As I write this, my wife Lynn is helping can some 30 lbs of the most luscious heirloom tomatoes you will ever see with our host in the Napa Valley house we rent. But my mind is drifting back to four incredibly sensuous days just spent eating and wining in the Russian River Valley. If you want to hear what that was like, come along with me.
If Napa is like a bigtime cabernet—opulent, powerful, with its stunning views and branded, architect-designed wineries and celebrity-chef restaurants, the Russian River Valley over in Sonoma is its demurer, down–to-earth cousin, the feel of farmers not business magnates, garage style wineries and farmhouses, and akin to the terroir-rich wine that best represents it: pinot noir. Though you can drink and eat and open the senses ever bit as dreamily as across the mountain in Napa, with its own beautiful vineyard-scapes, it’s a whole different trip– but one we found equally as rewarding.
We stayed at the Farmhouse Inn in the countryside of rural Forestville, about ten miles out of Healdsburg, which has grown into the style and foodie center of the wine country in the past few years. The inn is a tasteful five-star setting on par with the San Ysidro in in Montecito, with charming casita rooms and a Michelan-starred restaurant. Breakfast comes with the room, but it’s hardly your typical scrambled eggs and bacon, but a sumptuous (and filling) way to start the day: heavenly chocolate croissants and Black Mission fig bread; house made ricotta crepes with peach coulis and grilled maple-pecan sausage. We also ate there one night. I had Beskeshire pork with a trumpet mushroom crust and a green tomato chimmichurri. Lynn had halibut in dashi-gasil butter with a fennel-potato puree. That was after zucchini blossoms and a shared grilled lobster sausage with fennel sofrito to go with a terrific sauvingon blanc from nearby Rochioli. The staff at the Farmhouse is as savvy and knowledgeable as any I’ve ever come across, setting us up at the best, small production wineries and directing us to the best eating places not only in the valley, but in the entire region. The kind of staff you go back to on arriving back to the inn and report back how your day went. They made the place a joy.
Our first day, Thursday, we started out with no plans, other than a one pm tasting at a small, hard to find pinot producer, Small Vines, a contact in Napa had set us up with. After breakfast (whoa, did I mention those breakfasts!) we drove around the winding, country roads exploring, passing familiar favorite wineries like Iron Horse and Merry Edwards, and happened to pass Red Car,
a tiny, highly rated winery which is partially owned by a friend in Napa and whose 07 pinot received a 97 Parker rating, which gave them a kind of culty following.
We stopped. The 09’s and 10’s are equally stunning, and the kitschy enamel bracelets for sale, with self-deprecating epithets like, — “My mind not only wanders, sometimes it leaves completely” along incredible, artisan made cigar scented candles—amazing!— were fun to buy. We had lunch down the road in the tiny town of Graton at Willow Wood market, one of those earthy, local main street storefronts with a colorful, handed painted sign where the food turns out to be surprisingly fresh and delicious. It’s hard to find a meal out here that isn’t farm fresh with a cultivated point of view.). A lush, just-picked tomato soup with crème freche and chives along with a yummy Greek salad and a grilled chicken sandwich with farm cured bacon and chipotle mayo. In the afternoon, we made our way around the winding, farm-lined roads to Small Vines, which turns out to be a tiny husband and wife run small-production winery with some of the best Burgundy-inspired pinots I came across. Not even many of the locals had heard of it, and no one could get us there, and their address isn’t even on their website (smallvineswines.com) but the wines have found their way onto some of the most prestigious restaurant lists around the country. Eleven Madison in NY, Charlie Trotter,’s in Chicago, the French Laundry. We spent an hour and a half talking wines styles with owner-winemaker Paul Sloan, walking thru his vineyards, trying three of his pinots. Petting the dog. The pinots belong up there with the best of them in the valley.
That night we went to Scoppa in Healdsburg, a jammed, trattoria we were lucky to get a res at, and had large shell pastas with a fabulous lamb ragu and freshly-made, pillow like raviolis stuffed with ricotta and zucchini. And a luscious panna cota dripped with local fruit we bumped into a local winemaker Greg Mauritson, whose family has framed grapes for generations, and invited us out to his famous Rockpile Vineyard, home to some of the biggest, and most styish zinfandels in the region. Shame that we never made it. To much came up. But it gives us a starting point for our next trip out here next year.
We started off Friday by working off the eggs Florentine with a 3 mile walk run along the vineyards on West side road. We bopped into Healdsburg and “shmyed around” the square, checking out the blend of new art galleries and old antiques, boutiquey hotels, and the surprisingly stylish and urbane clothes shops. We had lunch at our old favorite Ralph’s Bistro: I passed up the freshly ground lamb burger with blue cheese I usually go for a buttery chicken palliard and Lynn had the lamb burger smothered in carmelized onions and Maytag blue cheese. On the way back we hit Macphail Vineyards, another tiny-production, garage-style pinot producer, and tried some of his gems. (Not to mention a very Burgundian style chardonnay—lean, lots of acid, little oak.)
(Truth is, every chard producer in the valley says, “if you don’t regularly like chards, people say you’ll like mine.” Because they construct it in a leaner, less oaky style that goes well with food.) And you know what, it’s true.
That night, we drove across the criss-crossing, mountain pass to St. Helena over in Napa, to a charity dinner hosted by prestigious Rudd Vineyards, and who put on quite a show. There were ten of us, each guest had been given and had read my books (Eyes Wide Open and 15 Seconds) and the setting and flights of wine and food would have been better suited to entertaining a head of state, than some thriller author. The grounds are created by leslie Rudd and his wife are simply incredible and they guided us through the beautiful gardens and into the mind-boggling 22,000 sq ft of caves with its barrel vaults and tasting rooms. The in-house chef, Jason Rose made an amazing multi-course feast of arancini (Arborio rice balls) stuffed with minced porcini, Hamachi crudo, a salad that had so many rare and just picked greens(my mind sort of vegged out after he listed three of them!) and a main course of lamb done two ways— on the bone in a Rudd port reduction sauce, and then ground with North African spices in a crespelle (crepe). This was all paired with flights of spectacular Rudd wines too— all highly rated, look em up. But their award winning Bacigalupi chardonnay and perfectly balanced sauvignon blanc—my wife is a SB animal and she went crazy– put the whole evening—at which all I had to do was yap a little about my books and the shifting tectonic plates of the book business– over the top. And speaking of over the top… we then had to drive back over the dark, twisty pass back to Sonoma at 11pm. Trust me– no fun, and took all my concentration. But we lived to eat and drink another day!
Saturday, we spent driving to the Sonoma Coast. Nothing prettier in my book—ok, maybe Amalfi in Italy. But not by much. On the way we drove through this amazing redwood forest called Armstrong National Park and took an hour’s nature walk amid thousands of 350 foot giants. Humbling! Then we drove onto the coast for oysters. The staff at the Farmhouse sent us to the River’s End lodge in Jenner set above the Pacific—only a forty minute drive. (We’d previously been to Nick’s Cove in Point Reyes, but this was even better.)
It’s a modest looking place, rustic cabins and a wear-worn dining room. But the kitchen is fantastic! We feasted on fresh Miagi oysters done two ways: in a shallot mineunette and baked and BBQ’d, and then a just-caught pacific salmon in a light, verblanc over Chinese black rice. Fantastic! Really recommend this drive and place!
That night we tried a change of pace and took a cooking class on Asian street food at Relish in Healdsburg taught by amazing local chef Mei Ibach, who grew up in a Malaysian fishing village. Fun night, learning how to make Paper wrapped chicken in plum sauce, deep-fried potato dumplings (spiced with green chiles and cilantro), prawn fritters over battered bean sprouts and a classic beef satay. Mei is captivating and leads organized travel cooking tours to Vietnam and Singapore ($2800 bucks, so she claims for ten days of cooking and eating, in 5 star hotels, airfare included. Sounds too good to be true. Check her out if you don’t believe me Malaysaimei.com.)
Sunday. Our last day in the valley. Couldn’t leave without a brunch in town (Healdsburg) at BarnDiva, a very stylish restaurant/art gallery specializing in farm to table cuisine. We started out in the outside sculpture garden with Tuscan bellins of melon and peach extract with lavender. A ten! Another heirloom tomato salad—there’s just nothing like the tomatoes out here in September—it’s half the reason we come! Lynn had more local king salmon and I had a seared, sushi grade ahi Nicoise with a great potato salad and poached quail eggs. Dellicious! And couldn’t resist a side of the Barn Diva double-fried fries in spicy catchup.
Sadly, it was time to leave. Survival depended on it! (I’m wondering if anyone has ever thought of heading to ten days in Napa as a reprieve from too much drinking and eating!!!!!) We made our way down the northerly route, on Rt 128 through the stunningly beautiful Alexander and Knights valleys. One place to stop there is Lancaster Vineyards. Owned by a liquor distribution exec, and with a winemaker recently hired from over-the-top Screaming Eagle, they’re making world class wines (a monster cab and a Grave-like SB). You have to check out the amazing caves too. An incredible place that seems to come out of the blue.
So, so long Russian River Valley, hello Napa. We pull into town, ten days here in the house we always rent high above the Meadowwood Resort and St. Helena. Hope you enjoyed following us on our trip.