The worthiest goal to which a fine wine can aspire is enhancing a great meal. The body, acidity, and tannins of a big brash Cabernet can overwhelm even a veteran palate all by themselves. But when paired with a rich roast of beef, the harsh edge of the wine is softened by the velvet meat, while the fat of the beef is cut and spread by the sharp tang of the wine. Sure, some wine works on its own, but melded with great cuisine, wine becomes divine.

Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, was transformed into Bacchus by the Romans. Both presided over tremendous feasts. Wine flowed in flawless accompaniment to endless courses of decadent delicacies. A more modern deity, Jesus, was said to have saved a wedding feast with his vintner skills and, to have poured and sipped wine with his Last Supper. If that doesn’t prove that wine’s true place is with food, I don’t know what does.

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In 21st century Napa and Sonoma, some of the best wineries agree. Novel ways to encourage oenephiles to pair their best vintages with delicious dishes abound throughout these California wine regions. Many wineries boast upscale dining rooms presided over by top chefs, catering dozens of special events each year.

A few wineries make food a regular part of their public tasting programs. At J Winery in Sonoma, an innovative tasting program requires chefs as well as winemakers. J tasting room visitors sample small bites of gourmet food with each wine in the tasting flight. Elite sparkling wine producer Domain Chandon has installed a top-tier restaurant inside their Napa estate winery.

Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills in Napa produces one of the finest stand-alone Chardonnays in the world. Yet with each shipment to Grgich’s wine club, members receive recipe cards for dishes created especially to pair with the wines sent. (Their chicken penne alfredo is fabulous with their Chardonnay.)

Don and Rhonda Carano, owners of Ferrari-Carano in Sonoma, knew from the start that their goal was to add wine to food, creating a total culinary package. The Caranos hail from Reno, Nevada, where they own the El Dorado resort and casino. When they were designing the concept for their casino in the 1970s, they prophetically decided to focus on the fine dining experience. Wine-tasting tours across the country led them to fall in love with Sonoma, where they purchased a vineyard and winery. Rhonda is a lifelong foodie, with a degree in nutrition from the University of Nevada. She has developed dozens of recipes to pair with Ferrari-Carano’s broad wine list. Cooks can download her recipes from the Ferrari-Carano web site, and Circle of Friends wine club members get a new recipe and pairing in each quarterly newsletter. 

I ask about food pairings at almost every winery I visit. And at almost every winery, the tasting room staff has something interesting to tell me about what foods pair best with the wines I’m trying and buying. 

Food and wine--I think it’s catching on…