Cure the winter blues with these wine and small bites pairings
The holidays have vanished - the platters of luscious cheese, the groaning board buffets, the endless tins of cookies - and yet we still find ourselves in the middle of a long journey through the cold, gray woods of winter.
Home cooks, do not abandon hope! Banish the darkness of the season by inviting a few friends and family over for a small-plates, wine-pairing party. The appetizer celebration satisfies the demands of both the sensual and the sensible, bringing together decadence and portion control within a tantalizing array of small bites and sips.
“It’s the way I like to eat,” said Deirdre Francis, chef at Simoncini Vineyards in Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Valley. “Last Christmas Eve, I made all these little things ... They’re rich, so it feels like a meal.”
At Simoncini, Francis serves a wide array of small bites as part of the winery’s wine-and-food pairing program - named after the Venetian, small-plate tradition of “cicheti” (chee-key-tee). The pairings - six bites and sips that change with the seasons - celebrate the tradition of the Italian table while complementing the winery’s array of big reds, whites, dessert and sparkling wines made from estate-grown grapes and select vineyards.
The small-production (2,100 case) winery, open by appointment only, is situated on a bucolic stretch of West Dry Creek Road. In the winter, the pairings take place in the elegant wine cave, which opens up to various spaces as it stretches back nearly 650 feet into the hillside. In the summer, family-style picnics are served in a manicured glen next to the winery, carved by a creekbed.
“You taste the wine, but when you taste the wine with the food that accentuates it, it’s an experience,” Francis said.
The chef grew up in Concord as one of nine children, and her first cooking job was at a convent in Pleasant Hill, where she would make dinner for the nuns. After receiving a degree in home economics and nutrition from San Francisco State, she launched her own company, Deirdre Francis Catering of Concord, then moved to Sonoma County in 2012.
Because it is a small, family-run winery, everything and everyone at Simoncini wears many hats.
The crush pad outside the cave doubles as a summer party area, and the custom tables inside are built for flexibility, coming apart to create different configurations for business meetings or wine club parties, such as a recent holiday dessert soirée.
The cave took six years to complete and includes a waterproof rock tunnel with radiant heating and cooling, chandeliers, a baby grand piano and a picture window built into a section of the natural rock wall - a blend of shale, obsidian and quartz - that glistens under a waterfall.
The temperature is maintained at 58 to 62 degrees, and all the fermentation, barrel aging and bottling take place underground in the cave.
“It’s all about control,” Francis said. “That’s why we have our own bottling line and warehouse.”
The chef plays several different roles, both inside and outside the kitchen.
“I’m the chef, I run the wine club and I do the tours,” said Francis, who is also the “sweetheart for life” of vintner Ken Simoncini, owner of the winery with his father, Bob Simoncini.
Ken Simoncini grew up in San Francisco, and his father ran a liquor store in Daly City. “That’s how he got his love of wine,” she said. “Ken is detail oriented and a man of vision.”
The Simoncini family roots in the region date back to 1907, when “nonno Tony” came from Genoa, Italy, with his two brothers to farm peaches, prunes and wine grapes.
Simoncini Vineyards was established in 2002, and its first harvest was in 2012, when winemaker Dan Cuzzi came on board to oversee the boutique line of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viognier, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and the prized zinfandel sourced from Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander valleys as well as Rockpile. The winery also produces an estate zinfandel grown on St. George rootstock that was field-grafted with 100-year-old St. Peter’s Church bud wood sourced from an old-vine vineyard in Cloverdale.
“We grow 8 acres of zin behind the cave,” Francis said. “Last year, we lost some vineyards (as grape sources), so Ken bought land in the Russian River Valley.”
There are three proprietary blends: the “Serio Bianco” viognier, “Grande Rosso” zinfandel and “Serio Rosso” cabernet sauvignon.
To honor Ken’s parents, the winery also produces two dessert wines: “Glorious” Late Harvest Muscat Canelli and “Robusto” Late Harvest Estate Zinfandel.
In addition, Francis enjoys pairing her small bites with a Simoncini sparkling pinot noir - “Bollicini Rosa” - made in the “méthode champenoise” style by Gerald Ployez of Ployez Consulting in Lower Lake. “It has tiny pink bubbles,” she said. “We go very brut - dry and sparkling.”