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You Can Take It With You

Winery cookbooks export wine country cuisine

Harvey Steiman
Posted: January 13, 2004

Annie Roberts (far right) was the first executive chef at Robert Mondavi Winery.
The Books
White Bean and Escarole Soup With Smoked Ham
Chilled Udon Noodles with Shrimp and Shiitake Mushrooms
Orange-Braised Chicken With Bay Leaves and Black Olives
Wine Spectator Menus
More than 150 wine-friendly recipes, including recommended wine matches.

Wineries have always fed their favored guests, the better to show off their wines. But in California, doing so with a professional flair has become almost a requirement. A recent crop of winery cookbooks highlights the phenomenon.

Dozens of wineries have chefs on the payroll, cooking elaborate meals for visiting VIPs. Some have restaurants and cooking classes. The hallmarks of the style, which has become known as California wine country cuisine, include fresh, seasonal ingredients cooked with minimal elaboration using techniques rooted in Mediterranean France and Italy, with flourishes from the Pacific Rim. It is a lot like the modern American cuisine that many of the nation's best restaurants do today, with a more delicate touch to make it more wine friendly.

You find the same sort of food in wine country restaurants, notably in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. This heightened food sensibility comes from being in a wine region. It plays off the same factors that make meals special in Burgundy and Tuscany, not least of which are the high quality local ingredients of prime agricultural regions.

Several cookbooks published this year collect ideas and recipes that offer insights into how this cuisine works. Among them are four volumes from familiar California wineries -- Cakebread, Mondavi, Sinskey and Wente. Another book focuses on the restaurants of Yountville, the Napa Valley town where the French Laundry, Bistro Jeanty and the restaurant at Domaine Chandon hold forth. One more book celebrates Sonoma County, source of some of the most celebrated food -- not to mention wine.

The best of the new winery-centered books, The Vineyard Kitchen, comes from Maria Helm Sinskey. She was one of the hottest chefs in San Francisco in the late 1990s, when she headed the kitchen at PlumpJack. The restaurant is associated with a wine shop down the street and has always had a strong wine sensibility. She married vintner Rob Sinskey in 1997, and in 1999 left PlumpJack and started making meals for guests and teaching cooking classes at their eponymous winery in Napa Valley.

A well-practiced professional chef, Sinskey captures the thrill of cooking simply to glorify great seasonal ingredients. The 40 menus, 10 per season, mostly comprise three or four courses. The clear, sprightly recipes, such as White Bean and Escarole Soup with Smoked Ham (her wine suggestion: New World Pinot Noir or red Burgundy) or Pan-Fried Halibut with a Ragoût of Sweet Peas and Morels (with Chablis or Pouilly-Fuissé), are striking for their ease, seldom requiring more than 10 ingredients. They rely on familiar foodstuffs, often accompanied by practical advice on how to find the best quality and tips on how to do things better.

Each menu offers several options for wine, briefly noting what elements of the menu most affect the wine choice. It's an honest, straightforward approach, and her suggestions range far afield, often naming wine types from France, Italy, Spain or New Zealand. In short, her experience at the winery informs the book but never intrudes on it commercially.

Sinskey's publisher is HarperCollins, which also publishes books by Emeril Lagasse and Alice Waters. The other five books come from Ten Speed Press, which has some of the world's elite chefs on its roster, including Charlie Trotter, Mark Miller, Gordon Ramsay, Hubert Keller and Joachim Splichal. Kirsty Melville, Ten Speed's publisher, says it's a coincidence that all these books came out at once. They have been in development for various lengths of time.

"It's a freak of timing that they're all coming out in one year," Melville says from her office in Berkeley, Calif. "The wine country is right in our backyard. We have wine posters and grape posters, too." All the projects got started after the success of Sharing the Vineyard Table, which Ten Speed published in 2000 with Wente Vineyards.

The Ten Speed books have significantly more promotional content than Sinskey's does, but in the end they have more than enough quality and integrity to offset any taint of commercialism.

The Cakebread Cellars Napa Valley Cookbook, for example, frankly recommends the winery's own wines and uses its introduction to extol them. In Annie and Margrit: Recipes and Stories from the Robert Mondavi Kitchen, the wine suggestions extend only to varietals made by Mondavi, but the text is more personal than Cakebread's. It's a tricky balance. After all, the reason the wineries have these food programs in the first place is to develop dishes for their wines. But the ramifications go beyond that.

"We count on the wineries to buy a certain number of books," says Melville. "It is an expensive business card for them, but it helps us to publish them and they get some extra marketing from us."

That may sound like the books are vanity press projects, but they are more than that. They chronicle the story of wine country cooking in California over recent decades.

In 1980, the Mondavi winery sent Annie Roberts to Bordeaux to cook with the chef at Château Mouton-Rothschild and learn a little bit about making meals to show off the house's wine. "That's when I grasped what Bob Mondavi meant when he said food should be simple but elegant," writes Roberts in her introduction.

Annie had been helping out her mother, Margrit Biever, a member of the winery's marketing department whose European background compelled her to introduce something more than sandwiches for guests at lunch. Annie became the winery's first executive chef. Margrit became Mrs. Robert Mondavi.

Over the years, the Mondavi winery has presented some of the world's great chefs in cooking classes and dinners at the winery and welcomed favored guests with lunches and dinners created in Annie's kitchen. With the help of food writer Victoria Wise, Annie and Margrit compiles some 130 recipes from the thousands that have been served there in the past two decades. Many of the recipes reflect Margrit's Swiss roots, such as her Grilled Squab with Cabernet Sauvignon-Onion Marmalade and Spätzli, but they also display Annie's approach, which uses Pacific Rim ingredients, as in her Chilled Udon Noodles with Shrimp and Shiitake Mushrooms.

Since 1975, Dolores and Jack Cakebread had been pouring their Zinfandel at harvest feasts featuring groaning boards of Dolores' hearty food. "In the late '70s there was a culinary renaissance taking place ... and many of the wineries began to offer cooking classes," writes Dolores in her introduction. She started teaching her own classes, and in 1986 the winery launched the American Harvest Workshop, inviting American chefs and food producers from around the country to teach and create meals for Cakebread's wines.

Ten of the recipes in the book come from chefs who have cooked at these workshops, including Jan Birnbaum, Alan Wong and Mark Franz. The rest are from the Cakebreads and Brian Streeter, the winery's resident chef since 1991. The style is eclectic, ranging from barbecue and pizza to more conventional wine-oriented fare such as Orange Braised Chicken with Bay Leaves and Black Olives.

In their 1999 book, Carolyn Wente and winery chef Kimball Jones embellished their recipes with useful cooking tips and wine-pairing suggestions. The Casual Vineyard Table, the paperback sequel, takes a more relaxed approach, aiming for more everyday dishes, such as Pork Kebabs with Figs and Grapes. Both books keep the commercial to a minimum. Wine suggestions usually name a varietal or two, occasionally explaining how the texture or flavor of the food makes the match work.

While Sinskey and Wente explicate their wine choices and offer options from all over the world, the Mondavi and Cakebread books suggest only their own wines. Roberts and Biever, for example, list "Coastal Sauvignon Blanc" for that chilled udon dish, an obvious reference to the winery's mid-priced line. Cakebread's choice for the braised chicken is Rubaiyat, its Pinot Noir-Syrah blend.

Two books not associated with specific wineries are pleasant surprises. Even if the designer (Jennifer Barry) and photographer (Robert Holmes) get top billing for Sonoma: A Food and Wine Lovers' Journey, Mimi Luebbermann's profiles of leading food producers hold their own against the photography. She may not be the most elegant writer, but she captures the earthy enthusiasm of those responsible for Hog Island oysters, Liberty Farms ducks and renowned cheesemakers such as Vella, Laura Chenel and Bellwether Farm.

Holmes, whose photography has been seen regularly in National Geographic, captures swaths of lavender growing at Matanzas Creek winery, endearing goats at Laura Chenel and a stunning still life of garlic at Chester Aaron's farm.

Each of the four dozen recipes, which come from the food producers themselves and from restaurants such as Piatti and The Girl and the Fig, includes a suggestion for a specific Sonoma County wine. They strike a lovely balance between simplicity and stylishness, as in the Portobello Mushroom and Goat Cheese Pizza from St. Francis Vineyards.

Villagio Inn and Spa, an upscale resort in Yountville, was the impetus behind Escape to Yountville. "Villagio Spa wanted a book to represent the spa, but in talking about it we decided Yountville itself represented something that was worth exploring," Melville says.

The 100 recipes, clearly written and reflecting a wine country style, should pose no difficulties for wine matching. Each recipe recommends two wine types, one for traditional drinkers, the other for more adventurous food-and-wine matchers -- and not all the wines are from Napa Valley, either.

Author Sally James, who has written several books on healthful cooking, did about half of the recipes. Local chefs contributed the rest, including Philippe Jeanty's signature Mussels Steamed in Pinot Noir and, from Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, John Dory with Tomato "Marmalade" and Heirloom Tomato Vinaigrette. Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustards provided her recipe for Chile Rabbit with Grilled Polenta.

If the promotional nature of some of these books doesn't intrude, these collections give avid cooks a good feel for how things are done in California wine country. They take different approaches, but in the end, they represent a treasure chest of wine-friendly eating.

Annie and Margrit: Recipes and Stories from the Robert Mondavi Kitchen, by Annie Roberts, Margrit Biever and Victoria Wise (Ten Speed Press, 224 pages, $35)

The Cakebread Cellars Napa Valley Cookbook: Wine and Recipes to Celebrate Every Season's Harvest, by Dolores and Jack Cakebread with chef Brian Streeter (Ten Speed Press, 240 pages, $35)

The Casual Vineyard Table: From Wente Vineyards, by Carolyn Wente and Kimball Jones (Ten Speed Press, 128 pages, $19.95, paperback)

Escape to Yountville: Recipes for Health and Relaxation from the Napa Valley, by Sally James (Ten Speed Press, 176 pages, $19.95, paperback)

Sonoma: A Food and Wine Lovers' Journey, by Jennifer Barry and Robert Holmes, text by Mimi Luebbermann (Ten Speed Press, 224 pages, $40)

The Vineyard Kitchen: Menus Inspired by the Seasons, by Maria Helm Sinskey (HarperCollins, 390 pages, $32.50)

White Bean and Escarole Soup With Smoked Ham

Soak the beans overnight in 6 cups of cold water; refrigerate if your kitchen is warm.

Wash the escarole well and cut into 1-inch wide ribbons; halve them if too long. Peel and dice the potatoes in 1/2-inch cubes. Set aside in cold water.

Peel, trim and slice the carrots thinly. Peel the onion; remove the root and its core and slice thinly from top to bottom, not across the diameter. Peel, trim and slice the garlic thinly. Wash and trim the celery and slice thinly. Reserve the vegetables separately until ready to use.

Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the ham hocks and sauté until brown and sizzling. Add the sliced garlic and sauté until golden, about 2 to 3 minutes -- do not let them burn. Add the onion and celery and cook until they start to exude their juices. Add the carrots and season with salt and pepper. Drain and add the soaked beans, herbs (bundle them with kitchen string for easy removal later), and enough water to cover the vegetables by 2 inches.

Bring the liquid to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours until the beans are tender. Add additional liquid as necessary. Add the drained potatoes and escarole and cook for another 1/2 hour, or until the potatoes are tender; season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove the bay and sage leaves and the parsley stems before serving. Note: the ham hock meat can be shredded and returned to the soup.

To serve, spoon the soup into small bowls. Garnish with grated Parmesan and chopped Italian parsley and a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil. Serves 8.

Adapted from The Vineyard Kitchen, by Maria Helm Sinskey.

Chilled Udon Noodles with Shrimp and Shiitake Mushrooms


  • 2 tablespoons (about 4 cloves) minced garlic
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped or grated ginger
  • 4 scallions, including green parts, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 jalapeño chiles, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup peanut oil
  • 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce

Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until tender, 5 minutes for fresh, 7 minutes for dried. Drain, coat with 1 teaspoon peanut oil to prevent sticking, and allow to cool. Refrigerate 1 hour, or until chilled.

In a sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon peanut oil over high heat. Add the shrimp and sauté until barely firm and turning pink, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool. Refrigerate until chilled. In the same pan, heat 1 tablespoon peanut oil over medium-high heat and add the mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and sauté until wilted and beginning to turn golden, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside at room temperature to cool.

In a large bowl, combine all the dressing ingredients and mix well. Add the noodles, shrimp and mushrooms, toss well and serve. Serves 4.

Adapted from Annie and Margrit, by Annie Roberts and Margrit Biever Mondavi.

Orange-Braised Chicken With Bay Leaves and Black Olives

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottom stainless steel sauté pan or skillet over high heat. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and add to the pan. Cook for about 3 minutes per side, until all sides are browned. Transfer the breast pieces to a plate. Push the remaining chicken pieces to one side of the pan and pour out any oil. Add the orange juice and wine to the pan and scrape up any solids adhering to the bottom of the pan. Decrease the heat to low. Tuck the bay leaves and chiles between the chicken pieces. Cook, covered, on a low simmer for 10 minutes. Return the chicken breasts to the pan and cook, covered, for 10 more minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a plate and increase the heat to high. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the liquid becomes thick and syrupy. Return the chicken to the pan and toss to coat with the sauce. Add the olives and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Serve hot. Serves 4 to 6.

Adapted from The Cakebread Cellars Napa Valley Cookbook, by Dolores and Jack Cakebread.

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