Napa Valley Cooking Class was a fixture at Trefethen.

 

 

Cooking Class

Reed Hearon Cooking Class at Trefethen in the 1990s

Cookbook created by the Napa Valley Cooking Class

This small gathering was central to the rise of a new Napa cuisine as extraordinary as the rise in Napa wine. As Napa vintners traveled the world selling their wine, they made friends with chefs who were often the restaurant’s general manager and wine buyer, too. Inevitably, they would be invited to Napa, and while in town, they would be asked to share their knowledge. And so Cindy Pawlcyn, Jeremiah Tower, Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Trotter, Michael Chiarello, Thomas Keller, and so many others stepped over the threshold into the little Villetta kitchen at Trefethen and experienced something quite uncommon in those days – a crowd of people passionate to learn about cooking. Many of these rising stars fell in love with the beauty of Napa and the hospitality of the community and decided to stay, to make it their home, too.

 

In 1992, Janet Trefethen showed the world what she had learned from all these luminaries when she cooked Julia Child Christmas dinner on Good Morning America. “I was terribly intimidated,” she said. “Right until I met her. Then I recognized that she was one of us, someone who just loved food, loved wine, and loved learning. She loved life! Her enthusiasm was infectious, which is why she was so good on TV. She was one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met.”

 

The Trefethen family’s passion for cuisine extends through the generations, and through the company. Hailey and Lorenzo Trefethen are both avid cooks and Hailey manages La Huerta, a vegetable garden that provides Trefethen employees and Winery Chef Chris Kennedy with over 10,000 pounds of fresh produce every year. She also organizes the annual salsa competition amongst Trefethen employees, and manages Trefethen’s relationship with The French Laundry, who have a large vegetable garden on property. Chef Kennedy was an early mover in the wine-pairing scene in Napa, opening a restaurant concept and then a catering company focused on making dishes for specific wines. Now full-time at Trefethen, he continues to hone his art, elevating the experience of wine tasting at the Trefethen Estate.

 

La Villetta still stands tucked into a corner of the estate gardens where every so often, a friendly chef will step over the threshold and reveal the magic of their craft.

Janet Trefethen & Julia Child at Trefethen

Janet Trefethen & Julia Child at Trefethen

Having no place to enjoy fine-dining in Napa in the early years, these pioneering families created The Napa Valley Cooking Class.

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