06 December 2016

Food, wine pairing in the Sonoma Valley

My wife and I have enjoyed California's wine country for many years. We've frequently been wine-tasting in Napa and Sonoma, as well as other areas of the state. Over the years, our preference for Sonoma has grown. I think in general, the wines produced there suit our tastes better. We also like that Sonoma still has many small family wineries, and we've enjoyed visiting many of them. Napa has many small wineries as well. But it seems like the Sonoma Valley is a little more laid back and less touristy than Napa. 

While we've visited many wineries in California over the years, one experience we never had was a food and wine tasting at a winery. In retrospect, that seems like a foolish oversight. It's a truism that having wine with food enhances the experience of both. Yet, at most wineries, the experience usually is all wine, no food (except for sometimes crackers or breadsticks to help clear the palate.) So on our October trip to the Sonoma Valley with my wife's brother and his wife, we wanted to experience a real food/wine pairing.

We picked Kendall-Jackson in the town of Fulton, a little north of Healdsburg. It was our choice for a couple of reasons. First, the menu (which we viewed online before making our reservation) looked great. Second, it was available mid-day on a Tuesday. We were kind of surprised to learn that even wineries that offer food/wine pairings often don't have them available mid-week. 
In the elegant dining hall where the pairing takes place


The Kendall-Jackson estate is impressive and gorgeous. The room where the pairing takes place is like a large, elegant banquet hall in a manor. The table was set formally with an enticing line-up of wine glasses. 

During the experience, we interacted with a wine steward and two chefs. The wine steward poured our samples and provided some tips on what to look for when sipping the wine on its own compared to how it tastes with the food. 

Online, the web site talks about a 7-course experience. That's true, but it's really served in 3 stages. The menu items change regularly, based on what's fresh and in season. So if you look at the online menu, you should not take it too literally. Here's a run-down of the food and wine that we experienced. 


First we were served a sauvignon blanc with fried green tomatoes topped with marinated cherry tomatoes and a dollop of fish roe. The second white wine was chardonnay and that was paired with garden vegetables and cheese on a polenta cake. To demonstrate how the pairing affects the perception of the wine, our wine steward had us mix and match. It was remarkable. None of us is very fond of chardonnay, and our prejudice was reinforced tasting it alone or with the fried green tomato. But with the veggies and polenta cake, it complimented very well. And conversely, as much as we liked the sauvignon blanc, it wasn't nearly as enjoyable when paired with the veggies and polenta. 
White wine pairings

But all of us really prefer red wine, so we were eager to get on with the next set of pairings. First we tasted a pinot noir with duck breast, charred eggplant, and tomato caponata. As a general matter, I don't particularly like pinot noir. But paired with the duck, it was excellent. On the other hand, I was a little disappointed by the next pairing - zinfandel with a barbecued pork belly slider. I love zinfandel, but I wasn't very impressed by this particular zin, and the slider was not something I'd normally order either. The third red wine was cabernet sauvignon paired with lamb tacos, and that was another real winner. 
From the left - duck, slider, lamb taco

Lastly came a platter with two desserts paired with a sweet muscat wine. One dessert was a buttermilk mousse - very creamy and a little tart, a nice contrast to the wine. The second dessert was caramel corn, which was the hit at the table (though I really preferred the mousse. I gave most of my caramel corn to my wife.)
Dessert pairings - buttermilk mousse and caramel corn

It sounds like a lot of wine. I guess it was. But the experience is spread over 60-90 minutes. So we never really felt a buzz from the wine. 

Then, afterwards, we strolled through the gardens surrounding the estate, and that was very relaxing and interesting. You can view the different grape varieties that go into the wine. But they also have a very extensive garden that yields much of the produce served in the tasting. From start to finish, we spent 3 hours at Kendall-Jackson. 

Overall, it's not cheap. But for us, it was probably the most memorable experience from our Sonoma Valley wine vacation.


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