“What grows together, goes together,” quotes Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. The saying—widespread among the region’s farmers—applies to the abundance of local produce that can actually take on the characteristics of fruit and vegetables that are completely different in their genetic makeup and composition. Due to similar terroir, a vine-ripened tomato, for example, may acquire the tastes and physical properties of a nearby chardonnay grape. It’s nature at its—for lack of a better term—coolest.
After a visit to Sonoma County (courtesy of the Sonoma County Winegrowers—thank you!), I am convinced, however, that the clever expression can also be applied to the county and its resolute inhabitants. Nearly two years after a wildfire devastated the community, claiming the lives of 22 people and leaving thousands homeless, residents have found a way to come together, grow together, and rebuild to a point where it almost seems like nothing ever happened (at least to an outsider like me). It’s a true testament to their courage, compassion, and entrepreneurial spirit, with every bottle of wine now being a symbol of a region that continues to flourish and persevere, despite suffering from one of the most unpredictable of hardships.
I’d be lying if I said that my perception of the area wasn’t challenged, as I fully expected to see skeletons of destruction and a once beautiful town cloaked in pessimism and defeat. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After a trip with my mom for an extended weekend, we soaked up everything Sonoma County had to offer. And while there are plenty of fabulous, picturesque places to explore, sip, and dine, these were the highlights.
Sonoma County Vineyards and Wineries
These are the mountain views that define Sonoma County and have brides-to-be falling in love with what must certainly make the most perfect wedding venue ever. The tasting lunch itself was an experience to remember with a menu that was dictated by the wine and wine only. Glazed pork tenderloin with an aged gouda polenta cake and dino kale was the highlight, but only because it paired seamlessly with a 2015 zinfandel from Montecillo Vineyard. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the meal was that it was shared with complete strangers from all walks of life. We left with new favorite bottles, as well as a new group of friends, which was an unexpected, albeit lovely surprise. Be sure to cap the day off with a port for a sweet ending to a perfect afternoon.
There’s something about Flowers pinot noir that makes it truly special. My mom and I have shared a bottle on multiple significant occasions, so to visit its tasting room and learn about the company’s history and harvesting process firsthand was a real treat. Unlike many pinots, Flowers’ grapes are grown on coastal cliffs where the ocean mist cools their fragile skins after a long day in the sun. Frankly, no one should change a thing about this winemaking tradition because after the tasting, this bottle still remained our favorite from the entire trip. While its Healdsburg property may not boast the same jaw-dropping views as St. Francis and surrounding vineyards, its earthy and airy design is stunning and worthy of a feature in Architectural Digest. Be sure to check it out and marvel at all the furniture, paint colors, and patio space that can be filed under #homegoals.
Rosé may have earned a reputation as being the most basic of wines in recent history, but a trip to J Vineyards & Winery will quell any rumors that it can’t be both complex and sophisticated. Its sparkling variety (Vintage Brut, 2014) was perhaps one of our favorite sips on the trip, offering a refreshingly crisp and not-to-sweet mouthfeel that paired perfectly with produce like melon and cherries. After a lunch in the famed Bubble Room with chef Carl Shelton at the helm, be sure to tour the grounds with some of the other varietals in hand. You’ll stumble across more than just rows of vines and grapes: flowers, fountains, and even hummingbirds as they flutter about under the California sun.
Sonoma County Restaurants
If a day of tastings still hasn’t quenched your thirst, then a) I’d like to shake your hand, and b) you’d fare best at Willi’s Wine Bar, which offers an extensive wine list that rivals the length of an encyclopedia. This was the most memorable food spot of the trip, with each international tapas-style dish shining more than the next. The Tuscan-style pork ribs with peppery arugula and fennel-anchovy vinaigrette were cooked to perfection and one of my favorite dishes of 2019 thus far. There’s just something about its citrusy and salty bite that has me craving it weeks later. Finish the night with the chocolate banana bread pudding and surrender to the discomfort of being abnormally full. It’s all worth it.
One of my favorite brunch spots in Bozeman, Montana, was the Stockyards Inn, a no-frills dive where patrons dined quietly around a giant central bar. The Spinster Sisters gave me similar feels, which was an ideal respite from the exhaustion that comes from wine tasting after wine tasting. Always opt for its freshly-baked bread or pastries of the day, which capitalize on seasonality and pair well with the extensive beverage offerings of coffees, fresh juices, and even matcha. It’s a pleasant place to start your morning and happens to be adjacent to an adorable community garden where every plant is thriving.
Drinks are the star at Perch + Plow where local produce and edible flowers adorn creatively crafted cocktails resembling “Water Lilies” and other famous works of floral art. You also can’t go wrong with anything that features its homemade ginger beer, a spicy departure from mainstream brands that typically overwhelm with too much sweetness and too little ginger. In addition to beverages, the establishment has introduced an updated and inspired menu with reimagined classics, emphasizing fresh ingredients that capitalize on a farm-to-table point of view. The heirloom tomatoes, something I typically don’t enjoy, were sweet like candy in a garlic-forward panzanella with fresh mascarpone. Dishes as simple as fries were also elevated with truffles and black garlic aioli. Pick this as a date spot with its quirky and colorful interior that projects major “we’re here to have a good time” vibes.
Sonoma County Hotel
If you book a reservation in 2019, chances are likely that you’ll still smell the fresh paint. Santa Rosa’s newest lodge, Hotel E, stands tall next to bustling Old Courthouse Square, overlooking downtown with sun-drenched windows and a lounge with oversized chairs. Perhaps its best quality, other than prime location, is its accommodating staff who truly went above and beyond to ensure our stay was stress-free and comfortable. I’m also a huge fan of the interior design, which boasts stone finishes and plush, modern furniture, making it feel more like a home than a sterile hotel. It also just happened to have one of the most dream-inducing mattresses I’ve slept on in a while, which was a welcomed perk for this sleep-deprived New Yorker.
Where to Go in San Francisco
You’d be remiss not to tack on an extra day in the Golden City during your journey to the West Coast. For the utmost in convenience, Hotel Emblem is in an ideal location (Union Square) with an aesthetic that rivals San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. On-site Obscenity Bar & Lounge is also perfect for a quick libation or for those incapable of decision-making (SF has a LOT to choose from when it comes to food and drink).
For dinner, be sure to book a reservation at Cotogna, our favorite spot for wood-fired pizza. The escarole, caper, and pine nut offering is a balanced blend of brine, smoke, and bitterness that is difficult to emulate within the confines of your home kitchen.
Looking for a nightcap? Novela is a trendy spot with clever drinks, including a lengthy punch menu tailored for literary folks who enjoy puns, metaphors, and word play.
Header image courtesy of Sam Gellman Photography.