Sandra Simile checks on the chicken and fingerling potatoes roasting in the oven, then kicks a step stool into place, allowing her to climb up and stir a tall pot on the cooktop in the kitchen at Lynmar Estate. At 4-foot-10, Simile needs help with her reach but certainly not with her deft, confident cooking.
She crumbles fresh goat cheese over a citrus-dressed salad and gently stirs a creamy butternut squash risotto, pleased with the meal's progress. This is local food as California's bounty can provide it on a sweet, sunny fall day: All of the ingredients she is using for this harvest dinner for Lynmar Estate proprietors Lynn and Anisya Fritz and friends were plucked that day from the garden outside her door or purchased from artisanal producers not too far afield.
Simile is one of those lucky cooks whose ranks have been growing in California as the food-wine equation has matured: the winery chef. It's her job to match delicious, locally sourced meals to the top-notch chardonnays and pinot noirs produced at the Russian River Valley winery Lynmar Estate.
Lynmar winemaker Bibiana González Rave describes the Sonoma Valley location as magical and, cliché be excused, it is. Sonoma, less commercially intense than Napa, is heaven for lovers of food, wine, and landscape, the landscape featuring towering redwoods and native oaks, rolling hills carpeted in vine, and winding roads.
Simile and the Fritzes enjoy exquisite weather from April through November when warm, sunny days and cool nights favor both grapes and growers. Local gardens and farms yield an embarrassment of fresh, locally grown and raised foods. Seafood arrives from the nearby Pacific Ocean. Few who love Sonoma believe there is a better place in America to share food and wine with neighbors and lucky customers.
The story begins, of course, with the grapes. "Wines are made in the vineyard," González Rave says, "and my role as winemaker is to preserve what Mother Nature has given to us. When I came to the Russian River Valley, I knew that it could produce world-class pinot noir and chardonnay, wines that are especially elegant and aromatically complex." González Rave, a native of Colombia, acquired her enological chops at universities and wineries in France. She then worked 14 harvests in California before discovering Lynmar in early 2009.
The grapes, of course, begin with the soil, and Lynmar's soil is special.
Lynn Fritz, CEO of an international logistics firm, has joined the storied ranks of those men and women successful and lucky enough to live the good life of the Northern California winery owner. He noted the presence of Goldridge loam at Quail Hill Vineyard near Sebastopol in the late 1970s. Goldridge loam is a sandstone soil formed from volcanic ash and alluvial matter deposited over eons by the Russian River. It is good for growing grapes, meaning it doesn't baby the vines but forces them to work hard, yielding the intensity and focus grape growers want. Lynn bought the property in 1980, and it became Lynmar Estate after he added the winery in 1990. He retreated from his name-sake business to life in Sonoma.
In the summer and fall, the grapes reach maturity and harvest begins, typically in early September for white grapes and ending in October with red. Even in October, days are hot, but a nightly blanket of cooling fog from the Pacific Ocean drops the temperature 35 to 40 degrees. This famous chill-down helps the grapes retain their natural acidity—the zip that makes wine so refreshing—and develop balanced flavors over a slow, steady period.
Over time, Lynn and Anisya expanded the vineyards and winemaking facilities, built an airy, inviting visitor center that includes Chef Simile's spacious kitchen, and planted the two-acre organic garden that keeps gardener Michael Presley busy and Chef Simile smiling.
"My menus show what we can do in our organic garden and with our wine," she says. "I think about recipes that are healthy, and I don't use a lot of fat, yet I don't set out to make low-calorie dishes. The cooking comes naturally, letting the fresh flavors from the garden dictate the preparation."
View the complete vine-to-bottle, garden-to-table Fall Harvest Menu