In 2015, St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Sonoma Valley was declared the No. 1 restaurant in the U.S. — for the second time in three years — by OpenTable.com, based on reviews by users of the online-reservations company’s website and app.
Funny thing is, St. Francis isn’t a restaurant and isn’t licensed to be one. It’s a winery that happens to serve restaurant-quality small dishes to accent its wines. Unlike at a restaurant, guests cannot order from a menu at St. Francis, instead accepting the wines and bites selected by the winemakers and chef. There is no dinnertime service. No takeout. No kids. One price fits all.
These limitations don’t detract from the experience for fans of fine wine and food, their lack of choice offset by vineyard views, expert matching of wines to in-season ingredients and deliciously casual education on the provenance of the drink and food.
St. Francis may garner the most publicity for its pairings program, yet a handful of other wineries in central and southern Sonoma County do an equally exceptional job of ensuring tasters don’t walk away hungry by serving more substantial “non-meals” than simple cheese and salumi plates.
Contrastingly, EDGE, in the town of Sonoma, is a restaurant that happens to be connected to a winery. Stone Edge Farm Estate Vineyards & Winery owners Mac and Leslie McQuown grow and produce sophisticated cabernet sauvignons and sauvignon blancs in the Moon Mountain District AVA above Sonoma. Hard-core tasters are welcome to visit the McQuowns’ Silver Cloud Vineyard hospitality center. Many then continue their experience by driving down the mountain for dinner (or Sunday lunch) at EDGE, which the McQuowns operate as a separate entity, although executive chef Fiorella Butron uses produce from the McQuowns’ 16-acre organic garden for many of the restaurant’s dishes and their wines are prominent on the wine list.
Most of these south-central Sonoma wineries provide stellar wine and food experiences Thursday through Sunday, all by reservation and all outdoors for now. Visit their websites for specific days and hours of operation, as well as menus du jour. Picky eaters and salad nibblers might want to stick to restaurants. For those with adventurous palates and interest in near-perfect pairings, these spots are for you.
EDGE from Stone Edge Farm Winery
Sonoma locals might remember Rin’s Thai Restaurant on East Napa Street. Leslie and Mac McQuown purchased the Victorian home that was Rin’s and kept its historic bones but gutted the interior and installed a state-of-the-art kitchen. This is where culinary director/executive chef Fiorella Butron works, making EDGE the culinary home of the McQuowns’ Stone Edge Farm Estate Vineyards & Winery.
Established as a private dining club for members of the Collectors Cellar (with John McReynolds as culinary director), EDGE morphed into a fine-dining restaurant open to the public during the pandemic. McReynolds semiretired and protege Butron took over, focusing on fresh-from-the-farm ingredients from the McQuowns’ 16 organically grown plots. Service is Thursday-Saturday, dinner only, and Sunday lunch.
The menus, which change weekly, are prix fixe, (multiple courses for a fixed price). For example, the Aug. 26-29 menu ($195) offered five courses, among them cured king salmon with cucumber and crème fraîche with Stone Edge sauvignon blanc; tomatoes, ricotta, basil oil and baby lettuces with Stone Edge Surround red Bordeaux-style blend; and heritage pork loin and shoulder with zucchini and eggplant tian and beet mole, paired with Stone Edge cabernet sauvignon. Butron has a knack for turning notoriously difficult-to-pair vegetables and herbs into elegant, wine-friendly dishes.
“We’re a cabernet producer, first and foremost,” said Dorothe Cicchetti, Stone Edge Farms’ director of sales and marketing. “Cab can be challenging to pair with vegetables, but Fiorella makes it happen.”
139 E. Napa St., Sonoma, 707-935-6520
Hamel Family Wines
Pam and George F. Hamel Jr. opened their high-end and eclectic Sonoma Valley winery in 2014, with food service a major component from the get-go.
“In our family’s home, food and wine have always been celebrated together,” said managing director George Hamel III. “We knew we wanted to offer a tasting experience that thoughtfully paired our wines with food, but we wanted to go beyond the expected and put our own unique spin on it. Not only (do we) have access to top-quality grapes, but also vegetables, proteins, cheeses and more, and we felt that our Reserve Experience should reflect what this region has to offer.”
The Reserve Experience ($150), created by executive chef Clinton Huntsman, is seasonally inspired, as are the menus of the other winery chefs mentioned here. It begins with a sip of sauvignon blanc and a tour of the ranch and caves, moves to a tasting of cabernet sauvignon still maturing in a barrel and is followed by a four-course pairing of Hamel’s cabernet-centric blends to Huntsman’s small-plate dishes.
Pan-roasted rib-eye might be accompanied by a celery root and black truffle cabbage roll. Short rib raviolo can gain complexity from radish, popped sorghum and black-garlic foam. Morel mushrooms might be stuffed with duck sausage, fresh chickpeas and horseradish. All are designed to complement cabernet sauvignon-based wines.
15401 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma, 707-996 5800
Mayo Family Winery Reserve Room
Jeff Mayo owns two tasting rooms in Sonoma Valley, the first in Sonoma, the second in Kenwood. He created the latter for the express purpose of pairing his reserve-level wines with appropriate small bites. Seven wines are matched with seven seasonal dishes prepared by executive chef John Locher (formerly of the General’s Daughter, Chateau St. Jean Winery, Prelude at the Green Music Center and more). A recent Locher tasting menu ($70) featured Laurel Hill Vineyard Brut Rosé with watermelon salad, feta, red onion and raspberry-champagne vinaigrette; Reserve Laurel Hill Chardonnay with prawn “samosa” with corn chutney; Reserve Ricci Vineyard Zinfandel with Moroccan chicken and herbed couscous; and Kunde Ranch Late Harvest Gewurztraminer with Meyer lemon tartlet, strawberry coulis and basil oil.
Not so hungry? Visit Mayo’s original tasting room in Glen Ellen (13101 Arnold Drive, 707-938-9401).
Reserve Room, 9200 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 707-833-5504
Ram’s Gate Winery
It seems like yesterday that this Carneros winery (formerly the site of Roche Winery) near Highway 37 and Sonoma Raceway opened to rave reviews for its comfy indoor and outdoor tasting spaces, farmstead and modern-barn feel, view-worthy perch atop a hillside and culinary offerings that complemented the bold, richly flavored wines. Now, 10 years later, the visitor experience is similarly satisfying (though, for now, only outdoors) and executive chef Stacey Combs’ dishes for the Five-Course Wine and Food Pairing program ($160) artfully emphasize local, seasonal ingredients.
When Joe Nielsen became director of winemaking in 2018, the Ram’s Gate wines began taking on a different — and, to my taste, more pleasurable — personality: more freshness and verve, less oak and buttery malolactic influence and a refinement that gives Combs more options for matching her food to Nielsen’s multiple small-production chardonnays and pinot noirs (his pinot blanc and sauvignon blanc are also food-friendly all-stars).
28700 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, 707-721-8700
St. Francis Winery & Vineyards
The pandemic stalled this eastern Santa Rosa winery’s much-publicized and truly exceptional wine and food pairing experiences, but now they’re back. Although less communal than when OpenTable reviewers made it the nation’s top-rated “restaurant,” the twice-a-day seatings are more intimate, allow servers to keenly focus on each guest’s needs and answer questions and help everyone stay safe from COVID-19 transmission.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021, St. Francis and its executive chef, Peter Janiak, present a five-course experience outdoors, with Mt. Hood and the estate’s Wild Oak Vineyard as backdrops ($95). A recent menu included Wild Oak Vineyard Chardonnay with seared scallop and bacon-ginger marmalade; Banti Vineyard Zinfandel with port-glazed Liberty Duck breast; and Wild Oak Vineyard Cabernet Franc with petit tender au jus with chickpea and roasted pepper puree.
There is also an Estate Pairings experience ($60), which serves four wines with such dishes as shrimp tostadas and pork belly sliders.
100 Pythian Road at Highway 12, Santa Rosa, 888-675-9463
Written by Linda Murphy