By Patricia Harris
SONOMA VALLEY, Calif. - Even dedicated oenophiles can find winery tours and tastings altogether too predictable, no matter how good the product. That's certainly true in California's Sonoma Valley, where many of the region's 200 or so wineries are open to the public. Yet on my last visit, I discovered a couple of vintners who have added a spark of imagination to the typical routine of pour, sniff, sip, and spit.
Owner Judy Jordan rejected business as usual when she opened the J Vineyards tasting center in 1999 to highlight the production of the winery she cofounded in 1986. A steady buzz of conversation bounces off the sleek surfaces in the stylish room that seems at first glance more like an urban bar during happy hour than a visitors center in the midst of vineyards and farms.
But the innovations go beyond attitude. J Vineyards claims to have been the first in Sonoma to improve upon the tasting ritual by offering flights of complementary wines and food.
``Our focus is to make foods that bring out flavors in the wine that you might not notice on your own,'' said chef Mark Caldwell. ``First, taste the wine on its own. Then try it with food. Our wines are food-friendly.''
That's assuming you can find a spot among the convivial crowd at the long bar of glass and acid-washed metal. Tasters can order a glass of wine with an accompanying bite of food or go for the full treatment of the J Flight: four wines with four separate morsels artfully arranged on a rectangular ceramic plate.
J's first vintage was a sparkling wine made in the traditional `` methode champenoise,'' and the bubbly is still the winery's flagship. The J Vintage Brut usually leads off the tasting flight, perhaps paired with pÂate and verjuice poached apple or with smoked salmon and white corn relish and dill crÁeme fraiche on English cucumber. The food is neither as fussy nor as precious as it sounds. Both dishes emphasize the crisp acidity that chardonnay and pinot noir grapes develop in Sonoma's Russian River Valley, a distinct fruitiness that J carries over into the finished sparkler.
The company also produces varietal still wines that are included in tasting flights. A medley of olives and roasted cherry tomatoes on crostini highlights the cherry and apricot overtones of the pinot noir. The citrus notes of J's chardonnay shine through when paired with a zucchini bread crouton with honey mascarpone and toasted sesame seeds.
One of Caldwell's favorite summer pairings is a shrimp and scallop ceviche with pinot gris. ``I make the ceviche spicy,'' he said, ``and the pinot gris's clean, bright fruit and full body turn the heat down a notch.''
The inventive little dishes are a far cry from a few palate-cleansing crackers. Whenever possible, Caldwell uses the array of local produce that one might expect in an area with 330 growing days a year. Unlike other regions where vineyards have crowded out traditional agriculture, grapes share the rich soil of Sonoma with dairy farms, sheep and goat herds, vegetable farms, olive groves, and apple, quince, fig, and pear orchards.
Ten miles south on Route 101, the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center celebrates this agricultural heritage. Installed in a chateau-style building in 1996, the center is the showpiece for the family-owned winery founded in 1982. A 2-acre organic garden plot surrounds the building, and visitors are encouraged to wander the lush grounds with a glass of wine in hand or even picnic under 100-year-old walnut trees that drop their fruit in the fall.
Several culinary gardens highlight the local bounty, with more than 170 varieties of heirloom tomatoes alone. International gardens feature the fruits and vegetables that give the flavor and punch to French, Italian, Latin American, and Asian cuisines.
As guide Dale Cullins led visitors through a display of grape varietals on trellis systems, he encouraged them to taste grapes right off the vine.
``We want people to realize that the chardonnay grape tastes like the chardonnay wine,'' Cullins said. ``All flavors of the grape come from the soil. Eighty percent of winemaking starts in the vineyard. The winemaker's job is not to screw it up.''
Tasting - and sniffing - continue in Kendall-Jackson's two wine sensory gardens, one devoted to white wines, the other to reds. The colorful plantings were created with no less ambitious goal than to demystify the esoteric vocabulary of wine-speak.
The four corners of each garden correspond to a different wine and are planted with fruits and vegetables that represent some of the elements of taste and smell in a given varietal. ``We're trying to get people to discover what smells like the wine,'' Cullins explained.
Take the Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, that barroom white-wine-by-the-glass staple. Its descriptors include peaches, lemons, and gardenias. People touch and sniff, then take a sip from a glass of chardonnay, and often experience an ``Aha!'' moment. I wandered into the red wine garden with a glass of merlot, finding its analogs in the scents of oregano, bell pepper, mint, and dill.
The center of each garden is planted with fruits and vegetables that pair well with the wine in a meal. Judging by the plantings, the next time I order a glass of Kendall-Jackson chardonnay I'll ask for an appetizer that uses potato, pumpkin, turnips, or corn spiked with thyme, mustard, or tarragon. Merlot, on the other hand, calls out for eggplant, black beans, broccoli, carrots, and green beans seasoned with sage, rosemary, or basil.
Who would have thought that wine appreciation would be a subtle way to persuade you to eat your vegetables?
Freelance writer Patricia Harris is based in Cambridge.