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A Sundown Supper

When a Napa chef, her winery-owner husband and their two little girls have a picnic, they bring their entire dining room—and a splendid supper—outdoors.

Every afternoon, Ella and Lexi Sinskey go through a similar routine. Once they finish lunch, the girls chase each other around their backyard for a while. Afterward, Ella, four, and Lexi, three, head for the kitchen to help their mother make dinner and set the table, and then, when their father gets home, they all sit down to eat. What makes this scene special is that their mother is celebrated chef Maria Helm Sinskey and their father, Rob Sinskey, is owner and creative director of Napa Valley's Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Their backyard encompasses 15 acres of vineyards, and their dinners are better than the food at many restaurants. And in the fall, when Napa's weather is most temperate, the family makes its suppers into picnics and brings the whole dining room—table, chairs, china, silverware and wineglasses—outdoors.

3:00 p.m. Ella and Lexi run around the vineyard, looking for butterflies and any interesting bugs they can find. There's a lot to discover, since Rob has long championed organic agriculture, and Sinskey Vineyards has been pesticide-free since 1991.

4:00 p.m. Maria starts dinner on the early side; since the family will be eating outdoors, the food doesn't need to be piping hot. She spends a lot of time in the kitchen: The Sinskeys do most of their business entertaining at home (Maria is co-owner and culinary director of the winery, where she prepares tasting plates that showcase Rob's wines), and she hosts fund-raisers there for Ella's nursery school. In fact, Maria estimates that she cooks more these days than she did in 1996, when she earned F&W Best New Chef honors at PlumpJack Cafe in San Francisco. Many of her favorite dishes appear in her new cookbook, The Vineyard Kitchen. The wine-friendly recipes are grouped into seasonal menus, highlighting the fresh ingredients Maria's obsessed with. (Rob took many of the book's pictures.)

For the picnic, Maria stuffs game hens under the skin with mixed herbs before pan-roasting them and grates a mountain of Gruyère cheese for a rich noodle gratin that can stay warm in the casserole. She makes a snack of caramelized mushrooms to spoon over crostini and, for dessert, fills buttery pastry half-moons with pears. Maria always makes too much food. "I'm definitely not one to show restraint," she says. "She's hedonistic," observes Rob. "So what?" counters Maria, noting that her husband complains when there are no leftovers.

Whenever they hear their mother in the kitchen, Ella and Lexi run to find their aprons and their little mixing bowls. "They'll put their whole meal in that bowl," says Maria, "noodles, oil, vinegar, onions, pears, and stir it together. Then I pretend to taste it. I like to encourage them, so I just say, 'It needs salt.'" The girls also help Maria with dessert, rolling out the pie pastry; in the process they coat the entire front of their dresses with flour. (Unlike most mothers, Maria seems not to mind.)

6:00 p.m. Ella and Lexi bring the napkins and silverware outside to the table while Rob chooses a few Sinskey wines, which he places in an antique carrier, and grabs a pair of wineglasses. Maria puts a brightly colored cloth on the table and sets four places with everyday china, even though the girls invariably perch in their parents' laps—their self-assigned seats for meals.

6:30 p.m. Maria cuts into the gratin, revealing ribbons of noodles. "When can we eat the bird?" Ella asks. "The girls love game hens," Maria explains. "They're kid-size birds with kid-size drumsticks." Rob pours wine for himself and Maria; the girls get juice in plastic wineglasses. "It can be hard," Rob says, "merging a life with children with the adult world of wine." The Sinskeys seem to have succeeded. Ella and Lexi even hold their glasses by the stem. "It makes them feel sophisticated," Maria says, smiling.

7:15 p.m. After dinner, Ella and Lexi go for a walk through the vineyards with their parents, taking one last look for butterflies before bed.

Susan Choung, a former F&W editor, now lives in Berkeley, California, where she works with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse.

Published October 2003
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