More and more Sonoma County wineries offering chef-driven wine pairing experiences

“As a chef, it’s awesome. You’re constantly finding new things to pair, constantly discovering new things,” Alec Graham, executive chef for the Foley Family wine portfolio, said.|

When Alec Graham learned Ferrari-Carano Winery won an award at this year’s North Coast Wine Challenge for their 2021 Siena red wine, it was welcome news, but not necessarily a surprise.

Graham is the executive chef for the Foley Family wine portfolio, which includes Ferrari-Carano. He had just enjoyed a bottle of the award-winning wine — a proprietary red blend of sangiovese, malbec, petite sirah and cabernet sauvignon.

“In an unofficial capacity this past weekend, I did a mixed grill with it. It’s my springtime grilling wine now,” Graham said. “I love the combination of smoke and char flavor from grilling with the fruitiness in there.”

Graham is part of a small but growing number of chefs employed by Sonoma County wineries in an effort to enhance the guest experience and, in turn, help sell more wine.

Trading in long days, late nights and the nitty-gritty of traditional restaurant kitchens for a Wine Country lifestyle seems like a sweet gig for a chef, but it’s not what Thomas Bellec, executive chef at Bricoleur Vineyards in Windsor, would call “an easy way out.

“I’m doing this for the passion for my craft, for my career,” said Bellec, a native of France who worked for Four Seasons hotels and resorts around the world for more than two decades before moving to Sonoma County just over a year ago.

The idea of making food to complement wine turns the standard food-and-wine pairing relationship on its head. In restaurants, chefs create menus and sommeliers find wine to pair with the dishes. At a winery, what’s in the bottle is boss. It influences a chef’s entire approach.

“In the beginning, it was a challenge for me because I’m not used to pairing wine and food, per se,” said Ruby Oliveros, executive chef at Ram’s Gate Winery in Sonoma. “My menu changes would always be seasonal; that’s all I had to worry about. I didn’t have to pair with anything.”

Oliveros, who spent most of her culinary career at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in San Francisco before coming to Ram’s Gate a year ago, knew the basics of wine and food pairing, though. She quickly learned how to adapt flavors and techniques to create dishes that would elevate the wine, like a pinot noir matched to brioche toast with crispy pork belly and a Japanese marinated egg; it’s been her favorite pairing so far.

“People were leaving with cases of that viognier just because of that dish.” Chef Thomas Bellec, Bricoueur Vineyards

For Graham, the wines, along with Ferrari-Carano’s vast culinary gardens, are a compass for the direction his menu should go, while allowing some creative license.

“It gives you some parameters to work with,” he said. “Instead of drawing (a menu) out of thin air, you have a foundation for it. It simplifies it a little bit. But at the same time, it’s always fun to push those boundaries and see what different pairings you can come up with.”

Sitting down with winemakers to taste and discuss the wines is a key part of the chefs’ roles.

“That’s where I get the inspiration,” Bellec said. “They’re going to be talking about high points that I need to focus on, so it makes my job easier, to collect information to get the right balance with the pairing.”

The goal of this collaboration is clear: The wineries aren’t trying to run restaurants on the sly. They’re using the chefs and the food they create to sell wine. It works, especially when a pairing hits all the right notes.

“We had the viognier with a sweet potato and root vegetable curry, and that’s the one that we had the most comments on,” Bellec said. “People were leaving with cases of that viognier just because of that dish.”

The purpose of using chef-driven wine pairing experiences to sell wine isn’t merely transactional. It adds value to wine tasting by elevating the experience.

“We encourage the guest to have a bite of every single ingredient when you’re trying the wine, because every single component of the dish matters for the different complexity of levels to match the wine,” Bellec said.

It also gives guests access to chefs they normally wouldn’t have in a much busier restaurant setting where chef visits to a diner’s table are typically reserved for VIPs.

“The good thing is that you can spare more time and talk to the guest and introduce those pairings to the guest. We have time to pass on that passion,” he said.

Because wineries aren’t restaurants, visitors arrive with a different set of expectations. They’re coming for the wine, and the food, even though they’re paying for it, is like a bonus. That offers chefs like Oliveros, who is originally from the Philippines, the creative freedom to offer visitors flavors and tastes that may be new to them.

“As much as possible, I like to throw Asian flair in there, and my heritage,” Oliveros said. “With this menu, I did forbidden rice, but it’s also the same concept as the garlic fried rice that we do back home (in the Philippines).”

With each new wine release, and as wines age and change in the bottle, the chefs have an ongoing opportunity to flex that creative muscle.

Graham, who has been with Foley Family for six years and executive chef for three years, finds there’s always something new to inspire him.

“As a chef, it’s awesome. You’re constantly finding new things to pair, constantly discovering new things,” he said. “It’s been great to work with a medium that’s constantly changing and has so many nuances to it. I can sit down with our winemakers and have my mind blown.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jennifer Graue at 707-521-5262 or On Twitter @JenInOz.

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