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Eating and Drinking in Sonoma

Angela DeCenzo

Photos by Angela DeCenzo

Wine tasting at Jordan Winery in Healdsburg.

In California's wine country, everything is nationally notable and terrifically tasty, for a very surprising reason.

 

"You are about to discover a new country, and this new country is called Foodlandia,” says George Curth, as we set down our wine glasses and gather round. Curth exerts a certain magnetism that only twinkly, snow-bearded men who look like Santa Claus ever really achieve. He subtly intimates that he has presents to bestow, and if you ignore him you might find coal in your Christmas-morning stockings forevermore.

Curth takes over a weather-beaten picnic table at Hog Island, the Sonoma oyster farm, and unrolls a topographic map of the sea floor, high hills and pasturelands of the United States’ most prestigious wine regions: Sonoma and Napa. These valleys are also home to many of the country’s most praised cheese makers: Cowgirl Creamery, Laura Chenel and Vella. Using his map, Curth shows the fault line that makes the long finger of Tomales Bay, which lies in front of us. It looks placid, but beneath the water is a deep trench formed by one of California’s many twitchy seismic rifts, and through this deep trench runs cold water, dropping down all the way from Alaska. What’s in that cold water?

It brings everything good that oysters, crabs and fish like to eat, which in turn bring everything that likes to eat oysters, crabs and fish, including whales, elephant seals and harbor seals. Don’t worry about the Hog Island oysters, says Curth. They’re safe in the flexible bags that oyster farmers grow them in. The travelers nod happily, eyeing the bar where those oysters are sold by the dozen.

Another thing you might not realize, notes Curth: The seismic faults that thread through this part of California also created the mountains and steep hills of Napa and Sonoma, as well as the valuable acres of mineral, volcanic and recently maritime soils that make the wine special. Curth uses a finger to point out the principal constituents of Foodlandia, and it’s dizzying to hear all the brand-name, most-prestigious this and most-elite that of American food and drink lined up on nothing but their various seismic faultlines.

       
Eating at Hog Island's Tomales Bay patio.        

Curth rolls up his charts and starts snapping open oysters for those of us who have driven from Healdsburg and other nearby wine destinations. We line up happily. The Hog Island oyster is beautifully salty and creamy, with a rich nuttiness almost like the most coddled Spanish olive oil. As we eat and marvel at the views, barn swallows slice and dart through the salt-scented Pacific breezes, coming and going from cypress trees the size of skyscrapers.

I return to my table to tuck into a few dozen more Hog Island oysters, now with some very fancy sauces packed for a picnic lunch by Todd Knoll, the chef of Jordan Winery. I’ve come down to the beach with Knoll and a few friends after trying his food at the estate—including braised lamb in the Jordan mountaintop dining room. (If you ever wondered why people join wine clubs, it’s to get invited to places like the Jordan mountaintop dining room, where you can live the life of a gourmet Zeus on a purple mountaintop while swirling the finest wines served in the finest stemware and gawking at eagles.)

Off the mountaintop, in a blue oak-shaded knoll near a comely lake, I tried Knoll’s nectarine sushi, which made the paired Jordan chardonnay seem even more fragrant, silkier and intense. The chef has a garden of several acres on a Sonoma hillside below the winery, and today’s tarragon and chives for a classic mignonette came from the garden this morning. We’ve made the road trip from the winery to see what more there is to Sonoma besides rich chardonnays and elegant cabernets. The answer: The very faults beneath our feet.

At our specially reserved picnic table, Knoll lays out a fairly good representation of the staggering bounty of Foodlandia, this little land an hour and a half north of San Francisco. He spreads a picnic blanket with Sonoma cheeses, Sonoma salami from a few of the Sonoma charcuterie houses, Sonoma butter and Sonoma breads from one of the many Sonoma bakeries. Picnic thus prepared, all of us fill our wine glasses with lemony Jordan chardonnay and eat oysters by the dozen and gawk at all the staggering beauty: Everything you can see from the Hog Island picnic area is part of Point Reyes National Seashore, all lemon-silver light, fingers of bright marsh grass and water that is a unique color of turquoise slicked with steel. The oyster shells stack up, the mignonette disappears.

Soon we are discussing the most universal of all topics: The weather. “Winter can be our secret summer,” explains Knoll. While August can see cold winds and 50- degree days with tourists lined up to get into the Hog Island picnic area, in winter there are no lines and rain is as common as 70- or 75-degree days. Lettuce still grows. So do carrots, heritage hogs and rosemary bushes the size of cars—so many things.

Winter is when the fresh cheeses arrive, immediately after the lambing and calving. Winter is a good time to go to Sonoma—as is spring, which many midcontinent dwellers would be surprised to learn begins in February. Winter and spring are when the great mammals of the sea come close to Sonoma for the food, too: The northern gray whale migration peaks in mid-January when they are heading south to Mexico, and again in late-March when they head north to Alaska again. Elephant seals form a breeding colony from December to March that is visible from Drakes Beach—itself a mere hour-and-some drive from downtown Healdsburg, the heart of Sonoma. Is there anywhere else in the world where such magnificent wildlife and lazy, splendid gourmet opportunities lie side by side?

       
Diners at Dry Creek Kitchen's outdoor patio.        

And I mean lazy in the best way. Getting a world-class meal in Healdsburg is as easy as rolling out of bed. Here’s how you do it: Just check in to the best hotel in town, the Hotel Healdsburg, and roll out of bed. Downstairs you’ll find Dry Creek Kitchen, where young chef Dustin Valette runs a restaurant founded by the legendary Charlie Palmer. Here, local Petaluma chicken is paired with warm heirloom potatoes and local goat cheese; local shiitake mushrooms appear alongside day boat albacore tuna, and the house list of 600 Sonoma County wines allows you to taste close to everything else that the local hills and fields produce.

Tired of eating? Start ambling. Every single thing in Healdsburg is a short walk from everything else. The central city of Healdsburg is more or less arranged entirely around a central square, which if you squinted could be in New England and not California—except the trees are three times the height of telephone poles. Off the square is Flying Goat, a third-wave coffee emporium fit for the most elite java snob, and also off and on the square (respectively) are Costeaux and the Downtown Bakery and Creamery, which duel for the crown of Healdsburg’s best “donut muffin,” a local enthusiasm that is as irresistible as it is lacking in any snob appeal. The Wurst Sausage Grill & Beer Garden makes a mean sausage—and delicious fresh French fries. Off the square, too, is Bear Republic, the brewpub that birthed one of the biggest micro-breweries in California; it serves first-rate burgers and all sorts of special limited-edition and cask-aged rare beers.

A bit farther off the square you’ll find the barn of Shed, a very California meeting place: It sells high-end gardening wares, offers vegetable and herb seeds and sells local salads of herbs and flowers as well as local artisanal cheeses, charcuterie and chocolates, while serving different kombuchas and shrubs from its fermentation bar. Spoonbar is less interested in putative health and more interested in serving the best cocktails in town—though some cocktails do contain shrubs. The apricot shrub with sage, lemon and rye was delicious.

Off the square in a different direction, Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar is the place to get local Dungeness crab and all the local oysters not from Hog Island (which are now in such demand that it sells only to a few restaurants, and mostly sell through its own oyster bars). And then there are the winetasting rooms situated on and off Healdsburg Plaza—including but not limited to Seghesio, Ferrari-Carano, Toad Hollow, Cartograph, Sanglier, Williamson, Selby, Rosenblum Cellars and Murphy-Goode.

Of course, all this might lead a cynic to ask: Wouldn’t the area better be called Drinklandia? Best to remember that it’s really all the same: Little things like oysters and grapes drink the nutrients; big things like seals and people eat the little things; and it all adds up to one remarkably tasty part of the world.

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