Sonoma County: The Embarrassment of Riches by Emma Krasov

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Some call it the best county in California, and some are just lucky to live and work here. As if the fertile and abundant land stretching from the ocean to the mountains wasn’t enough for a resounding success, Sonoma County is also blessed with talented folks who grow grapes and cattle here, make wine, distil spirits, brew beer, make cheese, cook amazing dishes and express themselves in countless art forms.

A short picturesque ride up north from San Francisco delivers us to this heavenly place, easy to navigate with the help of Sonoma County Tourism’s maps and guides, and visitor-oriented educational programs put together by the Sonoma County Winegrowers’ and Sonoma County Vintners’ associations.

Our Sonoma County experience is wonderful and festive, just like those neat vineyards on the green hills, peppered with wild flowers and studded with California oaks.

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As is customary in the best homes of Europe, our day in Sonoma starts with a glass of champagne… or three – at the famed Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards.

Hailing from Spain, and carrying on the great tradition of Spanish cava that has to be aged in caves, Gloria Ferrer boasts its own cave cellar, an exhibition of multiple awards won by the brand, an art collection of vintage and contemporary champagne glasses, Bubbles and Bites room for club members, and a sunlit tasting room with an outdoor terrace.

In addition to tasting Gloria Ferrer’s pinot noir- and chardonnay-derived bubblies the guests can enjoy a stunning view of vineyards and mountains from the winery’s enviable top-of-the-hill location.

I must admit that in all my life I’ve never opened a bottle of champagne before. It used to be always someone else who opened it for me. This time, at Gloria Ferrer, I’m entrusted with a precious bottle of Royal Cuvee 2007 with its distinct purple label and golden foil, first produced in 1987 for the royal family of Spain. Since then all other Royal houses of Europe got it, and the White House now places its orders for the Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvee brut, made of hand-picked Carneros grapes, year after year.

Feeling the weight of responsibility on my hands I’m holding the Double Gold winner from the Sonoma Country Harvest Fair 2015, of which only 3000 cases were made. I’m advised to hold the French handmade bottle “like a baby,” to gently release the cage, to rotate the bottle until the cork gives (pointing away from the people in the room) and finally to release the cork almost noiselessly and without spilling a drop of the perfectly balanced blend, aromatic and full-flavored from the late harvest.

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St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, where we venture next, introduces a new program, implemented this year as part of Sonoma County Vineyard Adventures program.

A self-guided Vineyard Walk is a 1.2 mi tour with a handout map and 10 interpretive stops along the St. Francis’s certified sustainable vineyards. The Walk, during which we are accompanied by the friendly winery dog, Will, is accompanied by a tolling bell (made in Assisi, Italy) from the winery’s own bell tower, and of course with the tasting of St. Francis richly-flavored distinct wines – 2014 viognier from Wild Oak Vineyard, 2012 cabernet sauvignon from Lagomarsino Vineyard, and 2012 merlot from Behler Vineyard.

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At Farmhouse Inn, owned and operated by Catherine and Joe Bartolomei, siblings and fifth-generation Forestville farmers, we sit down to a white-tablecloth lunch, prepared by the Estate Chef Trevor Anderson.

Amuse bouche of red radishes covered in miso butter, garnished with beet pesto and topped with smoked tea leaves is the most delicious radish I’ve ever tried!

The first course – pork belly and candy cap mushroom hash with hedgehog mushrooms and pickled mustard seeds is paired with Moonlight Brewing Company’s “Misspent Youth” dry pale ale – a classic American pale ale – soft and smooth with slight bitterness.

Second course – beef tenderloin, braised beef arancini and fava leaves – is matched with medium-bodied 2012 Lost and Found Winery pinot noir from Russian River Valley; its label adorned with an international symbol for lost and found – an umbrella and a glove under a question mark.

Our dessert course, prepared by the Pastry Chef Phil Ogiela, presents Gianduja ice cream, pear cider gelee, and hazelnut lace with Asian pear slices and caramelized hazelnut, and 2014 Tilted Shed Ciderworks Barred Rock barrel aged cider.

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To walk off all the delicious lunch calories, we make a short excursion into Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, where a knowledgeable docent Glen Blackley takes us on a short trail through the majestic redwood grove. Here, walking into a tree trunk hollowed by a fire I feel just like a mouse, but it’s a safe, magical, fairy-tale feeling…

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And then there is the Barlow – formerly the world’s largest Gravenstein apples processing facility, and now a bustling marketplace of Sebastopol’s diversely talented producers of art, wine, food, spirits, and various crafts.

Tibetan Gallery & Studio is a working artist’s studio and a retail shop of exotic jewelry and fascinating trinkets. The artist, Tashi Dhargyal is currently working on a giant painting – the first thanbochi (a very large thangka for special prayer ceremonies) painted by a Tibetan outside of Tibet. The project is going to take up to five years, and when completed, the canvas will be two stories high. It is being made with hand-ground mineral pigments and 24K gold leaf. When finished, it will tour museums before being donated to a monastery.

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Spirit Works Distillery produces grain-to-glass vodka, gin, barrel gin, sloe gin, barrel reserve sloe gin, straight wheat whisky and straight rye whiskey – all tasting amazing and bottled beautifully.

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MacPhail Tasting Lounge provides a complete tasting experience of MacPhail Family Wines. Exceptional pinot noir is the trademark varietal of the family winery, made of fruit coming from the most coveted vineyards of the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley. The wines are paired with charcuterie, artisanal cheeses from local makers, and fruit jams made in house.

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At the end of the day of wonders, we are having dinner at Zazu kitchen + farm – the award-winning genuine farm-to-table restaurant, owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team – celebrity chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart, founders of the Black Pig Meat Company.

The dinner starts with Black Pig antipasti and the freshest salad of chicories, blood oranges, pomegranates, and pistachios. The seasonal main course is porcini noodle Stroganoff with Sebastopol mushrooms, arugula, and Redwood Hill goat cheese.

The participating winemakers introduce their outstanding wines: Balletto Vineyards & Winery – Anthony Beckman (2012 brut rose from Russian River Valley); Laurel Glen Vineyard – Bettina Sichel (2012 Sonoma Mountain Estate cabernet sauvignon) and The Callings – Sandy Robertson (2014 pinot noir from Russian River Valley).

1. Sonoma Vineyards

Coming up in Sonoma County:

Farm Trails events familiarizing visitors with the local agriculture, artisanal producers and family farms. Spring Tour: Blossoms, Bees & Barnyard Babies April 30 and May 1; BBQ, Brews Barn Dance May 21; Gravenstein Apple Fair August 13 and 14; Fall Tour: Weekend Along the Farm Trails September 24 and 25; and Farm to Fork Fall Festival October 22.

Free farm tours of Tara Firma Farms that sustainably grow cows, pigs, and chickens delivered to households, businesses and farmer’s markets through CSA program.

Here’s how you can get to Sonoma County.

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