Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Surf, Turf and Wineries in Sonoma County

Having visited Napa for Wine Boot Camp, I continued my exploration of California's wine country, this time in Sonoma County.

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.
My wife and I needed some serious R&R. We wanted a trip somewhere casual, where we wouldn't get stuck in traffic jams, could enjoy beautiful countryside, have some good meals and do a bit of wine tasting. So we put our suitcases in the car with a plan to explore Sonoma County, from the inland wine growing valleys to the coast.
There is nothing like a road trip to clean out the cob webs and refresh the soul.
Somona County's Natural Beauty

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.
Largely agricultural, mom and pop businesses are much more common in Sonoma than in Napa, which is dominated by wealthy investors and large corporations. 

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 same is true of the many inns and restaurants in the county.

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.
Because they didn't have a lot of money, they did the renovation themselves. Each room is unique, the result of Joe's hunting for high-quality fixtures at discounted rates.

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.
At check-in we appreciated that all guests are invited to choose the soap and bath salts they'll use in their rooms.  Yard long slabs of custom-made soaps are laid on out a side table. Guests cut off a piece to bring back to their rooms. There are also containers of bath salts with directions about the healing powers of each, perfect to add to a hot bath for an afternoon soak.
Snacks, waters, lemonade and sodas are also provided free-of-charge, including graham crackers, marshmallows and premium chocolate to make s'mores at night at the open pit fire on the patio. A complementary breakfast in the elegant dining room is included.
Taking advantage of their location in the Russian River Valley wine district, they have associations with eleven nearby wineries. Stop by for a tasting at any of the wineries, say you are staying at the Farmhouse and you'll receive a special gift.

After my wife had scheduled a spa massage, put together a customized mix of bath salts and found a chaise lounge next to the pool, the perfect spot to read her novel, I got back in the car and headed west.

My wife wanted to relax. I wanted to explore.

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.
When I was faxed directions, I thought they were a joke. At the top, was the sentence, "DO NOT RELY ON GOOGLE MAPS, etc." A friend had visited the winery and advised, "When you think you're lost, you just haven't gone far enough."

Driving across flat grasslands, heading west toward the ocean, the directions took me into the hills, first on a paved road which twisted up through woods and along the crest of a hill where I could look down into valleys terraced with vineyards. Hawks circled overhead as I continued up the mountain road which had become a gravel path barely wide enough for the car to pass without scratching the paint on the walls of thick, dry brush.  
When I arrived at the winery, it was obvious that they get very few visitors. The front door to the winery office was so infrequently opened, two birds had built a mud nest under the eave.

But the Hirsch Winery's tasting room wasn't inside.

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.
David Hirsch, her dad, had tired of the garment business and wanted to do something completely different. He fell in love with the land. At first he only intended to grow and sell grapes, but soon decided he wanted to make his own wine.

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.

We sat and talked and tasted the wine. I enjoyed the quiet of the late afternoon. What a unique way to appreciate terroir.

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.
We especially enjoyed the dungeness crab-white corn soup, the tomato salad with burrata and a tempura squash blossom, the seared Sonoma foie gras with fig jam, the sea bass with chorizo and the beef fillet grilled to crusty perfection and served with a potato-cheese pave, string beans and porcini mushrooms. Each course was paired with reasonably priced wines, many from Sonoma.

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.
That was enough for me to hit the brakes and run across the thistle covered shoulder of the 2-lane blacktop to get a closer look. Sure enough, this was a cow as imagined by someone with a grand sense of humor. 

We had stumbled upon one of Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent's sculptures
Made with discarded metal bits and pieces they've salvaged from dumps and installed around Sebastopol, the heaviest concentration of oddly formed human and animal creatures is on a three block stretch of Florence Avenue. Tucked into bushes or featured on lawns, the whimsical sculptures shock and surprise.

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.

Continuing on to Santa Rosa, we stopped for lunch at Josh Silver's Jackson's Bar and Oven, an unpretentious, neighborhood hangout.

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!).
Chef Silver's Petite Syrah, his upscale wine bar serving tasting menus, is across the street. If we had the time, we would have come back for dinner. His food is that good.
Farther north on Highway 101, picture-perfect Windsor evokes the qualities of a small 1960's town. The park in the center of town hosts concerts, special event picnics and weekly farmers markets, complete with made-to-order food.
On the day we visited, "made-to-order" included freshly caught lobsters, halibut and oysters from Santa Rosa Seafood cooked on an open grill as well as Uncle Bill's corn dogs on a stick.
Sonoma County is filled with the unexpected 

You know you aren't in Napa when you realize giraffes are watching you.
Safari West, the wild animal park and retreat--you can spend the night in a safari tent on stilts--has a good collection of wild  animals. Mostly allowed to roam free, the giraffes, oryx, zebra, rhinoceros, cape buffalo and antelope are viewed by the human animals from the safety of modified military trucks.
The college student guides enjoy their work and happily share stories about the animals. We had a bumpy ride through the preserve and enjoyed ourselves immensely. 

Sonoma has a tradition of iconoclasts 

We took an early morning tour of Green String Farm in Petaluma to see what a sustainable farm looks like.
As the sign in front says, "Beyond Sustainable," Green String Farm not only doesn't use fertilizers or pesticides, they don't plow or till the earth for cultivation.

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. 

At Jack London Village in Glen Ellen, we asked John Raymond to give us a taste of his remarkable cheeses. Luckily we weren't rushed. He told us the personal history of each cheese. Who made it, where the milk came from and how it was cured. He scours the world in search of new and interesting cheese makers.

We subscribed to Green String Farm and John Raymond's emails so we could keep track of their latest discoveries.
In Glen Ellen and Sonoma, Dale Downing and Don Shone's Sonoma Market puts Whole Foods to shame. We were amazed at the scale and variety of the market. The food they sell is a snapshot of the county's produce, cheese, wine, poultry, meat and seafood.
Live crabs are steamed daily. Fresh oysters and clams are trucked in from the coast 30 miles away. Local meat is aged in a dry aging room. If you don't have time to visit the local wineries, stop at the Market in Sonoma and you'll fill your car trunk in no time at all.

Their prepared foods are perfect for a picnic. Pick up freshly baked breads and a selection of local cheese to serve with the wine you purchased and you are set for a feast.

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. 

Also in Glen Ellen, the Benziger Family Winery is a family run vineyard that follows the strict tenants of biodynamic, organic and sustainable agriculture.
Guided tours of the large property are available several times a day. They are well worth the price of admission, which includes a wine tasting. The tour explains the specifics of biodynamic farming methods, which include using natural insecticides, planting under a full moon and the burying of a female horn filled with a special mixture of green manure and herbs.
The more you hear about the tenants of biodynamic farming, they more it sounds like mumbo-jumbo. It might be, but the reasonably priced wine is very good so maybe there's something to it. If liking a wine makes you a believer, then we believe.

The rugged coast is one of Sonoma County's best features

Driving along twisting Highway 1 between Jenner and Gualala, we admired the stamina of the gutsy bicyclists who brave on-coming traffic and the steady morning drizzle in their steep climb on the narrow road with hardly any shoulder.  They have to love their sport to put themselves so at risk.
Highway 1 is spectacular. As we navigated the difficult road, we looked down the dark grey cliffs, wet with drizzle and sea spray, to get a glimpse of the rocky beaches far below.
When the fog rolls in or the clouds are low enough to touch the earth, you can hear the ocean battering the land, even if you can't see a foot in front of your face. But then the marine layer burns off and we saw the Pacific extended to the horizon in an endless sheet of deep turquoise blue.

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.
From the deck, we watched another group of hearty souls, the kayakers, as they paddled their way out of the mouth of the Russia River and into the Pacific Ocean. They have to time their passage correctly, using the river's push out into the ocean, otherwise they'll never make it against the strong current.

Something about the beauty of the area invites exertion. But not by us. Not on this trip.

We settled down to dinner at the restaurant, hungry once again. Whether it was the effect of salt air on our appetites or just being happily hungry because we were on vacation, we didn't know, but the food at River's End is very good.

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.
While there are a few small rustic cabins at River's End, the preferred places to stay are at the 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.
But for anyone who wants a weekend getaway, this is heaven. The inns are comfortable. The restaurants serve good food. So guests can spend the afternoon exploring the beach and taking hikes, they will pack picnic lunches for guests.
We had delicious meals at Timber Cove Inn Restaurant. Like it's sister restaurant at the Sea Ranch Lodge, Timber Cove buys its produce, fruit, meat, poultry and fish from local purveyors.
Before we left the coast, we swung down to 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."
We sat at one of the half dozen picnic tables outside, sipped our soup, ate our crab sandwiches and watched the boats come in and out of the harbor.

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.
You certainly can't ask for fresher seafood. No question the crab in our sandwich was scuttling across Bodega Bay earlier in the day until it was caught in one of the cages neatly stacked across the street.
On our trip to Sonoma County, we had a great time relaxing, eating well and drinking delicious wines. This was exactly what we needed.

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.