Wind your way through the sections of the rolling hills and valleys of western Sonoma County and you might not detect any visible clues that wildfires devastated about 100,000 acres of the county last October.
While towns like Guerneville in the Russian River Valley and Healdsburg to its north may have escaped physical damage, those small towns and many of their neighbors suffered from a dip in tourism after the fires that dominated the news last fall. Prospective tourists from outside of the state heard the words “wine country” and decided that Sonoma County, home to more than 400 vineyards and some stellar restaurants ranging from cafes to fine dining institutions, should be avoided for a while.
But Sonoma is a big place. Though dozens of fires destroyed property and claimed lives in and around Santa Rosa and east into the Sonoma Valley, towns to the west remained untouched. With the area hurting for tourism and help supporting its neighbors under the moniker “Sonoma Strong,” now is the perfect time to visit Sonoma.
While wine and food tourism in Napa has developed into a polished industry that can boast names like Opus One Winery and the French Laundry, not to mention a wine train, Sonoma is the rustic sibling, especially the western part of the county. A bohemian vibe infuses much of the small towns in the sleepier western part of the county, an area known for pinot noirs and chardonnays, as well as its diverse landscape, stretching from the towering redwoods of the Russian River Valley to the stunning Pacific coastline.
Perched just above the Russian River about 75 miles north of San Francisco, Guerneville makes for a relaxing retreat or a perfect jumping-off spot to explore Sonoma for a weekend, like we recently did. And, if you want to avoid the big city altogether, you can fly into the small Santa Rosa airport, which is only 20 miles from Guerneville. What follows is a sample itinerary for a weekend jaunt to a unique location that whispers of Colorado, the Texas Hill Country and the Pacific Northwest but is uniquely Californian. See the accompanying box for ideas on accommodations.
Friday lunch and wine tasting at Russian River Vineyards
If you crossed an old Victorian manor with a woodland witch’s roadhouse, you might get the rustic and beautiful building that forms the heart of Russian River Vineyards. The steepled building constructed in 1969 is actually in the shape of an old hop kiln.
The property has been cultivated for agriculture since the end of the 19th century, and the new owners restored the grounds in 2008. Russian River includes a dining room that serves chef-prepared dinners on the weekend, but the shaded picnic tables in the courtyard provide a beautiful spot to look out over the gardens and fields while dining on cheese and housemade charcuterie plates accented with dried fruits and sipping supple estate-grown pinot noir. The vintage bicycles and pickup truck and the owners’ frolicking dogs serve as a good introduction to the aesthetic and vibe of Sonoma, as does special programming like weekend Yoga in the Vineyard classes. Daily tastings start at $25, and reservations can be made online. russianrivervineyards.com
Friday happy hour at El Barrio
San Francisco transplant Crista Luedtke helped revitalize sleepy Guerneville, long a weekend getaway for the LGTBQ community of the Bay Area, when she opened her Boon Hotel in 2008. She followed that with a restaurant of the same name on Main Street, the primary artery for entertainment and commerce that runs through the town.
Her latest, El Barrio, a name that plays off Spanish for neighborhood and the cold Russian River (rio) just steps away, opened in 2014 and eschews the lumberjack chic aesthetic of Boon for a Cali-Mex appeal of leather, wood, exposed beams, cow skulls and Southwestern textiles.
The bar specializes in bourbon and agave spirit cocktails like La Cabeza, tequila zipped and perfumed with ginger and orgeat, and the grassy smoke of the mezcal-based El Jardin, with its cucumber, celery and serrano. You can snack on a small selection of tacos and tostadas or just chips and salsa while you wait for your table next door at Boon or Seaside Metal. elbarrio.com
Friday dinner at Seaside Metal
Step inside the pristine white subway tile-backed raw bar and blue-walled jewel box restaurant Seaside Metal on Main Street and you get transplanted about a dozen miles west to the Pacific Coast.
Executive chef Mike Selvera and brother Tim opened the restaurant in 2014 as a companion to their popular Bar Crudo near Alamo Square Park in San Francisco. As with that restaurant, Seaside Metal specializes in oysters, including the crisp and sweet salinity of kumi oysters from upstate Humboldt and the nutty and briny miyagi oysters from nearby Marin, as well as crudo dishes. Horseradish creme fraiche and wasabi tobiko wobble atop velvety Arctic char with their tart and spicy punch, while pickled mushrooms and hazelnuts put tangy pop into deeply colored slabs of tuna.
The raw bar may be the main attraction, but the chowder is a consistent menu star: Deeply creamy, a little sweet from clam juice and studded with ample amounts of apple-wood smoked bacon, this thin version forgoes clams for whole mussels, shrimp and squid and pieces of raw fish. seasidemetal.com
Saturday breakfast at Big Bottom Market
Part artisanal country store, part cafe, part community meeting spot, Big Bottom Market, named after a previous moniker for Guerneville, was opened in 2011 by Luedtke and tech public relations veteran Michael Volpatt.
Volpatt and his partner bought out Luedtke last year, but the market’s centerpiece remains: a knobby and flossy drop biscuit that once made Oprah’s “Favorite Things” list. Whether your breakfast tastes run toward the sweet (mascarpone and homemade honey) or savory (a Sea Biscuit layered with smoked salmon, creme fraiche, pickled onions and capers), Big Bottom has you covered. Looking for a happy hour wine-and-cheese spot? They do that as well.
Beyond being an energetic host at Big Bottom, Volpatt serves as something of a de facto mayor/PR director for Guerneville. In addition to rattling off his favorite local vineyards (check out Iron Horse Winery), Volpatt shared an apocryphal history of Guerneville and its role in the LGBTQ community of San Francisco, which found solace in the pastoral town around the time of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. That community as well as visitors, transplants and creative entrepreneurs of all orientations have helped imbue the town with a unique spirit.
“That whole culture of acceptance and being different is really what makes Guerneville such a unique, fun and funky area,” Volpatt says.
Asked the biggest difference between the more industry-driven Napa and the family-operated wineries of Sonoma, Volpatt quips, “Napa is for auto parts; Sonoma’s for wine.” bigbottommarket.com
Saturday wine tasting at Porter-Bass Vineyard
Traverse the dirt road that bumps along the hillside just south of Guerneville’s Main Street and you come to the kind of hospitable, family-owned vineyard that Volpatt says epitomizes western Sonoma County.
Luke Bass is overseeing the installation of some new fencing — the family hopes to add a dairy cow to its collection of animals that includes pigs, bees, chickens and sheep. He brushes clean his sturdy paws and launches into a thoughtful discussion about the sedimentary formations from the ocean, crumbly sandstone and the family’s decision to create biodynamic wine from the vineyard his parents acquired in 1980.
Located in a forest-lined valley protected from the wind by two ridges, the vineyard under the Bass family originally sold all of their grapes to other wineries. That changed in 2001, when they bottled their first zinfandel. Their first pinot noir followed in 2006. They now sell their grapes only to Littorai Wines in nearby Sebastopol, using the rest for the 800 cases of Porter-Bass wine they sell each year.
Luke and his wife, Elena, who live on a trailer on the property behind the house Luke’s architect father designed and built in the ’80s, walk us up to a tree-shaded picnic table for tastings and a view of the 18 acres of grapes and 60 acres of forest owned by the Bass family.
Talk turns to back native yeast and malolactic fermentation, as bottles of pinot, zinfandel and chardonnay are poured.
“When you let a vineyard be self-expressive and they are saying what they need, they age more gracefully,” Luke Bass says as he pours a 10-year-old pinot noir as proof.
“There are wines of place and wines of process,” Elena adds, paraphrasing Ted Lemon of Littorai.
As we ride out the tingly, bright acidity and minerality of the estate chardonnay and work our way through the lush fruit of the pinot noir and mild spice of zinfandel, it is clear that these are wines of place. And people.
Daily tastings cost $10, which can also be applied to the purchase of bottles. Visit website for reservation details. porterbass.com
Saturday lunch at the Shed in Healdsburg
Full of upscale shopping, art galleries and an aesthetic that reminds one more of Napa than western Sonoma County, Healdsburg looks like wine hamlet as art directed by a Hollywood film studio.
The town located less than 20 miles northeast of Guerneville is also home to the Shed, a unique gourmet market, cafe and community gathering space with few peers.
Given the area’s penchant for glorious weather, you will want to take a seat on the back patio for a meal that highlights the stunning bounty of California.
The store’s larder stocks a selection of cured fish, and the cafe serves a board that includes smoked trout mousse, cold-smoked salmon, pickled herring, cured anchovies and more. It is a startling presentation that showcases the range of flavor profiles, from dusky to electric, that can be showcased with cured fish.
Seasonality and simplicity are hallmarks of California cuisine, and no place is that better showcased than a salad of tart, blood-red strawberries, creamy and pungent aged sheep’s milk cheese and the lash of Sichuan pepper vinaigrette and bitter arugula; or a blooming flowerlike presentation of thinly sliced Armenian cucumber layered with nutty geoduck and spritzed with lemon juice and olive oil. As you linger through lunch feeling like one of the privileged characters of “Big Little Lies,” the California envy settles in and you marvel at the good fortune of the people who get to eat like this on a regular basis. healdsburgshed.com
Saturday afternoon tasting at Ridge Winery’s Lytton Springs Vineyard
Make the 5-mile drive north to Ridge Winery for a tasting before circling back down to Guerneville. Ridge’s Lytton Springs Vineyard puts the country in country club, its carpeted, rolling hills flagged by 115-year-old vines stretching out before an outdoor patio-covered tasting area that stands in sharp relief to some of the more rustic tasting rooms in western Sonoma.
Also a change of pace from the Russian River Valley just to the south, here you will have the chance to taste some exceptional cabernet sauvignon. Make your way through the dark stone fruit and elegant tannins of a zinfandel selection and then supplement your tasting with a pour of Monte Bello, a sibling to the 1971 cabernet sauvignon that introduced American cabernets to a world audience at the 1976 Judgment of Paris.
Daily tastings start at $10, and reservations can be made online. ridgewine.com
Saturday dinner at Farmhouse Inn in Forestville
You hear the contented murmurings of wine-sipping resort guests as they sit around an outdoor fire pit, undoubtedly talking about their day’s pampering at the spa. But you don’t have to stay the night at this historic inn to indulge in its crown jewel — the property’s Michelin-starred restaurant.
With its baroque ’90s carpet, swooping hornlike wooden light fixtures, plates drizzled with squirt-bottled sauces, white table cloths and refined service, the Farmhouse Inn glows with anachronistic allure. It’s likely a mannered reminder to many of their introduction to fine dining.
There are no tweezered accompaniments or molecular gastronomy at work here. Instead you’ll find sake-cured ahi tuna piqued with ginger-lime vinaigrette, Asian-inspired scallops in lobster emulsion aside sesame seed-flecked savoy spinach, rabbit three ways in whole-grain mustard cream sauce, an exceptional local wine list and the kind of respectful and gracious service you’d expect to find in a big city. The experience is a welcome change of pace not just to Sonoma but to the communal plates and modernist style of dining seen so frequently these days. farmhouseinn.com
Sunday picnic at the coast
After a quick and chilly dip in the Russian River or a walk through the stoic giants in Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve a couple of miles north of Main Street, head back to Big Bottom Market, grab a prosciutto and fig sandwich and a bottle of hard-to-find Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewing and head 12 miles to the Sonoma Coast State Park just north of Bodega Bay.
Make your way down the path leading down the craggy hillside and find a spot on the rock, just out of reach of the frigid water. Eat. Linger. Awe at the myriad beauties of Sonoma. Then make the 90-minute drive back to San Francisco. Or not. parks.ca.gov
Where to stay in Guerneville
Autocamp. A trailer in the redwoods? Well, you’re not exactly roughing it when you stay at this collection of Airstreams, renovated with midcentury design touches, or the property’s luxury canvas tents. Autocamp also features indoor and outdoor fire pits for those cool fall nights. Trailers and tents start at $140. autocamp.com
Boon Hotel. Modern and minimalist with a Scandinavia-meets-California aesthetic, this hotel’s rooms feature platform beds and furniture made from reclaimed redwoods. Dogs can be accommodated, kids not so much. The property features a saline pool and hot tub. Rooms start at $170. boonhotels.com
Dawn Ranch. This charming and rustic 15-acre resort is dotted with renovated cabins built in 1905. Choose between cabins, some of which include gas stove fireplaces, that sit alongside the creek or pool or in a lush meadow. Cabins start at $119. dawnranch.com