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DESTINATION: NAPA VALLEY

Picnics With All the Trimmings

April 11, 1999|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Napa Valley restaurants and their well-stocked wine cellars are enticing, but don't miss out on one of the wine country's great pleasures: eating in the open air. It could be as simple as a sandwich and a cookie from a deli or bakery tucked into your backpack or bike basket. Or you could go whole hog and order an elaborate picnic for two from Oakville Grocery or the new Dean & Deluca. Just, please, don't forget the wine, and make it a very good one. Most of us will do something somewhere in between, and for that, the following picnic suppliers will set you up in wine country style.

Dean & Deluca: Napa Valley has never seen the likes of this glossy transplant from SoHo in New York. People will either love it or hate it, but you can't argue with the stupendous inventory of goodies. The new St. Helena branch has everything the New York shop has and more, because here a good half of the space is devoted to the Wine Hall and its encyclopedic collection of California bottlings. I'm more likely to get lost in contemplating the impressive cheese section, which includes esoteric examples from all over the world. Every picnic needs a slice of pate, non? Or a few "French kisses"--Armagnac-soaked prunes stuffed with foie gras. In the same glass case are entire smoked eels. "I haven't seen one of those since Belgium," I heard one shopper exclaim. I found myself stocking up on Valrhona and Scharffenberger baking chocolates and teas from the venerable Paris purveyor Mariage Freres.

At the back is the take-out section with ready-made sandwiches of gourmet pedigree, inventive salads and chickens turning on the rotisserie. Roast pork loin coated in a whole-grain mustard glaze could make sandwiches or dinner in your hotel room.

Though it offers much more than any other grocery in the valley, this glamorous newcomer hasn't been embraced by the locals. It is pricey, and it does feel more like New York than the country, but for Angelenos looking to do a little hunting and gathering for items not readily available at home, it's definitely worth a look.

Cantinetta: To tell the truth, I'd much rather eat at Tra Vigne's tiny delicatessen and take-out than at the main restaurant. The food at Cantinetta is more authentically Italian, and you can pick up some hard-to-find Italian groceries at the same time. While you're waiting for the cooks to construct your panino of smoked ham with fontina and greens or roast vegetables with goat cheese and arugula, you can have an aperitivo or espresso from the bar. Spring herb frittata (Italian omelet) or focaccia stuffed with fennel sausage are good bets too. Don't forget the biscotti, and be sure to check the well-edited selection of Italian cookbooks on your way out.

The Model Bakery: I can never walk past this modest St. Helena bakery without stopping in for a crusty loaf of bread baked in the 1920s-era brick oven or ogling the pastry case. It's a great place for coffee because they open at a wide-awake 7 a.m. (earlier than many hotels) and have such enticing morning pastries. But if you want to put together a quick picnic, you can do that too. Every day they offer a couple of sandwiches (one of which is always vegetarian), such as fresh chicken salad with spring greens on cracked wheat bread or corned beef and Swiss with Russian coleslaw on sour wheat. Pick up some of the terrific chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies, and in summer, lovely individual fruit tarts. They make pizza, too, and will pack up everything to go.

Oakville Grocery: Everyone in the valley has a great affection for this gourmet grocery founded by Napa Valley winemaker Joseph Phelps. Beyond the squeaky green painted double doors is a happy clutter of good things to eat. I love poking around the crowded shelves for locally made vinegars, olive oils, mustards and jams, many of which you can sample before you buy. The cheese selection is choice, and the staff is knowledgeable. They'll make you sandwiches (Mediterranean chicken or house-roasted pork loin, to name two) or walk you through the store, putting together a custom picnic. Add a couple of salads from the deli case and one of the irresistible cookies before they're gone.

Palisades Market: At the north end of the valley, this grocery is the place to go for picnic supplies, including fresh organic produce, wild mushrooms and a small but lovely selection of cheeses. Bread from Acme Bakery in Berkeley and other artisanal bakers is fresh daily.

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GUIDEBOOK

Basket Cases

Cantinetta at Tra Vigne, 1050 Charter Oak Ave., St. Helena; telephone (707) 963-8888. Open daily for lunch and all through the afternoon.

Dean & Deluca Napa Valley, 607 S. St. Helena Hwy., St. Helena; tel. (707) 967-9980, fax (707) 967-9983. Open daily.

The Model Bakery, 1357 Main St., St. Helena; tel. (707) 963-8192. Open Tuesday through Sunday.

Oakville Grocery, 7856 St. Helena Hwy., Oakville; (707) 944-8802. Open daily.

Palisades Market, 1506 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga; tel. (707) 942-9549. Open daily.

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