A recap of our week spent eating and drinking our way through Sonoma, California. Planning a trip? Check out my recommendations on where to eat, drink and wine taste from a Sonoma local expert, aka my sister-in-law!
If there’s anyone you should never ever feel the least bit of sympathy for, it’s my sister-in-law, Caroline. Living in the heart of wine country, Sonoma, California, her drive to work takes her past small farms and scenic mountain views. Just outside her front door are tangles of blackberry bushes, flourishing apple trees and her neighbor’s gorgeous tomato garden. A typical weekday night consists of a glass of local wine at one of her dozen or so semi-secret sunset spots where you can see all the way out to the Pacific. And have you seen the avocado’s in California?? They are literally the most beautiful things I've ever eaten.
We spent last week in Sonoma visiting Caroline and her boyfriend, Neil, basically eating and drinking our way through though town. Sure, we did other things, like tubing down the Russian River, hiking Taylor Mountain and catching a gorgeous sunset from the backyard of my dream home. But mainly, we ate and drank. And there was cheese. Lots of cheese.
If you’ve never been to Sonoma, it’s an incredibly cool place. The area started as farm country, mostly apples. When nearby Napa Valley put California wines on the map, money came into the area and many of those apple orchards were converted to vineyards. Despite the influx of money, Sonoma has maintained it’s agricultural roots and unpretentious attitude.
The food, as you can imagine, is hyperlocal. Sometimes it’s advertised, sometimes it’s not. But you know as soon as you taste it. We ate pretty casually on this trip. There's plenty of upscale dining, but since we're being a little more spend-conscious with the new business, we mostly stuck to delis, cafes and breweries.
Planning a trip? Here are my recommendations...
Where to Eat
Grateful Bagel (Sebastopol)
We stopped here twice for a quick breakfast to eat on the road. Although their bagels are a little too bready for this one-time New York resident, they were about as good as bagels get outside of NYC.
The first trip I ordered the avocado veggie sandwich which along with the usual suspects, comes with pickles and pepperoncini - pretty genius move if you ask me. The next day I ordered the loxy lady, which is 10 times more enjoyable if you sing it’s name to the tune of “foxy lady” while gobbling it down. True story.
Hopmonk Tavern (Sebastopol)
This brewery in downtown Sebastopol is the perfect place to grab a beer and dinner then linger afterwards for live music. We ate here after spending the day floating down the Russian River. I ordered the vegan samosas, filled with curried onions, roasted red peppers, black beans and pepitas for a fun twist. Scott loved their burger, which was topped with lemon aioli, tomato chutney, shallots and white cheddar. And who knows, you might even meet the love of your life at Hopmonk - my sister-in-law did! If not, at least you’ll enjoy the beer selection.
Dry Creek General Store (Healdsburg)
If you plan to visit wineries in the Dry Creek area (hint: you should), stop by Dry Creek General Store and pick up sandwiches for a picnic. Located in a rustic old store selling wine, books and other gifts, the deli sells wonderful paninis and sandwiches on crunchy French bread. I grabbed the prosciutto, mozzarella and tomato sandwich and brought it with me to Truett-Hurst Vineyard.
Papas and Pollos (Sebastopol)
The original Papas and Pollos was Neil’s favorite restaurant growing up. After it shut down, it was reopened by a few of his high school friends, who reinvented the menu with a Seb-Mex flair, which I think just means hippie Mexican. The food is all local and organic. On draft next to local Lagunitas beer is local Revive kombucha. Kombucha is a favorite of mine, but sometimes the store bought ones are a bit too fruity and sweet. This one tasted only of tea and good ole' fermentation. I ordered the house tofu tacos, baked in a nutritional yeast coating, which I will definitely be recreating on the blog! Scott had a pork burrito, with meat that was smoked then braised in Lagunitas Little Sumthin beer.
Peter Lowell's (Sebastopol)
You know you're at a truly local restaurant when your dinner company is charged with bringing the olive oil. We were having dinner with Neil's brother and his wife, Tess, whose family owns a vineyard that also makes olive oil. Running low on olive oil and knowing Tess would be there for dinner, she simply dropped off a few jugs when she arrived. Brings a new meaning to farm-to-table!
The menu is Italian-inspired, California cuisine with a large list of daily specials that change based on what looks fresh. We started with a large antipasta for the table, a giant bowl of the most beautifully presented produce – whole roasted carrots, beets and blue cheese, Italian bread, and a runny, garlicky, olive oily white bean dip. Scott and I “split” our meals, although I’m fairly sure I had more than my fair share. He had pork belly with handmade noodles in a rich, pork broth while I had a cracker thin crust pizza with figs, caramelized onions, prosciutto and arugula. Each couple ordered a dessert, ours being a vegan coconut dish, of course, but we tried a few bites of Gravenstein apple crisp, the local heirloom apple the town is known for. One of the best meals I've had in a long while.
East West Café (Sebastopol)
After a day of cheese tasting, we were in desperate need of something vegetal, so we headed off to East West Café in downtown Sebastopol. The menu is huge, with typical diner dishes served alongside Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. I ordered a tempeh wok, which was served with super crispy home potatoes. I highly recommend dousing it in their lemon-tahini dressing. Scott, the good dietitian's husband that he is, ordered braised tofu dish with arame, also delish. Great spot for a casual meal.
Where to Drink
Hardcore Coffee (Sebastopol)
The funkiest coffee shop around, and coffee shops aren’t exactly known for being conservative. Hardcore Coffee was opened by one of Neil’s friends and his mom. It's located in an old barn surrounded by an outdoor seating area made from recycled and repurposed chairs, wagons and even bathtubs. The scene is much more artist commune than coffee shop. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it’s the best spot for people watching in all of Nor Cal. Their coffee is made from organic beans sourced in Seattle. I thought about getting a café Americano (?) so I could really taste the difference from our typical Trader Joe’s brew, but when I saw they offer hazelnut milk (!!! and hemp milk!!), I had to get a latte. So amazing. I’m seriously considering ordering a lifetime supply of hazelnut milk and an espresso machine so I can recreate this at home…or just move to Sebastopol.
Lynmar Estate Winery (Sebastopol)
Although it would be totally unfortunate, if you plan on going to only one vineyard, I would go to Lynmar. The wine was a perfect example of the pinot noir and chardonnay the region is known for and the setting is just incredible. The modern tasting room and terrace overlook the Laguna Santa Rosa, vineyards and one of the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen. This dietitian was going nuts over the chia, amaranth, apples and very large, very phallic looking melons. Yes, I did take inappropriate pictures with them. Thirty going on thirteen.
My favorite tasting experience was at Martinelli because I learned so much about wines from the fabulous Judy. I already knew the basics of wine tasting, but she showed us how wines hit different parts of the palette and taught us the importance of aeration. Before, I decanted wines simply because it looks pretty. But now I completely understand the function. My SIL's best friend's family first started farming the area in the late 1800s and it is truly a family business. The tasting room, in a turn of the century hop barn, is decorated with old family pictures and vintage farming equipment. I especially enjoyed their syrah and Jackass Hill zinfandel, grown on a hill so steep they were told "only a jackass" would grow grapes on.
Porter Creek Winery (Healdsburg)
This place was magic. A small, organic and biodyanamic winery with a crowded tasting room run by the worlds coolest Scottsman. Every other word out of his mouth was magic. “May I try the pinot noir?” “Magic.” “How do you like working here?” “Oh, it’s magic love.” When I grow up, I want to be him. The wines were incredibly delicious. I always thought the word “rustic” was a nice way to describe cheap table wines, but tasting these, I got it. Drinking these wines I felt like I should be at my grandma’s old wooden table in Italy gulping it down with a big bowl of handmade pasta. You know, if I had an Italian grandma who could cook homemade pasta.
Truett-Hurst Winery (Healdsburg)
This was the last winery we visited. If you're interested in learning more about biodynamic practices, this would be a great place to visit. Unfortunately, being the last of our stops my palette was a little washed out, or in other words, I was a bit tipsy.
Russian River Brewery (Santa Rosa)
Home to what’s considered one of the worlds greatest beers, the seasonal Pliny the Younger, we waited in line for over an hour to get in. Totally worth it. We ordered a beer flight and sampled all of their beers on tap. My husband the home-brewer attempted a batch of Pliny the Elder before we left for California. We thought he did a really great job until we tasted theirs. Sorry babe, no comparison. The other standouts from our beer flight were the beers they fermented in old wine barrels, which tasted like a mashup between a sour-style beer and kombucha. Stop here for a pizza and beer.
The (free!) tour of Lagunitas brewery was one of the highlights of our trip. The employees are treated well, love working there and it's shows in their passion for the beer. Hearing how Lagunitas grew from a home-brewer who decided to go into business after making 10 batches of beer to the fifth largest microbrew was pretty fascinating. We loved the hilarious stories of their growing pains, like when he accidentally blew up the town watertower. All had basically had the same plotline. Something went horribly wrong. Lagunitas named a beer after it. Everything worked out in the end.
Where to eat cheese (!!)
Cowgirl Creamery (Petaluma)
Cowgirl Creamery’s Mount Tam, similar to brie, has always been one of my favorites, so we couldn’t miss the tour and tasting at their facility. We learned the story of how Cowgirl Creamery was born from two chefs selling fromage blanc to one of the most well known artisan cheese companies. We learned how their cheeses are made and then got to taste Mount Tam in various stages of it’s aging. It was pretty neat to see how just a week changed it’s texture and flavor so drastically.
Bohemian Creamery (Sebastopol)
When I die, I hope I go to the aging rooms at Bohemian Creamery. I had heard about their cheeses before, but never had the opportunity to taste it. The owner and cheesemaker, Lisa, took Scott, Caroline and I on a private tour of her farm and creamery. It's obvious her cheese is a labor of love and you can taste it in the end product. What I loved most about her cheeses was how she incorporated elements of the surrounding land, from the wild molds that powder her cheeses to the seaweed used in her surf and turf cheese to her herd of goats living right outside the creamery. Everything tastes like Sebastopol. We tried big chunks of her cheeses in different stages of aging in the tasting room. Highlights included the asiago-style Capriago, the best goats cheese I've ever had and Cowabunga, a soft cheese stuffed with goats milk caramel that tastes like a rich cheesecake. Oh, and we got to play with the goats! I'm in love with the white one and I'm pretty sure he wanted to come home with me.
Have you ever been to Sonoma? If so, any recommendations you'd like to add?