Nowhere Like Napa

Rob & Maria Sinsky on Great Food, Gorgeous Wine

by: Marianne R. Stanton

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Rob Sinskey has been making wine for 20 years. His wife Maria has been with him for 10 of those. An acclaimed chef in her own right, coming from PlumpJack in San Francisco, Maria runs the kitchen at Sinskey.

Their philosophy is that to enjoy wine to the fullest, it must be considered with food. To that end, their vineyard relies heavily on a grape that supports those beliefs.

“Pinot Noir is a grape that requires food,” says Rob, who plants over half of his nearly 200 acres in Pinot Noir.

He adds another comment for fun.

“Pinot Noir is also very much like Maria. It is challenging and exhilarating at the same time,” says Rob, in awe of his wife’s talents and very happy to have found his perfect partner in work and life. For at Sinskey Vineyards, there has always been a strong emphasis on food.

“Even before I met Maria, we had a kitchen here at the winery, and we always had nibbles out for our customers who were here for tastings.”

“Even before I met Maria, we had a kitchen here at the winery, and we always had nibbles out for our customers who were here for tastings.”
Since Maria left her restaurant career behind her – for now – she serves as the culinary director at the vineyard. She creates menus for wine dinners for private parties throughout the year and for members of the Sinskey wine club as well as the media.

“Maria has a phenomenal memory of flavors and textures. I have complete confidence in her pairing of food and wines,” says Rob.

They have shared values when it comes to food. Simpler is better. Organic is best.

Since 2001 Sinskey Vineyards has been certified organic. Now it is working toward biodynamic certification.

Sinskey’s stated goal is to “create a balanced farm environment by employing an ecologically sound, self-supporting farm system with minimal adverse impact on the environment.”

“Some of the thought process that went into our decision to become all-organic started with the fact that our home is in the vineyard. It seemed irresponsible to be using industrial-strength chemicals when we lived so close,” says Rob.

Being organic, they don’t have to worry about the chemical residue from spraying and the effects on them and their children, Ella, 7; and Lexi, 5.

“I love the fact that my girls can run around the yard in their bare feet,” adds Maria, who enjoys the simple pleasures of life, the same way she approaches it with food.

Pick up a copy of Maria’s cookbook, “The Vineyard Kitchen,” to get an idea of what she’s all about in the kitchen. Most of her recipes rely on six to eight ingredients, and if it’s a savory dish, two of those are probably salt and pepper.

Living in California is pure heaven for the chef who grew up in the Northeast and didn’t have even close to the array of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs she has living out in her own little corner of paradise.

Outside the entrance to the winery, herb and vegetable gardens are planted. Likewise, leading up to the front entrance of the Sinskey home are lime trees, herbs and a pomegranate tree, the branches bowed over in late October with softball-sized fruit.

“I cook very simply from produce in the valley. We have people who raise meat for us, so we slaughter to order. We know the people we get our cheese and eggs and honey from. We have a real connection to the food and the rhythms of the season out here,” says Maria.

When it comes to creating dishes, Maria likes to stick with what she knows and what’s available naturally.

Her food is elegant. Her flavors are direct.

She calls it honest food, and it totally reflects who she is as a person.

Maria Sinskey looks you straight in the eye when she talks to you. Ask her a question about her food philosophy and you’ll get a direct answer. There’s no pussyfooting around here. Maria is unflinchingly direct and her food reflects that ethic.

Her style of cooking emphasizes the integrity of each ingredient she uses. There is no amorphous blending where flavors dissipate into an unidentifiable mélange.

“For me it’s great to cook wine-friendly food, but you need to keep it simple,” says Maria.

That goes hand-in-hand with her husband’s approach to winemaking.

Rob likes to say that at Sinskey they produce “cuisine-oriented wines,” or wines that are made to be enjoyed with food and complement it. The very idea that a wine must be a knockout, stand out on its own, doesn’t sit well with the Sinskey Vineyards philosophy.

“Bolder wines are completely divorced from the culinary realm,” says Rob, who points out that wines that score high in blind tastings generally do so because of

big flavors. But those big flavors also compete with food and don’t make for a pleasant dining experience.

“In a blind tasting, the elegant wines disappear.

I feel that wine should not be considered an athletic event. It’s not about competing with yourself or your neighbor,” says Rob, who clearly isn’t into the whole competition and points thing that consumes the waking consciousness of many winemakers.

“Our style of winemaking is about the fruit,” he says. “And the longer, cooler growing seasons here in the Carneros make for the best Pinots anywhere.”

The Carneros is one of the cooler growing regions of Napa and one of the few wine-growing appellations that spans two counties – Napa and Sonoma. Napa, to the northeast, is warmer due to the fact that Los Carneros has its own automatic cooling system provided courtesy of San Francisco’s famous fog.

“The bay sucks it (the fog) all in, which is exactly what makes it all work – it’s nature’s built-in air conditioning,” explains Rob, “and it’s what helps maintain the acidity in the grapes and provide the perfect micro-climate for Pinot.”

Of the 167 acres Sinskey has currently planted in six separate vineyards, five are in the Carneros district and over half of them are planted with Pinot Noir grapes.

They are the Three Amigos Vineyard, the Old Sonoma Road (O.S.R.) Vineyard, the Scintilla Sonoma Vineyard, the Capa Vineyard, which is all Pinot Noir, and the Vandal Vineyard, which was so named after some kids stole the farm tractor parked in the vineyard and demolished the harvest.

A rosé was subsequently made from the surviving grapes.

Other varietals planted by Sinskey include Merlot, with some vineyards having acreage devoted to Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc as well. Recently Sinskey has been experimenting with Gewürtztraminer, Reisling, Muscat and Zinfandel as well. The different varietals provide a show of color in the fall, with the foliage of each varietal changing at different times, thus providing a tapestry of greens and golds and russets, sometimes all in the same vineyard.

Only the five acres in the Stags Leap District, which surround the winery, are planted without Pinot Noir. That acreage is devoted to 4.5 acres of Cabernet and half an acre of Merlot.

The 2005 harvest was one of Sinskey’s best yet.

“This year I just didn’t want to cut any of the fruit off (the vine). It was some of the most beautiful fruit I’ve seen in years,” says Rob.

The harvest was still ongoing, even into the third week of October, when we arrived in Napa to celebrate the year gone by at the Sinskey Harvest Dinner. But it was not the first time we’d met.

Five months earlier we spent an evening with Maria and her volunteer staff in the kitchen at Max and Heidi Berry’s Brant Point home during a wine festival “Great Wines in Grand Homes” dinner. Turn to page 67 for photos of that event.

The menu for this dinner was uncomplicated, yet elegant. Recipes were developed with foods in season: one of Maria’s caveats in the kitchen.

“I’m such a seasonal cook, that in the winter, for example, we just don’t eat tomatoes. Every once in a while Rob will try to sneak one in the house, and then when he cuts it open it’s all pale inside. All I can say is “What do you expect – it’s January!” Maria says with a laugh.

For this Harvest Dinner, Maria can trace everything she’s using to a purveyor – or friend – she knows.

Figs from her father-in-law’s tree are used in the first course of roasted figs with arugula and prosciutto, accented with a drizzle of EVOO and aged balsamic vinegar. The roasting elicits the sweet jamminess of the figs, while the prosciutto, with its hint of salt, is the perfect foil to the fruit.

He father-in-law, Dr. Bob Sinskey, started the vineyards as a retirement project, but today he is completely retired even from that. Living in southern California, he remains a consultant to his son.

The second course is a pumpkin soup with shaved truffles.

“I was going to get the first white truffles of the season, but they were unavailable, so instead I got Perigords (black truffles).”

Maria freezes the truffle before shaving it into thin slices as a garnish for the soup. The freezing brings out the flavor once the truffle is back at room temperature, Maria says.

As for the pumpkin, it came right out of the Sinskey Vineyards’ pumpkin patch near the front entrance to the winery. A “Cinderella-size fairytale pumpkin,” is how Maria’s sous chef Natalie Felice describes it.

When we arrive at the winery, Maria is making spaetzle. Holding an oversized bowl in which she has made the batter using a chestnut flour, “because chestnuts are now just coming into season,” she methodically scrapes the batter into a simmering pot of hot water where the elongated dumplings cook and rise to the surface. They will be served with caramelized cipollini onions alongside the main course of herb-roasted duck breast. The duck she purchased from a local farmer in neighboring Sonoma County. The herbs were grown in her own garden.

“The spaetzle hearkens back to my Alsatian heritage,” says Maria, who speaks of a childhood filled with grandparents on both sides of the family who loved to cook.

This early introduction to good home-style food and its inescapable link to family togetherness made an impression that has lasted a lifetime and one she incorporates into her life with Rob and their two daughters.

The farm they share overlooking one of their five vineyards in Los Carneros is the centerpiece to a natural family lifestyle that doesn’t rely on many 21st century toys to keep them occupied.

There’s no TV or video games. For fun the Sinskey girls bake with their mother, or occasionally help with dinner. Homemade pasta with fresh tomato sauce is a favorite Sunday supper.

As the point person for sales for Sinskey Vineyards, Rob travels part of each week. He and Maria savor their time at home together with their family.

“I’m very selective about leaving my home,” admits Maria. “When I leave it has to be special.”

The trip to the Nantucket Wine Festival in May every year falls into that special category. So does the Aspen Food and Wine Classic in June and some Colorado and New York events along the way. Sometimes they take the girls.

For Maria, coming to Nantucket is a little like reconnecting with old family.

“I have a Nantucket connection. Did you know that?” she asks the first time we meet.

It turns out that Louise Baker, reverend at the Old North (Congregational) Church was her great-great-great aunt on her mother’s side.

The Sinskeys’ participation in the Thursday night Gala benefiting the Nantucket Historical Association is a way of giving back to an organization that has preserved some of her family’s history.

It’s also a lot of fun.

“This event is getting better every year,” says Rob of the Nantucket Wine Festival. “It’s grown in a good way, in the quality of the event. It hasn’t just gotten bigger. It’s gotten better.”