Stepping onto the grounds at the Cairdean Estate is, at first glance, unremarkable. To the right of the parking lot, heavy machinery stands in front of a wide building. To the left, a series of low-slung buildings sit quietly, as if waiting for something to happen. There is little noise, other than the occasional whoosh of passing cars. Walk into the Estate’s main area, however, and you immediately remember why that first impressions are often unreliable.
There are numerous buildings in the main compound, each adding their own distinct voice to the Cairdean composite. The tasting room is likely to be your first stop. Stand at the bar to enjoy a flight of tastes across the spectrum of Cairdean’s wines, then relax on one of the cozy couches and chairs while you contemplate what lies across the courtyard. Twinned to the tasting room by a covered walkway is the clubbier winemaker’s den. Furnished with a fireplace and deep leather club chairs, this room is available by reservation only. Across the green courtyard, past the Curaçao blue shimmer of a cascading waterfall, another building, still under construction, will become a banquet space. (Once the banquet space is open, bridal parties will surely pose in front of the waterfall.)
Up a short ramp stands and nearly hidden behind trellises and wide, vine-covered awnings shielding a broad deck stands Butterscots, a culinary market, deli and bakery. The entire menu is designed for picnicking; everything is easy to pack into your own bag or one of the cute picnic baskets from the market. Savor a cheddar and scallion scone, sandwiches such as the pork “knuckle sandwich” with caramelized onions and cheddar or a salad (available in small, medium or large) like the butternut squash, pickled shrimp, pistachio and lime. Scotch eggs are a specialty of the house and are not to be missed. Inside layers of chile-infused sausage and a crisp panko crust hides a silken egg, its yolk not hard like every other Scotch egg I have ever experienced, but soft and runny, giving each bite layers of texture and just a hint of heat.
The creations at Butterscots are the work of Joseph Humphrey, Cairdean Estate’s Executive Chef. Humphrey launched his cooking career at New Orlean’s Palace Café and honed his California Cuisine chops by opening the Restaurant at Meadowood and at Auberge du Soleil where he was Executive Chef. Acclaimed for his southern accented California Cuisine, Humphrey continues to pay tribute to his southern heritage and upbringing on the menu at Butterscots and The Farmer & the Fox, the gastropub across the breezeway that rounds out the food offerings at Cairdean.
Situated in a similarly low-slung, putty colored building as the rest of the compound, The Farmer & the Fox is open only for dinner. Dark wood tables, made cozy with the soft light from shaded lamps, are framed by tufted maroon banquettes. The evening I visited, the music was classical, the vibe calming if not quite romantic. On the menu, Humphrey adds clear Californian and Southern touches to dishes familiar to the British and Scottish gastropub cannon. A complimentary kale salad amuse bouche, the components artistically arranged to modern effect, was as whimsical as it was local. Last of the season tomatoes were settled in a subtle tomato water and adorned with seaweed toast.
Whiskey cured salmon with Scottish beer bread, pickled onions and herbs was lush and surprisingly fresh, large feathers of dill riffing off the whiskey’s smoky sweetness. Lamb tartare with mint and curry brioche was equally impossible to stop eating. The meat’s distinct mineral tang, softened by the buttery bread, found depth of flavor from the curry and a brightness from the mint. Every dish, from the rabbit Wellington to the butter poached shrimp with oatmeal cracker and sour orange chutney, was a revelry in the flavors of the British diaspora and a showcase for Humphrey’s abundant talents.
The short wine list is less about showcasing Napa varietals and more about revealing beautiful wines from sometimes less familiar grapes, sotto voce. It all began with a zippy Lucien Albrecht cremant, an ideal partner for the tomatoes and Brussels sprouts before transitioning to an Abbazia di Novacella “Kerner” with the salmon and the lamb tartare. Guided by our competent server, we enjoyed the Saint Cyr, a lively Gamay, with the duck wings and wrapped up with a Cabernet France from Cairdean’s Acquaintance Vineyard.
Truly there were no off notes to my Cairdean experience, not a one. The meal was a highlight of the season, the individual components of the restaurant working together in sonic harmony.
And that heavy machinery on the other side of the parking lot? These burly tools are hard at work inside the soon-to-be-completed winery and caves. Check out this short video for a look inside the caves.