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Unchained and undaunted

Sept./Oct. 2007 California Country magazine

Greek family conquers oppression and plants vineyards in San Joaquin Valley.



Greek family conquers oppression and plants vineyards


Stama wine is the culmination of a lifelong dream of Greek immigrant Gus Kapiniaris, right, and his son, Frank.

Stamatopoulos was about to die. Captured and chained to a stone wall by Ottoman Turks during Greece's war for independence, his death by fire seemed imminent. Legend has it that he broke free and made a miraculous escape. More than a century later, his story is still told with reverence in his village.

As further testament, vineyards in California's San Joaquin County bear sumptuous fruit and stand as a family's living tribute to their courageous ancestor.

"My blood is in this vineyard," said Stamatopoulos' great-great-grandson, Gus "Konstantino" Kapiniaris. "All of my eggs are in this basket. All of my life, all my work, all my blood is lying in these vineyards."

Kapiniaris' journey to the farm has been long and emotional, with enough drama, perseverance and sweat equity for a Hollywood movie.

Born in Koroni, a fishing village on the southern tip of Greece, he left Europe in 1959 at age 19 to find greener pastures and an opportunity to do something that would honor his family and its heroism.

Kapiniaris' first stop was Montreal, Canada, with only the suit he was wearing and a 20-dollar bill from his father. He received 80 cents an hour making parts for airplanes and remembers vividly his boss' response when he asked for a raise.

"He said, 'Toot toot,'" Kapiniaris recalled. "He was telling me he could fire me and hire another immigrant coming into Canada by boat."

Kapiniaris next headed to Toronto, where he spent 2 1/2 years of grueling labor as a machinist without any vacation.

Ever hopeful of finding a decent living, Kapiniaris intended to follow up on a job offer in Australia, but something he saw en route changed his life forever.

Heading to get travel papers to Australia, Kapiniaris walked past the U.S. Embassy. With visions of a lifetime of freedom and opportunity dancing in his head, he detoured into the embassy, was granted a 20-day stay and headed to America.

"I arrived in South San Francisco," Kapiniaris said. "When I saw the beautiful weather, nice climate and everything else, I said, 'My God, that's where I will stay forever,' and that's what has come true."

Kapiniaris scrimped and saved, working diligently in food service and restaurant ownership, hoping for the day he could branch out to his life's mission--farming.

He and his wife, Dimitra, were blessed with a son, Foti or Frank, whose work ethic has contributed immeasurably to family pride and success.

Their big break came in the 1980s, with the purchase of 30 acres of vineyards in Lodi. Once they saw the fertile ground, with grapevine buds breaking and a countryside alive with rabbits, doves and quail, it took them only minutes to decide that this was where they would fulfill their destiny. Additional ranches have been purchased over the years, increasing the family's holdings to 185 acres. Grapes grown on their property are sold to large wineries in the area, including Delicato and Gallo.

While much of their harvest continues to head to other wineries, Kapiniaris' dearest wish came true in 2005 with the bottling of the family's own vintage, Stama wine. Stama is short for Stamatopoulos, and the label includes an image of the chains from which he broke free. It also pays tribute to the family's extensive grape growing and winemaking, which dates back five generations to when they made wine for their own use and sold the rest to taverns and local villagers.

Stama wine is available in cabernet sauvignon, syrah, zinfandel, a syrah-zinfandel blend, merlot and chardonnay. Two new releases this year are playfully known as Zany Zin and Curvaceous Cabernet.

Stama garnered two bronze medals at the 2005 California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, touted as the most prestigious in North America. Their 2003 zinfandel received 86 points out of 100 and their 2003 syrah scored an 85.

While Kapiniaris oversees the vineyards, his son's expertise lies in sales and marketing. His business acumen has put Stama wine in a growing number of retail outlets and restaurants, including the Santa Clara Hilton Hotel, Crown Plaza in San Jose and at three of the Bay Area's finest Greek eateries--Kokkari, Dio Deka and Evvia, upscale restaurants where quality is paramount.

"Everybody drinks wine here," said Kokkari General Manager Paul Kirby. "If you walk into the restaurant at 8 in the evening, you'll see at least a bottle on every table.

"People in the city are very picky and very savvy when it comes to wine," he added. "You really have to make sure you have wines that are both good and affordable."

Stama wine is available at Vino Piazza in Lockeford, San Joaquin County, a showcase for 10 wineries from the Lodi area, which is the nation's largest premium winegrape-producing region. The Stama tasting room features free samples in elegant, authentically Greek surroundings, including two large murals painted by a local artist. Observant visitors should look for a special subject in the mural--Frank's grandfather, Foti Kapiniaris, who is depicted working the grapevines.

Frank Kapiniaris attributes the family's success to hard work and allowing themselves to dream.

"I think that everything is achievable," he said. "You have to set goals. Even if you only achieve some of them, you still have accomplished more than what you had when you started."

The younger Kapiniaris said their successful winery, important as it is, is not his top priority.

"Family, I feel, is the most important thing," he said. "Without family, you really don't have anything at all. My father is not only my friend but my brother, too. Everything that I know today and everything that I have to be thankful for is because of my father and mother."

Working side by side with his son and seeing their winery take off is evidence for Gus Kapiniaris that he indeed is living his version of a perfect life--one where past generations are honored.

"When I was a boy, my father told me that no matter where I am or where I've been, to make wine to honor the family," he said. "That dream has come true. I never really believed in my life that I could do this. Sometimes I think of it and I cry. My father's blessing has come true. It's unbelievable."

Greek hospitality... & a dream come true

"Filoxenia" is the Greek word for traditional hospitality, in which a stranger is instantly made a friend. It also describes the warmth and enthusiasm with which food and wine are presented at Dio Deka, a year-old Greek restaurant in Los Gatos.

"Everyone walking through our doors is made to feel like family. There's always a lot of hugging and kissing going on. A lot of laughter," says an amiable Salvatore Calisi, chef and managing partner. "We have a lot of happy people."

Calisi is one of them. The native New Yorker says he's inspired daily by the freshness and flavor of California's bounty.

"I've never had so much direct access to farmers," he says. "Getting seasonal ingredients year-round from local sources is a dream come true."

Calisi's food is complemented by a wine list that exceeds 1,500 choices, including the Kapiniaris family's Stama label.

Lamb Chops

Grilled lamb chops with oregano-crusted potatoes and spinach. Serve with Stama winery's new Zany Zin.

Serves 1

3 (3-oz.) lamb chops
1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary, plus additional for seasoning potatoes
1/4 tsp. chopped fresh oregano
Salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
1 Kennebec potato, quartered
4 oz. spinach leaves
1 tsp. chopped shallots
3 tbsp. butter, divided use
1 tsp. chopped garlic
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

Rub lamb chops with thyme, rosemary, oregano, salt and pepper. Let marinate, refrigerated, for 2 days. Place chops on a grill over medium to high heat until you get a nice char, about 6 minutes. Meanwhile, cook potatoes in boiling, salted water until cooked through, about 30 minutes. (Test for doneness with a fork; the fork should go in easily if the potatoes are done.)

Blanch spinach in boiling, salted water for about 4 minutes; plunge in ice water to arrest cooking. Steam shallots in 2 tbsp. butter. Add blanched spinach and beat with a spoon until creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste. In a saute pan, add remaining 1 tbsp. butter, a pinch of additional rosemary, salt, pepper, garlic and boiled potatoes. Finish with lemon zest. Place spinach mixture, lamb chops and potatoes on a plate and drizzle with lemon juice and olive oil.

Millfee

Flaky puff pastry layered with a rum cream filling

Serves 3 to 4

8 cups sugar, divided use
4 1/4 cups water
4 1/4 cups milk
2 vanilla beans, scraped
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup cornstarch
5 1/2 tbsp. butter
1/4 cup rum
2 cups heavy cream, whipped
1 lb. sliced almonds
3 sheets store-bought puff pastry
Powdered sugar

For simple syrup: Bring 7 cups sugar and water to a boil. Set aside and let cool.

For pastry cream: Heat milk and vanilla beans in a pot. In a bow, whisk together egg yolks and remaining 1 cup sugar. Whisk in cornstarch. Mix the milk mixture into the egg mixture. Return ingredients to pot and let thicken over medium heat. Add butter and let cool. Fold in rum and whipped cream.

For candied almonds: Toss 1/2 cup simple syrup with almonds. Place in a single layer in a large casserole dish and bake at 275 degrees, stirring frequently, until crunchy and golden in color, about 1 hour. Remove from oven and let cool.

For puff pastry: Cut each sheet of puff pastry into four 3-by-5-inch rectangles, for a total of 12 pieces. Place on a baking sheet and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Bake at 300 degrees until golden and flaky, about 12 minutes.

To serve: Place 1 piece of puff pastry on a dish. Top with about 1/2 cup of the pastry cream. Repeat layers, ending with a third piece of puff pastry. Spread a thin layer of cream on the sides of each stack, but leave the top piece of puff pastry exposed. Cover the sides with almonds, sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve.

Greek Salad

A traditional Greek "village" salad.

Serves 4

1/2 red bell pepper
1 English seedless cucumber
20 kalamata olives, with pits, in brine
3 heirloom tomatoes (use a nice variety for color and flavor)
1/2 red onion
1 sprig fresh oregano
1 sprig fresh marjoram
5 tbsp. Greek olive oil, plus additional for drizzling over salad
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp. dried oregano, plus additional for sprinkling over salad
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 head petite romaine lettuce
12 oz. Greek feta cheese (see note)

Slice red pepper into julienne pieces and place in ice water for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, peel cucumber, cut down the middle lengthwise and slice into 1-inch pieces. Remove pits from olives and tear in half. Cut tomatoes into 2-inch wedges. (If heirloom tomatoes are not in season, substitute tomatoes that are still on the vine.) Remove red peppers from water and blot dry with paper towels. Thinly slice onion and finely chop fresh herbs.

Place prepared ingredients in a bowl with 5 tbsp. olive oil, red wine vinegar, 1/4 tsp. dried oregano, salt and pepper. Toss together. Spread romaine leaves across a plate and top with vegetable mixture and blocks of feta cheese. Drizzle additional olive oil over salad and sprinkle with dried oregano. Serve with warm pita, if desired.

Note: Choose Greek feta cheese made with cow's milk and sheep's milk, or with goat's milk. This is important for the texture and creaminess of the product.

Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at info@californiacountry.org.


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