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Wine Country Secrets

There's another world of fine dining hiding in plain sight

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There are dozens of North Bay restaurants, but there are many more you've probably never heard about, unbookable on OpenTable, but hiding in plain sight. How can that be? Well, you have to stretch the term "restaurant."

Napa and Sonoma county wineries are waging a culinary arms race to outdo each other with offerings that go miles beyond cheese and crackers as they strive to distinguish themselves and attract customers. The winners are food and wine lovers looking to eat and drink in stunning surroundings.

Given wineries' ample land holdings, many wineries grow produce on-site and employ culinary gardeners who make fresh vegetables available to winery chefs. That makes for some great farm-to-table eating and drinking. And wine needs food to shine. Some wines, like Pinot Noir, don't show as well without a bite of food to punch up or accentuate their flavors and aromas, so wineries are doing themselves a favor by offering their wines alongside well-paired plates of food.

Many wineries offer exclusive dining opportunities to their club members, but it's not always necessary to join to enjoy the food, though more elaborate meals will likely require reservations. Typically, wineries offer both lighter, appetizer plates and more elaborate prix fixe, multi-course meals. Since the experience is all about matching food with wine, there's no need to choose which wines go with which course. They do that for you.

On the other side of the equation, being a winery chef is a plum job, given the wine and ingredients at their disposal. Plus, there's one less obvious perk: nights off. Except for special events, local ordinances generally prohibit wineries from serving food past 5pm. That means you'll have to rustle up dinner elsewhere, but given the opulent food and wine pairings, you may be ready for a nap instead of another meal.

What follows are some of our favorite winery dining options in Sonoma and Napa counties.

Chalk Hill

Passing through the gates of Healdsburg's Chalk Hill winery feels like entering a private kingdom—which of course, it is. Billionaire William P. Foley II, chairman of Fidelity National, owns the winery, as well as 21 others in California, Oregon and New Zealand. He's also majority owner of the Vegas Golden Knight's NHL hockey team.

Foley's private residence at Chalk Hill rises above the oak-covered hills that form a natural amphitheater. Above it sits the mammoth "pavilion," a former horse-training center with soaring, arched ceilings. Attached to it is a series of modern, glass-walled cubes that house the winery's 24-seat dining room and kitchen.

The two-and-a-half-hour culinary tours ($110 per person) begin at 10am with a tour of the winery's garden and vineyard followed by a sit-down, four-course meal prepared by chef Annie Hongkham, paired with Chalk Hill wines. Diners don't know what they'll be eating until it arrives on the table. Hongkham changes the menu every few days, depending on what she gets from the winery's four and a half acres of gardens. (The winery also operates Chalkboard and Brass Rabbit restaurants in Healdsburg; the restaurants get their produce from the winery's gardens, too.)

"We make the meal around that," says Hongkham. "We want [diners] to be intrigued and have fun."

Recent dishes included compressed melon salad with mini aioli and toasted quinoa, house-cured king salmon tartare and roasted gulf snapper with coconut milk, ginger, rhubarb and tomato. chalkhill.com.

J Vineyards & Winery

J J Vineyards & Winery offers three different culinary experiences: a five-course meal paired with six wines in their Bubble Room, four tapas paired with four wines on their terrace with Russian River views and a cheese plate paired with creative accompaniments.

"I don't mean to boast, but I think we have one of the most unique tasting experiences in wine country," says executive chef Carl Shelton. He's been at J for a year and comes to the winery from stints at the Michelin three-star-rated Meadowood restaurant in St. Helena and Spoonbar in Healdsburg.

The Bubble Room menu is the star of the show. One hundred and ten dollars equates to a roughly two-and-half-hour dining experience with Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and the sparkling wines the winery is known for. And the food is not snack-sized.

"We like you to experience the food, drink the wine and keep trying it back and forth so you can get the nuances of the wine or what the food brings to the wine," says Shelton. "We use the wine as an ingredient. It's pretty fun to pair and blow people's minds with food and wine pairings."

Shelton is excited about his California white sturgeon grilled over Japanese binchotan charcoal and served with Sonoma County Galia melon that has been compressed in a vacuum and carbonated. It's finished with a lemony sabayon sauce. The interplay of the flavors and textures are a great match for a J extra brut sparkling wine.

While wine and cheese is not unique, Shelton says he seeks out hard-to-come-by cheeses like Bleating Heart's Death and Taxes beer-washed cheese. He serves it with a bacon-pretzel chocolate brittle for a riff off pretzels and beer. jwine.com.

Hamel Family Wines

For sheer wow factor, Hamel Family Wines in Sonoma is one of the most stunning wineries anywhere. Open by appointment only, this modern winery has incredible views of Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain, and offers several "experiences." There's a custom experience, where you can dream up the food and wine experience of your choosing with "a charge commensurate with that experience." The $100 reserve experience includes a tour and a tasting of four reserve wines paired with a small plate prepared by Executive Chef Clinton Huntsman. hamelfamilywines.com.

Del Dotto Vineyards

Del Dotto Vineyard's St. Helena Venetian Estate Winery & Caves has multiple dining opportunities, for club members and hoi polloi alike. Executive chef Joshua Schwartz used to cook at the French Laundry and has some serious chops. He offers a five-course menu paired with four wines for $95 that includes dishes like "Everything Bagel" potato pavé with Tsar Nicoulai caviar, Smoked Sturgeon Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, Maine lobster roll and Hudson Valley foie gras terrine.

Not all of the action happens in the kitchen; some of it happens in the winery's charcuterie aging room, a dimly lit locker at the end of a long hall in the winery's Medieval rococo tasting room. Legs of sublimely delicious Mangalitsa pork are aged for months and years here, and result in some of the most exquisite cured-pork products you'll have anywhere. But it's only available at the winery's private club events. It might be worth joining just to get a slice of that. deldottovineyards.com.

Pine Ridge Vineyards

Steeped in greenery and featuring romantic, cozy cellars and tasting rooms, Pine Ridge Vineyards is located in the Stags Leap District AVA of Napa and is home to some outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon. The food program, overseen by chef Susan Lassalette, is no slouch either. The Savor Pine Ridge tasting, held in the white-walled, low-ceiling, cave-like Cellar 47, goes for $125 and includes five estate Cabernet Sauvignons. The current menu to accompany the well-loved wine variety includes a Parmesan panna cotta with Cabernet cherries; Agoura Petit Brebis cheese with medjool dates and wildflower honey; pork rillettes with prunes and walnut toast; smoked duck "biscuit" with fig jam; and the ultimate combination of street food and hors d'oeuvres, a Niman Ranch beef empanada with pimentón glaze. pineridgevineyards.com.

Scribe Winery

Brothers Andrew and Adam Mariani founded Sonoma's Scribe Winery with an eye toward the informed, millennial crowd. The winery's food offerings, held in the picturesque "hacienda," feature pop-ups and guest-chef series. One opportunity to wine and dine is the weekly, rotating chef-in-residence series. Sixty dollars gets you lunch and wines to match. The reservation-only event is held the month of July only and has included such standout guest chefs such as Steve and Julya Shin from Nokni in Oakland, who brought their California-Korean flavors, and Julia Sherman, author of Salad for President.

Scribe also hosts chef events and culinary-themed release parties, which are open to its Scribe Viticultural Society members first and non-members second. In the past, culinary guests have included Stuart Brioza from San Francisco's lauded State Bird Provisions; Eric Werner and Mya Henry from Heartwood in Tulum, Mexico; and Brooklyn restaurateur Andrew Tarlow. To stay on top of the abundance, it's wise to follow Scribe on Instagram (@scribewinery) or sign up for the newsletter on their website. scribewinery.com.

Robert Sinskey Vineyards

Robert Sinskey's Napa Valley winery relies on chef Maria Helm Sinskey to match food to its wines. The winery's website features original recipes paired with each wine, but upon visiting, there's no cooking needed. There are plenty of options for nibbling and sipping.

Seventy dollars will get you a flight of wine paired with seasonal bites like asparagus with quail egg or crispy salmon cakes with crème fraîche. For $95, the Perfect Circle Tour includes a visit to the culinary gardens, a peek at the wine-production process and a wine-infused lunch. The $175 Chef's Table is the most indulgent and includes a proper five-course lunch, served Saturday and Sunday at noon by appointment.

Looking for a one-time, special-occasion dining experience? July 22, the winery hosts a "mid-summer night's dinner", featuring fattoush salad, grilled sweet corn soup, rack of lamb with tomato fondue and buttermilk shortbread with garden strawberries. $250 per person. robertsinskey.com.

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