A West Sonoma Road Trip
Tasting rooms and dining rooms in our favorite slice of Northern California wine country
hamburgers and kitchen stores selling distressed antique tin that’s supposed to look like it came out of a sharecropper’s cabin but will now hold olive mix from Dean & DeLuca. It’s a shame, because there’s damn good wine up there, and who doesn’t like hanging out drinking wine? The good news is that you need only drive west to get to funky wine country. Bohemian wine country. West Sonoma County.
Towns like Graton, Occidental, and Sebastopol, about one and a half hours from San Francisco, are home to some very good restaurants and wineries, laid-back places you can ride your bike to and not feel conspicuously grungy. We’ve put together a small itinerary—including a spa and a couple of lodging ideas—that exemplifies the area’s beatnik-y charm. You could hit all these places in a weekend (or even a long day; we’ve included a suggested timeline), without having to spend a lot of time driving around. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to west Sonoma, but a collection of some of our favorite spots.
10 a.m. – BREAKFAST
9020 Graton Road, Graton
When Matthew Greenbaum and his partner opened this popular restaurant in 1995, the tiny town of Graton didn’t even have a sidewalk. Now people wait 20 minutes for a table on weekends for the cafe’s specialty: brunches like soft polenta, pancetta, and over-easy eggs served with a side of sesame toast with melted Cambozola cheese, as well as homemade pastries. The décor is not-cutesy country farmhouse, with an old wooden bar that’s inviting to sit at and lattes served in colorful bowls. The restaurant also sells British products like Marmite, McVitie’s digestive biscuits, and Cadbury chocolate. The Underwood, across the street, is the same owners’ more metropolitan, bistro-style place, serving lunch and dinner. Go here for a meal of steak frites and wine on the deck (and then play bocce on their court).
11 a.m. – TASTE WINE
9786 Ross Station Road, Sebastopol
If you’re only going to one winery, go here. At the end of a rural road, on a hill overlooking undulating hills of grape vines, the “tasting room” is a simple wooden shelf, constructed outdoors. CEO Joy Sterling or winemaker David Munksgard may be pouring their sparkling wines, Pinot Noirs, and Chardonnays. This informality is especially delightful when you consider that five consecutive presidential administrations have been drinking Iron Horse wines at state dinners. (No word yet on whether the Obamas have sampled the winery’s wares, but they did receive some bottles.) The entire Sterling clan (brother Laurence and parents/owners Barry and Audrey) lives on the property, and their warm enthusiasm for the family business is infectious. For a $10 tasting fee, you can try incredible wines like the earthy, velvety 2007 Estate Pinot Noir; the unoaked, lime-y, fresh 2007 Chardonnay; or the surprisingly dry 2005 Brut Rosé sparkling wine that would make an excellent summer hostess gift.
12 p.m. – RELAX
209 Bohemian Highway, Freestone
The village of Freestone, with its bucolic meadows and weathered Victorian buildings, looks like the movie set of a Stephen King movie, before something supernaturally horrible happens. In one of those old buildings is Osmosis, a rather unusual spa featuring something called Japanese cedar enzyme baths. For $85 ($75 if you do it as a couple), you can be buried up to your neck in exceedingly warm, fermenting, enzymatically rich cedar wood chips and rice bran (sort of like a mud bath, but much better smelling). Before and after your treatment, you can hang out in one of two phenomenal Japanese gardens on the spa’s five acres, with lily-pad-strewn koi ponds and shaded meditation areas with wooden decks and cushions. Afterward, pick up a loaf of bread from the excellent Wild Flour Bread across the street (it’s only open Friday through Monday).
2 p.m. – PICNIC LUNCH SUPPLIES AND COFFEE
MY FRIEND JOE coffee kiosk
1691 Gravenstein Highway N., Sebastopol
1691 Gravenstein Highway N., Sebastopol
Recharge with an iced coffee or try one of the varieties of peanut butter milk shakes at My Friend Joe’s coffee kiosk. Then cross the parking lot into local favorite Andy’s Produce Market for picnic supplies. Inside you’ll find everything from ripe 99-cents-a-pound local peaches to homemade jams, wine, beer, good-looking granola, seed-y loaves of bread, cheese, and an olive bar. Bring said supplies out to the beach before driving back into town for drinks and dinner.
3–4:30 p.m. – TASTE WINE
2959 Gravenstein Highway N., Sebastopol
Image courtesy of www.merryedwards.com
Merry Edwards, one of the country’s top Pinot Noir makers (and one of the first female winemakers) has a tasting room that’s so new it’s not even on the wine country maps yet. It’s a little sterile-feeling, but what it lacks in picturesqueness it makes up for in off-the-charts-amazing wines. Drop-ins can try (for free, no less) five wines, including the award-winning Pinots and great Sauvignon Blancs. But if you call ahead, you can arrange to have a longer, in-depth, private tasting of many more, also gratis. Although you can find Edwards’s wines at great restaurants around the world, none are available through retail, so visiting the tasting room is a special opportunity to take home a few bottles at a fraction of the cost.
3909 Frei Road, Sebastopol
Turning off the road into Lynmar is like entering a rich hippie’s dream home: An artsy, sort of ’70s Gothic-style wooden building houses a tasting room with a giant picture window overlooking vegetable and flower gardens on multiple levels. There is a chef on staff at all times, and for $25 (no appointment necessary), you can get a flight of four of the winery’s very expensive, very delicious wines (the two Pinot Noirs, in particular, are lush, sexy, and redolent of blackberry) paired with an amuse-bouche from the kitchen (I was served duck breast crudités and sweet corn soup). You may choose where in the garden you wish to sit. (Lovers take note: There are many nooks and crannies.) This is as classy and over-the-top as this area gets, but it’s still on a bohemian, craft-y wavelength. Almost all of the produce the chef uses is from Lynmar’s gardens. On the recurring pizza-and-wine-pairing nights (check the website for details) the chef uses a pizza-dough yeast that was captured by the head gardener from the winery’s grape skins.
5 p.m. – DRINK A BEER
3688 Bohemian Highway, Occidental
The Russian River Valley not only produces top-notch wine, it’s also home to several great microbreweries (Moonlight, Russian River Brewing Company, Bear Republic). You can get a sampling of local brews, along with a great selection of imports including Belgians, at Barley and Hops. It also serves good beer-drinking grub like killer soft pretzels and fish and chips in a renovated Victorian house in the nearly-as-pretty-as-Freestone village of Occidental. The young owner, Noah Bolmer, is very excited about beer, and serves all of it in its correct, special glass (my Belgian La Chouffe came in a glass with the brewery’s little gnome logo on it), which he offers for sale at a discount with your beer. If anybody tells you the best place to drink good beer in the area is Hopmonk in Sebastopol, don’t listen to him. That place feels like Chili’s. Come here instead.
7 p.m. – DINNER
9890 Bodega Highway, Sebastopol
[Note from ed.: Unfortunately, Saint Rose closed after this story was published.] Saint Rose is exactly the kind of restaurant you wish were a block from your house. Located in a former roadside brothel, it’s decorated with the wit and offbeat aesthetic of owner Mark Malicki (diorama art, thrift store lamps, an antique stove, and old-fashioned carnival-style hanging lights in its big, flower-filled backyard dining area). The menu, which changes daily, is just as colorful and creative. Summer dinner might include corn on the cob with lime and nasturtium butter, wild shrimp toast with avocado crema, barbecued goat, or pork shoulder braised in sherry with smoky wedges of roasted fennel, hazelnut-parsley gremolata, and eggplant, pepper, and zucchini gratin. Servers get to pick out a vintage apron from a cardboard box before their shift, and Thursdays are movie night, with flicks projected inside. (July’s theme: “alternative income month,” featuring Hustle & Flow, Belle de Jour, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Midnight Cowboy.) There’s live music many evenings, too, often of the Gypsy jazz variety.
3535 Guerneville Road, Santa Rosa
Image courtesy of www.sonomauncorked.com
On the rural outskirts just inside the Santa Rosa city limits, Zazu describes itself as a roadhouse. But the Tuscan-meets–New American menu—which may include things like homemade mozzarella; wild salmon with corn griddle cakes, corn and watermelon chow-chow, and watermelon vinaigrette; and dark chocolate fondue with homemade Nutter Butters—would hold its own against any fashionable San Francisco farm-to-table-style restaurant. Produce comes from the owners’ garden, pasta is made fresh from eggs laid by the restaurant’s chickens, and Zazu is especially known for its salumi: Co-owner John Stewart trained with Mario Batali before opening the restaurant. (He and his partner, Duskie Estes, also run Black Pig Meat Co., which sells a line of antibiotic-free, heritage-hog bacon.) Although casual in its décor, Zazu is a little more formal and expensive than Saint Rose—a celebration destination rather than an everyday spot.