Over the past year, an impressive lineup of globally significant wineries — including Banfi from Italy, Patz & Hall from Sonoma, Whispering Angel from France, and Daou from Paso Robles — have come through the Belmond El Encanto resort on Santa Barbara’s Riviera, sharing their wines alongside the epic views and expertly paired dishes by Chef Johan Denizot. Up next is hometown hero Au Bon Climat, the Santa Maria Valley–based winery owned by international icon Jim Clendenen, who’ll be pouring and raconteuring on August 30.
To better understand how Denizot decides what dish to pair with each wine, I joined him at the resort recently to taste wines and talk strategy. “It’s always a little challenging to make the perfect matching,” Denizot explained as we began. “It’s like humans.”
Truth be told, Denizot got a bit of a head start in life, growing up in a restaurant family near Jura, France, where many uncles and cousins owned or worked for restaurants. Dreams of being a drummer turned into practical culinary training as a teenager, followed by cooking jobs in France and Switzerland. A fateful trip to visit a friend in San Francisco 20 years ago — he remembers the smell of jasmine upon getting off the plane on January 18, 1998 — sealed his career as a California chef.
He came to Santa Barbara County to work at Root 246 in Solvang, living on Larner Vineyard at the time, and then headed up the kitchen at the Bacara Resort’s Miro restaurant, which hosted a regular series of wine-pairing dinners. He became chef at the renovated El Encanto in 2015 and has been overseeing food service for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of guests every week since.
Here’s what it takes to be a pro pairer like him.
Use your nose: “I usually try to match the smell for wines; that’s a big tool you can use,” explained Denizot, noting the melon and citrus aromas of many white wines. “If they smell the same, that means the tastes will be matching.”
Stay simple: When you get to show off for a crowd, it’s tempting — whether you’re a home cook or a big-time chef — to throw lots of ingredients into each dish. That complicates the flavors, especially when wine is tossed in the mix. “It’s easy to go overboard,” said Denizot. “Sometimes three ingredients work perfectly, and that’s all you need.”
Don’t serve too much: I once attended a wine-pairing dinner put on by a renowned Central Coast chef, but it was his first time cooking a multicourse meal for a large group. The dishes were tasty but rich and saucy, and everyone was so full by the end that we couldn’t even taste the wine or food anymore. “You have to think about the food, of course, but also about stomach size,” said Denizot, who avoids heavy dishes so you don’t fill up quickly. Luckily, in California, raw seafood and vegetable options abound, whereas you’re often stuck with cream and butter in his native France.
Choose meat wisely: “The protein is always a bit delicate,” said Denizot. “If you go too exotic, people may not like it.” While many chefs like to try a new fish or curious meat, they usually just don’t sell. And when you are making a set menu, you need to make sure everyone is comfortable.
Avoid heavier wines, or go gamy: Being from Jura and preferring wines from that region as well as Burgundy, Denizot tends to like lighter red wines and said that heavier reds “confuse my taste buds.” But he knows there are many big, balanced reds coming out of California, explaining, “Sometimes the heavy ones still work with venison and gamy meats.” He knows that well because many of his uncles in France are hunters.
Chef Johan Denizot’s Au Bon Climat Menu
So after all that, what did the chef go with? Here’s the menu:
• Ahi tuna tartare in soy cones and prosciutto-wrapped melon / pinot gris and pinot blanc
• Eggplant salad with figs, almonds, ricotta, and chilis / Hildegard white blend
• Beetroot terrine with horseradish / Nuits-Blanches au Bouge chardonnay
• Wild king salmon with shitake and truffle chicken jus / Isabelle pinot noir
• Crispy duck confit, with yellow corn soubise, shishito peppers, Sausalito watercress, duck essence / Knox Alexander pinot noir
• Black-currant vacherin / Late Harvest viognier
Future pairing events include a focus on Amarone on September 20, a “Jazz in the Ballroom” night on October 25, and the legendary Ridge Vineyards on November 1. Call (805) 845-5800 or see belmond.com for tickets.