Not long ago the cheese and charcuterie board was considered the gold standard for a high-end wine tasting experience. Today, wineries in California’s Napa and Sonoma Counties are bringing wine and food pairings to a new level, offering multi-course tasting menus in private settings embellished with fine linens, stemware and bespoke service to showcase premium cuvée wines at their best.
All 10 experiences recommended here feature food and wine but no two are the same, differing in everything from the style to the setting. What they do have in common (aside from being a marvellous way to enjoy wine country) is an emphasis on the wine, first and foremost, and using carefully prepared food to enhance it.
‘You can get cheese and charcuterie anywhere in wine country,’ says Hamel Family Wines executive chef Clinton Huntsman. ‘It’s not special any more. It is much more meaningful to show guests our wines with an experience that has a true dinner-party feel.’
15401 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma, CA 95476
Set aside two hours for this visit, which begins with a splash of Hamel’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc and a garden-inspired amuse bouche (think herb and preserved lemon parmesan crisp with ricotta, topped with English pea purée) followed by a private tour of the vineyard, winery and cellar (including barrel tastings). Winery chef Clinton Huntsman’s four courses play to the season’s strengths, with dishes such as a poached egg with green garlic cream, porcini, sunflower and fried onion, or a decadent bacon-wrapped rabbit loin with lentil and watercress. The setting is an opulent, but not stuffy, private winery library overlooking the grounds, so you’ll feel like the lord and lady of the manor. Available daily, $150 (£123) per person.
23555 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, CA 95476
Taste on the Terrace
Sparkling wines dominate Ferrer’s more casual five-course experience, but also expect to see a Pinot Noir or two. You’ll be seated on the winery’s sunny terrace and looked after by a wine educator (who also tends to other private groups enjoying the patio) for this 90-minute experience. The five courses are broken down into a main starter (we had prawns stewed with ouzo, tomatoes, fennel and feta) paired with the Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Blancs, followed by a plate featuring three unique bites to pair with three additional sparklings. The finale features a demi-sec and dessert fizz. Executive chef Raymond Schafer tailors his changing menu to the seasonality of ingredients and encourages the mixing and matching of bites and bubblies. If not on the pairings list, be sure to seek out a taste of Ferrer’s delicious Carneros Cuvée bottlings. Available Thursday-Sunday, $95 (£78) per person (maximum six guests).
200 Taplin Road, St Helena, CA 94574
This communal experience lasts almost three hours and features seven courses paired with the wide-ranging offerings in Phelps’ portfolio of wines with selections from the far Sonoma Coast to Napa Valley. Joseph Phelps was as much gourmand as winemaker, and this menu reflects that. It is an intimate experience (no more than 12 guests) hosted in a private dining room that boasts sweeping vineyard views. You’ll kick things off with canapés outside on the patio and then progress to the lavishly set table for your first course (think Kaluga caviar with corn pudding, parsley emulsion and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc). A parade of dishes and fine wines follows – branzino, Thai curry, dry-aged strip loin – narrated by your tasting guide who will elaborate on the wines, the pairing and the winery history. Available Wednesday-Sunday, $300 (£247) per person.
28700 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, CA 95476
Seasonal Wine & Food Experience
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the stars here, but you’ll also see Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc during your two-hour, four-course culinary journey. It begins in the courtyard with a welcome glass of wine followed by a private tour that highlights the farming techniques and winemaking philosophy of Ram’s Gate. Executive chef Ruby Oliveros dishes up artisanal pairings such as the Estate Chardonnay with oyster and wakame in burnt miso consommé with smoked trout roe and crispy rice pearls. Available Thursday-Monday, $160 (£132) per person (max. six guests per party).
7900 St Helena Highway, Oakville, CA 94562
The Art of the Table
Michelin-star sensibilities join a gastronomically focused wine tasting here. After enjoying canapés and 2010 vintage fizz from sister company Champagne Barons de Rothschild on the winery’s rooftop overlook, you are taken on a tour that ends at the winery’s swanky new tasting spaces overlooking the vineyards. Tables are artfully appointed with Frette linens, Baccarat crystal and Zalto stemware – even the floor, made from Jurassic limestone, has panache. The meal is a four-course ballet featuring library wines from Opus One and a selection of French wines from the Baron Philippe de Rothschild portfolio. Expect dishes such as a Dungeness crab salad over an avocado mousse with blood orange, or game bird crépinette with black trumpet mushroom and Jerusalem artichoke puree. The service, like the wine, is impeccable, and chef Sara Scott’s cuisine expresses the season with a pitch-perfect balance of acid and salt on the palate. Available on request, $750 (£616) per person.
5766 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558
The Cellarius Kitchen Experience
Wine, storytelling and cuisine come together in this extraordinary Cabernet Sauvignon-focused experience. The setting is in a private glass-walled dining room that looks out into the gardens, and the kitchen has a theatrical feel, separated from the guests by two oversized glass doors that open into the dining room. Settle into your plushly padded seat for chef Travis Westrope’s dazzling two-and-a-half-hour tasting menu paired with Stag’s Leap wines. Westrope, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the winery (ask about the Foucault’s pendulum) invites questions and discussion from his guests. Stepping into the kitchen is encouraged; take pictures of the preparation and truly enter into the culinary experience. Pairings are inspired, such as a rosehip tea-steamed Loch Duart salmon with ocean microgreens and shiso alongside a Fay Cabernet Sauvignon. Available Saturdays and Sundays, $245 (£201) per person.
875 Rutherford Road, Rutherford, CA 94573
Round Pond’s executive chef Fernando Arias has access to ample seasonal fodder for his four-course tasting menu by working almost exclusively with the winery’s 1.2ha of gardens. The pairing journey begins in the winery garden, where you can get up close and personal with the very produce you are about to enjoy. After the garden tour, you can opt for a private table on the terrace (which boasts 360° vineyard views) or in the dining room. Expect the unexpected, as Arias relishes the unorthodox, such as his Lyonnaise salad that showcases farm eggs poached in a sauce of brown butter and farm olive oil, paired with Round Pond’s bold Proprietary Left Bank red. Says Arias: ‘With the gardens and the wines we have, I feel invincible!’ Available Thursday- Sunday, $225 (£185) per person (max. six guests).
4411 Redwood Road, Napa, CA 94558
Wine & Chocolate Experience
Chocolate and wine lovers should book this two-hour interactive experience with Hess-Persson winery’s in-house chocolatier Jason Collins. You’ll explore flavours as you create your own chocolate bar. Afterwards, take a seat and discover how to pair wine and chocolate with a tasting featuring truffles created by Collins. Available Friday- Monday (not every month – check website), $160 (£132) per person.
4240 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558
By Invitation Only
The winery’s imposing column-lined entrance sets a regal tone for this shared tasting experience. It begins with a sumptuous start in the winery library (clad with a draped velvet ceiling), where you’ll enjoy a glass of the Darioush Sauvignon Blanc. A short tour, led by your winery host, leads the way to owner Darioush Khaledi’s private underground cellar where the chef waits, presenting a table bedecked with four dishes. All of the courses and wines are offered at once to allow guests to experiment with the pairings. Umami is central to this tasting, for the wines and cuisine alike. Local mushrooms with parmesan foam or a mesquite-grilled ribeye are paired with a selection of Darioush’s Cabernet-focused wines, including its exclusive Darius II Cabernet Sauvignon, usually only available on allocation. Available Wednesday- Sunday, $150 (£123) per person.
3909 Frei Road, Sebastopol, CA 95472
Collectors Lunch Pairing
Quiet little Lynmar Estate is a jewel-box setting nestled in one of the most vibrant vineyard and winery gardens in Sonoma. Take your seat at a private table overlooking the buzzing botanical splendour and let a host guide you through an elevated four-course lunch prepared by estate chef David Frakes. Frakes does a marvellous job of bringing Lynmar’s dainty but powerful Pinot Noir wines into focus with pairings such as grilled lamb with Israeli couscous, rose harissa labneh and braised torpedo onions. Most of the menu features wine and food grown on the estate. Available Thursday-Sunday, $200 (£164) per person (max. six guests).