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Napa Valley has marketed itself as a food and wine pairing destination, but behind the carefully-curated plates and perfectly-positioned fruits, veggies and herbs are not only the chefs, but also the culinary gardeners keeping these farm-to-table offerings afloat.
Spending their days plucking microgreens, snipping flowers and watering vegetable beds, these farmers grow produce like leafy greens, fancy herbs and more to supply fresh and local ingredients to their teams of chefs, eventually landing in the mouths of visitors.
You won’t find any grapevines in these gardens — there are enough of those in the surrounding areas anyways — and now that spring has sprung, a lot of change is happening in the Napa Valley’s edible estates.
“Right now is sort of a transitional time,” said Tessa Henry, manager of the Clif Family Farm up on Howell Mountain. “We have spring plants growing, but then we have hot days where it doesn’t feel like spring anymore, so the lettuces and the spinach might not be so happy, but we are also preparing peppers and harvesting fava beans, green garlic, tatsoi and parsley.”
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Clif Family has one of Napa County’s approved culinary garden programs, and since Henry took over as farm manager after working as a gardener for Frog’s Leap Winery, she has been able to experiment with growing fruits, vegetables and flowers on the hillside property.
“Every season has been trial and error with what we can grow and what the kitchen likes and the amounts, because they like pretty much everything we give them, but they also want to make sure that there is room for it on the menu,” she said.
When miscalculations do happen, though, the chef team can get creative.
Once, Henry and her fellow gardeners harvested far more sunchokes than expected, resulting in some innovation and an added soup item on the menu.
“When it becomes available, the kitchen team figures out what to do with it, and they always turn it into something really delicious,” she said.
Additionally, since Clif Family manages a food truck and sells food retail items in their tasting room, Henry has a two-fold purpose for growing produce. On one green-thumbed hand, she provides produce for the truck’s menu — think bruschetta, sandwiches and salads — and on the other, she grows fruits and peppers for the brand’s preserves and jarred goods.
The property’s orchard provides lemons, peaches and plums for marmalades and butters, and the pepper plants make for hot sauce and spicy jams.
“We have anywhere between 60 to 70 different crops, which keeps us very busy because they all have different needs,” she said. “I am always impressed when I go and see it plated, because that’s not how we see it up here … Like the little micros that we pick — we pick these little trays of greens and we send them down twice a week, and it is this tedious snipping for at least an hour, but then you see it on a plate, it makes a difference.”
“You can tell it is fresh. You can tell it is local. It looks nice, and it makes it totally worth it,” said Henry.
Down valley in Oakville, Silver Oak Cellars also has a culinary garden program for the winery’s tasting pairings and occasional private event. Katie Davis, Silver Oak’s culinary gardener, runs a dual-property operation, managing both the Oakville garden and a property near the brand’s Healdsburg production facility all by herself.
Now, she is even busier than usual, as she also is in the process of shifting her gardens from spring crops to those more well-suited for heat.
“I am transitioning over to summer crops right now, and we had a salad on the menu so I am going from little gems and chickories to melons and cucumbers and tomatoes,” said Davis. “I already have my summer gardens all figured out, so now I am thinking about October.”
Some highlights across the Silver Oak gardens include asparagus, borage, fennel and a bitter green called bel fiore, as well as a slew of edible flowers to place atop dishes. And while Davis loves all the plants, she has a particular affinity for those in the greenhouse.
“The greenhouse … that’s my baby,” she said. “I actually really like small micro gardens, and I don’t consider myself a farmer.”
So first thing every morning, usually around 7 a.m., Davis pops over to the greenhouse to make sure everything is going to plan, and from there, she tends to her mini Eden, shifting priorities along the way.
“I have a weekly schedule that I make for myself on Monday mornings,” she said. “It is a lot of sitting at a computer to plan, and then going outside and following the plan.”
“And so, so many Excel spreadsheets,” she added with a laugh.
Culinary gardens provide fresh, local produce for Napa Valley’s food and wine pairings
Inside the greenhouse, Silver Oak Cellars
Tessa Henry, Clif Family Farm
Garden cats at Silver Oak Cellars
Katie Davis at Silver Oak’s garden
Edible flowers at Silver Oak Cellars
Up close of sprouts at Clif Family Farm
You can reach Sam Jones at 707-256-2221 and [email protected].