Tag: spain

A winery my mother would have loved

Vineyards at Marimar Estate

My wife and I have been visiting Marimar Estate Vineyards & Winery in the Sonoma County town of Graton for quite a few years now.  Founded by Marimar Torres, a member of the prominent Torres winemaking family in Spain, Marimar Estate produces very high quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as Spanish varietals such as Albariño and Tempranillo.  Although she hated all California wines, I’m certain my mother would have loved Marimar Estate wines, Marimar Torres herself, and the great food-based events that they hold throughout the year.

My mother was born and raised in Spain and lived there until she was over thirty years old.  By the time she passed away, she had lived more than half of her life outside of her native country, most of those years in the United States.  Nevertheless, throughout her life she maintained a strong identify as a Spaniard and loved the food and wine that she grew up with.  My brothers and I all have memories of Mom’s food – Spanish tortilla, croquetas, bacalao, the giant blocks of Manchego cheese she would bring when she visited.  Without question, though, Mom had a signature dish – paella.  Every time she visited she would make many of her delicacies but alway would make at least one paella.  Coupled with the paella?  Red wine of course.  What kind of red wine?  Red wine from Rioja, Spain.

Over the course of my adult life I tried to impress my mother by taking her to fancy restaurants that purported to make good Spanish food.  All of these efforts ended in failure and, occasionally, disaster. As soon as the paella was placed on the table my mother would begin her meticulous inspection and quickly find something wrong with it:  it was too watery (“this is soup, not paella”); or had the wrong ingredients (“you don’t put this in paella”); it lacked the saffron necessary to turn the rice yellow; or it was seasoned improperly.  On one occasion in a Spanish restaurant in Hollywood my mother even called for the chef to come out and asked him a single question: “Does this paella have cilantro?”  “Yes!” the chef replied enthusiastically.  “This isn’t paella, then,” she answered, and proceeded to explain to him how paella should be made.  He attempted to defend himself by saying the paella was “his take” on the classic dish and, admittedly, had some more Mexican and South American influences.  “It’s just rice, then,” she concluded, and did not take a second bite.  This scene repeated itself in different forms, but equally embarrassing (for me) moments, many times.

We have visited Marimar Estate many times for regular tastings as well as their “big events” such as their library tastings and their paella dinners.

Marimar knows how to throw a party

I can say confidently that Mom would have loved both the wines and the food and would have seen a lot of herself in Marimar.  No, my mother did not make wine, but she had an energy and spirit that I see in Marimar Torres each time we visit the winery.  Growing up in Spain during the rule of dictator Francisco Franco, both my mother and Marimar experienced a Spain where women were not equal to men and certainly not encouraged to pursue their own careers.  Certainly when Marimar was a young woman in Spain the notion of a female winemaker or winery CEO would have been almost unimaginable.  Despite the expectations that society and family had for her, Marimar had big plans.  For starters, she obtained a degree at the University of Barcelona – in economics and business!  After graduating she was able to convince her father to permit her to sell their wines abroad, including in the United States.  It was during her time in California that she fell in love with Sonoma and found the parcel that would become the estate property for her vineyards and winery.

Marimar Torres toasting her guests

The Marimar Estate is located close to the town of Sebastopol on the top of a hill with amazing views of the Sonoma Valley (facing east).  On the estate property there are 60 acres planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes; this property is called Don Miguel Vineyard, an homage to Marimar’s father.  About four miles west, closer to the Pacific Ocean, is Doña Margarita Vineyard named after Marimar’s mother.


All of the grapes on the Don Miguel estate are farmed organically and Marimar powers her winery with solar power.  We really appreciate this commitment to the environment and the results are evident in the wines:  whenever we share them with friends they tell us how “clean” the wines taste.  Our favorite Marimar wines include the several Pinot Noir offerings as well as the Tempranillo.  Although my mother mostly refused to drink anything other than Tempranillo from Rioja, I know she would have enjoyed Marimar’s Pinot for its full-bodied flavor, balance and sophistication.  She would also have enjoyed the paella.

The sign of a real paella? A real paella pan.
Marimar’s paella being prepared

We assure you that this paella was 100% authentic and did not contain cilantro!  On this visit our 19-year old daughter came and ended up serving as designated driver so that we could enjoy all of the fantastic wines. She did, naturally, enjoy multiple servings of the paella.  If anyone was counting, they would have noticed that after finishing the first plate I went back for seconds.  And thirds.

Good enough for Mom

We toasted to Mom while we enjoyed the paella and wished that we had found Marimar earlier so we could have taken her to the winery and one of their paella dinners.

John & Irene Ingersoll

January 17, 2017


Rioja, Oregon

No, this is not Rioja. Yes, this is Southern Oregon.

The mother (and mother-in-law) of this blog-writing duo was born and raised in Spain and did not come to the United States until she was thirty years old.  She brought with her a fierce pride of her homeland; nowhere was this fierceness more evident than in her preferred beverage: red wine from Rioja.  She refused to drink white wine at all (“Why would I drink a white wine when I could be drinking Rioja?”).  In her later years, she also refused to drink any wine that was not from Rioja.  For many years, finding Rioja in the U.S. was no easy task as the volume of imported Spanish wine was relatively low.  “You know, there are some good California wines,” we would tell her.  She would screw up her face with outrage and say, “Oh please!”  We cannot even imagine what she would have said if we suggested she try Oregon wine; or, worse yet, an Oregon Tempranillo, which is the dominant grape varietal in red Rioja wines.

Over the past 10-15 years, the importation of Spanish wine has increased significantly, both from Rioja as well as other wine regions such as Ribera del Duero, Penedés and Rías Baixas.  Today, store shelves have many Spanish options, led by a number of labels from Rioja.  Similarly, wines from Spain appear on restaurant menus across the country.  Americans have become more familiar with and are embracing the unique aroma and flavor profile of Tempranillo.

Around the same time Mama was bemoaning the virtual absence of Rioja wines at her local liquor store and supermarket, Earl and Hilda Jones had a similar question:  why aren’t Rioja and Tempranillo part of the American premium wine scene?  Living on the East Coast at the time, the Joneses wondered why Tempranillo and other Spanish varietals were not being planted domestically.  Earl and Hilda dedicated several years to understanding the ideal growing conditions for Tempranillo and other Spanish grapes.  Ultimately, they identified the Umpqua Valley in Oregon as a suitable location; after more exploration they found the site where they would plant their vines and build their winery.  The climate in the Umpqua Valley is very similar to Spain, which may come as a surprise to those that have visited Oregon.  However, the Umpqua Valley is in the southern part of Oregon, about 3 1/2 hours driving distance from Portland, and has a decidedly different climate than the northern part of the state.

The Joneses planted their first vines in the Umpqua Valley in 1995 and made their first wine in 1996.  They named their winery Abacela, a derivation of an old Spanish and Portuguese word meaning “to plant a grapevine.”  Since then, Abacela has grown in reputation for its Spanish varietals, earning international acclaim both for its Tempranillo and its Albariño.

At the end of September we were driving from Willamette Valley back to our home in California, roughly a 7 1/2 hour drive.  We asked our B&B hosts if they had any recommendations for winery stops on the way home, and they enthusiastically recommended that we stop for a bit of wine and food at Abacela.  When we input the winery address into our GPS, it indicated that we would be driving by at exactly lunch time, which felt like fate!

We arrived at Abacela hungry and thirsty (for wine). They offered a number of food pairing and wine tasting options.  Because we wanted to have a “Rioja-type” experience, we opted not to try any of their international varietals (Merlot, Malbec, Syrah) and instead stick with the traditional red varietals from Spain. In our flight we had Graciano, Garnacha, and a couple different Tempranillos.  We paired the wine with a traditional platter of Spanish meats and cheeses.

Queso and Jamon platter at Abacela

At the risk of Mama putting a spell on us from above, we have to say the wine was very tasty.  In Rioja, red wines are generally aged in American oak barrels, which tends to impart a sweeter flavor (vanilla) and a creamier texture.  At Abacela, the winemaker uses both French and American oak, including some new oak, which historically was not done in Rioja (older wineries often used the same barrels for decades).  We mention this not as a criticism, simply an observation for those that care about things like this.  The end result at Abacela, for all the wines we tasted, was a nice, balanced wine – nice fruit aromas and flavor with minerality and earthiness.  We took home several bottles of Abacela and look forward to doing a side-by-side tasting of their Tempranillo and some Spanish Rioja that we have at home.  In a future post we’ll share those results.

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 14, 2016


A Slice of Spain in Napa


If you crave cuisine from Spain in an environment that feels authentically Spanish, head to downtown Napa where you will find not just one, but two, high-quality restaurants that bring a slice of Spain to Napa.  Mick Salyer is the proprietor of Zuzu and La Taberna, both of which are on Main Street literally separated by a few feet.  Today, the Napa Valley is known far and wide as a center of culinary excellence, with seven Michelin-star restaurants, including one with the coveted three stars. However, twelve years ago when Salyer first opened Zuzu, he must have been a visionary.  While the more northern Napa towns (Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville) were already food meccas in the early 2000’s, the city of Napa certainly was not, and downtown was not the sophisticated destination that it is today.  Opening a restaurant featuring Spanish cuisine was by no means a slam dunk proposition.  I guess you would have to say Salyer is a double visionary, as he opened his second Spain-themed restaurant two years ago.  This new restaurant, named La Taberna, continues to ignite  Napa’s passion for great Spanish food.  La Taberna  is  frequented by locals and is a great place to have a glass of wine or beer with a friend or a quick business meeting in the early afternoon, when it is quiet and welcoming. 

Zuzu offers a more traditional, sit-down experience with a broader selection of cold and hot appetizers and, usually, a paella dish.  The newer restaurant, La Taberna, has a more tavern look and feel (hence the name) and a menu to match.  The space was inspired by the pinxto bars of Northern Spain, particularly the Basque region.  

This past Saturday night we were celebrating a friend’s birthday and were interested in having a casual evening – a few drinks, some small plates to share.  We opted for La Taberna’s unique ambience, which is casual but also lively with an energetic crowd and a friendly wait staff.

We arrived at La Taberna around 5:30 to beat the inevitable Saturday night dinner rush. Reservations are not accepted, and more than once we’ve arrived too late and been unable to find a place to sit, or even stand. There are only 30 seats (all at high-top bar tables) and perhaps another 15 or 20 seats at the long bar which runs almost the entire length of the restaurant. Since there were four of us, we opted for a table  where we could eat, drink and talk together.  Luckily, at 5:30 we were only the second or third group in the restaurant and were able to get our pick of tables.

One of the most enjoyable things about stopping in at La Taberna is that you never know what the menu will be that day as the food options change frequently.  Like a real Spanish tavern, the list of the day’s pinxtos are not printed on a paper menu, but instead written in chalk on a board by the bar and another board closer to the kitchen.IMG_0324


While perhaps not as often as the food, the beverage menu changes quite frequently as well.  We have been to La Taberna about a half-dozen times and the wine selections were different on almost every visit. As you would expect, there are multiple Spanish wines on the list, including an impressive selection of  Spanish sherry, which can be ordered by the glass; for the more ambitious sherry drinker, a flight is also available.  La Taberna  also boasts French and Portuguese wines, along with an offering of California varietals. There are also numerous beers and ciders on the menu.  I should mention that the wine list is atypical for Napa in that the focus seems to be on more affordable and approachable wines than you might find at  other restaurants in town.  The most expensive bottle on the menu is a $65 bottle of Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon.  Most bottles are in the $30-50 range, which is quite a change from what we see most often in the Valley, with bottles, especially cabernet, starting in the triple-digits.  Also, where most Napa wine lists typically offer multiple options for each varietal (Cab, Pinot, Merlot, etc.), La Taberna’s list had a single Cabernet Sauvignon (this visit it was a good quality Freemark Abbey).

Not wanting to be wine gluttons, John and Irene ordered a glass of wine each and our friends ordered beer and cider for themselves.  One of us had three more glasses of wine before the evening was through, so ordering the whole bottle might have been more efficient, not to mention cost-effective. Once we had our drinks on the table, we were ready to start with the pinxtos. Last night we were celebrating a birthday and really looking forward to some of the outstanding and unique house specials.  I am pretty sure that every time we see grilled octopus on a restaurant menu, we order it.  Yesterday was no exception.   La Taberna’s grilled octopus version is one of the best and unique we have tasted. In addition to the octopus, we selected gambas a la plancha (grilled shrimp) and a double order of pig ears.  Yes, I said pig ears.  We have tried pig ears at other restaurants, but none better than the ones at La Taberna.  Sliced very thinly and fried to a crispy finish, with sweet and spicy flavors, they are a total treat and show off the chef’s expertise with a traditional Basque dish.IMG_0333

The four of us devoured the octopus, and the shrimp, and the pig ears …and still wanted more pinxtos.  We then ordered mussels escabeche, where the mussels are poached in a vinaigrette and served in a tin – a very traditional Basque dish.  Following the mussels, we ordered the lamb trio, which featured three different cuts of lamb, only two of which I can recall – loin and belly.  Although I don’t recall the third cut, it was delicious and we devoured it as well.

All four of us are torturing ourselves by not eating carbohydrates, but we felt like having some kind of dessert before ending the evening.  Fortunately, La Taberna had a cheese plate on the board, which we selected to cap off the meal. By the time we were leaving, the restaurant was packed, there were people waiting outside to get in, and the bar was triple-stacked with people.  Just like it would be in San Sebastian or Bilbao.IMG_0337

John and Irene

May 22, 2016