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Vine & dine


Tasting wine in the North Bay will become even more delicious this year, thanks to a growing cadre of wineries adding substantial food programs.

Wineries from Sonoma to Napa are building or renovating kitchens, planting edible gardens and expanding food-and-wine pairings in an effort to keep guests happy.

"It's a natural way to experience Wine Country," said Estate Manager Stephen Pirak of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates in Santa Rosa. "It's how most folks enjoy wine, with a bit of food, sitting down at a table. It's more immersive."

An ever-expanding array of food-and-wine programs allows winery chefs not only to showcase their wines but also to tide guests over until their next meal.

"It enhances the whole experience of being outdoors and experiencing Sonoma County," said Aniseya Fritz, owner of Lynmar Winery in Sebastopol. "In our neighborhood, there aren't a lot of eating establishments."

Not quite restaurants and not quite tasting rooms, the pairing programs often cater to guests who may not sit down every night with a bottle of wine and are looking for education.

"People at Kendall-Jackson sit down and do the wine and food pairing, and they realize, 'Wow, it's really fun when you have the two together,'" said executive chef Justin Wangler. "We want people to join in and to join food and wine together."

Starting last May, the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center in Santa Rosa started an extensive renovation and construction project, adding a new, state-of-the art kitchen and expanding its dining areas indoors and out. The kitchen, which is expected to open in March, boasts a large, swinging window so that people in the banquet room can watch the action.

"It's probably one of the nicest kitchens in Sonoma County," Wangler said. "It's not huge, but the amount of sheer cooking equipment is unbelievable."

Once the kitchen is open, Wangler and his culinary team will expand the tasting menu, adding a vegetable pairing to the regular food-and-wine pairing.

Also in March, Kendall-Jackson will open a new eatery/tasting room in the remodeled space formerly occupied by Shimo Restaurant, in downtown Healdsburg that will feature foods paired with wines.

"If you're in Healdsburg, and you have some time to kill before dinner, you can have a sip of wine," Wangler said. "You can sit down, taste it with the food, and relax."

The Healdsburg space will also boast an espresso machine, so you can stop by after dinner for a chocolate truffle, an espresso or a dessert wine.

At St. Francis Winery in Santa Rosa, executive chef David Bush has been busy building up the wine-and-food pairings since he arrived five years ago.

"It went from four things on one plate to two different plates," he said. "Now I'm up to seven courses."

For the winery's Private Estate Dinners, parties of 8 to 16 can make an appointment for a seven-course culinary journey served in the winery's private dining room.

"It is a tasting menu, because that's what I'm trying to do," Bush said. "I come from restaurants."

On Friday through Monday, the winery also offers a series of five-course wine & food pairings that change seasonally, depending on what's growing in the winery's new garden.

"When things are really coming in from the garden, I have to use them," he said. "It's a really great start for us, and it's further developing what I can offer as far as a food and Sonoma County experience."

Just down the road at the newly opened VJB Vineyards & Cellars in Kenwood, the Belmonte family continues to expand its take on Wine Country cuisine. Along with a deli, marketplace, tasting room and gelateria, VJB will start making its own pasta next month, which will be packaged and sold onsite.

Meanwhile, the winery will launch a new Pizza and Jug Night from 4 to 7 p.m. Fridays starting Jan. 25.

"We invite people to come down and fill up their jug with our family blend," said Lindsay Evans, VJB Cellars director of marketing. "Our Red Rooster Kitchen is staying open late, making pizza. You can enjoy it here, or take it home."

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.