Month: June 2016

A Pair of Aces for Father’s Day.

Napa Through A Wine Glass

Yesterday was Father’s Day.  I am a father.  Therefore, it was my day.  In fact, I considered that the whole weekend was for fathers – and therefore, for me.  It was glorious in Napa – blue skies, warm weather, nice breezes – so I asked my lovely wife to set up some leisurely winery visits.  I’m not greedy, so I asked for one visit Saturday and one Sunday.  Reasonable, right?  She came through in a major way and set up Father’s Day weekend tastings at two of Napa’s best wineries – one an old favorite, where we are also members, and one that we have been wanting to visit since we moved to Napa two years ago.

Saturday’s wine tasting was at Robert Sinskey Vineyards on Silverado Trail.  We joined RSV  on my wife’s birthday back in 2014, shortly after moving to Napa.  We loved the wine, the location, but also Sinskey’s commitment to sustainable farming.  All of their wines are produced from organic grapes; also, they grow a number of fruits of vegetables on their property, also following organic practices.  Many of the fruits and vegetables that they grow on their estate end up in the tasty morsels that Sinskey pairs with their wine tastings.

Ten years ago, buying organic wines often required a trade-off in terms of wine quality.  Not today.  Some of the best wines in Napa, and around the world, are being made from grapes that are the product of organic and biodynamic farming.  When we share Sinskey wines with friends that have not experienced them before, they often tell us, “the wine tastes so clean.”  We agree, and have been enjoying our monthly allocation of white and red wines for the past couple of years.  Saturday’s tasting was a perfect mix of our favorite white and red wines.


Sinskey tasting list

Homemade morsels paired with the wine


Wine #1 was the Pinot Gris, which certainly lived up to the tasting note’s promise of aroma/flavor of melon, pear and apple.  It was our first time tasting the Pinot Gris and it stood out as a high quality white wine.  The fruit was obvious on both the nose and the palate but it was not a sweet wine – the fruit was balanced by acidity and minerality, making it a pleasant but complex white wine.  We made our way through the menu, enjoying the Sinskey Abraxas, their unique blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer.  The Abraxas was another beautifully made white wine that brings the fruit from each of the four varietals but also respects the terroir from which the grapes came.  After the two whites we enjoyed three reds – a Pinot, Sinskey’s POV red blend, and  Cabernet Sauvignon.  Maybe because it was Father’s Day weekend, our wine helper poured Sinskey’s Cabernet Franc as well – easily one of the top two or three Cab Franc wines in all of Napa.

The staff is extremely friendly at Sinskey, the location is unbeatable, and they have built one of the best tasting room environments we have ever experienced.  If you want to taste inside, there is a long bar that can easily accommodate a couple dozen people.  In addition, there are multiple tables inside for longer seated tastings.  For us, the real treat at Sinskey is their outside tasting area, which is generally reserved for members.  There are a variety of tables and lounge seating areas as well as a new indoor/outdoor patio which is shaded from the sun but still benefits from the outside breeze.  We left Robert Sinskey Vineyards smiling and happy – not just because of the tasting experience, but because we were picking up a couple of months worth of wine club shipments.

After the Sinskey experience Saturday, I wasn’t sure that anything Sunday could match it, let alone top it.  We had originally planned to visit a new winery in Sonoma but they had to cancel, leaving us with no firm plans.  Out of the blue, my wife suggested that we visit Grgich Hills winery, famous for its founder, Miljenko (“Mike”) Grgich.  Just over 40 years ago, as the winemaker for Chateau Montelena, Mike Grgich made a Chardonnay wine that beat the French in the now-famous 1976 Judgement of Paris.  This feat was memorialized in the 2008 film “Bottleshock.”  Luckily, Grgich Hills had an opening for a reservation at 3pm and we jumped at it.  Because it was Father’s Day, I made our twin 19-year-olds come along as well, despite their complaints about being bored.  Our wine steward, Karen, had set up a beautiful table with six wine glasses and a cheese board for pairing.

Grgich Hills Father’s Day Tasting Menu

For us, the Grgich Hills wines were all new – we had not visited the winery nor do I recall ordering the wine at a restaurant or picking it up at a wine shop or supermarket.  We loved all of the wines, in particular the Petit Verdot, which in France is almost exclusively used to blend with other wines (usually Cabernet Sauvignon). Another favorite was the 2013 Violetta Late Harvest.  Grgich takes a minimalistic approach to wine making.  He believes that wine is made in the vineyard; he is not a fan of the practice that is common in Napa and other wine making regions of manipulating the wine after the grapes have been harvested.  The Grgich Hills approach is more European in style – wines with lower alcohol percentages and more balance (no “fruit bombs” at Grgich) between fruit and minerality.

I could tell you more about each of the wines but the descriptions in the tasting menu are pretty accurate.  I was able to coax Karen into pouring a second glass of the Late Harvest and was enjoying when the door to our tasting room opened and a woman entered.  “Mike would like to say hello,” she informed us.  “Huh,” I muttered, as I sipped the wonderous Violetta.  “Mike Grgich would like to say hello, if that’s okay.”  Two thoughts came to mind. First, “it’s his winery, he can do whatever he wants.”  Second, “of course it’s okay, he’s a legend!”  Into our tasting room shuffled the icon himself, Miljenko (“Mike) Grgich, the diminutive David who slayed the French Goliath in 1976 and literally helped put Napa on the wine map.  It’s difficult to imagine what Napa would be like today without that amazing moment in history.  Mr. Grgich sat down at our table and spent 15-20 minutes regaling us with stories from his life and pearls of his wisdom.

Sharing Time With a Legend

Mr. Grgich has had a truly remarkable life.  This spirited 93-year-old wine legend started life in Croatia and attended the University of Zagreb, where he studied enology and viticulture.  By way of Germany and Canada, Grgich eventually found his way to Napa Valley.  He told us how sad and homesick he was in California and wondered whether he had made the biggest mistake of his life.  He left his family behind and was in the United States alone; he didn’t feel connected to anyone or anything.  And then, as he put it, “Andre saved my life.”  The Andre in question is Andre Tchelistcheff, a winemaker from Russia who is frequently referred to as the “dean of American winemaking.”  His influence in Napa Valley cannot be overstated, although most people do not know his name and he is destined never to be a household name.  For Grgich, though, Tchelistcheff  was the mentor he was looking for, as well as someone he could relate to – a fellow immigrant, someone who could relate to his Slavic roots.

Grgich talked about the 1976 Judgement of Paris but also mentioned two other notable moments in history to which he contributed.  The first was making a Cabernet Sauvignon for Robert Mondavi that was selected as the best Cab in all of California – and contributed to Mondavi becoming a powerhouse winery in Napa.  The second occurred after the Judgement of Paris, after Grgich and his partner, Austin Hills, started their own winery, Grgich Hills.  At the Great Chicago Showdown in 1980, Grgich Hills Chardonnay bested 221 other Chardonnay wines from around the world.  Grgich remembered his three big moments with crystal clarity and evident pride.  It was his parting shot of wisdom, however, that cracked us all up but also left us, we think, a little bit wiser.  “The two most important things in life,” he told us, “start with the letter `W’.”  Of course, one of the “W’s” is wine. The other?  Women.  A simple formula, but an unimpeachable one as well.  I will take my two “W’s” any day, and feel very grateful that my Woman had the luck, or forethought, to set up a tasting on a day that Grgich would be visiting and have time to spend with us.  By the time our tasting was over, we were lucky enough to taste more wines that just those on the tasting menu, including one of the best Merlot’s we have tried as well as a Zinfandel that inspired us to buy several bottles in addition to what we had already picked out.

We left Grgich Hills changed by the humbling experience of spending time with a true legend.  Also, we left members of the Grgich Hills wine club.  That may get me into trouble as my Woman and I have been operating under a self-imposed “no new wine clubs” rule for the past year or so.  But I’m pretty sure when my wife gets the first shipment, with the Petit Verdot and the Merlot, she will forgive me.

John and Irene Ingersoll

Napa, California, June 19, 2016



Vino y vista – wine worthy of the view

Artesa building shot
Artesa Winery Entrance

Some wineries you visit for the quality of the wine. Others (you know which ones we’re talking about!) you visit despite the wine, because of the view, or the beautiful grounds, or the caves, or even the cable car.  With a handful of wineries, you visit for both the wine and the experience.  Artesa Winery in Napa Valley is one of those wineries where the quality of the wine is only enhanced and accentuated by the spectacular views, the dazzling architecture of the winery building, and the sleek interior space of the tasting room.

Artesa is one of several wineries in Napa and Sonoma owned by Spanish wine conglomerates – in Artesa’s case, by Cordoniu, the second-largest global producer of cava (a Spanish sparkling wine made by the traditional champagne method).  Like many other European wine companies, Cordoniu had its eye on the Napa Valley as far back as the 1980’s and started acquiring property in the Carneros region, which is known for its cooler climate and unique soil.  Twenty-five years ago, in 1991, Cordoniu opened what was then referred to as Cordoniu Napa.  Six years later, the winery was renamed “Artesa,” which in the Spanish dialect of Catalan means “handcrafted.”

And the wines are indeed “handcrafted,” grown in small, single-vineyard blocks  and producing wines from the grapes that typically thrive in Carneros – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  In addition to these classic Carneros varietals, Artesa produces several Cabernet Sauvignon and Red blends from grapes sourced from other locations in Sonoma County and Napa Valley.

One of our good friends and fellow Napans is a member of Club Artesa, the winery’s wine club.  As a result of her membership, she received frequent invites to events at the winery, and we were lucky enough to be invited guests to an event this past Friday – Artesa’s Summer Wines and Bites party to celebrate their release of new wines.

Our visit this past Friday was not our first time at Artesa so we knew what to expect. But each time we visit, the breathtaking scenery and views take us by surprise.  The first thing visitors notice about the winery is that it is literally built into the mountain, sitting majestically atop the hillside.  As visitors climb the stairs to the entrance, they will encounter beautiful fountains and sculptures along the way.

Artesa landscape
Root Vine Sculpture by Gordon Huether
artesa fountain
Artesa Fountain by Gordon Huether
Artesa sculpture
Huether Sculpture

Perhaps you’ve noticed the name “Heuther” several times in the captions of the pictures above.  Like a few other wineries in the Napa Valley, Artesa has its own artist-in-residence, Gordon Huether, who is a local Napa artist but one whose art is on display across the United States and around the world.  Huether’s unique sculptures and other works of art add to the ambiance of the winery.

When you finally arrive at the “top” of the steps, the 360-degree views are among the best of any in the Napa Valley.  In one direction, visitors can look towards San Pablo Bay; indeed, on a clear day you can see all the way to San Francisco.  To capitalize on this view, Artesa has patio seating on the south side of the winery building.

Artesa deck
Outdoor Patio With Views of Carneros and the Bay

If we just stopped here, most people would conclude that Artesa is worth a visit, at least for the scenery and the views.  But we said the wine was worth it too, and in our Friday visit it proved to be so again.  We tasted the new release of Artesa’s Rose as well their Cabernet.  Both were fantastic and lived up to expectations from previous visits to the winery.  We mentioned the event was called “Wines and Bites.”  And boy did they have bites!  Artesa always throws a good party and Friday was no exception.  They had an amazing spread to pair with the Rose and Cab.

Artesa tapas
Artesa Tapas
IMG_0926 (1).JPG
Our Plate!

If you want to visit Artesa, click here to see their hours, tour information, and book a tour online:


John and Irene Ingersoll

June 14, 2016

Dining at Torc. Again.

Halibut Entrée at Torc Napa

One of the best restaurants in Napa, hands down, is Torc, located on Main Street just north of 1st Street.  Torc is a perfect place for locals (like us) but also a uniquely Napa experience that caters perfectly to out-of-town visitors as well.  We made a reservation to eat at Torc Friday night, but it was not our first time.  Not by a long shot.  Although we have not gone back and counted visits, it is probably the restaurant we have dined at the most in all of Napa Valley.  For a variety of reasons, we had not been there in a few months – our longest gap between visits.

When we were seated, we looked around for our favorite waiter, Milton, who had guided us through the food and wine choices almost every time we had previously visited.  We learned that Milton was no longer working there and had a moment of crisis, wondering if our experience would suffer without his guidance.  However, we had the fortune to have Timothy attending to our needs, who was fantastic in helping us track all of the changes to the menu since our last visit.

The menu at Torc changes frequently as ingredients come in and out of season.  Their chef, Sean O’Toole, favors fresh local ingredients and sources both vegetables as well as meat, poultry and pork from local farms.  Because of his background working in restaurants all over the United States and in Europe, Sean’s cooking cannot be shoe-horned into a single culinary category:  “continental,” or “European” or “California.”  There is no attempt to be subtle with his cooking; he prefers bold flavors that really bring the dishes to life.  In nearly all of his dishes, there are unique combinations of spices, herbs, oils, and ingredients that other chefs might not think to add.  There was a period of time when he was experimenting with sriracha, the spicy hot Thai sauce.  Many of his dishes also feature classic Indian and Asian spices.

In addition to the food menu, Torc also boasts an impressive wine list with offerings from local wine regions (Napa and Sonoma) as well as wines from around the world.  Many of their best wines are available by the glass as a result of their “Coravin system.”  If you haven’t seem a Coravin before, you’re missing out!  The Coravin is a device that has a needle-like component that pierces the cork, enters the bottle, and draws out wine.  When the needle is removed, the cork closes back up again and the wine can be put back on the shelf – it does not need to be poured within hours.  Because of this device, high-end restaurants have been able to provide by-the-glass options on wines that customers could normally taste only if they purchased the entire bottle.  We brought our own bottle of wine on Friday night and did not order anything off of Torc’s menu this visit.

As we scanned the menu Friday night, we saw mostly new items.  Torc’s menu is structured in three basic sections:  dishes that are on the smaller side, basically appetizers; larger dishes that can be shared with others; and then the entrees.  We started with one of the smaller items, an octopus salad, which turned out to be a classic “Chef Sean” dish:  the octopus was wonderfully prepared, very soft and flavorful.  Consistent with his global approach to flavors, the octopus salad had a decidedly Asian flair, with a yuzu vinaigrette and togarashi, a blend of Asian spices.  At the same time as the salad we ordered a cold vegetable soup with peas, fava beans and pistou, a Provencal sauce similar to a pesto.  While simple, the soup had great flavor, accentuated by the mushrooms.

After the salad and soup we ventured into the “middle” section of the menu, selecting the tempura softshell crab.  The tempura was light and did not overwhelm the flavor of the crab.  To complement the tempura crab, we also ordered the squash blossoms, which are breaded and deep-fried but also very light.  The blossoms were served with an olive aioli that was a perfect partner for the crunchy blossoms.   When we finished the crab and blossoms, we encountered our first moment of truth: do we proceed to the entrees or continue ordering small and medium plates?  We decided to split an entrée, hoping we might have room for dessert.  At Torc, there are some great entrée options, including fine cuisine classics like scallops and short ribs. But the two most impressive entrée options are a whole chicken for two and a dry-aged New York strip steak, also for two.  Both of these entrees take a while to prepare and should be ordered soon after being seated.  We were already too deep into the meal to contemplate such large entrees and settled for the halibut shown above.

The other moment of truth came after the halibut was consumed:  the “do we or don’t we?” decision around dessert.  We concluded that we deserved dessert and ordered the panna cotta, which we loved.  When one of us went to the bathroom (Irene) the other decided to keep the fun going by ordering an after dinner drink.  We were intrigued by the selection of the Italian digestif amaro, a drink we have had a few places but is not on many restaurant’s drink list.  It turns out that Timothy was an expert in amaro and gave us the run-down on the eight different amaros on their list.  He recommended the Fernet Branca, which one of us ordered (twice!) while the other of us had the Meletti.  Along with espresso and cappuccino, it was a fantastic way to end another amazing meal at Torc.  As we were leaving, we promised ourselves that we would be back very soon. Father’s Day?

John and Irene, June 5, 2016

Meletti Amaro
Fernet Branca Amaro
Iberico ham