They have similar backgrounds and similar goals, so it is not surprising that Simi Winery and Chef Kolin Vazzoler make a great pair. Both from Italian heritage, the winery and Chef Kolin focus on producing high quality wines and foods that are sourced locally. Kolin learned about the culinary arts from his mother and grandmother. Now he teaches others in the industry about pairing the Simi wines and mentors those new to the profession.
I had the opportunity to talk with Kolin yesterday at the Austin Food and Wine Festival. Kolin grew up in British Columbia where he earned his culinary certification and began his career. He moved to San Francisco to work with Gary Danko and spent eight years honing his skills in the city before heading to Healdsburg to work at Simi Winery.
I asked him how working at a winery differs from the restaurant world. If you’ve spent any time in the industry you know that the hours can be daunting, so that is one benefit the winery offers. In a restaurant, the chef creates the dish and then you seek out the wine that will work best with the food. At the winery, the opposite holds true. He is creating a dish that will best highlight the wine. In the creative process, adjustments often have to be made, but Kolin has learned a few tricks that we can easily apply. For example, if the wine is coming across “hot,” add some acid, lemon or salt. If the wine seems to be falling flat, add savory notes, herbs perhaps.
At the festival, Kolin was pairing the 2010 Sonoma County Pinot Noir with Crispy Chicken Skin, Mushroom Purée, and Dried Cherry. And what a pairing it was. The mushroom puree accented the earthy notes in the wine. The dried cherry echoed the red fruits and the ginger salt highlighted the spice. Delicious.
So what food and wine combinations have surprised Kolin? He now enjoys pairing seafood with reds. Catalan stew, Cioppino, Acqua Pazza all have ingredients which create depth and spice and they need something heavier, spicier to compliment the dish.
And what is his current favorite pairing with the Simi wines? The Landslide Cabernet Sauvignon is both bright and rich. Great fruit is balanced by fresh earthy notes. Full, but not heavy, he enjoys pairing this wine with one of their specialty pizzas with charred radicchio and gorgonzola. Yum.
My brother is also a chef in the Bay area and about the same age as Kolin. I’ve watched him go from creating complicated, multi-ingredient works of art to a much simpler approach. Find good food, in season, locally sourced and you don’t need to do much to it. The food speaks for itself. Your job is to find the combinations that work well together and let the natural beauty of the food shine. From talking with Kolin, it is apparent that he has gone through a similar transition. Eat what is available, fresh. Play with it, but keep it simple. Returning to his roots, this style of cooking is a natural fit for Kolin.
Although the restaurant is not generally open to the public, they do have private events and are working to make his dishes more accessible. During summer weekends, pizzas and other rustic Italian fare are available. They are looking into creating dishes to be enjoyed at home and “pop-up” dinners as well. If you can’t make it to Healdsburg, Simi Wines are readily available and Chef Kolin has shared many of the recipes for his favorite pairings on the website. Now to find the time to execute them…Cheers!
Disclaimer: I was provided with a pass to the Austin Food and Wine Festival in order to write this piece. The opinions and thoughts are my own.