Any visitor who touches down at new Carneros hot spot Ram’s Gate Winery will find new meaning for the phrase "eat the view." But the food’s so good, you’ll want to eat that too. Executive Chef Jason Rose – a Delfina, Tyler Florence Group and La Cocina alum – has put together a small plates menu focused on wine first, food second. “I’m here to make the wine look better,” he shared, with a trace of un-chef-like humility. The wine-driven culinary tinkering takes place amidst a delicious Orlando Diaz-Acuzy-designed spot – smacking of a cool hotel lounge dropped amidst Wine Country vines. Rose calls the traditional tasting room concept “boring, limited, predictable," and Ram's Gate's program is a clear departure. “I’ve learned so much about wine,” Rose adds. “It makes us all better cooks.” After the hop sits your Ram's Gate highlights debriefing: what's hot on the plate, in the cellar and beyond.
· Rose’s menu of smart wine-ready edibles is unusual in Wine Country, where the separation of winery and restaurant is akin to that of church and state – And while the Ram’s Gate marketing machine was careful to point out that the spot is not a true restaurant, the winery’s table service, ample seating and variety of fare suggest otherwise.
· In a world where even sommeliers are taught to "follow the food" and look to chefs for direction with pairings, Rose flips the ethos around. “I like [cooking for wine] because I’ve never done it before. It’s been a nice challenge,” he admitted. His 18 "not-so-small" plates are arranged under the wines they’ve been created to complement, a nice inversion of standard menu positioning.
· A 2008 White Label “Parmelee-Hill” Syrah ($52) made with purchased fruit grown near the Petaluma Gap exactly channeled gamey pours from France’s northern Rhône Valley with a blast of black pepper, violets, salami and charcoal. Rose variously offers a trio of appropriately meaty Carneros lamb albondigas, baccalone soppressata and a charcuterie board as accompaniments.
· For the winery’s introductory-level 2009 Red Label Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($36), a velvety, red fruited pour
· It’s rare that a winemaker fesses up to mistakes. Assistant Winemaker Jesse Fox – a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef who cooked at New York’s now-closed Aix and The French Laundry before migrating to winemaking stints at Harlan and the Napa Valley Reserve – was open about the fact that his totally smoking 2009 Sonoma Valley Late Harvest Zinfandel ($34) wasn't initially intended to be a sweet wine (Note: Fox was not at the winery when the wine was made). What a marvelous error: the medium-sweet pour somehow smacks of Fernet with a menthol-driven bitterness precisely balanced by clove, black pepper and currant jam.
· The Zin pairs with a cheeseboard bedecked with caramelized fig fennel marmelade, torchon-style Sonoma foie gras and a TCHO chocolate budino backed by hazelnut oil, sea salt and orange blossom. Altogether a sweet food lineup, especially when you consider that dishes range from a reasonable $6 to $18 across the menu.
· Overall the wine program was more hit than miss, though a couple of pours disappointed. A 2008 Winemaker's Cuvée Cab ($64) was too-tightly wound, in need of some serious decanting; while a 2009 Sonoma County Chardonnay ($30), rich with Meyer lemon and popcorn notes, had overly apparent oak and a touch too much heat at a noticeable 14.5% alcohol. Still, for a debut effort using lots of purchased fruit and incumbent vineyards (some of which are being replanted), there is plenty to like and much to look forward to as the winery owned vineyards mature and the talented winemaking team continues to gel.
· I feel somewhat remiss for spending most of this piece talking about food and wine when the spot’s sleek look and carefully executed ambiance are as easily a draw. Check out the photos for more imagery, or visit the website. The expert melding of indoor and outdoor spaces, numerous rooms, terraces and a lawn for lounging meets a cool mix of antique and modern décor. Think RN74 meets Hotel Vitale meets Farmstead.
· When Rose shared that upcoming plans include completion of a massive chef’s garden (“my goal is to grow 20% of our food”), picnic baskets for lawn dining and a full-on outdoor kitchen for preparing “wood-fired stuff” next year, it was clear the spot will continue to offer a culinary experience way above your average wine country stop.
· Still, I had to press a bit more on the reality of the spot’s Infineon-adjacent situation. Cars can sometimes be heard whizzing in the background. The PR assured me the 6,000-vehicle-strong RV village– 50 acres proudly called 'crazy acres' by some inhabitants – only comes around “one weekend a year” for the annual Nascar race.