The distinction might not be obvious, but to Sonoma County regulators, there is a difference: Winery tasting rooms can have food pairings as part of their agriculturally-based marketing but can’t serve full meals or hand visitors a menu or even let them choose which dishes to eat. They can serve small bites of food to demonstrate the affinity with wine but can’t serve food without wine.
In contrast, a restaurant attached to a winery can operate separately. At Rustic: Francis’s Favorites, the Geyserville restaurant Francis Ford Coppola operated at Francis Ford Coppola Winery until June (when he sold to Delicato Family Wines), visitors could buy wines from the restaurant list to accompany their meals. Yet pairings of small portions of wine with food bites was not allowed under the county use permit.
The pandemic added a layer of complexity. If they wanted to stay open, tasting rooms had to move service outdoors and add food options. Charcuterie and cheese boards and baguettes for dunking in olive oil sprouted at wineries across the county, and guests embraced the wine-and-food concept. The recent outbreak of the delta variant hasn’t ended tastings, although they must still be outdoors and guests must wear masks until they’re seated at distanced tables.
Now, with those changes, visitors appear willing to pay up for a more satisfying, savory experience than simply standing at a wine bar to taste wine only.
These five northern Sonoma wineries don’t have restaurant permits, yet they go all-out with great dishes to accompany their wines, under their permits, of course. All experiences are by appointment only. Be sure to wear a mask, which you can remove when you sit down to taste and sip.
A note: wineries have not been immune to the shifting of careers of hospitality staffers during the pandemic. Restaurants woe the dearth of trained staff, and a few Sonoma wineries have lost their chefs, too. Shane McAnelly, who left Chalkboard Restaurant in Healdsburg to become estate chef at Bricoleur Vineyards in Windsor just before pandemic restrictions, recently moved to North Carolina. His protege, Evan Castro, has assumed the estate chef duties without a skipped beat. In Healdsburg, Estate Chef Carl Shelton has departed from J Vineyards & Winery. While the search is on for his successor, winery visitors should not be concerned: There is always a skilled chef to step into the void.
Mark and Elizabeth Wall Hanson and daughter Sarah Hanson Citron opened their Windsor wine visitor center at arguably the worst possible time: in 2020, just before COVID-19 ground tastings and group gatherings to a halt. They had transformed a horse ranch with vineyards into an outdoor haven for visitors, with a lake, culinary garden, rose garden (a perfect place for sipping Bricoleur’s two rosés) and a shaded pavilion ideal, as it turned out, for pandemic-times tastings.
Chef Evan Castro’s "Sip & Savor" outdoor tasting ($85) is a real treat, pairing small-plate courses with estate-grown wines from the Russian River Valley vineyard and the Hanson-owned Kick Ranch in the Fountaingrove AVA. The menu changes every two months: the August-September lineup includes Kick Ranch Sauvignon Blanc with Tomales Bay Marin Miyagi Oyster and cucumber mignonette; Kick Ranch Viognier with Compressed Piel de Sapo Melon, Serrano Peppers, Nasturtium Flower, Cilantro Flower and Estate Olive Oil; Estate Unoaked Chardonnay with Torched Skuna Bay Salmon; and Alexander Valley Zinfandel with Snake River Farms Tataki-style New York Strip steak.
The "Our Roots" pairing ($65) offers four similar dishes, with wines. On Fridays, Bricoleur hosts wine and pizza nights.
Brunch is back, big time, and this beautifully manicured Italianate estate in upper Dry Creek Valley delivers an inviting one.
Forget about brunches that promise “bottomless mimosas” made with cheap sparkling wines; Ferrari-Carano serves a sumptuous "Sycamore Grove Wine & Brunch" ($85) on Sundays through October, with dishes matched to its reserve wines. The “La Colazione Italiana” — breakfast, Italian style — can, on any day, serve Prosciutto Benedict with estate eggs, Hollandaise sauce and Italian prosciutto; a brunch pizza with Healdsburg’s Journeyman bacon; and a porchetta sandwich with herbed pork, truffle aioli and pecorino cheese on ciabatta bread. Ferrari-Carano’s wines are well-made and delicious, across multiple price points. The reserves served at brunch are top-shelf.
This bubbly-centric Healdsburg winery, founded in 1986 by Judy Jordan and now owned by E. & J. Gallo, is on a brief hiatus from its outstanding Bubble Room wine and food pairing experience as a new culinary team is being assembled following Shelton’s recent departure.
Until the Bubble Room reopens for its five-course tasting menu (paired with a selection of sparkling and still wines), J offers a decadent outdoor summertime tasting experience, “Best of Both Coasts” ($90). It includes a New England lobster roll, truffle chips, local kale slaw and a fruit dessert, each matched to Nicole Hitchcock’s immaculately made wines. Stay tuned for the reopening of the Bubble Room; it will be worth the wait, based on J’s track record of delivering exceptional pairings of its wine with food.
No stranger to blending a culinary team and winemaking crew, K-J continues its food and wine pairing program at its northern Santa Rosa visitor center.
Shining-light chefs Justin Wangler, Tracey Shepos Cenami and pastry/chocolate Chef extraordinaire Robert Nieto remain the bedrock of the K-J kitchen. While they work with parent company Jackson Family Wines’ multiple wineries and winemakers, their talent is most prominently showcased at the Santa Rosa winery headquarters where they draw on the fruits, vegetables and herbs grown by estate gardener Tucker Taylor, aka “Farmer T.”
A recent pairing menu ($85) included the Jackson Estate Cloud Landing Petaluma Gap Chardonnay with Farmer T’s Lettuce Mix with watermelon radish, oranges and Nicasio Valley Reserve Foggy Morning cheese; Jackson Estate Outland Ridge Anderson Valley Pinot Noir with red wine and mushroom risotto; and Jackson Estate Trace Ridge Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with coffee-crusted Snake River Farms coulotte steak. The visitor center also offers more casual wine and chocolate pairings ($25) and cheese and charcuterie ($45 per board) with wine tastings.
Restaurant-quality dishes matched to truly outstanding chardonnays and pinot noirs (including a stellar rosé of pinot noir) have long been offered at this Sebastopol wine estate. Lynn Fritz purchased the Quail Hill Ranch in 1980 as a getaway from his hectic CEO life (in 2001, he sold his Fritz Companies logistics business to UPS) and planted grapevines over the years, with the estate now totaling 100 acres.
A series of winemaking stars have mastered the cellar, the latest being Pete Soergel, Lynmar winemaker since 2015. To show off his wines, Lynn and Anisya Fritz offer two ways to enjoy the bounty of their now-bursting garden and ingredients acquired from mostly local purveyors. Estate Chef David Frakes’ "Collector’s Pairing Lunch" (Thursday to Sunday, $200 per person) is a three-course meal at a private table in the Quail Hill Vineyard, with each course paired to wine. The more casual, three-course "Lynmar On Your Own Pairing" (Thursday to Sunday, $110) allows guests to create their own gourmet boxed lunch, served in the garden and matched to a chardonnay and pinot noir. Both menus reflect what’s at peak ripeness for the season.
Written by Linda Murphy