Wine Country Food—a trio of words that conjures up an image of everything that’s right with the world.
It’s a world filled with freshness: backyard flavors at their seasonal tip-top washed down with just-poured sips ofCalifornia’s finest nectars. And (it must be said) it’s also the LeftCoast’s take on a mentality that’s grown up with the fad popularity of regional cuisine. Clever marketing has made the concept of ‘wine country food’ on a par with such American standbys as Cajun and Southwestern cuisine.
Still, canny Californians have always made a habit of avoiding the rules. Some wine country chefs embrace the idea of ‘wine country food’ as a culinary philosophy; others refuse to be pigeonholed. What’s clear, however, is that throughout California, the very best cooking is done using locally grown, ultra-fresh, hand-raised products, and these have become far more diversified over the generations as various ethnic populations have moved in, passed through, or hung around to nurture their own American dream, planting, encouraging and harvesting items indigenous to their homelands. Arguably, in the aggregate, the wealth of available edibles—from seafood to livestock to farmer’s market produce—is better in California than anywhere else in the world.
A single overriding concept appears to animate the best of the wine country chefs. That is: Let the integrity of the ingredients dictate all.
Wine country is, quite simply, a paradise for the palate.
When you tack on the casual elegance and relaxed refinement of wine country’s roster of superb, cutting-edge establishments (Madrona Manor, Carlton Hotel, Calistoga Ranch. Hotel Healdsburg; all first among equals) you’ll find that these slices of fertile hillsides, resplendent with vineyards and pastures and multicolored fields, has in many ways redefined American cuisine.
Chef Jeffery Madura is among those at the forefront of the wine country movement, especially in its 21st century interpretation. And rightly so; he’s the executive chef for John Ash & Company; one of Sonoma’s top restaurants. Ash, of course, is the visionary chef whose book From the Earth to the Table (Dutton 1996), effectively put upon the map the notion that wine country lent itself to such a vital, important, and unique a regional cuisine that it deserved it’s own placemat on the world’s culinary table. The internationally renowned Ash comments: “Wine country cuisine came very naturally, it has always been about great local seasonal foods with an eye to its connection to wine.”
Of late, Ash has handed a major portion of his day-to-day culinary baton over to Madura, whose eloquent passion for gastronomy in general—and wine country cuisine in specific—peppers his every conversation.
Says Madura: “Chefs in Northern California tend to be a little spoiled. Here, you can find microclimates to raise anything, from world-class grapes, to cattle, to an unbelievable bounty of heirloom produce. Napa set the original standard for superb wine in this country; below that you have Marin county, a sensational agricultural base. And of course, there’s the ocean with its array of seafood. Here in Sonoma, we’re the center of the diamond. Sonoma gives clarity and brilliance to what wine country is all about.”
Madura is equally passionate about the flesh-and-blood side of the industry—the farmers and the fishermen—and has strong moral feelings about ethical and sustainable food issues. At John Ash & Co., the emphasis is both upon products that keep the locals employed and humanely raised products. Madura also brings to the table a sound foundational knowledge of wine, and is fascinated with the nuances of matching a menu item to a specific varietal.
“Recently,” he shares, “we served a sweet potato ravioli alongside Iron Horse Russian River Pinot Noir. I added a little curry in order to transfer flavors back and forth, food to wine, and both tasted better. I love food, but my primary goal as a wine country chef is to bring out the best qualities in a given wine, even if I have to change my recipes to enhance the wine. I’ll add textures, acids, crunchiness; whatever it takes to balance and improve the food/wine equation.
Equally passionate about food and wine is Chef Richard Dickson of the Harvest Café at Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa—though he’s a little less sold on the whole idea that ‘wine country food’ is a specific and definable commodity.
He says, “The term ‘wine country cuisine’ has always sounded a little limiting to me; I try to do things with a bit more of an eclectic edge. California cooking is all about freedom.”
And when Chef Richard speaks, you listen; physically, he’s a somewhat intimidating presence. Not many chefs entered the profession via professional football, but Dickson found his true calling only after having been drafted (and ultimately cut) by the Seattle Seahawks. His ability on the gridiron was matched by his prowess in the kitchen, and his forward trajectory in the restaurant business took him from a dishwasher to a head chef within a couple of months. It helped, no doubt, that his family was in the wine and farming business (Star Hill grapes are part of his folks agricultural spread), and he brings to his kitchen an innate sense of what’s growing on. He’ll interact with farmers, agents, and producers countless times a week to get the penultimate of fresh ingredients and match them with the perfect wine.
And that’s the essence of wine country cuisine, isn’t it? The synergy and interaction of culinary riches, glass and plate, grub and grape, field and four fingers of, say, Ferrari Carano?
Succeed at that, and you have a marriage made in wine country.
For information on touring California wine country: http://www.WineCountryTours.org