Thirty miles from San Francisco, Sonoma County is one of the world's great destinations.
With beautiful farmland, a dramatic coastline, fields of wild flowers, world-class wineries and upscale restaurants, the valley offers travelers, especially oenophiles and foodies, the best of the best.
Driving on Sonoma County's two-lane black-tops in summer, the sun owns the sky as it shines down on well-tended fields and big-sky landscape. Mustard flowers blanket the fields, corn grows tall, the vines are fat with ripening grapes and cattle stroll lazily across green pastures in search of shade.
The 200 wineries along Route 12 and Highway 101--near the towns of Schellville, Sonoma, Glen Ellen, Kenwood, Sebastopol, Graton, Forestville, Fulton, Windsor, Healdsburg and Geyserville--are family run, for the most part.
The Farmhouse Inn in Forestville isn't part of a corporate chain. The upscale inn is the passion project of brother and sister, Catherine and Joe Bartolomei. They chose the location because their family has owned a farm nearby for five generations.
Taking several years to transform the original building, they created a modern, fine dining restaurant downstairs with cozy rooms on the second floor. They built out the barn, adding a dozen stylish country-style rooms. As part of their emphasis on creature comforts, they added fragrant herb gardens around the patio, a shaded swimming pool and a spa.
My objective was to visit the Hirsch Winery. Most wineries in Sonoma are easy to get to. Not Hirsch. You have to make an appointment and it is a bit of a trek.
Jasmine Hirsch, head of sales, daughter of the owner (like I said, these are family businesses and everyone pitches in), led me to a patio table under a massive tree next to the winery.
With hawks high overhead and neat rows of vines surrounding us, she poured glasses of Hirsch chardonnay and pinot noir and told me the history of the winery.
Being a small lot producer means he sells to a few restaurants and a couple of retail outlets, but prefers to sell directly to his customers. As she explained, "Buying direct is the strongest way to support what we do and the chain of connection isn't complete until you hear from the customer. it's up to the customer to get the wine maker to make better wine."
Hirsch talked about her dad as something of a grape-geek, because he loves to tinker with his vines as he explores the impact of different soils on the grapes. She talked about how the marine layer affected the vines, the importance of the geology of the area and that the vineyard was only half a mile from the San Andreas Fault.
Her dad is convinced the grapes benefit from being so close to the fault where two continental shelfs grind against each other, changing the soil composition and releasing energy into the plants.
When I got back to the Farmhouse, my wife was spa-relaxed and I was hungry. The restaurant's farm-to-table dinner menu demonstrates the Bartolomei's devotion to the bounty of Sonoma County.
Farmhouse's chef Steve Litke uses produce, cheese, wine, seafood, poultry and meat from local providers to create delicious dishes with a California-Mediterranean flavor. As much as he can, he serves produce grown on the Bartolomei family farm.
A cheese plate was available for dessert, but we were in the mood for something sweet. So we ordered lavish riffs on a Napoleon with fresh strawberries, a soufflé with chocolate and bourbon creme Anglaise and caramel toffee crunch gelato with cookies.
From the sublime, the next day we moved on to the ridiculous.
Driving across the valley on Route 12 toward Sebastopol, we noticed a cow in an open field. Not unexpected in a cattle ranching area, except the cow was a metal sculpture.
Before we left town, we stopped at Screamin' Mimi's. The no-frills interior doesn't do justice to the inventiveness of the home made ice creams. But happily Mimi, actually Maraline Olson, has put all her energy into her true art, the delicious ice creams.
The food is straight-forward and smart.
Appetizers include cumin scented lamb meatballs, buffalo wings with Point Reyes blue cheese dip, local oysters on the half shell, Mexican style corn on the cob with cotija cheese roasted in the wood burning oven (delicious!), pizzas made in that wood burning oven, all kinds of sandwiches and burgers, hot dogs, rib eye steak, grilled trout with garlic and fennel and pulled pork topped with onion rings and Cole slaw (all delicious!).
We took an early morning tour of Green String Farm in Petaluma to see what a sustainable farm looks like.
At first look, the way they farm seems impractical. Chickens and other livestock are moved around the farm to provide natural fertilizer. Owners Fred Cline and Bob Cannard are legendary in the world of organic farming. Re-examing accepted practices, they take nothing for granted.
It might not work on a large scale, but as an alternative method, what they do is definitely effective. Their produce is highly prized by local chefs and is offered for sale in their outdoor store at the farm.
We subscribed to Green String Farm and John Raymond's emails so we could keep track of their latest discoveries.
Speaking of local cheeses, try the Jack cheese made by the Vella Cheese company. Rarely available outside of Northern California, the cheese is moist and flavorful. Until you've tried Vella's, you really don't know Jack.
The rugged coast is one of Sonoma County's best features
At River's End Restaurant in Jenner, we sat on the wrap-around wooden deck, drinks in hand, enjoying the view with far less exertion than the cyclists.
Something about the beauty of the area invites exertion. But not by us. Not on this trip.
We did notice an odd ritual, which we quickly adapted. As much as everyone was enjoying their dinner, as the sun began to set, the restaurant emptied. We joined the group, standing pressed against the wooden railing, soaking in the dying rays of the sun, taking photographs and enjoying the moment as the vast sky, the diminishing sun, and the endless dark ocean join became one.
Cell phone service is spotty along the coast so if you want to go off-the-grid for a romantic weekend, this is the place for you. To pick up a signal, we were told that if you have Verizon, you have to drive into Jenner and stand in front of the propane tank at the gas station. If AT&T is your provider, drive inland to Duncans Mills and stand at the flagpole.
Timber Cove Inn and The Sea Ranch Lodge.
Separated by less than twenty miles, they share many of the same qualities.
Both rustic inns have beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean and rocky coastline. Built in ecological preserves, they are located on bluffs filled with native wild flowers. Well-marked trails take visitors down to the beach below. These are walking and exploring beaches. The weather is too cold and the beaches are too littered with stones to make sunbathers happy.
Bodega Bay for a fresh crab sandwich and a hot cup of white clam chowder at Spud Point Crab Company, recommended by a local as a place we "could not miss since we were so close."
The fat crab sandwich had no filler, no lettuce, no slaw, just crab meat. It must have taken a whole crab to make that sandwich.
Everywhere we went, we heard personal stories about people pursuing their passions. For some it was owning a bed and breakfast inn, for others a vineyard and winery or making cheese or running a restaurant or building sculptures out of junk.
We headed home completely refreshed and happy, looking forward to coming back again.