FOOD & DRINK

Picnic Chic

Taking the dining room outdoors with Sonoma style

by Tina Caputo

There’s something magical about sharing a delicious meal outdoors, surrounded by the beauty of nature, miles from the nearest restaurant. This is especially true in Sonoma County, with its wonderfully diverse tapestry of windswept coastal ridges, rolling hills, lush green valleys and majestic redwood forests. The region is truly one of the most stunning places on Earth to enjoy a picnic. While Sonomans didn’t invent the concept of simple-but-elegant outdoor dining, some would say they perfected it.

The word picnic comes from the French pique-nique, which loosely translates to “pick a little something.” First appearing in print in the late 17th century, the term was originally used to describe a group of people who brought their own wine to drink in a restaurant. The picnic concept eventually moved outdoors as a sort of potluck, with each guest bringing along something for the party to eat. Picnics were once the domain of the upper classes, but became popular with the masses after the French Revolution, when the royal parks of Paris opened to the public.

Americans, wishing to emulate the sophisticated Parisians, followed suit. By the 19th century, they had enthusiastically embraced the picnic—even going so far as to hold their feasts in graveyards. Far from being considered macabre, cemeteries offered a serene, park-like setting that was lacking in many areas, and allowed people to commune with lost loved ones. The practice waned in the 1920s, when the opening of public parks across the country presented cheerier venues for outdoor dining.

Today, there is certainly no shortage of gorgeous picnic locations—especially in Sonoma County. For Nitsa Knoll, Jordan’s director of hospitality and events, it’s a tough call between the Jordan Winery’s hilltop vineyards in Alexander Valley and waterfront enclaves along the rugged Sonoma Coast, but she is especially smitten with the ocean landscape. “The dramatic bluffs, the spikes of dark rock rising from the sea and miles of deserted coast bring me peace,” she says.

“I can’t think of a better place to play in nature.”

To Nitsa, a picnic is more than a casual al fresco meal. It’s a chance to take the dining room outdoors. Paper plates and plastic cutlery may be fine for casual, family barbecues, but a refined picnic—whether with friends or a significant other—calls for beautiful tableware, linens and décor.

It begins with a natural centerpiece made from greenery and flowers foraged near the picnic site. When Nitsa sets out in search of materials to adorn the tables for Jordan events and personal picnics, her plan is simple: no plan. “If I’m on the coast, I’ll usually look for succulents, eucalyptus or cypress, things like that,” she says.

When she’s picnicking among the vineyards on the Jordan Estate, she plucks fresh herb sprigs from the winery garden, as well as wildflowers, to bring a natural element to the table. “Sometimes you just need to feel it and see what’s around you,” Nitsa says. “It just happens naturally when you’re walking around in nature - you’ll just see something.”

Armed with a basket and a leather satchel containing clippers, wire cutters and floral tape, Nitsa simply heads off into the surrounding landscape to see what’s available. Over the years, she’s developed a keen eye for spotting natural treasures. “I started foraging for table decorations when I was six years old, in our neighbor’s yard,” Nitsa says. “I got in trouble a lot.”

She often hunts for table décor on family road trips with her husband Todd, who is Jordan’s executive chef, and their 10-year-old son Petros. “Walking is a lot more entertaining when there’s something to hunt for,” Nitsa says.

“It just makes the experience more fun.”

Even in the fall and winter, there’s plenty of material to work with on the Sonoma Coast. This past November, for a coastal picnic at the site of a Victorian farmhouse, Nitsa collected tall grasses and thistle from a field on the property, and clipped wild fern along a wooden fence line surrounding the house. Also among her finds were leafy branches and pods from nearby eucalyptus trees, and long strips of bark destined to become place cards with the help of a metallic paint pen. Nitsa completed her basket with lavender and yarrow she discovered around the yard.

“My rule is never to take all of anything that I find in nature,” Nitsa says. “I always try to leave some behind.” (See “Treasure Hunt” from the vol. #13 foraging issue of Wine Country Table.)

Crafting a centerpiece

Once she’s collected her materials, Nitsa begins thinking about how to arrange them into a unique table runner or centerpiece. She starts by separating the greenery into individual piles, then does the same with the flowers and other plants. She trims the items in each stack into uniform pieces, then layers them together to highlight different textures and colors.

“Half of it is figuring out what looks right and not getting too crazy,” she says. “You don ’t want the florals to compete with the culinary focal points of the meal.”

Nitsa uses green floral wire to secure each piece as she goes, and tucks smaller bits and pieces into the bundles to fill them in and camouflage the wire. Her goal is to make them look pretty, but natural. “I don’t like to do an assembly line where they’re all exactly the same, but I do like them to be fairly uniform,” she says.

For the fall coastal picnic, Nitsa created an oblong arrangement to lay down the center of the table as a fragrant runner, as seen on the magazine’s cover. A summer picnic, among Jordan’s hilltop petit verdot grapevines, called for a simpler approach. Instead of a centerpiece, Nitsa placed small terracotta vases filled with fresh herbs for garnishing cheeses and tomatoes—like basil, thyme and fennel—and tucked a fresh sprig of rosemary and wild fennel frond into each place setting.

Setting the table

Creating a picnic tablescape isn’t about silver candelabras and pricey stemware. It’s about making guests feel comfortable and enhancing the natural beauty of the surroundings.

Nitsa prefers muted, neutral colors for outdoor settings, and natural materials such as linen and wood mixed with rustic metal elements. Places are set with stemless wine glasses or short tumblers, real flatware, ceramic dinner plates and soft linen napkins. Hurricane lanterns and string lights complete the tablescape for sunset picnics.

“If you enjoy what you’re looking at, the food and wine taste even better.”

Elevating picnic fare

Food is an equally important consideration for an inspired picnic—and that’s where Nitsa’s husband, Todd, comes in.

Picnic fare may be as simple as laying out a curated array of sublime cheeses and artisan salumi, he says, or something a bit more elaborate. Because Todd loves to incorporate local foods into his dishes, he’ll often include delicacies such as forged wild mushrooms, freshly caught Sonoma Dungeness crabs, and rillettes and charcuterie made from Sonoma heritage pork. “Make use of what’s around you,” he says. “Don’t just go to the grocery store for your ingredients. See if you can hit a nearby farmer’s market to pick up things like local meats, fresh produce and olives.”

Ingredients such as nuts and olives can be transformed in simple ways to create unique and delicious snacks. “You can take something familiar and put a new spin on it,” he says. “For nuts, you can toss them in your own favorite spices or buy something like a Yemeni spice blend,” Todd says. “Then mix in some egg whites to adhere the spices to the nuts and bake them.”

Buttery lucques olives take on a bright new dimension when marinated in Meyer lemon zest, fennel pollen, crushed coriander seeds and Jordan Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Vegetable and seafood dishes get an upgrade with a dollop of good caviar. Even humble crudité are elevated when the vegetables are paired with an unexpected dip, such as Greek taramosalata, a silky blend of fish roe, lemon juice and olive oil.

Along with several side dishes and small bites, Todd typically prepares a show-stopping main dish to share. For Nitsa’s coastal picnic, he brought along sous vide rack of lamb to pair with Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon. Just before serving, he arranged the cold lamb on a bed of freekeh—a young green wheat that’s been toasted and cracked—and topped it with a sprinkle of dukkah Egyptian spice blend, thyme sprigs and raspberry vinaigrette. He accompanied the lamb with fire-roasted cipollini onions, fermented and marinated in shoyu.

Because the picnic took place near a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Todd created several seafood dishes for the occasion, including Dungeness crab and grapefruit salad, Sonoma Coast abalone poke, salmon rillettes, lobster salad and West Coast Kumamoto oysters. For dessert, guests dipped citrus-infused madeleine cookies into honey and dried citrus-fennel powder.

For the summer vineyard picnic, he celebrated the bounty of the land with a more meat-based menu. Along with being famous for grapevines, Sonoma wine country is known for its livestock farms, so Todd served homemade pork rillettes and pâté, along with a charcuterie board of local specialties from Journeyman Meat Co., such as the Parmesan Porcini salame, made by Jordan ’s neighbor just across the Russian River. Because some of the country’s best cheesemakers can be found near the Sonoma-Marin border, he also included an array of local cheeses.

For any menu, Todd looks for seasonal ingredients that he can harvest from the Jordan Estate or forage from the surrounding area. “Spring picnics are really fun, because I can forage for miner’s lettuce and wild onions,” he says. “We also have fava beans at Jordan, so I like to use those as well.” In the winter, he goes mushroom hunting.

The bounty of Jordan’s garden and the wealth of fresh produce available in Sonoma County inspire him to create picnic-friendly dishes such as vegetable terrine and marinated vegetables— served in glass jars that show off the vibrant hues of the dishes, so beautiful they almost look like table décor. To end picnics on a sweet note, he sets out tiny jars of homemade panna cotta, topped with fresh berries from the Jordan garden.

“For a coastal picnic, I love serving Jordan wines because of their structure, and we’re always pushing that acid balance with the food.”

Perfect picnic wines

Beautiful wines are another way to elevate a picnic at any time of year. “For a coastal picnic, I love serving Jordan wines because of their structure, and we’re always pushing that acid balance with the food,” Todd says. A vibrant, mineral-kissed Jordan Chardonnay is wonderful with seafood dishes such as his Dungeness crab and abalone salads, and the silky-smooth Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon is a terrific match for rack of lamb, charcuterie and other red meats, as well as earthy vegetable dishes such as Todd’s fire-roasted cipollini onions––an excellent complement to cabernet’s subtle toasted oak nuances.

While many people choose wines to match the food they’re serving, it’s sometimes fun to take the opposite approach. For the Jordan picnic among the vines, Todd started with the Jordan Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, then selected local cheeses to pair with them. A few of his favorites include the Cypress Grove Midnight Moon and Humboldt Fog cheeses, as well as Bellwether Farms San Andreas and French Comté.

The subtle tang of Todd’s pickled vegetables and vegetable terrine highlight the bright acidity of a young Jordan Chardonnay, and the cherries in his pâté bring out the red fruit flavors in the Jordan Cabernet. Todd’s savory pork rillettes, made with fresh thyme and rosemary, accent cabernet’s earth, spice and fruit notes.

“With all the incredible food and wine we have at our disposal here in Sonoma County, it’s hard to go wrong,” Todd says. “We live in a picnic paradise.”

Four Picnic Tips

Nitsa and Todd Knoll’s advice for planning a perfect picnic.

MAKE A MAKESHIFT TABLE.

Some of the best picnic spots are off the beaten path, with no picnic tables in sight. A couple of wine crates and a rustic wooden door can easily be repurposed into an elegant table when surrounded with comfy cushions and throw pillows.

GET ROLLING.

If there’s too much food to fit inside a traditional picnic basket, bring along a collapsible beach wagon. Most are large enough to tote all of your edibles to the picnic site in one trip, plus dishes, glassware and other essentials.

TRANSPORT AND SERVE IN THE SAME VESSEL.

Prepare picnic dishes in advance and pack them into Le Parfait glass jars. The jars are resealable, attractive and they make it easy for guests to pass food around the table.

KEEP WARM.

For fall and winter picnics (even summer days can be chilly on the coast and in Sonoma’s wine valleys), bring along a couple of cozy throw blankets.