There were many stand-out moments at this year’s Hospice du Rhône. For Damaris and I, our first Hospice, the entire weekend was special, with many opportunities to try new things.
Of course, the wine was fantastic, but we start our Hospice coverage with a focus on another aspect of the event, the food. Good wine exists for good food, not the other way around. After all, we can live without wine (sort of), but not without food.
This year, we were thrilled to learn that Sondra Bernstein of The Girl and the Fig, in Sonoma, and Sam Beall of Blackberry Farm, outside of Maryville in Eastern Tennessee, would be showcasing their cuisine. We were fans of the simple rustic style of The Girl and the Fig already and are now equally enthusiastic fans of the terroir driven cuisine of Blackberry Farm.
Both Sondra and Sam are ardent supporters of Rhône wines. Sondra was one of the first in the Sonoma area to focus on Rhône wines in her restaurant and Sam’s Blackberry Farm boasts one of the deepest and most obscure Rhône cellars in the Country.
We were thrilled to get a few moments to catch up with both Sondra and Sam after they finished their lunch service, Sondra on Friday and Sam on Saturday.
We will post Sam’s interview later this week, but today, we focus on Sondra, who along with her partner and Executive Chef John Toulze, were this year’s Hospice du Rhône “People of the Year”.
In a prep kitchen to the side of the picnic area and just a few minutes after winning her award, we caught up with Sondra to ask why this event and Rhône wines are so important to her.
ALP: “What does it mean to be Person of the Year at Hospice du Rhône?”
SB: “I’m totally blown away. It was a surprise, I’m thrilled. We’re committed to doing what we’re doing. We opened in 1997 and the [wine] list has been Rhône from day one. We have met all of these people, we go to France, we’ve met the winemakers in France, and everyone thought we were crazy to do a Rhône wine list [in California]. We thought, ‘well, worst case scenario, we can always add Chardonnay or Zinfandel,’ and we never did. Fifteen years later, two restaurants are all Rhône.
Part of us being in Sonoma is that it’s the wine Country, so people come for the education. They want the lifestyle, but they also want to learn. So, I think that we have a unique way to teach people about wines that are very food friendly.
In 97’ there was nothing [no Rhône in the area] and within 3 or 4 years, people were planting [Rhône] all around us.”
ALP: “So you selected Rhône and then Rhône grew-up around you?”
SB: “Yeah, I’m sure it had nothing to do with me (laugh)!”
ALP: “How do you know?” (jokingly)
SB: (more laughter) “I’m pretty sure!”
It was exciting. The level of education that we were giving, everything was available by the flight, by the glass, and people could taste and winemakers were coming and tasting [different] Rhône wines.”
At this point in the conversation, Paul Lato, of Paul Lato wines in Santa Barbara, wondered up to greet Sondra. They spoke for five minutes or so, about travel plans, the James Beard Awards, a recent dining experience Paul had at Girl and the Fig. The two joked back and forth with an ease that made me realize that this is what Sondra means to the Rhône community, she is one of their own, and she is very much loved.
There is an ease in the way Sondra speaks, she is comfortable with what she does, confident. In fact, it was very clear in the fifteen minutes we had with her, that she loves this work, lives for it.
Towards the end of their conversation, Paul grabs a dessert from a tray we were all standing next to.
“I’m not a dessert guy,” he says in a warm tone, “but this, wow!”
We found ourselves saying similar things about all of Sondra and John’s food.
Our conservation continued…
ALP: “So why Rhône wines in the first place, especially being in the heart of Sonoma?”
SB: “My affinity to being in the South of France or in the Rhône region and going to a restaurant there, where you have just the typical brasserie experience. You order a glass of wine, maybe a cheese plate, it’s just so simple, and felt so rural. I think being in Sonoma and feeling the way I do about the food and the farming, the cheese makers, and the winemakers, to me there was just a lot of parallels about wanting to recreate the feel.”
ALP: “So it is kind of an extension of how you feel about your food, to how winemakers in the Rhone approach wine, as opposed to some of the grandiose attitudes about food and wine we see?”
SB: “Yes, exactly. To me, food and wine are meant to be together, it doesn’t need to be over complicated. It doesn’t need to be a 100 point Robert Parker wine. It just think it’s about lifestyle and enjoying food and wine together, with family or whoever you are with. I think that, if I were to look at Bordeaux, to me, the Rhône wines in 97’, even though you have Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, all those big wines and beautiful aged wines, there’s still something about a simple Côtes du Rhône. I think that’s what I wanted really for the restaurant, just something simple. Over the years, more and more winemakers have come, more and more people are doing more expensive wines that run the gambit. We used to pour John Alban’s white wine by the glass.”
ALP: “What is it that you want to teach people about food through Girl and the Fig? Because the food is… well simple might be a fair enough word, simple but good.”
SB: “It is. Less is more. We farm 3 acres right now, so we make all our own bacon, all our own salami, all our own charcuterie, our vinegar, press olive oil when we have the opportunity. I think it has been understanding the earth a little bit and understanding our area. But, I don’t think food has to be that complicated to just enjoy a great meal.”
Sondra paused for a moment to give some direction to her staff, before returning to her thought.
“I just want people to enjoy it,” she said, summing it up.
“I am so grateful that people want to come to us and that people want to dine with us. The menu is such that you can come for a burger, you can come for a plate of cheese, you can come for steak. Whatever the occasion, you can find something. I don’t want it to just be a special occasion, I don’t want it to be just a cheese place. I want it to be a place where it felt familiar, where it felt comfortable.
When people come to our place, the farmers have done all the work, we just get the credit. So if you are farming really great food and really great terroir, you don’t need to do a whole lot to it if you want it to taste like what it is.
I also want people to learn something, take something away, whether it is a cheese they have never tasted or a Rhône varietal. One of the most gratifying things is how many people will say to us, ‘you know, I have never had a Roussanne before and now I look for Roussanne.’ In the very beginning, people asked if I made up the varietals, if I was making up Viognier, because they had never heard of it.”
Damaris and I first enjoyed The Girl and the Fig on our honeymoon last year, it was a great experience.
Through our short conversation, it was evident the great care and passion Sondra pours into her work and her zeal to learn even more.
“I think wine is a never ending education,” she told us. So do we.