Month: July 2016

A 158-Year-Old Family Winery

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Cabernet Sauvignon at Gundlach Bundschu, Sonoma, California

Living in Napa, literally within walking distance to local wineries, we often get locked in to our hometown wineries.  For the past few years, we have  been working our way up and down the Napa Valley and mostly ignoring wineries in neighboring Sonoma.  This weekend, we decided to break out and get out of town and try something a bit father from home.  Not that far from home, mind you – we went about 10 miles away to Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma.  We have found their wines at restaurants over the years and were mostly familiar with their white wines.  Also, we have driven by the entrance to the winery every time we drive out of Napa.  Today, we decided it was time to pay them a visit.

Rather than just a tasting, we signed up for a tour and tasting because the description of the tour was so intriguing.  Beyond the typical walk around the winery and visit to the barrel room, the  Gundlach tour involved jumping into a jeep-type vehicle and driving around through the vineyards and, ultimately, having our tasting in the middle of the vines.  This seemed too good to pass up.

When we arrived and joined our fellow tour participants, we met our guide.  Surprisingly, our tour guide turned out to be Rob Bundschu, 158 years removed from the original Bundschu that started the winery. Appropriately billed as the “Commander of Hospitality,” Rob packed us all into a Pinzgauer 712, an Austrian army vehicle that comfortably seated the 8 of us taking the tour.

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Pinzgauer 712 – Our Ride Around the Vineyards

As we drove around the vineyard, named Rhinefarm, we got a sense of the history of Gundlach Bundschu.  Rob took us through history of the winery, which opened for business in 1858, started by two german immigrants (you guessed it, Gundlach and Bundschu).  From their native Germany, they brought cuttings of traditional varietals such as Gewürztraminer.  Today, six generations of Bundschu’s later, they are still making a German-style Gewürztraminer but have also added a number of other wines to their repertoire.  Among them are such Sonoma standards as Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Pinot, but also some wines not as frequently found in Sonoma:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Tempranillo.

 

From 1858 to 2016, Gundlach Bundschu has been through a number of ups and downs.  The 1906 San Francisco earthquake nearly destroyed the company as its tasting room was located in San Francisco.  Not long after the winery recovered from the earthquake and moved its headquarters to Sonoma, an even more devastating challenge came along:  Prohibition.  From 1920 to 1933, the sale of alcoholic beverages, including wine, was illegal in the United States. During that time, Gundlach Bundschu, along with most other U.S. wineries, closed down – most of them forever.  Fortunately, in 1973, 40 years after the end of prohibition, Gundlach Bundschu reopened and began selling wines again.  Today, the winery makes and sells about 30,000 cases a year – one-tenth of the volume it made and sold prior to prohibition.

After taking us around most of the 32o acres of Rhinefarm, Rob stopped the Pinzgauer and we got out and sat down for our tasting in a quaint seating area right in the middle of the vineyard.

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Tasting in the Vineyard

First, Rob poured the Gewürztraminer, a very balanced white wine with no residual sugar.  Unlike others of this varietal, the Gundlach Bundschu Gewürztraminer was balanced, with aromas and flavors of fruit balanced by a nice acidity.  Following the white wine we tasted a lovely Pinot Noir, a Zinfandel and then a Cabernet Sauvignon, all paired with a cheese plate.  When we finished these wines, Rob put us back on the Pinzgauer and we drove back towards the main winery building.  But instead of taking us to the main entrance, Rob took us through the barrel room, which can hold over 2,000 barrels.

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 Barrel Room at Gundlach Bundschu

Finally, we made our way back to the main part of the winery for our final wine – a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. We enjoyed this final wine in the quaint tasting room with the rest of our tour group.

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Gundlach Bundschu Tasting Room
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Tasting Room

Driving by the winery so many times, we could not have imagined how large the Gundlach Bundschu estate is, nor how expansive their visitor area would be.  In addition to the tasting room, they have a separate area to buy wines by the glass and a large section of seating.  This generation of Bundschu’s has built an impressive marketing and sales team and the winery clearly has developed a reputation as a must-visit location in Sonoma.  The parking lot was filled with dozens of cars when we arrived and people were continuing to arrive when we left around 4:30.  The winery is not our usual “hidden gem,” as many others have discovered it as well.  However, it is a beautiful location, they make great wines, and, unlike other large-scale operations, they are still a family business, even after 158 years.  What’s not to love about that?

John & Irene Ingersoll

July 16, 2016

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Out of the Glass And Into the Cup

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Chardonnay Golf Club, Napa County

Visitors to Napa and Sonoma counties usually pack their days full of visits to wineries and restaurants and leave very little time for other activities.  After all, why come all the way to wine country and carve out time for non-wine-related activities?  The truth is, sometimes you get “wined out.”  While this may not be a medical or scientific term, it is one that will resonate with anyone who has visited wine country and packed in one winery or one restaurant wine bottle too many.  We have found an excellent compromise that allows visitors to stay in the vines while trading their glasses for cups – golf cups that is.

Visible from the scenic Jameson Canyon Road that leads into Napa (also known as Highway 12) are two side-by-side golf courses, Eagle Vines and Chardonnay Golf Club.  Twice a day – going to and coming back from work – we pass these clubs and look jealously and longingly at the players lucky enough to be hitting the little white ball instead of solving the world’s problems at the office.  This past Friday, though, a friend was coming to town and suggested a round of golf.  One vacation day later, we joined this friend for a round at Chardonnay Golf Club, one of the prettiest courses that we have ever played.  Previously a 27-hole layout, Chardonnay now has 18 holes creatively architected around 150 acres of chardonnay grape vines.  Between the lakes, creeks, elevated tee boxes, abundantly visible wildlife and, of course, the chardonnay grapes, it was a stunning experience.  When we got to the tee box at the first hole, I could tell that we were in for a real wine country round of golf.

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Tee box Marker, Chardonnay Golf Club, Napa Valley

If anyone is interested, we played mostly from the Magnum distance – the white tees.  Our game is sufficiently poor that we do not need to heroically play the longer tees; this would just balloon our scores even higher.  Some courses play tight because of narrow fairways and punishing high rough.  Others play tight because of natural hazards, such as imposing tree lines along the fairway, or water hazards.  While Chardonnay Golf Club has some of both, the element that shrunk the course the most for us was ….the vines.  One of us in the group had what I gently refer to as an extreme fade (think “wild slice”) while the other of us has an extreme draw (think “snap hook”).  On more holes than we are willing to count, our drives (and subsequent approach shots) landed in the middle of rows of chardonnay grape vines.  Some balls we were able to track and retrieve, others are still in the vineyard adding to the overall growing experience for the grapes.  On a net basis, though, we probably found as many balls among the grapes as we lost, so we don’t feel too bad.

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Vineyards at Chardonnay Golf Club

Breathtaking courses are often an excellent distraction from the dismal level of play; the 135 we shot at Pebble Beach several years back hardly stings as we remember the stroll around the iconic course and the views of the Pacific Ocean from holes such as #7 and #18.  Chardonnay Golf Club was no different as we often said “wow” as we stepped up to the tee box and looked across the vines and the rolling hills of the valley. Several times we also said “wow” after one of our drives, regrettably not once in admiration and always out of despair.  About 4 hours and 15 minutes after we started the round, we arrived at our last tee marker.

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Tee marker Chardonnay Golf Club, Napa Valley

After the round, we ate lunch at the clubhouse, which has a nice selection of wines and beers on the menu as well as a variety of food options.  If you do not get enough of the view during the round, get a window table, like we did, with a view of vines and course.

The staff at Chardonnay, from the pro shop to the restaurant to the cart crew to the drink cart girl is excellent.  Everyone was friendly and positive and helped make the day a great one.  Because of the beauty and serenity of the course, we will be back again soon when either we or one of our out-of-town guests has gotten “wined out.”

John & Irene Ingersoll

July 12, 2016

To make a reservation at Chardonnay Golf Club, click here: http://chardonnay.w5golf.com/

To learn more about the club, click here:  http://www.chardonnaygolfclub.com/index.htm

Like Nonna’s cooking. If Nonna was a world-class chef.

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Porchetta at Ciccio Napa Valley

The relatively tiny hamlet of Yountville in Napa Valley (population roughly 3,000) is home to some truly spectacular restaurants, including one with the coveted three Michelin stars and another with one Michelin star.  Among the remaining restaurants, there are several run by well-known celebrity chefs.  The San Francisco Chronicle’s well-regarded food critic included 6 Yountville restaurants among the top 100 for the entire San Francisco Bay Area.  One of those restaurants is Ciccio Napa Valley, literally the last establishment on the north end of Yountville, away from the relative bustle of the shops and restaurants in downtown.

Since moving to Napa, we have been trying to find a single place to call “our” restaurant.  You know, the place you go when you’ve had a really long week, or you have friends from out-of-town and want to share a special meal with them.  We had dinner at Ciccio this past Friday and finally decided that Ciccio will be “our” place.  When we first visited Ciccio nearly three years ago, as guests of some friends that live in Yountville and truly are “regulars” there, the restaurant could have been considered a “hidden gem.”  Today, though, word-of-mouth and inclusion in the Chronicle’s Top 100 list has made Ciccio a destination restaurant not only for those coming to Yountville, or even Napa Valley, but anywhere in the Bay Area.

If you’re planning a trip to Ciccio, know that they do not take reservations and that demand outpaces supply most nights, especially Friday through Sunday (they are closed Monday and Tuesday).  Ciccio opens at 5 p.m. sharp, so the best way to ensure seating is to arrive at 4:45 and get in line.  Yes, there is already a line when they open. That’s how good the place is.  This past Friday we arrived at 4:50 and there were about 15 people ahead of us.  All of us got seated, thankfully, but on other occasions we have seen the 5:00 rush completely fill up the available seats, which means that seating will not open up until at least 6:00 or 6:30.  If you are too cool to show up for a restaurant at 5:00 (we understand!) or have too many wineries to visit, just show up later and be patient and ready to sit for a bit.  Trust us, it’s worth the wait, and the team at Ciccio will make your time easier by pouring you a glass of wine or beer while you cool your heels.

Once inside, you’ll notice that there are three basic seating options – individual tables (2 or 4), booths, and one long communal table in the middle of the restaurant.  The kitchen is open and sits at the back of the restaurant; you can see the chefs working and view the flames from the Italian oven.  The decor is casual, decorated with kitschy art work including some throw-back Spaghetti Western posters and Italian cartoons.  The space feels homey, a big reason for which is that Ciccio is a family-owned restaurant – Frank and Karen Altamura (owners also of Altamura Vineyards and Winery) own and operate Ciccio along with their two sons, Frank Jr. and Giancarlo.  Emphasis on own and operate.  You’ll find Frank Altamura at the restaurant almost every night and often Giancarlo Altamura will be bartending.

If you are looking for a Cheesecake Factor-sized menu ….eat somewhere else.  And if you want to order chain restaurant Italian food … eat somewhere else.  That isn’t to say you won’t find spaghetti on there on occasion – the menu this past Friday featured Scampi Spaghetti.  It’s just that the chef, Polly Lappetito, is a wizard in the kitchen and conjures up very high-quality vegetable, meat, and fish dishes.  We don’t have a nonna (Italian grandmother), but if we did have one, we like to think that our nonna would make the kind of food that  Chef Polly makes at Ciccio. Chef Polly came to Ciccio from the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and brings such an inventive flair to her cooking with the use of simple ingredients, many of them sourced from the Altamura’s vineyard property in nearby Wooden Valley.  The Ciccio menu fits all on one side of a single card and generally the smaller plates and entrees together (including pizzas) number less than 20 items.

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Ciccio Napa Valley Menu Friday July 1, 2016

This past Friday night, the menu (above) had some old favorites but also some new items that we expect will become classics (and new old favorites).  Because we are avoiding carbs lately, we skipped the crispy calamari, but cannot recommend them strongly enough for those of you that are more welcoming of carbs.  We ordered (and shared) the chopped salad, the green grape gazpacho (yes, gazpacho made from less-than-ripe green grapes – wonderful!), sweet summer corn and chanterelles, and the italian frying peppers.

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Sweet Summer Corn and Chanterelles
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Green Grape Gazpacho

After consuming all of these dishes, we were stuffed and could easily have stopped eating.  And maybe we should have. But one menu item in particular was calling our names:  the porchetta with fennel salad.  What is porchetta, you ask?  It is made from suckling pig; the pig is gutted, de-boned, and then stuffed with garlic and herbs and seasoning and roasted in the oven.  It may actually be better than bacon.  Really.

After consuming the porchetta, which came in a large portion as you can see from the picture at the beginning of  this article, we definitely should have stopped.  But the Ciccio cake was also beckoning and we had to order it to keep our coffee and after-dinner drinks company.

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Ciccio Cake + Ice cream

We would be remiss if we failed to mention the wonderful wines that we had with dinner.  Ciccio does not have an extensive wine menu, but the benefit of being owned by the Almatmura’s is that the menu is replete with Altamura wines (there are also a few non-Altamura wines on the menu from wineries that are favorites of theirs).  We enjoyed the Altamura Nebbiolo, and on other occasions have ordered their Sangiovese and Negroamaro.  The wines are as good as the food, and, unlike most restaurants, they are offered at retail price rather than the typical 2-times or 3-times markup.

If you are still in the mood for an adult beverage after dinner, Ciccio has an impressive offering of after-dinner drinks, including a large selection of the Italian herbal liqueur Amaro, which supposedly helps with digestion. After the porchetta and cake, I ordered two Amaro’s just to be on the safe side.  I think it helped.

We don’t believe you can find a restaurant with so much good food and wine and so little pretense.  From Kate at the front of the house to the wait staff and into the kitchen, everyone is friendly and focused on creating a great experience.  The service is responsive and everyone pitches in and serves every table.  We have never heard “I’ll let your server know you have a question.”  We are sure they have assigned tables, but everyone helps everyone and that adds to the whole experience.

John & Irene

July 5, 2016

Links:

Visit Ciccio’s website:  http://www.ciccionapavalley.com/

S.F. Chronicle excerpt from Top 100 List:  http://www.sfchronicle.com/food/top-100-2015/article/Ciccio-6206814.php