Take the guesswork out of wine and food pairing at Sonoma County wineries that offer gourmet bites with flights of wine.
It’s more than just cheese plates these days—much, much more—although the local cheeses are very good! Combining Sonoma-grown produce, often from estate gardens adjacent the vineyards, with the talents of local chefs, Sonoma County wineries are outdoing each other in culinary presentations that were formerly available only at top restaurants.
Why aren’t there more restaurants in wineries? By law, only a handful of California wineries are allowed to have full-service restaurants. But Sonoma County allows wineries to offer gourmet bites (ask about vegetarian options, and chefs are often happy to accommodate) with a flight of wine for educational purposes…and what a great-tasting education. Here are 10 top destinations for wine and food pairing:
St. Francis Winery & Vineyards
Named twice by OpenTable as the “Best Restaurant in America” in an online survey of their users, the winery’s five-course wine and food pairing is offered on a set schedule at a horseshoe-shaped bar in an elegant annex to the tasting room. Hitching white wines to pan-seared day boat scallops and cucumber gazpacho, and pairing sumptuous Rockpile Cabernet with grilled flat iron steak, chanterelles and smoked smashed potatoes, the tasting flight builds to a palate-winning crescendo of flavor.
Ram’s Gate Winery
Get acquainted with one of the newer additions to the Sonoma Carneros district via their “Palate Play” seated food pairing. Like many of these experiences, it may seem like one of the pricier options on the tasting menu—until you meet the food. The menu changes with each season: a sample lineup includes prawn, fried game hen with waffle and Fuji apple slaw, beets with crispy kale, and duck cassoulet with bacon and huckleberries. Small bites, big flavors, and a sweeping view of the Carneros.
You’d expect to find something to nosh at the home of one of America’s favorite restaurant wines, according to wine surveys. A secret bookcase door in the chateau-styled winery’s library leads to the wine tasting parlor. Starring varietals here are Chardonnay and Cabernet, paired with hors d’oeuvre from the chef, like sushi-grade hamachi with daikon radish and a quartered quail egg. A more elaborate place setting can be found at the end of the luxury bus estate tour, under a sleek gazebo with 360-degree views of Alexander Valley.
Visitors to this house of sparkling wine have long loved the views from the terrace, which has recently been remodeled along with the tasting room, but had only the winery’s signature roasted Marcona almonds to munch on. Now, gourmet curds both Spanish and local, charcuterie and Spanish tapas provide even better bites to go with those bubbles.
Mayo Family Reserve Room
An early adopter of the gourmet food pairing model, Mayo Family still occupies a modest storefront in the town of Kenwood. Their summer 2016 menu includes Moroccan braised lamb and chicken and sweet summer corn chowder, paired with a diverse selection of small-production wines like Grenache Blanc and Primitivo.
Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens
One’s bouche cannot fail to be amused by the Lilliputian creations of Kendall-Jackson’s chefs. Many of the ingredients arrive fresh from the winery’s culinary garden, just steps outside the door. Learn how tiny accents of herbs and fruit can affect the harmony of wine and food in surprising ways.
The chef even gives the popcorn here “the Lynmar touch,” like plum skin-infused salt. But besides the “bar menu” offerings like cheese plate, popcorn, nuts and olives, this environmentally-oriented estate winery now hosts a 90-minute “Lynmar Lunch,” pairing seasonal ingredients with their Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah in a tranquil garden setting.
J Vineyards & Winery
Everything’s better with bubbles, and what better place to play that out than the Bubble Room. A Sonoma County favorite for sparkling wine, J Vineyards offers several sipping and nibbling options at their Healdsburg-area headquarters. The Bubble Room, a comfortably cushy lounge within the glass-and-concrete fortress of fizz, is the premier option: five small courses that, after the lobster, the caviar, the rabbit and the porcini mushroom, add up to one epic experience.
Cool-climate Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made by Dan Goldfield are the inspiration for a wine and sushi pairing flight, available by reservation and one of the few sushi-only flights in the county. Cheese and charcuterie also available.
This family-owned tasting room in downtown Healdsburg started out small, but with such a big passion for pairing wine and food that they offered it free, whipping up bite-sized snacks on the fly while pouring Cabernet. They still offer a complimentary “fridge foods” wine tasting with well-chosen bites at the bar, as well as 90-minute seated culinary food and wine pairings priced $25 to $65.
Find more info about Sonoma County wineries here.
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.