The Mayo Family Reserve Room is more than just another roadside attraction meant to net tourists traveling Highway 12 en route to the Plaza. Since April, it’s been a veritable appetizer to the wine country, offering a delectable tasting menu of wine and food pairings that surprise both the palate and the pocket book — in a good way.
The location is bright with a bistro-like atmosphere and has classic rock ‘n’ roll emanating from the sound system. Behind the counter is Jeffrey Mayo, an affable, sturdy-framed man who works the room with charisma seldom seen outside of election years. He alighted on the notion of a wine and food pairing stop when a contractor pointed out the advantages to his location’s zoning and the fact that, with some general upgrades, he could add a kitchen. The idea aged in his mental cellar for 7 years while the space served as a co-op tasting room.
“We had kind of grown up and were beyond the tasting room co-op concept, our label was pretty well known. We had a pretty good following and had built our new winery right down the road with our own tasting room,” Mayo explained. “I wanted a situation where people would be comfortable, they could sit down and relax. And we charge a fair price.”
The pairing menu features seven wine and food couplings for a flat fee of $20. The wine list runs the gamut of varietals and includes Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
“People love it. There’s a small segment that love food and wine and want to sit down and enjoy it without being elbowed out at the bar,” says Mayo, who printed a postcard that crows “chairs” are the latest innovation in wine tasting.
“I don’t want to go wine tasting anymore where I have to stand at a bar. If I can sit down and have food and wine, I’d pay $40 for this frankly.”
Mayo boasts that he’s had “no complaints yet” and is quick to differentiate his roadside brasserie from a typical restaurant: “There’s no tipping, two full glasses of wine and a medium to large appetizer – at a restaurant you’d spend fifty bucks on it.”
Chef Billy Oliver, likewise, has enjoyed making a professional home at the relatively new venue.
“We have a lot of the same philosophy,” said Oliver, who occasionally emerges from the kitchen to help Mayo serve customers in what is generally a two-man operation. “When I do the menu, I see the attributes that we want to show off in the wines, what is naturally there. Like the fullness of the Viognier, for example, there’s a lot of honeysuckle and floral-ness in there, which I want to showoff. Basically, what I do is smell all the wines, before I even try them,” says Oliver. “I could pretty much pair all the wines without even trying them. Then I taste them for the finish, acidity and tannins and decide what I’m going for.”
What Oliver seems to have gone for is a virtual land, air and sea tasting safari – small portions of beast, fowl and fish are gracefully paired with selections from the Mayo cellar. Consider the “Molasses Glazed Smoked Duck Breast & Cherry Kabob with Arugula Hazelnut Pesto.” The duck is paired with the “2003 Pinot Noir, Piner Ranch Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Reserve Holly’s Block.” Another interesting combination is the “Southwest Porkloin & Polenta with Blackberry and Pecan Compote” matched with the Mayo’s “2002 Zinfindel, Ricci Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Reserve – Old Vines”
“I want to do some contrast pairings and some complimentary pairings,” says Oliver. “Everyone enjoys a complimentary pairing and they’re easier to do. The contrast pairings are a little more challenging for us.”
By way of example, Oliver explained that the “2003 Viognier, Sunny View Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Henry’s Cuvee,” a complex and opulent white wine that has both floral and toasted almond characteristics, could pair easily with paella due to its “grassiness from the saffron and earthiness.” He opted instead to contrast the wine with a “Pancetta and Bee Pollen Crusted Grilled Scallop Lollipop with Mango Honey Coulis.”
The effect is dazzling and holds up with each bite-sized appetizer, each of which are rather like entire entrées squeezed down to the size of —
“Snacks,” Oliver drolly interrupts.
— And snacks they are, but of such exquisite execution one might be spoiled on the more conventional cheese and crackers forever.
“I think you can do really intricate things, I don’t think you have to be so hung up on it. You can deliver a high-end product and still be relaxed,” says Oliver of the morsels he handcrafts from local providers such as cheese maker Laura Chenel. “It makes people more receptive to learning things about food and wine, which is the whole reason why we want people to come here.”
And sometimes people come just to rub elbows with men in white coats. In the midst of interviewing Oliver a middle-aged woman approached and gestured to her male silver-haired male escort. “He has a five year-old granddaughter whose favorite meat is lamb,” she said, apparently inspired to share this tidbit family lore by Oliver’s “Rosemary Lamb Burger with House made Roasted Tomato Ketchup,” a spicy number which was well-paired with a 2003 Merlot Laurent Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, Nellie’s Block.”
Oliver asked the woman wryly “Do you ever sing ‘Mary had a little lamb’ to her?”
“I never have, I’m not really into children,” the customer confided, then added, “But you’re lamb burger is excellent.”
“Do you want to know how to make it?” Oliver offered, sparing the woman the awkward moment of asking for the recipe. He then proceeded to share preparation secrets before inviting them to bring the grandkid into the kitchen to learn how to make the dish first hand.
“I’ll put you to work, I have no qualms. I had a five year-old in here two weeks ago who was bored to death, he was just dying, so I said ‘C’mere,’ we put him in the back and had him pick the leaves off the celery – gave him a chef coat to put on – he was so happy.”
While Oliver is doling out chef coats to tykes, Mayo is busy putting on various hats – at any given moment his is a sommelier, maitre ’d, wine salesman and general master of revels. To hear him tell it, it seems like Mayo never planned to be as entrenched in the wine trade as he is. The enterprise seems the result of a like-father-like-son affinity for wine and some advantageously-located family real estate. And as they say, blood is thicker than water, but wine is better to drink.
“My dad planted the vineyard and was going to sell the grapes,” Mayo recalled of his father Henry Mayo’s ambition to make wine a family business. A local winemaker encouraged the senior Mayo to make his own wine instead. Meanwhile, after studying finance in Southern California and participating in a series of successful real estate ventures, Jeffrey Mayo found himself in the peculiar position of needing a hobby. A series of wine classes stoked his resolve that wine would be it.
“I never had a hobby. I took a class every Wednesday night. It was like Germany one night, Italy one night, France, Burgundy, the whole thing. Once I took that class, it became my hobby so I started buying wine. That’s how I got into it,” he said. “My dad was like ‘Why don’t you come back and sell wine for me?’ I said ‘Well, when?’ He said it was going to take about a year in barrel, so I moved to France for a year and learned as much as a could about wine by traveling to all the wine regions. I didn’t want to be the winemaker, but I at least wanted to know the whole process and where it came from,” recalled Mayo. “For me it was the appreciation of wine, then my father wanted to grow grapes and this winemaker wanted to make wine. It was this sort of organic process.”
The process seems to be working. The younger Mayo’s innate marketing ability helped grow the family venture from an early foray of 1100 cases to its present 8000 cases within ten years. Moreover, his hands-on approach inspires customer loyalty — his phone never ceases ringing and more than one devotee stopped by within the course of an hour “just to say hi.”
“You should have a winery that suits your personality. I don’t want to travel around and have a big winery and have to sell my wine to distributors in all these far-flung states. I want to be small, be local and focus on quality and interact with people who come here for good wines. That’s what we want to do.”
A gentleman from a party of five Air Force personnel who had spent the afternoon at Mayo’s joint shared in the air of bonhomie its proprietor, if not the wine, naturally occasions. He and his companions were apparently conducting their own informal wine country reconnaissance mission. When asked his name for the record he kindly declined, presumably for reasons of national security – if not job security. He did, however, allow that he “Just ordered four cases of wine that are going back to Tacoma with me.” Within a beat, chef
Oliver scuttled up to him with a telephone in hand and asked that he authenticate a $1000 charge with his creditor’s customer service people. The man obliged and an earlier observation of Mayo’s was echoed in the transaction.
“Making wine is the most important thing,” said Mayo. “But if you can’t sell it, you don’t get the chance to make it.”
Mayo will surely be making more wine.
The Mayo Family Winery Reserve Tasting Room is located at 9200 Sonoma Highway in Kenwood. (707) 833- 5504. Hours are Thursday through Monday, 10:30am to 6:30 pm. Reservations are not required, but recommended during peak season.