As this shockingly premature spring weather blossoms across the East Coast, perennials have begun to bust through the soil and I’ve begun a mad rush to study up on the organic gardening techniques I’ll need to grasp before attempting to grow my very first vegetables. No one could’ve convinced me I’d be planting soil beds in March, but as a possible upshot to the otherwise daunting trends climate change forebodes, something closer to the California model of year-round gardening is becoming a reality…in Boston. I’m reminded of the September sojourn I took to the Sonoma Valley last year to taste not just the grapes, but the agricultural harvest that was in full bloom on my plate in California’s celebrated wine country. I recorded my culinary adventures for Spice magazine back in December of 2011, and as promised, have reprinted them below. You can read the online edition here, take a peak at the magazine’s current issue here, or subscribe to receive their gorgeous glossy editions here. Pesky global warming worries aside, enjoy the sun and Eat it Up!
With its palatial chateaus and five-star restaurants, Napa reigns king in Northern California Wine Country. But just 15 miles west of Napa, in a region known as much for its orchards, olive groves and farm lands as it is for its aspiring vineyards, the once sleepy city of Sonoma has blossomed into a hip, culinary epicentre for vacationing gourmands looking to find off-the-radar elegance.
Sonoma County houses pockets of small towns boasting big flavours and classic Californian cuisine. The adjacent scenic hills and agricultural valley provide a setting of unparalleled natural beauty from which fresh, local ingredients are harvested daily and found on menus across the region. This agricultural bounty has resulted in a vibrant restaurant scene ranging from casual cafe’s to Michelin-starred restaurants, extending for miles in every direction from the city’s center and winding along the Russian River.
There you’ll find vintners planting pinot, cheese makers rounding up their herds, beekeepers setting up shop alongside lavender fields, local potters and painters, organic vegetable farms, grass-fed cattle, artisanal chocolate, wood fired loaves of sourdough bread and zinfandel for miles–collectively showcasing Sonoma County’s reputation for sustainable, delectable dining. The next time you find yourself on Sonoma County soil, I’d be sure to taste test your way while luxuriating in vinotherapy spas and savoring the sustainable flavours that define what may be America’s most celebrated cuisine.
Beyond the city limits lies Sonoma Valley. Take in a picturesque round of golf at wine country golf clubs touting spectacular valley vistas, a mild climate that encourages year-round play, and fantastic off-the-fairway diversions, of which my favorite is the vineyard tour at Scribe Winery. A new, artisanal estate committed to sustainable winegrowing and a hand-harvested, small batch, cellar collection, Scribe flaunts their flagship 2010 Pinot Noir inside their 100-year-old Mission Revival-style Hacienda. With its royal, palm tree strewed entranceway and elegant wines, it’s easy to imagine moving in. But should you actually desire to sleep among the vines, the Kenwood Inn and Spa offers the perfect spot to retire to in the heart of Sonoma County. Featuring the allure of a Mediterranean villa with lush surroundings and luxurious accommodations, the Kenwood Spa specializes in vinotherapy treatments made from local red wine extracts.
From the Sonoma Valley, adventure through the Russian River Valley toward its northernmost point and heart of gourmet sophistication–Healdsburg. Along the way pop by the Martinelli winery and apple orchard to taste some of the region’s most distinctive, irreverently named zinfandels. Housed inside the world-class Hotel Healdsburg, the first time I tried Martinelli’s Jackass Hill zin was at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen. This cult bottle of full-bodied, cassis-forward wine made me a quick convert. Last November, Dry Creek Kitchen celebrated its 10-year anniversary for helping make Healdsburg the culinary capital of Sonoma. A great way to experience the best artisan foods and wines being produced in the area, Chef Palmer is known for curating museum-quality menus showcasing the region’s finest local produce.
This trend toward ultra-local consumption continues at newcomer Barndiva, where French Laundry trained Chef Ryan Fancher, works closely with sustainable farmers, ranchers and chefs from 30 local restaurants. Far more down-home than Palmer’s kitchen, but in a no less beautiful setting where supermodel-esque servers present artistically composed dishes, Barndiva delivers. For an even higher-end restaurant experience, book a reservation at the Michelin two-star Cyrus, where seasonal, innovative food is paired with sustainable Kaluga caviar service that may be the only eco-conscious alternative to Beluga. Frozen vodka or Champagne Krug make excellent caviar pairings, though Cyrus’ seasonal spirits menu also sparkles. Before heading out of town, the Dry Creek General Store makes a superb pit stop for breakfast pastries, homemade sandwiches and salads, coffee drinks and stylish souvenirs. Offering myriad foodstuffs, cookbooks, home decor and wine, the gift shop provides edible excess for the traveling locavore.
Moving on, Forestville, a rustic retreat some 13 miles south of Healdsburg, credits itself as the sacred spot “where the redwoods meet the wine country.” Here visitors can explore the natural beauty of the wooded region while kayaking down the Russian River, hiking among redwood forests or horseback riding through valley trails. At the Farmhouse Inn, Restaurant and Spa, travellers can also enjoy open-air bubble baths in private guest suites before dining in pastoral surroundings that have evolved from a lifetime of shared family traditions centered around the rhythms of nature. Each plate that Chef Steve Litke creates tells a story about Sonoma County; its incredible diversity of agriculture and artisan producers, its rich heritage of Italian, French and Mexican immigrants, and its consistent focus on organic and sustainably farmed fruits and vegetables, enable Chef Litke to create intensely flavored, wholesome dishes that rely entirely on local ingredients at their seasonal peak.
Sarah’s Forestville Kitchen does much the same by pairing Californian comfort food favorites with a live, courtyard jazz quartet. Nearby, Nightingale Breads Bakery churns out wood fired loaves using all organic flours, grains and seeds that are worth taking on a picnic, with perhaps a few wheels of Bohemian Creamery cheese from the neighboring city of Sebastopol. There you’ll also find a picnic lunch at Lynmar Estate, which offers prepackaged picnic fare in signature Sonoma style. Indian born co-proprietor Anisya Fritz recommends staying on the property in their ultra opulent, private, Bliss House–a three bedroom guest cottage with access to Lynmar Estate’s Chef, on-call massage services, private yoga lessons and 360 degree valley views.
The final stop along any sophisticates Sonoma County retreat must include a visit to Sebastopol’s Sunday farmers’ market and one-star Michelin restaurant, K&L Bistro. There, guests dine in a classic neighborhood cafe setting that fuses French traditions with Sonoma sensibilities. The morning after my meal at K&L, I rose with the sun to get first crack at the Sebastapol farmers’ market spread. It was harvest season, so I was treated to no less than a dozen different grape varietals, local goat cheese, dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes, and epic, Araucana eggs, naturally “painted” in dusty pastel hues. Cracked into an omelet later that morning, their brilliant orange yolks were an eco-conscious reminder that the very best vacations are those that feel as good as they taste.