Around The Bay

After tastings from 75+ wineries, visitors feasted on barbecue


Pre-harvest Party at Richard’s Grove & Saralee’s Vineyard, Windsor

Photos & article by Andi Berlin

The 17th annual Grape to Glass at stately Richard’s Grove celebrates the wines of the Russian River Valley, a cool atmosphere known for producing rich chardonnays and bright pinot noirs. More than 75 wineries set up booths in the toasty afternoon heat, accompanied by a host of farmers market vendors and local restaurants offering small bites.

Trione Vineyards' Sauvignon Blanc

While pinots and chards dominated, some of the most exciting pours were citrus-y Rosés, robust Cabernet Francs and an experimental Sauvignon Blanc. My top taste goes to Trione Vineyard’s 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, with a flavor profile of green apple and citrus, paired with savory cucumber. Extremely crisp and refreshing in the sun, it’s also full-bodied and complex. During the fermenting process, the winemakers added a new yeast called Alchemy II from South Africa, imparting notes of gooseberry and grass.

Other wine highlights included a cloudy and sweet unfiltered 2007 Pinot Noir from Lion’s Pride, a cooperative effort between Russian River Valley winegrowers and students at the local El Molino High School – it pleased with light flavors of apricots and peach. I also enjoyed a spicy 2008 Zinfandel from Sandole Wines in Sebastopol. A fine example of a powerful, zesty Zin, it rocks the palate with dark flavors of black pepper, plus a hint of fresh strawberries.

Hook and Ladder poured their rich, tobacco-inflected 2009 Cabernet Franc from Los Amigos Ranch

Sunflowers adorned the Dutton Estate booth











David Bice of Redwood Hill Farms passed out their fresh chevre and a goat milk "Camembert" called Camellia - definitely less robust than its cow's milk cousin, it still had a nice kick

Sayre Farms out of Santa Rosa sold vegetables and cut up a fresh "sugar crunch" cucumber for us to taste

This buttery chardonnay is named after a dog that lives at the Russian River Vineyards

Ahi tuna tartare with pita chips and micro greens from Nectar at the Hilton Sonoma

When the sun set, it was chicken thighs & other delights from BBQ Smokehouse Bistro











View of the trees, before we loaded into a tractor meandering through the grapevines

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Around the Bay

Playful, daytime biscuits at Big Bottom Market


Photos and article by Virginia Miller

BIG BOTTOM MARKET, 16228 Main Street, Guerneville; 707-604-7295

Crostini set against a bold wall

Amidst towering redwoods, summer heat, and parties along the Russian River is the small town of Guerneville, one of Sonoma’s most unique towns, with vibrant gay community, laid back river/woods culture, and haunting redwood state park, idyllic for a quiet forest walk. On a recent summer weekend, barbecues and live twang bands added color to the bustling main street.

Foodies have a destination cafe/restaurant in Big Bottom Market, open since last summer by co-owners Michael Volpatt and Crista Luedtke (the latter owns neighboring boon hotel + spa and boon eat + drink restaurant), drawing crowds for breakfasts, lunch and cups of my favorite Sonoma County coffee, Flying Goat (their own special Big Bottom Blend). Their breakfast biscuits ($3-9) are stuffed with a changing array of goodness like bananas, peanut butter, strawberry white chocolate, or ham, Swiss and dill pickle (loved the mustard in the latter but was on the hunt for the ham). Offerings change daily and each biscuit is adorned with what’s inside.

Casually rustic dining

My recent weekend in Guerneville coincided with the launch of their dinner service (Thursdays-Saturdays only, 5-9pm). Executive chef Tricia Brown cooked at one of my all-time favorite restaurants anywhere, Gramercy Tavern in NYC, moving from Brooklyn to Sonoma for an entirely different life. With that pedigree, she is certainly cooking elevated “cafe” food. In the rustic farmhouse-feel shop lined with wood floors and wine and gourmet food items for purchase, there’s comfort food for dinner like a Moroccan chicken tagine ($18) of apricot-studded couscous laden with Castelvetrano olives and toasted almonds, or green chile cheddar turkey meatloaf ($17) over chipotle mashed sweet potatoes.

Ham, dill and pickle biscuits

Unexpectedly, sandwiches ruled: pinot pulled pork ($16) covered in spicy BBQ sauce, garlic aioli smeared on a toasted brioche, with sides of bourbon-bacon baked beans and cilantro-lime coleslaw (both $4 individually or 3 for $11), and a sandwich special of wild salmon, softly pink, almost medium rare, topped with slaw on buttery brioche. Both were made with care, blessedly robust in flavors and texture. Chilled cucumber soup spiked with mint and yogurt ($6) is a refreshing summer starter. Only a large pile of dry crostini felt out of place on a mezze platter ($9) of roasted red pepper hummus, lentil walnut pate, cucumber red onion yogurt salad and olives.

Chilled cucumber soup

Small, local winemakers are featured on the wine menu, including a few of my go-tos like Thomas George Estates and Unti. They also feature different winemakers, like Sonoma’s Paul Mathew Vineyards made by winemaker Mat Gustafson. I sampled all three of his featured wines, like a mineral 2010 Weeks Vineyard Chardonnay with slight citrus notes from stainless steel aging, rounded out by a hint of oak. I found the 2011 Knight’s Valley Valdigue most interesting (and most affordable at $7 glass/$33 bottle). It’s a chilled wine more akin to a Lambrusco or other chilled red with dry, strawberry notes, earthy yet bright.

Exquisitely rare, fresh-caught salmon sandwich special

Certainly when in Guerneville, one can enjoy the retreat-like (though dated) Applewood Inn, but Big Bottom Market hits at a lower price point though obviously more casual. For a sleepy (peaceful), small town in the redwoods nestled between vineyards and ocean, the Market’s casual gourmet approach feels appropriate.

End the night at Rio Nido Roadhouse dancing under the stars out back to live music (blues, classic rock, etc…) Were it not for the redwoods and that clean, crisp Sonoma air, crusty, older cowboys, families and the dive bar/beer setting feels like you’re in a small Texas town, embracing the warm Summer night.

Magic under the stars behind Rio Nido Roadhouse

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On the Town

Stunning patio views from the Fairmont Penthouse atop Nob Hill

SANTE Dinner

One does not turn down an invite to an intimate dinner in the Fairmont San Francisco’s legendary Penthouse. Particularly a dinner cooked and served by the chef, sommelier and kitchen staff of Santé, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Sonoma. For those who don’t know, the Fairmont’s Penthouse is famous for the historical figures, from movie stars to presidents, who have stayed there… and for its astronomical $10,000 a night price tag. While I’ve had the privilege of time in the Penthouse twice, never have I enjoyed hours of a private dinner, lounging in the pool room, around the massive apartment, on the tiled deck immersed in brilliant city views, while savoring impeccable food and wine.

Join me on a mini-photo journey through the evening.

Roses brighten the long, black table in the Penthouse's private dining room

Amuse bouche: egg shell filled w/ cauliflower custard, California osetra caviar












To start, a salad featuring grilled asparagus from the Sacramento Delta

Astrological signs dance around the domed ceiling of the library

Anyone up for a game of pool in the unforgettable pool room?



Ricotta agnolotti pasta with English peas, truffles and a crunchy brittle of Parmesan cheese

A floral silhouette punctuates the dining room

Fourth course: Maine lobster with fava beans & black eyed peas











The drawing room is cozy with earth tones and comfortable chairs

The dining room set for an intimate dinner

A tray of macarons and sweets to finish












And dessert! A Valrhona chocolate trio of panna cotta, ice ream and a chocolate financier

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Around the Bay

Mountain & vineyard view from the grounds of Landmark Vineyards, Kenwood


Deck outside my Lodge cottage

Sonoma’s meandering, laid back roads soothe me. One of my top weekend escapes, I’m hard pressed to choose a favorite region of the massive county. Downtown Sonoma, however, is my favorite town in the county and staying near its leafy, green square surrounded by historic architecture, from Spanish mission to Old West storefronts, is a welcome combination of small town charm near rambling countryside and wineries (recent visits included tastings at Landmark Vineyards and Lasseter Family Winery, whose wines I reviewed last month).

My Lodge cottage (upstairs unit)

Down the street from Sonoma’s town square is The Lodge at Sonoma. From the exterior, its warm brown tones invite, emitting merely a hint of corporate chain. The high-ceilinged lobby welcomes with chandeliers and inviting couches. About to undergo a major remodel, chic factor will rise quite a bit if colors and fabrics are any indication. A view over the pool and courtyard beyond to a series of cottages feels like its own private community. Walking to my upstairs cottage unit, I am impressed by vibrant foliage and plant life throughout the grounds.

Fireplace in my hotel sitting area

Cottages are peaceful: a whirpool tub opens up between bathroom and living/bedroom, with fireplace and wine bottle waiting to be uncorked. It may not have the individualized charm of a Nick’s Cove, but it’s more affordable and plenty comfortable. Location makes it an ideal weekend respite, but the Lodge’s two biggest selling points may be its spa and restaurant.


View of hotel courtyard

I had one of the best massages ever at the Lodge’s Raindance Space: full, intense and utterly relaxing. 50 minutes did the trick but the cares of the world drifted fully away by four mini-pools and hot tubs in a private courtyard. Vibrant red and orange fall leaves still clung to the trees, while various plant life and a water fountain added a soothing soundtrack. Reading and lounging in the courtyard made this short jaunt from the city feel like a true escape.


Ahi seared & dusted with coffee

Chef Andrew Wilson and Sommelier Christopher Sawyer took care of us at Carneros Bistro. The open, airy dining room houses an unexpected Sonoma gem. In fact, it is among the better meals I’ve had here, consistent from start to finish, including mostly local wine pairings and a solid beer list.

Chef Wilson is having fun with common dishes like tuna tartare, playfully marinating the tuna in Pliny the Elder beer. Or in the case of wood-roasted mussels ($13), imbuing heat via red curry sauce with kaffir lime, paired with Dry Creek’s Victor Hill 2010 Sauvignon Blanc ($12).

Salmon "Pastrami"

Though mussels were my top starter, salmon “pastrami” ($14) is one fine idea. Thinly sliced, it’s served with mustard sauce, pickled onions and rye crisps. Sawyer paired with it with Parmelee-Hill’s 2010 Syrah Rosé ($13), a dry yet creamy contrast to the salmon.

Red curry mussels

The most unique entree was coffee-dusted ahi ($29). Earthy coffee crust went far better than expected with rare, seared tuna… I’m used to coffee rubs with pork and heartier meats, but not fish. In garlic cream and red wine reduction, it was rich yet delicate. Another unexpected facet was the unlikely pairing of Audelssa 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($16). This full dish stands up to it.

Sonoma duck two ways ($27) was a crowd-pleaser: lacquered Liberty Farm’s Pekin breast, and a flaky tart of sous vide Sonoma Muscovy duck with caramelized onion, Pt. Reyes blue cheese and fig mostarda. Though the menu suggests pairing the duck with Cline 2008 Syrah ($12), I preferred Sawyer’s suggestion of Acorn’s Alegria Vineyards 2008 “Medley” red field blend ($15).


Stark's retro, neon signage

Further afield in Sonoma County, my numerous weekend jaunts led me to these newer restaurants…

They had me at the neon lit, retro exterior, radiating on a chilly winter’s night. Though roomy, Stark’s is packed on a weekend, making reservations a must. It may not be the best steak of your life, but it’s a damn good one and everyone seems caught up in the glow of the multi-room space. There’s too many families and kids to make it feel like date night, but the bar room is decidedly more grown-up with roaring fireplace and a good whiskey selection (Thomas Handy Rye for $12 a pour, thank you very much).

The Other Man

In keeping with the retro vibe, cocktails are a dominant force. It’s a pleasure just reading quirky drink descriptions like this one: Just Thinkin’ About Amaro ($9.50; Meletti amaro, Dewars White Label Scotch, egg white, lemon): “Whilst growing up in an orphanage, I developed a habit of enjoying a digestif after my evening meal. The nuns were never on board, but I didn’t care. I was a rogue. A rebel. A dreamer. I was also blacked out. Often.”

Dungeness Crab "Tator Tots"

All that tongue-in-cheek (and being this far from city limits) had me concerned about drink quality. I was delighted to find that two drinks in particular were even more gratifyingly balanced than they sounded:  Sean Pecan-nery ($9.50) is an elegant blend of Four Roses bourbon, pecan, apple and warming spice topped with ACE pear cider. Dry and crisp, it’s a lovely aperitif. The Other Man ($10), served on the rocks, is nonetheless bracing with Buffalo Trace bourbon, Pur Blood Orange Spice, rosemary, chiles and cranberry. Evocative of winter, it exudes the right amount of spice and herbal sweetness.

Fireside glow in Stark's bar room

On the seafood tip, Stark’s is Safe Harbor certified with oysters and dishes like citrus Pacific seabass. This bodes well for non-beef eaters, but being a steakhouse, after all, I opted for beef: a 10 oz. filet mignon 10 oz. (USDA Choice $33, USDA Prime $38), and 1/2 lb. burger ($10 + $2 each add-on) with blue cheese and caramelized onion (go decadent with a truffle fried egg for $3 or seared foie gras for $14). Both were quite juicy, medium rare as I asked. Steaks range from $25-$41 with sauces like truffle aioli or whole grain mustard bearnaise.

Sides ($4-8) are generous (I like brussels sprouts with Andouille sausage, apples, blue cheese), while starters are playful, like Dungeness crab “tator tots” ($13) with padron peppers and ginger mustard aioli.

Sippin' Chicha Morada & Inka Kola at Sazon, Santa Rosa


Mateo's Martini de Calabaza

Despite impeccable ingredients and attention to detail (not to mention how delicious it all looked), I was a bit disappointed in the food at Mateo’s Cocina Latina. Most dishes sampled tasted more bland than exciting. I desire refined interpretations of Mexican food, but somehow this place left me craving a greasy taqueria.

Cocktails (on a menu assembled by Scott Beattie) and spirits are the draw here, heavy on tequila and mezcal. I fell in love with a creamy Martini de Calabaza: Arette Reposado, melds with organic pumpkin puree, winter spices and cream ($11.50) into one savory, spiced, milky whole.

SAZON, Santa Rosa

Ceviche at Sazon

Sazon is in a pleasantly dingy strip mall stretch of Santa Rosa, but inside the humble, tiny dining room, Peruvian eats are prepared with care. While sipping housemade Chicha Morada ($3), a traditional, sweet purple corn punch, or a bottle of Inca Kola, fill up on five kinds of ceviche. I enjoyed Copitas de Blue Tilapia ($12.50) for a change of pace from tuna and the usual. Tilapia is marinated with aji amarillo and rocoto peppers, ginger, celery, parsley and lime with yuca and plantain chips to scoop it up.

Aji de Gallina

Causa Limena is topped with chicken or Dungeness crab ($9/10). I chose the traditional crab atop a whipped potato mound, causas among my favorite Peruvian eats. Creamy aji amarillo-lime sauce infuses the potato terrine, with accents of avocado, egg, and rocoto-cilantro aioli. Aji de Gallina ($12) was a bit bland (not my top version of the classic pulled chicken stew – LA’s Mo-Chica serves the best I’ve  had) in a creamy aji amarillo sauce with hard-boiled egg, Yukon gold potatos and walnuts.

The grounds of Lasseter Family Winery, Glen Ellen

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Around the Bay


In my many jaunts to Wine Country, I never suffer for options. Even after a decade, I am ever experiencing new delights. In addition to recent weekends (Calistoga to family-run wineries), here’s a few more bite-sized fall delights that will be equally pleasing this winter.

Coffee goodness

Napa Valley Roaster's vintage Probat roaster

Inside the welcoming St. Helena cafe














Napa Valley Roasters is a family-run affair with the original shop in downtown Napa and a larger cafe in St. Helena. Nancy Haynes is president, carrying on the legacy begun by husband who started the business many years back, while son Charlie Sange is the roastmaster. Using a vintage Probat roaster, he rotates batches of beans each shift, personally adjusting roasting times and techniques for each style. They supply coffee for numerous high profile restaurants all over Wine Country.

I’ve spent time in both cafes, and though I am inclined towards the character of the historic Napa space with high ceilings and creaky wood floors, I value the welcoming vibe of the St. Helena location. Locals chatted me up as I wrote over espresso and coffee, alongside the well-loved, red Probat machine. At home, I savored their robust French roast beans, each cup a reminder of a family who clearly cares about coffee and their community.

Gourmet spread, with a view

Enchanting night view from Ram's Gate Winery

Bounty in Ram's Gate kitchen

Ram’s Gate Winery is one of the more exciting winery openings I’ve seen in Wine Country. Having visited a couple of times (including the pre-opening party in September), I’m mesmerized each visit by the winery setting atop a small hill surrounded by wide valley vistas.

The building itself is an architectural delight. An array of room feature high ceilings, comfortably chic chairs, fireplaces, massive, open air spaces and patios flowing into one another, all taking in that view. Rustic with weathered woods, the structure is likewise visionary and modern.

Sleek indoor fireside winery seating

Yes, there is wine, from Pinot to Syrah (I am partial to their Sparkling Brut), but a highlight of Ram’s Gate is Executive Chef Jason Rose, who’s resume includes a stint as Culinary Project Manager at the Delfina Restaurant Group. His cooking is worth going out of your way for alone. Small plates represent (naturally) the best of local bounty and are as refined (and damn tasty) as the better restaurants nearby.

Though the address is Sonoma, one of the key factors Ram’s Gate has going for it is a location right off the 121, en route to  Napa and Sonoma counties, barely over 30 minutes drive from SF. It’s now a key stop for a snack, a sip, or a full meal.

Daytime view from Ram's Gate's back patio

Chef Jason Rose's sumptuous pork belly

Old world Napa

A photo is a meager reflection of the stunning valley & mountain range view from the Smith Madrone property

Way up winding roads from St. Helena, Smith Madrone is run by brothers Stu and Charles (Stu founded the winery in 1971). At first meet, Charles is mild-mannered and polite, while Stu is a straight-shooter, peppering his talk with more than a few swear words. Stu took me on a ride around the winery grounds, tucked into the slopes of Spring Mountain.

Fermenting grapes next to aging vintages in French oak barrels

Being harvest time, grapes rested in open air vats in the small, barn-like winery, giving off a fragrant, sweetly boozy aroma, surrounded by past vintages aging in French oak.

Far off the beaten path, this sleepy (though hard-working) vineyard evokes a Napa of decades ago. It seemed a glimpse of what Napa was like before 1976’s Judgement of Paris, before Mondavi elevated Napa on the global wine map. Here there is a sense of place, history and family that feels very much Napa. It made me grateful to see it preserved in this peaceful hideaway.

A short walk from the winery is an unexpected, breathtaking view (above). Standing on the edge of Spring Mountain, the slopes cut down to the valley with the Eastern ridge visible across the valley. Sipping a glass of their dry Riesling (bright with floral summer fruit) with this view before me, I had a moment. Taking in the silence of pine ridges and mountains, hills and valleys, vineyards and sun, I was reminded of how sweet it is to be alive.

Stu Smith interacts with grapes during harvest

Fine dining in a Westin hotel

Dreamy dish of Maine lobster with butternut squash in fall spiced creme fraiche and toasted pumpkin seeds

La Toque seems an unlikely fine dining destination for hardcore foodies inside the Westin Verasa Napa hotel. But a tasting menu here (four courses $74, five for $90, chef’s table menu $135) leads with impeccable waitstaff and service, surprises with inventive dishes, and an international wine list. The decor, while refined, felt a bit stiff, but service is so warm, one forgets the surroundings, particularly when a dish like Maine lobster creamy with butternut squash comes out, illumining another direction for lobster – one vividly fall-like.

Garden-fresh creativity

Ubuntu's usual work of art in garden-fresh dishes: chilled cantaloupe and sage gazpacho is infused with roasted corn husks imbuing slightly smoky notes accented by spicy charred lime peanuts, pickled watermelon rind, Mexican sour gherkins and shiso oil

Ubuntu is one of Napa County’s best restaurants – and I am decidedly not a vegetarian. This “soup” may look as spare as bird food. I’ll admit, portions on some dishes do run small. But sharing four plates each visit I somehow leave full, and in what is a rarity for me anymore, there’s always a few dishes unlike any I’ve had before. A complex, pleasing range of flavors is commonplace at Ubuntu.

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Meeting 3 Local Winemakers

Raymond’s interactive Theater of Nature

It’s been a rich few weeks of winemaker dinners and luncheons. Intimate and focused, there’s nothing like hearing from and tasting with a winemaker directly. This month, we focus on three local winemakers in Napa and Sonoma, who impressed with impeccable wines or gracious (often hilarious) personalities.

Kapcsandy’s 1800’s Hungarian wine press

KAPCSANDY WINES, Yountville - Kapcsandy may not be the easiest name to remember, but take note if you love complex, balanced wines. Though there is a blessedly steady (if small), trend towards lower alcohol, Old World-style wines in Napa and Sonoma in recent years, Kapcsandy – helmed by Lou, Roberta and son Louis, Jr. – has been making these types of wines since 2000.

Lou, with winemaker Rob Lawson, manages to let Napa’s terroir fully express itself in wines like his acclaimed State Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, while staying close to Old World principles. As a Hungarian native, Lou’s roots manifest in his wines and intimate, rustic tasting room centered around an 1800’s wooden wine press from Hungary.

Growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes in a small vineyard, his winery facilities are about the cleanest, most pristine I’ve seen. I tasted 13 wines, including various vintages of the same wine (for example, years 2007-2009 of Roberta’s Reserve), all mostly 13-14% ABV.

I found the 2009 Rosé (stainless steel; mainly Cab/Merlot blend with touch of Petit Verdot and Cab Franc) a unique beauty, more full and dense than many rosés yet maintaining crisp acidity. Roberta’s Reserve is a memorable wine named after his wife and an homage to the wines of Pomerol, Bordeaux. 2007 and 2008 are both understandably raved-about vintages, but I found 2009, young though it is, holds intriguing promise, drinking beautifully now with essence of cassis, blossoms, cherries, and earthy cocoa.

Amapola wines

Kapcsandy tastings are by appointment only. Fans of Merlot and Cabernet, alongside wine aficionados will find plenty to love at this small, family-run winery.

AMAPOLA CREEK by Richard Arrowood, Glen Ellen – Richard Arrowood, a Sonoma winemaker for 45 years, and his wife, Alis, are charmers. Over an intimate lunch in Wayfare Tavern’s Billiards Room, we spent hours talking and tasting wines from his young, boutique winery Amapola Creek. Amapola is the Spanish word for “poppy”, the flower that grows heavily along the creek through the Arrowood’s 100-acre estate.

This is Richard’s passion project where he can produce the kind of wines he wishes, typifying robust grapes of the Mayacamas Mountains (near the town of Sonoma). After decades of creating wines for major players like Chateau St. Jean and his own Arrowood Winery, he’s having fun going small production (the facility is designed to produce a maximum of 3000 cases annually).

With Richard & Alis Arrowood

His 2008 Zinfandel (and original 2005 Zin), though lush, shows restraint with enough tannins and acidity to keep it food-friendly (ideal with Wayfare’s medium-rare steak). The Zin ($30) benefits from a rarity: grapes are from 115 year old vines in a tiny lot at neighboring Monte Rosso Vineyards. His 2007 Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are bold and black fruit-heavy, yet balanced with tannins and delicate spice accents (the Cab is CCOF Certified organic). He’s working on a Grenache/Syrah blend so there may be more Amapola Creek on its way.

Jean Charles Boisset

RAYMOND VINEYARDS, St. HelenaRaymond has to be seen to be believed. Although a historic Napa vineyard since 1970, known primarily for its Cabernet, it’s not the wines I want to talk about. Rather, it’s the take-over of Raymond by Boisset Family Estates, a global company with Burgundy roots.

Delightfully eccentric Jean-Charles Boisset is the spirit behind the new dawn at Raymond. Spending an afternoon with him is unforgettable. His energy is infectious while no idea is too outrageous. He’ll try anything. His unassuming humility is impressive given his effervescent, all-over-the-place persona.

Baccarat chandelier in Crystal Room

From the moment you walk up to Raymond‘s entrance alongside interactive art exhibits on the lawn, you know something unusual is afoot. Their soon to launch Theatre of Nature will be a self-guided tour on winery grounds, with mobile apps available to learn more about terroir, how the seasons affect winemaking, or bio-dynamic farming (they are in the midst of becoming certified).

The memorably gaudy & elegant Gold Room

Enter a tasting room where things appear normal but for a mannequin wearing a velvet bikini. Journey down a stainless steel-walled hallway into The Crystal Cellar ($25 for Cabernet tastings), also lined with steel to give the effect of being inside a wine vat. Here an explosion of Baccarat crystal shimmers off of the walls, vats and giant mirrors. Vintage crystal decanters are encased along a wall with words to describe wine marked in lipstick.

Mid-century house & pool behind winery

“I love personally the word ‘sexy’… and voluptuous”, Boisset exclaims, moving on to the fashion show they plan to have on the ‘catwalk’, or rather the walkway, high up between vats. This ramp is lined with mannequins in all manner of leather and leopard. One hangs upside down from a trapeze. Boisset calls her Stephanie after Raymond’s winemaker, Stephanie Putnam.

Leopard stands guard in the Gold Room

There’s mini-wine barrels (for purchase to restaurants, bars and individuals), some of which Boisset himself has decorated with leather, handcuffs, feathers, and animal prints. He does nothing half-heartedly.

Besides the winning lawn, pool and mid-century house out back overlooking vineyards, there’s a guest house Boisset envisioned as a gold room where decadence rules (available for private parties, group tastings).

Mid-century house & pool behind winery

We were the first to taste in this newly unveiled room, and all I can say is, wow. Pimpin’ in an elegant, gaudy sort-of-way, gold and white leather couches are covered in fur throws, while a stuffed leopard stands guard in the corner. A dining table is set with black and gold plates listing the seven deadly sins (ironically, I got “gluttony”). The piece de resistance is a giant wall screen rimmed in gold (of course), playing Jackson 5 music videos.

Jackson 5 on the Gold Room screen

I can’t say there’s another wine tasting experience like it. From the Crystal Cellar to Gold Room, each setting was more unbelievable than the last. He’s currently working on a red room ( “All red… and velvet”), and releasing two bubblies (including a rosé) this summer to taste in that room.

Raymond lawn near the house will soon be the site of flashy, new lawn furniture and outdoor parties

All this talk of show naturally leaves one wondering if the wines are any good? There is honestly little comparison to the craft of the wines made by the first two small, family-run producers. Raymond is about the one-of-a-kind experience. That being said, Boisset’s wines hold its pleasures. His JCB line is playful and more balanced than many Napa wines, allowing for some acidity in No. 81 Chardonnay and No. 7 Pinot Noir. He and Putnam teamed up on JCB No. 1 Cabernet reflecting both Napa and French sensibilities.

Named as Innovator of the Year in 2008 by Wine Enthusiast Magazine and Top 50 Power Brokers in the global wine industry by Decanter in 2007, Boisset clearly leads in innovation with a passion to bring California wines to the world and to make wine hip, approachable, and, yes, sexy.

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Around the Bay

HEALDSBURG (Sonoma County)

Beef Tartare at Shimo

SHIMO, 241 Healdsburg Avenue at Matheson, 707.433.6000, dinner only

Manhattan's and knives

Not even weeks after I dined there, Shimo changed from its high-priced steakhouse menu to a noodle house. For the sake of (recent) history, here’s my recap and photos of my steak experience. Though I think the casual space is better suited to a noodle house, there are dishes I’d love to see stay on the menu (can we please keep those biscuits?)

Shimo refers to the term “shimo furi”, meaning frost, which is what they call the snow-like white marbling in a fine cut of beef. This Japanese temple to beef is surprisingly casual, even noisy, for a restaurant so expensive. But in the hands of Douglas Keane, chef of one of the country’s highest-rated restaurants (and a favorite of mine), Cyrus, the food is worthwhile.

Cheddar Parmesan Biscuits

Maybe the most divine thing on the menu? Cheddar Parmesan Biscuits ($6) come in a mini-cast iron skillet with six flaky pillows of biscuit goodness. Purely addictive. “Shrimp Cocktail” ($13) gets a refreshing twist as plump shrimp over horseradish pudding and greens, drizzled with tomato syrup.

Beef Tataki Tartare ($18) is silky mixed with egg yolk and soy garlic yuzu sauce. Yuzu imbues the rare meat with tart, Summery spirit. Okonomiyaki ($9) is an exemplary version of one of my favorite Japanese dishes made with mountain yams..

Bone-in Filet

Creamed coconut kale ($9) is a winning side and a different presentation for kale. I’d take this over creamed spinach any day. Wild mushrooms ($10) are savory and butter laden, made up of three ‘shrooms: shiitake, crimini, maitake.

And what about the steak? It’s astronomically priced, even for steak, but thankfully it’s expertly executed. I splurged on the $20 per ounce Australian Wagyu Strip Loin, trying it in both presentations: chori and raw as sashimi. It’s marbled, glory, to be sure, but I also had the second “cheapest” steak: Bone-in Filet ($56 – $28 per person but you’re required to order it for two minimum). It’s 24 oz (or 12 oz per person) and at medium rare is also impeccable and a much better value than the wagyu.

MEDLOCK AMES TASTING ROOM, 3487 Alexander Valley Road at Sausal, 707.431.8845

Spicy Pascual

One of the best places for cocktails in Sonoma County is Medlock Ames’ Alexander Valley Bar. Though a winery, arrive after 5pm daily walking around to the backside of the wine tasting room.

You’ll find a casually retro bar, touches of Prohibition and the Old West mingling with vintage photo booth and a bar lined with herbs and citrus.

Cocktails (all $9) like Verdant Virtue/Vice exemplify the garden-fresh mix from Medlock’s own backyard: Hendrick’s Gin and Green Chartreuse are amplified with mint, basil, rosemary, cucumber, lime for a refreshing beauty.

Garden-fresh ingredients line the bar

A Nocino Manhattan plays heavier and muskier with Buck Bourbon, Carpano Antica and the nuttiness of Nocino walnut liqueur. It’s a little too musky but offers a nice, boozy Wine Country imbibment.

Pascual is finer in theory… the balance seems slightly off (sour, watery), but it’s a spritzy, spicy cocktail representing their garden bounty. Arette blanco (a fine choice and one of my Tequila, Mexico distillery visits) is dotted with serrano peppers, cilantro, fresh lemon, lime and agave nectar. Better balance and it would be lovely.

Even if cocktails aren’t all executed with balance, this is an exciting stop with charming setting, Old World rusticity, and cocktails that feel local as they do classic.

Vintage photo booth

Cozy, elegant couches

Written by in: Around the Bay | Tags: ,

On the Town

PASSPORT to DRY CREEK: April 30-May 1

Lingering creekside on red Adirondack chairs at Truett Hurst

Last year’s Passport to Dry Creek festival was quite the weekend hopping between wineries in Dry Creek Valley. How is this different than any of the dozens of wine events in Wine Country at any given time, you rightfully ask?

Unlike barrel tasting weekends mobbed with drunken carousers and not-yet-mature wines, or smaller events where you gain merely a handful of tastes, Passport includes the majority of wineries in the Dry Creek valley and crowds regulated enough to keep it enjoyable. Each winery serves unlimited food and wine, often with live music and engrossing themes.

Duck a la SFQ at Frick

It’s like a private party at each winery, limited to Passport ticket holders. Certainly some wines are far better than others, but many settings are magical with typically brilliant weather.

After visiting 24 wineries over the weekend, here’s my take on this year’s Passport highlights in the categories of food, wine and setting…


Sausage Luxe

Frick Winery – Hands down, I’m impressed every year with the complicated deliciousness of bite-sized snacks from Chef John Mitzewich and Michele Manfredi (husband/wife dynamic duo). Chef John is known for his site Food Wishes (last year’s Saveur winner for best food video blog, nominated again this year).

Michele created SFQ Sauce, an East-meets-West sauce showcasing the diversity of our fair city with its’ first native BBQ sauce (try it if you haven’t!) Her sauce appeared at this year’s Passport in their Duck a la SFQ: duck confit in SFQ sauce on a cocoa corn chip, garnished with duck crackling remolata. Yum.

Main Line Philly Cheesesteak

My two favorites? Main Line Philly Cheesesteak: mini-baguettes topped with Snake River Farms Kobe-style steak over truffled ‘cheese whiz’ (you heard right… Chef John is on the money with this one – I’ll take a jar!) Dotted with peppadew and jalapenos, its perfection.

One of the ‘simplest’ bites was the best, Sausage Luxe: Boccalone’s sweet Italian sausage dusted with fennel pollen and skewered with a Luxardo Maraschino cherry. Seductive and lush.


Patio views over Dry Creek Valley

Quivara – Quivara’s quality is high with hand-picked grapes and biodynamic farming methods. Their wines reflect care and attention, whether sipping their 2008 Grenache ($26) or 2008 Mourvedre ($32).

Frick Winery – A Dry Creek favorite is Frick. From Grenache Blanc to C3 and C2 (Rhone blends), Bill Frick produces sophisticated wines that maintain Old World balance. This year, I’m really taking to their Cinsaut and Grenache.

Bella Vineyard's Safari theme

Seghesio Family Vineyards – Seghesio’s Home Ranch Zinfandel has been an at-home go-to for a balanced zin reflecting dark berries and the clay soil it’s grown in. At Passport, we tasted pre-releases of 2009 Home Ranch Zin ($38), which remained a highlight in the ten Seghesio wines sampled.

Bella's safari wine caves

Unti Vineyards – I’ve enjoyed Unti’s wines the last couple years, reminded again that their 2007 Grenache is a standout with blackberry,  pepper, even licorice notes.

Stephen & Walker – Besides appreciating their female winemaker, Nancy Walker, who I had the pleasure of meeting during Passport, there’s a number of drinkable wines from a line-up of ten. The most celebrated is her 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($65). Winner of multiple awards and their benchmark wine, it’s a fine showcase of the region’s cabs.


Flamenco & hot dogs in Michel-Sclumberger's courtyard

Bella Vineyards – Just like last year, Bella’s African safari theme and moody, cool caves are a highlight of the entire weekend. Lingering here with their crisp Rose is a joy every time.

Truett Hurst – Another top spot last year, they also have a memorable Zinfandel Rose ($15), best enjoyed in red Adirondack chairs alongside the river running through their property… after you’ve visited the goats and sheep on the back of their land. A dreamy respite, I leave this winery relaxed.

Andre Thierry & Zydeco Magic at Seghesio

Family Wineries – You’re not there for the wine nor the cluster of non-descript tasting rooms off a parking lot, but I’ll stop in annually to spend a happy hour watching the California Cowboys play. They are a truly an awesome country band who keep it real with tunes a true classic country fan will love (from Waylon Jennings to Roger Miller), plus a few newer favorites. Vocals, musicianship, it’s all top-notch.

Seghesio Family Vineyards – With a raucous New Orleans theme based on the winery family’s Nola roots, Seghesio boasted one of the top bands of the weekend: Andre Thierry & Zydeco Magic. Grilling Cajun ribs and spooning up bowls of seafood gumbo, the spirit was festive and familial, like one big backyard party.

Written by in: On the Town | Tags: ,

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