The Boys of John Ash & Co.
The Santa Rosa restaurant, John Ash & Co., has played a little known but remarkably important
role in the history of Sonoma County Pinot Noir. John Ash & Co. was known for spawning
numerous innovative and progressive wine trends that have since become commonplace in
restaurants today. Wine-by-the-glass-service was prominently featured at John Ash & Co., and
organized blind tastings of wines and creatively themed wine dinners emphasizing food and
wine pairings were first popularized at the restaurant. John Ash & Co. was among the first
restaurants to have a wine bar and an associated retail wine store. The early culture of wine
and food pairing flourished here as wine began to take its rightful place on the American table both as a
compliment to food and a star in its own right. There was an emphasis on seasonality in the creative menus
that featured fresh foods from local artisans, farmers and fishers. Over the years, numerous ex-employees of
the restaurant went on to become successful winemakers, winegrowers and key employees in various wine
I interviewed winemaker, wine consultant and wine writer, Don Baumhefner, who was intimately involved with
John Ash & Co. from its beginnings, and Dan Kosta, a former Wine Director at John Ash & Co. and current
winery owner, both of whom fondly recalled the many years spent working at the restaurant. In addition, I
attended cooking classes offered by John Ash, where I listened and spoke with him about his life story. I have
pieced together the trio’s comments to trace the history of this Sonoma County institution.
The story begins with John T. Ash. Growing up in Colorado, John’s first food exposure to food was observing
the cooking talents of his grandmother. Despite the impression she made on him, he did not initially consider a
career as a chef, instead attending college and obtaining a degree in fine arts. After graduation, he was
employed in New York developing new food products for Del Monte Foods. A fortuitous opportunity in Del
Monte Foods’ marketing division brought him to San Francisco. His proximity to Sonoma County allowed him
the freedom to explore the emerging food culture and the artisan food suppliers there during the 1970s and it
wasn’t long before he fell in love with the lifestyle of the region.
Venturing to Europe, John attended cooking schools in both London and Paris and worked in Burgundy for over
a year as a kitchen slave. John recalls, “My goal initially was not to be a chef, but to emerge myself in the
culture.” His experience in France taught him what was to become the basis of his life long cooking philosophy:
fresh, local and seasonal. He was enamored with the French chefs’ daily routine of never creating a menu
until a trip was made to the market in the morning. By the time he returned to the states, he was a committed
chef and began work in San Francisco before an opportunity brought him to Sonoma County.
In 1976, Don and Kay Baumhefner lived in the tiny town of Forestville, located in western Sonoma County and
the home of Russian River Vineyards where Don worked. Russian River Vineyards had been founded by
Robert Lasdin in 1963. By 1975, financial pressures forced Lasdin to sell the winery and 10 acres of
vineyards. The subsequent owner attempted to revive the outdated restaurant, winery and vineyards on the
property. He approached the Baumhefners, suggesting that Kay, who was a chef, take over the restaurant and
Don, who was an inexperienced winemaker, revive the winery. About the same time, Merry Edwards, a
winemaker and former colleague of Don’s at University of California Berkeley, was considering a move to
At a New Year’s Eve dinner party at the end of 1975 at Mt. Eden Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the
Baumhefners celebrated with Merry Edwards (who had been the winemaker at Mt. Eden since 1974), her
husband Bill, winemakers Joseph Swan, David Bruce and others. As a result of discussions that night, Merry
Edwards agreed to become the winemaker at Russian River Vineyards with Don acting as an assistant. A
search was then conducted for a prominent chef and both John Ash and Mark Miller were interviewed. Don
and Kay decided to hire John because Don says, “He had a neat carrot made out of dough on his lapel at the
interview.” As luck would have it, John’s spouse crafted Christmas ornaments from dough and the lapel
ornament was her idea. Mark Miller of course, went on to become a nationally recognized authority on
southwest cuisine. The team that was assembled at Russian River Vineyards was clearly a recipe for success.
The restaurant opened to much acclaim, featuring Sonoma County wines served by the glass, and featuring
innovative California wine country cuisine that enticed many San Franciscans to make an hour journey to the
restaurant. Sadly, the proprietor was dishonest and the operation failed after a few weeks when the owner
failed to pay all of those involved.
John Ash and Kay Baumhefner moved on to the Bodega Harbor Country Club, where John would cook, Kay
would help in the kitchen during the day, and then change clothes to receive customers in the evening. Don
meanwhile was teaching at a Montessori school and knew the children of Sandra Steiner (now Sandra
McKeever). She was looking for a winemaker and Don recommended Merry Edwards. Don advised Sandra to
send Merry abroad to learn winemaking and she did. Upon Merry’s return, Matanzas Creek Winery was born.
The success of Matanzas Creek Winery launched Merry Edwards and the winery into national prominence. In
time, she left Matanzas Creek to devote herself to producing Pinot Noir, assuming the nom de plume “Queen of
Pinot” and eventually founding her critically acclaimed namesake winery, Merry Edwards Wines, in the Russian
John Ash had a desire to have his own restaurant which led him in 1980 to Santa Rosa, where he recruited
several doctor investors, gutted an old Chinese restaurant in Montgomery Village Shopping Center, and
founded John Ash & Co.. The phone number was 527-SOUP (7687), named in honor of the former Chinese
restaurant at the site, and still the phone number of John Ash & Co. to this day.
The wine program at John Ash & Co. that was developed by wine manager Don Baumhefner is considered
passé today, but was a first for California in 1980. The philosophy was to give the customer the opportunity to
taste many different wines. Twelve wines were offered by taste (2 ounces) and by the glass (6 ounces) ranging
in price from $1.75 to a $3.25. Examples of wines sold by the glass included 1981 Kenwood Chenin Blanc
($1.95), 1980 Charles F. Shaw Beaujolais (yes, that Charles Shaw, now with new owners and known as “Two
Buck Chuck,” $1.95), 1980 Sausal Chardonnay ($2.50), 1979 Chateau Rieussec ($1.95 a half glass), and St.
Francis Chardonnay ($3.25). In addition, patrons were offered the opportunity to buy any wine from the
restaurant’s wine store at the retail price plus a $2.00 corkage fee (later raised to $3.00). An early example of
the Pinot Noir stock list is on page 3. Don Baumhefner (left) is pictured with the author at Martin Ray Winery.
Weekly tastings of wines, usually organized by variety, were highly popular and sometimes as many as eighty
people were in attendance. The price, $8.00 for “Big Zinfandels” to $40.00 for Grand Champagnes, was
attractive and included at least eight wines with “kitchen treats to accompany the wines.” The theme for the
inaugural wine tasting at John Ash & Co. was 1977 Pinot Noirs. Billed as, “The finest collection of California
Pinot Noirs ever assembled,” the producers included Joseph Swan, Firestone Reserve, Kenwood Jack London
Vineyards, Chalone Young Vines, Chalone, Carneros Creek and Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyards. A copy of a
partial listing of the restaurant’s inaugural wine tasting schedule is on page 4.
In 1980, there were only a handful of commendable producers of Pinot Noir in California.
It was a time of experimentation and winemakers were eager to try most anything to
master this fickle grape. Don refers to the time as, “An age of innocence, everything was
young, fresh and new.” No one really knew of or concerned themselves with clones at
the time. Tom Dehlinger had made his first vintage of Pinot Noir at Joe Swan’s winery in
1975. Joel Peterson crafted his first wine at Swan’s winery as well in 1976. Joe Swan
and Ken Burnap of Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyards would travel annually with Kermit
Lynch to Burgundy to learn new methods of vinifying Pinot Noir. With Lynch translating
for the trio, they were welcomed into all the great cellars and the French freely shared
their secrets. By the early 1980s, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem had teamed up. Ed
approached Don, asking him to sample a Pinot Noir labeled Hacienda Del Rio from the
1978 vintage produced from Rochioli old block Pinot Noir grapes. Don thought it was
very tasty and bought ten cases at $10 a bottle. Of course, Don now says, “I regret not
buying at least ten cases every year!” Burt and Ed had to abandon the Hacienda Del Rio name over a
trademark dispute, and renamed their winery Williams Selyem.
Special wine dinners were part of the wine program from the beginning at John Ash & Co.. In 1981, the
second wine dinner was organized to honor Merry Edwards. Don noted in his newsletter, “While most of you
know that Merry produced what by consensus must be considered the best 1978 Chardonnay made in
California, many of you may not be familiar with her accomplishments while at Mt. Eden. In 1974, she
produced one of the very best Cabernet Sauvignons of that renowned vintage. In 1975, she crafted not only
the best California Chardonnay Don has ever tasted, but also the best California sparkling wine he has ever
sipped. In 1976, she produced the only Zinfandel that Don has ever ranked above a Joseph Swan Zinfandel.”
The menu for the dinner was drawn from recipes of a talented women whom John Ash admired, Simone Beck,
best known for her authorship with Julia Child of the Mastering The Art of French Cooking books. The dinner
wines chosen included a never released 1979 Matanzas Creek sparkling wine and a 1975 Mt. Eden Pinot Noir,
called by wine critic Robert Finigan at the time, “His favorite California Pinot Noir.”
The early years of John Ash & Co. coincided with a wondrous period for wine enthusiasts because of the
plethora of inexpensive good wine available. Top premier cru Burgundies of the 1970s by Dujac and Grivot
could be had for $10 to $15 a bottle. When Don talks about those days, his gaze drifts off and he begins
mumbling, “Those were wonderful times.” At John Ash & Co., marvelous wine dinners featuring the 1959, 1961
and 1962 vintages were offered at $125 dollars per person. The 1959 French dinner lineup included 1961
Gosset Brut Integral Millesime Ancien, 1972 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Le Montrachet, 1959 Chateau
Pontet-Canet, 1959 Carruades de Lafite, 1959 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache and 1959 Chateau
As the consulting wine list creator at John Ash & Co., Don had to meet frequently with wine representatives.
These sessions would be scheduled on a single day from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM with each wine salesperson
allocated fifteen minutes to show their wares to Don. Don recalls when Steve Bixler of Kistler Vineyards came
in to the restaurant. Kistler required a purchase of 10 to 15 cases of wine, an unheard of demand at the time.
The wine was expensive to boot. Don acquiesced and John Ash & Co. became the first commercial account
for Kistler, now one of Sonoma County’s most prestigious producers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
While Don was managing the wine program at John Ash & Co., his wife worked with noted Sonoma chef Lisa
Hemingway to create the pastries for the restaurant. Hemingway would eventually move on and open her own
Santa Rosa restaurant. Kay later became the chef at Della Fattoria Restaurant in Petaluma and now teaches
food classes out of her home. Don left John Ash & Co. in late 1982 to manage a wine bar in San Francisco.
He continued to consult for John Ash & Co. and also worked as the assistant winemaker at Joseph Swan
Vineyards. Don reminisces about the challenges of setting up Joe Swan’s winery accounting on one of the first
Apple computers. Don worked closely with Joe Swan for many years until Joe’s passing while continuing to
consult for John Ash & Co.. He later became the winemaker at Copeland Creek in the Sonoma Coast and
today is the winemaker at Ridgeway Vineyards in Petaluma.
By the mid 1980s, the cuisine at John Ash & Co. had become innovative for the time and in conjunction with
the unique wine program, brought notoriety to the restaurant. The attempt to sell wine retail at the restaurant
wine bar never really took off, but the restaurant was a clear success in all other respects. In 1985, John Ash
was chosen as one of America’s “Hot New Chefs” by Food & Wine magazine. In 1987, the Vintner’s Inn was
built in Santa Rosa at 4350 Barnes Road, just off River Road, by retired scientist John Duffy. His desire to add
a top name restaurant to the Inn attracted him to the accolades that John Ash & Co. had received and he
induced the restaurant to move to its current location adjacent the Inn. Between 1987 and 1990, John Ash also
consulted on Fetzer’s wine and food program in Hopland, California. Building on his experience and influenced
by others such as Zelma Long at Simi, who was an early proponent of pairing wine and food, John Ash
became widely respected as the originator and teacher of wine country cuisine.
A sparkling review of John Ash & Co., written by Caroline Bates, appeared
in Gourmet magazine in September, 1988. Paraphrasing Bates, she said,
“Sonoma County, southern France and Japan are the main currents in
Ash’s cooking. Ash’s plates are artistic, featuring sprays of flowers and
sauces that look like brush strokes. Throughout the year Ash uses as
many as seven edible flowers in his cooking. There are few places where
the good earth produces so many superlative things for the table - and
attracts chefs worthy of them - as here in the Sonoma and Napa valleys of
California’s northern wine country.” She pointed out that the wine list was
composed primarily of local Sonoma County producers, some of which
were within walking distance of the restaurant, and noted that John Ash &
Co. was one of the first restaurants in the United States to pay special
attention to after-dinner wines.
Dan Kosta began working at John Ash & Co. in 1990. His father, Tom
Kosta, was in partnership with Steve Lorenzon and Tom Bolger in a retail
wine store in the Railroad Square area of downtown Santa Rosa. They
were competitors of John Ash & Co. when the restaurant was located in
Montgomery Village. Growing up, Dan was exposed to wine with every
meal and developed an appreciation for and interest in wine at an early
age. At age 18, he joined the staff at John Ash & Co. as a bus boy. From the start, he became immersed in
the wine and food culture that was prevalent among the staff at the restaurant. As Dan puts it, “Ash was a petri
dish for learning about fine wine and food.” He struck up a friendship with Michael Browne who had joined the staff. Michael recognized Dan’s talent and enthusiasm and suggested to him that he ask to be promoted. Dan
quickly became a waiter, then was promoted to management, becoming the restaurant’s Wine Director at age
24. Age was not a deterrent to success at the restaurant and Dan thrived on the continuous on-the-job
The restaurant’s wine budget was about $100,000 a year and over 500 wines were on the wine list, quite large
for Sonoma at the time. Dan was able to taste most wines that were added to the list and learned to match
John Ash’s cuisine with the wines. The staff traveled to many local wineries to taste as well. After work, wines,
wineries, wine styles and wine and food pairings were discussed in depth by the staff, often until the early
morning hours. Julia Child was a long time proponent of this type of experience, stating, “Knowledge of wines
is a lifetime hobby, and the only way to learn is to start drinking and enjoying them and comparing types,
vintages, and good marriages of certain wines with certain foods.”
In the mid-1990s, the staff added a large number of Pinot Noirs to the wine listed based on the wine’s
acknowledged affinity with food and the compatibility of Ash’s cuisine with Pinot Noir. Sales were slow,
however, unless the wines were ‘hand-sold.’ Burgundies were often the safer choice for customers at the time
because of their consistency, but the quality of Pinot Noir from Sonoma County was improving and more
turned up on the wine list over time.
By 1990, John Ash had become the full-time culinary director of Fetzer Vineyard’s Valley Oaks Food and Wine
Center. He had become disenchanted with the daily grind of working in a restaurant kitchen and was happiest
writing and talking about food. Dan was always impressed with Ash’s coolness in the kitchen where he
displayed an unending patience with others. He treated his employees very well and never stopped
encouraging their wine and food education. In the late 1990s, chef Jeffrey Madura joined the cooking staff at
John Ash & Co.. As John Ash became more involved in outside projects, Madura was able to maintain the
quality of the cooking at a high level. His cuisine took on more Mediterranean influence, more simplicity and
emphasized grilling. In 1999, Duffy retired and the Vintner’s Inn and John Ash & Co. restaurant were sold to
Don and Rhonda Carano of Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery who continue as owners to this day. The
current Executive Chef is Thomas Schmidt. The legacy of John Ash still lingers, remaining the popularization of
fresh, seasonal and local wine country cuisine paired with wines from the region.
A re-creation of the very first wine tasting held at John Ash & Co. was organized by Don Baumhefner in 2000.
The Pinot Noirs from 1977 included ones by Joseph Swan, Chalone, Mt. Eden and Santa Cruz Mountains as
well as two French burgundies. According to Don, “The California Pinot Noirs were still solid and it was a thrill
for everyone in attendance to relive this tasting.” The announcement is below.
During the years that Dan Kosta worked at John Ash & Co., Michael Browne came and went as a waiter at the
restaurant between breaks for schooling. The two developed a close and lasting friendship founded on their
enthusiasm for fine food and wine. They also shared an admiration for the winemakers who frequented the
restaurant. By 1996, Dan was the wine director at John Ash & Co. and Michael had begun seriously
considering a career in winemaking. They talked about a winery partnership on numerous occasions and
finally set their plan in action. Every night after work, both of them would put $10 in tip money into an envelope
that Dan kept in his desk. After accumulating $1,300, they bought one half ton of Pinot Noir from a vineyard on
Eastside Road in the Russian River Valley, an old hand cranked de-stemmer and crusher, old used barrels
and crafted their first “garagiste” wine. Two years later, while still employed at John Ash & Co., the two
launched Kosta Browne Winery with the inaugural release of a 1999 Sauvignon
Blanc from Lake County, California. The bottles sported hand-drawn labels
which remain identical today except for the color scheme.
The first commercial Pinot Noir from Kosta Browne was produced in 2000 from
grapes sourced from the Cohn Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. Michael
had gained valuable experience working as a winemaker at Deerfield Ranch
Winery in Sonoma Valley. The partners gradually acquired contracts with
notable local vineyards including Amber Ridge, Kanzler and Koplen. Their
initial goal was not to attempt to make or duplicate Burgundy, but rather to
create a delicious Northern California artisan drink with as much flavor and
intensity as possible. Despite their background, they did not have food and
wine matching in mind when they created the Kosta Browne style of Pinot Noir. In spite of this, they have
found over time that their wines perform beautifully at the table with appropriate foods. Michael and Dan
(pictured on the left and right respectively) have the perfect business relationship with Michael handling the
winemaking and Dan in charge of sales and marketing.
The list of other prominent alumni of John Ash & Co. is lengthy, but a few names should be highlighted.
Matthew Gustafson worked as a wine buyer and sommelier at John Ash & Co., and later was the wine buyer
for Oakville Grocery. He eventually became an accomplished winemaker for Dutton Estate Winery and his own
label, Paul Matthew Winery. Steve Galvan, a former sommelier at John Ash & Co., is now the General
Manager at Ramondin USA in Napa, which produces tin capsules for wine bottles. Paul Sloan is a third
generation Sonoman who had his wine epiphany while working as a wine steward at John Ash & Co. During a
tasting of very expensive white burgundies, he sampled his first Le Montrachet. His interest in Burgundy wines
was ignited that day and along with encouragement from his wife, Kathryn McGrath-Sloan, who was also
educated in wine, immersed himself in learning about wine. Together with Matthew Gustafson, he won the
Greenwood Ridge California State Wine Tasting Championship in the Professional Division. He enrolled in the
viticulture program at Santa Rosa Junior College and obtained practical experience under the guidance of
famed viticulturist Warren Dutton of Dutton Ranch in Sonoma County. Spurred on by the encouragement of
Warren Dutton, Paul and his wife started Small Vines Viticulture in 1998, specializing in the planning,
installation and precision viticulture of close-spaced vineyard estates in Sonoma County. His clients have
included Paul Hobbs, Sonoma Coast Vineyards, DuMol and Red Car Wines. John Ash & Co. alumnus Markus
Wilson is now the Key Account Specialist for Southern Wine & Spirits. In 2000, he placed second with partner Dan Kosta in the California Wine Tasting Championships Professional Division. Former Wine Director at John
Ash & Co., Walter Inman, is currently working for Pacific Wine & Spirits.
The most prominent alumnus of all, John Ash, continues to act as culinary director for Brown Forman wines
(the current owners of Fetzer) and conduct cooking classes at his eponymous restaurant as well as other
venues in Sonoma County. For a schedule of cooking classes at John Ash & Co., visit the Vintner’s Inn
website at www.vintnersinn.com. Today, the restaurant has one of the finest wine lists in Sonoma County with
approximately 600 wines from both local and far-reaching wineries. An Annual Pinot Family Reunion is held
each June at the restaurant. A three-course family style dinner is paired with Pinot Noirs from over 50 of
Northern California’s top Pinot Noir producers. Details are available on the Vintners Inn website.
John Ash currently has three excellent books in print. Cooking One on One: Private Lessons in Simple
Contemporary Food from a Master Teacher (2004) was the winner of the 2005 James Beard Foundation
Award, From Earth to Table: John Ash’s Wine Country Cuisine (co-author Sid Goldstein, 2007) was nominated
by both the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals as one of the
best books of 1996, and American Game Cooking (co-author Sid Goldstein, 1991).
John is also a partner in the winery, Sauvignon Republic Cellars, headquartered in Santa Rosa. This unique
winery offers Sauvignon Blanc from several sources including the Russian River Valley and Potter Valley,
Stellenbosch (South Africa) and Marlborough (New Zealand). John is enamored with Sauvignon Blanc and
says, “The bright, lemony flavors layered with exotic hints of tropical fruit make this wine a natural with almost
any cuisine. It’s like adding a squeeze of ripe lemon and what food wouldn’t be enhanced by that?”
John recently shared with me his current and concise view of matching food and wine. He believes that one
can match any wine with any food by adjusting the six flavors of taste. The six tastes include sweet, sour,
bitter, salt, pepper and umami (pronounced oo-mom-ee). Umami is the element of pleasure, an amino acid
known as glutamate, which in its free form in foods creates the taste sensation described as delicious, tasty
and savory. Examples of foods containing umami are MSG, mushrooms, soy sauce, and parmesan cheese.
John decries that every recipe must have at least three of the tastes for proper flavor expression. By adjusting
the combination of three or more tastes, the food can be matched to any wine of choice.
The boys from John Ash & Co. including chefs John Ash and Jeffrey Madura, sommeliers Dan Kosta and Paul
Sloan, and vintners such as Don Baumhefner, Michael Browne and Matthew Gustafson have educated our
palate and enriched our love of wine and wine country cuisine. Fortunately, they continue to inspire and assist
us in arriving at the ambrosial experience that comes from fresh food properly cooked and appropriately paired
with savory wine at the dinner table.
Listen to my podcast interview with Dan Kosta, discussing his experiences at John Ash & Co. and his later role
in the founding of Kosta Browne, on Grape Radio at www.graperadio.com (after January 5, 2009).