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
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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 be enjoyed as sides in the holiday menus.
Sitting on the tree-shaded patio overlooking Katie’s garden, the tourist mecca that is today’s Napa Valley seems — if only for a moment — a million miles away.
Stuffed Baby Bell Peppers
Recipe by Robin Schneider, graphic designer at Trefethen Family Vineyards
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 pound mild Italian sausage
1/2 cup zucchini, diced small, or 1 cup chopped spinach
1 garlic clove, pressed or finely minced
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1/2 cup cooked jasmine rice
1/2 cup cooked three-lentil medley or your favorite lentil
1/2 cup shredded Monterey jack cheese
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
Salt to taste
18 to 20 baby bell peppers, raw
2 cups Michael Chiarello’s Marinara Sauce (see recipe below)
1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat oven to 350 F.
2. Heat olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the sausage, breaking it up into smaller pieces and cooking until almost done. Next add the zucchini and cook until just soft, then stir in the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds.
3. Remove skillet from the heat and add parsley, rice, lentils, Monterey jack cheese and half the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Toss lightly until well mixed, then add salt to taste.
4. Cut the tops off the peppers and remove the membranes and seeds. Stuff the peppers lightly to the top with the rice and sausage mixture.
5. Place a small amount of marinara sauce on the bottom of a 10-inch casserole dish, and place the peppers side by side in one layer. Top with remaining marinara sauce. Cover and place in oven.
6. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Check the softness of the peppers with a sharp knife. When they are just getting soft, uncover and cook another 5 to 10 minutes.
7. Remove from the oven and top the peppers with the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.
Tip: These taste even better when reheated the next day.
Michael Chiarello’s Marinara Sauce
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 4 cups
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup onion, minced
Half a bunch of fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
4 cups fresh tomato puree
1 large fresh basil stem with leaves removed
Sea salt, preferably gray salt
Pinch of baking soda or sugar, if needed
1. Heat the olive oil in a large, non-reactive pot over moderate heat.
2. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the parsley and garlic and cook briefly to release their fragrance. Add the tomatoes, basil and salt.
3. Simmer briskly until reduced to a sauce-like consistency, stirring occasionally so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. The timing will depend on the ripeness and meatiness of your tomatoes and the size of your pot. If the sauce thickens too much before the flavors have developed, add a little water and continue cooking.
4. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If the sauce tastes too acidic, add a pinch of baking soda and cook for 5 more minutes. If it needs a touch of sweetness, add a pinch of sugar and cook for 5 more minutes. Remove the basil stem before serving.
Tip: You can triple this recipe and stash it in the freezer to have on hand for quick meals.
Shaved Zucchini with Burrata Cheese and Calabrian Chili Paste
Recipe by chefs Nate Smith and Chef Itamar Abramovitch, Blossom Catering, Napa Valley, California
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
4 medium zucchinis (for presentation, select green, yellow and multicolor)
1 teaspoon Calabrian chili paste (see preparation instructions below)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons high-quality extra virgin olive oil, plus more for the cheese
Sea salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Half a bunch of basil
6 small balls of Burrata cheese
1. Trim the ends from the zucchinis and very carefully slice the zucchinis lengthwise into thin ribbons, using a mandolin.
2. Place the zucchini slices in a large mixing bowl and smear a thumbnail-sized dollop of Calabrian chili paste in the bowl, then drizzle with lemon juice and olive oil.
3. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Tear a few fresh basil leaves from the bunch and place them in the bowl. Using your hands, gently mix everything together without snapping the zucchini ribbons. (They will become flexible and succulent after seasoning). Let the zucchini marinate for a few moments while you prepare the cheese.
5. Place a piece of Burrata onto a bowl or platter and then sprinkle the cheese with some sea salt and fresh black pepper and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
6. Carefully twist and place the zucchini on top of the Burrata so the cheese is enrobed in a tangle of the freshly marinated zucchini.
7. Pour any liquid remaining in the bowl over the zucchini and garnish with freshly chopped basil.
Calabrian chili paste
To make the paste, remove the chilies from a 10-ounce package from the oil. Remove the chili stems, then blend the chilies and oil in a food processor for about 1 minute, until a thick paste is formed. Place the paste in the chili jar and store it in the refrigerator.
Tip: Calabrian chilies are available in many gourmet groceries and can also be purchased on Amazon.