Octavio Diaz was only 13 when he came to Rohnert Park from Oaxaca to live with his aunt and uncle and get an education. He graduated from Rancho Cotate High School and moved on to study hospitality in college before working as the food and beverage director at the Sheraton Hotel in Petaluma for many years.
Through it all he never forgot his mother and grandmother's cooking and their dedication to Oaxacan traditions, especially making mole and enjoying rustic regional mescal.
When his parents finally moved to Sonoma County for good six years ago, Diaz knew it was time to open his own restaurant and highlight his regional and familial traditions. He launched Agave Mexican Restaurant in Healdsburg in 2010.
"As I learned more about food and wine, I saw that our food had been misrepresented," Diaz said. "A lot of people think rice and beans and burritos and tacos is Mexican food, but with mole we have the opportunity to showcase Mexican cuisine the way our moms and grandmas make it."
Mole is a sauce that can be traced back to the Aztecs, made with Mexican chocolate, chiles, peppers, tomatoes, herbs and spices, andmany other variables, including raisins, peanuts and bananas, all cooked with lard or oil into a paste and served with a range of meats, from chicken to rabbit.
There are a million variations on the basic concept, but seven generally accepted standard moles: Mole negro (the most common); mole verde; mole colorado, a red sauce that's often brothy; mole amarillo, made much like a soup; mole chichilo, made from burnt peppers; pipian, made from pumpkin seeds and stock; and manchamantel, which has pureed banana, pineapple, cinnamon and ancho chiles.
Diaz has plans to sell his moles commercially at Casa del Mole, the Mexican grocery store he owns, also in Healdsburg.
It can be difficult finding drinks that go with authentic Mexican food. Having spent years buying wine for the Sheraton, Diaz got to know and love many Sonoma County wines and at Agave pays close attention to pairing.
"I select wines that have complexity," Diaz said. "Certain merlots remind me of my mom's mole. There's tobacco, there's chocolate, there's cinnamon."
He also likes earthy Dry Creek Valley zinfandels with his mole dishes, chenin blanc with seafood like tequila prawns and sauvignon blanc with ceviche or Mary's Chicken Mole.
Chuck Meyer, the general manager at La Condesa restaurant in St. Helena, agrees people have a preconceived notion that you cannot pair wine with Mexican food.
"I think it comes from drinking high-alcohol wines with very spicy Mexican food," he said. "That's a recipe for palate disaster. If you want to make it work, you need to meet in the middle on both sides. Go for a wine with a little less alcohol and try it with food that is in a more moderate range of spice. As spice goes up, you should be looking for something with a bit of residual sugar and fruity flavors."
Margaritas and beers work as well. But La Condesa's mole dishes, which Meyer describes as subtle and nuanced, pair well with bigger Napa wines.
"Merlot is a great match for the cocoa and light spice in the mole sauce with mellow tannins and big dark berry fruits," he described. "We (also) have great success with torront? from Argentina, which I like to pair with our salmon toro ceviche. The tropical fruit flavors in the wine pair nicely as the smooth mouthfeel and touch of residual sugar stands up well to the spice."
Then there's mescal, a spirit native to Oaxaca made from the hearts of maguey cactus plants roasted in open fire pits for days and then mashed, fermented and flavored with herbs.
Diaz, who carries a rare selection of single-village mescals and has hosted several sold-out mescal-pairing dinners, says he's finding that people who drink whiskey, cognac or bourbon are falling for mescal's earthy smokiness.
"It's a very high-quality spirit," he said. "You can drink it as an aperitif, during or after a meal, at dessert or just for fun."
At La Condesa the focus is more on tequila, where the restaurant has launched a series of dinners at which tequila is served in champagne flutes, intended to be savored, sipped and tasted with the food.
Un-aged blanco tequilas go well with spicy starters; reposados, which have been aged in oak for a year, go well with grilled meats; while finely aged tequila, called anejo, served in a snifter and full of hints of nutmeg and cinnamon and coffee, has been a hit with a caf?con leche dessert drizzled in caramel.
Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.