Imagine the most beautiful coastline you’ve ever seen: miles of Pacific Ocean raging up against massive rocks that stand sentinel in the surf like ancient gods. Now add to that, fertile valleys where some of the world’s best wines hang from clusters of grapes waiting to be born. Add the passion of chefs, butchers, picklers, soap makers, hoteliers and even the cinematic passion of Sonoma-lover Alfred Hitchcock and his masterpiece, The Birds, filmed in Bodega Bay and you’ll get some idea of why Sonoma is now using the phrase “Life Opens Up,” to describe its delights.
Sonoma County, California prides itself on being open to experimentors and to pioneers and pilgrims who come to its coast, riversides and valley vineyards to plant their passion for food and wine in its fertile soil. Ask winemakers or chefs here what differentiates them from their sister region, Napa, and they’ll tell you that there’s still room here for passion and invention and sweat equity, alongside the larger and well known purveyors of wine and food who have made their home here for decades.
Even travelers with only a few days to enjoy the sensual delights of Sonoma can do the region tapas-style, tasting some of the best the region has to offer and seeing some the regions most dramatic and bucolic beauty in a less than a week.
A great place to start your tour of Sonoma is a legend in the wine industry. Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Garden in Fulton is a restaurant, tasting estate and an organic garden that highlights the famed wines that have been the gateway Chardonnay to many an oenophile.
The upstairs restaurant serves produce from the estate’s extensive culinary gardens and Executive Chef Justin Wangler’s food and wine pairings highlight the fact that “KJ” does not just mean big, oaky Chardonnays (although they have those, too). The estate has an annual heirloom tomato festival (those lovely globes that prove tomatoes don’t have to be orange-red to satisfy). If you’re lucky you may end up in a tasting with wine master Randy Ullom, who coordinates all the winemaking for this legendary, family owned winery.
Stay the night (or many more) in the nearby and equally legendary Farmhouse Inn set on 6 rural (hence the “farmhouse”) acres near the food paradise of Healdsburg. There’s a Michelin-starred restaurant where Executive Chef Steve Litke and Sonoma’s only Master Sommelier, Geoff Kruth preside. There’s also a free soap bar where guests get to pick their own artisanal soaps and bath products gratis before checking into rooms that seem to have every creature comfort imaginable (and for no extra charge). Locally made snacks, smores, and of course, a bottle of local wine greets you on check in. Beds are big, four poster farmhouse specials where you’ll sink in and feel like you’ve become one with the casual elegant, cashmere-soft texture of the place and huge showers have a steam sauna built in for extra decadence. And of course, outside your room, the constant bubbling and steam of the hot tubs provide a creature comfort white noise reminding you that you can sink in and soak at anytime.
At stay at the farmhouse puts you close to the tidy, art-and-food-filled town of Healdsburg. Two places for food and wine pilgrims should be Journeyman Meat Company and Vallette Restaurant.
At Journeyman Meat Co. winemaker Pete Seghesio embraces his decades old family tradition of salumi, handmade sausage and Italian-style cured meats. Find a place at Pete’s counter at his intimate Healdsburg shop and do a tasting menu alongside local wines that will either prepare you or ruin your meal to follow at nearby Vallette Restaurant depending on how much you can eat.
Vallette, also in Healdsburg is the passion child of two brothers, Chef Justin Vallette and General Manager, Alan Garzini. The brothers’ pedigree goes back to Italian bakers in Sonoma several generations ago. Today, this bustling room offers a multi-course tasting menu that’s designed to “wow” travelers’ way into the Sonoma food scene. Locally sourced flavors and great wine pairings (Justin apprenticed at Francis Ford Coppola’s winery) all under a vintage agricultural mural from Sonoma’s rural days make a night at Vallette akin to the classic food film, “Big Night” with Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub. The film and Vallette are all about two brothers whose passion for the possibilities of great cuisine outweigh all other considerations.
Moving in to what Sonoma County Tourism calls the “Valleys and Vineyards” area of the County (they divide up the county for tourism between “Valleys and Vineyards,” “Redwoods and Rivers,” and “Coast and Sea Villages”), cider lovers must make time to stop at Horse and Plow, a small but elegant tasting room in Sebastopol. The name sounds Russian for a reason. Russian tradesman, artisans and others settled this area so heavily that the nearby river bears their name, Russian River. The Horse and Plow features elegantly unoaked whites as well as mouth-puckering ciders and organic foods. The wines come from organic vineyards throughout Northern California and they work solely with growers who use certified organic or biodynamic methods of growing.
Also in Sebastapol is a unique art campus and marketplace called Visit The Barlow where food producers, wine makers, brewers, distillers and artists co-mingle and co-create. Wine lovers will want to stop into The MacPhail Family Tasting Room, for a taste of small-batch Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and more from the Sonoma Coast, the Russian River and the Anderson Valley.
Moving into the “Red Woods and Rivers” area in the interior of the country you’ll find the boon hotel and spa (lower case on purpose) in Guerneville, a memorable and sensual place to stay. Boon is the love child of chef-owner Crista Luedtke (you may have seen her on Guy Fieri’s “Guy’s Grocery Games”). Luedtke felt that the area needed a place where luxury was affordable and so her 14-room boutique hotel was born. Luedtke, is known throughout Sonoma as the person who transformed Guerneville into a big name on travelers’ maps through a canny knowledge of food and hospitality. The adults’ only boon hotel and spa needed a companion restaurant in town and boon eat and drink was born. Luedtke also owns next door Cantina, El Barrio where she makes a mean margarita. The feel in all is low-key, casual but very heavy on taste and texture. Rooms in boon have wood burning fireplaces and vinyl-playing record players. There’s an honor bar and if you’re lucky you may get to meet Boon himself, the property’s namesake a 12-year old puppy who loves to catch frisbees and whose profile on signage doing just that will keep you guessing (the secret is out now).
Boon sits cheek-by-jowl to the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, close enough to walk into this ancient forest. If walking is not enough and you’d like to get intimate with trees, consider totally immersing yourself in them at the Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary. The brainchild of onetime Buddhist monk and Japanese landscape designer, Michael Stusser, the spa is a haven surrounded by authentic Japanese gardens and zen rock formations. On a rainy afternoon you may see spa goers meditating in monk-like scarlet raincoats with small cups of tea in front of them. But the centerpiece of the spa is the cedar baths. While Stusser was a student at a Japanese monastery, he learned about a time-honored Japanese treatment method of bathing in fermenting cedar enzymes. By immersing yourself in a fragrant tub filled with this soft chip-like substance you can help relieve muscle aches, sciatica, skin issues and other complaints. The feel after you get out of the tub is one of deep and wood-fragranced relaxation.
Moving closer toward the coast, drop by at the Western movie-like town of Duncans Mills where a panoply of charming shops await. Cetonia Bath and Body is run by local, Angela Lee, who founded the natural soap and body care line after purchasing a tiny house near the town. Lee wanted to make sure that all the soap and bath suds she used were biodegradable and organic so she created her own line. The scarab beetle on her art nouveau-graced boxes is a symbol of spiritual and physical rebirth.
Travelers can stock up at Cetonia, after a day spent soaking in cedar chips and head to Timber Cove for the night stopping at one of the regions best wineries for a tasting. Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery is one of Sonoma’s best known. Owners Linda and Lester Schartz started the winery in a section of virgin forest in the high coastal ridges overlooking the Pacific. The area is cool and foggy and makes amazing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The tasting room feels like very Frank Lloyd Wright and is filled with local art. The wines themselves are like the microclimate: mysterious, revealing themselves gradually like redwoods appearing out of the clouds.
Quarter for the night or many nights (you’re going to want to) at Timber Cove. The hotel was originally built in the 1960s and retains a mid-century modern aesthetic. Combine that with wood burning fireplaces and the pounding surf just below and you have a stay that will linger long in the part of the brain that registers textures, sights and other sensual pleasures.
You’re in true Sonoma Country coastal heaven here. Timber Cove is a great place to explore other area attractions like the Jack London State Historic Park where the iconic author lived and where he is buried. (London was “On the Road,” way before Kerouac was and he was just as photogenic). You should also make sure not to miss the River’s End Restaurant also just facing the raging ocean and the rocks beyond. The restaurant has annual stone crab festivals and five course crab tasting menus (even dessert is crab-shaped). Inside the restaurant itself, the mid-century modern motif continues. You can see Tippi Hedren dining here and having martinis with Hitch himself, discussing their next scene in “The Birds” which was filmed a short drive away at Bodega Bay.
Before you leave Sonoma, make a wish and leave it on the “wishing tree” at Belden Barns. This farm and winery has a history that goes back to the late 1800s. Today, owners Nate and Lauren Belden (and a bevy of playful kids) run the farm and winery and have created a unique attraction–a wishing tree. Lauren will tell you that travelers have been leaving wishes on the branches of one special tree since they opened the winery (it’s on the label of their wines). Some of these wishes have miraculously come true and tasters and travelers have sent the Beldens proof that the tree or the land or Sonoma itself is so magical that wishes are granted here and lives transformed.
Whether or not you believe in the wishing tree, it’s doubtful that you’ll leave Sonoma without a feeling that you’ve communed with the land and the passionate people who live here, and that you’ve transformed your tastebuds as well as something deeper inside you.