Cult-worthy pinots and locally sourced menus are a given. But it’s the people that give Sonoma County a flavor all its own.
By Heather Irwin
A word to the wise: Don’t take Sonoma County at face value. Breathtaking vistas and expansive vineyards can lull you into thinking that it’s all pastoral serenity — and in part that’s true. But dig a little deeper and a different Sonoma emerges. There’s an edgy vibe to its cultural scene and eclectic collection of towns and villages, which is a reflection of the people who call Sonoma home — the entrepreneurial cast and crew who till the soil, grow the grapes, and have made the region’s award-winning wine and food scene what it is today. As original as Sonoma County itself, they bring to life a quirky sensibility, and an energy that is captivating and contagious.
The Homegrown Chef
“The joy of Sonoma County is the bounty,” says third-generation farmer Jeff Mall, one of the owners of Zin Restaurant in Healdsburg. “I recognized that if I wanted to cook in the best place, with the best food possible, it would be here. Honestly, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
With one of the highest concentrations of sustainable family farms, Sonoma County takes pride in its responsibly grown produce and self-sufficient farming life — and area restaurants reflect that pride with creative menus prepared from local ingredients showcasing the best of what the region has to offer.
“Our motto is homegrown and homemade,” adds Susan Mall, who, with her husband Jeff, lives on a small homestead called Eastside Farm near Healdsburg. The half-acre property produces eggs, fruit, honey and bushels of tomatoes and peppers for their popular Wine County dining spot. The Malls even create sourdough starter for their restaurant breads from grapes harvested in their backyard.
“We do everything from scratch — from the ketchup, bread and sausage to our own mayonnaise at the restaurant,” says Susan.
The couple bustles around the antique-strewn outdoor kitchen they use for entertaining, putting the finishing touches on just-baked English muffins spread with local butter and honey from their hives, buttery grits, smoked ham and a green chile sauce made with peppers harvested and pickled last summer. The wood-fired oven crackles and pops as Jeff discusses what makes Sonoma County not just one of the world’s top wine regions, but one of its leading gastronomy centers as well.
“We are the larder for the world with our ocean, dairies and farms. Sonoma is a true agrarian county,” says Mall. “We live where chefs do their shopping.”
The Wine Maverick
Winemaker Clay Mauritson echoes Mall’s sentiment. “The heart of Sonoma County is its artisan farmers,” confirms the owner of family-run Mauritson Wines, located just 20 miles north of Eastside Farm in the Dry Creek Valley outside
Mauritson strolls into the tasting room of his namesake winery dressed in a “In Foie Gras We Trust” T-shirt, boots and jeans. The former University of Oregon football player greets wine club members with a wide smile and a bear paw of a handshake, chatting about his latest release (nearly sold out) and the upcoming vintage (“a great year, truly”), while checking his phone every few minutes to see if his wife has gone into labor with their third child, the seventh generation of his family to grow up on this land.
As his sister-in-law pours glasses of Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and rosé in the tasting room, Mauritson points to black-and-white photographs of his grape-grower relatives on each of the four walls. Some are more than a century old, showing family vineyards looking much the same as they do today.
Mauritson points out the family’s legacy is not just in growing grapes, but in making wine from the fruit each generation has so painstakingly harvested.
“I spent my childhood picking grapes,” he said. “So I guess I’m the black sheep of the family who wanted to make wine, because I saw that my family’s fruit was going into some of the best wines in Sonoma.”
Ten years into winemaking, Clay Mauritson’s vintages now claim 90-plus scores, typically selling out of the 19 wines in his 11,500 case production. But he’s quick to remind visitors that he’s still just a kid who grew up in the Dry Creek Valley, the son of a fiercely independent, dirt-under-the-nails farmer.
“I still wear cowboy boots and Levis to work every day,” said Mauritson. “And here in Sonoma,” he adds wryly, “there’s a pretty good chance that the guy with the cowboy boots you’re talking to in the tasting room is the owner.”
The Goat Whisperer
As you head toward the coast in southwestern Sonoma County, there are miles of orchards and dairy farms, occasionally interrupted by small towns, green pastures, rivers and creeks. Among them is the Bice family’s Redwood Hill Farms, which produces goat milk cheeses, kefir, yogurt, and, during the spring, a feisty crop of baby bleaters.
David Bice’s parents moved the family to the Sebastopol farm in the mid-1960s to “get back to the land,” he explains. “It was like Old MacDonald’s farm. We had one or two of everything and we grew everything we needed ourselves,” Bice says.
Eventually, the family became attached to goats, whose personalities and connections to humans were similar to dogs. The family sold small amounts of goat milk and cheese to local health food stores and forward-thinking chefs like Alice Waters, proprietor of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, who was a pioneer in cooking with ingredients that were sustainably and locally grown.
“In the early days, I remember going to a store and trying to do a demo and people would make faces and gagging sounds,” says Bice. “Alice Waters and John Ash (founder of Sonoma’s John Ash & Co. restaurant and cookbook author) helped goat cheese gain acceptance.” Today, Redwood Hill’s product line continues to evolve, with spreadable chevres, smoked cheddar and artisan crottins (cheese formed into small disks). Visitors can stock up at the farm store, snuggle with a baby goat or two, and learn about Redwood Hill’s sustainable farming practices — they have a solar-powered creamery — during the dairy’s 2013 Spring Farm Tours on May 11-12 and June 8-9.
The Dream Weaver
Liza Graves isn’t a farmer or a vintner or a chef, but she is Sonoma County through and through. As owner of luxury estate rental company Beautiful Places, she is a “key master” of sorts, who opens up the Sonoma experience to those who want to live the dream — at least for a week or two.
“We give people a chance to live like estate owners for awhile,” she says. “That’s the fantasy we offer. We want people to pull up to the house and say, ‘Wow, is this where I’m staying?’”
On her website, beautiful-places.com, Graves features only those properties with a certain je ne sais quoi — like Dragonsleaf, an unassuming charmer with a private lake set on 80 acres of vineyard property. It’s accessible by a two-lane country road that winds through Bennett Valley — one of the last undiscovered areas of Wine Country — curving by a 150-year-old windmill, fully restored and turning lazily in the breeze. Another property in her portfolio is Vineyard Knoll Estates. Looking out from its veranda, curling live oaks give way to a swath of Sonoma’s Valley of the Moon. Fifteen hundred feet below, yellow mustard blooms outline acres of vineyards.
There’s no shortage of scenic places to stay in Sonoma — you have only to decide what suits you best. The region is dotted with picturesque country inns, guest cottages and B&Bs. Some offer spas and some offer cooking classes. Some are nestled in the redwoods while others are in the center of it all, just steps from Sonoma Plaza. Larger hotels are also in abundance, several with top-rated restaurants and over-the-top views of the Pacific Ocean.
As for what to do once you’re there? Take in a show or a round of golf. Explore the unique boutiques in Sonoma, Healdsburg, Guerneville and Windsor. Savor a microbrew, sip a Syrah, paddle along the coast or browse the area’s famed farmer’s markets. Just make sure you leave some time for conversation.
The food and wine will enthrall the palate but it’s the people of Sonoma County that will live in your mind forever.