The wine world knows Jeff Smith as the man behind Hourglass Cabernet, one of California’s top cult bottlings. But Napa Valley insiders know his talent as a home cook who prepares easy, inventive, on-the-fly dinners.
"My mother doesn't know how to cook," says eight-year-old Isabelle Smith. Fortunately, her father, Hourglass winery owner Jeff Smith, doesand he proves it by making the family dinner almost every night of the week.
Where he finds the time is anyone's guess. In addition to producing one of Napa Valley's most lusted-after Cabernets (with a $110 release price and a 1,500-person waiting list), Smith partnered with Robert Lawson of Pavi on a new $12 Pinot Grigio called Tu Tu. He recently bought a new vineyard near Calistoga and is developing a winery there that will snake into the Vaca Mountains. He also plays guitar in a band, a hobby he shares with winemaker Robert Foley, who crafts Hourglass in addition to Pride Mountain Vineyards wines and his own label.
Despite Smith's busy schedule, most nights he prepares simple-yet-inventive dinners for Isabelle, his six-year-old son, Holland, and his wife, Carolyn. And he often asks some wine friends to join them. Frequent guests include Realm Cellars co-owner Juan Mercado, Switchback Ridge owner Kelly Peterson, Herb Lamb Vineyards co-owner Jennifer Lamb and Stony Hill Vineyard winemaker Mike Chelini. On the night I visited, Smith's high-school friend Lael Newman brought her husband, Douglas Keane, the chef at Cyrus and an F&W Best New Chef 2006. "It's nice having a sous-chef," Smith said without irony, as Keane rolled mushrooms in panko (Japanese bread crumbs), which would accompany racks of roasted baby back ribs basted with a sweet-salty Asian glaze. Most of Smith's dishes show a Mediterranean influence with Asian accents, such as the minty coconut milk-based sauce he serves with a roasted rack of lamb. This kind of cooking is his response to the dearth of Asian food in Napa Valley restaurants.
Smith creates many of his recipes on the fly in a kitchen that is diminutive by Napa Valley standards. "Flexibility is a good thing in a small kitchen," he says, recalling the time he cooked dinner for 14 restaurateurs and food professionals in a hotel-room kitchenette at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. "If you give me a knife, a fork and a pair of tongs, I'm ready to go," he says.
Smith is a largely self-taught cook, educating himself through what he calls "trial by error," although he picked up some techniques while working at the Robert Mondavi Winery in the 1980s, where he created wine pairings for trade lunches and assisted visiting chefs like Jeremiah Tower and Paul Bocuse. Smith's own cuisine is far more homey, focusing on relatively few ingredients and quick preparations. Some of his most innovative creations are spun from what's in the refrigerator when he arrives home after work. His edamame risotto is a prime example. Instead of adding wine and pricey cheese, he opts for two much more pedestrian substitutes: Budweiser beer and Laughing Cow, the foil-wrapped cheese. The first time he used Laughing Cow, it was by necessity, because "one of the kids threw it into the pot," he says. Now, he prefers it. "It's a creamy-style cheese, so it melts well, like cream cheese," he says, adding that the mild flavor is an asset because "a lot of the cheeses I've used in risottos overwhelm the dish."
For the dinner with Newman and Keane, Smith arrived at the table with ribs and a bottle of the eucalyptus-scented 1997 Hourglass Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The ribs seemed daring for a Cabernet pairing, yet the balance of the '97 made the match work.
After the meal, Carolyn washed the dishes. "Jeff may cook, but he only cooks," she says. Still, she's happy with the arrangement. And her husband's not complaining about it, either.
W. Blake Gray writes about wine and baseball for the San Francisco Chronicle.