Smoked Andouille sausage

The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards made a major shift that should delight patrons who enjoy food and wine pairings.

The managing team now offers The Vineyard Table three-course meals Friday through Sunday for lunch. The pairings menu replaces weekend brunches and Monday-Friday al la carte menus. The restaurant is closed on Mondays, open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday (traditional al la carte menu) with the pairings menu for lunch.

Patice Yee Green explained in an email that the busiest times at the restaurant were weekends and evenings, so this new approach allows the team to focus on the luncheon wine and food pairings while continuing to refine the seasonal dishes at dinner.

We learned about the new approach when we dined on a recent hot Saturday afternoon. Although the restaurant has abundant patio dining, including full shade under the roof, we opted for a quiet table inside with the air conditioning. We are much more familiar with the golf course and the grill, so it was a treat to enjoy the exceptional cuisine at the restaurant. The grill will continue to serve al la carte items throughout the day.

Our server, Jason, a veteran of 16 years at the restaurant, recommended that we order each item on the menu, so we could taste each pairing. We followed his advice and supplemented the three courses with an optional cheese course.

The menus result from a partnership between Executive Chef Mike Ward and Sommelier Jorge Tinoco. It offers the winery the opportunity to showcase its small lot and Nth Degree wines that are not widely distributed. The Vineyard Table wine list includes four Nth Degree offerings; five Small Lots, four of the Artist Series of Small Lots and two Winemaker’s Selection. These bottles are available for purchase in the restaurant without joining a wine club, although the savings with the wine club add up rapidly.

Wine Director/Sommelier Tinoco said, “Those of us (foodies and oenophiles) that live in a parallel universe full of seasonal ingredients paired with legendary lieux-dits are rewarded by the opportunity to have daily changing menus and we take full advantage of the on-site garden and our library of wines. Chef Mike and I collaborate extensively on each dish and pairing to ensure that every bite or sip not only is memorable and unique, but also reassures the guest that there is always another surprise in store for when they return.”

Our starter was a small square of cantaloupe with prosciutto paired with a crisp Grand Prix, a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

Let’s stipulate—the pairings were excellent—some stood out.

buratta and pluot on Pain Lavain

My bride started with stone fruit (a red pluot) served under Burrata on Pain Lavain (sourdough bread). It was paired with the Wente Brut from the Arroyo Seco Vineyards in Monterey County.

I could not resist the baby beets with goat cheese, strawberries and pistachios paired with a Pinot Noir Rose, again from the Arroyo Seco vineyards. Wow. I liked it so well I made a version of it with beets from our garden and strawberries. The Wente version comes from their garden next to the restaurant.

At Jason’s suggestion, we then slipped in the cheese course with San Andreas cheese from Bellwether Farms in Petaluma. Roasted nuts, local honeycomb, thinly sliced apples and double-toasted thin toast completed the plate along with Nth Degree Chardonnay from the Livermore Valley. My bride liked the wine better with the pairings—I found it excellent both by itself and then as we put honey on the apple, or the cheese and ate them together. It was fun to experiment.

Roasted halibut

For main courses, I opted for the roasted halibut (a petite, thin serving of the fish) served over black rice with a frisee and green beans over a base of wonderful tarragon aioli. It was paired with Eric’s Chardonnay, named for winemaker Karl Wente’s father, Eric. It is made entirely in stainless steel with no time in oak barrels. It’s one of five Chardonnays that the “First Family of Chardonnay” makes each year.

The others are the ever-popular Riva Ranch Chardonnay from Monterey and the Livermore Valley Morning Fog Chardonnay, that has been ranked highly by wine critics.  The Brut sparkling wine is sourced from Riva Ranch Chardonnay vines, while this year, for the winery’s 135th anniversary, they’ve released a Celebratory Chardonnay that is blended from grapes from both Livermore and Monterey.

For her entrée, my bride selected the smoked Andouille sausage, made in the Wente kitchen. It was served over Beluga lentils with a seasonal cherry chutney and basil. It was paired with a small lot Livermore Valley Counoise, a Rhone varietal. It was 80 percent Counoise with 20 percent Grenache. The sausage was wonderful with a little bit of pepper bite on the finish.

Chocolate cherry cake

We finished with two delightful desserts. The chocolate cherry cake (seasonal cherries) with whipped cherry cream and 66 percent cocoa custard. It was delightfully light and paired sensationally (what chocolate doesn’t?) with the Wente Petite Sirah Port. I am not a great fan of chocolate desserts, but I sure enjoyed my taste of this one.

Panna Cotta with apricot chutney

I chose the Earl Grey flavored Panna Cotta with brown sugar streusel and apricot chutney. It was a relatively large portion of the Panna Cotta, delightfully topped by the apricot and streusel. It was paired with an Orange Muscat, a wine I never could imagine ordering, but worked perfectly with this dessert. My bride, who has been making Panna Cotta since enjoying a trip to Spain several years ago with our daughter, came home and immediately made an Earl Grey-flavored one for a family gathering topped with an apricot mixture from our tree.

Jason welcomed us asking for a bit more of any wine served so my bride enjoyed another pour of Port, while I returned to the NthDegree Chard.

At $65 each plus tax and an 18 percent tip, it’s not your typical lunch, but it’s perfect for a special occasion. During our chats, Jason said that the June menu had been changed mid-month to fine tune it to what’s available in the garden.

Wente wines poured by the glass

During our lunch, two multi-generational large groups arrived, one was seated in the shade on the patio, while the other took a very long table in the dining room. Both included small children. There is a children’s menu offered starters of soup, a fruit plate or chopped Caesar salad. Main courses were pasta with a choice of Alfredo, Marinara of Butter and Parmesan ($9) or roasted chicken breast with vegetables ($18). An ice cream sundae was offered for dessert with fruit juice punch, a Shirley Temple or Roy Rogers or sodas offered as beverages.

We dined the last day of June so the July menu is online as this post was being prepared. The starters are a melon with brie and prosciutto paired with Grand Prix (the Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend that was served with a similar dish in June), while the second choice is a green garden salad with strawberries and pistachio paired with the Rose of Pinot.

Entrees shifted to day boat scallops, paired with the Eric’s Chardonnay and filet mignon paired with Lot 006, a Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Only eight barrels were made of that wine.

The desserts featured a vanilla panna cotta with stone fruit and the Orange Muscat, while the chocolate choice was walnut mousse, again paired with Port.

Cheese plate with 9th Degree Chardonnay

The optional cheese course was a Midnight Moon Cheese paired with the Nth Degree Syrah.

The bottom line: check back because the menu will continue to shift even mid-month so if it doesn’t appeal today, it may hit your sweet spot in two weeks.

By Tim Hunt

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