California: Seduced by Sonoma

28 Dec 2018 by Craig Bright
Verite Winery - Credit: Verite Winery

An intense jet of flame bursts into life a few feet above my head with a deafening roar. As a wave of heat blankets my entire left side I begin, slowly, to rise up off the ground. It’s just past 6am and, amid the morning twilight, a lone hot-air balloon rises into the sky above the Sonoma Skypark in California with me and five other people huddled inside its wicker basket.

Drifting with the rising air currents, we’re given stunning views over the towns, hills and famed wineries of the Sonoma Valley. But after about half an hour, our pilot directs our gaze below to a small plot of land atop a hill, upon which sits an empty swimming pool and the bare outlines of what was once a sizeable home.

The remains of that unfortunate Valley dweller’s abode are a grim reminder of the Northern California wildfires that tore across Sonoma County in October 2017. Earlier in my visit, our driver pointed out a now empty tract of land beside the road that used to be a trailer park. Elsewhere up on a small hill in Santa Rosa, a lone stone slab bearing the word “Hilton” was all that remained of the former Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel.

According to the Sonoma County Tourism board, around 10 per cent of the county’s one million acres (405,000 hectares) was damaged in the fires along with vast areas of land in neighbouring regions. Overall, the state of California spent nearly US$1.8 billion to combat them, the Associated Press reported.

Millions of mostly domestic tourists flock to Sonoma County each year, but tourism numbers took a hit after the fires, with many potential visitors not realising that few tourist attractions were actually impacted. In fact, Sonoma lost just one of its more than 425 wineries to the wildfires in 2017, according to Sonoma County Tourism. Moreover, 2018’s deadly California wildfires, which destroyed nearly 12,000 homes in the town of Paradise nearly 150 miles (241km) away, spared the Sonoma Valley.

The Barlow, Sebastopol: Credit - Sonoma County Tourism (sonomacounty.com)

Touring the wineries

Seeing how Sonoma’s grapes are grown, sampling the wines and chatting with the vineyards’ owners is a must for wine enthusiasts.

The Vérité Winery, part of the Santa Rosa-based Jackson Family Wines group, is one of Sonoma’s especially renowned winemakers and provides intimate tastings at its estate in Healdsburg. Led by French founders Pierre and Monique Seillan, tastings offer a quintessential wine experience. Guests are seated around a wooden table inside the winery with a rack of earth-filled jars behind them showing the region’s various terroirs, and views of the vines in front. Tastings comprise six glasses showcasing different vintages – 2014 and 2015, in my case – of its three different wines, La Muse, La Joie and Le Desir, each of which has received scores in the high 90s by renowned wine critics such as Robert Parker and James Suckling. A tasting can be arranged from Monday to Saturday for up to six people for US$150 per person.

Visitors looking for a more casual, rustic experience can head to Russian River Vineyards in the county’s Russian River Valley. While the vineyard in its current incarnation is a relatively new affair, the estate actually dates back to the 1890s, having previously been a family farm and winery. Several dilapidated 1950s-era cars scattered around the site add to the olden days aesthetic.

Russian River takes farm-to-table dining seriously, serving dishes alongside paired wines and a cornucopia of vegetables grown on site at the estate’s vegetable farm. Guests even get a tour of the garden and are permitted to pick and eat much of the produce as they go. Hipster? Most definitely, but in the best way possible. Wine and food pairings are US$55.

If wine isn’t your thing, however, Sonoma is also home to a plethora of distilleries, breweries and cider houses. The town of Sebastopol, in particular, has traditionally been known for its locally grown Gravenstein apples. Head to The Barlow, a former apple cannery turned outdoor market, and you’ll find an array of eateries, shops and distilleries now occupying the site’s industrial-style buildings. Along with craft breweries offering beer and cider, you’ll also find Spirit Works, the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Timo and Ashby Marshall, which produces a range of vodkas, whiskies and gins. After a tour of their distillery – be sure to check out their quirky “sonic ageing” experiment involving hooking up whiskey barrels to headphones attached to iPods playing everything from classical music to AC/DC – guests can also go for a tasting. Typically, this involves six spirits or a flight of cocktails. Their sloe gin, based on British-born Timo’s family recipe, is definitely worth trying. Tours and tastings take place Friday to Sunday at 2pm or 4pm and are US$20 per person, while it’s US$18 for just the tasting.

Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve: Credit - Mariah Harkey/Sonoma County Tourism (sonomacounty.com)

Back to nature

No trip to Northern California would be complete without seeing the California redwoods, which can live for more than 1,000 years and stretch up more than 70 metres. The region still has ample forests despite 2017’s wildfires, and the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in the north of Sonoma County boasts some of the most impressive specimens. The tallest redwood, The Parson Jones Tree, stands nearly 95 metres tall, while the oldest, Colonel Armstrong, is estimated to be more than 1,400 years old.

The reserve is eerily silent and the thick tree canopy blocks sunlight from reaching the ground, resulting in few small plants and, therefore, few animals – a stark contrast to the wooded areas found around much of Asia. While visitors can explore the reserve alone, I recommend a guided tour with one of the park’s local volunteers, whose knowledge of both the park and Sonoma’s wildlife in general is hugely impressive and enriches the experience.

If you’re feeling adventurous and want to get a sense of Sonoma from above – as I did – then a hot-air balloon ride is the way to go. Sonoma Ballooning Adventures takes off from the Sonoma Skypark private airfield less than five kilometres from the downtown area. The airfield has plenty of antique and classic small aircraft for aviation enthusiasts to ogle over a morning coffee at the check-in lounge. The exact route you’ll take while in the air is dictated by the whims of that day’s weather; in my case, we flew for a few hours from Sonoma and landed in the neighbouring wine region of Napa Valley. Regardless of where you land, you’ll be picked up and driven back to the Skypark for Sonoma Brut sparkling wine and snacks.

Visitors looking to explore the coast, meanwhile, should head to Bodega Bay in the southwest of Sonoma County. Here you’ll find rolling hills and cliffs that offer terrific vantage points from which to look out onto the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The bay is also home to seals, which can be spied swimming and lounging about right up by the coast.

Spud Point Crab Co: Credit - Sonoma County Tourism (sonomacounty.com)

Eating your fill

If you do make your way to Bodega Bay, then it’s also worth stopping off at nearby Spud Point and the Spud Point Crab Company. Opened in 2004, this seaside family-owned eatery specialises in crab and clam chowder, the latter claiming to be “the best clam chowder on the coast” – and I’m inclined to agree. Owner Carol Anello runs the joint, while husband Tony and son Mark supply it with fresh crab and wild king salmon that they catch themselves.

For a hearty evening meal, Sonoma has plenty of other notable offerings. The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa’s primary eatery, the award-winning Sante Restaurant, offers not only a fantastic selection of food and wines but stands out for its hugely wide-ranging post-meal cheeseboard. Well over a dozen different cheeses from around the local area and beyond are presented in staggering detail by the restaurant’s resident cheese expert, who provides a comprehensive backstory covering the origins and flavour notes of each of the different vintages. Indoor seating is available, though I’d recommend taking a table outside under the stars and in the looming shadow of the old water tower nearby.

If you’re really looking to splurge, though, there are few places as indulgent as Single Thread, a Japanese haute cuisine meets contemporary Californian style restaurant-slash-hotel. Guests are invited to relax with a glass of bubbly on the open-air roof before dinner – an 11-course, US$295 per head affair – begins downstairs. Dishes are small but the presentation is big, with plates perched atop a long wooden block among moss and flowers. One dish, a fluffy egg sabayon, was presented in a hollowed-out eggshell with caviar on top and sat on its own individual bed of moss. The meal is undeniably expensive, even by the standards of this region, but there is no better way to top off a visit to Sonoma County.

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