These California Winemakers Create Wine Designed to Stand up to Spices

The vibrant new flavors of California wine country cuisine balance wine with spice, heat, herbs, and citrus.

Wine and spices

Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Audrey Taylor

Everyone knows what California wine country cuisine is.

It’s Cal-Ital, or farm-to-table, or farm-to-Cal-Ital-table, or something along those lines. Throw in a fancy burger or a steak and an ultra-super-mega-fancy meal at The French Laundry, and you’re done. Or think again.

Vintners all over the state are rethinking what “wine country cuisine” might be, using their own cultures as context. Consider, for instance, the complex flavors of traditional Persian recipes. As Kashy Khaledi, the owner of Napa Valley’s Ashes & Diamonds Winery, says, “Herbaceous dishes like ghormeh sabzi and kuku sabzi are spectacular with Cabernet Franc, while the opulence of fesenjan,” a stew with pomegranate and walnuts, “is a showstopper with older Merlots. Balanced cuisine pairs well with balanced wines, after all.”

“Balance is all” should probably be inscribed on an arch above the door of every winery, since it applies to every aspect of wine. But “great wine pairings can be found in every cuisine” probably ought to be there, too. At LXV Wine in Paso Robles, CEO and founder Neeta Mittal says, “Even the simplest Indian dish is a layering of sauces, dry spices, vegetables and proteins, and sometimes fresh herbs — these are flavors that beg for a complex wine. Some of my favorite pairings are chana masala with Beaujolais, biryani with semi-sparkling orange wine, and chicken tikka masala with white Sangiovese — and yes, we make one.”

Great sommeliers know this, too. When it comes to flavor, national borders are transparent, and cultural histories aren’t rigid boundaries — witness sommelier and consultant Nadine Brown’s wine dinners in Washington, D.C., where she matches wines with dishes from chefs from the Afro-Caribbean and Asian diaspora.

So the next time you open a bottle of Carneros Chardonnay, instead of a roast chicken, why not serve Rolando and Lorena Herrera’s pollo con chile with it? Or, from Alma Rosa winemaker Samra Morris, who grew up in Bosnia, how about some lamb and beef burek with your Central Coast Syrah instead of a lamb ragù — seriously, burek and Syrah go together like a charm. Because there’s no actual law that you have to serve cheese and charcuterie with wine, just like there’s no requirement that you make your Napa winery look like a villa airlifted in from Tuscany. Then again, Khaledi’s father, Darioush, has known that for more than 25 years — in 1997, he designed his eponymous winery on Napa’s Silverado Trail to look like a Persian temple.

01 of 06

Patacones (Colombian-Style Fried Plantains) with Sea Bass Ceviche

White Fish Ceviche with Patacones

Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Audrey Taylor

“In Colombia, both the Pacific and the Atlantic touch the land. Both have an incredible diversity of seafood, so fish, shrimp, and other shellfish can all be used in ceviche. My Alma de Cattleya Sauvignon Blanc has citrus and floral notes that blend perfectly with the lime juice here — this combination of my Colombian roots and California wine is an explosion of flavors. ” — Bibiana González Rave, owner/winemaker, Alma de Cattleya

02 of 06

Bún Bò Huế (Vietnamese Vermicelli Noodle Soup with Sliced Beef)

Bún bò Huế (Vietnamese Vermicelli Noodle Soup with Sliced Beef)

Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Audrey Taylor

“When it comes to Riesling, a lot of what we do at RD Winery is inspired by my own learning curves. I grew up thinking wine was meant to be paired with Eurocentric cuisines, so I hadn’t paired Riesling with bún bò Huê until recently. That’s when I learned just how well they work together.” — Mailynh Phan, CEO, RD Winery

03 of 06

Pollo con Chile

Pollo con Chile

Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Audrey Taylor

“Tender chicken with a sauce from grilled tomatoes, garlic, chiles, onions, and spices — it’s a delightful Mexican dish that reminds me of when I was growing up. Roll a spoonful in a fresh, handmade tortilla, pour yourself a glass of our Napa Cabernet, and toast to the divine gods of delicious food.” — Lorena Herrera, co-owner, Mi Sueño Winery

04 of 06

Tahchin with Sour Cherries and Yogurt Sauce

Tahchin with Sour Cherries and Garlic-Yogurt Sauce

Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Audrey Taylor

“Ashes & Diamonds tahchin goes well beyond — i.e., it’s not my mother’s tahchin —uniting uncommon ingredients such as fermented garlic, yogurt, koji, hydrated sour cherries (in Ashes & Diamonds’ Grand Vin, of course), and sherry vinegar with core ingredients such as basmati rice, saffron, and eggs. Paired with 2017 Grand Vin, the saffron flavors from the wine and the tahchin unfurl in stereo.” — Kashy Khaledi, proprietor and owner, Ashes & Diamonds

05 of 06

Jasmine-Infused Chicken Tikka Masala

Jasmine Chicken Tikka Masala

Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Audrey Taylor

“The spices lace the tangy tomato sauce that holds succulent pieces of seared chicken, but where the recipe really leaps off the page is the infusion with jasmine. Our LXV Blanc de Sangiovese dances with the acidity of the sauce and the aromatics of jasmine and spices. More importantly, it matches the tempo of the dish — a characteristic at the heart and center of food and wine pairings.” — Neeta Mittal, co-owner, LXV Wine

06 of 06

Lamb and Beef Burek

Lamb and Beef Burek

Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Audrey Taylor

“Burek has strong flavors, so I found a perfect match for it with our 2020 Alma Rosa El Jabali Syrah. The spiced meat in the pie perfectly matches with the complex tannins and dark fruit notes of the Syrah. If you’re single, though, watch out—in Bosnia, we like to joke that once someone can make a good burek, they’re ready to get married.” — Samra Morris, winemaker, Alma Rosa

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles