At The County Bench Kitchen+Bar, the details are important. The appreciation of each ingredient — the produce grown by local farmers, fresh catches by coastal fishermen, or each element stirred in a cocktail — is what the restaurant calls The County Bench Way. Located in the heart of California’s lush wine country in Sonoma County, The County Bench’s beverage program celebrates their local wine producers while also offering guests a varied selection that draws inspiration from around the world.
We spoke with Chris John, the Wine Director at The County Bench to learn how he balances the abundance of amazing wine produced in Sonoma County with the appreciation he has for Old World wines predate the California wine boom.
Uncorkd: What are some of your favorite wines poured at The County Bench?
Chris John: Being in the heart of Sonoma County we have access to great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I love pouring the small local producers who make earthy, restrained Pinot Noir that can really age. With that said, 9 times out of 10 I reach for a bottle of French Syrah when I am drinking at home. Not only are the wines affordable, they go with a whole slew of different food. Our list has a good amount of perfumed, aromatics traditional Syrah from St. Joseph and Cote-Rotie (Côte du Rhône in Southern France).
How do you rotate the wines on your menus?
We change the wines offered by the glass and build out different parts of the list based on the seasons. It goes farther than adjusting to the change of ingredients on the menu. I buy more Gruner and Riesling and Chablis in the summer when people look for fresher whites and more Barolo and Cabernet when you might need a fuller bodied wine for the cooler (and wetter) winter months.
What is the best way for novices to learn about wines?
Drink, read, listen to podcasts. Its so easy to learn about wine now with the internet. All the information is so accessible. Find a good retailer and buy a bunch of bottles of wines that interest you. Keep track of what grapes and regions you really like and ones you don’t. That is the great thing about a region like Chianti Classico. The wines are really good, terroir driven wines and you can experiment without breaking the bank.
You have a very globally inclusive wine list for a restaurant in Sonoma County – one of the most prominent wine regions in the U.S – what was the motivation to have such a globetrotting menu?
We wanted to be a haven for winemakers, sommeliers and wine lovers who want to find something that is outside of the local-only mold.
Being in wine-country you can get all those small, cool producers pretty easily at a local wine shop or directly from the winery. We wanted to offer people what they can’t get so easily in their back yard and be a place to drink that producer that you have been on the hunt for but has been too hard to find.
Do you aim to highlight regional differences in wines with, say, the varied selections of Napa Chardonnays and Chablis on your menu?
Not really. Ultimately, where are you gonna get better Chardonnay with minimal oak than Chablis. Its a classic region. The list is all about classics and what each area does the best. That’s why we don’t have any Bordeaux or Cote d’Or wines on the list. Sonoma and Napa County make world-class Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon so I wanted to showcase that.
The list isn’t about contrast, because, in Wine Country, you sell a lot of local wines. It’s about showcasing traditional wines that are benchmarks for the grape.
What is your ideal experience for the guests dining and drinking at the County Bench?
Whatever makes them happy and want to come back. We are a neighborhood restaurant and want people to feel welcome and excited to come eat with us.
California is ground zero for Craft breweries, is there a Craft Beer like movement in store for wine?
Natural wine is all the rage right now–no sulfur, minimal intervention winemaking. The wine world is always changing. Look at the grower movement in Champagne.
How involved is Country Bench with local producers? Do you collaborate with local brewers or wine makers to throw wine-paired dinners or something like tap-takeovers?
We do winemaker dinners and showcase local producers. We always try to do it The County Bench way though doing some older wines or a clonal dinner or something that is really interesting and informative.
What are some of benefits of digital menus for guests?
Pictures! One of my favorite parts of our wine list is the Zinfandel section. We focus all on ancient vineyards and I have pictures of these gnarly, head-trained vines. Great wine starts in the vineyard and being able to show that off with a picture I think makes it all more special.