This is a wine story, but it starts with a fig ― and with a woman named Sondra Bernstein, one of California Wine Country's dynamic chef-restaurateurs. Bernstein owns the Girl & the Fig restaurant in Sonoma as well as the Girl & the Gaucho in the nearby hamlet of Glen Ellen. Bernstein (the ''girl") is a passionate wine lover and isn't afraid to admit she loves to eat. Her approach to creating satisfying meals accompanied by delicious wines is a lesson for those of us faced with choosing wines to serve with our food.
In 1997, when Bernstein opened the Girl & the Fig (then located in a small bungalow in Glen Ellen) on the barest shoestring budget, she "only had enough money for a small wine list," as she puts it. It had just 14 wines, and every one of them was a Rhône variety (one traditionally grown in France's Rhone Valley). "I wanted food-friendly wines that were relaxed, comfortable, reasonably priced, and that felt right with our simple country dishes," Bernstein explains. "But I also knew that in opening my own restaurant, I was being daring. I looked around me at all the great winemakers who were being daring too, and they were making Rhône-style wines. It all fit perfectly."
In the beginning, customers looked at the list, furrowed their brows, and asked Bernstein if she had any Chardonnay. She smiled and brought them a taste of Viognier instead (see "Bernstein's advice" below). She still gives guests a complimentary taste of any opened wine.
Maybe it's that gesture of generosity, but sitting in the Girl & the Fig's sun-filled dining room eating a grilled-fig salad and drinking a glass of Viognier feels like you're in Bernstein's home. Which is perhaps why her choice of reasonably priced, comforting Rhone wines makes sense for anyone who entertains. Wines that don't break the bank, that are extremely food-friendly, and that embody a relaxed lifestyle are, well, wines for our times. "We're so busy as a culture," says Bernstein, "that a simple delicious dish and a great glass of wine have become something more than themselves ― they've become the ultimate escape."
What wine for you?
Three great food matches ― and the best Rhônes for your taste
- Fig salad; (arugula, toasted pecans, grilled figs, pancetta, and crumbled goat cheese) with Roussanne. Favorite choice: Sobon Estate.
- Grilled lamb chops; in a Syrah wine reduction sauce with Syrah or Carignane. Favorite choice: Ballentine Syrah.
- Grilled pork chops; with apple cider sauce and an apple-sweet potato gratin with a red Rhône blend. Favorite choice: Joseph Phelps Le Mistral (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Alicante Bouchet, Carignane, and Petite Syrah).
If you're a Sauvignon Blanc drinker and you like melon, fig, floral, and herbal flavors try Roussanne.
If you're a Chardonnay drinker and you like big, buttery whites try Viognier.
If you're a Merlot drinker and you like soft, super-fruity reds try Mourvèdre.
If you're a Cabernet Sauvignon drinker and you like intense, rich reds try Syrah (also called Shiraz).