Caviar is all the rage in Napa and Sonoma wineries

While Esther Mobley is on vacation, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jess Lander takes over the newsletter.

People often ask me for wine recommendations. Whenever someone is looking to celebrate a special occasion, there’s one tasting I always come back to: Bubbles & Caviar Brunch at Davies Vineyards, Schramsberg Vineyards’ sister tasting room in St. Helena.

This sit-down tasting ($145) includes seven pours of Schramsberg sparkling wines accompanied by an ounce of caviar — and all the fixins — plus a leek-Gruyere quiche, smoked salmon and tubs of cream for dessert. This is arguably the best brunch in Napa.

Davies launched this experiment in 2018. It quickly gained momentum, and many other wineries have since launched competing caviar programs. These represent an ultra-luxury branch of the rapidly expanding food and wine offering in Napa and Sonoma. Some wineries have even hired Michelin star chefs to run their kitchens.

It’s also proof that even though visiting Napa and Sonoma is getting more and more expensive, the demand for high-end experiences is still there. Caviar isn’t cheap, but during peak season Davies hospitality manager Rimple Nayyar says brunch (offered Friday through Sunday at 10 a.m.) is almost always full.

“It’s a way of educating people that sparkling wines go well with food,” he said. “They’re not just for appetizers or a toast.”

The most classic caviar pairing is champagne. The two indulgences — often found mixed together at the same fancy parties and restaurants — have several things in common: They’re both expensive, they’re often associated with luxury and romance, and they adhere to strict classification rules. Just as champagne must come from the French region of Champagne, caviar must come from the species of sturgeon.

But from a taste point of view, they are opposites, which makes them the ideal duo. The light, crisp freshness of champagne provides the perfect contrast to the oily, salty pearls of caviar, whether served on a pearl spoon or eaten on the back of the hand in a quick ‘hit’. In 2021, chef Thomas Keller even opened a champagne and caviar-themed restaurant in Yountville, which promotes his caviar company Regiis Ova.

It’s no wonder, then, that this trend has taken hold among California sparkling wine houses, such as Schramsberg, Domaine Carneros and Gloria Ferrer. The most creative presentation comes from Gloria Ferrer, with caviar-infused bites like crab cake with remoulade and caviar ($135). Bedrock Wine Co. offers a less stuffy, super-low ($175) caviar experience that pairs sparkling wines with caviar, creme fraiche and a bag of mainstream chips — think Doritos and Lays.

But other wineries are beginning to challenge this longstanding marriage of delicacies. Chardonnay has emerged as a dark horse match at Three Sticks Winery in Sonoma, which is about to launch its winter caviar program ($200, Nov-Feb) for the third time. In the past, this included four varieties of caviar from the Bay Area’s Caviar Company and five cool-climate chardonnays. These are lighter, livelier, and fruitier than the oaky, buttery, full-bodied Chardonnays the grape is often associated with.

“We wanted to offer a kind of different sexy food component that wasn’t trivial,” said Three Sticks Hospitality Manager Brittainy Haraszthy. “There’s a rich, buttery component to the caviar and the acidity in our Chardonnays slices really beautifully.”

Little by little, the wine and caviar pairing instructions are becoming more fluid and less pretentious. Ram’s Gate Winery and Cuvaison Winery serve caviar as an accompaniment to a diverse range of wines, such as sparkling, pinot noir and chardonnay, and this year Three Sticks added a rosé and a pinot noir to the lineup.

“I don’t have a scientific reason why it works,” Haraszthy said of the new Pinot pairing. “It’s just one of those flukes that’s amazing.”

Jess Lander is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jesslander

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