The next time you're visiting the state's farm wineries, save room for pan-roasted chicken breast with housemade gnocchi, spring onions and sweet peas, paired with an estate reserve Chardonnay. Or dry Riesling with wood-grilled Jamaican jerk chicken, served with grilled bananas and mango chutney. Or a full tasting of French cheeses and chocolates, designed to bring out the unique notes of a full-bodied dry red.
You can eat very well along the Connecticut Wine Trail. While packing a picnic and dining on picturesque vineyard grounds is a time-honored tradition, a number of wineries have chosen to augment dining options with full-service restaurants, special food tastings and culinary events designed to showcase their wines and draw in guests with discerning palates.
Sharpe Hill Vineyard, Pomfret
The longest-standing Connecticut winery restaurant, at Sharpe Hill Vineyard in Pomfret, has welcomed diners for nearly two decades. Protein-focused entrees ($18 to $32) are cooked on a wood-burning grill, sending up intoxicating aromas. The plates are finished with vegetables, herbs and edible flowers, grown on-site at the winery's organic garden.
Steven and Catherine Vollweiler have owned the winery for 22 years; the restaurant has been in operation for 18. "My husband always wanted a vineyard. When we turned 40, that's what we did," Catherine said. "I decided I'm going to create a small, elegant restaurant; three days a week, 40 people at a seating."
Hours vary by the time of year, but Sharpe Hill sticks to a limited weekend service: Friday night dinner and two lunch seatings per day on Saturday and Sunday. In pleasant weather, guests dine in the "wine garden," a patio overlooking the lush winery grounds. Indoor seating is in the restaurant's Fireside Tavern. Both dining spaces get the "full linens and silver" treatment, said Catherine Vollweiler, who is the executive chef.
She chooses fresh premium and organic meats and seafood for the grilled plates. Large Gulf shrimp are marinated in a hot Louisiana Creole sauce and served with lemon thyme rice and mango chutney; rosemary-grilled lamb chops get a classic side of mint jelly and a 14-ounce porterhouse is seasoned with a five-pepper rub. Fresh Maine lobster, a frequent special, is delivered in its own seawater and seaweed to preserve as much of the coastal flavor as possible, Vollweiler said.
Appetizers ($14-22) and desserts ($9) round out a complete menu, with starters like smoked river trout, international cheese and "soused shrimp" in a tangy citrus and vinegar sauce, and assorted cakes and pastries to finish the meal. The restaurant serves its own wine exclusively by the glass and bottle; its semi-dry Ballet of Angels, a blend of 10 grape varieties, is a signature favorite.
Reservations are required and recommended well in advance; a deposit is required at the time the reservation is made. Sharpe Hill is at 108 Wade Road. 860-974-3549, ext. 10; sharpehill.com.
Chamard Vineyards Farm Winery Bistro, Clinton
Several years ago, the shoreline winery's owners set their sights on making Chamard a destination, intending to bring more people to the property.
They decided to add a bistro to the grounds, working with the town of Clinton to help rewrite the zoning code, said Bridget Riordan, Chamard's director of sales and brand management. The 35-seat restaurant officially opened in the fall of 2012.
"Our wines have always been French-inspired," Riordan said, explaining that was the direction of original winery owner William Chaney, former CEO of Tiffany & Co. "He wanted to find a place in Connecticut where he could grow the style of wine he enjoyed…old world style Burgundy, Bordeaux, European vinifera." To complement the wine style, Chamard's bistro is also French-inspired, but sources from local growers and purveyors for a farm-to-fork menu.
Executive chef Brad Stabinsky heads up the kitchen, which produces a seasonal menu of fresh salads; cheeses and charcuterie; sandwiches and entrees. Among the spring offerings ($24 to $30) are grilled Berkshire pork chops with morel mushrooms, Sepe Farm roast rack of lamb, pan-seared duck breast with Chamard white port and local honey and baked local cod with Maine crabmeat topping.
"The food is grounded in that French/European approach and techniques," Stabinsky said. "[We have] the ability to use wonderful local ingredients. We modernized it a little bit [with] bistro classics, but with cool new stuff."
The full menu is served in the bistro and its lounge area, which holds another 28 to 30 guests. Lighter fare ($5 to $16) is also available in the winery's tasting room and on its deck, like Mediterranean-style dips; baked Camembert, pommes frites with rosemary salt and roasted garlic aioli, croque Madame, grilled cheese with Mystic Cheese Company's Melville and apple-horseradish jam on local Whole G wheat bread; grilled flatbread with tapenade, ricotta and Serrano ham and a burger with Four Mile River Farm beef from Old Lyme. Chamard serves only its own wine in the restaurant; outside food and drink are no longer allowed on the property.
Around Memorial Day, Stabinsky says Chamard will open its farm kitchen outdoors, serving casual grilled foods and salads. "It's another option for people to taste some of the local food, a little less formal, outdoorsy," he said.
A large garden on Chamard's premises will offer inspiration for Stabinsky's fresh fare throughout the growing season. "A lot of what I'll be doing will be coming right off the farm," he said. "Nothing like going out there with a basket and a pair of scissors, and 10 minutes later it's on the plate."
Advance reservations are recommended for the bistro, which is open Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Food is also served in the tasting room and on the deck during those hours; no reservation necessary. Chamard is at 115 Cow Hill Road. 860-664-0299, chamard.com.
Jones Winery, Shelton