Not only is Sonoma the second largest viticultural area in the state, but it also boasts California’s largest concentration of artisan cheesemakers. (Read about the AVA’s most quality-minded creameries in Artisan Cheeses of Sonoma.) And don’t fret if you have no time to visit both the wineries and the fromageries. A number of tasting rooms do the pairing work for you, matching carefully selected local cheeses with their wines. Below are some of the region’s most well-crafted, most mouthwatering vineyard wine and cheese programs.
Tracy Shepos, chef and amateur cheesemaker, dreams of crafting cheese someday at the Kendall-Jackson Winery where she works. In the meantime, she and executive chef Justin Wangler have created what is perhaps the most intensively developed cheese and wine tasting in the county. The duo tasted dozens of local cheeses with the winery’s entire line-up to decide on six pairings, which they further enhanced with culinary condiments harvested from the winery gardens. For example, a 2006 grand reserve Syrah is paired with Estero Gold and bacon-enhanced almonds (see recipe below) from the garden. "The other guys in the kitchen were making fun of us because it took us almost three months to decide on six little cheeses to pair on the plate with wine," Wangler says.
Another winery that’s just developed a cheese program is C. Donatiello, which highlights a single creamery each season. The first line-up, unveiled in late spring, paired four of Bellwether Farms’ cheeses with the winery’s Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, while the summer season will highlight Point Reyes cheeses.
Bellwether, a Petaluma creamery that makes both cow’s milk and sheep’s milk cheeses, also shows up on the menu at J Winery’s Bubble Room. A recent tasting featured the creamery’s offerings alongside wines and a sampling of Chef Mark Caldwell’s creations, including a lobster mac n’ cheese featuring three of Bellwether’s cheeses.
Michel Schulumberger mixes its cheese pairings up, depending on what the fromagers at The Cheese Shop and Big John’s Market recommend that week. "They’re very familiar with our wines, and we do our best to support everything local," says Jim Morris, winery marketing director. Often, Morris and the owner of The Cheese Shop, settle on pairing Syrahs with Point Reyes Blue.
At Jordan Winery , Chef Todd Knoll uses cheeses from around the globe, but he loves pairing local chevres and triple creams. "They go best with our wines, and in many cases, our cheesemakers are doing a better job than those in France," Knoll says. His favorite? Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam, a simple triple cream that boasts a mushroomy aroma and beautiful bloomy rind. "Everyone just loves it," Knoll says.
***The following recipes are from Kendall-Jackson’s wine and cheese pairing program.***
Recipe: Fennel & Gold Raisin Jam
This sweet and sour fennel jam is made with our Chardonnay Verjus, complimenting the earthy and rich Crottin. The creaminess of the Jackson Hills Chardonnay mimics the same richness in the cheese, obtaining an ideal pairing.
2 cups fennel, very small dice (reserve fronds for a garnish)
¼ cup gold raisins, chopped
½ cup Chardonnay Verjus
½ cup white wine, such as Chardonnay
3 Tbsp. sugar
Combine all ingredients except raisins and simmer until the fennel in tender. Strain and reserve liquid. Add raisins to the warm fennel and blend until smooth.
Recipe: Bacon Almonds
It is a well known fact that bacon makes everything better! Merging the smokey flavor of bacon with toasted almonds was a natural match for our Grand Reserve Syrah. By adding in the sharp zest of the Esterro Gold cheese we were able to create an irresistible pairing. Bet you can’t eat just one!
2 cups raw almonds
3 slices bacon
cryovac and cook 1 hour at 64 in immersion circulator.
Sit overnight. Cut bacon into large pieces and cook with the almonds at 325 until toasted. Remove almonds from bacon and fat and toss in 1/2 tsp. smoked sea salt