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Sommeliers Offer California Wine and Food Pairing Tips During Restaurant Month

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Discover New Varietals and Regions on Wine Lists Around the State

SAN FRANCISCO — January is California Restaurant Month, when participating eateries across the state offer special menus and fabulous great-value meals that showcase the Golden State’s incredible cuisine and culinary talent. California is the nation’s top agricultural state producing more than 100 winegrape varieties and 400 crops, so it’s also a great time to celebrate California’s vinous bounty on restaurant wine lists and fresh farm-to-fork meals. Along with the classics, California vintners are producing wines in an increasingly diverse range of varietals and styles—offering diners much to explore while they discover new restaurants.  

To guide diners in discovering new wines during California Restaurant Month, Wine Institute asked three renowned California sommeliers—Tonya Pitts of One Market Restaurant in San Francisco; Wendy Shoemaker, most recently with Californios in San Francisco; and Jim Rollston of Manresa in Los Gatos—to share their insights about trends, wines they’re most excited about, and how to pair California wines with local cuisine.  

From left to right: Wendy Shoemaker, Jim Rollston and Tonya Pitts. (Alana Hale photo of Jim Rollston)

What trends are you seeing now with California wines?

Wendy Shoemaker, Californios: California wines are becoming even more food friendly and we’re seeing more single-vineyard designations on the labels. We are also seeing a trend toward varietals commonly found in other places, like Tempranillo, Albariño, Sangiovese and Trousseau.

Jim Rollston, Manresa: The main trend continuing right now that has been percolating for several years is a new look at unconventional varietals and blends. The number of non-mainstream varietal wines from California has been steadily increasing, and the quality is higher than ever.

Which California wine regions are you into right now? 

Wendy Shoemaker, Californios: The “limestone belt” running through San Benito/Monterey counties in American Viticultural Areas such as the Cienega Valley, Lime Kiln Valley, Mt. Harlan and Chalone.

Tonya Pitts, One Market: I’m excited about aromatic white wine varietals grown in Santa Barbara County. There are some great examples of old vine Chenin Blanc and Grüner Veltliner being grown in the region, and they are truly versatile with an array of dishes.

Jim Rollston, Manresa: Amongst established American Viticultural Areas, I am most excited about the Santa Cruz Mountains. The quality of classic varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, for me, stand alongside California’s greatest examples of those wines.

What kinds of dishes would you pair with some of California’s more traditional varietals?

Wendy Shoemaker, Californios: This sounds a bit crazy, but one of my favorites is Merlot and Indian food. The velvetiness of the wine is great with the curry spices! Another is Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir with duck and molé sauce.

Tonya Pitts, One Market: There are two dishes at One Market that pair really well with Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. The first is seared snapper with butter beans, escarole and lobster sauce. The wine complements all the elements of the dish without upstaging it—it becomes part of the dish. The other pairing is mushroom and sunchoke risotto with green apples, parmesan and cider reduction. The wine has a fair amount of mineral character on the palate, and the sunchoke, parmesan and cider reduction bring out more fruit in the Chardonnay.

Jim Rollston, Manresa: One of the best wine pairings I tasted this year was with a California Sauvignon Blanc. It was matched with a citrus-heavy dish that also included daikon, Imperial miso and komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach), and the intensity of flavor from the wine was perfect. When it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon, I’m old school; I like to pair it with beef!

In general, what influence do sauces, spices and preparation have on wine affinity?

Wendy Shoemaker, Californios: They have a huge effect—especially how a dish is cooked. Working with Mexican-inspired cuisine at Californios really helped me think outside the box with pairings, and I’ve found that California Zinfandel with juicy, dark fruit can be the perfect match for food with a bit of spiciness.

Tonya Pitts, One Market: My pairings are based on the protein, but the sauce and spices play a big role in the outcome of the pairing. I look for similar profiles in the wine and the dish, and highlight those similarities.

California Restaurant Month celebrations will take place at various times throughout the month of January, lasting from one week to 10 days. To find dates for participating cities and regions across California, visit www.visitcalifornia.com/california-restaurant-month.

Established in 1934, Wine Institute is the public policy advocacy group of nearly 1,000 California wineries and affiliated businesses that works to enhance the environment to responsibly produce, promote and enjoy wine. Wine Institute also supports the economic and environmental health of its communities through its leadership in sustainable winegrowing and a partnership with Visit California to showcase California’s wine and food offerings and the state as a top travel destination.  Wine Institute’s membership represents 80 percent of U.S. wine production and over 90 percent of U.S. wine exports. For information visit www.wineinstitute.org or its consumer website at: www.discovercaliforniawines.com.

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