Month: September 2016

An All-American Story.

Amelia Ceja, owner of Ceja Vineyards

A few days ago we had the pleasure of spending some time (about three hours, actually) with a winery owner that with a one-of-a-kind experience in the wine business.  We visited Ceja Vineyards in Napa and tasted wines and toured the estate property with founder Amelia Ceja.  During this visit, we learned about the inspiring Ceja family story and was a poignant reminder for us that every great wine has a great story.  Of course, it begins with amazing fruit, but amazing fruit does not just happen by accident:  amazing people have to nurture the environment and show love and respect for the terroir where the grapes grow.  We could see this love and respect in every bottle of Ceja wines.

In 1967, Amelia Ceja (then Amelia Moran Fuentes) moved with her parents and the rest of her family to Napa Valley.  Prior to relocating the entire family to Napa Valley, Amelia’s father had been coming to California for several years picking fruits and vegetables up and down California farm country.  Ultimately, he finally decided to bring his whole family north to take advantage of the opportunities in California; they settled in Napa Valley.  Around the same time, Pedro Ceja moved with his family (including six children at the time, which would eventually become ten) to St. Helena, in the northern part of Napa Valley.

Both Amelia and Pedro worked side-by-side with their parents harvesting grapes; Amelia still remembers being a 12-year-old girl picking grapes at the famed Mondavi To Kalon Vineyards and struggling to hoist the bucket of picked fruit into the collection bin.  Picking grapes and speaking no English, Amelia first met Pedro.  An immediate friendship was born, according to Amelia, but many years passed before their relationship took on a new dimension.  About six years, to be exact: when Amelia was home for the summer from U.C. San Diego and reconnected with Pedro. We did not get all of the details, but we got the sense that “the rest was history.”  Amelia and Pedro married in 1980 and just three years later Pedro and Amelia partnered with Pedro’s brother and parents to buy 15 acres of land in the an area that, three years later, would become the second A.V.A. (after Napa Valley) in California.

For several years, the Ceja family grew grapes and sold them to other premium wineries in Napa and Sonoma, capitalizing on the prime location of their land for producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.  In 1999, Amelia and Pedro, along with Pedro’s brother Armando and his wife Martha, decided to found their own winery operation.  Ceja Vineyards was born.  Since then, Ceja Vineyards have been producing a wide range of premium wines sourced 100% from their estate vineyards, which have expanded beyond Carneros to include over 100 acres of producing vineyards.  In addition to its Carneros estate vineyards, Ceja also has estate property farther west in Sonoma County in the extensive Sonoma Coast AVA.  Very shortly, this plot will be part of a smaller, more defined AVA called “Petaluma Gap.”  We expect that the wines that today are identified as “Sonoma Coast” on Ceja labels will eventually show the new AVA.

East view of Ceja Carneros estate vineyards

We met Amelia Ceja at their estate vineyard on Las Amigas Road in the Carneros region, in the middle of their luscious vines.  We spent over 3 hours with Amelia tasting wine, hearing the inspiring Ceja story, and taking a tour of the impressive property.  When we first arrived, Amelia greeted us with a glass of the 2014 Ceja Sauvignon Blanc, sourced from grapes from their Sonoma Coast estate vineyards.  Tasting our fist offering, we got a clear sense of the Ceja wine making philosophy:  a balanced approach to the wines with a minimalist approach.  Like all of the Ceja white wines, the Sauvignon Blanc has been aged in stainless steel and neutral oak barrels with no malolactic fermentation.  As we would expect from this type of approach, the Sauvignon Blanc was crisp and dry with strong minerality.

2014 Ceja Sonoma Coast Sauvignon Blanc

Following the Sauvignon Blanc, which is a typical opening white wine in a Napa or Sonoma tasting, Amelia shared with us their unique rosé.  Most wines of this type in Napa and Sonoma are made from Pinot Noir grapes; by contrast, the Ceja rosé was made from Syrah.

2014 Ceja Sonoma Coast “Bella Flor” Rose

Like the Sauvignon Blanc, the rosé was balanced, with a lovely fruit aroma but dry on the finish.  Like the other Ceja whites, the rosé did not undergo the secondary malolactic fermentation; it was fermented in neutral oak and “sur lie,” or on its lees (in other words, the wine was left on the lees, or the dead yeast, which yields a more yeasty aroma and flavor).  Many of the rosè wines we have tasted in Napa Valley, or Sonoma, have been overly sweet and are often described, even by their winemakers, of having the flavor of candy (we have even heard a winemaker describe his rosè as “Jolly Rancher”).  Ceja’s rosè is no Jolly Rancher: it has a gorgeous aroma but is also dry, crisp, refreshing and retains a strong hint of minerality.

Ceja 2014 Rose in the glass

After the Sauvignon Blanca and Rose, Amelia took us through their strong offering of red wines.  We tasted wines on their tasting menu as well as several special wines that Amelia was gracious enough to share with us.

The official Ceja tasting menu

After the lighter wines, we dove into the Ceja red wines, starting with a couple of selections of their Pinot Noir. Side-by-side, we tasted the 2011 Carneros Pinot Noir and the 2010 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.  Both wines were elegant, balanced, subtle and superb; one of us preferred the Carneros Pinot, the other the Sonoma Coast. Next, we tried the 2011 Ceja Vino de Casa (literally, “house wine”), a very unique combination of Pinot Noir and Syrah.  It is so unique, in fact, that we cannot recall ever having a red wine composed of these two varietals.  Ceja bills this wine as an “everyday wine,” and we agree with this characterization. At $30.00 a bottle, the wine is a fruit-forward wine with a nice finish and enough complexity and tannin to hold up to a variety of foods.

2011 Ceja Vino de Casa
Vino de Casa in the glass

We finished our tour of the red wines with a taste of Ceja’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, a classic Napa Valley-style Cab:  strong aroma and flavors of dark fruit, anise, and chocolate, with firm tannins and a strong finish.  Like all of the Ceja wines, the Cab was structured and balanced, with strong fruit aroma and flavor but also depth, minerality and structure.  Even the Cabernet Sauvignon has less than 14% alcohol, a reflection of the Ceja approach to not over-ripen the fruit or use new oak to over-manipulate the wine in the cellar.  We found an incredible consistency in the Ceja wines, evidence of a strong underlying approach and guiding philosophy.

On top of the six wines that we tasted, Amelia also shared their regular Chardonnay with us, which was crisp, balanced, dry and refreshing.  For our final offering, Amelia opened a bottle of their 2009 late harvest Chardonnay, a classic dessert wine.

A “sweet kiss” from Ceja
Ceja 2009 Late Harvest Chardonnay in the glass

Often, sweet wines can be, well, just sweet – unsophisticated and unbalanced.  The 2009 Late Harvest Chardonnay is anything but unsophisticated or unbalanced.  While it is certainly sweet, it has finesse and subtlety, with a variety of flavor rolling across the palate.  With a glass of the Late Harvest Chard in hand, we left the tasting room to tour the property with Amelia.

Bocce court at Ceja

The current property at the Ceja vineyards can accommodate a great visitor experience for members, with plenty of outdoor space, bocce courts, and cooking areas.  To enhance this experience, the Ceja team is in the process of expanding the estate property to add a new winery and tasting structure, which is currently under construction.  As an homage to their roots, the Ceja’s have started their initial build-out with a chapel that pays tribute not only to Catholicism but also the other religions of the world.

Chapel on the Ceja Estate

When we completed our tour of the property, we made our way back to the tasting room to purchase several bottles of Ceja wine.  After we got in the car and headed home, we both reflected on the amazing experience spending time with Amelia.  She is truly a powerhouse and an inspiration.  For starters, they were able to scrape their money together and, with the help of significant debt, purchase an initial stake of land in Carneros.  Over 100 acres of land later, Amelia and her family have become not only a grape growing powerhouse, but also a premium wine making operation. Moreover, Amelia, using the force of her impressive personality, has become a true icon within the wine industry.  She is a frequent speaker at wine events across Napa and Sonoma; she is a driver of positive change in the industry; and she has become one of the most powerful social media forces in the wine business.  Several of her YouTube videos have gone viral and her exposure on Facebook and Twitter (where we first met her) are the envy of many other vintners.

There is an old joke about the wine business which goes like this: “Q: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?  A: You start with a large fortune.”  Amelia, her husband, his brother, and their sister-in-law started with no fortune, no advantage, no head start. They were immigrants from Mexico, working in the fields picking grapes as their first job.  They went to college, saved their money, leveraged all of their savings to buy land, and became well-known grape growers and then well-known wine makers.  For us, the time with Amelia was a touching reminder of the power of the American dream.

There has been much talk in the media this year about the impact of immigration and about “making America great again.”  It is just our opinion, but the time we spent with Amelia Ceja has convinced us that America has been great all along. It has also reinforced for both of us how important immigrants are, and have been, to making and keeping America great.

John & Irene Ingersoll

September 23, 2016


Beer? In Wine Country?

Our favorite brewery in Northern California wine country

If you like underdogs, you would root for one of the few Latino-owned breweries in the United States. But if you really, really like underdogs, you would root for a brewery owned by Mexican immigrants and opened in the heart of Northern California wine country.  For those extreme fans of the underdog, we present Carneros Brewing Company, located in Sonoma Valley just west of the Napa county line.  This particular operation is challenging the conventions of not one, but two world-famous wine regions.

Carneros Brewing Company is located off of Highway 12 in Sonoma County; Napa Valley visitors coming from San Francisco pass Carneros Brewing, often without even noticing.  Living in Napa, we pass by the brewery every single time we drive to San Francisco or Marin County.  A couple of days ago, we decided to stop in and check our their selection of beers rather than visit another one of our local wineries.  We were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the beers and the cool atmosphere of the tasting room.

Tasting Room, Carneros Brewing Company, Sonoma County

We went to Carneros Brewing on a Sunday and the mood in the tasting room was quite lively.  There was a combination of first-time visitors like us, as well as a number of tables of “regulars” that were definitely not on their first visit. Several of the tables were occupied by frequent visitors who knew the various brewery offerings and were happy to talk about their favorites.  Because it was our first time at the brewery, we opted to order a 5-beer tasting sampler.  Choosing just five beers, though, proved to be more difficult than we expected as there were nearly a dozen beers that caught our eye.

Carneros Brewing Company menu

In the past couple of years, we have tended to order almost exclusively ales, and in most cases IPA.  As a result, we decided not to include a traditional IPA (the Carneros IPA) in our 5-sampler, instead opting for the Pilsner, the Jefeweizen, the Morena ale, the Negra IPA, and the Carneros 2K Imperial Porter.

5-beer sampler at Carneros Brewing Company

We are more familiar with the order of wine tastings, which usually start with the lighter (white) wines and transition to the red wines:  first the “lighter” reds such as Pinot Noir, finishing with the stronger reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon.  At Carneros Brewing Company, the tasting order resembled the wine tasting order, with the first beer being a pilsner, which, compared to the beers later in the selection, is much lighter and can be analogized to white wine.  Even though we favor ales, we really enjoyed the Cerveza Pilsner, which had a crisp taste and an unexpected fruity ester profile that is generally found in ale but not lager.  Although only 5% alcohol, the Cerveza Pilsner had a strong, balanced flavor that we do not expect from the more commercial brand of lagers on the market.  Much to our surprise, the Cerveza Pilsner turned out to be one of our favorite beers we tried at Carneros Brewing.

Cerveza Pilsner at Carneros Brewing Company

After quaffing the generous 5-oz pilsner sample, we moved on to beer #2, Carneros Brewing’s take on the traditional southern German beer where a significant portion of the malted barley is replaced with malted wheat. When done properly, Hefeweizen will display notes of banana and cloves both in terms of aroma as well as taste.  The Jefeweizen that we tried was most definitely done properly – the beer had a nice balance of fruity banana as well as spice and cloves on the finish.  After two beers, we were impressed with the Carneros Brewing Company beers and congratulating ourselves for branching out and not just ordering the IPA as we tend to do.

Jefeweizen at Carneros Brewing Company

Our third beer was the Morena ale, an amber ale with strong notes of caramel and an almost creamy finish.  We liked this beer and would order it again, but it was not as distinctive for us as the other four.  Nevertheless, it was good enough for us to consumer the entire 5-oz tasting before proceeding to beer #4, the Negra IPA.

Negra IPA at Carneros Brewing Company

As mentioned above, we are not strangers when it comes to IPA; moreover, we have consumed many dark beers in our day as well.  However, as to the combination of IPA and dark malt, we have to admit we are complete virgins and the Carneros Brewing offering was our very first.  We were not sure what to expect from the combination of the IPA’s bitterness and the toastiness of the dark malt – we were imagining the love child of a Guinness and an India Pale Ale. In fact, that is more or less what we experienced:  the Negra IPA maintained a strong bitter undertone (70 IBU’s) of a typical IPA but the chocolate and coffee notes found in dark malt ales.  Although it was our first dark malt IPA, it will not be our last, and we will be seeking out similar beers from other craft makers to compare flavors.

Our final beer – the heavyweight in terms of structure and depth – was the Carneros 2K Imperial Porter.  At more than 8% alcohol, this was the strongest beer that we tried in our flight.

Carneros 2K Imperial Stout, Carneros Brewing Company

We have an Irish brother-in-law. His father worked at the Guinness plant in Ireland for over 40 years.  Enough said? We drink a fair amount of stout when we get together and have acquired a real taste for well-made stout.  The Carneros Imperial Stout was a strong offering, with medium carbonation, notes of coffee and toffee, and a smooth, creamy finish.  Next time we will have to do a side-by-side tasting with a Guinness Stout (or extra-stout) to see how they compare.  But to finish up our 5-taster, the Carneros 2K Imperial Stout held its ground just fine.  We were glad we finally stopped at the brewery after driving by at 50-60 mph multiple times on our way to San Francisco.

Next door to the brewery tasting room is the winery tasting room for Carneros Brewing Company’s sister company, Ceja Vineyards, another success story for an extended family of Mexican immigrants who literally worked their way from the bottom to the top.  In our next blog we will share our experiences with the matriarch of Ceja Vineyards, Amelia Ceja.

John & Irene Ingersoll

September 23, 2016




H2, Oh!

H2 Hotel in Healdsburg, California (Sonoma County)

If there is a downside to living in wine country, it’s that we generally have no occasion to stay at the many cool hotels in our area – Napa and Sonoma counties.  Sure, we could shell out the money any time and stay wherever we please, but that would feel wasteful. Last week, though, we had a two-day meeting in Healdsburg – about 60 miles from the house, not a practical distance to drive there and back each day.  The location of the meeting was the H2 Hotel in Healdsburg, a town in the northern part of Sonoma County.  While we have been in Healdsburg before, we had never stayed at the H2 (the hotel has a sister property a few blocks away called the Hotel Healdsburg that we passed through that also looks like a candidate for future visits).

When we pulled up to the front of the hotel, we could tell we were in store for something different: this was no typical high-rise hotel, or even a trendy low-rise rectangle.  Architecturally, the H2 is very appealing, with a combination of concrete and wood and fluid design that yields lots of open space and abundant light.  Every single room in the hotel has a balcony or a patio, which is certainly rare for hotels these days.

Entering the lobby, the sense of uniqueness was reinforced by the open and flowing space:  essentially no borders between the front entrance, the restaurant, the bar, the front desk, or the lounge at the back of the lobby.  With its high ceilings and many windows, the lobby felt very inviting and comfortable.

Lobby, H2 Hotel in Healdsburg, California

Aesthetically, the lobby is beautiful, with interesting works of art on the walls and brightly-colored furniture that many guests took advantage of for lounging with a cup of coffee or glass of wine, depending on the time of day.  Since we were meeting all day, we did not take much advantage of the lobby lounge, but then again, we had a pretty cool meeting room to hang out in.

Meeting Room, H2 Hotel in Healdsburg, California

As with all of the spaces in the hotel, even the meeting room had significant window space and plenty of light, so much in fact that I worried the views outside would be a distraction to our offsite meeting.  However, the world outside simply provided a needed sense of casualness to our otherwise intense discussions without taking away from our work.

During a break on Day 1 of our meeting we had a chance to check-in to our rooms; I ended up with a room on the second floor.  As soon as the door closed and we stepped into the room, we smiled as we saw the little gift from hotel management. h2-welcome

It is not uncommon for hotels, especially in wine country, to provide a gratis bottle of wine for its guests. We were delighted, though, with the quality, as the MacMurray Russian River Pinot Noir is one of our recent finds and we have several bottles at home.  This one did not make it home as we donated it to our meeting.

Beyond the wine, we liked the rest of the room as well; although it was not overly large, it had a small sitting area, a nice big bed, and plenty of workspace.

Interior Room, H2 Hotel, Healdsburg, California

In addition, for people like us who must sleep with an open door or window, there was a nice balcony along the back wall.  Again, the space was not that large, but definitely enough for two people to sit comfortably and enjoy the serenity.

Patio, H2 Hotel, Healdsburg, California

From the patio, the view was into the lush garden behind the hotel.


View from Patio, H2 Hotel, Healdsburg, California
View off left side of patio, H2 hotel

Just off of the patio was the bathroom, tailor-made for one-half of this blog duo (guess which half?).  Whenever we are looking at homes or hotels to rent, the first filter that must be applied is “does it have a bath tub?”  At the H2, the answer, at least in our room, was a resounding “yes”:  there was a very large and deep jacuzzi tub.

Jacuzzi tub, H2 Hotel

Next to the tub was a separate shower with no doors, integrated into the overall flow of the bathroom.  The decor was modern, sleek and bright, matching the overall design approach of the hotel. All in all, a very nice room.

Because we were in meetings all day, we did not have a chance to take full advantage of the facilities and activities at the H2.  Behind the lobby there is a nice pool with plenty of seating and chaise lounges for laying out and enjoying the Sonoma summer.  h2-pool

Also, the hotel has a fleet of bicycles right outside the lobby entrance that guests can rent by the day. To maximize this experience, the hotel provides several ride maps of the local area: Healdsburg, local wineries, and a more ambitious 40-mile loop to and from Cloverdale.  For those that prefer a more relaxing set of activities, there are many shops, galleries and winery tasting rooms within walking distance of the H2.  One of these days we’ll manage to stay in Healdsburg when there are no meetings to attend. In fact, our initial thinking was we would pay to stay an extra night after the meetings were over; unfortunately, we had to catch a red-eye flight after Day 2 of the meetings for a frenetic New York City weekend.  Next time ….

John & Irene Ingersoll

September 19, 2016

Identity Crisis? An Aussie Making French Wines in California.

Enjoying a paired tasting at Williamson Wines in Healdsburg, California

Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County boasts some of the finest vineyards in the region, if not the entire state.  Home to over 9,000 acres of planted vines, Dry Creek Valley is 16 miles long and 2 miles wide, with both valley floor and hillside locations.  In this sub-appellation of Sonoma County, there have been grape vines planted going back over 140 years.  Zinfandel is a varietal that has been grown in Dry Creek for more than a century, and more recently winemakers have been growing Bordeaux varietals and making classic Left Bank and Right Bank red blends.

Last week we had the opportunity to visit with one of Dry Creek’s great winemakers, Bill Williamson, founder of Williamson Wines.  Over 200 years ago, Bill’s ancestors emigrated from Ireland to Australia; we assume they went not as part of any penal colony, but rather for the promise of a better life.  After growing up in Australia and having a successful career there, Bill and his wife moved to Silicon Valley to take part in the technology revolution. After a stint there, the Williamson’s decided to buy a piece of land in Sonoma County and grow some grapes.

“Some grapes” has turned into a thriving winery operation, with 15,000 cases produced each year. Remarkably, none of this wine is distributed to retail locations or restaurants; 100% of Williamson wines are sold direct to consumer.  Certainly, this is good for Williamson, as they do not give away their margin unnecessarily to brokers or retail stores.  What is really impressive to us, though, is that Williamson Wines has been able to build up such a strong customer base that they are able to distribute 15,000 cases – 180,000 bottles of wine – one customer at a time.

Based on our tasting with Bill Williamson last week, we have a pretty good idea how he has been able to pull this off:  a combination of great wines, a great tasting experience, and Bill’s personal story and engaging nature.

Bill Williamson sharing his wine philosophy with us

All of these were on display in our sit-down paired tasting in their Healdsburg tasting room.  One of Williamson’s tenets is that wine should be enjoyed with food.  Many wineries share this belief and paired tastings have become fairly commonplace in both Napa and Sonoma. However, Bill Williamson and his team actually explained each pairing and identified the predominant flavors in the foods.  They had us take a bite of the food without wine first.  Next, they had us take a bite of the food and then take a taste of the wine.  If the paired item was salty, the wine brought out that flavor; if it was spicy, the wine reinforced that flavor.

Pears with blue cheese, honey and Marcona almonds
Savory taste – olive, prosciutto, pepper
Sweet pairing – dark chocolate and berries

Although we have been to many tastings, no one had actually taken us through the before-and-after this way.  Now at home we are doing this whenever we open a bottle of wine for dinner.

There are many tastings to choose from at the Williamson tasting room; we chose the Noble and Bordeaux Style Wine Tasting at $75.00 per person. This price tag is certainly higher than the typical tasting, but then again this is no typical tasting.  We enjoyed a number of the Williamson Bordeaux blends –  a Meritage, a Cuvee, and something Bill calls, simply, Vin Rouge (Federal law requires the words “red wine” on the label).  In addition, we tried a number of single Bordeaux-style varietals, including Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

After nearly an hour and a half of small bites, wine and conversation, we were captivated with the Williamson portfolio of wines.  Beyond what was on the tasting menu, Bill also made us aware that he produces traditional Burgundy varietals (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – naturals for a Sonoma winemaker) as well as a number of Rhone wines:  Roussane, Semillon, Grenache, and a true Chateauneuf de Pape-style blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.  There are very few winemakers in this part of California making such a broad range of high quality French-style wines inspired by such distinct regions as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone.

As captivated as we were by the wine, the overall experience was enhanced by Bill Williamson himself.  Like most Aussie’s, he has a gregarious and open personality and a curious balance of bombast and modesty.  He came across as a genuinely nice person, which seems mandatory for a wine business built on 1:1 customer sales.  We are rooting for his continued success and looking forward to our next visit to Williamson.

John & Irene Ingersoll

September 15, 2016

A very tasty Merlot
Williamson Wines’ extensive offering of wines

Cool Day at Kunde

View of Sonoma Valley from an elevation of 1,100 feet at Kunde Family Winery

Along Highway 12 between the towns of Sonoma and Santa Rosa, there are multiple wineries nestled in the west-facing slopes of the Maycamas Mountains.  Because we are usually on our way to or from another destination, we had not, until last weekend, stopped at any of them. One winery in particular – Kunde Family – had repeatedly caught our eye with its sign promoting a “mountain top tasting.”  We decided this past weekend that we would make the trip to Kunde and enjoy their unique tasting experience on top of the mountain overlooking the magnificent Sonoma Valley.  Along with two of our close friends, we made a reservation for the mountain top tasting, which, based on the $50 per person price tag, we expected would be a special experience.

The tasting started at sea level – at the main winery tasting room adjacent to the parking lot.  Our host, Wade, served us a glass of the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc so that we would have something to enjoy as we started the tour. Glass in hand, we made our way out of the main winery building and into the heart of the production facility behind the winery.  Wade gave us a helpful overview of the various Kunde wine offerings, of which there are many.  According to our guide, Kunde grows over 20 different grape varietals, some of which are sold to high-quality wine producers in the area, and others retained for Kunde to make wines for its own label.

For over 100 years, the Kunde family has farmed on this property in Eastern Sonoma County, gradually supplementing Louis Kunde’s original purchase with adjacent properties to create a very sizable agricultural estate.  Today, the Kunde property is spread out over 1,850 acres, about 700 of which is comprised of vineyards.  A wine estate this large is very unusual in Sonoma and Napa – the Kunde property takes up nearly 2 contiguous miles of the historic Sonoma Highway (a.k.a. Highway 12).  Most wineries in Sonoma have a single vineyard location – many are on the Valley floor, others are planted on hillsides, others on mountain top plots. Because of its sprawling layout, Kunde has vines planted in all three locations.  Passing by on the Sonoma Highway, Kunde’s valley floor vines are visible.  On the tour, we were able to work our way from sea level to well over 1,000 feet in elevation to see the hillside as well as the mountain top vineyards.  As we learned on the tour, there are 7 distinct micro-climates on the 1,850 acre Kunde estate, which means 7 locations that can cater to the needs of different varietals.

For those that like to visit a winery, taste wine quickly, and then move on to the next one, the Kunde mountain top tour is definitely not designed for you.  From start to finish, the tour lasts nearly two hours.  After explaining the production tanks to us and how different wines are made, Wade took us into the impressing wine caves, built literally into the hillside, which Kunde uses to age its wines.  Several wineries in Napa and Sonoma have caves, but we have not visited any whose caves are as large as those we saw at Kunde.  In total, the caves occupy over 32,000 square feet of space and there are nearly half a mile of tunnels.

Entrance to the caves at Kunde Family Winery, Sonoma Valley
Inside the caves at Kunde Family Winery, Sonoma Valley

From the caves, we boarded a mini-bus and Wade started our driving journey from the Valley floor to the top of the mountain.  Along the way, he stopped and let us walk among the vines, pouring the appropriate wine for the vineyard we were in at the time.  It is always inspiring to be out in the vineyards, but we were especially captivated with the stop in the Zinfandel vineyard, where there are vines over 100 years old.  Even non-experts in viticulture like our group could tell the difference between newer vines and the century old vines.  While new vines might have as many as 20 or more clusters on them, these old vines had much fewer, some of them looking downright scraggly with just a handful of clusters on them.

Old Vine Zinfandel grapes at Kunde Family Winery, Sonoma Valley
Zinfandel in the glass and on the vines

Finally we made it to the top of the mountain for our special tasting where a beautiful, shaded seating area had been arranged at the edge of the hill overlooking the entire Sonoma Valley.  At over 1,400 feet and vistas spread over 180-degrees, the view was simply spectacular.

The view south and west into Sonoma Valley

To complement the view, there was more wine to be tasted. img_1611

Lounging comfortably at the top of the mountain, taking in the breathtaking views up and down the Sonoma Valley, we leisurely enjoyed the Kunde offerings.  All of the wines shared a clear winemaking philosophy of restraint and respect for the land, or terroir, that they were grown in.  Although there are many soil types on the Kunde estate, the majority of the vines are planted on a band of volcanic “Red Hill” soil that is, indeed, rust red in color.  Apparently, the color derives from lava flows millions of years ago.  In any case, we enjoyed both of the white wines (Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay) and had a strong affinity for the Zinfandel and the Drummond Cabernet Sauvignon.  None of the Kunde wines feel “overdone” – they have modest alcohol levels and they use oak judiciously in both their white and red wines.  Just as important, for wines that are clearly “premium” wines, the price points are very attractive compared to other Napa and Sonoma wines. The Sauvignon Blanc (Estate Series) is only $17.00, the Chardonnay only a dollar more, and the Merlot and Zin both just $22.00.   Even their Reserve Series, which boasts the best fruit from the best blocks and vines, includes a $45.00 Chardonnay, a $50.00 Zin and a $60.00 Cab.  Several bottles of Kunde left the winery with us and are waiting to be enjoyed.

John & Irene Ingersoll

September 14, 2016

Enjoying Kunde with friends
Perfect backdrop for a Cab
Enjoying the top of the mountain

Two Birds. One Stone. Many Plates.

Executive Chef Jake Rand at Two Birds/One Stone in Napa Valley

For those who love modern, inventive cuisine, beautiful decor, and superior service, there is a new “must visit” destination in the Napa Valley:   Two Birds/One Stone just north of St. Helena, on the grounds of the Freemark Abbey winery. TBOS had been on our list of places to visit since it opened in June of this year for several reasons. For starters, the two chefs that came together to start TBOS – Douglas Keane and Sang Yoon – are well-known to us from each of their prior restaurants.  Keane was the chef at Cyrus in Healdsburg, a Michelin one-start restaurant that we visited our first time in Sonoma County.  Yoon, meanwhile, comes to Napa from Los Angeles (a journey we made in 2013) where he was the chef at one of our favorite restaurants, Father’s Office.  Following a stint together on Top Chef Masters, Keane and Yoon decided to partner with each other to start a yakitori-style restaurant with a small-plates approach.

Our other reason for having Two Birds/One Stone on our short list of restaurants to visit is that one of us works with the daughter of one of the partners in the restaurant.  Well before the restaurant was open, she told us about the concept and the menu, and we were intrigued.  The fact that her father, Nick Peyton, was also a partner with Douglas Keane at Cyrus made it even more compelling for us.  With special out-of-town friends in tow, we decided it was time to made the trek to Two Birds/One Stone.  Our friends are real foodies and we were hoping not to let them down.  Since we devoured almost literally every offering on the menu, including dessert, we can say that the visit was a success.

When we entered the restaurant, right away it looked and felt like a special place.  The interior design of the space is impressive, with lots of open space and huge ceilings.

Decor at Two Birds/One Stone in Napa Valley


While we were waiting for the hostess to pull up our reservation, we scanned the restaurant and saw someone who looked very familiar.  “Is it our imagination, or is that Robert Parker sitting over there by the window?”  “It is not your imagination,” she told us. “In fact, I’ll be seating you at the table just next to him.”  We promised to behave and not interrupt his dinner, which we mostly did, except for the several photos that we took of him while pretending to take pictures of ourselves at the table.

Thankfully for all of us, Mr. Parker left shortly after we arrived, which enabled us to stop staring and focus on our company and our meal.  Shortly after we were seated, a gentlemen came over to the table to welcome us.  When we found out it was Nick Peyton, we let him know the work connection with his daughter and we spent a few minutes talking with him.  Like his daughter, he is a genuinely nice person and we enjoyed our time with him.

Finally, it was time to tackle the menu – small plates of Asian-inspired dishes.  When we first looked at the menu, we thought we would only be able to try a few of the options. By the end of the evening, though, we managed to make quite a dent in the menu.

Menu at Two Birds/One Stone in Napa Valley

To get things started, we ordered the  eggplant; salad with black kale, black garlic, black rice and chicken; and the radishes and butter.  When the food came out, it was clear that we were in for a treat.  The eggplant had been simmered and then served chilled in a soy and ginger sauce, and it was cooked perfectly, not mushy but also not too underdone.  The salad was also very flavorful as were the radishes, which were on a bed of “butter” made from nori, the Japanese seaweed.

Radishes and Butter at Two Birds/One Stone
Salad with Black Kale, Black Garlic and Black Rice

With four of us sharing these plates, they seemed to go much too quickly. We realized that we would be ordering many more plates, so we went back to the menu to plan the rest of the meal. At this point, we were considering simply ordering one of every dish on the menu and making it easier for us and our server.  Common sense took over and we did not order everything, but, looking back on the photographic evidence, we didn’t miss that much!  When the first round was cleared, we ordered crispy wings, which are deep-fried and served in a chili-yuzu glaze.  We loved them – the texture and consistency were perfect and the sweet-sour combination was well-balanced.  Four people, four wings – needless to say, that plate was emptied in no time.

Crispy  Wings at Two Birds/One Stone

Next out of the kitchen was the savory Japanese pancake, more of an omelette than a pancake, flavored with green onions and duck ham.  According to our server, this is the most popular dish in the restaurant and we understand why.  For those that are more experienced with Japanese cuisine, this dish closely resembles okonomiyaki.  

Savory Japanese Pancake at Two Birds/One Stone

Before our stomachs could signal our brain that we might be getting full, we ordered a significant amount more:  bamboo-aged sticky rice; forbidden black rice (served with a duck egg on top); pork tenderloin; and short ribs.  We have been eating a mostly “paleo” (carb-free) diet for the past year or so, and as a result rice is generally not something we order.  But we decided to give ourselves a break and allow a “cheat” meal so we could try the rice dishes, which we had seen delivered to all of the tables around us (including our famous neighbor at the next table).  Simply put, both rice dishes were excellent, although with different flavors and textures.  Next time we go, we’ll have to order both again because we can’t pick one over the other.  The pork tenderloin was delicious and very well spiced, but the standout dish for us were the wagyu short ribs, which were served rare or medium rare and seasoned with a very nice Korean BBQ sauce.

Remnants of the Stick Rice at Two Birds/One Stone
Forbidden Black Rice
The Last Piece of Wagyu Short Rib

Finally we came to our senses and stopped ordering food, although we were tempted to order one more short rib dish.  However, not enough of us agreed to  help eat it and we wanted to show some restraint.  As the dishes were being cleared, Nick Peyton came by to check on us; we asked him if we could go visit the kitchen and say hello to Chef Jake, whom I “met” on Twitter.  Gracious man that he is, Nick gave give us a tour of the restaurant and took us back into the kitchen.  This may have been the our first visit to a restaurant kitchen since the summer of 1981 when one of us was a dreadful dishwasher at a forgettable restaurant near Sacramento.  At the head of the kitchen was Chef Jake Rand, overseeing the dozens of order coming in and the dozens of orders going out.  Surprisingly, it all seemed very organized, with none of the shouting, drama, and chaos that we are used to seeing on the televised food shows. We asked Nick Peyton if this level of calm and order was normal and he put it best:  “Why would you want to come to work and get yelled at?”  Food for thought, people.  Food for thought.

While we were in the kitchen, Nick Peyton asked if we were planning to have dessert.  Bravely, we said yes.  Grabbing a small ceramic bowl, he went to the soft-serve ice cream machine and gave us a sample of the matcha soft serve ice cream.

Nice Peyton Does It All – Even Serves Ice Cream

Back at the table, we all agreed that we would order dessert for all of us to share.  Even though two of us had just had the macha soft serve in the kitchen, we ordered another one. For good measure, we also ordered the coconut milk panna cotta, served with passionfruit curd.  Together, these items would be plenty of dessert after that large meal.  For some reason, however, we were talked into also getting the kikori whisky and chocolate custard as well, which we are not complaining about as it was exquisite.  Finally, after the third dessert, we stopped eating, although one of us could not resist ordering cold-brewed coffee, which is the only coffee on the menu at the restaurant.  Nick Peyton has explained, was an intentional choice, made to complement the balance and authenticity of the unique cuisine.

If you’re coming to Napa Valley, or are a local and you have a special occasion coming up, make the trip to Two Birds/One Stone.  And come hungry.

John & Irene Ingersoll

September 5, 2016