Enthusiasm radiates from their lips, as some of the most innovative chefs and sommeliers in the Napa Valley describe their most smashing wine/food pairings, whether recently concocted, or so reliable that they have become a permanent fixture on their tasting menus.

Seasoned restaurant professionals not only uncover their wonderful wine and food combinations, but also explain a bit of the process behind their achievements.

At the end of the article, look for your handy guide to many of the Napa Valley restaurants specializing in wine and food pairings.

Spiced Lamb with Black Olive Jus paired with Merry Edwards Russian River Pinot Noir

The Chef: Robert Curry

Auberge Chef Robert Curry
Auberge Chef Robert Curry
“Pinot is a perfect choice for lamb—a little bit of ripe fruit and a touch of spice, rounded out by a little earth. The black olives in the jus really complement the complexity of the wine, balancing the fruit from the pinot with the earthiness of the lamb.” Curry’s close second choice to the Merry Edwards pinot noir is Domaine Serene pinot from Oregon.

To arrive at successful pairings, Chef Curry first visualizes the dish to get an initial feeling of what wine would be its perfect mate on the palate. “I can usually select a wine from just knowing what is in the dish, though I might try a few to get there. I usually go back to my first selection, judging that typically, your first instinct is always right.” He believes that, although sommeliers may start with an exact winery and vintage, chefs tend to begin with the varietal and gradually refine that choice until they arrive at a great pairing.

Chef Curry started in the kitchen when he was 18 years old and has continued for 26 years, always looking forward to the next step and where he can take his cuisine. Curry’s experience includes work at such prestigious establishments as Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America. Prior to that, he spent eight years at Domaine Chandon, where he made a name for himself. He also launched the Flying Fish Café, an upscale restaurant at Disney World in Orlando.

Auberge du Soleil is not only a magnificent dining experience, but a full resort including a spa and comprehensive outdoor sculpture gallery. The restaurant was already a sensation after it opened in 1981, and when the inn opened in 1985, San Francisco restaurateur Claude Rouas’ vision was realized.


Traditional Rigatoni Bolognese paired with 2004 Black Cat Vineyards Family Cuvee (a Syrah/Cabernet blend)

The Wine Director: Lucas Henning
“The cabernet hinted with softer fruit tones and the syrah provided the body and earth tones, which really played off the sauce on the pasta.”

Bolognese is typically paired with an Italian wine (Sangiovese or Chianti) but the mineral aspect in the Family Cuvee expressed itself well, and the pepperiness shown in the Syrah worked perfectly with the dish. The Bolognese is traditional with beef, pork and veal, and this one does include a small amount of liver, quite important to the wine.

“Here is a fun example of taking a pasta dish and using an over-the-top wine to accentuate the great flavors.”

Generally, Mr. Henning works with Chef Octavio Barrera to create the winning couplings, tasting various wines with a dish before settling on one. The two start with the varietal, then take one step further to identify the specific winery with the best profile. Henning especially enjoys matching an unexpected wine with a course.

“My number one rule for pairing: throw all rules out the window because there aren’t any!”

Lucas Henning worked at the Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa, and the famed Commander’s Palace in New Orleans before getting his big break working for Emeril Lagasse at the Delmonico location. With his passion for wine taking hold, he was promoted to Assistant Sommelier and then upgraded to Emeril’s Orlando, where he ran the wine program. When he landed in the Napa Valley and furthered his oenological studies, he began to see wine in a new light.

Cuvée offers wine and food pairings at their special wine dinners. In the nine months the restaurant has been in existence, Henning has hosted five special dinners, most recently, the Fireside Dinner in February. Cuvee’s tag line is Food and Wine in Harmony.

Striped bass with foie gras risotto paired with Pinot Noir or a Pinot Noir-based sparkling wine

The Chef: Chris Manning
“This dish has a number of components that play well with the wine: the creaminess of the risotto and the crisp skin of the fish works well with sparkling wine. Cocoa nibs bring out beautiful nuances of Pinot Noir still wine, as do the huckleberries on the plate.

“There are lots of complementary and contrasting flavors that work well with the wine. The layers of flavor in the food harmonize nicely with each other and are augmented by pairing with Pinots. Domaine Chandon Pinot Noir is designed to go well with food, so it is perfectly balanced with the right amount of fruit flavor and palate weight. Likewise, the dish is rich and has many flavors that are enhanced by pairing with the wine.”

Because Chandon is not only a restaurant, but also a sparkling wine house,

Chef Manning takes pleasure in discussing each wine with the educators and winemakers to get their assessments, then adds this knowledge to his own estimations of key flavor profiles. “I take these flavors into consideration and create a dish that I believe will have a balance of complementary and contrasting flavors. To assess the pairing, first I taste the wine. Next, I taste the food, ensuring I get every component on the fork. Then I go back to the wine. Sometimes the marriage of flavors is very good. Other times, I will tweak something; maybe take out an ingredient with too strong a flavor or add more of something to make it a true standout.

“Being based at a sparkling wine house, I pair bubbly with every course: from small bites and appetizers to entrees and desserts. I play with still wines like Pinot Noir and big reds from our sister property Newton Vineyard as well, but I really enjoy the versatility of sparkling wine with food.”

Chris Manning’s fascination with food and cooking started as a child with his appreciation for escargot at age ten, and he continued the interest into his high school years, working in the kitchen of the Montana Grill until graduation. He then enrolled in culinary classes and so impressed one of the instructors that he escorted Manning to Europe to engage in fine dining and attend Le Cordon Bleu cooking classes in Paris, London and Florence. Upon his return, he became sous chef at Quincy’s in Montana. In 2000, Manning earned his degree at San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy and worked at the Campton Place Restaurant. His interest in wine finally brought him to the Napa Valley, where his great talent was recognized when he went to work for étoile at Domain Chandon. Again, he impressed his superiors to the point that they sent him to Moët & Chandon in France, where he further cultivated his skills under Pascal Tinguad and Bernard Dance. His achievements advanced him to top toque back at étoile in the summer of 2005.

“The restaurant at Domaine Chandon, now called étoile, put fine dining on the map in Napa Valley 30 years ago. As the only restaurant within a winery in Napa, pairing dishes with wines has been an integral part of the restaurant’s philosophy since its inception.”

Julia’s Duck Confit Cassoulet paired with a light and slightly fruity Pinot Noir

The Manager: Noel Burke
“It always depends on the season and type of cuisine of the restaurant of course, however my favorite pairings always consist of that beautiful marriage in the mouth…that perfect balance.

“At Julia’s Kitchen, Chef Jeff Mosher adds a nice amount of mustard greens, preserved lemon and butter to the dish, not to mention the house-cured pork belly (braised with red wine, oyster sauce, lemongrass) to the Duck Confit and these flavors marry nicely with the Pinot Noir because the light fruit of the Pinot Noir is able to tastefully balance out these flavors where it all comes together in harmony!”

Julia’s Kitchen shapes their singular pairings by constantly considering that no taste buds are slighted from the different layers involved in both the wine and the food. “So, we strive for the balance, whether it is the acidity, oak, residual sweetness or tannin structure; we consistently look for the perfect complement.”

Although determining the correct varietal is important, the specific elements of the varietal are crucial to an enjoyable pairing. Burke will pair a chardonnay with a beef dish or vice-versa, a red with a white sauce or white meat, depending on the what is in the wine and what is in the course.

Noel Burke has been in the restaurant industry for fifteen years, and his experience with food and wine extends to seventeen years. “The pairings have been a staple to our menus long before I arrived. It’s very important as we strive to create that exciting dining experience: ‘The WOW!’”

Of course, Julia’s Kitchen is the namesake of esteemed Julia Child, and remains an essential component of COPIA. From 1996 until her death in 2004, Child acted as advisor and honorary trustee for the restaurant. The menu is energized by ingredients from COPIA’S own gardens, changing with the seasons, but is essentially French-inspired and California-based.

Alaskan cod paired with 2004 D. R. Stephens Chardonnay

The Chef and Owner: Ken Frank
The Sommelier: Scott Tracy

Per Scott Tracy, “The sauce has two interesting spice notes: vanilla and clove, and a sweet butternut squash texture garnishing the Alaskan Cod. Therefore, I need a Chardonnay that has rich, sweet mouth-feel for the squash, a hint of oak for the vanilla and a sense of place, an earthy note that will correspond to the clove. I have chosen the 2004 D. R. Stevens Chardonnay because it has the presence of new oak barrels with some malolactic fermentation to give the wine a creamy texture that is rich, but not too sweet, full-bodied, but not too fat, generous, but not too soft nor too tense.

La Toque Chef Ken Frank
La Toque Chef Ken Frank
“When the dish is enjoyed with the wine, part of the special qualities of this wine pairing is that the wine adapts to the combinations of flavors on the fork. If one has a bit of fish and squash but very little sauce, the sweet fruit tones of apricot and pear in the Chardonnay leap out of the glass. If the bite of fish has more sauce and no squash, the wood spice and vanilla notes of the wine come to life.”

To achieve their quintessential combinations, Tracy and Frank work closely, even eating and drinking wine together daily. Arriving at the varietal is the easy part, according to Chef Frank. “But then you look at what is in the preparation to go deeper for the style of the wine. What is the predominant flavor on the plate?” Sommelier Tracy notes that he rarely pairs wine exclusively with the flesh, as the dominant flavor on the plate may be the sauce, and Chef Frank tends to create sauces that bridge the flesh of the fish or other meat to the selected wine.

Ken Frank has been in the restaurant business since 1972, and opened his original La Toque on the Sunset Strip in 1979. After he sold that La Toque in 1994, he opened several more clubs and restaurants, before moving to Napa, where, in 1998, he opened another version of La Toque.

Sommelier Scott Tracy had been creating wine and food pairings when he met Chef Frank on a trip to Napa. Years later, Tracy joined the team to open the Rutherford La Toque. He did such a fantastic job conceiving pairings that Chef Frank later made him wine buyer, as well.

Chef Frank says he is satisfied when he and Tracy can put together combinations that the customer would not normally expect, but then exclaim after swallowing, “This is spot on!”

The Cheese Plate: 1) Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese 2) Sauterne or Madeira with roquefort 3) Sauvignon Blanc or oloroso sherry with Brin d’Amour Cheese

The Chef and Co-owner: Todd Humphries
Chef Humphries keeps his cheese and wine combinations uncomplicated “so the wine and food make sense together for dining pleasure”.

He devises his pairings in one of two ways: he either uses memories of entrees he has cooked and tasted in the past, or starts with a base ingredient in which classic pairings work, then builds on the dish by adding or subtracting ingredients until he is satisfied with the result.

Martini House Chef Todd Humphries
Martini House Chef Todd Humphries
“I think the key to a good pairing is very individual because we all have different taste. But in addition to that, I think you can start with the varietal and narrow it down to the winery and vintage.” Chef Humphries adds that everyone’s taste is different, and the surroundings to the company you are with can influence how you taste “…so have fun with it.”

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Todd Humphries has 25 years in the industry. After graduating, he worked for five years in New York as protégé of the renowned Swiss chef, Gray Kunz, first at the Peninsula Hotel and then at the critically-acclaimed Lespinasse. With that experience, Chef Humphries ran the Campton Place Hotel restaurant and kitchens in San Francisco for another five years. In 1999, he settled in the Napa Valley as Executive Chef of the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant. Most recently, he opened the Martini House with another esteemed chef, Pat Kuleto. Martini House, located in the former home of Walter Martini, has become known for its adventurous use of wild, foraged ingredients such as wood sorrel, black chanterelles, forest ferns, rosehips and juniper berries. Humphries has a unique talent for mushroom hunting, stocking the cellar with matsutakes, black trumpets, and porcini.

Cold foie gras preparations, rhubarb, pistachios, and brioche paired with 2005 Donnafugata “Ben Rye” Passito di Pantelleria

The Sommelier: Nick Hetzel
“The wine is very rich and has a great deal of residual sugar. There are intense notes of dried stone fruits and red berry fruits combined with a lingering finish, due to the high natural acidity.

“Anytime you have a rich, sweet wine, it is going to naturally work well with the richness of the foie gras. What makes this particular pairing so great is the bright acidity in the wine balancing out the richness of the foie gras, a sort of cleansing effect.

Redd Sommelier Nick Hetzel
Redd Sommelier Nick Hetzel
Also, the fruit characteristics in the wine are a perfect match to the sweet and tangy qualities of the rhubarb preparations. Think of this pairing like matching raspberry jelly with peanut butter…a home run!”

Mr. Hetzel follows some basic guidelines to accomplish his happy duos, pairing light wines with light foods, rich wines with rich foods and tannic wines with fatty meats. From there, he must meticulously taste through each new menu created by Chef Richard Reddington. “It is vital that I do this, as his food is very complex and has subtle nuances such as spices and textures. The end result is that we are able to give our guests the ultimate pairing depending on the style of wine that they enjoy.”

Building from thirteen years’ restaurant experience, Nick Hetzel has served as Sommelier at Redd for the past eight months. While attending the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, he worked for famed chefs/restaurateurs Stephan Pyles and Mark Miller. After graduating with a food and beverage management degree, he managed Houston’s in Irvine. Before moving to Napa a year ago, he spent four years as Sommelier/Assistant General Manager at Rosemary’s Restaurant in Las Vegas.

Redd opened in November of 2005 and has offered both five-course and nine-course tasting menus since its inception. “They are a way to offer our diners a great cross-section of Richard’s food and the brilliant way that it pairs with wine. They are quite popular, especially with first-time diners, and are a wonderful component of our great restaurant.”

The above examples are only an introduction to some of the best culinary experiences found at Napa Valley restaurants. Visit again to learn about wineries offering wine and food pairings—a popular trend.

Please write Paula Barker at [email protected] with your wine/food pairing subject requests.


Auberge du Soleil
180 Rutherford Hill Road
Rutherford, CA
[email protected]

1650 Soscol Avenue
Napa, CA 94558

étoile at Domaine Chandon
One California Drive
Yountville, CA 94599

Julia's Kitchen at Copia
500 1st Street
Napa, CA 94559
[email protected]

La Toque
1140 Rutherford Road
Rutherford, CA 94573

Martini House
1245 Springs Street
St. Helena, CA 94574
[email protected]

Meadowood Napa Valley
900 Meadowood Lane
St. Helena, CA 94574
[email protected]

6480 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
[email protected]

Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America
2555 Main Street, St.
Helena, CA 94574