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By casual invitation only

Dinner parties at Rob and Maria Helm Sinskey's home are all about the pleasure of living in wine country.

June 11, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Carneros, Calif.--HERE'S the image of a dinner party in the wine country: Formally dressed guests gather at some centuries-old chateau. The table is set with heavy silver and antique china. Conversations murmur politely as white-gloved waiters bring out ancient vintages and precious foods prepared by a famous chef.

Here's the reality: A dozen guests are milling about at Rob and Maria Helm Sinskey's house -- a newly reconstructed barn. In the kitchen, Maria is working madly putting the finishing touches on the first course. In the living room, four kids under the age of 6 are howling their heads off at a cartoon. In the dining room, Rob, barefooted, is sweeping up the shattered remains of a wine glass he dropped while giving it a last-minute polish.

The scene is more Ricardo than Rothschild -- provided Ricky made great wine and Lucy had once been a star chef.

"You see?" Maria says, turning to a guest, a little wild-eyed. "That's what it's like here. It's chaos. Total chaos." She goes back to her chopping, then turns again with a smile. "That's the way I like it."

In the Napa Valley, spur-of-the-moment dinner parties are the rule rather than the exception. That's the way things go in the wine country, where entertaining is a necessary -- albeit enjoyable -- part of everyday business.

Even so, there are few who handle it with the aplomb of Maria Sinskey. She was, after all, already famous for her cooking when she married Rob, vintner at the highly respected Robert Sinskey Vineyards. As chef at Plumpjack Cafe in San Francisco, she earned rave reviews nationally for her hearty, delicious food.

"I segued right from the restaurant to the vineyard," Maria says. "When Rob and I first got married, it used to drive him crazy, I couldn't cook for just two. I kept making enough for eight. So Rob got used to inviting impromptu dinner guests."

Maria's cookbook featuring menus from some of those dinners, "The Vineyard Kitchen," will be published by HarperCollins in September.

The Sinskeys are a perfectly made match. Not only was Plumpjack a wine-oriented restaurant, Sinskey Vineyards has long been in the forefront of promoting the connection between food and wine. The winery offers regular food and wine pairings as part of its tasting program, and two of its former chefs have gone on to Napa Valley prominence: Greg Cole of Celadon and Cole's Chop House restaurants, and Vincent Nattress of Roux in St. Helena.

Carl Doumani, one of the grand old men of the Valley, is a frequent guest at the Sinskey home. Founder of Stags' Leap Winery in 1971 and current owner of Quixote Winery in Napa and Benton Lane Winery in Oregon, he also knows something about food: His daughter Lissa is chef and co-owner of Terra restaurant in St. Helena.

"It always seems like she just cooks something up, although you know there's more to it than that," he says. "But there are no architectural presentations or any of that stuff. It's just food with really good flavor that is pretty simply done. That's the way most people I know cook here in the valley and that's what is enjoyed."

Starlight and Pinot Noir

It's hard to imagine a better place for a wine country dinner than the Sinskey home, particularly on this early summer night. It sits on a hillside among the vineyards of Carneros just outside the town of Napa. When a guest asks Rob the sources of his top-of-the-line "Four Vineyards" Pinot Noir he's pouring, he points out three of them, Vandal, Old Sonoma Road and Capa vineyards, which abut the house.

Not more than five miles away, the setting sun glints off a sliver of San Pablo Bay, and only two houses are visible in between. One of them is the Sinskey guesthouse, a small turn-of-the-century farm cottage. That's where the family -- Rob and Maria and their daughters, Ella, 4, and Lexi, 3 -- lived until just before Christmas when they finished the new building.

Like most new houses, this one is perfect for entertaining, unencumbered by bulky furniture or finishing touches. Unlike most, it seems likely to stay that way. The free-flowing open floor plan downstairs fits perfectly with the way the Sinskeys live.

A quarter of it is filled with kids' toys. Most of the rest is devoted to cooking and eating. In one corner is the kitchen, anchored by a long pine baker's cabinet they found at an antique store. Against one wall is a huge Viking range featuring two ovens, six burners, a grill and a griddle. There's a window over the sink with a pretty-enough-to-frame view of the vineyards.

The acid-washed cement floors -- stained red in the kitchen, burnished gold elsewhere -- already are worn to bare concrete in the work path. The Sinskeys throw dinner parties the way most of us go out for lunch. Maria says she does a big sit-down meal at least once a week, frequently twice and even more often than that in high season, when there are lots of winery visitors.

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