Wine tasting without food is an exercise in futility.
Sure that boozy, jammy zinfandel tastes great swirling around in a glass, but it’s going to taste like a wet wool blanket with your sheet-pan chicken. It’s not going to even be that great with pizza.
Kivelstadt Cellars & Winegarten is the anti-tasting-room experience, offering not just food-friendly wines, but mix-and-match tasting experiences that pair perfectly with the chef-driven menu at the Sonoma winery’s casual restaurant and wine garden.
Think of it more like a brewery, where you can sit with kids, friends and dogs (there’s a menu just for Fido) and taste the latest releases with comforting food like an earthy mushroom Cubano, fish taco or light ahi tuna poke salad. No high-pressure sales, just high-impact wines, from experimental red wines made with carbonic fermentation (more on that later) and a very drinkable white Rhone blend to a juicy Charbono that uses one of the region’s most underappreciated (and nearly extinct) grapes.
Hidden in plain sight just south of the town of Sonoma, the sprawling wine garden is an all-season destination with of-the-moment seasonal dishes that speak to the region’s bounty without feeling precious.
Chef Jennifer McMurry, formerly of Dillon Beach Coastal Kitchen and Viola Restaurant, has taken over the kitchen, pumping up the menu with her extraordinary talents both in savory and sweet dishes.
She took over the restaurant in May following a three-month closure for renovations and the departure of Chef Oscar Bendeck who was opening chef at the tasting room and restaurant. Bendeck now runs a catering business called Wine Country Collective.
The sprawling wine garden has umbrella-shaded outdoor seats as well as a covered patio, making it a perfect place for brunch or an afternoon nibble. “Hidden gem” is definitely apropos for this secret Sonoma County experience where kids can roam, dogs have their own menu.
You may find fish tacos if there’s good local halibut, fried chicken bites with whipped ricotta or a S’more in a Jar ($12) with freshly baked graham crackers, chocolate cream and toasted meringue. Each item has a suggested wine pairing, if you’re so inclined. A by-the-glass menu ranges from $9 to $14 (local beer and nonalcoholic drinks are also available).
It’s worth exploring these playful wines, like the Family Secret sauvignon blanc, red Rhone blend and carbonic wines offered on tap. Owner Jordan Kivelstadt works with winemaker Sam Baron to create wines that are serious enough to impress pinkies-up wine bullies but playful enough for a pool party.
Carbonic wines, from the experimental division of Kivelstadt Wineries, are super-light, low-tannin, low-alcohol wines made using carbonic fermentation, a winemaking process in which whole clusters of grapes are blanketed with carbon dioxide and held at cool temperatures before being pressed and finished in barrels. All you really need to understand is that these bright, fruity wines are the equivalent of a light saison versus a stout.
So go for brunch, lunch or just an afternoon break from all that serious wine tasting to this place where no one cares if you drink orange wine with a burger.
“We’re all about meeting you where you are in your wine journey,” according to the tasting menu. We couldn’t agree more.
McMurry’s menu is hyperseasonal, so ingredients like corn and tomatoes may fall off the list soon. Don’t worry, there’s always something new to try.
Sushi Grade Ahi Tuna, $24: Each dish at Kivelstadt is a small work of art, but this mound of ruby tuna atop fresh avocado puree is especially so. Dots of kewpie mayo add a creamy element to the deep umami of shoyu sesame vinaigrette.
Elote, $14: Smoked corn is a revelation, but this helping is punctuated by tart lime vinaigrette and mildly spicy jalapeño aioli. It’s one of the best versions of this street food we’ve ever had.
Watermelon and Tomato Salad, $16: Fresh bites of juicy watermelon wouldn’t seem to match with a honey-viognier vinaigrette, but the sweet-sour pairing is a revelation.
Mushroom Cubano, $18: This is the Cubano we’ve searched for, with a twist. Smoked cremini mushrooms take the place of meat and are accented by spicy pickles, cabbage, Jack cheese and mustard aioli. Sandwiched between two thick slices of airy, toasted focaccia, it’s a hearty, messy handful, but perfectly balanced — not too much bread, not too much filling. Just right.
Caramel, Corn and Blackberry, $15: Creamy corn panna cotta is the base for this refreshing dessert, topped by fresh figs, blackberry curd and tiny nibbles of almond nougat and caramel corn.
Tasting flights (we love the Off the Beaten Path Flight) $35: These flights consist of four pours. Side-by-side tastings of varietals are $20 and a vertical tasting of the Father’s Watch Rhone Blend is $30. For small bites, an abbreviated share-and-pair menu is available for the tasting. You also can pair tastings with items from the full menu.
Kivelstadt Cellars & Winegarten is located at 22900 Broadway in Sonoma and is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday and Monday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. Call 707-938-7001, or visit kivelstadtcellars.com.