Tag: hidden gems

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

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

You don’t have to swim upstream to eat here

rivers end sunset
Sunset backdrop to the union of the Russian River and the Pacific Ocean

One of our favorite destinations in California is the town of Jenner, a spot known as the “River’s End” where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean. There is something majestic about two bodies of water coming together and this particular location is no exception.  On top of a bluff overlooking this amazing spot sits a fantastic restaurant called …River’s End.  We wonder if they considered “Ocean’s Beginning?  That would have been more optimistic, we think; more of a “glass half full” way of describing the meeting point of river and ocean. But we have to admit that “River’s End” does have a poetic ring to it.

We have been to River’s End (both the restaurant and the location) several times in the past and chose it as the place to culminate a special 80th birthday weekend for the father (and father-in-law) of the authors of this blog.  We had family coming from across the country for the occasion and wanted to share one of our favorite spots with them.  There were seven of us in total and we made the hour-and-a-half drive from our home in Napa Valley to the Sonoma Coast.  For the birthday boy, the drive ended up being half of the fun, as the trip started in Carneros and cut through the heart of Sonoma wine country, past dairy farms and horse ranges, and, for the final stretch, through Bodega Bay and up the coast along Highway 1.

When we finally arrived at the restaurant, it was about 3:30 in the afternoon and the heat and sun of Napa seemed far away. The temperature on the coast was 20-25 degrees lower than when we started and there was a fair amount of fog shrouding the last part of the river and the entrance to the Pacific Ocean.

View of the Russian River from the wrap-around deck at River’s End
Taking a break from kayaking
River, meet ocean; ocean, meet river.
River’s End wrap-around deck
After finally getting everyone out of the caravan of cars and into the restaurant, we were very pleased to see that the restaurant staff set us up with a long table against the window with amazing views of the river and ocean.  Every visit to River’s End restaurant should be structured with ample time to hang out on the deck and just take in the sights.  For 2016, Open Table named River’s End one of the 100 Most Scenic Restaurants in America.

We would be remiss if we failed to mention the patience and flexibility of the staff and the kitchen. Although we anticipated arriving by 2:30, because of traffic and other delays, we did not arrive until 3:30 – the exact time the kitchen closes to allow the chef and cooks to transition to the evening service.  Despite our tardiness, the staff helped us get our orders in and were very attentive and friendly throughout our meal.

Often, restaurants with great views have, well, great views and nothing else to recommend them.  River’s End is not one of those restaurants. They have an excellent menu, a superb chef in Martin Recoder, and sources its dishes locally from Sonoma farms and the Russian River itself.  We were lucky enough to be visiting during salmon season, when the King Salmon run along the Pacific coast and spawn in the rivers.  Several of us did order the Wild Pacific King Salmon entrée along a couple of salmon-inspired appetizers.  One of the best things about River’s End is that they change the menu frequently based on seasonal availability of vegetables and seafood.  The Wild Pacific King Salmon menu is available through October.  Everyone in our party had some type of salmon dish, all of them beautifully prepared and artistically presented.

Rivers end #3
River’s End Salmon Crudo
Riveres end #1
River’s End Vegetable Napoleon

rivers end beet salad

River’s End Technicolor Beet Salad

As you can see, the food at River’s End is fit for foodies. In addition to these culinary gems, we also recommend the Petaluma Duck Confit rolls, the tomato and watermelon soup, and the petrale sole. Everything was delicious and felt appropriately unique and special for a birthday as important as #80.  For those that enjoy quality wine with your meal, River’s End offers a comprehensive wine list with a strong representation of local wines from Sonoma County and Napa Valley.

Almost every time we go to River’s End, we plan a beach trip either before or after we eat.  Goat Rock Beach is across the river from the restaurant and is normally a must-visit.  Given the size of our caravan, and the advanced ages of some of the crew, we opted against a trek down to the beach. Because we were not ready to go home, though, we stopped off at our other favorite Jenner spot, Cafe Aquatica, which is just down the hill from River’s End.

Cafe Aquatica in Jenner, California
Like the restaurant, Cafe Aquatica is right on the water – the Russian River.  However, unlike River’s End, which is on a bluff, Aquatica is at river level.  As a result, you can get your coffee, sit on the bank of the Russian River and enjoy the serenity and natural beauty.  If you fancy a bite, Cafe Aquatica serves organic sandwiches and salads that are also sourced from local ingredients.  A perfect day for us would be lunch at Cafe Aquatica, followed by a trip to Goat Rock Beach, and finished off with dinner at River’s End.  Next time!

John & Irene Ingersoll

August 26, 2016

Kayak Launch right behind Cafe Aquatica
Fog rolling into the Russian River from the Pacific Ocean


Wine that fits the bill

The tasting lineup at Duckhorn Vineyards, Napa Valley

Writing a blog can take up a significant amount of precious free time, especially if you feel compelled, as we do, to post at least once a week.  With the pressure of jobs, kids, dogs, and the rest of life, we sometimes ask ourselves “is it worth it?”  Just when one of us feels like taking a break, something good motivates us to keep at it.  For us, the latest “something good” was making a connection through our blog (and our Twitter account @topochinesvino ) with Carol Reber, the Chief Marketing & Business Development Officer at Duckhorn Wine Company.  One half of this blog duo has worked in Marketing for the past 15 years and has a strong affinity for branding, communications, marketing, sales and distribution.  So when we connected with Carol via Twitter and she invited us to come up to Duckhorn Vineyards, we were doubly excited:  first, we have been purchasing the wine for years and love it; second, Carol is an awesome marketer working in one of the coolest businesses we can imagine.  If you don’t believe us, look her up on LinkedIn.

For those that have read our prior blog entries, you know that our goal since moving to Napa in 2013 is to taste wine at every one of the 450-500 wineries in Napa Valley.  We are making our way through the list haphazardly, with no particular order.  This past Friday we put Duckhorn to the top of our list and made the trip up the Valley close to the town of St. Helena.  The Duckhorn tasting room is surrounded by beautiful vineyards and is worth a walk-around pre- or post-tasting just to soak up the beauty and take some pictures.

After checking in we were given the option to sit inside or outside.  Having just come up from a tasting in the Carneros region 15 miles to the south, we hesitated, as the temperature in St. Helena was at least 20-25 degrees warmer.  But when we saw the stunning outside covered veranda, we opted for the outside tasting.  When we got to our table, I knew we were in for a nice afternoon.

Irene bravely preparing for battle

Even before getting to our table, we had been offered a glass of Duckhorn’s Sauvignon Blanc.  It was a perfect match for the warm day:  crisp, balanced, with nice fruit flavors but also minerality and acidity to round out the finish.  When we finished the Sauv Blanc it was time to get to the real tasting.  As the picture at the beginning of the article shows, Duckhorn tastings include a card for each wine being served.  These cards provide an overview of the wine, tasting notes, and other useful information.  We wondered immediately why other wineries do not provide something similar; the cards were so useful we took them home with us.

The first two wines in the tasting were Merlot.  If you’ve seen the movie “Sideways,” or even heard about it, you might have a skewed view of the quality of this noble varietal.  To refresh everyone’s recollection, there is a scene in Sideways where Paul Giamatti’s character says:  “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving.  I am not drinking any (d)ucking Merlot.”  That was it – less than 30 seconds in a 7,380-second movie, but it had a measurable impact on the sale of Merlot wine in the U.S.  Pardon the editorial, but this is an idiotic reaction.  There, we said it.  Across the world, there are hundreds and hundreds of red wine varietals.  We really mean it – hundreds.  Of these hundreds, only four red varietals are considered to be “noble”:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Merlot.  In arguably the world’s best wine region – Bordeaux – nearly two-thirds of the vines are planted to Merlot.  Wines from the famous “Right Bank” of Bordeaux are typically blends comprised of a majority of Merlot.  One of the best wines in the world, Chateau Petrus, is made from mostly Merlot (in some vintages, 100% Merlot).

Are there terrible Merlot wines out there?  Yes!  If you don’t like terrible wines, don’t drink them. But don’t condemn a noble varietal because of a line in a movie or because you tasted some crappy Merlot that, based on its rock-bottom price, you should have known was going to be bad.  Now that we got that out of our system …I can tell you that the Duckhorn Merlot is spectacular.  Our intrepid hostess and wine guide, Carol, told us that the winery’s founder, Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, were actually inspired to grow Merlot in Napa Valley from their experiences in France – and particularly Bordeaux, the Right Bank, and Chateau Petrus itself.  As the price of a bottle of Petrus exceeds our monthly mortgage payment (and we have a pretty big mortgage!), we cannot say with any authority how close Duckhorn’s Merlot comes to Petrus.  What we can say, though, is that the two we tried were delicious, and excellent examples of a European, terroir-based approach to making wine.  While they had strong fruit aromas and flavors, the Merlot’s also had strong earthy elements, with hints of granite and chalkiness.  Both wines were wonderfully balanced with medium tannin and long finish.

We also tasted two Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon offerings from Duckhorn as well as a Cabernet from Canvasback, a relatively new wine from Washington state, and some Pinot Noir from Goldeneye, a winery Dan and Margaret founded in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley.  Carol was exceedingly gracious and generous with us, pouring many more wines than a typical tasting.

Our lovely hostess, Carol Reber, CMO of Duckhorn Wine Company

In addition to sharing wine with us, Carol gave us a lot of insight about the origins of Duckhorn, its founding over 40 years ago, the commitment of its founders, and their approach to wine making.  We also learned about the new owners of Duckhorn, who are clearly balancing respect for the founder’s traditions with a vision for growing and enhancing the brand.  Expansion into other states, managing and growing multiple labels, planting new vines, and building world-class facilities requires investment.  From what we can see, Duckhorn has a strong team dedicated to making great wines from multiple wine regions in the United States.  We will be adding Duckhorn to the “must visit” list we share with friends and family when they come to Napa.

John & Irene Ingersoll

August 19, 2016

Irene Enjoying The Tasting
View of vines through a Sauvignon Blanc



It’s All Greek To Me.

The Meze Plate at Tarla Grill, Napa Valley

Tarla Mediterranean Bar & Grill in Napa is located on First Street in the heart of our town.  For the two-and-a-half years that we have lived here, we had been there exactly …zero times.  In our defense, while we have heard many good things about it, we just had not made it there.  What finally motivated us to go?  Serendipity.

We were in New York a couple of weeks ago, stumbling around town after having experienced the moving and overwhelming Ground Zero memorial and museum.  It was mid-afternoon and none of us (including several kids) had eaten since breakfast.  We accidentally found ourselves in front of the renowned Palm restaurant – not usually a good venue for sweaty, shorts-wearing tourists with kids.  But they didn’t complain, perhaps because the restaurant was empty, and we were just happy to sit down for a bit and get some food.  Our waiter, Murat, gave us great service and engaged us all in lively conversation throughout our meal.  At the end, he asked where we were from; when he heard that we were from Napa, he smiled and told us that one of his close friends, Ali, owned a restaurant in Napa.  “Have you heard of Tarla Grill,” he asked us.  We told him we had driven by literally dozens of times but had not been.  Of course, we promised to go right away when we returned.

We made good on this promise and headed to Tarla a few days after returning from the East Coast.  The food was so good, the service so friendly, and the atmosphere so lively that we made up for our 2 1/2 year absence by going again a week after the first visit.  The second time was for a special occasion – an 80th birthday party.  We did not meet Ali, as he is spending all of his time managing another restaurant, Napkins, down the street.  But we did meet Yusuf Topal, Ali’s partner, who is managing Tarla – and very well, we have to say.

Both times we ate at the restaurant, we started with a traditional Greek salad and a meze plate – a traditional mediterranean combination plate with pita bread, stuffed grape leaves, tzatziki (yogurt dip),  hummus, baba ganoush (eggplant-based dip), and zucchini cakes.  One of the people in our party told Yusuf that Tarla was “the best Greek restaurant” she had ever been to.  “Turkish,” replied Yusuf, maybe a bit tongue-in-cheek.  “What’s the difference,” she asked?  “Ah, it’s all the same,” he said. “The Ottoman Empire ruled Greece for almost 500 years so we all eat the same foods.”  Turkish, Greek, whatever – it was all delicious.  In addition to the Greek (Turkish?) Salad and Meze plate, we sampled the fried calamari, chicken skewers, steak, and short ribs.  Everything is done to perfection at Tarla:  the skewers were nicely charred on the outside but juicy on the inside (all white meat); the steak was juicy and flavorful; and the short ribs were as good as any we have had – anywhere.

As good as the food is, the service just might be better.  As soon as we were seated on our second visit, one of the waiters came by and said “long time  no see.”  The entire team works well together and pitches in.  At least four different people brought food to the table and everyone was willing to help with whatever was needed:  replacing a dropped fork; bringing more bottled water; opening another bottle of wine.  One feature of the restaurant that we really appreciated was the absence of corkage fees.  We had a couple of bottles of wine and, at most local places, the charge would have been $25 or more per bottle, which ends up making the meal feel really expensive.

Both nights we ate at Tarla, we finished off dinner with dessert, coffee and after-dinner drinks.  Given that we were in a mediterranean restaurant, we decided to order the authentic Turkish (Greek?) coffee.  Although it is served in an espresso-sized cup, it bears little relationship to the Italian specialty.  With Turkish coffee, finely-ground coffee beans are simmered (not boiled) in a special pot and then poured into the small cup for serving – along with the grounds, which settle to the bottom of the cup.  Turkish coffee can be served without sugar, lightly sweetened, or very sweet. We opted for the medium option and enjoyed the jolt of real coffee taste.  Out of respect for our the Turkish/Greek influence, we also ordered an ouzo and a raki.  Both are anise-based liqueurs that, according to our 80-year-old birthday boy, tastes like “bad medicine.”  This from a Russian who has consumed enough vodka in his day to fill the Olympic pool in Rio.  For the record, some of us enjoyed both the ouzo and raki and found it to be an excellent way to cap off a good meal.

When the bill came, we were pleasantly surprised with the total.  While I would not say Tarla is an inexpensive restaurant, the prices are reasonable for such high quality food in the heart of a wine country town.  We would stack the food up against many other places in town and encourage both locals and visitors to give Tarla a try.

John & Irene

August 15, 2016

Lovely Marimar Russian River Pinot from home wine collection
Irene holding birthday card waiting patiently for Dad
Lots of empty plates

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

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.

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.

Sweet Summer Corn and Chanterelles
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.

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


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


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:  http://www.artesawinery.com/visit-us/


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