When it comes to Northern California culinary destinations, San Francisco and Napa Valley get much of the glory, but if you overlook Sonoma, you’d only be punishing yourself. Although development has ramped up in recent years, the county still retains its rustic character, an engagingly laid-back counterpoint to Napa’s more buttoned-up vibe.
Sonoma boasts its share of classic bars and restaurants — such as Ken Tominaga’s Hana and Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen — and these have been joined by a spate of promising newcomers, including Duke’s Spirited Cocktails and Valette. Still, this is farm country, and the best way to get a taste of the region is to visit the veteran producers who’ve helped put the county on the map. Here are six to savor.
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With more than 250 wineries, Sonoma has no dearth of tasting options, but La Crema’s Russian River Valley estate at Saralee’s Vineyard is a great place to start. Dating back to 1900, the estate’s four-story barn was built to store hops before it was transformed into Saralee and Richard Kunde’s home; its most recent metamorphosis was completed in August, when it opened as an elegant multilevel tasting room overlooking the storied vineyard named for its former owner.
You can tour the vines via golf cart and order up a picnic lunch à deux to be enjoyed on the grounds, but if it’s wine education you want, choose the north-to-south flight to see how the same varietals play out in different cool-climate appellations. This particular tasting tracks the company’s vineyards, from the appealing minerality of its Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays to the plusher textures of La Crema’s Monterey vintages.
Straddling the Sonoma-Marin county line, McEvoy Ranch makes this list on the strength of its organic extra virgin olive oil, a gently piquant blend of six Italian olive varieties grown in the estate’s orchards, though the ranch also produces excellent tapenades, honeys, jams, vinegars and wines. Of note is the lovely Evening Standard Pinot Noir, the name of which alludes to the McEvoy’s publishing roots. (The late matriarch, Nan Tucker McEvoy, was the last generation of her family to run the San Francisco Chronicle, the newspaper founded by her grandfather in 1865.)
The picturesque 550-acre property is the McEvoy’s private residence, but it’s open to the public by appointment, as well as for ticketed tours and tastings. There’s even a wreath-making workshop, which you can cap off with a flight of wines — because who doesn’t need a little vino to get through the holiday season?
Bear Republic Brewing Co.
After swirling and swishing all that wine, your mouth will be begging for a palate cleanser; that’s when you should head to Bear Republic’s brewpub in Healdsburg. Established by third- and fourth-generation Sonoma residents, the family-run brewery has been quenching thirsts since 1995. Dig into traditional pub fare with a twist — think wild-game chili made with Bear Republic’s black stout — while you work your way through the draft list. Start light with the Double Aught pilsner, a refreshing pale lager, and work your way toward the full-bodied Racer X Double IPA, a seasonal release whose caramelized malt notes are the perfect foil to the ale’s bold hoppiness.
If you’re looking for something lighter, visit the U.S.’s first ciderpub, located in Sebastopol, just behind the production facility where the House family has been brewing ACE ciders since 1993. From the classic apple and apple-honey (the latter made with Sonoma wildflower honey) to the crisp “Perry” (a pear-apple blend), ACE bottles nine varieties, all of which are available year-round on tap at the ciderpub. The biggest seller is the pineapple, which the company’s founder and president, Jeffrey House, dreamt up during one of his family’s regular visits to Hawaii.
Achadinha Cheese Co.
For a more hands-on culinary experience, sign up for the three-and-a-half-hour cheese-making class at the Achadinha Cheese Co. in Petaluma, hairnet mandatory. Beyond plunging your fingers into the curds and whey, you’ll also get a cheese tasting, full lunch and tour of the ranch, with its herds of goats and cows. Your gracious and knowledgeable hosts are the Pachecos — Jim, Donna and their four children — who are continuing the cheese-making tradition that was started by Jim’s parents in Portugal in the 1950s. Achadinha’s Capricious goat cheese has won many accolades, but the Pacheco’s Broncha, a firm aged blend of goat’s and cow’s milk, is a buttery delight. .
Kendall-Jackson farm-to-table events
Although Kendall-Jackson is most known for its mass-market Vintner’s Reserve line, the wine behemoth also hosts a range of fun culinary events. If you’re as obsessed with tomatoes as I am, mark your calendar for the company’s annual heirloom tomato festival, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in September. Graze on the tomato-focused creations of area restaurants, watch chefs compete in an “Iron Chef”-style face-off and sample 150 heritage tomato varietals with names like Mortgage Lifter and Indian Moon, all grown on the K-J estate.
For a more varied menu, reserve a seat at one of the winery’s farm-to-table dinners, a family-style meal paired with bottlings from the company’s vast portfolio. As you dine al fresco in the idyllic estate gardens, the setting sun casting its soft glow over the long canopied table, you’ll understand why these dinners sell out well in advance.