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Sonoma and the New Face of California Wine Country

T+L explores this food lover’s paradise, with its rugged coastline cliffs and rolling inland vineyards.

By Luke Barr

We stood on a steep, forested hill looking down across a field at a herd of goats gathered in the shade of a large oak tree. They were happy-looking goats. It was a warm afternoon in Dry Creek Valley; the sky was pale blue overhead, the landscape both wildly fertile and haphazardly domesticated, and most of all beautiful. We were in the heart of wine country, just outside Healdsburg, California—grapevines visible all around—but this was Pugs Leap, a two-man goat-cheese operation. Behind us were a couple of ramshackle buildings—one of them containing the cheese-making equipment and a temperature-controlled room full of ripening cheese, the other the milking parlor. My daughter, age five, had wrinkled her nose theatrically at the pungent smells as I admired the tender white cubes and ovoids lined up in neat rows, but now we were outside, and a goat ambled over and began chewing on my pants.

“We feed them organic hay,” Pascal Destandau said. “Only organic.” He was very clear on this point. Organic hay is not easy to find, apparently, and the stuff is expensive, too, but it improves the flavor of the milk, he maintained. Destandau is French, and he makes the cheese—he learned how at a farm in the Roya Valley a few years back, near where he grew up. Eric Smith, his partner, milks the goats. He milks them by hand: 27 of them, twice a day. He said he’d tried using a milking machine but it seemed stressful for the animals, so he stopped. Each goat’s name is written on a whiteboard hanging on the wall, with round magnets to keep track of who’s been milked: Trixie, Zazie, Zi Zhen, Vulpina....

As I listened to the two of them talk, Destandau in thickly accented English, about how they’d left San Francisco and their corporate jobs, about the trial and error of learning a new business, about the chefs who buy Pugs Leap at local farmers’ markets, I couldn’t help thinking that they were living my ultimate escapist fantasy: to quit the city and shack up on a hill in Sonoma County and make cheese. It’s not just the physical beauty of the place, the air, the light, the land and the ocean, nor is it simply nostalgia for my childhood visits here. It’s a sense that here in Sonoma, life is being lived the way it was meant to be lived. In tune with nature. Outside in the sunlight. Eating fresh tomatoes and handmade cheeses.

There’s an easygoing bohemianism about this place, and careless, unpolished glamour too. Smith and Destandau wore the farmer’s de rigueur denim and boots, but they also both wore horn-rimmed glasses that seemed far too fashionable for the rustic surroundings. It was a good look, I thought.... And yet, as idyllic as the life of impeccably stylish gentleman farmers in Sonoma County may be, the economics of cheese are not easy. In fact, they make no sense at all. That organic hay, for example, costs $23 a bale, Destandau explained, and goats, well, they eat remarkable quantities of hay. Running the numbers, he said: “We sell the cheese for about $30 a pound. And I calculate it costs about $22 a pound to make—without any salary for us.

Needless to say, Pugs Leap is a labor of love. Smith and Destandau are committed to making the best goat cheese imaginable—the most uncompromisingly humane, organic, and delicious goat cheese ever conceived. They are cheese idealists. And Sonoma is full of idealists—winemakers and restaurateurs, farmers and bakers, all living off the land, helping to create a kind of DIY gourmet paradise. I planned to meet some of them, to seek out the roots of classic Sonoma, and also recapture a bit of my own family history.

I grew up coming to Sonoma: my grandmother lived in Jenner, a tiny town overlooking the mouth of the Russian River. My family lived in the Bay Area, and we drove up for weekends and holidays all the time. I remember the drive seemed endless back then, sitting in the backseat of our VW Bug with my kid brother, making our way through wine and orchard and dairy-farm country and then winding up out on the coast. The meals in Jenner were epic. We’d sit at my grandmother’s long antique Provençal table (which she’d bought in France and shipped over in the late 1950’s) overlooking the garden, eating crab and roasted lamb and ratatouille, artichokes, salads, and apple pie with whipped cream. My grandmother made the pie, I whipped the cream. We were a family of cooks and eaters, and Sonoma was where we did a lot of cooking and eating.

My great-aunt M.F.K. Fisher, the author, lived nearby in Glen Ellen, writing and cooking, and we’d visit there too, and eat and cook some more. She was always done cooking when we arrived, actually—it was just a question of taking dishes out of the cooling oven and tossing the salad. Lunches with M. F. had a certain leisurely formality about them. We’d sit outside on the terrace and the adults would drink wine. She would regard me with an expression of veiled amusement at my generally solemn 12-year-old demeanor. Her house was full of books and paintings; it had tall ceilings and the most enormous, luxurious bathroom I’d ever seen. I never failed to wonder at that bathroom, and also at the round, mysteriously beautiful dark-blue tiled pool up at the main ranch house, where we’d swim after lunch.

We rented a renovated farmhouse in Kenwood, just a few miles down Highway 12 from M. F.’s former house on the Bouverie Ranch. (The ranch, including her house since her death in 1992, is now a wildlife preserve.) Highway 12 is the road that runs from the town of Sonoma to Santa Rosa, through the so-called Valley of the Moon, past a series of wineries and beneath stands of towering oak trees. It is one of the prettiest highways anywhere, and all the more so when you find yourself on vacation, filled with surging optimism at the prospect of shifting gears, and a slower pace, and lots of cooking: tooling around with the windows rolled down, stopping in for supplies at the local groceries and farmers’ markets, eating outside, jumping in the pool.

My grandmother was coming to stay with us in Kenwood, as was my dad; and so along with my wife, Yumi, and daughter, and visiting friends and relatives from the Bay Area and New York, we had a full house and then some. When we were there, we spent most of our time outside on the shady wraparound porch. There were Gravenstein apple trees along one side of the garden and a wild tangle of blackberry bushes all along another.

At the center of the house was a state-of-the-art country kitchen, with envy-inducing appliances. (One of these days, I’m going to buy one of those monster ranges with double gas rings and an oven door that swings open like a bank safe....) We made vast bowls of guacamole and sprawling tomato salads; we barbecued lamb chops and sweet Italian sausages. At the farmers’ market in Sebastopol, we bought cheese, peaches, leeks, and mushrooms. At the mushroom stand, the proprietor scratched his cell phone number on the edge of a Farm Trails map, showing me more or less where the farm was located (most of the purveyors welcome visitors). “Come anytime,” he said, “we’ll be there.” I got the impression of a small community of shaggy-haired farmers, tending their mushrooms along with their shaggy-haired kids....

One morning at 7:15, the phone rang. It was George MacLeod, a local winemaker.

“You’ve got to come right now—they’re here!”

It was the first of a few harvest days for the Sauvignon Blanc grapes at MacLeod’s vineyard, which happened to be just next door. The harvesters had arrived—a group of Mexican workers who’d been picking his grapes for the past 30 years. They’d come before dawn and would be done within hours—20 tons of grapes later. MacLeod and I had been introduced by the owner of the house we’d rented, and he’d invited me to the harvest. His is a relatively tiny vineyard: most of his grapes go to larger producers, though he also bottles his own (very delicious) wine.

It was a beautiful morning—cool but with the promise of warmth soon to come, and heat not long after that. There was mist hanging over the vines, and disembodied, otherworldly voices calling out now and then in Spanish. We’d met at the barn and now MacLeod was walking me through the property, stopping to chat with various foremen and workers, handing me grapes to taste, and generally talking without pause, like the born raconteur that he is. About the grapes, the wine, and the soil, and about the rocks in the soil (there were many of them when he bought the land, dug up and removed with backbreaking effort). He was wearing an old Monsanto Roundup–branded windbreaker—he retired from the agribusiness giant in 1979; the vineyard was his dream, a “retirement project” that became the family business. He explained, all irony aside, how the vineyard was now going organic.

A few days later, we returned for an open-air wine tasting. My wife, father, daughter, and I sat at a picnic table in the shade of a huge old oak tree in the middle of the hilly vineyard with MacLeod and his daughter-in-law Marjorie. We picked some grapes and compared the taste of the sweet juice with the wines they eventually produced, taking measure of the winemaker’s alchemy. It tasted like magic.

The best restaurant in Sonoma County, everyone will tell you, is called Cyrus. It’s in Healdsburg, just off the town’s glossy, picture-perfect central square—a small park surrounded by well-tended boutiques, gourmet food shops, bookstores, and Charlie Palmer’s Hotel Healdsburg. It was one of those late-summer evenings when the sun seems to be setting for an inordinately long time, and everyone seems inordinately happy—even the local protestors. They were an NPR-ish group, in this case, with cheerful signs urging the passage of President Obama’s health-care reform plan. They were preaching to the converted, and didn’t seem to mind.

At Cyrus, my wife and I ordered champagne and three varieties of caviar to start off—it’s that kind of restaurant. In fact it’s an extravagantly over-the-top, eight-course-tasting-menu-or-bust kind of place, and thoroughly enjoyable to boot. The food is fresh, local, and very elaborate. We had seared hamachi with tomatoes, melon, and cucumber; we had foie gras with plums and cashews; we had madai with corn and scallions in a ginger-shiso sauce. And so on. Everything dazzled. Each course also came with a different wine, presented with a flourish by the sommelier.

“I want to give you something you can’t have at home,” said Douglas Keane, the chef, when I interviewed him later. “You’re not paying me to slice a tomato—people are coming for the experience.” His wife’s parents have a small farm outside of town where they grow about half of the restaurant’s fruits and vegetables and raise chickens. Keane and his business partner Nick Peyton make a point of emphasizing their connection to the land, through the farm but also through the many local purveyors they use—including Pugs Leap, as it turns out. And so no, despite the caviar cart, Cyrus does not represent what I half-jokingly call the “Napification” of Sonoma. “Napa is the land of trophy wineries, Parker Points, and lots of money,” Peyton said. Sonoma, on the other hand, is low-key. Keane smiled: “Sonoma is home.”

Cyrus isn’t the only restaurant in Sonoma that has its own farm—after a while it starts to seem like they all do. We had lunch one day at French Garden Restaurant, in Sebastopol, where the food was simple and fresh, much of it grown on the owner Dan Smith’s farm down the road. He operates a produce market at the restaurant on Sundays.

Smith grew up on a farm in Petaluma, a few miles south, and he’s a staunch proponent of the idea that west Sonoma is the real Sonoma: “We’re way more laid-back—not as glitzy. But we have all the beauty out here—we’ve got the coastline and the redwoods.” He’s right: western Sonoma is stunning, and a touch scruffier than the manicured luxury you can find in Healdsburg, say. But the truth is that the whole county is more agriculturally oriented than Napa, where the land values dictate that you grow grapes, and only grapes.

Another night, we had dinner at Zazu Restaurant & Farm, a casual and self-consciously funky place in Santa Rosa. The narrow room is lively, with copper-top tables and a long bar. The staff is young, tattooed, and coolly professional, a combination that caught me off guard at first; I asked the waitress to describe the “mushroom raviolo” and she told me in a rather firm voice that if I’d just wait for her to finish going through the specials, she’d explain. And so it went: she was no-nonsense from beginning to end—and by then, I’d decided I quite liked the tough-girl style of this place.

The food was remarkable—proudly local (Zazu, as advertised, also has its own farm), with strong flavors and interesting, unfussy preparations. We had three different kinds of house-made salumi with a dry sheep’s-milk cheese and some olives, a large salad with tomatoes and pole beans, a rack of lamb with quinoa tabbouleh and coriander chutney, and sesame-crusted tuna.

The coastline in Sonoma is wild. As you drive down Highway 1, dipping and swooping and then skimming along on tops of cliffs, the ocean roaring and gleaming below, you realize there’s a reason they film sports-car commercials here. At Goat Rock beach, in Jenner, the waves crash into large rock formations looming offshore and then race up the sand, retreating with salt foam and seaweed in their wake. This is not the sort of water you swim in, unless you’re a dog, or wearing a wet suit. It’s the sort of water you look at, trying to spot seals or maybe an otter. I showed my daughter the massive Arched Rock, through which the waves have punched a natural tunnel. She took note but soon went back to collecting rocks and shells, an activity she can apparently do for hours and hours.

This is the beach of my childhood. At Jenner, the routine was always the same: sometime in the late afternoon, around four or five, there’d be an expedition to the beach. There were different dogs over the years, but they all loved the beach, and we’d pile into the car and drive over to Goat Rock. We’d amble up the beach and back again, throwing a stick for the dog. Back at the house, meanwhile, there’d be a bridge game in progress, and dinner cooking, and we’d return just in time for cocktail hour. I remember eventually being old enough for the famous “1-2-3,” which was M. F.’s drink—gin, Campari, and vermouth, on the rocks. After a brisk, windswept walk on the beach, the perfect thing.

This time, we drove down the coast to Bodega Bay, a slightly kitschy fishing town with lots of small hotels and vacation rentals. This is where Hitchcock filmed The Birds, and it’s a good place to buy fresh crab. We stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant called Terrapin Creek, which opened in 2008.

It was a real discovery: a tiny little place, nondescript really, with an open kitchen and café tables. The menu was eclectic, with crab cakes and a pulled-pork sandwich and a cassoulet. There were also oysters, local sardines, and osso buco. We ordered glasses of white wine and the most amazing fish stew, with salmon, rock cod, and potatoes in a light tomato-and-fennel broth. The restaurant is run by Andrew Truong and Liya Lin Truong, a young couple who bring an Asian influence and a light touch to their high-end comfort food.

On our way back to the house, we stopped at Wild Flour Bread, just outside Bodega Bay in Freestone. The place is a local institution, and my grandmother recalled how Jed Wallach, the owner, had installed the enormous brick wood-fired oven years ago. “Now we’re going to see some real west-county hippies!” my dad said, in the sardonic manner of a former Berkeley hippie, as we pulled up. The bakery was bustling and busy, with kids underfoot, and sweet smells, and we walked out with a couple of dense and crusty sourdough loaves.

M. F. moved to Glen Ellen in 1971; her friend David Bouverie, a dashing and aristocratic Englishman, had agreed to let her build Last House, as it was called, on his ranch. The two-room palazzo (which Bouverie designed—he was also an architect) was hers for life; after that it reverted to his estate, which he had donated to the Audubon Canyon Ranch, a nature conservancy. Today, the 535-acre preserve is open for guided nature walks and seminars on spring and fall Saturdays by appointment. The old barn houses maps and exhibits about the local birds and flowers.

Last House is not open to the public, but the man who lives there, John Martin, offered to show us around. He was Bouverie’s maintenance man for years, and now works for Audubon Canyon. As we walked in, it was for me one of those ineffable moments when you return to a place years and years later, and it’s totally different, and yet it’s exactly the same, and then again you’re totally different, too (and yet also exactly the same, in some way). Anyway, it’s complicated. We wandered through the house like ghosts, and I wound up on the terrace, looking out at the familiar view.

The landscape here is stunning, wild and dry. The long driveway is flanked by rows of gnarled old oak trees covered in lichen—they looked magic-realist somehow, ancient and alive. The sun was bright; hawks were wheeling in the sky above. In Sonoma, I thought, it all comes back to the land, the source of inspiration and sustenance. For cheese makers, chefs, farmers, and idealists of all kinds, and for travelers, too, Sonoma is a place for growth and creation, for cooking and eating, for life’s essential pleasures.

Luke Barr is T+L’s news director.