Finding wine in Sonoma County is an easy enough venture, and finding great food in a region renowned for its fresh produce and sustainably produced meats is similarly facile. But finding vineyards that pair wine and food can actually present a challenge.
While researching this piece, I was surprised to learn that the wineries that pair wine with food as an alternative to their tasting menu do not heavily market this offering outside of their four walls. So I set out to find the best of the best. These are the “not to be missed” places to visit if you want the best wine and food pairing experience.
Price: $35 for tapas and wine pairing
Address: 400 Graton Road, Sebastopol, CA
Reservations Required: No
What Not To Miss: A chat with Marimar Torres. Her story of emigrating from Spain to Sonoma County is an amazing one.
After Marimar Torres, daughter of the largest single-family owned wine producer in Spain, emigrated to the United States, she hoped to learn about the wine industry on her own terms and ultimately create amazing wines from the grapes she would grow in the Western Sonoma enclave she now calls home.
Fast-forward more than 20 years to 2010. Marimar has not only accomplished that goal of producing great wines, but she has also published four cookbooks, which memorialize many of the recipes she learned while living in Spain. Fortunately for us, she takes a number of these recipes and pairs them with the wines she creates.
As you sit amongst the colourful gardens with sweeping views of the vineyards, Marimar and her team serve up four traditional Spanish tapas dishes paired with three Chardonnays and two Pinot Noirs. The cost is $35, and during the course of the meal the wine flows freely.
The current menu includes a quiche-like zucchini cake, sautéed shrimp with red peppers and garlic sauce, paired with three different Chardonnays. The meal continues with a cabbage dumpling stuffed with pork, chorizo, pine nuts and raisins, and figs stuffed with chocolate and nuts in a chocolate sauce. These dishes were paired with two amazing Pinot Noirs. The best part is that all of the recipes for the items served come from Marimar’s books The Catalan Country Kitchen and The Spanish Table.
Mayo Family Winery
Price: $35 for seven courses paired with wines
Address: 9200 HWY 12, Kenwood, CA
Reservations Required: Reservations are recommended
What Not To Miss: A visit to the other Mayo Family tasting room to experience more of their great wines.
Situated along Highway 12, about 20 minutes from the town of Sonoma, sits the reserve room for Mayo Family Winery. Mayo Family was one of the first (and still one of the very few) Sonoma County wineries to offer a food and wine pairing, and it’s one you do not want to miss.
The majority of the 25 different wines that Mayo produces are single vineyard and small batch. The family believes strongly in terroir. They focus on creating single vineyard wines, which allow a person to really taste everything about the land where they were produced. For example, grapes grown along the northern coast of Sonoma will have a much different flavour profile than those produced further inland. This is because of the temperature in each of these regions. The northern coast is cooler and has much more fog, while it is drier and hotter inland.
While the atmosphere in the Mayo Family Reserve Room is unassuming, the food that executive chef Max Porter-Elliot serves up is absolutely amazing.
For $35, you receive seven courses that are paired with seven tastings. Although the menu changes often, if you are lucky you will have the chance to sample the Brillat-Savarin Chevre, Parmesan and Ripe Seasonal Fruit paired with a Viognier. The wine goes through malolactic fermentation, and when paired with cheese (also high in lactic acid), you get a burst in your mouth, what many call a “flavour explosion.”
Another favourite dish was the creative and delicious dessert of Blueberry Creme Fraiche and Basil With Blue Pepper Crack. Blue Pepper Crack, you ask? It may not be on the menu when you get there, but talk to the pasty chef, Khambay, and I am sure she will be happy to explain.
Price: $60 for three courses (with multiple items in each course, and dessert, too)
Address: 11447 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, CA
Reservations Required: Yes
What Not To Miss: Do your best to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the winemaking facility.
Having heard a lot about the food and wine pairing experience at J, I had to head over and give it a try, and at $60 per flight I walked away very impressed.
The first course consisted of corn chowder with smoked pancetta paired with a generous pour of their Russian River Valley 2007 Chardonnay. It was amazingly velvety, and coupled nicely with the creamy-textured wine. A few other favourites included the grass fed local lamb sliders served on a pretzel roll with an IPA beer battered onion ring on the side, paired with Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. J is known for its sparkling, and we enjoyed a nice glass of Russian River Valley Brut Rose as well as a glass of vintage brut with a cheese and meat pairing.
The long leisurely experience was highlighted by the incredibly attentive team that served up the dishes, but don’t bank on trying the dishes mentioned above. They change the menu seasonally, but I guarantee quality and great flavours likely follow as the menu changes with each passing season.
Price: $20 per couple
Address: 8757 Green Valley Road, Sebastopol, CA
Reservations Required: No
What Not To Miss: The free food and wine pairing that happens on the 1st and 3rd Friday of every month.
There is something to be said for simplicity, and that is what food and wine pairing is all about at Dutton Estate. There is also something to be said for people who absolutely love food and love pairing great wines with food, and that is what Executive Chef Cynthia Newcomb is all about.
Cynthia has a simple style. She pairs Dutton wines with cheese and meat, and usually one other dish. In this case, it was supposed to be her salmon mousse, but unfortunately for me the menu was just about to change and she was out of that pairing. What Dutton lacked in the missing dish, Cynthia made up for with her insightful and almost scientific explanations of why certain foods were paired with the wines she was pouring.
I half suspected that Cynthia was spending time with me because of this article, but the more she spoke the more I realized that she likely does this with anyone who engages her in a conversation about food. Her presentation may not match up to the likes of J, but the experience is something special.
She invited me back for the free pairing that takes place on the 1st and 3rd Friday of every month, after hours between 4 and 6. Luckily for me, I was available and made it just in time to try her deep-fried creamy macaroni and cheese paired with … you guessed it, a buttery chardonnay.
Price: Prices depend on the pairing you choose. Log on to the site to learn more.
Address: 3909 Frei Rd, Sebastopol, CA
Reservations Required: Yes
What Not To Miss: A tour of the gardens where a lot of the food on the menu comes from.
Many vintners in Sonoma love the land their grapes come from, and Lynmar Estate is no exception. As a matter of fact, Lynmar is its own ecosystem. Its owners keep bees, grow veggies, have a chicken coop, are in the process of making balsamic vinegar … You could live off of the land at Lynmar and feed yourself very well.
It is no surprise, then, that the land is a key component of the Lynmar brand. The founders of Lynmar, Lynn Fritz and Anisya Fritz, are also the founders of the Fritz Institute, a non-profit dedicated to working in partnership with governments, nonprofit organizations and corporations around the world to facilitate rapid and effective disaster response and recovery. In the spirit of giving back to the land that feeds us, they created Lynmar Estate not only produce exceptional wine, but also delicious food.
The winery has a number of different pairing experiences, and each is priced depending on the amount of food and wine that comes with the pairing. The day I visited the winery, I got to try the “Cooking Light” Food and Wine Pairings. The menu relies on recipes that the winery’s executive chef, Sandra Simile, developed for Cooking Light magazine.
The cost of this tasting was pretty high compared to the others ($125), but they balance the cost with copious amounts of food and wine, incredible service and an outstanding facility. Of the courses that we tried, my absolute favourite was the risotto with squash and pancetta. The risotto was surprisingly light and delicate, and so it called for a light and delicate Pinot Noir, which balanced the dish with the perfect amount of acidity. Honestly, I could have licked the plate, the risotto was so good.
While the winery has a number of varying food and wine pairing experiences, this is one I would not miss. Give yourself two to three hours and request a tour of gardens and vineyards that are really the lifeblood behind this great winery.
If your belly is full and you still want to taste great wine try…
Lambert Bridge Winery
4085 West Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Graton Ridge Cellars
3561 Hwy 116 North
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Thomas George Estates
8075 Westside Rd.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
8735 Westside Rd.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
When you are ready to rest your weary head, reserve a room in Guerneville, which is close to the Redwoods, the coast, and is right on the Russian River. Here are a few great places to choose from:
Boon Hotel and Spa
14711 Armstrong Woods Rd., Guerneville, CA
West Sonoma Inn
14100 Brookside Lane, Guerneville, CA
13555 Highway 116, Guerneville, CA
Fern Grove Cottages
16650 Highway 116, Guerneville, CA