The gas flare roars and my hot air balloon rises hundreds of feet through the still Californian air, casting an elongated shadow on fields corrugated by row upon row of vines. “That’s Alexander Valley to the north,” the pilot drawls, “and over there, to the northwest, is Dry Creek Valley.” Both are familiar appellations to oenophiles drawn to Sonoma’s wine country — the quieter, less in-your-face neighbour of Napa Valley.
To the east are the slopes of Chalk Hill, named after the blanched volcanic ash they are made of, with sunny exposures and good drainage. To the west is the smooth, arabesque sweep of the Russian River Valley (another appellation) and mountains streaked with fog. Below us, the alluvial plain is punctuated by lakes and ponds, a hay barn here, a mock-Palladian mansion there — all within an hour’s drive of metropolitan San Francisco.
From the air, it’s easy to pick out Sonoma’s diverse landscapes, each with a unique soil and microclimate. At Ernest & Julio Gallo’s Two Rock Vineyard — part of the prestigious Russian River Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), after its controversial expansion last year — Pacific winds, altitude and billowing sea fog create conditions similar to those of the Rhine or Champagne, where Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer thrive. Further north, its Frei Ranch vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley is moderately cool and more akin to Tuscany, ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah and Merlot.
For the same reasons of terroir, anything can be grown here. So benign is the climate, the county is abundant with bing cherries, crane melons, luscious peaches, hops, tomatoes and exotic salad leaves. The best of Sonoma’s cheese rivals those of France, while the salami, prosciutto and poultry of Petaluma bear comparison with Italy’s. In one blind tasting, DaVero’s 1998 Dry Creek Estate olive oil was mistaken — by Italians — for a top Tuscan. Add Hog island oysters, seafood from the Bay — a 25-minute drive from Sonoma’s southern boundary — farmers’ markets and an endless stream of wine and food shows, and the area is an unexplored, unexploited heaven for foodies.
“There has always been a strong civic sense of what is good and what is good for you,” says Charlie Palmer, chef, hotelier, author and owner of high-class restaurants across America. His portfolio includes the Michelin-starred Aureole in New York, its sibling in Las Vegas and the Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, Sonoma — the epitome of cool sobriety, where Palmer and I are now sitting.
“We’re blessed with everything you need as far as artisanal ingredients go,” he continues. Over towards the coast, the Cowgirl Creamery supplies his restaurant with Pierce Pt cheese, made with milk from the Chileno Valley Jersey herd. Then there is Capricious, a goat’s-milk cheese from the Achadinha Cheese Company in Petaluma and Pepato, a raw sheeps’ milk cheese from Bellwether Farm, Sonoma.
“Everything we use, apart from a couple of things, comes from the county,” Palmer explains, an ethos conspicuous at the two Michelin-starred Cyrus, a few minutes’ walk away. Stand-out dishes on Douglas Keane’s tasting menu include ‘humane foie gras’ and Sonoma County duck with kujo negi (scallions), myoga (edible flower buds) — an artful melding of French and Japanese influences with the extraordinary bounty of California.
Clustered around Healdsburg Plaza are six Zagat-listed restaurants (Scopa, Zin, Barndiva, Bistro Ralph, Bovolo and Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar), plus the peerless Costeaux French Bakery. Out west, beyond Highway 101, the restaurant at Madrona Manor — a Victorian pile, now a hotel in eight acres of grounds — is another recipient of a Michelin star. As are four others in the county, the latest (in the 2012 guide) being Terrapin Creek in Bodega Bay.
The main draw, though, is the wine, from fabled, sought-after J Rochioli Estate Pinot Noirs and Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandels, with their plum and black cherry notes, to Francis Ford Coppola’s idiosyncratic collections — Director’s, Director’s Cut, Sofia and Eleanor (after his daughter and his wife) — and his FC Reserve limited editions with their zany, colourfully illustrated labels. All three wineries, and dozens more, can be visited as part of a well-organised programme of wine trails (see www.wineroad.com and www.sonomawine.com). Some of the most prestigious wineries (among them the acclaimed Kistler, and Kosta Browne) are not open to the public, except through a wine concierge service.
To taste their wines, visitors must wait for one of the big wine and food fairs, the grandest being the annual Taste of Sonoma, which was held at McMurray Ranch on 1 September this year. Once owned by actor Fred MacMurray, the property includes a cottage bought for John Wayne so he wouldn’t have to travel home drunk. In the Redwood Grove, woodsmoke drifting from the BBQ to the strains of a bluegrass band, I eat oysters, crab cakes, venison with chilli verde, Angus beef and skewers of quail wrapped in pancetta, enlivened by a glass of Russian River Valley Pinot. Napa seems a very long way away.
Food & wine finds
1. Up and Away Ballooning: Morning flights over wine country, followed by a gourmet Champagne brunch, from $235 (£150) per person. www.up-away.com
2. Costeaux French Bakery: Legendary baker of artisan breads, with a casual, unpretentious cafe and irresistible breakfast menu. www.costeaux.com
3. Francis Ford Coppola Winery: Not just tastings, but pools, cabines, a bar, tavola and pavilion inspired by The Godfather. www.franciscoppolawinery.com
4. Dry Creek General Store: Wild west (1881) clapperboard shop with porch, now a deli, sandwich shop and bar. http://drycreekgeneralstore1881.com
5. Taste of Sonoma: More than 200 wineries and chefs at one ranch, part of Sonoma Wine Country Weekend with wine auction, BBQs and events. www.sonomawinecountryweekend.com
For a taste of Sonoma
Seghesio Family Vineyards
Established in 1895 by Edoardo Seghesio, from Piemonte, this winery does Zinfandel best. The brashly Italianate tasting rooms are surrounded by a picnic grove and courts where visitors can play bocce (Italian boules). At weekends, it offers private tours followed by a one-hour food and wine pairing (prices on request), with five starter-sized platefuls. Last year, Seghesio’s 2009 Home Ranch Zinfadel was named among Wine Spectator’s Top 100.
■ How much: Seven pours from $10 (£6), waived if you buy a bottle. Old Vine and Home Ranch Zinfandels from $38 (£24) a bottle. Open daily. 700 Grove Street, Healdsburg. http://seghesio.com
Dry Creek Kitchen
Presided over by Dustin Valette, the restaurant is located inside the Hotel Healdsburg, where Bob Dylan once stayed. Start with a salad of Dry Creek peaches, Valette’s own heritage prosciutto, followed by crispy skin duck breast with red polenta. Finish with six artisan California cheeses and a dessert wine.
■ How much: Lunch (two courses) from $35 (£22); dinner (three courses) from $60 (£38); tasting menu (six courses) from $79 (£50) or $148 (£94) with wines. Healdsburg Avenue, Healdsburg.
Two Michelin-starred chef Douglas Keane adds oriental zest to seared beef cheek, tonburi (edible seeds, or ‘land caviar’), green and black garlic and lotus root; and finds new textures in chorizo-crusted scallop with sweetcorn and lobster froth.
■ How much: Eight-course tasting menu from $135 (£86), or from $270 (£172) with wines. Bar menu from $14-$27 (£8-£17) per course. 29 North Street, Healdsburg. www.cyrusrestaurant.com
Rochioli Vineyards and Winery
Housed in a chalet-style building, the tasting rooms showcase some of Sonoma’s most sought-after wines; Presidents Bush and Obama have been here. Rochioli has won countless awards with its silky-smooth Pinot Noirs, opulent Chardonnays and tangy, food-friendly Sauvignon Blancs.
■ How much: Tastings, free. Rochioli 2010 Pinot Noir (‘black cherry jam nose intermixed with earth, smoke, tea, violets and vanilla’) from $65 (£41) a bottle. Open Thur-Mon, Tue and Wed by appointment only. 6,192 Westside Road, Healdsburg. www.rochioliwinery.com
Published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)