Napa Winery's Garden, A Year-Round Place Of Culinary Inspiration
by Mira Honeycutt
In the midst of Napa Valley’s palatial wineries, Katie’s Garden, at Trefethen Family Vineyards, is a sanctuary. Among the maze of shrubs, trees and green patches, the garden is a fascinating symphony of organized chaos: bushes and bursts of flowers dot the vegetable patches and wind around the orchard.
Visitors who come to taste Trefethen’s signature Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon at the Villa Trefethen visitor center find themselves in this hidden gem, a calming alternative to the usual trappings of wine country tours and tastings.
Third-generation vintner Hailey Trefethen is the dedicated keeper of the garden, named after her late grandmother. Nothing sat on the land when her grandparents Gene and Katie Trefethen purchased it in 1968, Hailey said. "She planted redwoods," she said in awe of her grandmother, an avid horticulturist who referred to her garden as a painter’s canvas. Katie left her touch by planting desert cypresses, an assortment of fruit trees, vegetable patches and a rose garden.
A Garden for the Generations
Hailey feels connected to the garden, reminiscing about picking vegetables with her grandmother after school. "When she got older we would take her in a golf cart and she would work on her bonsai," Hailey recalled.
As an executive vice president at the winery, Hailey’s duties go far beyond tending the garden, including managing the winery’s sustainability efforts -- recycling water for irrigation, turning waste into compost and planting cover crops in the vineyards to enhance soil health.
When the senior Trefethens purchased the run-down property, it came with an abandoned 19th-century winery. At the time, Napa Valley had more prune and walnut orchards than vineyards, with fewer than 25 wineries. In 1973, the Trefethens’ son John and his wife, Janet -- Hailey’s parents -- began restoration of the winery in the valley’s Oak Knoll District. Over time, Trefethen Family Vineyard's distinctive wines have found a firm footing on Napa’s wine map. These are not your snob-value Napa Valley wines, but instead affordable, food-friendly wines crafted from estate vineyards ranging in price from $25 to $60.
The garden sits near the Craftsman-style house Gene and Katie lived in. After their deaths, Hailey and her brother Loren -- also an executive vice president at the winery -- moved in, and Hailey got more connected to the garden. Hailey and Loren have both since moved out of the house, which now functions as Villa Trefethen.
The Villa, open daily by appointment, was created as an interim visitor center to replace the original tasting room. The historic winery building, constructed in 1886, is undergoing an extensive reconstruction following the 2014 earthquake. The Villa, with its alcoves, nooks and flower-filled terraces, has proved so popular it will continue as a visitor center.
In the garden, Hailey digs into the potato patch planted with assorted varieties, pulling out a handful. "In a couple of weeks we will have carrots, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, beets and Bilko cabbage," she said. "So lots of goodies for everyone to take home now and throughout winter." Come February, oranges will be in season, she said.
Sharing the garden produce with the staff has been the practice for years, Hailey explained. "The main focus is to distribute the produce," she said. "We had the privilege of growing up enjoying fresh fruit, so we want to be able to share with our employees."
Employees occasionally prepare lunch at the professional kitchen, known as The Villetta, but more often the produce is taken home. "Today we picked over 100 pounds of apples, which we distributed," Hailey said. At times, employees use the fruits and vegetables to make pies and other dishes that they then bring to the winery to share.
The Villetta concept was Janet’s. "In the 1970s, Napa was a culinary wasteland," Hailey said. "There weren’t many restaurants here."
Janet, who was quite a force in Napa Valley, corralled the support of Katie --her mother-in-law and herself an accomplished cook -- along with other female vintners, including the late Margrit Mondavi, with a mission to promote the art of wine with food. In 1973, she founded The Villetta as a groundbreaking Napa Valley cooking class.
"They invited chefs to come and cook," Hailey said. Renowned chefs such as Jeremiah Tower, Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Tropp have dropped by, and Napa chef Michael Chiarello filmed his television show, "Easy Entertaining," at The Villetta.
On a recent visit, the staff prepared a lunch straight from the garden. The tomato and zucchini salad was paired with the 2014 Trefethen Chardonnay, layered with citrus and tropical fruits, and the stuffed bell peppers were served with the 2013 Merlot, ripe with cherry and plum notes. Both dishes can also be enjoyed as sides.
Copyright Mira Honeycutt via Zester Daily and Reuters Media Express