Tra Vigne Pinot & Cioppino Night

Wednesday evening my wife and I made what has become an annual excursion to partake of Pinot & Cioppino NIght at St. Helena’s venerable Tra Vigne Restaurant. An annual excursion for us, but a weekly routine for them.

We were a little surprised to discover that it’s an every Wednesday evening affair all year long. We’d always assumed Pinot & Cioppino Night occupied a relatively short window in winter, coinciding with Dungeness crab season, when restaurant traffic is perhaps a little slower than during the spring-summer-fall months when Wine Country tourism is at its peak.

Not so, says the maitre d’. It’s an around-the-calendar Wednesday tradition at Tra Vigne. Tra Vigne prides itself on fresh ingredients, of course, so the cioppino only has crab in it during crab season. We happen to like crab in our cioppino, but now that we are in the know we are intrigued by the opportunity to see how one kitchen team evolves this classic dish with the seasons.

Here’s Tra Vigne’s current Pinot & Cioppino menu, priced at $19.95 per person:

  • Organic Field Greens Salad with grated garlic-Meyer lemon citronette and shaved plave cheese
  • San Francisco Cioppino with Dungeness crab, mussels, clams, Hawaiian blue prawns, Monterey Bay calamari, locally caught fish with San Marzano tomato zuppetta, basil aioli, chile oil, and Meyer lemon
  • Side Dish of rosemary roasted red potatoes, organic rainbow carrots, and garlic bruschetta with Napa Valley olive oil

That’s a good value for an atmospheric restaurant with excellent service. An extra $10 gets you a small carafe of the chef’s selection Pinot Grigio, equivalent to a generous pour. We split one with the salad and another with the cioppino. So, after waiving off dessert, we left feeling well fed and pampered by a delightful hour-plus dining experience for $60 plus tax and tip. I consider that a bargain for a romantic evening out in the heart of the Napa Valley.

Throughout the evening I could not help but compare this year’s Pinot & Cioppino experience to last year’s and think about what the comparison might mean. We live about 45 minutes from Tra Vigne, so we booked an early reservation to avoid a late evening commute home in the middle of the work week.

Like last year, we arrived early for a 6:30 PM reservation. I actually didn’t think we’d need a reservation and only booked it because it’s easy via Open Table (using a link on the Napa Valley restaurants page of this website). Last year I had the feeling we had the restaurant to ourselves so early in the evening. Maybe it was just a good night, but this year we were surprised to find the parking lot crowded and perhaps three quarters of the tables inside already occupied when we arrived.

By the time we left just after 7:00 PM, every table in the restaurant was filled, except one well situated table for four that I suspect was reserved for a regular. Almost every seat at the bar also was occupied, mostly by people enjoying big bowls of cioppino.

The crowd was almost exclusively Wine Country locals. If you’re visiting and want to get a good picture of what the Wine Country lifestyle looks like, go to Tra Vigne on a Wednesday night.

Nearly everyone was having the cioppino. Tra Vigne serves its full menu on Wednesday nights—Pinot & Cioppino is simply the Wednesday special. Waiters bearing other dishes passed our table, but a large majority of the crowd seemed to be there for the cioppino special.

I take the size of the crowd at Tra Vigne early on a winter Wednesday night as further evidence that an economic recovery is in full swing in the Napa Valley. People have tired of staying home and are again venturing out, even in mid-week, to their favorite destinations. Recent reports on hotel occupancy in the Valley seem to confirm this trend.

I take the menu selections we observed as confirmation of much I have read in recent months about a “new reality” setting in following the 2008 economic collapse. Yes, people are venturing out and spending money again, but they are spending in a much more value-conscious way.

By embracing the new reality, Tra Vigne has found a way to fill a fairly large restaurant at mid-week in the middle of the winter. There’s probably a good lesson in that for other restaurants hard hit by the Great Recession, as well as for the wine and wine tourism industry more generally.

Tra Vigne is located at 1050 Charter Oak Avenue, St. Helena; 707-963-4444. Reservations are definitely recommended.—DF

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