Written by Heather Irwin for BiteClubEats.
Chefs have become the secret weapon at Sonoma wineries trying to woo your tastebuds, not simply with a bite of bread or a dull plate of cheese and crackers, but with Michelin star-worthy dishes.
In Sonoma County, more and more wineries are offering these intimate white tablecloth experiences that feel more like dining and less like swigging a glass of wine at a crowded bar. St. Francis Winery was named “Best Restaurant in America” not once, but twice by OpenTable.com readers because of its luxurious food and wine pairing experience, although it is far from alone in creating memorable Wine Country meals.
Somewhere between art and science, these winery chefs are making it their mission to create love connections from glass to plate. More than merely trotting out whites with chicken and reds with meat, these are carefully-designed matches that complement (or sometimes contrast) the fruit, acid and tannins of everything from Gewurztraminer to Petit Sirah.
So skip the water crackers and spit buckets and gear up for multi-course lineups of scallops with fire-roasted cauliflower, a Spanish tapas plate of garlic prawns, or smoked salmon bruschetta with Meyer lemons and micro greens created precisely for the wine they’re paired with. Now that’s a tasting we can get behind.
This isn’t, however, just for the one-percenters. Many are surprisingly affordable (and even a steal) for this kind of uptown activity, especially if you’re a wine club member (they’re trying to get you to buy wine, after all). Whether you walk away with a case or just a tasty experience, keep in mind that these usually aren’t full meals, but small one or two bite tastes, so you won’t walk away stuffed, but you will walk away satisfied.
Here are some of our top picks.
Three Sticks at the Adobe, Chef Armando Navarro of El Dorado Kitchen: This is one of those “only in Wine Country” experiences that includes a cult winemaker, a 170-year old adobe re-imagined by one of the West Coast’s hottest designers, and luxurious bites from a chef with a swoon-worthy resume. Three Sticks Winery, lead by former Williams Selyem winemaker Bob Cabral hosts reservation-only tasting in the historic Vallejo-Castaneda Adobe in Sonoma with seasonal dishes from nearby El Dorado Kitchen including scallops with fire-roasted cauliflower (chardonnay), roasted beets with horseradish fennel (pinot noir) and beef short ribs with peas and leeks (pinot noir). $85 small bites pairing, $200 private luncheon, offered Monday through Saturday for groups of two to eight by reservation only. 143 West Spain St., Sonoma, threestickswines.com 996-3328.
Mayo Family Winery Reserve Room, Chef Sam Frumkin: Discussing the theory of wine pairing can be about as interesting as a root canal. So let’s not. Instead, let’s talk about a saucy little chicken tostada. Its rich mole sauce comes from an old family recipe with a laundry list of ingredients that include earthy chiles, dark spices and a hint of chocolate. Cue salivation. You gotta wash it down with something, so why not a bold and brassy Petite Sirah? Sip. Bite. Sip. If the two come together in harmony, it’s cha-cha time for your tastebuds. If not, well, you’re still gonna be eating and drinking, so it’s not all bad.
For Frumkin, however, making that mole really showcase a particular wine isn’t an accident, but a quest. The mole, he said, took dozens of tries to get just right for the wine. I couldn’t be too overpowering, nor too subtle, but had to be just right. So, when Frumkin serves up this little bite, along with several others, including a pierogi with chardonnay, short ribs and corn bread with old vine zinfandel and mango panna cotta with off-dry gewurztraminer. The menu changes up seasonally, but Frumkin’s enthusiasm and creativity are a constant. $40, appointments strongly recommended at mayofamilywinery.com/reserve-room. 9200 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood, 833-5504.
Lynmar Estate, Chef David Frakes: This veteran chef (Gary Danko, Applewood Inn, Beringer Winery) has a pretty simple theory about great pairings: Salt, sugar and acid. Rather than trying to mimic the flavors of the wine to food, he adapts the food—more salt, more sugar, more acid—to really make the wine pop. “It should be exactly what the winemaker intended in the bottle,” he said. That, and practice. “I have 30 years of practicing this,” he said, “and my batting average is pretty good.”
Lynmar currently has a bar menu that includes popcorn with white truffle oil, gourmet cheese plate, charcuterie selection and summer picnic pairings with estate vegetable salad, fruits and wraps. For the last several months, Frakes has been working toward a more elaborate food and wine experience launching in April. Working with the winery gardens, the dishes will be based on the week’s harvest and will last several hours. “It’s about elevating our food to match our wines,” he said. Bar menu available daily, $5-$30. 3909 Frei Road, Sebastopol, 829-3374, lynmarestate.com.
Michel-Schlumberger, Chef John Langhals: The sit-down tasting at this Dry Creek winery has been around for years, but new chef John Langhals, is looking to take it to the next level. His current menu includes curried cauliflower soup with cardamom cream (paired with chardonnay), a beef slider with mushrooms, cheddar and “secret sauce” (with syrah) and caramelized Brussels sprouts with bacon, blue cheese and sage brown butter (with cab). It’s one of the most beautiful spots in Sonoma to spend a few hours, which is saying a lot. The seasonal menu changes monthly, so expect dishes perfectly timed with what’s available. $55, five courses, from 11am to 3p.m. Thursday through Monday, on the hour. Reservations required, 4155 Wine Creek Road, Healdsburg, 433-7427, michelschlumberger.com.
Jordan Winery, Chef Todd Knoll: Food doesn’t take a back seat to wine at this fun-loving yet elegant winery. Chef Knoll has free reign over an extensive estate garden and wines that allow for some creative exploration. Before he hits the kitchen, Knoll illustrates each dish by hand, with his many drawings overflowing from a sketchbook. Chardonnay might be paired with crab and canelli bean salad with citrus vinaigrette and caviar, while a heartier cabernet is served with veal, farro and black truffle vinaigrette. Tastings can include tours of the garden and estate, and range from $40 to $120. Reservations required, 1474 Alexander Valley Road, Healdsburg, 431-5250, jordanwinery.com.
Partake By K-J, Chef Justin Wangler: With access to Kendall Jackson’s own vast culinary gardens, local meat purveyors and in-house pastry and bread bakers, this unassuming cafe/tasting room is one of Wine Country’s best values. Focused on the winery’s smaller-production wines, it’s a five-course tasting that includes cured hamachi crudo with citrus salad and pea shoots, Lassen County trout with trout roe and saffron buerre blanc, grilled squid with bone marrow and oyster mushrooms, pan roasted filet mignon and butter scotch panna cotta with candy cap meringue. A vegetarian option is also available. $65 to $75, reservations recommended, 241Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 433-6000, partakebykj.com.
St. Francis Winery, Chef Bryan Jones: You can’t talk about food and wine pairings without mentioning St. Francis, which was named “The Best Restaurant in America” by OpenTable.com in 2013 and 2015 for a reason. It’s a stellar sit-down experience that’s still one of the best values at $68 per person. The current menu includes a pan-seared day boat scallop with sunchokes and lemon puree, cocoa tortelli with heirloom beans, braised short ribs with chestnut spatzle and chocolate marquise with blue cheese panna cotta. The wines ain’t bad either. Seatings Thursday through Monday, reservations required. 100 Pythian Road, Santa Rosa, 538-9463, stfranciswinery.com.
J Vineyard and Winery’s Bubble Room, Chef Erik Johnson: Food loves bubbles, especially when it comes to desserts and cheeses. Chef Erik Johnson 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. We love his love-themed menu that includes oysters, black trumpet mushroom tagliolini with uni, capon and black truffle roulade with champagne Hollandaise and two sweet courses (natch) including a brie profiterole with huckleberry and candy cap mushroom creme brulee. Seatings Thursday through Sunday at 11, 12, 2 and 3pm. Reservations strong suggested, $95, 11447 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, 431-5430, jwine.com.
Missing one of your favorites? Check out more great chef-driving wine and food pairings at Sonoma County wineries online at biteclubeats.com/wine-pairing.