Increasingly, wineries are adding upscale food to their tastings repertoires, and restaurant chefs have few reservations about tossing their toques unto the tasting bars.
For eight years, Michael McMillan lived the life. As owner-chef at Opus 39 restaurant in San Augustine, the CIA graduate drew both adoring diners and high critical marks for his innovative tasting menu cuisine. On the side, he also owned a local tapas bar, a retail wine shop and a bakery. It was all pretty heady stuff, but on the days when his baker was off, McMillan had to be at the ovens by 3 a.m. and probably wouldn’t get home until after midnight. “I would be putting in 100-plus hours every week,” he says. These days he still creates elaborate meals daily, but only for wine-loving foodies who make advanced reservations at the upscale Signorello Winery in Napa Valley. And these days, McMillan is usually home with his wife, Christine, and kids by 5:30.
Maria Helm Sinskey was also once a busy, in-demand chef, earning her stripes at such high-profile restaurants as PlumpJack in San Francisco. Now she spends most of her time and energy in the vegetable gardens at Robert Sinskey Vineyards which she and her husband own in Yountville. While Robert makes the wine, Maria prepares the small bites that every person receives when they come through the door at Robert Sinskey Vineyards to buy or to taste wine.
Jordan Winery's executive chef Todd Knoll, who joined its staff in 2003 after being chef saucier at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, also gets to share a common workplace with his spouse, Nitsa. She is in charge of the Healdsburg winery’s hospitality and special events programs, as well as being well known for her creative flower designs.
As wineries in California and around the world are discovering, most wine drinkers are also foodies at heart and are willing to pay more for a combined wine-and-food experience. As a result, many wineries have started to hire winery chefs and even full culinary departments. They’ve learned having food with the wine-tasting menu upgrades the reputation of the winery and, customers are more likely to spend more extravagantly on wine purchases if they have lingered for a while to soak up the atmosphere and savor the total food/wine experience. One of the pioneers in this movement is Cakebread Cellars in Oakville, which has been offering cooking classes at the winery for about 30 years. Similarly, Domaine Chandon’s full-scale restaurant has been part of the Yountville culinary scene for decades.
For restaurant-trained chefs, working at a winery provides an opportunity to experience a different side of cooking – one that has its downsides, of course, but one that provides more regular hours and a greater variety of ways to express and develop culinary talents. “While I occasionally miss the excitement of working through a service at a restaurant, working at the winery gives me more freedom to be creative,” says Sinskey, who has authored an on-the-job cookbook The Vineyard Kitchen.
How wineries present their culinary experiences varies greatly.
For example, the Portuguese winery, Esporão, located in Reguengos de Monsaraz southeast of Lisbon, believes strongly to agri-tourism and hired chef Miguel Vaz to run a full-scale restaurant (with a winery sommelier, of course). He also prepares special meals such as scallops with beetroot puree, bacalhau(cod) and ovos mexidos com farinheira(eggs with pork) when visiting importers and distributors come tasting.
Kendall-Jackson has a full culinary department for its many winery sites, and recently chef Matthew Lowe found himself assembling a grilled picnic lunch on a Sonoma mountaintop for French journalists attending a celebration for Vérité, the Jess Jackson-Pierre Seillan collaboration, when one of its wines scored 100 points from Robert Parker.
“My main duty is to prepare six courses of food and wine pairings daily for guests who make advance reservations,” says Signorello’s McMillan. Rather than have rigid wine-food match-ups, McMillan explains, “Not everyone’s palate is the same, so we encourage guests to discover the flexibility of wines and of foods. We’re constantly changing the menu according to what’s available.”
“I literally spend most of my time in the garden and preparing dishes of little bites from the garden which everyone gets when they visit,” Sinskey says. While many city chefs may grow a few herbs and small tomatoes on their restaurant rooftop, there’s a 1/8 acre garden at the winery and another at the Sinskey residence, plus fruit and olive trees all over the property. “Right now, we’re working our way through 1,500 pounds of lemons,” she laughs. If it’s not lemons, it’s olives. And, as if to emphasize the food-wine connection at Robert Sinskey, at the end of the wine bar is a small food-prep kitchen.
Like Maria Sinskey, Jordan’s Todd Knoll is in charge of what’s planted in the winery’s garden and in preparing small bites and command meals for important guests. He’s also found ways to channel his creativity by installing a large wood-fire oven outside the winery, and he oversees Jordan’s sizable olive oil business. If it all sounds very romantic, Sinskey laughs that for many harried restaurant chefs, the idea of “working at a winery is like a siren’s song!” McMillan agrees. “Working at Signorello is like having my own restaurant without any of the responsibilities but to be creative,” he says. “Working here is much more relaxed, plus I’m in a Mecca for food and wine. I change the menu two or three times a week, but I am cooking in the same style as what I was doing before at the restaurant.”
But there are also downsides to winery cooking. While evenings are free except for the occasional special dinners, most winery chefs and culinary directors have to work weekends, the busiest days at a winery. And while a few wineries have large culinary staffs, most winery chefs work solo or with one assistant, having to do everything from prep work to often washing the dishes.“It’s a great life style,” McMillan says, “but I do find myself having to do things here that my staff at the restaurant would be doing.” Sinskey, who has a full-time staff of two, finds that when she puts out the call for new hires or for part-time workers during summers, “I get applications from a lot of restaurant chefs, especially line chefs. But many of them, after I’ve hired them, get bored. They can’t work without the structure they find in a restaurant.” For that reason, executive chefs, who are by nature self-starters, seem to make the transition more easily.
Some wineries who can’t afford, or don’t want, staff-based food preparation, still may want some food experience for their visitors. Many buy locally made breads, cheeses, chocolates and other artisanal foods for wine-tasting pairings. Still others regularly retain favorite local caterers for special food events. Additionally, as there are now wineries of some sort in all 50 states, the opportunity for chefs to work alongside winemakers is not limited by geography.
“We encourage well-balanced foods to go with well-balanced wines,” Sinskey sums up the winery chef experience. “That leads to more enjoyment at the table.”