This is the third post in the Quick Weekend Getaway to Napa / Sonoma Series. Other posts in this series include: Benzinger Family Winery, and Jack London State Park.
This is also post #20 on the 31 Posts in 31 Days Challenge. Two thirds of the way!
This has got to be one of the best kept secrets in Sonoma. A 7-course tasting of delectable, sophisticated mini-courses paired with a winery’s reserve wines for only $35?
I had never heard of Mayo Family Winery before I visited their reserve tasting room for this delightful late lunch. After all, they are a small, family-owned winery that specializes in single vineyard wines. They make their wine in small batches. You can only purchase their wines directly through them – whether it be through the wine club, the website, or at the winery store. It’s not distributed nationwide.
Despite it being less well known, it has still received high praise from wine reviewers around, most notably Eric Asimov, food and wine critic of the New York Times.
In fact, that’s how they got their first big break.
As the story goes, Diane Mayo, who had lived in and around Sonoma pretty much her entire life, decided to grow some chardonnay grapes in 1990. Her husband cleared the valley and planted 3000 chardonnay vines. In 1993 they bottled their first chardonnay, which they made in a family barn on the property that served as a makeshift winery. They were mostly drinking the wine themselves, sometime offering it to friends as gifts.
Their son, Jeffrey Mayo, was living in Southern California at the time working a high-powered finance job. He came home one day and saw the huge pile of wine and asked his parents if he could try “peddling” their wine in southern California.
Jeffrey ate at local restaurants a lot and knew many people in the industry. One day, he brought some of his family’s wines to one of the restaurants for a tasting.
A stranger who happened to be sitting nearby expressed interest in trying some.
He loved the wine.
The stranger turned out to be Eric Asimov. He wrote about it and overnight, Mayo Family Winery was put on the map.
The winery is a much bigger operation now compared to the barn winery they had back in the early days. They have since purchased another property in the Russian River Valley, as well as hire a dedicated winemaker, Michel Berthoud, who has been with them since 2004.
We visited their Reserve Tasting Room, which is actually about a mile away from the rest of the winery. The tasting room is just reserved for this 7-course food/wine pairing.
We entered and met Chef Clayton Lewis, who took us on a fun, story-filled, and delicious journey through 7-courses and 7 glasses of wine.
“Chardonnay. This is how it all began . . .”
As he unfolded the story that I just shared with you above, we began slowly savoring each pairing, studying how the wine brought out the flavors of the food, and vice versa.
The first course, Pea Tendril and White Anchovy Salad, also included bacon, tomatoes, piment d’esplette (a chili), and tiny little croutons for textural crunch. The overall dish, which had strong tart and briny notes, was nicely balanced by the 2012 Roussanne from Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($40/bottle), a white wine made from a Rhone varietal with hints of grapefruit.
Apple Blue Cheese and Pistachio Raviolis with Yuzu Gastrique was delicious, with a strong, pungent blue cheese flavor balanced out by the bright and citrusy yuzu gastrique. This was paired with a 2010 Reserve Chardonnay from Laurel Hill Vineyard ($40/bottle), which was rich and buttery. In fact, the yuzu gastrique enhanced the buttery flavors of the chardonnay.
Boneless Beef Shortrib, Baby Arugula, and Orzo was fork-tender soft (no need for a knife!), hearty, rich, and delicious. It was served with a 2008 Reserve Barbera from Kunde Ranch Vineyard ($40/bottle). The wine was quite acidic, with elements of pomegranate and strawberry. Chef Clayton admitted that this is a wine meant to go with food and actually tastes too tart on its own. In this case it nicely cut the richness of the shortrib. At the same time, the shortrib cut the acidity of the wine – a synergistic pairing.
We then moved onto the red wines, which were paired with dishes based on beef and pork.
Talk about rare beef! This next course, Grilled New York Strip and Beluga Lentils came served on top of a gorgeously rich veal demiglace. This was paired with a 2010 Carbernet Sauvignon from the winemaker’s own vineyard, the Berhoud Family Vineyards ($50/bottle). The beef was delicious (we loved how rare it was!), and it went well with the wine, which had elements of blackberry and cherry oak.
Pork Al Pastor and Papas Bravas was excellent. We learned from the chef that the pork was prepared sous vide (thus the soft texture). We paired this with a 2010 Zinfandel from Ricci Vineyards, Russian River Valley ($40/bottle). The zinfandel definitely had elements of jamminess (“zinberry” is what the chef called it) and was generally a fruit forward wine. However, it also had a good amount of earthiness and tannins. It worked really well with the food.
Porchetta and White Bean Ragout was paired with 2011 Primitivo from Rossi Ranch, Sonoma Valley ($40/bottle).
“Do you know the difference between Primitivo and Zinfandel?” asked Chef Clayton.
It turns out that primitivo is genetically the exact same grape as the zinfandel (which we had just tried). They are both clones that descended from a rare Croatian grape cvarietal Crljenak (I don’t know how to pronounce that either). The zinfandel is American while the primitivo is Italian. Well, in this case these primitivo grapes came back to Sonoma Valley from Italy.
We found the primitivo to be much earthier and less fruit forward, which might be due to its terroir. Primitivo grapes grows in volcanic soil in Italy. As Chef Clayton said, the primitivo has a “tortured past” from those harsh conditions. These characteristics make the primitivo a better food wine.
For dessert, we enjoyed an Orange Dreamsicle paired with a 2011 Late Harvest Gewurtztraminer from Kunde Ranch Vineyard in Sonoma Valley ($35/half bottle). The dessert consisted of tangerines cooked in saffron and topped with a light air-whipped brie. On the side was one perfect dollop of a single toasted marshmallow. The Gewurtztraminer, a dessert wine, had elements of stone fruits, bacon, and a bright acidity in its finish.
It was a fabulous, educational, delicious, and fun lunch. I still can’t believe that entire 7-course tasting (plus generous pours of wine) only cost $35 ($25 if you’re a member of the club). Heck, if I lived close by, I would totally become a club member and just come here to eat at least once a week.
Chef Clayton Lewis is an excellent host and really makes the whole tasting really entertaining. The Mayo Family Reserve Room is dedicated to these tastings. It’s in a building that’s separated from the rest of the winery (thus you aren’t bombarded by normal visitors dropping by just to taste or purchase wine). We came at an odd time on a holiday (2:30PM), so we had Chef Clayton to ourselves for the first hour or so, which was nice. If the room is filled up (I think there are six tables?) then he does hop between tables.
I would highly recommend coming here. The food and wine pairings are excellent and the overall experience is fun. Keep in mind the food portions are bite-sized and the entire tasting is not designed to be a full meal. For me it was a perfectly sized lunch, especially since we had enjoyed some decadent baked goods in the morning (post coming soon!) and would be heading off for a fancy tasting menu for dinner later on that day.
For more information on this tasting, click here.
This tasting was set up for me by the Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau. Bryan and I did not pay for the tasting. All opinions are my own.
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