For many chefs, it’s no longer enough to know where their ingredients come from: They want to grow, butcher and preserve the foods they work with, too. In recent years, sommeliers and beverage directors have also been getting into the DIY trend by making wine, either for their own restaurant lists or for retail stores. As might be expected, the wines from these pairing masters are exceptionally food-friendly, with relatively low levels of alcohol (sometimes below 13 percent), lots of refreshing acidity and beautifully balanced fruit flavors. And because so many sommeliers also love to cook at home, they are creating recipes that show off just how well their wines go with food.
For winemaking inspiration, many of these pairing pros look to France. Rajat Parr, wine director for restaurants in the San Francisco–based Mina Group, makes a meaty, peppery Syrah near Santa Barbara that’s more reminiscent of the restrained wines of the northern Rhône than the over-the-top, fruit-forward bottles that California produces in abundance. His Parr Selection Purisima Mountain Syrah is a fabulous match for his Syrah-braised lamb shoulder, which is topped with olives and dried cherries that have been soaked in yet more Syrah: The deeply savory flavors of the wine and the food are delectable together.
Kevin O’Connor, the former wine director at Beverly Hills’ Spago restaurant, models his single-vineyard LIOCO Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs on the earthy, understated wines of Burgundy. His Sonoma County Chardonnay, made with grapes from several local vineyards, has a bit of California richness—delicious with his herb-rubbed chicken with sautéed morel mushrooms. Salad is always a tough match for wine, but O’Connor’s Chardonnay blend also has a bracing acidity that tastes great with the watercress he serves alongside the bird, tossed with a roasted garlic vinaigrette made with the chicken juices.
Says Caroline Styne, the sommelier and co-owner of Lucques and AOC restaurants in Los Angeles, “My whole thing was that I wanted my Pinot Noir to taste like Pinot—elegant, lean and slightly austere.” Her silky, herbal Jules Harrison Pinot Noir is a terrific partner to light fish dishes, like her grilled halibut. She tops the fillets with a nutty browned butter flavored with tomatoes and tarragon.
Styne, like many of the other sommeliers featured here, makes wine in very limited quantities (she started with 130 cases of Jules Harrison Pinot Noir). For anyone eager to seek out these bottles, they are often available at top restaurants and retailers. While the sommeliers don’t envision their bottlings becoming as wildly popular as blockbuster wines that are high in alcohol and full of ripe fruit, they are committed to a lighter, more food-friendly style. “If you make these wines,” says Parr, “you have to be able to live with getting 87 points from the critics instead of 97.” Ignore the numbers: No matter how they score, these wines are phenomenal partners to the dishes here.