With its Mediterranean influences and quality local produce, this region’s food showcases the season’s best ingredients.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Northern California’s wine country, just beyond San Francisco’s Golden Gate and including Napa and Sonoma counties, is a landscape of gentle hills pinstriped in vines and a patchwork of farms and orchards. It has a hospitable climate for cultivating diverse produce, in addition to the grapes that made the area famous. This intersection of produce, wine, and terrain inspires some of the country’s most inventive chefs and lively vegetarian fare.

Although it’s prized for innovation, the region’s cuisine is true to its roots. Early settlers from Spain and Italy brought their cuisines and shaped the area’s decidedly Mediterranean palate. Spanish missionaries planted some of the first olive trees centuries ago, and now olive orchards grow varieties like Spanish Manzanillo and Sevillano. These olives add zest and robust, fruity notes to vegetarian grilled pizzas and risottos or make a briny tapenade for sandwich spreads and dips. Italian immigrants brought grape varieties like sangiovese and nebbiolo, as well as pastas, breads, and fresh vegetable sauces flecked with herbs.

Produce shines in wine country cuisine, and dozens of small farms grow heirloom vegetables and fruits, from tomatoes, beans, and lettuces to berries, stone fruits, and, of course, grapes. A trademark dish, for example, is a simple green salad composed with luscious fruit, crunchy nuts, and ripe cheese. Other dishes with Mediterranean inspiration include a Provençal-style summer squash soup and an Italian-inspired entrée of warm cheese flan topped with cool tomatoes.

The region is known for its artisanal cheeses. Goat cheeses, sometimes ripened with vegetable ash, add creaminess to pastas or pizzas. The complex flavors and creamy or crumbly textures of blue cheese enhance simple salads or dips. From buttery soft to grating cheeses, cow’s milk varieties add heft to sandwiches and pastas.

You can use the region’s signature herbs, such as rosemary or thyme, to embellish fresh produce. California wine country’s old-world culinary roots are a natural fit for the following summertime dishes. 

The California Pantry

Olives: Cured green and black olives are often served as simple hors d’oeuvres but also feature prominently in tapenade, focaccia, and pasta. The common black Mission olive has a mildness that’s choice as a pizza topping or in a sauce.

Olive oil: Several olive oil companies, such as St. Helena Olive Oil, are based in northern wine country and offer oils flavored with citrus and herbs, which also thrive in the climate. Depending on the variety and processing, oils proffer fruity or peppery notes or bitter or mild qualities.

Wine: A staple on the table with nearly every supper, wine is also often used in local kitchens. A rich, sweet, late-harvest wine, like a sauvignon blanc or sémillon, can bolster a dessert sauce, for example. A red table wine adds tannins, fruitiness, and slight bitterness to tomato or mushroom sauces.

Artisanal cheese: Point Reyes Blue cheese, Cowgirl Creamery’s line of cow’s milk cheeses, and creamy versions of boucheron (goat’s milk cheese) offer a variety of textures and flavors for the region’s vegetarian fare.

Fresh herbs: Besides fennel, Mediterranean herbs like sage, rosemary, and thyme grow wild in wine country, and cooks use them liberally to add a woodsy essence to pastas, pizzas, and sauces.