Wineries have figured out the best way to your wine glass is through your stomach.
True oenophiles know that the best way to really taste a wine is to pair it up with foods that complement (or sometimes contrast) the minerality, spiciness or fruit qualities inherent in both. Ever tried a hunk of stinky blue with a Sauvignon blanc? Or super sweet cake with bubbly? It’s not that it can’t work, but when we try to pair that big, beefy, smokey Cabernet Sauvignon we loved so much in the tasting room last month with a slab of prime rib — well, there’s only about a 50-50 chance that the two are going to sync up. Maybe less. Because unless you’re Robert Parker Jr., tasting wine without food is an exercise in futility.
So how to do it? Talking about wine pairing can be about as thrilling as a root canal. Instead, local wineries want to let you taste a perfectly cooked slice of local duck breast in a pinot reduction sauce with their pinot noir to really drive the point home. Eat wonderful food, then sip their wine, and you’re hooked! But not all pairings are equal. From ultra-premium chef-guided explorations to “fridge food” that’s served complementary, there’s a food and wine pairing for even a beans and rice budget.
Here are some of our favorites in order of price…
$75+: Chalk Hill Vineyards
A culinary tour of this extensive property begins by wandering through the kitchen gardens (1.5 acres), perusing the panoramic vineyards and being whisked into the Pavillion, an uber-exclusive conservatory overlooking the area’s most elaborate equestrian center. Chef Didier Ageorges (a former Ritz-Carlton chef in San Francisco) serves small plates with the luxe lineup of Chalk Hill wines. Based on seasonal ingredients, the three-course menus change up but expect dishes like a Thai Red Curry Soup with Tiger Prawns (Pinot Gris), Lobster Risotto with Tarragon Lobster Bisque (Chardonnay) or Pork Belly marinated in orange and ginger (Estate Red Blend) with dessert wines in the tasting room. Reservations required, 10300 Chalk Hill Road, Healdsburg, 657-4837.
$65: J Vineyard and Winery’s Bubble Room
Food loves bubbles, especially when it comes to desserts and cheeses. Chef Mark Caldwell has free-reign over some of Sonoma County’s best bubbles and pinot noirs to find just the right seasonal dishes to bring out their best qualities. Exploring world cuisines, you can expect to find coconut butter squash soup (Russian River Chardonnay) and house-made gnocchi (Pinot Gris) along side pork belly (pinot noir) and trifle of roasted pumpkin and vanilla bean creme fraiche (Brut Rose). Menus change up seasonally. A truly luxurious way to spend an afternoon to taste through J’s inspired still and sparkling wines. Seatings Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 11, 12, 2 and 3pm. Reservations: 11447 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, 431-5430.
$35: St. Francis Winery
Artisan Winemaker Heather Munden is as serious about her homemade pancetta as she is her pinot noir. Her chef background makes for a picky palate and food-friendly wines. Working with Munden, Winery Chef David Bush culls the best produce from the Sonoma Valley winery’s two-acre garden, taking inspiration from whatever’s in season, serving multi-course small plates that rival the kitchen of any Michelin-starred restaurant. Expect to find jewel-like presentations of steamed sea bass with fermented black beans, soba and bacon lardons (with a 2007 Malbec), seared duck breast with fired rice and a poached quail egg on a pool of red curry (2007 Malbec) or a torta Cubana with taco truck-inspired homemade chorizo, fire roasted salsa and smoked paprika fromage blanc (2007 Cabernet Franc). Four courses at a communal table that looks onto the picturesque vineyards. A mix of luxury and casual companionship, this is the Valley’s best bet. Reservations required, Friday-Sunday at 11am, 1 and 3pm, Monday and Tuesday at 11am and 2pm. 100 Pythian Road, Santa Rosa, 833-2148.
$35: Mayo Family Winery Reserve Room
One of the original wine and food pairing spots in Sonoma Valley, Mayo offers a 7-course tasting with their reserve wines. Reservations suggested: 9200 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 833-5504.
$30: Kendall Jackson Wine Center
KJ Chef Justin Wangler isn’t just a good winery chef, he’s a great chef, period. With access to Kendall Jackson’s own extensive kitchen gardens, local meat purveyors and in-house pastry and bread bakers, the modestly-priced Reserve Food and Wine Pairing is one of Wine Country’s best values. Focused on the winery’s small-production, limited-release wines, it’s a seven-course tasting that starts with seasonal bites including (this fall) Lobster-pumpkin bisque (Chardonnay), buckwheat crepes with prosciutto (Riesling), a sweet tea brined pork belly slider (Syrah), Cabernet braised short rips with stone ground grits (Cabernet), Spiced Carrot Cake with Ginger Foam (late harvest Riesling) and KJ’s famous Mama Frischkorn’s Caramel Corn (late harvest Chardonnay) — caramel corn so good you’ll be begging for the recipe (which Wangler will happily give you). Daily with an appointment, 5007 Fulton Road, Santa Rosa, 576-3810.
$15 White Wine Flight, $20 Red: Thumbprint Cellars
No reservation needed for red or white wine flights at this casual Healdsburg wine tasting room. Different chefs are featured each month (most recently it’s been Chef Garrett Adair), bringing their A-game to the tasting menus. The White Flight (Riesling, viognier, rose) comes with an artisanal cheese plate, flatbread, fruit and organic honey. The Red Flight includes Red Wine Blends with (this month) a Mediterranean meatball, bitter green salad with black truffle vinaigrette and pickled mushrooms and pork belly and beans. Vegetarian options available. 102 Matheson St., Healdsburg, CA 95448. Open daily 11am to 6pm, Fri & Sat 11am to 7pm.
$5-$10, Portalupi Winery Tasting Room
We thought it was a joke when someone told us this Healdsburg tasting room served Cheetos, Pringles and Cheezits with their wine. Really? But low-brow meets high-brow in this casual tasting room where, according to tasting room server Nicholas Amtower, “Super premium wine doesn’t come with pretentiousness.” The staff decided to have a little fun with their wine pairings by serving up rec room staples because, according to Amtower, “You got cheese, you got salt, and that makes for a great wine pairing.” So what works best? Pringles are best with the Bianco and Russian River Pinot. The Cheetos and Cheezits are reserved for the big reds. We say purple teeth and orange fingers are the new look for fall. 107 North St., Healdsburg, 395-0960. Open daily 10:30am to 7pm.
Free: Williamson Winery
Only a couple of Australians would have the nerve to open a tasting room in downtown Healdsburg and not charge a tasting fee. What they know, however, is that once you’ve sat down for one of their famous wine and food pairings — featuring what owners Dawn and Bill Williamson call “fridge foods”, you’ll likely be hooked. With one of the most avid Wine Clubs around, food is a big part of the Williamson tasting experience. Chefs Patty Schroeder and Todd Muir (with some insight from Dawn), have created simple, yet wonderful mini bites of curried cashews (Viognier), tri tip with mustard (Red blend) and brownie bites (Merlot) or honey and blue cheese (Cabernet Sauvignon) on the complementary menu. Reserve tastings ($25 to $40) include a sit-down tasting, and more extensive bites from the chefs. Reservations are strongly recommended, since the tasting room can get crowded, 134 Matheson Street, Healdsburg, 433-1500.
What are some of your favorite spots for wine pairings?