Sonoma, the eclectic and stunningly-beautiful wine region inland from San Francisco, has never been as flashy as the nearby Napa Valley, and that’s just how the locals like it.
It’s early afternoon and high up a craggy peak overlooking the vines of a boutique winery, I’m sipping pinot noir with one eye out for the resident mountain lion. The air is alive with bees from the estate’s hives, who dance among the ranks of heirloom tomato plants and race between blooming flowers.
“He used to be quite partial to the decking around the swimming pool,” says Rich Smock, manager of Kinsella Estate Vineyards & Ranch, a private slice of paradise high above Healdsburg in California’s Sonoma wine belt, as he points to a kidney-shaped pool surrounded by dark timber that’s been warped and cracked by the elements.
Wine & Love in the Forest
Beside the pool, a rustic cottage the colour of grenadine and a matching Japanese tea house dating from the 1960s are surrounded by a ramshackle garden of water features and bamboo thickets and shaded by towering redwoods. The whole place conjures up thoughts of a summer camp for left-leaning adults, of love found and lost love, of skinny dipping on balmy July evenings, and of morning sunshine laced with the aroma of wildflowers. “This place has seen some serious parties over the decades,” says Smock with a twinkle in his eye. “But most of the time it’s peaceful up here in the redwoods, and we still get bears, coyotes, bobcats and even deer.”
Kinsella perfectly epitomises Sonoma, a wine region that’s been quite content to live in the shadow of the flashier Napa Valley to the east. The region is home to 450 wineries, but many are small private lots like Kinsella, where the passion for winemaking is matched only with a passion for a life well-lived. We continue up hill, to a larger home from the 1970s that’s popular with visiting architects, and from its expansive deck, the views across the foothills of Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley are breathtaking.
I’ve joined Jennifer Jespersen, lead sommelier at the coveted Farmhouse Inn, to visit some of her favourite wine hideaways. Few visitors ever make it up to Kinsella Estate, where the valley’s loamy, metamorphic soil, a blissfully warm climate, and the insight of winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown produce outstanding organic cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel wines free from pesticides or herbicides.
“Sonoma is Napa’s rustic hippie sister,” says Jespersen. “That’s what people like; instead of mansions we have family-owned farms and communes and a climate diversity from the coast to the interior unlike anywhere in the world.”
A Personal Passion
From Kinsella, we head to Wren Hop Vineyards in the Russian River, where former ad man James McDonough, his father James Sr, and winemaker Dan Fishman make stunning pinot noirs and chardonnays on a four-hectare northeast plot James Jr and his partner Jennifer bought in 2008. The resulting wines are regularly sold out soon after release thanks to a cultlike following from across the US, and the winemakers’ passion is contagious as we chat in the property’s intimate tasting room, the family hound, Vinnie, snoozing at my feet.
The boutique winery makes pinot noirs inspired by big punchy European reds like Amorone, Cote-Rotie and Chateauneuf-du Pape, and chardonnay from the infamous wente clone to create wines with intense colour and lingering finishes. Each release boasts a label that resembles a well-loved leather book cover.
Art in Many Forms
A similar passion drives the founders of Donum Estate, where wine meets art. Owned by Mei and Allan Warburg, Donum is a living art gallery, where vineyards, used to produce the ultimate pinot noir based on the Burgundian grand cru model, lay siege to stunning works by Yayoi Kusama, Yue Minjun and Keith Haring that include a towering silver wine bottle, a giant spider and the hulk of a vintage fighter jet.
Winemaker Anne MollerRacke has made some of California’s top vineyard-specific pinot noirs at Donum but you’re just as likely to visit to see the ever-expanding modern art collection that punctuates its rolling hills.
Of course, there are also large-scale wine operators in Sonoma, but even with their vast vineyards and design-savvy tasting rooms, there’s something of the rebel in wineries like Ram’s Gate, which is perched on tumbling hills on the road to San Francisco. Here, in lush paddocks wreathing a small lake, wine lovers sip in the late summer sun, while diners feast upon degustation menus on an expansive sun-kissed patio.
Food to Die For
Food also plays a vital role in the identity of Sonoma and for some of the best in the region I check in at the Farmhouse Inn, a rustic-chic homestead with 25 glorious guest rooms and suites, an intimate spa with a farm-to-treatment table philosophy, sommelier-led wine tours, a dedicated S’mores bar with Valrhona chocolate and vanilla bean-infused marshmallows, and a coveted Michelin-starred restaurant.
One of the west coast’s most luxurious retreats, the inn captures the laid-back luxury of Sonoma to perfection. Rooms have a heavenly homely feel to them, complete with locally-sourced throw blankets, roaring wood fires and oversized soak tubs, and are accessed down stone paths that wind around fountains fringed with Japanese anemones, lavender and Sonoma amethyst.
Even if you’re not staying at the Farmhouse Inn, a meal here is a must. Executive chef Steve Litke uses ingredients sourced from owners Joe and Catherine Bartolomei’s own ranch or from local farms and suppliers to create contemporary American cuisine with touches of the Continent. The emphasis here is on origin and freshness of the produce, with dishes running the gamut from yellow gazpacho with Maine lobster, green papaya, avocado and nuoc cham, to the signature trio of rabbit loin wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon, roasted rabbit rack, and confit rabbit leg.
Sonoma’s food ethos continues in Healdsburg, the region’s culinary capital. I visit one warm evening to find live opera being sung in the town’s garden-framed rotunda, Don Giovanni lingering through the ranks of ancient oak trees as fairy lights illuminate the stone paths below. I make my way past tiny wine bars, book stores and art supply shops, bound for one of Healdsburg’s hottest tables, Valette.
The restaurant has a lively atmosphere and an eclectic clientele that includes moustachioed hipsters and city escapists. I order a Doc Holiday, a heady blend of Michter’s Rye, Amaro, tobacco, epazote and Valerian bitters and chat to Bob Valette, father of the restaurant’s founders, brothers Aaron and Dustan.
A forest fire-fighting pilot, Bob plays the role of honorary host at Valette and greets many guests by name. “I’m so very proud of my boys,” he beams. “They’ve created a restaurant with a sense of community, a place that showcases the region to visitors and which plays an important role within it.” The brothers are clearly doing something right; the restaurant is packed to the rafters with diners feasting on the likes of Creste di Gallo pasta with baby rapini, whipped egg yolk custard and 18-month Parmesan; and honey-brined Duroc pork porterhouse with radish, hominy puree and pickled jicama. However, many are just as happy opting for the 15-course ‘Trust Me’ menu that utilises the freshest ingredients sourced daily.
Where the Vineyards Meet the Sea
Of course, there’s more to Sonoma than just wining and dining. The region is famed for its pristine, rugged coastline, its towering redwoods, and its wildlife, and to discover all three I venture out with Justin from Getaway Adventures, a local operator that specialises in exploring the less-visited corners of this fascinating locale.
Originally from Canberra, Australia, Justin first visited Sonoma after settling in San Francisco. “We came up here for a kind of honeymoon and invited a bunch of friends to a rented house in Sonoma and were immediately hooked,” says the avid outdoorsman as we pass through the tiny, eclectic hamlets and mountainside redwood forests that cling to the Bohemian Highway. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful drive where morning mist lingers in the canopy and signs point down rustic byways to artist communes, local cinemas housed in upcycled Quonset huts, organic farms and age-weathered diners.
Where the Hippies Dance
From the picturesque village of Jenner by the Sea, Justin and I take to the Russian River in kayaks, making for the river mouth where shy harbour seals huddle together on a sandbank and the roar of the surf line echoes off steep cliffs. Pelicans and cormorants soar past silently on their way to the Pacific as we glide below through mirror-like waters.
Afterwards, there’s time to visit one of Sonoma’s most bohemian corners, Guerneville, where I meet Debra Basset in a vintage shop where the walls are adorned with BB King and The Grateful Dead LP covers.
“I’ve watched Sonoma grow and evolve but Guerneville has always resisted change, that’s just the way we like to do things,” she smiles. “Who wants to be all fussy like Napa? We like Sonoma just the way it is, where everyone can be themselves, can live their dreams, tap into nature, and enjoy a slower pace.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Fly United Airlines from Asia to San Francisco and on to Santa Rosa’s Charles M. Schulz Sanoma County Airport.
Stay at the Farmhouse Inn to be close to all the attractions of Sonoma.
Get around in style with Sonoma and Napa transport company Pure Luxury.
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