St. Francis Winery Small Plates Pairing

September is IMG_2841the perfect time of year to visit wine country. It is still warm, but not horribly hot, and the crush is just starting so the winery staff is happy to be there. The tourist season is mostly over which means you get a combination of small crowds, happy winemakers, and plenty of interesting things to see.

We had the opportunity to do the St. Francis winery Small Plate Tasting during our trek through Sonoma county wine country in September.  We had read great reviews of the small plate lunch from Zagat and other satisfied customers and wanted to see it for ourselves. We were particularly interested in the wine pairing aspect of the lunch.

Grape harvest

Pick grapes being dumped into de-stemmer

On our way to St. Francis, we stopped by Kenwood Winery for a quick taste of their wines. Kenwood was pouring their entire line of wines,  five of which you could taste for a small five dollar charge (The lowest price we paid for a tasting excepting Carol Shelton who gave tastings for free).

While their wines were disappointing and will not be reviewed in this article, the visit is worth mentioning because we arrived at the same time as one of their grape trucks. Cathy, Sandra and Dave went out to watch them dump into the de-stemming tank while Mister Doctor and I tasted.



Chardonnay free-run juice, the grapes, and the finished wine

When the truck had dumped, we all met up again in the tasting room and were offered a taste of the free run juice from the recently harvested Chardonnay grapes, along with a bunch of Chardonnay grapes, and the finished Chardonnay side by side. It was very interesting to taste the variation of sweetness and flavor between the different incarnations of the grape.

After our Kenwood detour, we piled back into the van and drove up the road to St. Francis, a winery with a much larger tasting room and general feel than any of the other wineries we had stopped at in Sonoma. As we entered the parking lot, we noted the large bell tower on the top of the visitors center. The bell was cast in bronze by the same person responsible for the bells in the Vatican and tolls the hour with a lovely deep tone.

St. Francis winery was established in 1971 and their winemaker Tom Mackey joined in 1983. Tom Mackey was instrumental in bringing Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel wines under the St. Francis roof.


IMG_2852We had reservations for the small plate tasting at 2pm. We were led, along with two other small groups, into a very open dining room. The table was a hollow circle with a gap in the middle for servers to pass through. In the corner was a small bar with their wines lined up in very attractive alcoves behind it. In addition, there was a temperature controlled cellar attached to the bar larger than my fridge at home.

The Small Plate Tasting is the child of Executive Chef David Bush. He rotates the menu every few weeks based on what is available locally (the vegetables were right out of the gardens next to their parking lot) as well as what he feels will go well with the wines being poured. David was not there for our tasting, but he was well represented by his Sous Chef.

After a quick round table introduction session with the other groups, our first course was brought out.

First Course:  Heirloom Tomato Salad with Pickled Compressed Peaches, Burrata mint, and Harissa Croutons. That was paired with their 2012 Pinot Gris, Russian River Valley.

First Course

Heirloom Tomato Salad with Pickled Compressed Peaches, Burrata mint, and Harissa Croutons

The Wine alone was bright and crisp. A fairly basic, but well done Pinot Gris that hit all the notes you would expect. It had a very high acid level, and good stone fruit flavors.

Before I go any further, I should note that Cathy did all her wine notes based completely off of smell. Since she is pregnant, she cannot taste the wine, but we did have her portion of wine poured for her. She gave her impressions of both the wine and the pairing without tasting, and the accuracy of her notes was astonishing. It highlighted the relationship between taste and smell for me better than any article about the two possibly could.

Back to the pairings!

The peaches and wine together were the clear source of the pairing choice. They went together very well as the acidity of the wine enhanced the sweetness of the peaches. The Heirloom tomatoes on the other hand, did not go well and if the tomatoes were combined with the cheese, the wine vanished completely.

I note the Harissa croutons only because I will be shamelessly stealing that idea for a future salad. They were delicious and earthy, everything you want in a garnish without taking away from the main focus of the salad.




Second Course: Seared Mount Lassen Trout with Roasted Royal Trumpet Mushroom, Creamed Corn and Broccoli di Ciccio finished with Almond Brown Butter.

Second Course

Second course at the St. Francis Small Plate tasting of Seared Mount Lassen Trout with Roasted Royal Trumpet Mushroom, Creamed Corn and Broccoli di Ciccio finished with Almond Brown Butter

This was paired with their 2011 Chardonnay, Wild Oak, Sonoma County. Their Chardonnay goes through 50% malolactic fermentation, converting only half of the harsh malic acid into milder lactic acid. This resulted in a wine that was neither crisp, nor buttery, but somewhere in the no-man’s land in between.

The mountain trout was rather unimpressive, though it was cooked very well with a very crispy skin. The star of the dish was the creamed corn which was still fresh and lively despite being creamed. I quite liked the trumpet mushroom and found it to be the best pairing with the wine.

The creamed corn and wine together did not go at all, the Trout and wine were neutral, but the Mushroom and wine were divine. I was interested to note that the broccoli and wine made the wine vanish again.  That makes two dishes in a row where ingredients served rendered the wine absent.



Third Course: Korean Style Fried Chicken with Kimchi Fried Rice, Sesame, Green Onions, and Sweet and Spicy Sauce.

Third Course

Korean Style Fried Chicken with Kimchi Fried Rice, Sesame, Green Onions, and Sweet and Spicy Sauce

It was paired with their 2009 Cabernet Franc, Sonoma Valley. This wine is the model of a Cab Franc. Slight vegetation and warm spice on the nose, with blackberry and cherry compote. If I were teaching a wine appreciation class, this is the bottle I would use to illustrate Cab Franc.

The Korean Style Fried Chicken is the second best fried chicken I have had in my life(the first being the double fried buttermilk chicken from Maggie’s Farm in Baltimore, do yourself a favor and try it. Kings would go to war over the recipe). It was the clear winner for me as far as the food section of the menu. With such high praise for the food, and decent marks for the wine, I would have expected more from the pairing of the two.

It was far and away the weakest pairing of the day. The chicken was so spicy it washed out the wine. Our wine glasses were taken at the end of each course, but Cathy held on to hers to take a picture of them all at the end since she wasn’t drinking them. That gave us access to earlier pours to compare against what they provided.

The Pinot Gris from the first course paired beautifully with the spiciness of the Chicken, and may have even been the pairing of the day if they had gone that route. I would like to note that this was suggested by Cathy based solely on her smelling the Pinot Gris after tasting the Chicken. When she is able to taste again, I might be out of a job….

Fourth Course: Red Wine Braised Short Rib with Basil Potato Puree, Candied Carrots, Brussels Sprout Leaves, Fried Shallots, and Braising Jus. (Phew, I got tired just typing all that.)


Red Wine Braised Short Rib with Basil Potato Puree, Candied Carrots, Brussels Sprout Leaves, Fried Shallots, and Braising Jus

Served with their 2010 Meritage, Anthem, Sonoma Valley. It is referred to as Anthem because the wine maker wanted it to be like a song in your mouth. I swear I am not making that up. It is a very mellow Meritage with notes of Chalk, Currant and Plum at the front with Black Pepper and Pomegranate at the finish.

This was a reasonably successful pairing all around. Each part of the dish went fairly well with the wine, though they may have done too good a job on the beef as it did overshadow the wine a bit. I will say that the highlight of that dish for me was the Basil Potato Puree. That is another idea I will be claiming shortly in my own kitchen. I felt that the Beef with a bit of the Puree was the bite of the dish.

Fifth Course

Crostini over a cube of Blue cow’s milk cheese

The Fifth and Final Course: A two part dessert  with a Crostini  over a cube of Blue Cow’s milk cheese and figs on one side, and a Dark Chocolate Cremeux with Strawberries, Whipped Cream, and a Cocoa Crisp on the other.

This was shamelessly paired with a Port Style wine, their 2010 Port, Sonoma County. The port is made by taking half of their barrel and sending it out to be made into brandy. It is then returned to the barrel and comes out rich with berries, cherries, and toasted notes. A spoonful of the Cremeux with a sip of Port was confessional worthy.

After the last dish was cleared away, the Sous Chef came out and answered any questions we had about the dinner.


Dark Chocolate Cremeux with Strawberries, Whipped Cream, and a Cocoa Crisp

I was too fat and happy to come up with any good questions, but she did tell me how they made the Basil Potato Puree so I will graciously forgive myself for not being sharper in my questioning.

Mister Doctor and myself are very interested in pairing (hence the blog). The opportunity to see a professional who spends his time specifically pairing wine and food for a winery at work was educational. It seemed that every dish had an element that worked ,but several that did not. Some even had pairings on them that failed miserably.

In all, the experience and food were well worth the trip and price. I found Cathy’s ability to tell what would work and what wouldn’t based on nose alone worth the price of admission. My own pairings at home will, hopefully, be improved for the experience. A highly recommended lunch, just don’t make the mistake we did of scheduling dinner two hours after it ends. There is little fear of leaving the lunch wanting a bowl of cereal.


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