Faces of Hospitality
Personalizing the Culture of Napa Valley Wine Country
Napa Valley, with its vistas and vineyards, award-winning vintages, and mouth-watering restaurants, has earned a reputation as a mecca for wine and food aficionados. With more than three-and-a-half million visitors (*) in 2019, Napa Valley offers a wide variety of options to explore and enjoy. Most people, vacationers or day-trippers, come to this well-known destination to experience legendary Napa Valley wine and food hospitality. The unexpected bonus that makes a Napa visit exceptional, is the hospitality industry people you will meet-because they are the face of Napa Valley. Thousands of individuals are involved directly and indirectly in Napa’s hospitality industry; they will ultimately create memories you will cherish and take home. Some of these people you will see at various venues going about their tasks, others you will have direct contact with, while many are behind the scenes and out of sight. They all, however, have one common goal: to be welcoming, while contributing their part, helping to craft your unique and personal Napa Valley adventure. There are many faces of Napa Valley Hospitality. Let’s meet a few of these dedicated, passionate people who are an integral part of this one of a kind lifestyle culture.
Peju Winery’s Vintertainer & Yodelmeister
Wine Educator of the Year
He sings, yodels, raps, laughs, plays guitar, and entertains, all while educating you on grape varieties, terroir, aromas and tastes; making the wine tasting experience what it should be: really fun! This is Alan Arnopole, often referred to as Peju Winery’s Vintertainer or yodelmeister. This became Alan’s second career when he was just shy of 50, and he admits, he knew little about wine. What Alan did know was how to read people while being entertaining and engaging – so he learned about wine along the way and found that when he sang, yodeled or rapped, they would come! Educating Peju visitors in a fun, inclusive manner earned him the honor of being named “Wine Educator of the Year” by San Francisco Magazine. Talk about being a one of a kind – spend time with Alan Arnopole and you will never forget him! He is a rare individual who will touch your life forever – all while teaching you about wine.
Alan’s path to Peju was a circuitous one, on a road well-travelled throughout the United States and Canada, covering two decades.
Leaving San Jose State University in 1969, in the afterglow of the Summer of Love (a time of hippies, beatniks, hootenannies, free love, neighborhood coffee houses,* Woodstock and Altamont), Alan saw no further use for his majors of art and history. Without a specific career path in mind, he decided to simply follow his first love – music. Even though he had no formal musical education, what he could do was pick on a banjo or guitar, sing and tell stories to music, all the while making people smile.
*Coffee houses in the ’60s and ’70s were gathering places to listen to folk music. Singer-songwriters would perform. Typically venues were small storefronts, basements or backrooms of churches and the like. Although coffee was served, it was the music people came for, starting late at night continuing into the early morning hours. Many famous singers got their start in neighborhood coffee house.
It was the early 1970s and being well versed in the “folk music movement of the ’60s” with artists like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, the Kingston Trio, as well as, luminaries James Taylor, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Joni Mitchell … Alan fit right in. So, with a love of music, people, adventure and storytelling, Alan formed the band California Zephyr (still active to this day), piled into a VW bus and hit the road.
“Those were the days my friend,” playing fairs and rodeos, concerts and casinos, crisscrossing the country and entertaining at such venues as the Calgary Stampede, the famous Palomino Club, The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Las Vegas and hundreds of other venues. As Alan and California Zephyr told their musical stories, touching hearts and enriching the lives of millions, little did he realize he would do the same years later in a winery.
Coming off the road in 1985 to spend time with his wife and children, Alan settled in Napa, playing locally and helping to establish and produce the Napa Valley Folk Festival. Then, in 1995, Alan’s life took another unexpected turn.
Never having written a resumé or having had a job interview, Alan applied for a position as event coordinator at Peju Winery, certain he wouldn’t get the job. But Tony Peju had other ideas. He hired Alan because of his honesty, communication and people skills, sense of humor, friendliness and no doubt because of his ability to instantly display an extemporaneous sense of humor (yo yo yo, we gonna get down with Merlot).
As time went by, Alan learned more about wine, and one day, while in the tasting room, he started yodeling, singing and rapping about it; in the process, a star was born.
The more Alan learned, the more he integrated that knowledge with his skills as an entertainer. And he will tell you, it was because of the “true family feeling” of the Peju’s, that he was given the latitude and freedom to be himself and succeed. People would hear about Alan and the unique way he presented the story of the grape, terroir, and fermentation from vineyard to glass and flock to the winery to be “vintertained!” Alan reinvented his musical life, and continued to bring joy, laughter and a sense of family to all who visited Peju.
Alan is known by many names: The Napa Rapper, the Yodelmeister, but refers to himself as “the Vintertainer.” I would also refer to him as the smile master, because he truly puts a smile on everyone’s face.
After 20 years on the road, entertaining, and more than 24 years with people beating a path to Peju, you can still enjoy this magical experience. Throughout 2020 Alan will be making special appearances at the winery, call Peju at (707) 963-3600 for a schedule and reservations, so you can revel in an experience like no other.
Alan Arnopole will leave a piece of his soul with you, as he did with my wife and me, making our lives better for having met him.
Entertainer, songwriter, comedian, poet and a one-of-a-kind Napa Valley icon – Alan Arnopole is one of the very special faces of Napa Valley hospitality – as he sings and raps:
“Yo! While behind the counter, I love to encounter, the folks who come to Peju. / No matter the season, I don’t need a reason, to uplift them – whether happy or blue. / It’s in my DNA, what more can I say, to show them a mighty fine time. / Through music and history, I debunk the mystery, along with humor, and bustin’ some rhymes!”
• • •
From Chemical Engineer to Winemaker Extraordinaire
Sitting in the wine cellar at Bremer Family Winery, on a chilly, rainy fall afternoon, sipping wine with Bob Bolan, the sound of rain beating down, the melodic voices of Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion in the background, was simply magical. How different this life is than the one he previously had as a chemical engineer.
Bob will tell you wine should bring pleasure and enjoyment, and that is his goal. He loves what he does, and on that captivating afternoon, I can only say that I was experiencing one of those rare moments where pleasure, perfection and enjoyment came together. Bob has had only one head winemaking position during his career. Now in his seventeenth year crafting Bremer wines, Bob related a life before wine – that ultimately led to wine.
Moving to California (from Kansas City) in 1986, Bob’s career was that of a chemical engineer and business consultant. A few weeks in California and Bob realized the weather was just too nice to be restrained by a desk job ... but what to do? He thought about becoming a professor, and even though he enjoyed the occasional glass of wine, the thought of being a winemaker never crossed his mind. After all, he was a scientist and academic.
While considering graduate studies, Bob came in contact with Dr. Roger Bolton, Professor of Chemical Engineering at UC Davis. It turned out Roger was doing research on wine and viticulture. Thinking this was interesting, Bob started asking questions about a career in winemaking. Dr. Bolton told Bob that if he made that switch, he could look forward to thankless long hours traipsing around in vineyards, dealing with the whims of Mother Nature, coupled with the fact that “if you are fortunate enough to find a job, you’ll likely make half the money you’d make as an engineer.” Hearing this, Bob enthusiastically said: “Sign me up!” That conversation was almost 30 years ago, and Bob hasn’t looked back since.
Bob is soft spoken, with a constant smile, conveying perception and intelligence. Once he decided to take the plunge to study viticulture and enology, Bob’s initial fear was that he may not possess “special taste buds” needed to analyze the nuances of wine. However, he came to realize that people’s taste buds are probably not so unique. Rather, developing one’s palate is more a matter of training and learning what to key in on. While Bob will tell you that much of what he learned as a chemical engineer doesn’t apply directly to winemaking, having an innate curiosity and an analytical approach to problem solving are of great benefit.
Bob is a perfectionist, but is comfortable with, and even relishes, the fact there is much he can’t control when it comes to making wine. Bob “controls” what he can. He understands the importance of getting the fruit ripe and exercises patience when it comes to making picking decisions. He knows he only gets one shot each vintage at achieving ripe flavors and fully matured tannins. He cannot, however, control the weather. So rather than worry about an approaching storm or heat wave, he chooses to adapt to the peculiarities of each vintage.
Bob enjoys the physicality of the job, from hiking through the vineyards to shoveling out fermenters, and loving the smells associated with that task. Bob will tell you, however, that he really earns his money during the blending process. That is where the “magic” happens. He revels in weaving a tapestry of art, science and creativity, seeking perfection in a bottle and instinctively knowing when he has hit “the blend,” telling me, “you can discern less than a 1% change in the blend.” His reward and confirmation of success is seeing a customer’s reaction when they taste the wine, and seeing the expression and smile on their face.
The transition from chemical engineer to winemaker has treated Bob well. It has allowed him to marry aspects of science and art on a daily basis, using his creativity while dealing with the challenges of Mother Nature. Bob loves the fact that there is no set routine, that each day offers its own set of challenges and surprises.
Of course there are also parts of “the job” not directly related to the “making of wine,” but critical nonetheless: Ordering supplies (barrels, bottles, corks, etc.), coordinating personnel, maintaining equipment, keeping records and reporting to state and federal agencies – the “mundane” and necessary mechanics of getting each and every year’s harvest into the bottle, and subsequently into the hands of the consumer. These are some of the details associated with any job, but because wine is both a food product and an alcoholic beverage, multiple government agencies are involved. Organization and effective time management skills are essential.
For seventeen years, the Bremer family has shown their trust in Bob to produce a superior product. So, seven years ago, when Bob wanted to make Pinot Noir, which is not in the Bremer portfolio, John and Laura Bremer not only gave their blessing for Bob to start his own project under the label of Bob Bolan Wines, they offered the use of their facility. Bob has been producing his own handcrafted, small-lot Pinot Noir since 2013.
There are many sides to Bob Bolan, some subtle, some on the surface. Although he strives to understand the complexities of wine chemistry and the associated response of our taste buds, he also appreciates the mystery of wine …saying on his own label: “Winemaking is a collaboration with nature.” He loves creating much more than selling, but enjoys, when he can, spending time with customers. It’s the sheer variety of tasks that challenges and excites Bob. In the end though, it’s about the person enjoying his wine – knowing he has created a special moment for someone.
On that special day we were together, listening to the rain and music, sitting across from each other sipping and chatting, I can attest personally to the pleasure and enjoyment I was getting from the wine, the winemaker – and the moment.
• • •
ELAINE ST. CLAIR
Brew Master (and Winemaker), St. Clair Brown Winery & Brewery
I first met Elaine St. Clair several years ago and was instantly drawn to her broad smile, infectious personality and non-stop enthusiasm about, well, anything she talked about! Elaine is the brew master and winemaker for the boutique urban winery and brewery St. Clair Brown located in the Arts District of Downtown Napa.
During her career spanning decades, both with Domaine Chandon and Domaine Carneros, Elaine wore many hats: quality control director, businesswoman, winemaker, brew master, entrepreneur, risk taker, and visionary. There has been virtually no aspect of beer or winemaking that Elaine has not tackled. In 1990, when Elaine became involved in her first brewery, The Napa Ale Works, there were less than 40 micro-breweries throughout all of California. Today, this remains a very specialized field in Napa, where there are less than half a dozen micro-breweries operating on-site as does St. Clair Brown.
Leaving the corporate world in 2011, Elaine and her long-time friend Laina Brown collaborated on a major project, St. Clair Brown – a brewery/urban winery/urban garden in the heart of Napa. With Laina over seeing the business aspects, Elaine could concentrate on beer and winemaking.
Elaine has produced a multitude of highly rated wines, earning scores of 90+ ratings and medals from various competitions throughout the years, yet beer is really her passion. Growing up, her family enjoyed beer and Elaine and her dad would brew beer together (small kit beers her father would bring back from Europe when he was there on business), in fact, she brewed her first batch at the age of 16, before she could legally drink! Perhaps this connection with her father and family is that “part” of being a brew master that gives her the most satisfaction and enjoyment, leading her back to her roots.
Having the advantage of making award-winning wines and beer for decades, Elaine is uniquely qualified to say why she enjoys beer brewing the most, which happens to be the extreme differences between beer and wine making.
First, Elaine loves the fact that because brewing is constantly going on, beer can be brought to market fairly quickly, as opposed to a lengthy, generally multi-year process with wine. Instead of making “the same” style of beer, she has the flexibility to make beers that rotate seasonally, and show off best during the various seasons, hence the name “Saison” for one of her micro-brews, that means “season.” Historically, this is a brew that was made by women, for workers in the field during harvest, and is referred to as a “farmhouse” beer.
For St. Patrick’s Day, Elaine brings out an Irish Red Ale, and as we get into springtime, Elaine brews a “Kölsch-style” beer. While talking to Elaine, I also got a history lesson, as I found out that this style of beer is the only beer that has its own designated geographic “appellation.”
As we spoke, I could see and feel not only Elaine’s energy, but her enthusiasm about brewing beer. She loves creating seasonal recipes, currently numbering fourteen. She strives to make balanced beer, combining just the right amount of malt for sweetness, hops for that floral, citrus or spice flavor, and the C02 for just the right amount of bubbles. She relishes the fast pace – the whole process taking about eight weeks to brew, bottle and get to market – you could say, it’s pretty much instant gratification. And then, there is the fact that brewing is a non-stop process that is done throughout the year.
One of the things that most intrigues Elaine is the fact that there are a lot of local hops farmers, and with the influx and popularity of micro-breweries producing exotic styles and flavors, there is an evolution of micro-industries emerging in Napa. Elaine loves being a part of this newer business trend. With a slight grin, Elaine said, “all of this brings out the mad scientist in me and it’s just lots of fun making beer in Napa.”
Not surprising, two things that Elaine enjoys the most during her “leisure” time are gardening and cooking. She can make changes in the garden, and changes in the kitchen, much as she can makes changes in the beer. It’s the different techniques that she has available, and less limitations than in making wine. Then, of course, there is the fact that you don’t have to wait years before the finished product is ready to be tasted and enjoyed.
After decades in a successful career as a Napa winemaker, brew master and businesswoman, Elaine has “returned to her roots” making beer, as she did years ago with her father. Except now, she is making beer for the nano-brewery portion of St. Clair Brown. She has the best of both worlds. Continuing to make highly sought after boutique wine (some of the grapes coming from her own vineyard), and making beer as she did decades ago. Stop by the tasting room in downtown Napa for a flight, and maybe you can meet and have a glass with Elaine, a true Renaissance woman, leaving her personal mark as a Napa Valley brew master.
• • •
Winemaker, Duckhorn Vineyards
Renee Ary grew up on the East Coast. She didn’t come from a food- or wine-centric family, and at that time, her passion was science. Graduating from college in 1999 with a degree in chemistry and art, she says “all I wanted was to get into a lab.” That she did. One of the many places she sent her resume to happened to be Robert Mondavi Vineyards … and Renee was hired as a lab technician. How fortunate this turned out for wine lovers and the Napa Valley. The energy of her first harvest was infectious, but as Renee relates: “the idea I could apply my love of art and science to wine, experiment and taste the product,” is what sealed the deal: Renee was bound to be a winemaker.
With a bubbling personality (although I’m not sure Renee has yet made a bubbly wine), and an engaging smile, she is energetic, intelligent, and always striving to excel.
Renee started with Duckhorn in 2003 and, through dedication, and a focus to achieve and do better, in 2014 she became Duckhorn’s fourth head winemaker in the winery’s 42 year history. At that time Renee had no way to know that three years later a momentous moment would occur in her life.
The first time I spoke to Renee was on a November morning in 2017 – just hours after her 2014 Three Palms Merlot was named #1 Wine of the Year (worldwide) by Wine Spectator Magazine. When I asked “how are you” she replied, “This has just been surreal. This is one of those moments you just can’t describe.” The passion, excitement, and “it’s too good to be true – I need to pinch myself” attitude all came through.
Revisiting Renee this past December, sitting out on the porch at Duckhorn, I asked her if earning that accolade during her first year as head winemaker put any additional pressure on her. She told me yes, but it was more of a challenge to always excel, and that so far, no one had yet earned two #1 ratings.
On this morning we were able to chat about what goes into winemaking and her involvement. Sipping great wine, we oftentimes don’t think about all the parts and pieces the winemaker, and team go through in order to bring a product to the glass that strives for perfection.
To begin with, Renee describes winemaking as a puzzle (she loves solving puzzles) and “backtracking through all the pieces” during the process. She oversees the entire Napa region for Duckhorn, and as such spends 25% of her time in the vineyards, on a regular basis. However, during harvest, that jumps up to 75%. She loves the seasonal changes, and the different challenges each season presents in wine growing, harvesting, fermenting, blending and “making” wine. She loves to see what the vintage is doing, and as the wine is fermenting, and she is tasting, she will “fix” any detected flaws and make changes, through the blending process, basing her decisions not so much on science, but on her sense of smell and taste.
However, aside from the strictly “winemaking” side, there are other tasks that Renee must be intricately involved in, tasks that we who enjoy the magical nectar, don’t think about: Bottling supervision-tedious but important. Buying barrels, which is really a never ending year long process. Being able to assess the barrels, plan production, order and receive and then to be able to determine which barrels will show off individual varietals the best. And then, there is sales and marketing. January to June is Renee’s travel time … meeting with distributors, linking up with the sales teams, making presentations, attending winemaker dinners and keeping her crew moving. It’s a balancing act of time, travel, and logistics – while still being able to taste, assess, motivate and mentor her assistant winemakers.
With all that is required, Renee doesn’t lose focus of family time. She comes from a big Irish family, and many of them live in the area. They get together as often as they can. Her husband, Steve, is an environmental restoration specialist, focusing on creek and wetland restoration, and erosion control. So it is no surprise that they love the outdoors, skiing, and being on the water. Renee also loves yoga … in terms of the balance and mental release it gives her. When talking to her eight-year-old son about the importance of school, (as most eight year olds complain about school), she tells him: “You need to go to school and learn as much as you can, so you can find a job you really love like mommy does, and then you will feel really lucky.”
Renee feels blessed with her position at Duckhorn as she prepares for her 18th harvest. She can virtually do whatever she wants in the winemaking process. She has no constraints or parameters to work within in terms of blending, aging, what barrels to buy, etc. She has access to the best fruit in the valley to source from (if not from estate vineyards), and can cherry pick fruit from the best blocks. She loves the mix of science and art, and the anticipation and challenges of each new vintage.
What a journey it has been for Renee over the last 20 years, from a life imagined behind a microscope, to one walking through vineyards, sampling grapes on the vine, and preparing a magical elixir.
Renee Ary loves life and wine and family and people. She is one of the faces behind what creates one of a kind Napa Valley Hospitality…..because, it’s in the wine.
When I arrived home, I received a note from Renee, which perhaps sums up best how she feels about winemaking, wine and the people who come into our lives because of it---and because of her creativity and passion. Renee wrote: “It was wonderful to taste with you both, catch up and enjoy some wines together. That’s what it is all about!” And, indeed it is!
• • •
BEKI MILLER and ANTHONY GIANGRECO
La Toque Sommeliers – Enhancing Your Dining Experience
Different paths led Beki Miller and Anthony Giangreco to their eventual careers as Sommeliers at Napa Valley’s Michelin-rated La Toque restaurant. Although both worked in the restaurant industry as teenagers, it seemed Tony was destined for this career, while with Beki it was serendipity that eventually led her to the world of wine, and aspire to become a sommelier. Sharing the same career, passion, enthusiasm and love of wine, food, and people, their paths to becoming sommeliers couldn’t be more different.
Food and wine was a family affair in Tony Giangreco’s home. Tony’s greatest influence was his mother, who was a wine educator for Matanzas Creek Winery, and his older brother pursued a career as a certified sommelier. At the age of 15, Tony was already involved in the fine dining scene in Napa Valley, bussing dishes at Auberge du Soleil and other leading restaurants such as Bistro Jeanty and Don Giovanni. The hospitality industry, food and wine, was most certainly in Tony’s future.
Beki’s family had been in the restaurant business. Growing up in South Lake Tahoe, as child she would “play restaurant,” however she really didn’t feel “a calling” toward a food or wine career. As a 15-year-old working at a Lake Tahoe restaurant, Beki had her first “hands on” wine experience. Beki relates, as she was grating parmesan cheese onto a patron’s pasta, her hand slipped off the handle, and she knocked over a bottle of 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. After this (somewhat embarrassing) experience, and knowing nothing about wine or this winery, for some reason Beki kept the empty bottle throughout her teenage and college years because it had a cool label, and 1982 was her birth year! It may just have been chance that spilling that bottle, and seeing it in her room year after year was her “a-ha” moment, subtly molding her to what was to become her career and unbridled passion.
Tony pursued a degree in hospitality from Cuesta College, and soon after found himself working in Pismo Beach at The Cliffs restaurant, under food and wine director Chanell Hartmen, who became his mentor. At the age of 24, Tony was taking inventory of wine for The Cliffs impressive wine menu, and attended the World of Pinot Noir … he was hooked. Returning to Napa in 2013, for Christmas that year his mother gave him the book “Windows on the World,” a simple, fun, easy to read introduction to wine. This gift was Tony’s “a-ha moment,” setting his path to becoming a sommelier. Always having loved and excelled in geography during school, it was easy for Tony to grasp the geology of different regions, and relate them to terroir and how that affected wine. In 2015, he took his introduction sommelier exam, and received his certified sommelier designation through the Court of Master Sommeliers of America. Fast tracking now, in 2017, Tony became assistant wine director of Mayacama Golf Club and restaurant, and in 2019 joined the three-person sommelier staff of Ken Frank’s Michelin-rated La Toque restaurant.
Beki, doing things in a kind of unconventional way, arrived at her “calling” somewhat differently. Unlike Tony’s family, Beki’s family was not around or involved in wine. The closest Beki ever came to wine was spilling that special bottle, and seeing it in her room at school every day.
After attending college, Beki decided she wanted to become a chef, a natural, given her family’s background in the restaurant business. Subsequently, she applied to a chef’s program at CIA Greystone, but wasn’t accepted! This came as a blow, however Beki had started researching the label and history of the bottle she had spilled a decade earlier and figured, if I’m not going to be a chef, being a sommelier seems pretty cool! There is so much history, so many differences … this will be fun. Finding a program at the International Culinary Center, Beki applied and was accepted. Graduating at the top of her class in 2011, Beki proceeded to pass the introduction and then certified sommelier exams. In 2017 she passed the advanced sommelier exam. Always curious, and thirsty for wine knowledge, Beki is currently studying to take the Master Sommelier exam; there are only 269 people in the world holding this designation, of which about 10% are women.
Prior to Beki joining La Toque, she held sommelier positions at Prima in Walnut Creek, Alexander’s Steak House and In Situ in San Francisco, as well as other highly rated restaurants. You can tell by her enthusiasm how much she enjoys what she does.
Today, being part of the sommelier team at La Toque, Beki and Tony have their dream jobs. When I asked them what they love the most and what frustrates them the most, they, and other somms I spoke to, had virtually the same answers:
First and foremost, they love, and I mean absolutely love people! You can see and feel that special energy the moment they come to your table. They get immense pleasure out of introducing new wines to patrons, and feel especially gratified when they get comments about how well the wine went with the food pairings they had suggested. Both Beki and Tony said that one of the things they enjoy the most is working for Chef Ken, who after forty years in the business, is still hands on in the restaurant – each and every day – and they learn from him constantly.
And then of course, there is the wine! Being around a superlative wine cellar that offers about 2500 selections (La Toque being a Wine Spectator Grand Award Winner), and having the opportunity to be exposed to (and taste) wines they never would be able to normally, is a huge plus. And, part of their day-to-day routine is to taste each and every wine that is offered by the glass.
But it’s not all just tasting, recommending and serving wines, there are other daily tasks that must be kept up: The wine list is a constant work in progress, and must be up to the minute correct. Stocking wines, sourcing wines, and helping to serve is all part of what the team does.
Beki gets immense pleasure out of suggesting wines to people that are out of their comfort zone, and unknown to them. As she said to me: “Why come to a restaurant with a world-class wine list, to drink something you are familiar with and drink regularly.” And Tony describes his passion commenting: “I love wine because every day you are learning something new, it is a constant pursuit of knowledge.” Your wine experience will definitely be enhanced by these two special somms.
If there is a downside, it is the family time sacrifice they make, weekends and holidays especially. Those are the two busiest times for a restaurant, so when you are enjoying that special dinner out on a weekend or perhaps Thanksgiving, having an exceptional experience with your family and loved ones, that extra smile or wave you give to the people in the kitchen and the restaurant staff means a lot. Because you are their family on those evenings.
The moment you see Beki or Tony approach, you can’t help but feel welcome and comfortable. Just look at their faces: Their huge smiles, their twinkling eyes, their bubbling personalities – you intuitively know that something extraordinary is about to happen. Put yourselves in their hands for the food and wine experience you are about to enjoy. You will have the same happy glow as they do during, and after your meal.
And, time permitting, chat with Tony or Beki. Ask Tony how it was growing up under the tutelage of his mother, and, don’t be shy to ask Beki about that bottle of 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild.
• • •
You may or may not notice them when you are dining in one of Napa’s many restaurants. Whether you’re in a small neighborhood gem, an established Napa standard or Michelin-rated restaurant, these are the restaurant people that strive to give you the best of Napa Valley culinary hospitality.
Many are up at the crack of dawn, working late into the night. They may be on their feet six to eight hours or more a day, with only a few minutes to catch their breath during their shift. They deal with customers, suppliers, co-workers, food inspectors and a multitude of personalities. Holidays and weekends, being the busiest times, they are generally working, instead of spending this time with their family and friends. These are the chefs, sous chefs, kitchen personnel, manager, bus person, bartender, wine steward or sommelier, receptionist and servers that define the face of Napa Valley hospitality. Despite their personal sacrifices, they love what they do, and are part of a close-knit team and Napa Valley culture committed to making your dining experience memorable, and one you’ll want to repeat.
Of all these people, the one you will interact with the most, is your server. Aside from making you feel comfortable, explaining the menu, making adjustments, they are the face of restaurant hospitality, as they are the ones who represent what goes on in the kitchen, and how the food comes to your table. If there is a glitch in the kitchen, and the order isn’t correct, it’s the server who is your go to person. In fact, if there is really any problem, it’s the server who has to take measures to fix it. But despite the occasional mix-ups, problems, demanding or critical patrons, these servers love their jobs, the people and the special community they are part of.
Take Jaimie for example, a young, vivacious Florida transplant who has been a server at Fumé Bistro (a small, neighborhood restaurant in Napa), for several years. As she finished detailing the night’s specials (without any notes) I asked her, “How do you remember all the specials, especially as often as they change?” With a laugh she said: “Well, we get to try the specials, and that’s how I remember them, because I love to eat.” One of the things she enjoys the most is getting to try food and creative menu items she normally wouldn’t be able to. The other thing Jaimie loves is the people. And it is the people that have kept her in the industry for 19 years. It was a busy weekend evening when my wife and I were there, but as people came in, they would wave to her, or give her a quick hug – it seems she knew over half the clientele at Fumé, and obviously, people knew, and enjoyed her.
Then there was Bailee, at Pasta Prego. As we were waiting to be seated, I noticed this young woman, as with Jaimie, greeting and hugging customers. Once seated she came to our table, and I commented, and she said, “I just like people and love to talk, and we get a lot of regulars here.” Despite them being crowded, we chatted on and off during dinner. It turned out that Bailey, with a master’s degree in early childhood development, works five days a week on the Wine Train, and then evenings at Pasta Prego. She loves the people, and interaction, seeing so many regulars on a repeat (sometimes almost nightly) basis. She loves the food, and the owner who is simply “down to earth and unpretentious.” And, being with people all the time, whether it’s on the Wine Train or at the restaurant, it gives her pleasure to do her part in providing a great experience for her customers. She simply loves what she does.
Kyle, our server at La Toque had a large warm, welcoming smile, detailed knowledge of menu items and preparation, in addition to his expertise and knowledge explaining the cheese offerings. Kyle detailed which wine(s) the cheeses would pair best with, and why they would be best served before a sweet dessert. When I asked Beki Miller (sommelier) if Kyle had a special “fromage” certification, her answer was, “No, he exemplifies the knowledge of what we expect of all our wait staff.” During our meal, I asked Kyle what impressed him the most and what he enjoyed about working at La Toque. His answer was immediate: “The chef and owner, Ken Frank. He is a mentor to everyone, an expert on food and wine, enthusiastic, and after 40 years in the business, is here practically every night. He hasn’t lost any of his creative passion, and most of all, he wants all of us to succeed, both in business and in life. He is such a genuine person.”
Over the years, having the opportunity of speaking to and chatting with restaurant personnel, there is one overriding theme that comes out: They love what they do, and it is because of the customers – and making their lives better. Despite the long hours, time on their feet, being away from family and friends on holidays and weekends, they derive great satisfaction making sure their customers leave happy. They love seeing repeat customers, and truly appreciate that extra effort when someone recognizes them and lets them know that they (server, chef, bus person, receptionist), made a difference in their visit and dining experience. They put their best foot and smiling faces forward, to create a positive experience for you-the Napa Valley Visitor, or resident. They define the word “hospitality.”
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Chef Valentina Guolo-Migotto
Ca’Momi Osteria: Experiencing Authentic Italian Cuisine
Every great meal ends with dessert, so let’s begin at the ending: the Tiramisu! Creamy, enticing, tasty, and most of all-authentic. In fact, just like Valentina’s mother used to make in Italy, because it is Valentina’s mother’s recipe. And that is the trademark of Ca’Momi: Authentically Italian.
Valentina is much more than a chef and restaurateur, she is an Italian gourmet historian, and keeper of the true traditions of the Italian kitchen. By definition, “heirloom recipes” are “the treasures of the kitchen,” and they go back generations. This is what you will find on the traditional Italian menu at Ca’ Momi. There are no shortcuts or substitutions in cooking or ingredients in preparing the recipes Valentina researches on her annual trips to Italy. As Valentina says: “I take pride in being a caretaker of the recipes that get lost in translation here and abroad, and in sharing the Italian food culture.”
The meal you experience at Ca’ Momi may well be from a recipe hundreds of years old – and certified authentic, from the ingredients to the way everything is prepared. Only the freshest of ingredients are used in Ca’ Momi’s kitchen, sourced whenever possible from local producers, using wild-caught fish, eggs from Valentina’s own farm, including vegetables, many coming directly from her own garden (grown from seeds imported from Italy!). Pastas are house-made, and what can’t be made in house is imported from Naples. Then there is the burrata (OH the burrata!), imported from Puglia, Italy, on a regular basis.
The menu undergoes four major changes a year – once per season – and there are even some mid-season adjustments that are made. Of course, every item on the menu is dependent on availability of the items specific to the recipe – again, with no substitutions.
Valentina will tell you that growing up in Italy, the family always gathered around the table. Cooking alongside Mama, Valentina developed a deep sense of the “rite of family and heritage;” she was determined to bring this experience with her when she came to the United States in 1998. Valentina’s workday begins at 6 a.m., and as she says, with a slight smile, “my bag is my office.” Whether monitoring operations, researching menus, sourcing ingredients, supervising and cooking in the kitchen, or tending her garden, she has just one goal: to bring community together and give every member of the Ca’ Momi family an authentic Italian food experience.
In addition to the restaurant, Ca’Momi makes their own wines – the estate wines sourced with grapes from their Carneros vineyards. These “wines without pretension” will compliment your meal perfectly. After all, in Italy (as in Napa), food and wine just go together!
Valentina describes the kitchen (where her daughter is the sous chef) as a symphony. She is the conductor, being certain that the timing and logistics work in harmony so regardless of which dishes are ordered or size of the party, everything comes together and arrives at the table on time, ready to eat.
In keeping with the theme of authenticity, the diner may find some things they are not used to. It is important to approach dining at Ca’ Momi with an open mind, ready to accept and experience food in a truly authentic, Italian way. For example, the pizza Napolentana is made according to strict guidelines. Don’t expect extra parmesan cheese or chili flakes – because that is not Italian. Enjoy pizza the Italian way, with true flavors, and, unsliced! Tear it, roll it, or cut it as you wish – this is authentically Italian pizza! Also, salads are traditionally served at the end of the meal, another departure from American standards, but worth giving that a try.
Fresh, authentic and welcoming, Ca’Momi has been awarded many certifications recognizing their adherence to strict guidelines in traditional pizza-making methods, sourcing, and the promotion of traditional Italian cuisine. One notable award is from the Academia Italiana Della Cucina. This cultural institution was founded in 1953 with the mission to protect the integrity of traditional Italian cuisine and promote its diffusion around the world.
Ca’Momi is so much more than an Italian restaurant. It is authentic cuisine, featuring only the best, purest ingredients, following sustainable practices and ethical sourcing standards using a “nose-to-tail” philosophy. Their cocktail list is “garden to glass,” following the same commitment to using organically sourced and house-made ingredients; where possible, home-grown ingredients are from the Ca’ Momi garden.
When you dine at Ca’Momi, be ready to enjoy exceptional authentic Italian cuisine. You will participate in a unique Italian experience based on centuries of tradition in cooking and hospitality. The food, the service and the atmosphere is an extension of the wisdom and talents of generations of Italian grandmas. As Valentina proudly says: “Changing the minds of people as to what authentic Italian food is, is my greatest satisfaction. I want people to experience true Italian cuisine, and the essence of Italian food culture.”
Finally, please, save room for “dolci;” I can definitely recommend Grandma’s tiramisu!
“Heartcrafted” is the mission statement of Ca’Momi: “To create from the heart with passion, kindness, joy, authenticity, integrity and obsessive quality.”
With Great Appreciation
These are some of the faces, and stories, of a few exceptional people who make up part of the extraordinary culture and hospitality of Napa Valley. They work long hours, being dedicated, passionate and personable. Over the years I have been privileged to meet, sip, break bread and chat with many of them being fortunate to have been let into their lives, and given the opportunity to share some of “who” they are with you, the reader. They all possess a common quality: love of their profession, people, their community, and all it has to offer. It is their goal to make the visitor’s experience special and to touch their lives. I know that each and every person my wife and I have met, whether a winemaker, server, sommelier, chef, etc. has touched our lives, and has created wonderful memories for us. We are appreciative of the time they have spent with us, and the part of their lives they have shared. I hope when you visit Napa Valley, you will leave with similar experiences and indelible memories that will make you smile.
Don Sonderling, is a freelance writer covering California’s
Wine Country Culture, from the Central Coast to Napa Valley.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org