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A Food and Wine Revolution

Author: Jane Hodges Young
October, 2016 Issue

Maybe it started with E.T.
 
You remember the bug-eyed extraterrestrial in the 1982 Stephen Spielberg hit—the one who was constantly saying, “Feed me!”
 
Well, the generation that grew up with E.T. is now making the same demand of the wine industry. No more belly up to the bar, swirl, sniff, sip and then zip on down the road to the next winery. They want food, folks! They want an experience, and the wine industry is answering the call.
 
The food with wine tasting experience is, with a few exceptions (V. Sattui Winery, Domaine Chandon and J Vineyards &Winery immediately come to mind), a relatively new phenomenon that’s gained ground over the last seven years or so. Its rapid rise has changed the landscape of wine tasting in the North Bay, where competition among wineries has reached a fever pitch in the quest to capture customers.
 
“It follows the trend of more wineries wanting to provide an experience—a formal experience,” says Betsy Fischer, instructor in the Front House Operations/Restaurant Management certificate programs at Santa Rosa Junior College. “They want to do more than have people come, taste and leave. They want to captivate them. Even wineries that aren’t doing food pairings are offering something different, such as the concept of a wine lounge.”
 
One big reason wineries have hopped on board the food train? It generates sales.
 
“Tasting experiences are more structured these days because there’s money in structure,” Fischer says. “If you have structure, you can present your planned sales pitch. Plus the tastings alone are another source of revenue, with most wineries offering them for between $25 and $125—sometimes even more.”
 
Food and wine pairings also encourage consumers to join individual wineries’ wine clubs, which provides guaranteed inventory depletion on a regular schedule, making it much easier to get dependable operating revenue. Most clubs offer discounts on tasting fees for members and a few waive tasting fees altogether if you agree to regular wine shipments.
 
Brad Davis, manager of Workforce Training and Instructional Partnerships at SRJC and a member of the SRJC Wine Classic steering committee, who’s also a 17-year veteran of multiple winery tasting room staffs, credits Judy Jordan, founder of J Vineyards & Winery (now owned by E&J Gallo), for her acute vision related to the wine and food trend.
 
When J Vineyards & Winery opened its tasting room some 16 years ago, it was one of the very first—if not the first—to offer food pairings as part of the wine tasting experience for a small fee. Davis explains, “This was long before food pairings and the farm-to-table movement really took off. People would come once and then they would bring their friends back for what was then a totally different experience in wine tasting.”
 
In an effort to avoid the tasting fees, which were waived for members, visitors readily joined the winery’s club. Davis, who was the working part-time for Judy Jordan, remembers personally signing up 45 members in just one month.
 

Hospitality explosion

The food with wine revolution has had some major impacts on the North Bay wine industry, especially when it comes to the demand for hospitality workers. “The North Bay hospitality industry is exploding,” says Fischer, who founded and currently coordinates SRJC’s Center for Culinary, Wine and Hospitality Careers, which connects students and graduates with North Bay employment opportunities.
 
“Demand has never been greater,” Fischer says. “It’s blowing my mind. I’ve been at this for a long time and have watched the increase, but now it’s at a crisis point.” Fischer says she gets calls weekly from employers desperate to find personnel to fill all kinds of positions, including cooks, bakers, food servers, tasting room personnel, front house and back house workers. “They’re using every means possible to network and find employees. They’re even poaching employees from other employers” to fill the jobs, she says.
 
Wineries branching into food are helping to fuel the demand, but “Northern California, overall, is just a hotbed to restaurants, wineries and food trucks,” Fischer says. And there just aren’t enough workers to go around, even though SRJC has upward of 500 students enrolled in its various culinary programs.
 
“They train here,” Fischer says, but once they complete their studies, “rents here are higher than what many young people starting out in their culinary careers can afford. So some leave the area because they just can’t afford to live here.” Hence the conflict in supply and demand.
 

County scrutiny

The burgeoning trend of serving food with wine in tasting rooms is driving more visits from both locals and tourists, as well as putting more demand on the hospitality industry. With growth and change comes scrutiny from county governments. Just last July, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voiced support for new winery regulations that could have direct impact on various winery marketing plans, making the choice to offer food with wine a tougher decision.
 
While most concerns about the dramatic increase in wine tourism are related to the number of events, amplified music, and traffic on narrow county roads, there’s also a movement afoot to regulate the type of food served in tasting rooms. As of this writing, Sonoma County Supervisors were to meet again on the issue in mid-September.
 
Writing about the Sonoma County issues in his blog, “Fermentation,” wine industry observer Tom Wark notes, “The food and wine experience is more desirable in almost every respect to the simpler wine-only tasting experience. Equally important, consuming food while sampling wine mitigates the effect of the alcohol. I presume this is a good thing, but who knows?”
 
Wark also notes that Napa County grappled with the same issue regarding wine and food in 2010. The county amended its Napa Winery Definition Ordinance to allow food and wine pairings so long as the portion of the tasting fee related to the food didn’t exceed the true cost of the food.
 

Health concerns

County governments also get directly involved in permitting wine and food pairings at wineries. “The Health and Safety Code grants an exemption for wine tasting and beer manufacturing facilities, which can provide no food for sale or onsite consumption except for crackers, pretzels or prepackaged food that’s not potentially hazardous,” says Christine Sosko, Sonoma County’s director of environmental health. “If they want to go beyond that, it comes into a permit category with us.”
 
Sonoma County’s Department of Health Services permits all retail food facilities, with permit categories based on food preparation levels: minimal, moderate and extensive.
 
“Minimal or no preparation include facilities with prepackaged food, which may include limited preparation such as coffee,” Sosko says.
 
“Moderate prep is akin to a fast food restaurant, deli, pizza place or bakery. This covers a lot of wineries that offer wine and cheese or wine and chocolate tastings,” Sosko says.
 
The extensive prep permit “is more along the lines of a restaurant permit” and applies to wineries offering food prepared in their own (or a leased) commercial kitchens, which is required.
 
Permit fees range from $400 to $1,400 annually and the plan review and opening process can take some time, depending on construction and permits.
 
“If a winery is using a kitchen that’s already permitted, it happens quickly,” Sosko explains. But if the permit is requested for a new kitchen, the county needs 20 days “to review the plans. Once the plans are approved, construction follows and then we do a site review and an opening inspection. Then we go back [to the new kitchen] within the first month to make sure it’s operating under the permit,” Sosko says.
 
As part of its customer service, the county offers food handling courses (a required certification) in both English and Spanish for anyone involved in the preparation of food for consumer consumption. The county also conducts regular inspections. “We’re working to ensure everyone has safe and healthy food so we can minimize the risk of food-borne illness,” Sosko says. Therefore, wineries and other businesses with minimal or no preparation permits are checked annually; moderate and extensive prep facilities are checked twice per year.
 
Despite all the rules and regulations—and the added expense of creating and maintaining a food program—North Bay wineries are enthusiastically embracing the concept. To see what is available and to gauge consumer reaction, NorthBay biz visited three wineries, representing small, medium and large production facilities. What we learned is that size really doesn’t matter. The tastings were all first class.
 

Williamson Wines

Located on Matheson Street in Healdsburg, just steps off Healdsburg Plaza, Williamson is on the smaller scale as far as wine production is concerned (roughly 15,000 cases per year), but it still offers a wide variety of tasting experiences. It employs two event planners and three chefs to customize its experiences.
 
Everyone who enters the main tasting room is offered a free tasting (yes, free!) of five wines, paired with what owners Dawn and Bill Williamson refer to as “fridge foods”—small bites of cheese, sweet and savory spreads, etc. Tasting experiences level up from there—six wines for complimentary in the tasting room or seated experiences ranging from $25 to $125 in the tasting room or its ancillary location on the other side of the downtown plaza. There’s even an option for a Helicopter and Fridge Food experience for $300, which takes you on a soaring tour over Wine Country in your own private helicopter ride and then a food and wine pairing in Healdsburg with “nibbles”—cheese, chocolates, savory bites and other appetizers.
 
“We’ve been open nine years and we’ve always served food with our wines,” says Bill. “Food and wine have gone together for centuries.” In his opinion, one cannot really taste the nuances in a food unless an appropriate wine is paired with it.
 
Williamson Wines also offers hundreds upon hundreds of Herbie’s Spices for sale in its tasting room and is the exclusive U.S. distributor of the Australian company’s products. (Dawn and Bill are native Australians.) In addition to its multiple wine club options, Williamson Wines also has a cheese club, a chocolate club and a spice club, shipped quarterly to subscribers.
 
Food is so much an integral part of the Williamson Wines experience that its website has more than 200 recipes paired with its wine offerings.
 
NorthBay biz was treated to the Bordeaux-Meritage Blends tasting, a delicious pairing of foods and fine wines, which costs $75. Our server was once the head waiter at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen Restaurant, located in Hotel Healdsburg, and was extremely well-versed in the food, the wines and the flavors.
 

Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards

Gloria Ferrer, located on Highway 121 in Sonoma, expanded its visitor center last year to better accommodate the nearly 100,000 guests that visit its tasting room annually.
 
Director of Hospitality Toni Benton, says the winery, which produces fine sparkling wines, as well as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, decided to elevate its wine tasting experience several years ago by providing side-table education, and the resulting demand fueled the need for the tasting room and terrace expansion. The winery can now seat more than 300 people at a time in the tasting room and terrace areas, which offers picturesque views of its Carneros vineyards.
 
“Our changing lifestyles have heightened our experience of wine with food,” Benton says. “It’s very much a part of people’s lives to entertain and enjoy wine. If we can heighten that experience by pairing our wines with yummy foods, it becomes a fun, educational experience.”
 
Gloria Ferrer doesn’t have an in-house chef, instead the managers, who have many years of food handling experience, brainstorm and experiment with recipes—some of their own and some from the various Spanish cookbooks sold in the gift shop—with the goal to create the ultimate pairings with Gloria Ferrer wines. “It doesn’t have to be complicated, and that’s part of what we’re trying to teach people. Try for yourself and learn how foods can impact wine in various ways. We want our guests to be able to recreate what they experience here when they’re at home. Our experiences offer easy bites that can change the characteristics of the wine,” Benton says.
 
The winery offers public tours three times each day and special tastings featuring Ferrer Family wines from Spain and Australia, as well as its signature, estate-grown wines. Its regular menu features two cheese plates, a cheese and charcuterie plate, a vegan plate, plus other nibbles and olives.
 
“Our wines can be enjoyed by themselves or with your favorite savory or sweet snack,” Benton says. “We tell people don’t be afraid to open a bottle of bubbly to pair with your gourmet pizza on a Tuesday night. Bubbly isn’t just for special occasions. It can be enjoyed everyday and pairs wonderfully with so many things.”
 
There are five different Elevated Experiences, offered by reservation only, ranging in price from $35 to $60. NorthBay biz enjoyed Bubbles and Bites, a seated, white tablecloth presentation of five Gloria Ferrer sparkling and estate wines, paired with small bites that perfectly complemented the wines. Our host was once the manager of Il Forniao in Corte Madera, who decided to join Gloria Ferrer after his retirement. He, too, was well versed in the wine and food pairings—and extremely attentive to our needs.
 

St. Francis Winery & Vineyards

Can’t get reservations for The French Laundry? Sign up for the Wine and Food Pairing offered three times daily (11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.), Thursday through Monday, at St. Francis Winery in Santa Rosa (just off Highway 12 in the Sonoma Valley). TripAdvisor lists it as the number one wine and food pairing experience—not only in Sonoma County, but anywhere—and Open Table diners twice (2013 and 2015) have rated it the number one Restaurant in America (even though it’s not officially a restaurant).
 
Erica Gomez, senior marketing specialist at St. Francis Winery, says the food and wine pairing was designed to highlight the relationship between wine and food. Five courses are paired with five St. Francis wines, and portions of both wine and food are enough that you can skip lunch or dinner. The price is $68.
 
St. Francis food pairing began as small bites in its Reserve Room (and still offers a $35 wine, cheese and charcuterie tasting—walk-ins welcome), “but when it became an intimate, seated and communal experience, it truly elevated the experience.” Executive Chef Brian Jones came to the program three years ago from Fig Café, the sister restaurant to The Girl and The Fig in Sonoma.
 
The concept is to let each guest explore the relationship between wine and food. “They taste the wine, then take a bite and taste the wine again. It’s amazing to see how the food affects the wine,” Gomez says.
 
“There’s a growing popularity of wine and food programs,” she notes, “but the communal table offers guests a relaxing, fun atmosphere as we guide them though each course.”
 
Up to 16 people are welcomed at each seating and two hosts walk guests through each course. NorthBay biz was included in a group that had guests from New York, Sonoma, London, Los Angeles, Oakland, Abilene, Tex., and Charleston, S.C. At the end of 90 minutes, we were all fast friends, something Gomez says happens often: “People really bond over the food and wines.”
 
Like many high-end dining experiences, reservations are a little tough to get, so you’ll need to be flexible and book in advance. After our initial tasting in July, we tried to book a 3 p.m. Friday tasting for two, and the first opening was September 2.
 
Gomez says the highly lauded tasting experience has grown a large fan base with wine club members (the price to drink and dine drops to $54.40 for wine club members)—and once you go, you want to go back.
 
But sometimes, you just don’t want to go forward.
 
Ian Lamb from London, visiting friends in Sonoma with his wife, Helen, decided the group should cancel the rest of its planned tastings the day NorthBay biz was there.
 
“This has been fantastic,” he said to his hosts. “Why go backward?”
 

Clif Family Winery’s Bruschetteria Food Truck

Food has always been an integral part of the lives of Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, co-owners and co-founders of Clif Family Winery in St. Helena. In 1986, Erickson started Kali’s Sweets & Savories, which later became Clif Bar & Company, one of the world’s top makers of organic foods and drinks (its iconic Clif Bar is consumed by millions).
 
So it was natural to include food as part of the tasting experience when the couple opened its Velo Vino Napa Valley Tasting Room six years ago. At first, they offered small bites paired with wines, plus coffee and espresso. But a little over two years ago, Clif Family opened the Bruschetteria Food Truck, a stand-alone mobile restaurant that spends most of its days parked outside the Velo Vino Tasting Room just south of downtown St. Helena.
 
“We always wanted to find a way to serve a more extensive menu,” says Linzi Gay, general manager of Clif Family Winery. “But we had absolutely no space for a commercial kitchen. So, we decided to go the food truck route.”
 
The couple headed to Portland, Ore., and reached out to Northwest Mobile Kitchens, fabricator of top-of-the-line food trucks. They were able to find a base that their chef, John McConnell (formerly of Terra Restaurant in St. Helena and Campton Place Hotel in San Francisco, among others), could customize for their needs. While the truck is mobile, Gay says “we don’t take it too far. We do some special events in Napa, but only when it doesn’t interfere with our tasting room needs. The truck has a beautiful, custom-designed kitchen space. I always remind our team to drive it like they would a Ferrari.”
 
Bruschetteria is open every day but Monday and serves up a menu (which changes daily) featuring about 20 items. “The menu is driven by the family’s organic farm on Howell Mountain,” Gay explains, “where we grow fruit, veggies, grapes and olive trees, and raise chickens that provide eggs.” This means Bruschetteria’s daily offerings are seasonally driven and Gay says “pretty much everything on the menu has a wine pairing associated with it.”
 
Gay believes the addition of the food truck has truly enhanced business.
 
“Foodies are looking for great experiences,” Gay says, “and this is a great way for us to introduce our wines in a very festive atmosphere.”
 
Clif Family Winery, like many wineries, has also found a niche. Cycling is at the core of the family businesses and was the impetus for the Clif Bar. So it’s natural that cycling is a major focus in attracting clientele.
 
At the Velo Vino Tasting Room, the passions of cycling, wine and food are celebrated and blended. Cyclists often come to the tasting room in the morning and grab a coffee. “We then provide them with a customized map for a bike ride and when they’re done, they come back. Before you know it, they’ve spent their whole day with us,” Gay says.
 
In baseball, we call that “hitting for the cycle.”
 

Long Meadow Ranch’s Restaurant at Farmstead

Long Meadow Ranch’s restaurant at Farmstead on Highway 29 in St. Helena is an organic outgrowth of the Long Meadow Ranch & Affiliates, a family business owned by Ted and Laddie Hall, as well as their son, Chris, who’s now chief operating officer.
 
It started in 1989, when the Halls bought the original Long meadow ranch property in the Mayacamas Mountains, high above Rutherford. In addition to raising cattle, chickens and planting gardens, the family also invested in premium Cabernet Sauvignon vines, and opened its winery in 1995.
 
As a kid, Chris would set up a card table with “eggs, tomatoes and maybe zucchini,” at the local farmers market. “I was the youngest one at the time,” he says. Eventually their homegrown premium beef was added to the offerings and Chris went into the wholesale business, selling to “all the great restaurants in the area.” As the wine brands developed, they were launched nationally. Chris frequently found himself on the road, introducing Long Meadow Ranch wines at special wine dinners.
 
“One of our early marketing ideas was to not just feature wines, but also provide our grass-fed beef to the chefs making the dinners,” Chris says. Pretty soon, he was also taking along ranch-raised produce that could survive travel. “I once even had eggs in my carry-on,” he remembers. “It was a great way to tell the story of our ranch and our full-circle farming philosophy.”
 
Eventually, Chris was encouraged him to open a restaurant, but promoting the wines was still his first concern.
 
“Having a restaurant wasn’t our original concept, since our winery is way off the beaten path down a one-lane private road making it difficult for visitors to come,” he explains. “We needed more direct exposure to consumers.” So he set about looking for a spot to establish a tasting room.
 
At the time, Whiting’s Nursery had acquired a farmstead property “with an old white farmhouse in need of restoration. It was a real eyesore,” Chris remembers. Whiting’s opened its business, but the old farmhouse remained unused and the owner of Whitings decided to lease a portion of the property.
 
One Christmas Day, Chris was driving to join his family for dinner when he spotted the nursery owner hanging a “for lease” sign.
 
“I called him immediately. The white farmhouse was perfect for a wine tasting experience,” Chris says, so the family restored the house. Eventually, Whiting’s decided to sell the entire property to the Halls, who jumped at the opportunity to open a restaurant in addition to the tasting room. In 2010, Long Meadow Ranch’s restaurant at Farmstead, housed in the old nursery barn, opened for business to showcase the full breadth of food and wine offerings from the Hall Family, which now also owns acreage in Rutherford, Anderson Valley and Tomales Bay.
 
“It’s been a great success as a restaurant, but it also lets us tell our story to customers, so they know who we are and what we do,” Chris says.
 
For Chris in particular, it’s also about passion.
 
“It’s exciting to be able to blend wine in the morning, be out on the farm with cattle, horses and poultry in the afternoon, then, in the evening to be in the restaurant, working with the chefs. It’s part of what keeps me excited and passionate. We didn’t come up overnight with any of these ideas. They’ve been building for 25 years.”

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