Cox: A bounty of great wines at Carneros Bistro

One of the chief drivers of food quality at our regional restaurants is the wealth of great local wines. The wines draw the tourists, the tourists dine at the best restaurants, the restaurants showcase our world-class wines, and the kitchens are compelled to serve food that compares favorably with the wines.

The Lodge at Sonoma in the town of Sonoma is a hotel with spa, shops and a restaurant, Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar, that draws a lot of tourists. But when it comes to the wine list at the Bistro, things are done a little differently. Yes, there are plenty of good local wines from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, but also plenty of great wines from the world’s many other fine wine regions. The wine list, with more than 400 bottles from inexpensive to you-don’t-want-to-know, is a wine lover’s dream.

This is thanks to the legacy of sommelier Christopher Sawyer, a man of immense wine knowledge who ran the wine program there for years until he left earlier this year, and now to Joshua Betts, the new sommelier who is building on Sawyer’s bequest.

To give you an idea of vinous treasures that aren’t often found on local wine lists, at Carneros Bistro you’ll find three late-picked Rieslings from S.A. Prum and the “Wehlen Sundial” vineyard in the Mosel region of Germany - the 2004, 2006 and 2007 vintages at $96 each. These are as sweet and lovely as a bouquet of wildflowers from a Mosel hillside. Want something less expensive but just as good in its own way? Try the 2010 Falanghina from Terredora di Paolo in Campania for $36. Wine historians believe this sun-struck Italian white grape was the basis for ancient Rome’s favorite wine, the Falernian.

If you bring a bottle, corkage is $15.

Executive Chef Joshua Murray runs the food program, but Chef Andrew Wilson does the cooking. You’ll start dinner with a smile if you try the Ahi Tuna Tartare ($17 ??? ½), a hockey-puck-sized wheel of chopped, sashimi-grade ahi mixed with Pliny the Elder beer, capers and a touch of mustard, all topped with a tiny quail egg. The Bistro Wedge ($13 ??? ½) is not a wedge of iceberg lettuce, but cold and crunchy Little Gem romaines sprinkled with bits of Hobbs bacon, and with lots of intensely delicious buttermilk dressing studded with dabs of Crater Lake blue cheese.

Chef uses quotes in the dish Cured Salmon “Pastrami” ($15 ??? ), but there’s nothing ersatz about it. Pastrami originally was made of fowl, not brisket, and many chefs today are making this brined and smoked meat with duck, chicken, turkey and salmon. The surface is rubbed with black pepper, salt, coriander, mustard, brown sugar, paprika and garlic and onion powders. This dish proves that pastrami has broken its beefy bounds, yet retained its quality.

What to make of a Creamy Cauliflower Soup ($11? ½) that has no discernible flavor of cauliflower? Taste of salt? Yes. Poached mussels lurking under the surface? Yes. Cream? Sure. Cauliflower? Not a hint.

Things sharpened back up with the arrival of the entrées. Duck Two Ways ($30 ??? ) featured a generous 11 slices of grilled duck breast with a crusty surface and red interior, plus a tart shell filled with duck leg confit. When it comes to duck, we’re spoiled because Liberty ducks, which set the nation’s standard for quality, are raised in Petaluma.

Just as good as the duck is the Square Pig ($29 ??? ), and no, it doesn’t fit into a round hole. It’s a thick square of Berkshire pork cooked long and slow for two days, then pulled into shreds and formed into this square slab, paired up with small round beets, sautéed onions, baby carrots and turnips, drenched in a spicy apricot-cherry-mustard sauce that tastes delicious and better than it sounds.

For dessert, pastry chef Ricky Zavala’s Pumpkin Walnut Cake ($9 ??? ), served with house-made pumpkin ice cream and pumpkin-seed brittle and drizzled with honeyed yogurt, made a perfect ending.

To sum up: Good food supports one of the area’s best wine lists.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review for the Sonoma Living section. He can be reached at

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