Essere Franco Wines (formerly Verismo Wines) was founded by the D’Ambrosio family, long time entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and grape growers in the Napa Valley. Essere Franco is the Italian verb for ‘to be’. The family business for many years has been and still is the New York Style Sausage Company – based in Sunnyvale and started by family patriarch Frank D’Ambrosio Sr and his wife Tina in 1951. The success of the sausage business eventually led Frank and Tina to get into the restaurant business. Along with another couple, they acquired Giorgio’s Pizza House in 1959 in the Willow Glen neighborhood, only about a 10-minute drive to downtown San Jose. After a family transition in ownership Frank later acquired this restaurant again and then sold it to his four children for $6,000, at which point they borrowed $8,000 from their mother and were soon the proud owners of what was a somewhat struggling restaurant at the time.
With an eye for detail and an attention focused on quality – the children began to turn this restaurant around and soon it became a very popular place to eat in the Silicon Valley. Details such as simply slicing pepperoni thicker, hand making the pizza dough and using fresh ingredients, combined with a personal family style feel, were the ingredients for a successful “recipe”.
Today the family owns two Giorgio’s Italian Food restaurants in the San Jose Bay Area – their original location in Willow Glen and a second one in Milpitas. And their other restaurant is Frankie, Johnnie & Luigi Too!, also with two locations; one in Mountain View and one in Dublin, CA. At one point the family operated a restaurant in Yountville (since closed). See our notes and photographs at the bottom of this review for details on each restaurant.
In the early 1980s Frank D’Ambrosio Jr came to Napa Valley to in part diversify their family business. He purchased already planted commercially producing vineyard acreage in the range of $18,000 to $20,000 per acre. Today in Napa Valley, those numbers are in the several hundred-thousand-dollar range. After accumulating a significant amount of vineyard land (both planted and non-planted) from American Canyon to Calistoga – he sold off some of his holdings many years later when vineyard land was much more expensive – thus eliminating all of his early loans and allowing the family to own all their vineyards outright.
Today the D’Ambrosio’s own and manage over 70 acres of vineyards in the Napa Valley separated into several unique vineyards (primarily in the southern part of the Napa Valley). Their focus is on micromanagement of the vineyards, separating out individual blocks within each vineyard and then managing these blocks as needed based on specific soil characteristics, vines, slope, drainage and a number of other characteristics. Their focus is to bring out the full expression of fruit from each grapevine. Unlike a majority of the vineyards in Napa these days that are managed by vineyard management companies, the D’Ambrosio’s employ their own in-house vineyard management team.
For many years the D’Ambrosio family concentrated on growing the best quality grapes possible and selling the fruit to other area vintners – many of which are well established premium wineries. Frank had no interest in starting a winery and making his own wine. However, with an at the time cruel Hollywood twist of fate, the movie Sideways was released in 2004 – a line in the film was highly detrimental to this variety despite this particular wine being Merlot based. The D’Ambrosio’s soon found themselves without contracts for Merlot (which formed a large amount of their production at the time).
Seeing this, they decided to crush Merlot themselves and a friend at St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery allowed them to operate their first harvest in that winery. This was the first wine they made; but in ensuing years began to make wine from a number of varieties. Their first vintage was Merlot in 2006.
Frank is a man of many talents – not only has he been long involved in the culinary and wine business, but he is an expert craftsman. He sources unique woods from around the world and creates a number of cutting boards – the colors of this wood are all natural and range from a variety of browns to purple. Perhaps Frank should also explore his creative writing talents. While trying to decide on what to write for the back label of his Essere Franco wine he called one of his long-time employees to dictate the prose for this. Without revealing to much it, the description details a random meeting at a bar between a man and woman, a kiss and a bottle of Essere Franco wine.
Change in Ownership
In 2017 a number of partners and friends, all based in Alberta, Canada purchased Essere Franco, allowing Frank to focus his time on being a grower and oversee his vineyard holdings in the valley. Shaun Mesher (a chemist involved in the oil industry) and his wife Stephanie (PR & communications), both live in Canada and are the primary partners. The Mesher’s are also co-owners with winemaker Cameron Woodbridge of Napa Valley based Wolfs Head Wines.
Frank met Shaun through wine (Shaun was a wine club member) and then further bonded over wooden cutting boards; one day Frank mentioned having issues with a finish on one of his cutting boards. Shaun suggested a certain material for the finish which was superior to what Frank was using. Both men became friends; when Frank decided to sell part of Essere Franco he told Shaun.
While Essere Franco does not own a physical winery – as of our latest update to this review, they produce their wines at Laird Family Estate, one of the Napa Valley’s premiere custom crush wineries.
For two years they maintained a tasting room in a complex of buildings that Frank owned in Yountville. Upon selling this, they closed the tasting room. Following this, they opened a physical winery called Chateau Lane in 2013 in one of Coombsville’s numerous “hidden corners” (this sub appellation is located just east of the city of Napa). They have since sold this winery. Of note during our visit when this winery was open, we noticed a very unique punch down tool for their tanks – having never seen a punch-down tool for a sizable tank before. Frank Jr imported a unique punch down tool specialized for his tanks – it does gentle punch downs while the tool spins as it descends. Very unique. Other winemakers in the valley stopped by to see this.
Today their wines are sourced mostly from the southern part of the Napa Valley including Coombsville up to Oak Knoll both several whites and reds. All Essere Franco wines are made in very limited quantities, typically under 500 cases. Their wines are priced well by Napa Valley standards; two older labels are no longer being produced were Stretto (wines that are made to typically drink young) while the Verismo wines were more age worthy.
Essere Mi is a second label – typically styled to be consumed early, fruit forward and approachable wines. These wines are also available at a lower price point. The 2018 Essere Mi (we couldn’t find an actual vintage date on the bottle) is blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot. It is medium ruby in the glass and very fruit forward with aromas of blackberry and black licorice. The bouquet is ripe but not jammy – and it is even a little bit savory with notes of old cedar box. The finish shows a sweetness of fruit including cherry, a hint of mocha and is framed by tannins that are somewhat gravelly but with a lighter style grip. An easy drinking and enjoyable wine.
The 2016 Essere Franco No. 1, Winemakers Blend was aged in 75% new French oak for 22 months. The wine is noticeably dark ruby in color with purplish tinges on the rim; offers aromas of sweet licorice, cassis, plum, blackberry and some dessert spices. Also notes of chocolate and mocha. The aromatics are very pretty. Offers layers upon layers of flavor with a juiciness, the acid is there but it’s not mouthwatering. Finishes with notes of ripe plum and dry tannins sporting a medium grip. This blend is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon with smaller amounts of Malbec and Petit Verdot. Its richness will appeal to those who enjoy drinking big and bold Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, but without the grip of course tannins.
Stylistically, their Sauvignon Blanc is California influenced rather than the more acidic grassy characteristics one might find from a New Zealand wine of this variety. The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc immediately reveals pleasing tropical notes on the bouquet – pineapple guava and honeysuckle. Bright lively fruit shows on the palate – it has rich aromatics and intensity of flavor without being viscous or heavy on the palate.
The 2010 Verismo Chardonnay was sourced from Coombsville – it has a generous mouth feel but without the characteristics often associated with a wine that has gone through secondary fermentation (not oily or buttery). This wine only went through partial secondary fermentation (malolactic fermentation). The wine shows a deep gold color – with aromas of pear, red apple, baked apple and some lingering baking spices.
The 2010 Verismo Cabernet Sauvignon initially shows slight herbal notes on the nose, an earthy quality and a bit of smoke. Hints of chocolate also. Like a prior vintage we tried, this is not a huge wine, rather its more refined with a smooth entry and soft supple tannins on the finish. The mouth feel is delicate – the wine is soft on the palate but certainly delivers plenty of flavor.
The 2008 Verismo Merlot has small amounts of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. Aromatically this wine is powerful showing both red and black fruit – with a bit of spice, tobacco and delicate pepper showing. The mouth feel is rounded and soft.
It is admirable that Essere Franco made their flagship wine a 100% varietal Malbec. Very few Napa vintners make a 100% varietal Malbec. This is the biggest of the red wines we tasted in their portfolio. Visually it is dark and inky. Aromatically it is big with ripe fruit forward aromatics that seemingly become even more aromatically riper as the wine breathes. Dusty blackberry, black cherry, dark liqueur, black fig and hints of chocolate show as the wine breathes all are a part of this pretty and inviting nose – dessert in a glass if you will.
Mia Carta Napa Valley
Essere Franco is part of a small collective of boutique Napa Valley based wineries represented at Mia Carta Wine Lounge in downtown Napa. This space is located at 1209 1st Street next to Rebel Vintners near the intersection of 1st and Coombs Streets. It had a soft opening to the public on May 22, 2021, and officially opened on June 17, 2021.
In addition to the Essere Franco wines, this space houses several premium boutique Napa Valley producers including Arthouse Wines, Earthshine, Ilsley Vineyards, Marston Family, Pellet Estate, Rarecat, Redmon Wines and Sciandri Family. Sharon Harris, proprietor of Rarecat learned about the space early on, and then invited several of her friends to join including Redmon Wines and Ilsley Vineyards.
The interior design was overseen by INTERSTICE Architects, a San Francisco based architectural firm. The building that houses this tasting room was originally the tallest building in downtown Napa when it was built in 1914. It is owned by the Native Sons and is referred to as the Native Sons building. Parking is curbside on neighboring streets – or at the Pearl Street Parking Garage – within a several minute walk of this tasting room. Visitors should stop for a moment to notice the cool looking bench directly in front of Mia Carta – the backing on this bench was made from metal bookends from the historic Goodman Library, located directly next door.
A significant amount of thought and effort went into the renovation of this space. A couple of items inside quickly catch one’s eye including the Italian Piaggio “Ape del Vino” or in English, referred to as the Wine Bee. It was purchased in Italy, restored and then shipped over, however unfortunately it was stuck for quite some time at the port of Galveston in Texas before it cleared customs and reached Napa Valley. It is fully functional and is operated by a two-stroke Vespa engine. The back opens up to reveal wine kegs with spigots on the side of the vehicle – making this ideal to take to various wine tasting events. And the 145 piece ‘puzzle’ of walnut wood built against the back wall is in the three-dimensional shape of a street grid of downtown Napa – complete with an outline of Napa River and a red marking to indicate Mia Carta’s location on the map.
Recycled cork from cork manufacturer, Amorim Cork America lines the east wall of the space. If one casually glances at this wall, one will think it’s one entire piece of cork but each piece is a quarter offset, so the lines are hard to see between each of the pieces. With Norm’s background as President & Co-founder of Calgary based ZeroSound Systems, his knowledge and expertise were used during the renovation of the interior space. Acoustic tiles are placed on top of the tin stamped metal ceilings – if one looks carefully one can almost see the tiny holes punched in each of these tin squares, which are part of the design to help mitigate noise. The bar and some of the tabletops are constructed from Richlite, a recycled paper/resin composite.
Visitors taste either inside or outside weather permitting (heat lamps are built into the outdoor overhang), choosing flights from any of the vintners or by the glass or by the bottle. This part of the building used to be recessed and set back more from First Street but during the renovation it was expanded, providing more interior space. And a private tasting room is located in the rear of the space. A selection of snacks can also be ordered including meats & and assortment of cheeses, almonds and olives and some several non-alcoholic beverages.
And one should pay a visit to the bathrooms regardless of if you need to use them or not! The walls contain quotes from some of the vintners whose wines are showcased at Mia Carta.
For those into wine, it is easy to spend an afternoon in this part of downtown Napa – numerous tasting rooms are within several blocks of Mia Carta. For more details about this beautiful space and or to make a reservation, please visit: www.miacartanapa.com
RESTAURANTS (part of the D’Ambrosio family founding ownership)
Frankie, Johnnie & Luigi Too!, Mountain View
This is as old school Italian-American cuisine as one can find in the San Jose Bay Area. From red and white checkboard table cloths to the requisite pizza and pasta, to the garlic bread served prior to meals. Portions are sizable and when not busy, service is extremely fast. Located directly next to Highway 82 (El Camino Real), this part of this historical route features a highly annoying amount of stop lights for miles. Not the only Napa Valley winery connection here – about 3 miles away is an Ernie’s Liquor (part of the original ownership of Round Hill and Rutherford Ranch Winery).
Parking is located curbside on El Camino Real or in a side parking lot right next to the restaurant on the south side. Features plenty of indoor space including a separate room with a full bar.
Frankie Johnnie & Luigi Too!, Dublin
This restaurant is located in Dublin near the intersection of the 580 and 680 freeways – it is a stand alone restaurant like their other Frankie Johnnie & Luigi Too! in Mountain View – and not part of a greater shopping complex. Offers a variety of favorite Italian dishes ranging from pizzas, salads and various pastas. Plenty of surrounding parking.
In addition to hosting patrons, they also offer a variety of catering services and can reserve the restaurant for private events.
Giorgio’s Italian Food & Pizzeria, San Jose
This is the original Giorgio’s Restaurant – located in the Foxworthy Shopping Center in the community of Willow Glen (interestingly enough when we drove into this neighborhood for the first time in several decades we immediately recognized the shopping center and nearby streets as our aunt and uncle lived here for years). This restaurant originally opened in 1959 as Giorgio’s Pizza House – the original owners sold after a year to Anthony and Louise D’Ambrosia – a cousin of the current owners. Anthony and Louise sold the restaurant in 1968 to the current ownership, four brothers Don, Nick, Frank and John.
Very old school feel – very comfortable in side with old timers/repeat patrons from the area often frequenting. Dining is either inside (plenty of space) or semi covered in the back next to a tiny alleyway across from several small service style shops – or in a small patio area next to the side of the building. The inside is decorated with several colorful murals of presumably guests and or family members. One of their slogans is, “a taste of Italy right in your own backyard”.
Giorgio’s Italian Food & Pizzeria, Milpitas
This more modern of the two Giorgio’s is located in the contemporary Milpitas Town Center at 643 E. Calaveras Boulevard a short distance from the 680 freeway. Look for the tower marking the front of the restaurant – plenty of parking across from and along the edge of the building that houses the restaurant. This restaurant is remarkably large with several dining rooms – one cannot tell the scope of the interior space from the outside. Weather permitting, a limited number of tables are also located outside next to the parking lot curb. This restaurant dates from 1997; with no traffic it is only about a 20 minute drive from the Giorgio’s in San Jose.
Features an open kitchen that greets patrons as soon as they walk inside. Couple favorites here are the home made Minestrone Soup and the seasonal Caprese with fresh tomatoes and basil. Like at the other Giorgio’s – freshly baked bread is provided with all meals.
New York Style Sausage Co, Sunnyvale
This now very successful sausage factory, similar to a number of tech companies in the area, had its beginnings in a garage. Founders Frank and Tina D’Ambrosio began the company when Frank became unhappy with the quality of sausages that Tina was bringing back from local markets. Frank ground and mixed them by hand at his house – and soon began offering them to local restaurants. Eventually he purchased equipment and founded the company in 1951. Today this is the largest wholesale manufacturer of fresh sausages in northern California with distribution in a variety of large well known markets including Costco, Vons, Walmart and Target among many others.
As the D’Ambrosio’s used to say, “Our wines embody the passionate relationship between the vineyard and the winery and all who contribute to the making of this wine.”