This spring, I visited Niner Wine Estates off of Highway 46 West in the rolling hills of Paso Robles, California. The sleek, sustainable facility alone is impressive, and so are the range of wines, finding focus under the watchful eyes of youngish winemakers Patrick Muran and the recently hired Molly Bohlman, who left Paul Hobbs’s Crossbarn label to focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for Niner.
But the entire Niner experience really came together that evening, when we sat down for dinner in their on-site restaurant adjacent to the tasting room.
Taking direct cues from the selected wines, chef Maegen Loring, arguably the best cook in the region, crafted a delicious menu: prawn soup with farro and chorizo alongside the white Rhône blend Silhouette du Couer; lamb tartare in a pomegranate reduction sauce with the Jespersen Grenache; and beef filet atop parsnip purée, duck-fat greens and feta cheese with the Bootjack Carmenère and the Fog Catcher red blend. It was quite possibly the best dinner I’ve had all year, so attuned were the nips to the nibbles.
“There’s plenty of restaurants in Paso, but I don’t think there are a lot of restaurants that start with the wine and build food to pair with it,” says Andy Niner, who manages the operation that his father, Dick, started 15 years ago. “For us, that was an opportunity.”
So a few weeks after my visit, the Niners asked the County of San Luis Obispo for approval to offer these types of dinners to the public. Its existing permit allowed for small daytime bites that had to be tied directly to wine service.
However, with a great chef, fully functional kitchen and plenty of space, they wanted to offer a real restaurant experience. “It was a no-brainer,” said Niner.
The request was approved without controversy, and so too were similar requests by Villa San-Juliette and Carrasco Vineyard. They’re all following in the footsteps of Justin Winery, which many years ago opened its own restaurant, where I enjoyed one of my best dinners of 2014.
There are also examples of this in the Napa Valley and especially down south in Temecula, where it seems that every winery has a restaurant, hotel and even a spa. It’s also common across the Old World, where food and wine have gone together for centuries.
Despite the recent Paso Robles developments, the Central Coast is lacking on this front, especially in Santa Barbara County, where food service options are being discussed in the ongoing winery ordinance update process.
Some fear that allowing an agricultural operation to run a commercial kitchen could create more traffic, threaten a region’s rural charm and prompt a shift away from farming. Supporters say that food-serving wineries would cut down on drunkenness and better showcase the wines, among other advantages.
“Wine and food should be celebrated as a marriage with many benefits,” says Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of the Santa Barbara Vintners, which she joined in 2013 after helping grow the Finger Lakes region of New York into a popular destination. Her winery members can’t serve food except during special permitted events.
“Travelers from all over the world are baffled by this restriction, which in turn puts the region in a competitive disadvantage,” says McLaughlin. She believes food service encourages more farming, not less.
That’s already happening at Niner. “We’re an all-estate wine operation, so it makes complete sense to be as estate-driven as possible on the restaurant side as well,” says Niner, who plans to be open regularly for dinner later this summer. “We’re actually going to use more land for farming with the restaurant than without.”
No matter what happens in Paso Robles or Santa Barbara, don’t expect this pairing to ever become prominent. Both wineries and restaurants are notoriously difficult places to churn a profit, so adding one to the other will never pencil out for most. But support those that can pull it off, because they offer a truly complete wine country experience.