By Carole Kotkin
Northern California, with its world-class wine, fine restaurants, and superior quality agricultural products has developed into a thriving culinary hub. Vintners in the area are taking advantage of this phenomenal growth and are embarking on serious food and wine programs by hiring full-time chefs to develop in-house culinary events that serve as focal points for their marketing and promotional efforts.
John Ash, Culinary Director of Fetzer Vineyards Wine and Food Center at Valley Oaks, says, "More and more wineries are understanding that to sell wine you need to know something about food. In the early '90's wine people rarely talked to food people. It was as if they lived in two different worlds. At that time wines were made for competition. These were big and "extracted" wines, making them not very friendly to food." John goes on to say, "In the mid-'90's wineries recognized that their milieu was food and they pulled back from the big European-style wines and began making cleaner, fresher styles. "Lesser" varietals (such as Sauvignon Blanc, Gerwurztraminer, Viogner, Syrah, Marsanne, and Rousanne) that are more compatible with the strong flavors of contemporary Asian and Latin American accented dishes became more important. Chefs and winemakers began working together to create harmony between the wine and food. "
According to the Wine Institute, the California wine industry's trade association, 28 wineries employ full-time chefs. Robert Mondavi, the esteemed head of the winery that bears his name, has had enormous influence on the quality and direction of California winemaking. Mondavi
believes that fine wine and great food must be enjoyed together if either is to
be completely appreciated. This commitment to the culinary arts was the catalyst
for what was the industry's first�and now its most�comprehensive wine and food
program, including the renowned "The Great Chefs at Robert Mondavi"; winery program they began in 1976. Mondavi has two executive chefs on staff, Annie Roberts and Sarah Scott, and a chef de cuisine, Michael Chipchase, to cater to guests dining in its Vineyard Room visitor's center and to present various wine and food seminars. The Robert Mondavi Wine & Food Center is a showplace for the presentation of wine and food pairings.
These days wineries display professional kitchens, white-coated chefs and gracious dining rooms when welcoming VIP visitors, wholesalers, restaurateurs, chefs, retailers, and food and wine journalists. A delicious meal at the winery gives winemakers the chance to promote business relationships in a relaxed and congenial environment. Jordan Winery and Vineyard realized the importance of this aspect of their business and hired their first winery chef in the 1970's. Thomas Oden, who became chef for Jordan in 1993, recognizes that, " The total experience of great dining at the winery&wine and food in harmony and eating with people you enjoy&has the power to build long-lasting loyalty to the brand for our customers." Oden goes on to say that, "great wine and food pairing is seamless and harmonious, and not one element of the meal over-taking another. The flavors in the foods are paralleled with those found in the wine, and they are knitted together seamlessly." The on-premise chef and culinary staff know the winery's goals and can plan menus that best show off the wines.
Alderbrook Vineyard & Winery's Culinary Director, Jim May, hosts "Seasons of Alderbrook" tasting tours for wine professionals every two weeks. For the grand finale, guests enjoy a seasonal food and wine pairing with Chef May, prepared in Alderbrook's new state-of-the art commercial kitchen. Talented chefs are discovering that wineries provide an opportunity to develop their culinary creativity without the high-pressure of working in big-city restaurants. Executive Chef Kimball Jones at Wente Vineyards Estate Winery, who was formerly sous-chef at Compton Place in San Francisco, says, "I've found my bliss here in wine country." His passion is to discover how wines can be more accessible to food, " I use simple ingredients to achieve bold flavors, " he says. He makes sure his food is well balanced so it can be served with many different wines. "If it's too sweet, I add acid, and vice versa," he says. Chef Joseph Costanzo is very pleased to be cooking at Ferrari-Carano Winery after many free-lance culinary positions. "I've achieved my own little paradise. The combination of working with such an extensive line of exceptional wines and sharing ideas with vineyard owner, Rhonda Carano, a talented chef herself, is a dream come true," he remarks. Ferrari-Carano has recently opened Villa Fiore, an Italian-style villa, in Healdsbrug, California to serve as the winery's hospitality center. It's equipped with a professional kitchen for chef Costanzo, and landscaped with an expansive vegetable garden.
Winery chefs often trade in celebrity status and the larger salaries they would earn working in prominent hotels and restaurants for the luxury of cooking for an invited, knowledgeable and appreciative audience. But for chefs wanting a less hectic lifestyle, fairly normal working hours and most weekends off, it's a good trade-off. Plus, they learn about wine. Jerry Comfort, Executive Chef at Beringer Vineyards, explains, "When I joined Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena as executive chef in 1991, I thought I knew something about wine and food pairing. But the day I came to work at Beringer was the day I began my education in food and wine. Wine and food pairing is not really a question of what 'goes' with what food, like the old rule of red wine with beef, white wine with fish. In our work here at the winery, we've seen over and over again that the key question is whether the wine reacts-changes in flavor-when tasted with certain flavors in the foods we're eating a lot of today, like the acidity in a lemon or tomato sauce, the spiciness of the chilies or peanut sauce in Thai dishes, or the salty anchovies in a Caesar salad. What we have found is that we can predict and compensate for these reactions and balance the basic tastes in food in a way that ensures that a wine will taste great with any cuisine."
As a part of the marketing and public relations branch, most winery chefs have generous budgets that allow them free-reign in creating dishes to be served with wines. Kimball Jones, Executive Chef at Wente Vineyard, explains, "If the dish is well balanced in all flavors (sweet/acid/salt/bitter/savory) it can be accompanied by a wide range of wines. This approach brings objectivity to a subject often dominated by subjective "expert" opinions and outdated tradition. The bottom line is that people need to trust their palates. There is no right or wrong. Drink white zinfandel if you enjoy it. It's great you're drinking wine as part of a great healthful lifestyle," he explains.
They work in beautiful rural settings in regions overflowing with high-quality ingredients as close as their back door. Thomas Oden says, "I am so lucky to have the best possible seasonal ingredients to work with. I work with the best ranchers, cheese makers, and farmers and prepare their foods in a simple manner. For example, I season lamb with salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil—no nut crusts or herbs—and people tell me it's the best lamb they ever ate. Jordan wines are made to complement the food rather than overpower it. The more complex the wine, the simpler the dish." As an ardent enthusiast for the abundance of fresh, locally-grown produce, Jim May, Culinary Directory for Alderbrook Winery in Healdsburg, enjoys heading up the winery's successful "Bounty of Sonoma County Program" which incorporates local food products into recipes specifically created to complement Alderbrook's full line of award-winning wines. He adheres to the belief that, "If they grow together, they will taste good together" and he works closely with local farmers and producers who offer him an incredible range from which to compose his food and wine pairings. To showcase Alderbrook's OVOC (Old Vines Old Clones) 1997 Zinfandel Chef Jim May created a chili made with local turkey sausage, chipotle chilis, and local feta cheese for their latest "Sonoma Banquet" offering. Subscribers to the Alderbrook wine club receive May's recipes and a complementary local ingredient with each shipment. Wente's Kimball Jones agrees, "I am very much a proponent of preparing meals from the best and freshest ingredients available. Whenever possible, I prefer to use locally grown items, particularly if I can supervise how they are grown or made. In the same way that we make wine from grapes grown on the Wente family estate, I aim to prepare my dishes with as many estate grown products as possible. And so I use beef from the Wente cattle ranch and extra virgin olive oil made from the century old olive trees on the property." Kimball also oversees the planting and cultivation of a one-acre herb garden designed to provide fresh herbs and produce for The Restaurant, a full service restaurant at the Wente Estate in Alameda County's Livemore Valley.
In the early days of the California wine boom, some of the most notable associations between wineries and chefs took the form of on-site restaurants. The first to introduce this concept was Chateau Souverain, which opened the first winery restaurant in California at its Sonoma estate in Geyserville in 1974. Two years later, Domain Chandon opened its landmark restaurant in Napa's Yountville featuring French-California food. Further restaurant ventures were halted when officials in Napa and Sonoma counties, in an effort to preserve wineries as wineries, not tourist attractions, passed regulations in the early 80's prohibiting restaurants on land zoned for agriculture. The restrictions on winery restaurants did nothing to hamper the explosion of winery culinary programs, however.
For many winery chefs, much of their time is spent on the road preparing meals and presenting seminars and classes for wine and food professionals and aficionados around the world. Mary Evely, Executive Chef of Simi Winery remarks, "A chef is a good spokesperson because they represent the consumer. People can relate to someone who prepares their food rather than to someone who represents the technical side of the industry. Everybody eats, not everybody drinks wine. It's a way to bring more people into the wonderful world of wine." Under the auspices of Wente's American Wine & Food Festivals, Executive Chef Kimball Jones has led culinary delegations to cities around the world where he stages recreations of California cuisine. Kimball has become one of California's foremost ambassadors for American wine and food, bringing the Festival to Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Moscow, Bordeaux, Stockholm, Hamburg, and Zurich. As Jones says, "French and Italian wine and cuisine have long had a world wide presence. But now, without any doubt, there is a rapidly growing interest in fine American cooking and the excellent wines of California in other countries. We've brought fast food to the rest of the world, but now is the time to foster an appreciation for the great wine and food we have to offer." It's not surprising to note that Wente is distributed in over 146 countries around the world. Mary Evely of Simi Winery has prepared her wine-friendly California cuisine in such far flung places as Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Taipei. "Asia is a developing market. They don't have the climate to grow grapes, so they will always have to buy elsewhere. One of our agents in Japan told me that bringing chefs to Japan to promote
Californian cuisine and wine is the best money he has spent." Meridian Wine, one of the sponsors of the American pavilion at The Cannes Film Festival, sent Jerry Comfort of Beringer to France to train and organize fifteen culinary students from around the country to produce wine and food menus for the visiting Hollywood film industry. Their travels give them a broad exposure to what's going on in restaurants and they bring back cutting-edge culinary ideas that can be put to work in the winery's kitchen.
A chef can be an important asset to the winery's marketing efforts also. For example, Jerry Comfort, the executive chef for Beringer Vineyards makes guest-chef appearances around the country and consults with major hotel clients like Hyatt, Wyndham and Marriott on wine-friendly catering, menu planning and wine-by-the-glass plans as part of the comprehensive food-and-wine program he developed with the vineyard's master of wine, Tim Hanni. Comfort has developed packaged food products sold in Beringer's visitors center, written articles and recipes for the winery website and the St. Helena Star newspaper, and launched a new line of wines designed especially for restaurants. He also teaches cooking classes for Napa Valley College and wine pairing classes at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Thomas Oden, chef of Jordan Winery and Vineyards is developing a line of estate-produced balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salami, jams, and mustards.
Winery chefs are often called upon to coordinate special events. Jerry Comfort at Beringer cooks for about 350 people at 2 events a year: the Spring and Fall Wine Openers, which offer releases of the smaller-lot wines (like Single Vineyard Cabernet). Jerry teams up with the best local purveyors of cheese, oysters, lamb, sausage and flavored caviars to prepare extensive food selections to be served with the wines. The spring event is held in April and the fall opener in September. Last year's event sold out in 57 minutes. Chef Kendall Jones is in charge of food for the Wente winery's numerous special events, including the popular Wente Concerts of the Vineyard. On summer nights in the Livermore Valley, 1,500 people gather to enjoy Kimball's fabulous cuisine and performances by such star entertainers as Natalie Cole, Ray Charles, Vince Gill, and Willie Nelson.
Beyond all these activities, there is the opportunity to write a cookbook. And, if done well, it will promote both the winery and the chef. Mary Evely, Simi Winery's Executive Chef since 1990, has written a remarkable cookbook, The Vintner's Table, based on Wente's long-running dinner series called The Vintner's Table. The Vintner's Table won the Academy Award of cookbooks, The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Julia Child Award for Best First Cookbook of 1998. Evely introduces a well-reasoned and tested approach to pairing foods with wines in a manner that improves both. "Wine is a finished product, once you pull the cork, you can't change the wine, but with food you can change the texture and the balance to make it better with the wine," she says. Her user-friendly book profiles each varietal, including food affinities, food conflicts, the wine's flavors, and wine complementary cuisines. John Ash of Fetzer, won the IACP award the previous year for From Earth To TheTable. Kimball Jones of Wente Vineyards has written a book with Carolyn Wente, Sharing the Vineyard Table, to be published in October. Jim May of Alderbrook also has a book on the drawing table.
As the wine industry enters the next century, it will continue to attract talented food professionals, and both industries will benefit from what they have to learn from each other. Judging from the success of these partnerships, one thing is certain, food and wine have become solidly linked. And, we consumers can look forward to an ever-increasing flow of delicious wines with strong affinities for food.
For more information on wine and food programs offered by the wineries:
Alderbrook Vineyards & Winery: 800-655-3838
Beringer Vineyards: 707-963-8989, ext. 4443
Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery: 707-433-6700
Fetzer Vineyards: 707-744-1240
Jordan Vineyard & Winery: 707-431-5250
Robert Mondavi Winery : 800-MONDAVI
Simi Winery: 707-433-6981
Wente Vineyards: 510-456-2300