Locating wineries that offer wine and food pairings, especially in their tasting rooms, is not easy. But when you light on such an establishment, you are in for a treat. My first such discovery was when I was casually wine tasting with a friend a few years ago and stumbled on J Winery. What a guilty pleasure to not just nibble on a cracker, but to indulge in a complex, artistically arranged and delicious bite followed by a perfect sip.

As I did in the article, Top Wine/Food Pairing Restaurants in the Napa Valley, I will start with each winery professional’s favorite pairing, followed by his or her methodology. A guide appears at the end of the article listing several wineries that provide food and wine pairing programs in northern California.

J Winery Entrance (Click Image to Enlarge)
J Winery Entrance (Click Image to Enlarge)
J WINERY - Tempura prawns with spicy citrus-ginger aioli paired with J Vintage Brut

The Executive Chef: Mark Caldwell
“The above pairing really has it all. The effervescence and acidity of the J Vintage Brut cleanses the palate of the oiliness and creaminess of the prawn and aioli. The lime juice and zest accents the citrus notes in the Vintage Brut. The ginger highlights the finish of the Vintage Brut. The bit of heat from the red Fresno chile encourages you to take another sip of the cool Vintage Brut.” Because I limited Chef Caldwell to one example, he chose the prawns/brut match, but really likes to experiment with a variety of pairings.

Chef Mark Caldwell (Click Image to Enlarge)
Chef Mark Caldwell (Click Image to Enlarge)
Due to the high level of cooperation and communication among the professionals at J Winery, developing pairings proves to be a pleasurable process. Winemaker George Busick sends pre-releases of new vintages, which inspire Caldwell to craft his menus. When the wines will be released, as well as what foods will be in season help direct his choices. “The menus I design are meant to create a delicious play of flavors and textures to complement J’s line of still and sparkling wines. I'll then create a few plates for the winemakers and J’s visitor center wine specialists to try so that I can get feedback from them.”

Between being exposed to his father, who catered for the family’s church, and helping his mother prepare meals for his nine other siblings, Chef Caldwell could not help but absorb cooking knowledge throughout his childhood. But whether to love or hate it? Caldwell chose to love it and enrolled, then graduated from San Francisco’s Culinary Academy in 2001. There, the wine and food pairing class proved most inspirational to him as he witnessed the magical effect wine had on food and vice versa. Upon graduation, he was garde manager for Chateau Souverain in Geyserville until 2003. Since joining J in 2004, Chef Caldwell has elevated its food and wine pairing program to a higher, more sophisticated level.

Having practiced food and wine matching for over seven years, Chef Caldwell enthusiastically describes J Winery’s pairing programs. J was the first in Sonoma County to pioneer such fare when its visitor center opened in 1999. Because of the program’s popularity, management developed three food and wine pairing experiences:

  • Tasting Room Flight – four wines paired with four sumptuous hors d’oeuvres, commencing with J’s signature sparkling wine; $25/person, daily 11:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; reservations not required
  • Reserve Tasting Salon Flight (the Bubble Room) – two selections of sit-down flights, which may change with the seasons; $55/person, Fri-Mon 11:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.; reservations strongly recommended:
    • Indulgence Flight: four sparkling wines accompanied by a selection of Tsar Nicoulai caviars or four Russian River pinot noirs with braised short ribs and artisanal cheeses
    • Russian River Spring Flight: one sparkling, one chardonnay and two pinot noirs matched with scrumptious appetizers
    • Essence Tasting: seven-course wine and food pairing, vineyard tour, wine education and refined hospitality; $200/person, Thursdays only from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; reservations must be made two weeks in advance; eight maximum guests per week.
  • Terrace Tasting Flight (warmer months) – sparkling wines and Russian River varietals paired with an epicurean presentation of cheeses, pâtés, and cured meats from local farms including Pugs Leap Farm, Jasper Hill Farm, and Cowgirl Creamery; $35/person, Thu-Mon 11:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.; reservations not required.

DOMAINE CARNEROS BY TAITTINGER - Duck confit and pinot noir

The Sommelier and Director of Hospitality: Gregg Lamer
“Duck confit and pinot noir is my favorite pairing—they both have an exquisite texture in the mouth, full of soft lingering flavors which remind me of the perfect comfort food. Pinot noir has a beautiful acid edge which cuts through the oiliness of the duck and plays with spices of the wine and intensifies the duck.” Domaine Carneros plans to include a duck and pinot program very soon.

Lamer also loves the combination of sparkling wines with food. He notes they are often overlooked in matching, but their low wood and great acidity are qualities that make them great food wines. The fruit in the wine, such as in the sparkling rosé, counters and plays off the spiciness of some foods, like certain tuna sushi rolls. One of their late-disgorged bruts pairs very well with hamachi sushi, due to what the wine and food have in common: a rich, creamy character. Domaine Carneros recently offered a Bubbles & Sushi program. Currently, the winery offers one cheese plate paired with sparkling wines and another matched with pinot noirs.

Domaine Carneros by Taittinger (Click Image to Enlarge)
Domaine Carneros by Taittinger (Click Image to Enlarge)
Domaine Carneros designs its pairings as a team. Lamer sits down with the tour guides and chef and tastes through their ideas. Their rule is to pair using either similar characteristics or contrasting qualities in the wine and food.

Sommelier Lamer has been in the food and beverage industry for over twenty years. When the restaurant for which he worked in the early eighties won one of the first Wine Spectator Grand Awards, his interest in wine peaked. A few years later, he became sommelier of the five-star Phoenician Resort, where he managed, developed unique training programs and created award-winning wine lists for the wine department. His success prompted Robert Mondavi Winery to select him as Wine Education Manager at Disney’s California Adventure, at its Golden Vine Winery. He took pleasure in introducing wines to thousands of new consumers. “The goal of demystifying wine while keeping the magic was the cornerstone of all the education programs we developed.” Finally, he joined the prestigious Domaine Carneros as Director of Hospitality.

Currently, Domaine Carneros tours do not include a wine and food matching program, but the sit-down pairings are available daily from 10:00 a.m.-5:45 p.m.

  • Wine and cheese plates – $15 for the cheese and $15 for the flight of wines
  • Caviar and wine – prices range from $25-$70, with food and wines priced individually
  • Salmon and wine – prices range from $25-$70, with food and wines priced individually
  • Look for a duck and pinot noir program in the fall of 2007

CHALK HILL - Seared duck breast with vanilla parsnip puree, roasted peaches, and Sauce Sangria paired with the 2002 Chalk Hill Estate Bottled Merlot

The Chef: Didier Ageorges

The bark—cinnamon—spices in the sauce bridge the flavors of the Merlot. Fruit in the sauce complements the fruit in the wine. The aroma in the food is the perfect match for the aroma in the wine. Vanilla and earthiness of the parsnip reflect the Chalk Hill terroir.”

Chef Ageorges’ 25 years in the wine and food industry contributed to his ability to develop a simple method for matching wine with food. “First I think about the wine. Then I consider the season and what is the most fresh, not only in the garden, but for meat and fish. In spring, I like to serve spring lamb. Finally I think about the guests that I am serving, and what would be interesting and unique for them to experience at Chalk Hill.”

Chef Didier Ageorges (Click Image to Enlarge)
Chef Didier Ageorges (Click Image to Enlarge)
French-born Didier Ageorges was a precocious cook, starting at the age of ten with his mother’s Black Forest Cake recipe, entering culinary school and graduating in his teens, then traveling to study for concentrated periods in French Guiana and Cannes. Building on this foundation, his style evolved into what he coined Cooking of the Sun, which comprises Mediterranean, Basque and Côte d’Azur. Not surprisingly, he was eventually drawn to America’s culinary wonder: San Francisco, where he worked for the Ritz-Carlton and eventually became acquainted with Chalk Hill’s Furth family.

Now at Chalk Hill, Chef Ageorges has the new challenge of designing the meal around the wine. “The wine must always be the star and the food the supporting players. With such great wines and foodstuffs at Chalk Hill, it is easy to put together a great cast to entertain at the table.”

Chalk Hill (Click Image to Enlarge)
Chalk Hill (Click Image to Enlarge)
Chalk Hill offers its food and wine pairings as part of the winery’s culinary tour. This is a 2 ½-hour experience costing $55 per person, available by appointment only on Mondays and Fridays at 2:30 p.m. The tour commences with a garden walk showcasing organically-farmed produce, followed by an excursion through the vineyards and concluding with a tasting of wines and small-plate delights at the Pavilion, a conservatory with a view of an equestrian center and the Chalk Hill valley.

“We have been doing the culinary tour for one-and-one-half years. It is key to the winery's success, because it is the best way for us to share the estate with our guests. The culinary tour is so much more than the typical tasting room experience. The guests visit the garden and see all the bounty that is being produced, then they are able to enjoy it at the table. The guests learn about the vines, viticulture, and winemaking on the tour, then they experience the final product in the wine. By giving guests a unique experience, they leave the Estate with a memory. Every time they open a bottle of Chalk Hill, they remember their time at the Estate.

“Please visit us at Chalk Hill, for a unique and unforgettable experience…the care and commitment in the vineyards and the winemaking process make every sip of Chalk Hill wine a treat.”

LYNMAR WINERY - Lamb burger with grilled portobello mushrooms and goat gouda on a toasted garlic butter-brushed roll paired with Lynmar Russian River Valley Pinot

The Chef: Sandra Simile

“Lynmar's Russian River Valley Pinot has a great dark berry fruit character that can stand on its own in most pinot-friendly recipes, which this recipe is, but a subtler note in the wine is its complex earthiness…this characteristic is brought forward by the earthiness of the lamb and mushrooms, while the rich mid-palate and velvety tannins in the wine are accentuated by the richness of the goat cheese and garlic butter. So what you get is a food pairing that highlights some of the loveliest aspects in the wine...not just the dark berry fruit but also the earthiness, rich palate and velvety tannins.”

Chef Sandra Simile (Click Image to Enlarge)
Chef Sandra Simile (Click Image to Enlarge)
Chef Simile creates pairings by first tasting the wine, often with the winemaker. After discovering the flavor profile, she writes out the particularly interesting or lovely notes in the wine and thinks about what recipe might highlight those qualities. “When you are a winery chef, your job is not just to make food that goes with the wine, but to make food that shows your wine in the best possible light.”

Like Chefs Caldwell and Ageorges, Sandra Simile began cooking as a child, taking the cue from her talented, Italian-cooking relatives. She graduated from the New York Restaurant School, studied a bit in Paris, then honed her cooking expertise in restaurants, private dining clubs, sailboats and a château . Chef Simile compiled five years’ experience matching food with the lovely pinot noirs and chardonnays of Flowers Vineyard & Winery, which prepared her for her current position at Lynmar Winery, where Simile primarily pairs pinot noirs and chardonnays with her concoctions.

Lynmar Winery (Click Image to Enlarge)
Lynmar Winery (Click Image to Enlarge)
Visitors can enjoy Lynmar’s wonderful matching program by reserving the Lynmar Experience at least 24 hours in advance. The $20 tasting includes a flight of four current releases from Russian River Valley and Quail Hill Vineyard paired with appetizers and served in the tasting room, Board Room, Veranda or Courtyard. “Our pairings are by appointment and we find they offer a nice option for people who really appreciate the marriage of food and wine.”

Cyber-food/wine enthusiasts can find recipes posted on Lynmar’s website each time a new wine is released. Chef Simile develops an original recipe for each vintage.

The wineries described above are an introductory sampling of the growing number of wineries establishing wine and food pairing programs. The key for the visitor is to plan ahead, as many are by appointment only, but drop in anytime to J Winery’s tasting room for gratifying taste sensations. My hope is that an increasing number of wineries will provide these spontaneous experiences.

Guide to wineries offering food pairings in northern California:

Chalk Hill
10300 Chalk Hill Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
[email protected]
Culinary Tour: $55 Monday or Friday, 2:30 p.m., by appointment

Domaine Carneros by Taittinger
1240 Duhig Road
Napa, CA 94559
1-800-716-BRUT (2788) x 108
[email protected]
sit-down wine and cheese: $30 daily 10:00-5:45 p.m.
sit-down wine and caviar or salmon: $25-$70 daily 10:00-5:45 p.m.

J Vineyards & Winery
11447 Old Redwood Highway
Healdsburg, CA 95448
[email protected]
Signature Tasting in the tasting room: $25 daily 11:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Bubble Room Tasting: $55 Fri-Mon 11:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Terrace Tasting: $35 Thu-Mon 11:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.

Lynmar Winery
3909 Frei Road
Sebastopol, CA 95472
[email protected]
The Lynmar Experience, sit-down: $20 Fri-Mon 11:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m., by appointment

Mayo Family Reserve Room
3300 Sonoma Highway
Kenwood, CA 95452
[email protected]
Seven wines each with separate dish: $25 daily 11:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m., reservations recommended on weekends

14730 Grove Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448
[email protected]
Angela’s Table: $25 Friday, Saturday and Sunday 10:00 a.m.-3:30 p.m., 4-8 guests
Founders’ Room: $25 Friday, Saturday and Sunday 10:00 a.m.-3:30 p.m., up to 16 guests

St. Francis
100 Pythian Road at Highway 12
Santa Rosa, CA 95409
1-888-675-WINE (9463)
[email protected]
sit-down wine, cheese & charcuterie: $25 daily 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.; by appointment if over six people
sit-down wine Dining—Light Flight or Ruby Flight: $45, Fri-Sun 11:00 a.m.-2:30 p.m., June through October by appointment

Swanson Vineyards
1271 Manley Lane
Rutherford, CA 94573
[email protected]
Jean Lafitte Tasting (pinot grigio, merlot and cabernet blend paired with artisanal cheeses and bonbon): $25 Wednesday-Sunday 4:00 p.m. seating time, by appointment
Harvey Tasting (current vintage wines and Salon Selections – typically seven wines total – paired with caviar, artisanal cheeses and bonbon): $55 Wednesday-Sunday 11:00 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. seating times, by appointment