Russian River Inns: Hidden Gems of California Wine Country by Emma Krasov

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Case Ranch Inn is a dollhouse retreat in a relatively remote part of Napa Valley. A short drive away from the hustle and bustle of excessive wine tasting, it’s nestled in one of the tiny towns along Russian River, where the nights are still and the days are lazy and quiet, and where Mother Nature showers all her children with her many gifts of seashore-meets-redwoods flora and fauna.

Spending a night at Case Ranch is like turning into a fruit worm imbedded into a sweet summer plum. You rest in luxury and softness, hugged by sun-drenched walls, made of pure sugar. You feast on a tree-ripe fruit, and feel safe and happy… A renovated Victorian farmhouse built around 1894 and now painted turquoise blue is furnished with period pieces and knick-knacks, gathered from family and friends’ attics and local estate sales. Imagine coming back to a family home [a century ago], all primped and ready for dear guests. If it weren’t for a free Wi-Fi-offering laptop on a desk, the parlor would have looked like your next stop in time travel.

Lovingly and painstakingly restored by Allan Tilton, a traffic engineer, and Diana Van Ry, a judicial assistant for Sonoma County Superior Court during their full-time working years, the house has three bedrooms, named after the owners’ daughters—Kathleen, Korinna, and Elizabeth.

After a relaxing night’s sleep on a pillow-top mattress, I woke up and looked out the window. In an unbelievably quiet country morning, flaming-red leaves of an ash tree were seen through the fog, two black dogs were circling a distant neighbor’s yard, and a flock of California quails were crossing the road to the house. I went downstairs—a wide terrace with wicker armchairs invited me to sit down, forget the world, and watch squirrels play on a green lawn.
For breakfast, our gracious hostess treated us to her orchard’s fresh figs, Belgian waffles with her own raspberry sauce, apple sausages, and strong coffee. Diana cooks her guests’ breakfasts every day, using organic ingredients whenever possible, and providing sustainable and healthy meals. Allan is an avid beer maker, treating the guests to free tasting of his own sophisticated brews.

Each Case Ranch bedroom emits a bonboniere feel with its floral wallpaper, original windowpanes with thick wavy glass, and cozy dollhouse layout, but is equipped with all the modern conveniences, plush robes, and a luxury bed with all-cotton linens.

A private cottage in a garden has a kitchenette for additional privacy. The two-acre garden with rose bushes, a gazebo, a spa, a fountain, a fruit orchard, a kitchen garden, and a small vineyard surround the house. The land has been designated a registered National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat. In 2003 and 2006 solar power systems were added to Case Ranch Inn, which was recently certified eco-green.
The inn is located in close proximity to the Russian River Valley famous wineries, like Korbel and Rodney Strong; Steelhead Beach Regional Park, with fishing, boating, kayaking, and picnic grounds all year round; Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, and Sonoma Coast State Park, where Russian River meets the ocean…What an itinerary for a weekend visit!
A feast for all senses awaits a weary traveler in Applewood Inn. After driving up the river valley, tasting Moscato Frizzante at Korbel, and wandering the rusty, dusty trails of Armstrong Redwoods we entered the inn grounds. With its foursome of apple-blossom-painted houses around a toy courtyard and its own fruit orchard, vegetable garden, herb flowerbeds and rosebushes, Applewood is a special place, far removed from the troubles of the world. It’s a fairy-tale town—compact and self-contained, surrounded by serene redwoods under the vast blue sky of Sonoma.
A large bear-faced dog warned me not to come close to the open swimming pool, but then rolled over and begged to play. After walking among the fig trees and fragrant roses in their last passionate bloom, and watching full moon bathing in the pool, I felt like asking for a political asylum here. And that was even before we settled into our room with a luxurious bed and a Jacuzzi with a view, and sat to dinner at the famous Applewood restaurant.

Darryl Notter and Jim Caron bought the property back in 1985, when it just turned from a 1922 family home into a contemporary B&B. Both owners left San Francisco behind in order to live and work on premises, and it becomes immediately obvious for any visitor that to run this kind of business with this level of success requires a wholehearted investment of self, and something else—that thing called love…

In the years following their purchase, Notter and Caron added the Piccola Casa and the Gate House to the old Belden [the original owner’s name] building, and a French barn-style restaurant to seat up to 75 for fine dining and all kinds of receptions. The owners, who know their food and wine, made it a point to hire only exceptionally talented young chefs. We were lucky to indulge in a feast created by Bruce Frieseke—a philosopher chef, who takes an existential approach to each individual ingredient, bringing out “its inherent essence in a way that harmonizes with a dish as a whole.”

Jokes aside, Frieseke must be one of the best-educated chefs around, with studies in philosophy, math, and French language, literature and history under his belt. He used to work with Loretta Keller at Bizou, and as an executive chef of The French Garden and Manzanita Restaurant before taking the lead at Applewood. Frieseke’s two-year experience as a Parisian pastry chef allows him to come up with creative desserts, undeniably and exquisitely harmonized with a dinner menu as a whole…
The Chef’s tasting menu at Applewood is perfectly balanced and nuanced to the level of poetry. The restaurant supplements great food with an array of carefully selected wines, mostly from highly esteemed local winemakers, many from Russian River area.
After dinner, we walked a little in a moonlit garden, and our sleep in a comfy Gate House room was undisturbed in the stillness of the night.

In the morning, it was time to drive back to the world and to work, but not before we were treated to a caramelized grapefruit and Belgian waffle breakfast with fresh strawberries, bananas, and bacon, and a cup of Red Rooster’s French Roast to start the day right. Goodbye, Applewood, we shall return!