Celebrating Culture and Community with Wine Country Staff Meals and Harvest Lunches
Everyone in the wine world knows that what happens in the vineyard is just as important as what happens in the winery, maybe more so, depending on who you ask. As consumers and collectors, we learn about soil types, elevations and pruning methods just as dutifully as we study barrel regimens and aging preferences.
It stands to reason, then, that the people who work in the vineyards, cellars, bottling lines and tasting rooms should have at least a passing familiarity with each other and the work their cohorts do. That’s where the family meal comes in.
Many producers put out a big spread weekly, monthly or to celebrate events like the beginning and end of harvest. The intention is not just to provide a nice perk—these meals give people a chance to meet those who work in other areas of the cellar and the vineyard.
“It brings all the different groups—marketing, cellars, vineyards—together,” says Sarah Matthews, winery chef at Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, California.
Some producers, like Jordan Winery in Sonoma County, have harvest lunches that are open to the public. Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara occasionally opens its lunches up too. At these, wine lovers can mix and mingle with the people who helped fill the bottles on the table and, in Au Bon Climat’s case, eat food prepared by Winemaker/Owner Jim Clendenen himself.
Many other producers offer quieter, less public meals for staff only, however. This can mean picnic tables laid out with grilled meat and fresh vegetables overlooking the pristine vines at Château Cheval Blanc in Saint-Émilion, but it can also mean breakfast on the go.
The latter is the case at Cramoisi Vineyard in Dundee, Oregon, where Co-owner/Winegrower Sofia Torres-McKay adapts the practice to the workers’ schedules by serving food as they head out into the vines.
“After we picked the grapes, we invited [the vineyard workers], and we had picnic tables outside in the vineyards, and guess what? Only three people stayed,” she laughs. “They wanted to go to the next vineyard, because they wanted to make money.”
Torres-McKay is cofounder of AHIVOY, a program that seeks to educate vineyard laborers—in her area, primarily Latinx people—about what happens with the grapes they pick. She says this will pave the way for those who are interested to take on different positions in the industry. Through the work of enrolling people in community college classes, she has a keen understanding of both the restrictions on workers’ time and the value of interaction between them and people working in the winery. Offering breakfast during harvest is her workaround to a big lunch or dinner.
At Talley Vineyards, family meal is a weekly occurrence during harvest and throughout the year. Beatriz Ramirez, Talley Farms’ personnel director who’s been with the business for about 45 years, says the staff is a mix of longtime employees, interns and locals who show up around harvest because they’re familiar with the company.
What’s on the Menu?
If there is a common theme, it’s local ingredients. And why would it be any other way, in an industry that prizes terroir?
Talley Vineyards has a farm onsite. Matthews says she’ll stop by in the morning to see what’s in season, but there are also a number of specialties that made it into Our California Table, Co-owner Brian Talley’s cookbook. Ramirez’s salsa is particularly beloved.
“I dry my own chile peppers, and I can tomatillos and tomatoes,” Ramirez says.
Matthews tries to rotate dishes to keep things interesting and says that during harvest, when there are more people working, she tends to look to dishes like pasta that are big and hearty.
Jordan Winery publishes its harvest lunch menus online for would-be ticket buyers. Spreads run the gamut from Mexican to Korean to Mediterranean, but all use at least some produce from an onsite garden.
At Cramoisi, Torres’s breakfast spread is motivated by what the workers ask for.
“I go to the Mexican bakery and get donuts and pastries and coffee,” she says. “They used to like the Mexican coffee; now they’re asking for Starbucks. It’s just coffee, pastries and fruit on the table.”
These varied settings and meals paint a starkly contrasting picture of what labor looks like, based on the size and budget of a given business and the workforce available. Still, the idea of coming together over copious amounts of simple food, to nourish the work of making wine, remains.
Jump Straight to a Recipe
Courtesy Our California Table, Brian Talley
One of Matthews’ signature sides, this dish comes together quickly and feeds a crowd. The noodles create a crunch that makes it fun to eat and add a bit of heartiness, and sturdy cabbage can stand up to dressing for a while without wilting, making this an excellent choice for any type of gathering.
- 8 cups chopped Napa cabbage, chopped
- ½ cup chopped scallions
- 1 (3-ounce) package of chicken-flavored instant ramen noodles, uncooked and crumbled (reserve seasoning packet)
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
- ¼ cup cilantro, chopped
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
- ½ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- ½ teaspoon pepper, plus more to taste
- ½ cup slivered or sliced toasted almonds
Combine cabbage, scallions, noodles, sesame seeds and cilantro in large bowl. Sprinkle with ½ packet of ramen seasoning.
In separate bowl, combine sugar, oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and remaining ramen seasoning. Mix until sugar dissolves.
Dress cabbage mixture with about ¾ of dressing 1 hour before serving. Add more, to taste, and season with salt and pepper. Top with toasted slivered or sliced almonds. Serves 8.
For a real sense of place, try El Lugar Blanc Pinot Noir from the Edna Valley. This white Pinot Noir has crisp pear notes that will lift the earthy cabbage while floral qualities will pair nicely with almonds and cilantro.
Courtesy Our California Table, Brian Talley
Avocados are a staple crop of Talley Farms, with trees surrounding the vineyards and growing throughout the property. This is a classic guacamole formulation that will go well with the tostadas on the following pages, or with a bowl of chips and glass of wine.
- ½ cup cilantro leaves, chopped, more for garnish
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 small ripe tomato, chopped (optional)
- ½ medium jalapeño, minced
- 3 ripe Hass avocados
- 1 lemon, juiced
- Kosher salt
Combine cilantro, garlic, tomato (if using) and half jalapeño in bowl large enough to accommodate finished guacamole. Use fork to mix in avocados, leaving mixture as chunky as possible. Add half lemon juice and salt, to taste. Season to taste with additional jalapeño, lemon juice and salt and garnish with cilantro, if desired. Serves 8.
Avocados and Talley Vineyards’ Estate Chardonnay are “classic Talley.” The acidity of the wine cuts through the rich guacamole, while creamy brioche notes balance the jalapeño heat.
Courtesy Our California Table, Brian Talley
This is the type of dish that looks impressive and catches the eye with its bright colors, but it’s simple enough to put together, and many steps can be done in advance. Serve these on their own, or create a spread with guacamole and cabbage salad. The guacamole and its suggested wine pairing, are complementary, but a Margarita wouldn’t be out of place either.
- 2 pounds dry pinto beans
- 4 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 3 cups canola oil or lard
- ⅔ cup jalapeño juice from pickled jalapeños
- 9 radishes, coarsely chopped
- 4 cups chopped green cabbage
- 2 cups chopped red cabbage
- 1½ cups chopped scallions, both white and green parts
- 1 medium white or yellow onion, chopped, about 2 cups
- 3½ cups chopped tomatoes
- 2 cups cilantro, chopped, more for garnish
- 4 pickled jalapeños, chopped
- 24 small corn tortillas
At least four hours and up to two days ahead, wash beans and remove any rocks or debris. In large pot, cover beans with water. Cook at low simmer until tender, about 2 hours. Add 4 teaspoons salt.
About 90 minutes before serving, put 1½ cups oil and beans in frying pan. Bring to boil on high heat. Reduce heat to medium, then mash beans. Add jalapeño juice. Cook, stirring to prevent sticking. As beans incorporate fat and begin to take on sheen, reduce heat and continue cooking and stirring. Season to taste with salt, if desired.
Make salsa by combining radishes, cabbages, scallions, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, jalapeños and remaining 1 tablespoon salt. Let sit in bowl so flavors combine.
Heat remaining 1½ cups oil over medium-high heat. Fry tortillas, 1 or 2 at a time, for about 30 seconds until deep golden brown. Transfer to paper towels.
To serve, place a dollop of beans on each tostada, top with salsa and garnish with cilantro. Serves 8–12.
The Martin Ranch Thérèse Vineyards Viognier is a good match here. This plush wine is a good textural match for the refried beans, while plenty of stone fruit notes add brightness.
- 1Sarah’s Napa Cabbage Salad
- 2Brian Talley’s Guacamole
- 3Chico and Beatriz’s Tostadas with Refried Beans