Calistoga, located at the northern tip of Napa Valley, is renowned for producing powerful and deeply flavored red wines due to its hot climate and volcanic soils. A prime varietal from this region, Cabernet Franc, typically showcases robust tannins and rich, dark fruit flavors that pose a challenging but intriguing pairing opportunity with a classic dish like Chicken Pesto Pasta. The usual fresh, herbaceous, and nutty characters of a traditional pesto, combined with the light, savory profile of chicken, can be overshadowed by the intensity of a Calistoga Cabernet Franc. However, through strategic adjustments to the dish, it is possible to craft a Chicken Pesto Pasta that not only stands up to but enhances the wine’s profile, resulting in a harmonious dining experience.

A bottle of 2018 Sterling Vineyards Reserve Calistoga Cabernet Franc was used as a reference in this exercise.

Modifications to Chicken Pesto Pasta

1. Intensifying the Pesto:

The traditional basil pesto can be augmented to complement the bold flavors of Cabernet Franc. Incorporating sun-dried tomatoes and olives into the pesto will introduce a depth of flavor and a slight tanginess, which can bridge the gap between the wine’s acidity and the dish’s herbal freshness. Additionally, swapping pine nuts for roasted walnuts can enhance the earthy notes, aligning more closely with the tobacco and earth undertones of the wine.

Recipe Adjustment:

  • Add 1/4 cup of chopped sun-dried tomatoes and 2 tablespoons of chopped black olives to the pesto.
  • Replace pine nuts with an equal amount of roasted walnuts for added depth.

2. Incorporating Hearty Greens:

To add complexity and a layer of flavor that can stand up to a robust wine, integrating sautéed hearty greens such as kale or Swiss chard into the pasta will not only complement the richness of the wine but also introduce a textural contrast. These greens echo the slight vegetal character of Cabernet Franc while providing a counterbalance to its sweet berry notes.

Recipe Adjustment:

  • Lightly sauté 1 cup of chopped kale or Swiss chard in olive oil with garlic before mixing into the pasta.
Chicken Pesto Pasta and Calistoga Cabernet Franc

3. Enhancing the Protein:

Modifying the preparation of the chicken can significantly affect how the dish pairs with the wine. Opt for a grilled or roasted preparation to develop a richer, more concentrated flavor. Marinating the chicken in herbs that echo those in the wine, such as thyme and rosemary, will create a cohesive flavor profile across the dish and the wine.

Recipe Adjustment:

  • Marinate the chicken in olive oil, crushed garlic, thyme, and rosemary for at least two hours before grilling or roasting.

4. Adding Umami Elements:

Incorporating umami-rich elements such as Parmesan or aged Asiago cheese into the pasta can enhance the savory qualities of both the dish and the wine, providing a counterpoint to the wine’s natural sweetness and highlighting its spicy notes.

Recipe Adjustment:

  • Fold in 1/2 cup of finely grated aged Asiago cheese into the pasta after mixing in the pesto.


By intensifying the base flavors of the Chicken Pesto Pasta and incorporating elements that resonate with the characteristics of Calistoga Cabernet Franc, the dish evolves to match the wine’s profile. These modifications ensure that each component—herbal, earthy, savory, and tangy—complements the inherent qualities of the wine, leading to a balanced and enriching culinary experience. This approach does not just adapt the classic pasta dish for a better pairing; it elevates it to a new culinary height, perfect for showcasing the versatility of Calistoga Cabernet Franc.

Chicken Pesto Pasta and Calistoga Cabernet Franc