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Wine Country Cookout

Lots of people have a grill in the backyard; this lucky California couple has a state-of-the-art outdoor kitchen designed by one of America's finest chefs. They show it off at an elegant spring lunch for some Napa winemaker friends.

It's not the iffy San Francisco weather that keeps Pamela and Richard Kramlich indoors most of the time. Two of the world's foremost collectors of media art, they have filled their house with avant-garde video works. A screen in the living room displays Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle, starring the artist as a satyr, a diva, a magician and a giant. Bill Viola's The Greeting, a slow-motion staged version of a Renaissance painting, plays in another room. (Part of their 280-plus-piece collection will be on view next month at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.)

All that time spent indoors and in the dark helps explain why the Kramlichs are so passionate about the outdoor kitchen in the garden of their weekend home in the Napa Valley. Perched on a knoll, the house has expansive views of the vineyards around it. But it's too small for the big parties the Kramlichs like to give—which is one reason they decided to build an outdoor kitchen. "Also," Pam explains, "we liked the idea of the chef being part of the experience, rather than hidden away in the kitchen." And they welcomed the opportunity to bring guests into their garden. Created over a decade ago by famed landscape designer Roger Warner, it is a serene space of pale greens and grays, based on the ethos "simplify and repeat," with closely cropped boxwood and spheres of lavender and bush germander.

In 1998 Pam turned to a friend, Paul Bertolli (now chef at Berkeley's Oliveto), and charged him with creating the new kitchen. "You know the garden, and you know equipment," she told him. "Design what you need." Bertolli placed a wood-burning pizza oven, a grill and two propane burners along the back of the kitchen; in front, facing the view, he installed a long, angled counter with a sink, refrigerator and freezer. Gray and ocher stone from the property and concrete and plaster stained in pale tones with matte finishes make sure the look fits into the garden's muted color scheme. Anything shiny, like the metal refrigerator, is hidden below the counters behind wooden doors. Stereo speakers and lights focused on the counters are secreted in live oaks nearby. The kitchen seems to have grown out of the hillside.

Since building their beautiful kitchen, the Kramlichs entertain outdoors all the time. Before dinner, the guests wander through the garden or mingle near the kitchen, often pausing in conversation to watch the action. Chef Michael Tusk (who apprenticed in Europe and worked at Bay Area restaurants like Chez Panisse and Oliveto), and his wife, Lindsay (who was the dining room manager at Boulevard in San Francisco), have been cooking at the Kramlichs' special events for three years. Fortunately, Michael doesn't mind people watching him, and he doesn't flinch when the hospitable hosts decide that the 30 guests they invited for drinks should stay for dinner.

Pam gives Michael a free hand with menus, as long as the ingredients are organic, sustainably raised, local and seasonal—a cooking philosophy that would seem restrictive anywhere but California. As befits a collector of avant-garde art, she welcomes unusual ingredients, like wild nettles. Michael Tusk and the Kramlichs' gardener, Michael Cadigan, have collaborated so that there's a ready supply of shelling beans, Principe Borghese plum tomatoes and nepitella, a minty herb Tusk uses to make Roman-style artichokes. Tusk fell in love with Italian regional cooking when he was working with chef Cesare Giaccone in Piedmont, and his menus often reflect that tradition, as will the menu at the restaurant the Tusks plan to open in San Francisco this summer.

Recently, on one of those Napa spring days when the sun shines and the hills are still green from the winter rains, Tusk indulged his love of Italian cooking to prepare lunch for eight. While the guests were chatting and sipping Roederer Estate Brut, he rolled out pizzettas, lavishing them with shredded Fontina cheese, bits of white and green asparagus and strips of prosciutto. After sampling the hors d'oeuvres, guests moved to a nearby table, where the meal began with a colorful jumble of farfalle, lobster meat and fava beans. Tusk roasted potatoes in the pizza oven to accompany a grilled leg of lamb infused with lavender plucked from the garden and even used the oven to cook dessert—a luscious combination of peaches, nectarines and cherries. Much of the meal was served on creamy white earthenware made by Connecticut potter Frances Palmer, Pam's sister-in-law, whose witty, elegant plates have edges that resemble scrunched-up ribbon, with fluting that looks as though a child had molded it.

As usual, the wine was local; the Kramlichs have always served wines made by their friends and neighbors, like Molly and Donn Chappellet, Elizabeth and Clarke Swanson, and Bill and Deborah Harlan. This time, Boris Champy, the young French winemaker from Dominus, brought over a few bottles of his Bordeaux-style Napanook to serve with the grilled butterflied lamb.

After lunch, the guests wandered down to the 11-acre vineyard. When the Kramlichs bought the land, they had no winemaking dreams, but, Pam says, "they came along with the property." And when the vineyards were replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon nine years ago, the grapes proved to be too extraordinary to treat casually. Tony Soter, of Etude Wines, who bought from the Kramlichs, first blended them with other grapes. He then began making a private single-vineyard bottling for the Kramlichs' table. Soter has since moved on to other vineyards in California and Oregon, but the Kramlichs' grapes will soon get their own bottling under the Bond label, the newest venture from master winemaker Bill Harlan. Bond represents an exceptionally close relationship between winemaker and independent vineyard, with an emphasis on terroir unusual in blend-happy Napa. St. Eden, the wine from the Kramlichs' vineyard, will make its debut early next year, but it has already received a prerelease rating of 95 to 99 (out of a possible 100) from wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr.

The Kramlichs' wine, oddly enough, may be their most enduring legacy. Videos are physically fragile (VHS tapes degrade in a decade or two); in contrast, the wine will only improve with time. As for their outdoor parties, the Kramlichs hope to keep giving them forever.

As a San Franciscan, freelance writer Joan Chatfield-Taylor thinks eating outside on a warm night is the ultimate luxury.

Published June 2003
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