Napa Valley’s enchanting neighbour with indie restaurants and boutique wineries is the place for true foodies
Everybody even vaguely interested in food and wine knows about Napa, California’s Michelin magnet and powerhouse of the grape. But fewer are as familiar with hipper, more affordable Sonoma – actually about twice the size of its swankier neighbour. For those of us who find Napa’s huge viniculture conglomerates a little corporate, travelling further west towards the coast rewards over and over again. The two areas couldn’t be more different: Napa is all limos and blockbuster wines, while there’s still a refreshing touch of the hippie about Sonoma. Here is where to come for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, blended reds, delicious fizz, often from wineries that won’t charge for tastings.
The towns that pepper the countryside are sometimes stage-set pretty. Petaluma, for example, is a beauty: its Hotel Petaluma (hotelpetaluma.com), complete with creaking 1920s lift, is the height of boutique chic; while its restaurant The Shuckery (theshuckeryca.com) has superb, juicy, fish tacos, spiky with fresh chilli and herbs and their cauliflower ‘hot wings’ – fried, Buffalo sauced, with blue cheese dip – is such a clever dish. Sisters Jasmine and Aluxa Lalicker who created this mermaid-tiled cutie know their stuff. Petaluma is blessed with pie shops, artisan butchers, cocktail bars; our choice, deservedly popular Della Fattoria (dellafattoria.com) serves legendary homemade bread and glazed, syrupy buns.
Just outside town, a wine tasting at Mcevoy Ranch (mcevoy ranch.com) comes with Rosebud (rosé), The Evening Standard (pinot noir), and Red Piano (everything from Montepulciano to Viognier). Their extra virgin estate-grown olive oil is every bit as good as their wines.
CRAFT BOOZE BOOM TIME
You could spend weeks exploring Sonoma’s many wine trails but where’s the fun in wine-tasting when you’re driving? Instead, we visit wine entrepreneur Jamie Kutch (kutchwines. com) in his vast warehouse. His pinot noirs, still juiced by foot, collect rave reviews, and there’s a Santa Cruz Mountain chardonnay that’s up there with the big names from Burgundy. It’s boom time for craft booze, with a mushrooming of distilleries. We wallow in some superb gins from Sebastopol’s Spirit Works (spiritworksdistillery.com), run by husband and wife, British-born Timo and Californian Ashby Marshall. The combination of classic British gin with sunny Cali exuberance is heady stuff – aromatics include orange and lemon, hibiscus and cardamom. They make whisky and vodka too, even sloe gin. The Barlow (thebarlow.net), the complex that contains Spirit Works, bristles with coffee shops, restaurants, ice-cream stores, craft beer bars, wineries, cheesemakers (notably the excellent W M Cofield) and restaurants. But we’re off to nearby Handline (handline.com), a glorious reinvention of a former Foster’s Freeze drive-thru diner. And yes, the menu features diner classics – burgers, tacos, soup – but elevated by the quality of cooking and beauty of the local produce. The ‘popotla verde’ halibut ceviche served with the toastiest, crispest homemade taco chips is haute cuisine in a diner apron. Sonoma offers everything from tiny street-food outfits to some of the finest cuisine anywhere in the US. And it’s always forward-thinking: the first time I ever tried the fashionable shrubs (drinks sharpened with fruit vinegars), was a couple of years back in Healdsburg’s The Shed (healdsburgshed.com). This time I go back for the full experience – oysters and ‘heritage hen hash’, a wonderful mash-up of eggs, potatoes, mustard cream and wild fennel, served on the shady terrace.
Thanks to charismatic chef Christa Luedtke, the picturesque town of Guernville on the Russian River has become a foodie hotspot. Her tiny, endearing Boon Eat + Drink (eatatboon.com) is just the sort of bistro I love: full of heart and welcome. And things you really want to eat – the deep-fried Brussels sprouts dressed in olive oil, lemon, garlic and chilli are famous; vegetables often come from her garden and brownies are squidgily evil. Guerneville casts a spell: watching the life of this tiny one-street town centre, from a window seat at Big Bottom Market (bigbottommarket.com) is an urban-rustic pleasure. As are its huge, fluffy biscuits. We work off the biscuits by hiking through Armstrong Woods, followed by a profound sleep in Christa’s lovely little boutique hotel (boonhotels.com).
FOREIGN FLAVOURS, CALI STYLE
Firmly in the fine dining arena is Healdsburg’s Single Thread (singlethreadfarms.com). It’s like a Japanese inn filtered through a Californian interiors magazine; the rooftop garden an oasis for drinks. Chef Kyle Connaughton is ex-fat Duck, but it’s the elegance of Japan that’s celebrated rather than anything tricksy. From a starter of many tiny, flawless dishes – immaculate oysters, marinated raw mackerel, tempura squash blossom, perfect vegetables with smoked miso, senbei crackers, a tongue of peachy sea urchin – to the desserts, this is a meal of mesmerising loveliness. Everything is delicate and light: sugar snap peas bright with lemon and rich with Dungeness crab; egg velouté topped with caviar. I haven’t the words – neither count nor expertise – to adequately describe the wines. Yes, it’s expensive, yes, it’s a rarefied experience – but it’s one I’ll remember for years. Even the knives are beautiful.
We travel up a wild, windswept coast to Bodega Bay: famous as the setting for Hitchcock’s The Birds. As the mist swoops in, the mood becomes deliciously brooding. Fortunately, any fears are allayed by the excellent food at Drakes, in our hotel the Bodega Bay Lodge (bodegabaylodge.com): beautiful little crab cakes; huge, charred artichokes, vast Applewood-smoked local pork chops with Yukon gold potatoes.
As the fog clears, we drive to the local crab shack, Spud Point Crab Co (spudpointcrab.com), for a long soft roll crammed with the sweetest crabmeat, with an array of relishes and mayos. There’s just time for Boyes Hot Springs, a suburb of Sonoma, and some delights from chef Rob Larman’s Cochon Volant BBQ Smokehouse (cochonvolantbbq.com). Here, fat buns are filled with Carolina-style pork, smoked over almond wood and tangy from cider vinegar. We leave with bottles of coriander-spiced, mustard-seeded Carolina BBQ sauce, and the signature Sonoma sauce, sweet, smoky and spicy from chipotle and chillies. As for Mexican, brightly painted El Molino Central (elmolinocentral.com) is as good as it gets: the masa flour, ground daily from organic corn; the tortillas freshly made to order; the mole poblano chicken complex and resonant. The gelato scene in Sonoma is innovative, too. Flavours here, including buttered whisky, tequila, apple-bourbon-bacon-brittle or cinnamon coffee fudge, make for a truly grown-up indulgence. Whenever in Sonoma, I’ve left via the atmospheric Fremont Diner (thefremontdiner.com). There’s no better way to say goodbye on the short hop to the airport (there’s now a non-stop British Airways flight from Gatwick into Oakland). Their homemade tomato soup comes with grilled cheese, melty and dripping. Sonoma is where you dream of when the city gets too much, while still pining for foodie sophistication. And wine: not forgetting all that wonderful wine.