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Afoot and Afield in Napa & Sonoma: A Traveler’s Guide to Wine Country

One region is glitzy, the other earthy, but both are perfect for a spring getaway, when the vines are budding and the crowds are still thin

Photograph by Brown Cannon 3

North of the San Francisco Bay, the land seems to exhale. The surge of Bay Area traffic disappears, giving way to what surfers call the “outside set”: creamy waves of golden hills as legendarily tranquil as a double dose of Xanax. Taken together, Napa and Sonoma offer a glorious in-state option to Tuscany, Bordeaux, or Cork. Yet choosing one over the other for a getaway can be a Rorschach test of likes and dislikes. Napa is a luxe and polished indulgence, a moneyed playland in a pastoral grange. Sonoma is funky, spread out, and astonishingly wild; in its western forests and along the coast, one is often starving just to find a place to spend some cash. Napa’s wealth is based on the agricultural equivalent of old money—old vines—while Sonoma’s growth is fed by organic farms and artisanal food purveyors. California’s mismatched vistas (granite peaks, rugged seashore, boundless desert) may compete with one another, but in the bucolic hills of Sonoma and Napa we have our détente, an empire of country manor and pure boondocks. » In 1976, a winery named Stag’s Leap came out of nowhere to take first place among reds at an international wine tasting that had been staged as a throw-down between France and California. The Judgment of Paris, as it was known, remade sleepy Napa Valley into a boomtown—a local chardonnay produced by Chateau Montelena took first among whites. You can still find the old Stag’s Leap tasting room hidden off a segment of highway called the Silverado Trail, where persnickety oenophiles swagger through retro-olfaction sips of their cabernet. (Essentially this is the trick of simultaneously exhaling and slurping wine, a contortion I’ve learned leads to extreme humiliation on the first try.) Happily I found the Robert Sinskey Vineyards up the road, a biodynamic operation with tours that end in a locavore’s dream of a kitchen. In L.A., biodynamic wines have been presented to me as if the spirit of Gaea were trapped beneath the cork, but the term refers to common-sense organic conservation practices (protecting watersheds, composting, et cetera), though planting in sync with the moon’s phases does occur. Inside a tiled kitchen I sat with a half dozen other visitors at a long table and sampled house-cured salmon and empanadas with some pinot. I couldn’t taste what phase of the moon we were in, but its gravity was an asset in my endeavor to empty three glasses.

For years the workaday city of Napa felt insecure about St. Helena and Calistoga, its prettier sisters to the north. They got all the attention. Playing catch-up, Napa built Copia, a viticultural museum that opened in 2001 and closed in 2008. A new, more successful city experiment is the Oxbow Public Market, which overlooks a quiet bend of the Napa River. Wandering the market’s stalls, I sated myself on bivalves at Hog Island Oyster Co. of Tomales Bay, on an $11 cheeseburger from Gott’s Roadside (an outpost of the renamed Taylor’s Refresher in St. Helena), and on more wines than I can recall at the Oxbow Wine Merchant. Hot and woozy, I stumbled into the Fatted Calf, a magnificent charcuterie enterprise. My greedy arms swept up fennel-spiked porchetta, petit sec salami, and beef jerky served in a paper cone like Belgian fries. Recognizing a convert in his midst, the butcher at the counter informed me, “If you’d like, you can take a course here and learn how to break down a hog on your kitchen table with a few friends.” Good to know. In addition to whole-hog butchery, the shop leads how-to courses on curing salumi and potting meats. As I was already half potted, I asked for a raincheck.

Walking into the new AVIA Napa Hotel several blocks away, I experienced déjà vu. A lot of the same people I remember drinking martinis at the Viceroy five years ago were sipping merlot at the hotel’s chic lobby bar. Or so it seemed. AVIA’s architects threw eco-style, industrial design, and a pinch of Kelly Wearstler into the lodging Cuisinart and came up with a Napa anomaly: a collection of sexy rooms (fireplaces, slipper tubs by the beds) that scream “the new Napa.” Certainly the service crew acted new—make sure they don’t overcharge you for the minibar—but the views of the Vaca Mountains were dramatic, and from my window I could spy the steady stream of attractive couples entering the Italian bistro Oenotri across the street.

The restaurant is equipped with a bright open kitchen and a menu that could be called “rustic exotic”: wild nettle linguine with shaved tuna heart, silky fried coppa that glistens like a giant fishstick, spaghetti with radiant cherry tomatoes and briny squid that features more tentacles than a sci-fi marathon. Three blocks away is Riverfront, another Napa experiment that sparkles on the city’s somnolent waterway. Inside Morimoto Napa, suits and farmhands mixed at the bar, sampling the Iron Chef’s famous spicy crab. Three doors down, Tyler Florence’s Rotisserie & Wine was setting up for its grand opening, and farther down the stone walkway, near the flower-clad Napa River Inn, diners were gathered on the outdoor patio at Angèle, enjoying the river’s best sunset vista.

I wanted to try the new Fish Story, which takes its cue from the seafood houses of San Francisco, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program (no fish deemed endangered is served), and the offshore weather report, which is printed daily on the menu. Reviewing precipitation numbers for the North Coast, I asked my waitress, “So…rain means fresher fish today?”

“Yes, it does,” she replied.

“Mmm. And what about sun?”

“That, too.”

Into my mouth went wee bits of arctic char crudo and crunchy pieces of fried Ipswich clam. A table away the real Robert Sinskey was sharing a meal with a friend. “Oh, we get a lot of the industry in here,” said my waitress. Napa really is an industry town: After a while I began seeing the same faces of chefs and winery staff wherever I went. But not on my walk back to AVIA. Despite the recent development, downtown Napa remains a ghost town come nightfall, and the only other person I noticed on the empty streets was a man who passed me riding a unicycle and whistling “Dixie.”

Were I not on a mission the following morning, I would have sat down inside Napa’s 63-year-old Butter Cream Bakery & Diner, a bustling breakfast joint run by a team of muscled waitresses who dress in black and pink, take no guff, and—judging by their biceps—moonlight in a Roller Derby. It should not be missed, but I had a craving to satisfy south of town. At Boon Fly, a barn-shaped café ten minutes outside Napa at the Carneros Inn, I ordered a bacon Bloody Mary and the house specialty, a warm basket of crisp doughnuts that aren’t cooked until you order them. Hear me now: You have not lived until you’ve stuffed yourself stupid before 9 a.m. on a steaming heap of fried dough chased by a searing gulp of bacon-laced vodka.

The Carneros region, north of San Pablo Bay, is a land of sedge and mists; distant eucalyptus trees stand out like skeletons in the wet fog. I yearned for the valley’s enveloping warmth, so I followed Highway 29 north, past Oakville and its bountiful Oakville Grocery, a gourmet PX for picnic rations. At the Yountville exit cars were peeling off the highway, bound for the peaceful garden tables and sweet pain au raisin at Bouchon Bakery. Near the outskirts of St. Helena a mountain lane led to the forested entrance of the wine caves at Schramsberg. When President Nixon visited China in 1972, he toasted a smiling Chou En-lai with Schramsberg’s pale blanc de blancs, the best sparkling wine Napa produces. I toasted myself on five full glasses—hey, they came with the tour!—and then staggered into the bathroom. It was 11 a.m. In the mirror my face was beginning to resemble Nixon’s. I needed a good sobering up over lunch.            

St. Helena features two blocks of the stunning 19th-century architecture Northern California excels in. As a man, I can tell you this is gratifying visual relief during downtime here, for be warned: These buildings are stuffed with some stunning examples of 21st-century women’s fashions that are catnip to certain people. Flats sells embroidered tunics and linen jackets with Indian and Persian accents. Next door at Pearl Wonderful Clothing, you can find European designs by Missoni and Isabel Marant, and a block away Footcandy offers shoes by Camilla Skovgaard and Jimmy Choo that even I thought were perfect for stomping tiny designer grapes. At the town’s southern edge, where the Napa Valley Wine Train (three hours, 36 miles, $99) unloads passengers, I discovered the new Farmstead restaurant—a barn-shaped building that does business in the middle of an open-air flower shop. The tulips looked good, but I ended up with a comforting bowl of zucchini and corn risotto, along with a hydrangea that made puppy eyes at me all through lunch.

From St. Helena it’s eight miles to Calistoga on Highway 29. I decided on an alternate route, driving west up Spring Mountain Road into the highest reaches of the Mayacama Mountains to the Charbay Winery & Distillery, the valley’s only grappa producer, before stopping at Pride Mountain Vineyards to sip $66 cab and take in the summit property’s ethereal views. In summer the mountains can be 10 degrees cooler than Napa’s baking valley floor as well as lack some 10,000 tourists per square mile. A side trip into the sylvan landscapes of Mount Veeder (above Yountville) or Howell Mountain (in the Vacas) can be a welcome pressure release during high season.

Leaving Pride, I followed the highway as it descends a north slope of the Mayacamas and passes Safari West—where you can spend the night sleeping by a zebra or a kudu for about $200—before backtracking to a large sign that reads The Petrified Forest. The Calistoga countryside hides some wonderful and woefully undervisited pockets of Eisenhower-era entertainment like the ancient stone forest (the Old Faithful Geyser of California is down the road), and I gladly handed over my $10 at the lonely visitor’s counter. True, a mere sapling of a 649-year-old oak was showboating at the entrance, but those 3.4 million-year-old pines inside didn’t look a day over 100,000.

Of all the valley’s destinations, historic Calistoga seems to be the one that time and venture capital forgot. A mash-up of mission and Wild West frontage, many of the local shops (the American Indian Trading Company, Vintage Vogue) would be at home in the 19th century. Drive through town to the Silverado Trail and you will find the Solage Calistoga—22 acres of green design that recalls a stylish Levittown created by Al Gore, complete with a trio of pools, a prime spa, and a sandy boccie court. The interior of my cottage was a head turner, with an au courant concrete floor, a pebbled shower stall, and a dozen beautiful tones of rock, wood, and natural fabric. Parked at the front door was a shiny beach cruiser that I rode into town to meet Patti, the “cheese lady” at the Cal Mart store. Patti handed me an old goat and a Lamb Chopper (a sheep’s milk) to go with the bottle of Stag’s Leap I’d been keeping. Back at the Solage the tables were filling up at Solbar, the Michelin-starred restaurant, as waiters trucked around plates of seared Monterey Bay sardines and smoked short ribs.

Waking up, I felt as if I’d been feasting on the (mostly) fat of the land for a week, not two days. My liver needed time off, and I’d booked an appointment for a mud bath to mollify any offended internal organs. On the way I picked up a cup of Yrgacheffe at the groovy Yo el Rey Roasting coffeehouse, which is stashed somewhere inside the year 1974 in the middle of downtown Calistoga. It was good Yrgacheffe, too. I carried it to Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort, an unpretentious midcentury gem. There’s no cucumber-mint water to soothe delicate sensibilities at the Dr.’s. Instead I found a no-nonsense room run by men dressed in institutional whites who employ giant hoses to spray down what mud slops from the room’s hulking tiled baths. Turns out, mud heated to a ripe 103 degrees can be a peaceful immersion, though any recommendation comes with this caveat: Peat clings with a steely vengeance to the equatorial regions of the human body.

I arrived at this itchy realization on the road south to Sterling Vineyards, a whitewashed Greek fortress atop a small pine-covered hill. The operation could have been Imagineered by Walt Disney himself. A floating gondola, just like the buckets that once sailed over Anaheim, ferried me from the parking lot to an alpine pavilion. Upon disembarking, visitors follow a self-guided tour on a catwalk that leads through the bustling operation: stainless steel vats filling with cabernet, oak casks being carted about by animatronic figures (on closer inspection these proved to be real humans). The valley views alone are worth the ticket price (mine was $40, with a “VIP” wine tasting). On a nearby hilltop sat the brooding Castello di Amorosa, a medieval castle slash winery that requires women visitors to wear a veil when attending on-site Latin Mass.

After Sterling, I wanted to downsize. So I traced the Silverado Trail south past Stag’s Leap, where my Napa trip had begun, and took a left onto a country lane that led to Henri Vandendriessche’s front door. Henri was born in France, attended Berkeley, and in 1977, along with his new American wife, purchased the little valley vineyard White Rock, named after the volcanic soil that yields a pleasingly crisp chardonnay. As he will for anyone who calls in advance, Henri led me first through his vineyard and then into the mouth of White Rock’s cave, where all of the wine is produced (roughly a million cases less than Sterling’s annual output). He poured two ample glasses, examined his own in the cave’s thin light, and swirled the chardonnay in his mouth. I smiled and waited for his judgment. Would he pronounce the wine “herbaceous”? “Flinty”? “Vegetal”? He took another sip. “Yum,” he finally said with satisfaction. He was right.  

Sonoma carries a lot of water for California. Most travelers in the state never find their way farther north. (Think of the last time you were in Modoc or Siskiyou counties.) Pinch-hitting as the de facto rim of the Golden State, Sonoma needs to deliver, and certainly the place feels big. The county seems to encompass two of everything: two mountain chains (the Sonomas, the Mayacamas), two wild rivers (the Russian, the Gualala), two impressive bays (Bodega, San Pablo), two endangered forms of California wildlife (the tiger salamander, Tom Waits). Sure, there are plenty of wineries, but Sonoma is a woolly bucolia, a region meant for roaming, not just sipping and eating. Down in the county’s southeast corner, hemmed in by Napa’s Carneros wine region, is the city of Sonoma itself. Like other vacationers, you’ll probably begin your trip here in historic Sonoma Plaza, if only because that’s what you hit first when arriving from the south. The boutiques can be tacky, but their setting is lovely: The adobe buildings, including the original presidio, are remarkable for what they tell us of life in Alta California before statehood. And lunch at the Girl & the Fig in the Sonoma Hotel is not to be missed. Yes, the restaurant is packed tighter than a fruit crate, but good seats exist by the bar, and a bowl of pastis-scented mussels paired with a local roussanne helps you forget all the elbow jamming.

Highway 12 leaves the plaza for Santa Rosa, pausing first in the working-class town of Boyes Hot Springs, where El Molino Central makes what may be the best Oaxacan food outside of Oaxaca. Not much bigger than a roadside stand, the restaurant is owned by Primavera Tamales, a Bay Area phenomenon. I admired the kitchen’s colorful tilework over a cup of Blue Bottle coffee and a plate of corn garnachas juchitecas topped with spicy cabbage and buttery flecks of Niman Ranch brisket. Past Boyes Hot Springs, Highway 12 arcs through the Valley of the Moon, Sonoma’s central wine-growing region. There’s little to halt your progress in these parts: a few romantic lodges like the Kenwood Inn and Spa, a handful of wineries you know from your supermarket shelf—Benziger, Chateau St. Jean, Matanzas Creek. The landscape is lonesome, as undeveloped as Alsace, which is part of its charm.

I pulled in at the Red Barn Store, whose unsurprising form (red, barn, store inside) is filled with produce from Oak Hill Farm’s 700 acres: radishes, beets, carrots, kale, apples. A bag of peppers kept me company on the trip into downtown Santa Rosa. Once the city was an architectural Oz; rent Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, filmed here in 1942, and weep at what is now gone. Still worth visiting are the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens—where you’ll discover not only who invented the plumcot, but why horticulturalists used to be as famous as Kardashians in American popular culture—and the Charles M. Schulz Museum. The Snoopy Labyrinth may sound like a David Foster Wallace story, but I spent a pleasant afternoon finding my way through the beagle’s honker.

Twenty minutes down Highway 101 from Santa Rosa sits Petaluma, where I had an appointment to meet Phillip Ladner at the diminutive Stillwater Spirits. On my arrival he was preparing to turn 800 pounds of pears into eau de vie. Stillwater is the only local distillery that hosts weeklong seminars: For $3,500, students receive room and board nearby at the Metro Hotel & Café, a Victorian structure with a yard full of Airstream trailers that double as lodgings, and learn to make their own moonshine or something closer to the gorgeous crème de cacao, velvety as a chocolate bunny, that Phillip sent me on my way with. The Farmhouse Inn, a century-old property, is 30 or so miles northwest in a microcanyon near the Russian River. At dusk the oaky canyon glowed: The hand-lit lanterns in the cottage eaves glowed, the outdoor fire pit glowed, the windows of the white-linen restaurant glowed, the red light in my private sauna glowed. (Outfitted with hissing hot rocks, the sauna was a few feet from my bed.) I’d heard that the braised rabbit at Bistro des Copains in nearby Occidental was worth the trip, and the Farmhouse’s rib chop served with “local marrow fat” sounded environmentally sound—bone marrow with a tiny carbon footprint! But I had reservations at Zazu Restaurant & Farm, a roadhouse along an empty stretch of asphalt where the fennel-laced salami is as fragrant as a honey-bathed hog galloping through a field of the flowering herb. Chef Duskie Estes was pulling double duty that night, cooking in her restaurant as well as on The Next Iron Chef, and the bar was crammed with locals cheering on the kitchen and the TV.

*****

Rush hour in the village of Graton, all two blocks of it, comes twice a day: around 7 p.m., when diners file into the Underwood Bar & Bistro, and around 8 a.m., when their brethren, whom I joined the following morning, sit down at the Willow Wood Market Cafe across the street. This is farm country, and there’s a dress code at the Willow Wood—calluses on your hands, flannel on your arms—as well as a plate you must conquer, spinach sautéed with coppa and served with a soft-boiled egg, creamy polenta, roasted tomatoes, and sourdough spread thick with cambozola. Five minutes away is Kozlowski Farms, where they boil, steam, and whip nature’s bounty into strawberry syrup, plum butter, pomegranate jelly, and jalapeño jam. I paid for a fancy bottle of blackberry-orange-chipotle sauce and headed for Blankity Blank Potatoes & Produce, where you can pick up bags of Viking Purples, German Butterballs, and a potato named Princess La Ratte, all yanked fresh from the soil.

Blankity Blank sits in a valley outside the town of Sebastopol, a self-proclaimed “Nuclear Free Zone” that’s handy for basic services hard to come by in western Sonoma—Laundromats, supermarkets, banks, carnivorous plant stores. If you’re like me, the most fascinating hour you can spend north of the Golden Gate is at California Carnivores. Whatever eats flesh and exhales oxygen, they sell: butterworts, pitcher plants, and the infamous Venus flytrap. North of the nursery, Westside Road winds out of the Russian River Valley toward Healdsburg. Outside the city limits you hit Tomato Heaven, a roadside stand beneath an olive tree that sells some 200 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and Dragonfly Farm, a six-acre organic flower farm where I bought a bundle of organic lavender to freshen my soiled rental car. If I die and end up in Healdsburg, I want to spend eternity at the H2 Hotel. All glass and poured concrete, with reclaimed redwood, the property combines the hipness of AVIA, the eco-design of Solage, and the coziness of the Farmhouse Inn. Hippies, hotties, foodies, families, retirees, and Nancy Pelosi wanna-bes share Spoonbar, the casually sophisticated restaurant and bar area, or play board games on deep couches in the homey lobby.

Outside shimmers downtown Healdsburg, revolving around an old plaza and a central park, poised in that perfect moment of commercial renewal. Gastronomical showrooms like Cyrus and Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen (inside the Hotel Healdsburg, the H2’s older sister) have primed the town’s rebirth, but homegrown ventures nourish it: Barndiva, a barn-shaped restaurant with a locavore kitchen and fetching accommodations a couple of blocks south (the Healdsburg Modern Cottages), and Scopa, a bistro on the plaza hidden behind a sign that reads THE PLAZA BARBER SHOP. ?Burrata served on grilled bread, eggplant, and tomato was encyclopedic—salty, crunchy, tangy, sweet—and the charred calimari was cooked so precisely, it could have passed in the dark for a soft Italian cheese. Down the block the Himalayan Cashmere Company sells woven shawls for cool Sonoma nights, and behind Copperfield’s, a terrific bookstore, a Duskie Estes’ venture called Bovolo serves Black Pig bacon in pasta at breakfast. My favorite Healdsburg store, however, is the Red Paprika, a “Hungarian novelty shop” where I loaded up on piernikis and katzenzungen vollmilch—the second of which I understand from its packaging to be a box of succulent kittens. They were delicious at bedtime with an organic Chianti.

*****

The following morning I drove northeast into the oak savannas of Alexander Valley. The Jimtown Store is the heart and soul and capital of this serene valley. It looks like a vision sprung from E.B. White’s imagination, a brokedown joint where Stuart Little might have pulled up to request “three drops of premium and a Dipsi Cola, please.” I could have spent the day on the front porch nursing a pineapple soda and a monster cookie, but instead I left for Geyserville, a slim version of Healdsburg some three blocks long. Strolling the ancient sidewalks, I window-shopped Bosworth and Son General Merchandise for duck bib overalls and the Diavola eatery for soppressata before slipping into the Geyserville Vintage shop to lose myself in a case of Victorian-era cabinet pulls, each as intricate and bloomy as an enchanted forest.

Dry Creek Valley is northern Sonoma’s answer to Napa Valley, a meandering river canyon that’s been planted with vines and colonized by tasting rooms but still retains its rural charms. At Quivira I sipped biodynamic syrah, talked to the organic chickens, and checked out the winery’s holistic practice of planting manure-stuffed cow horns in the fields. At Preston of Dry Creek I bought white eggplants and olive oil produced on the premises, then hung out with the porch cats, who seemed very interested in hearing about the chickens down the way. Stopping at a crossroads, I discovered the Dry Creek General Store, which somehow is even quainter and more inviting than the Jimtown Store. Sandwiches made with Fra’Mani charcuterie are sold inside, and a row of Adirondack chairs outside offers an IMAX-size view of the valley below.

The last stop on my trip was the tasting room at Ridge Vineyards. In 2006, French and American wineries staged a 30th-anniversary reenactment of the Judgment of Paris, the transatlantic tasting that ended with Stag’s Leap beating out a raft of Bordeaux wines. This time it was Ridge that walked off with honors: A 1971 bottle of their Monte Bello blend thrashed the French again. What I knew of the winery was something that had been told to me long ago. “You can never go wrong with a bottle of Ridge,” advised a man who knew far more about wine than I ever would.

“And I’ve never forgotten that,” I said to the tasting room’s staff. Everyone seemed pleased by the story, and bottle after bottle was brought out for sampling. Finally the Monte Bello appeared. Yikes—you couldn’t go wrong with that. “It’s $145 a bottle,” I was told. Well, not too painful as a splurge. Added my sommelier, “We recommend that you drink this 18 to 30 years from now.”

Writer-at-large Dave Gardetta’s last feature for the magazine was “Fighting the Tide,” about the lifeguards at Zuma Beach.