Mayo Family Reserve Room – raising the bar on food & wine pairings

Once upon a time, a visit to the winery meant tasting only. Recently, a handful of bold vintners has flipped this tradition by introducing something new to the tasting room experience: great food. So, push the crackers and bread sticks aside and join the next generation of wine tasting.

In the Sonoma Valley, the Mayo Family Reserve Room has raised the bar for what can be expected from the tasting room visit.

Launched in the spring of 2005, the Mayo Family Reserve Room is the collaboration of vintner, Jeffery Mayo and Chef Billy Oliver. Their shared vision was to unify Mayo’s award-winning wines with Chef Oliver’s impeccable culinary passion. They have created a food and wine pairing experience which Sonoma Valley had never seen before. With articles about this tasting room featured in the Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle, it’s obvious this was a recipe for success.

Just west of the Mayacamas Mountains, the Mayo Family Reserve Room sits off of Scenic Highway 12 in Kenwood. In front of the tasting room, you’ll first notice rows of groomed Syrah grape vines. The interior is bright and cheery offering sweeping views of the vineyard-lined hillside. The music of Ray Charles lightly fills the air and eye-catching local artwork decorates the walls. With the opportunity to sit at a private table, relaxing comes naturally.

Chef Oliver is a graduate of New York’s Culinary Institute of America. “I appreciate the artisanship of wine and realize it is a key to the enjoyment of fine cuisine,” he said. He points to the style of late 19th century French culinary master, Auguste Escoffier, as an influence. This is evident once you experience what he creates on the plate. Chef Oliver studies the multi-layered structure of Mayo’s wines, from the tropically aromatic “nose” of their creamy Viognier down to the firm, earthy tannins of their gold-medal winning Meritage Red.

The complete concept is this: Chef Oliver pairs seven of Mayo’s Reserve wines properly with “hand crafted, bite-sized portions of food”. He practices two philosophies when it comes to pairing; complementing the subtle flavors and aromas of the wine or contrasting off of the wine’s acidity and tannins. “People now are more open-minded to the relationship between food and wine. They are looking for different dynamics,” says Oliver. The magic and mystery of this relationship certainly are captured through Chef Oliver’s design. Although the amount of food may be petite, the flavors are explosive.

Chef Oliver takes full advantage of the fresh, locally grown organic produce and designs original menus each season. With approximately eight different menus annually, he often joins the latest Mayo wines to the changed food pairings. This means each visit to the room will provide a tasty new experience. Chef Oliver’s culinary style is all his own, fusing classic French Country with overtones of Northern Italian and California Cuisine.

In his “spring fling” menu, Molasses Glazed Smoked Duck Breast Tostada is topped with Strawberry Salsa and Cilantro micro crest paired with Mayo’s 2005 Russian River Pinot Noir. The Strawberry Salsa makes the fruit in the Pinot pop while the Cilantro complements the hint of spice on the finish. If that doesn’t get your taste buds flowing, he offers a Braised Pork Shank Moo Shu topped with a Pea Shoot salad married with the 2004 Napa Syrah. When paired, the notes of plum are prominent with the the earthiness of the Syrah.

This is a pleasant way to showcase Mayo’s smooth and elegant wines. Since you get to sit and relax, you can really focus on the wines individually. Wine tasting will never seem the same. Whether you’re a serious wine enthusiast or it’s your first time in Wine Country, the knowledgeable and approachable staff helps you feel like you’re part of the family.

Chef Oliver isn’t always tucked away in the kitchen either, often greeting the guests and answering questions for the home cooks. “I provide a personal yet educational experience, so when you go home you can create your own; it’s like the giving tree. I want people who made reservations and walk-ins alike to all feel welcome,” Oliver remarks. “When you leave, all sensations have been satisfied.”

With this exciting fusion, Sonoma Valley has opened its doors to the next level of wine appreciation in the tasting room.

By James Claus
© 2008 Artisan Wine Tours, LLC