A Moveable Feast: Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?
Home on the Range
Napa’s Bounty Hunter feeds the Western imagination
By Heather Irwin
We’re riding wine flights to a lather on a Saturday night at Bounty Hunter. The Cabs are as big as the Montana sky, and we’re singing “Yippy-ki-yo, git along little Chianti” at the bar. The place is packed to capacity. We’re sharing a single stool when–whoa, Nelly–my date suddenly wins the seating lotto and claims the tooled leather saddle chair that’s the bar’s prize ride. Jutting out his unshaven jaw, my guy has suddenly become the smokeless Marlboro Man. Yee haw!
Nestled in the heart of downtown Napa, Bounty Hunter Rare Wine and Provisions is a wine shop and bistro with maverick moxie for the wine cowboy–or at least that’s the schtick. All distressed wood, leather and patinated metals, the bar has that “Old West” saloon feel going on despite the fact that there ain’t a whiskey or a bourbon in sight, and the cowboys bellied up to the bar are, well, more desk jockeys than anything.
So Napa isn’t exactly the O.K. Corral. But when isn’t eating dinner with your feet in stirrups a good thing?
Here’s the skinny: About 10 years ago, wine enthusiast Mark Pope started collecting rare, unique and–to his palate and many others’–really great wines. He started the Bounty Hunter catalog and wine club, which quickly became a cult favorite, selling everything from super-high-priced premium finds to funky, inexpensive regional and international wines that just plain taste great. The catalog now numbers over 400 of what Bounty Hunter proclaims to be the “world’s best wines.”
Not content to stop there, Pope piled on a hearty dose of Hemingway and Wild West gun-for-hire fantasy, restoring the historic Senorile Building (built in 1888) into a modern-day saloon with dizzyingly high ceilings, a copper tub in the front window and a dark wooden bar. Eating with one of the finish contractors for the building across a large barrel-supported communal table, we got the story on the whole remodel over a glass of Chardonnay.
Most nights the place is packed with a combination of locals, wine junkies and vintners straight from the fields. It’s a place to kick back, down a few oysters and genuflect before those rare bottles in the “Holy Grail” section of the shop, stored both physically and financially out of reach of most patrons–though, that’s not to say all patrons. Despite creating a sort of “local hangout” status, the wine bar does have a certain clientele who don’t bat an eye at buying a $200 bottle of wine. These wines begin at upwards of $99 and soar all the way up to a $1,450 bottle of ’98 Chateau Petrus.
When asking the bartender how many of the Grail wines have actually been sold and consumed on premises, the answer is “a few.” But for the most part, the wines are simply fun, interesting finds that run in the $13 to $85 per bottle range. The list runs seven pages, ranging from local vintages to Australian and European varietals, magnums and half bottles.
Prices are lowest if you take the bottle to go, but the menu has a handy price guide letting you know exactly how shafted you’ll be if you buy or drink the same bottle elsewhere. For example, according to Bounty Hunter, the Laurent Perrier Grand Siécle Brut is $79.95 to take home, $90 if you drink it with your meal and a whopping $135 elsewhere. Such a deal!
Even more fun, we thought, is the availability of more than 40 wines by the glass, ranging from $2.50 (2 oz.) to about $8 (5 oz.) each. Mix and match, and don’t stress too much if you don’t know whether oysters go with red or white wine. The staff is amazingly helpful in making good pairing matches and will steer you to good picks.
Aside from Wednesday night hamburgers and campfire chili, the food isn’t exactly cowboy fare, though the menu is simple and uncomplicated–at least by Napa standards–and prices hover between $10 to $14 for entrées. We had the gastronomic indecency to order crawfish étoufée, a mushroom pizzetta, barbecue oysters and sashimi all at the same sitting. Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was the thrill of the saddle. Maybe it was the fact that late on a Saturday night, the menu choices were getting slim. Panic ensued.
The étoufée, we were told, had seen the last of its rice. However, our waiter liberated a scoop from the nearby Japanese restaurant, securing himself a hearty tip. The sashimi, it turned out, had also been sold out for the night. On a second trip, early in the day, the sashimi was again off the menu because the chef hadn’t liked the quality of the catch that day. So take a word of caution on getting your hopes too high about raw fish on any given day.
However, on good authority (OK, the guy sitting next to us) we tried the barbecue Hog Island oysters. We felt we were led a little astray, though: the sauce was reminiscent of KC Masterpiece bottled sauce, and the tiny oysters were a little rubbery. What we liked better were the same oysters grilled with butter and garlic. Lighter and less harsh, the oysters sang rather than gurgled through a dousing of sauce. We paired the oysters with a glass of Taltarni Brut Tache, crisp and a little creamy.
Our seafood yearnings were realized with the crawfish étoufée ($11), Louisiana crawfish tails, peppers and onions. Just spicy enough to tingle pleasurably and with plenty of Bayou flavah. The fingertip-sized tails hiding amidst the veggies made my date (a former Cajun) get a little misty. Nuthin’ like the big ol’ crawdaddies back home, babe.
I couldn’t resist the pizzetta ($11), which turned out to be the runaway winner. It’s a lusty, rustic sort of meal smelling of yeast, earthy, woody wild mushrooms, red onions, cream cheese, green onion and the crown prince of stinky cheese, Gruyère. Paired with a 2001 Leal Estate Syrah, this is billed as “legal ecstasy,” which is probably a good thing, since you’ll be sleeping alone after eating it. A lunchtime favorite is the Pastrami Reubenesque ($10) with hot pastrami, Gruyère and sauerkraut.
We skipped dessert figuring we’d straighten up with a big cup of espresso and cookies across the street at Cafe Society (1000 Main St., Napa, 707.256.3232), a French bistro plunked conveniently on yonder rue. However, Bounty Hunter has a large selection of dessert wines and ports, as well as chocolate brownies and a Meyer lemon tart–perfect for riding off into the sunset on. Just watch out for those saddle sores, Slim.
Bounty Hunter, 975 First St., Napa. Hours are Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-10pm; open until midnight, Thursday through Saturday. 707.255.0622.
The Giddy-Up-and-Go Guide
Bounty Hunter is open late on the weekends–meaning pretty much until everyone decides to get up and go home, which is usually midnight. Weekdays, they’re open until 10pm.
* After 5pm on Wednesdays, you can grab a big old cheeseburger made on the back-porch grill. For $9, insiders say, you get a whole lot of beef.
* The Holy Grail wines are housed at the back of the bar, on the right wall. Lucky enophiles can eat dinner next to the cases while drooling longingly at the Magnums housed within.
* The wine bar hosts semiregular special tastings. To get on the list, sign up for the Bounty Hunter Telegraph on their website, www.bountyhunterwine.com.
* Furthering the Hemingway mythology of the place, Bounty Hunter also offers lunchtime off-road wine country tours in a Swiss army vehicle for the truly adventurous.
From the March 24-31, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.