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

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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.

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SPOONBAR, Healdsburg - I wrote last issue about Spoonbar in Sonoma County. It’s up to you get out there… and fast… for some of the best cocktails in all of the Bay Area (no surprise) from Mr. Scott Beattie.

Tempus Fugit Negroni (L) & Siddartha (R), two magical cocktails

Ask for the full cocktail menu beyond the one you get when first seated. It’s a glory of new creations, featuring edible flowers and the herbal, produce-driven beauties Beattie has perfected since Cyrus days. There’s the added bonus of classics done with a Beattie sensibility. I get giddy at the site of three versions each of Old-Fashioneds, Negronis, Manhattans and Sazeracs, the holy foursome of cocktails.

I chose the Tempus Fugit Negroni ($8.50). How could I not? Made with Ransom’s impeccable Old Tom Gin, Dolin Rouge Vermouth, orange zest and Tempus Fugit‘s brilliant Gran Classico Bitter, it’s a musky, full revelation.

More beauties: Dark & Stormy (L), John Chapman (R)

On the classics front, Beattie’s Dark ‘n Stormy trumps all others. There’s an Appleton Reserve version for $7.50 (or pitcher for five at $37.50). I had the Ron Zacapa Solera 23 (a rum I’ve long been a fan of) version for $9/$45. With fresh lime juice and Angostura bitters, Beattie adds drops of essential ginger oil for a pure, full taste. Locally grown sunflower leaves are a vivid garnish.

Going the creative Beattie route is equally thrilling. John Chapman ($10.5) is a taste of fall. When you mix St. George Whiskey and Pear Eau de Vie with lemon, apple, ginger and a Thai coconut foam, you get magic. Ditto, on the other side of the spectrum, with the Summery  Siddartha ($9.5). This one utilizes Hangar One Buddha’s Hand Citron Vodka with Beefeater Gin, St. Germain Elderflower, lemon, Thai coconut milk and lemon verbena. It’s silky, seductively bright and garden fresh.

Trust a drink from Beattie and try the spectrum. I am plotting a return…

Bar Agricole's striking patio

BAR AGRICOLE, SoMa - I’ve been asked about my take on the new and long awaited hotspot from Thad Vogler. Though I tried three cocktails and bites at a pre-opening event for Bar Agricole, I did not walk away with enough of a stand-out yet to give you a proper report, though I’m sure one will be forthcoming.

Spaghetti Western at 15 Romolo

I will say the space is strikingly unique, welcome in our city of understated dining rooms. It’s forward-thinking and fresh, from the photography behind the bar, to radiant light fixtures, to the awesome front garden and patio.

15 ROMOLO, North Beach - I’m always happy here… you hear me say it enough. The 15 Romolo guys do it again with two divergent cocktails. One is Spaghetti Western ($9), it’s cool name belying the crazy candy taste that happens when rye and Campari meld with sweet tomatoes (love the plump tomato garnish), lemon and a Pilsner float. The other, the spirituous bitter of Lo Scandinavo ($11) with North Shore aquavit, Gran Classico, Carpano Antica… a Scandinavian approach to a Negroni.

Lavender beauty at Revival

TAMARINDO ANTJOERIA’s MIEL BAR and REVIVAL BAR & KITCHEN, Oakland and Berkeley - And in the East Bay, Tamarindo Antojeria opened a tequila bar, Miel, in half of their restaurant, a chic, shining temple of all things tequila. Besides a fine selection of tequilas by the pour, cocktails like the Mezcalito ($12) highlight Del Maguey’s Creme de Mezcal with a little fresh orange and volcanic salt rim. They do a nice job on their margaritas and Paloma, too.

Revival Bar & Kitchen is a welcome cocktail stop in downtown Berkeley, even if the menu (food and drink) is similar to many you’ve seen in SF in recent years. They do classics, like Death in the Afternoon, Bourbon Crusta and Jalisco Sour, but also whip up specials of their bartender’s doing, fresh with the likes of lavender, lemon and egg white.


Reza Esmaili pours Rosebud

This is a layered, aromatic aperitivo created by Reza for SF Chefs and one of my favorite drinks of the week. He was gracious enough to share the recipe…

1oz vodka
.5oz Hendrick’s gin
1oz Lillet Blanc
.5oz Aperol
3 drops rosewater
1 “Russia Rose” or mini, dry rose used for asian teas

-stir ingredients for approx 10 seconds
-strain into two sherry or port glasses
-garnish with rose
serves two


MINISTRY OF RUM – Another year of Ministry of Rum, a fine rum tasting event put on by rum expert (and a downright great guy), Ed Hamilton (read about last year’s here).

Black Tot sits in its wood box

Many of last year’s same vendors were there at Waterfront Hotel/Miss Pearl’s Jam House in Jack London Square. Bartending greats shook cocktails as we sipped through various rums.

Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva stands out with a caramelized, spiced nose and buttery spice and tobacco flavors. Cruzan’s smooth Single Barrel Rum is an easy after-dinner sip: a light but mature, pleasing rum at the right price (retails from $27-35 online).

Despite the greater aged 8 and 12 year El Dorado rums, I prefer the 5 year cask-aged version. It’s medium-bodied, lively and redolent of the tropics with toasted coconut and fruit notes.

Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva

Each time I’ve tasted them, I enjoy honey and dark chocolates notes in Santa Teresa 1796, aged in Solera oak barrels, and Flor de Cana’s rich, charred oak and dark caramel-tinged Centenario 18 year.

Black Tot Rum was the big hoopla of the afternoon, a 40-year rum doled out in dropper-sized tastes. From the little I could gather, it was nuanced though hardly revelatory, especially compared to whiskies of similar age. Though I find some younger rums more exciting, Black Tot was nonetheless an excellent slice of history and a worthy sip.

When it comes to rum, I can’t help but return to Zacapa rums as favorites, both the Centenario and the XO.

Here’s to next year, and thanks, Ed, for ever furthering our knowledge and showing us the scope of rum.

HEAVEN HILLHeaven Hill has an enviable line-up including some of my favorite bourbons in existence. I jumped at a chance to stop in at 83 Proof on my way to judging a whisky contest to sip one of my top bourbons (another being Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year): Parker’s Heritage.

Heaven Hill tasting at 83 Proof

I fell in love after first trying their anniversary edition at Whiskyfest. Tasting Parker’s 27 year again is fabulous every time. Sip their Golden Anniversary edition and you’ve died and gone to bourbon heaven.

I adore rye, and Rittenhouse 25-year Rye is surely a fine one, but I’m not sure I gained much more from the added years. When it comes to aged rye, my love still lies with Van Winkle Family Reserve 13-yr Rye, which is, tragically, very hard to come by.

Agua Libre Rum

ST. GEORGE’s AGUA LIBRE - Don’t even get me started on how much I love St. George Spirits. I’ve been a fan for years, from my rush to purchase their incomparable Absinthe Verte upon release, to the loss of my last bottle of Agua Azul Reposado until they make a tequila again in the future, I’ve been proud to have them in the Bay Area. Tours, release parties, any event at the distillery is memorable.

St. George private bar upstairs

I won’t go into the joys and secrets of a private tour from distiller Dave Smith last week, replete with tastes, whiffs and ecstasies from bottles, test tubes and barrels of unreleased products. Experimentation is alive and well at St. George/Hangar One and it thrills me to witness it.

In the meantime, there’s two brand new releases to enjoy. The first US rum agricole grown from US sugarcane, Agua Libre comes in two forms: dark, aged rum and white, unaged, both grassy and smooth. Also, the second batch of Firelit Coffee Liqueur was just released with dark chocolate notes from the Blue Bottle beans.

Written by in: Imbiber | Tags: , , ,

Around the Bay


View from a Spoonbar table

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller


SPOONBAR – I could write a piece on the cocktails alone at brand new Spoonbar in the h2hotel off of Healdsburg’s town square. You’ve already heard me mention Scott Beattie many times over the years.

Beattie’s work-of-art drinks

He truly is one of our country’s great bartenders and his cocktail menu at Spoonbar is a revelation. Yes, you’ll get waylaid by the initial menu, but don’t let that stop you from asking for the additional one. It’s a glory of new creations, featuring edible flowers and the herbal, produce-driven beauties Beattie has perfected since his Cyrus days. But there’s the added bonus of classics done with a Beattie sensibility. I get giddy at the site of three versions each of Old-Fashioneds, Negronis, Manhattans and Sazeracs, the holy foursome of cocktails. I sampled five, each exquisite. Stay tuned for next issue’s Imbiber for details on these cocktails – it feels right seeing Beattie behind the bar again.

Stunning cocktails

But the joys at Spoonbar are many as the food and wine list are likewise robust, the space open and airy (playful with hints of mid-century modern), the price point a nice mid-range. In early opening weeks, this has automatically become my # 1 Healdsburg spot for drink or food (since I can only afford Cyrus for a special occasion), and one of my tops in all of Wine Country.

Plump, delicious Calamari

Where to start? There’s wines on tap, a trend I am happy to see growing from an environmental and casual accessibility standpoint. Let Wine Director, Ross Hallett, choose and you’ll likely get a nice range of local and international wines. With dinner, he paired a dry 2000 Villa Claudia Gattinara and a full  ’05 Savuto Odoardi that yielded spice notes when paired with the Spoonbar Burger. For dessert, he poured thoughtful choices like Rare Wine Co.’s New York Malmsey Special Reserve Madeira, rich with earthy, coffee notes, and Ratafia de Bourgogne, a sweet but balanced liqueur.

Lush Burrata w/ beets & brioche

The food? With Moroccan and Mediterranean influences, Chef Rudy Mihal’s menu shines as fine bar food with cocktails or as multi-course dinner. Appetizers offer all kinds of goodness, like addictive little Fried Smelt Fish ($8) dipped in a caper aioli. Or how about skewers of plump, grilled Calamari ($12) in a preserved lemon vinaigrette? You’ll find me equally hyped over imported Burrata ($13), creamy heaven in a pool of fine olive oil with melting, soft brioche and finely diced beet tartare.

Addictive fried smelt

On the entree front, the lamb/beef mix is right in the Spoonbar Burger ($15), albeit small, on a house-sesame bun with a mini-bucket of fries. Kudos for a restrained but permeating burger topping of sweet tomato confit, cucumber chutney and spiced yogurt.

Spoonbar Burger

Though I am easily bored with chicken, their signature Moorish-style Brick Chicken ($24) is rife with flavor from herbs and spices, tender over grilled lemon couscous. Definitely a highlight.

Restaurant Manager, Darren Abel, runs a relaxed, festive restaurant that truly is the whole package. I’ll be plotting my next chance to get to Spoonbar when up that way – at the very least for cocktails and apps. If only this place was in the city…

SIMI WINERYSimi is one of those venerable wineries rich with colorful history.

Simi’s old railroad crossing sign

Founded by Italian brothers, Giuseppe and Pietro Simi, in 1876, their cellars date from 1890 on one half to 1904 once they doubled in size. When both brothers died within four months of each other, Giuseppe’s daughter, Isabelle, a savvy eighteen year old, took over the winery, making and storing wine even during Prohibition.

I’m fascinated by this young girl’s ingenuity, which eventually led to a successful winery she first popularized by giving away free samples on the side of the road pre-tasting room days. Isabelle planted a grove of redwood trees around the grounds and a tribute rose garden with bushes for each president during the days she ran the winery (except for one… take their interesting tour to hear the whole story. I’ll give you a hint: he was the one who helped usher in Prohibition).

Isabelle’s rose garden

Their pizza cafe is a lovely idea: held on Friday (2-6pm) and Saturday (11am-4pm) afternoons, it’s a welcome Summer respite on their shaded back patio under giant umbrellas where wood-fired oven shells out satisfying pizzas (wine is included). While I loved the concept, presentation and taste of their special Red, White & Blue Pizza (red – bacon, lettuce, tomato; blue – purple yam, blue cheese, red onion; white – corn, zucchini, onions, ricotta), my heart belonged first to their House Sausage Pizza with baked fennel bulbs.

Simi’s Red, White & Blue Pizza

They have a balanced (read: not jammy, punch-you-in-the-face) Zinfandel available only at the winery, a Landslide Cabernet and the mineral citrus of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, creamy with hints of hazelnut, lemon and oak.

On August 28 (12-3pm), they’re having a party to celebrate the latest 2007 Landslide Cabernet release with dancing to New Orleans jazz  on the Terrace ($20 per person, or $10 for wine club members). You know I’d be there if I could.


Morimoto Napa

MORIMOTO NAPA - Despite the celebrity chef status of the one and only Masaharu Morimoto (yes, I love the original Iron Chef), and the high price tag, his brand new Morimoto Napa restaurant is an experience and a welcome addition to Wine Country.

The space is huge, with a sea of greys enlivened by bright, yellow chairs. There’s patio waterfront seating and an ultra-cool touch of grape vines dramatically running the wall over the bar and in the lobby, as if to say, “Morimoto is now in Wine Country.”

Artistic Toro Tartare

As for the food, it adds up fast, but thankfully there’s beyond-the-norm presentations lending excitement to the expensive meal. Like me, you may have eaten a thousand tartares, but you haven’t had one quite like this: Toro Tartare ($25) comes on a little wood tray you scrape with a mini paddle, then dip in nori paste, wasabi, sour cream, chives, or a house dashi soy, smoky with a hint of bonito. Finish with a bright palate cleanser of Japanese plum.

Green Fig Tempura ($16) is a playful change of pace on the tempura front, but the real clincher is a creamy peanut butter foie gras sauce underneath, dotted with pomegranate reduction. Again, as a big beef tartare fan, I’ve had many a version. This one stands out. Beef Tartare ($18) Morimoto-style comes with asparagus flan hiding an egg in the center. As you slice through it, it oozes over the beef, asparagus slivers, lotus chips and teriyaki sauce. Morimoto Bone Marrow ($16) is an intriguing version: one giant bone loaded with gloppy, warm marrow, perked up with caramelized onions, teriyaki and spices on top.

The vine-covered bar

Entrees continued in this creative vein, though Whole Roasted Lobster “Espice” ($35) had its flaws. It’s a generous portion but the lobster meat is lost in too much garam masala spice, coriander, peppercorn, and cayenne, even though that was what sold me on the dish initially. It was over-spiced but the saving grace was a divine, whipped lemon creme fraiche, contrasting the blackened spice aspect with airy tart.

Duck Duck Goose (or, duck in 4 parts)

Duck Duck Goose ($36) was my preferred entree – essentially duck in four parts, from a bowl of duck confit fried rice with frozen foie gras shavings topped with duck egg, to duck soup, duck confit leg, and slices of duck meat with gooseberries. Tofu Cheesecake ($12) in coffee maple syrup with maple ice cream is a signature dish for Morimoto, but though I liked the light texture of the tofu cheesecake, it was overwhelmed by thick maple syrup. A Raspberry Wasabi Sorbet was a better finish for me, hitting strong on both key ingredients.

Beef Tartare w/ asparagus flan

Morimoto sat at the table next to us with friends, surveying the expansion of his growing restaurant empire. The GM stopped by our table to see how things were going and mentioned that Morimoto loved it so much here he was staying for a couple months. Even when the novelty of his first West Coast venture wears off (he’s opening in LA next), my initial visit, merely a week after opening, suggests that this restaurant will long remain one of downtown Napa’s destinations.


El Molino Central looks plucked out of LA

EL MOLINO CENTRAL – In a sea of taquerias lining Sonoma’s Highway 12, there’s a new addition I’ve been excited to tell you about that opened early Summer: El Molino Central. I pulled over after doing a double take: it looks like a charming taqueria, but reads hand-painted “tortillas… tamales… blue bottle coffee” on the side of the building. “Wait… what?”

With no dining space inside, there’s a leisurely patio out back. Inside, it’s an open kitchen where you survey self-proclaimed “Mexican street food” prepared with a high level of care and quality ingredients. They hand-grind corn masa and press tortillas in wood presses. There’s even fresh tortillas and pre-prepared dishes to heat up at home. The menu offers merely a handful of items: chilaquiles, tostadas, enchiladas and delightful tamales (I like the white corn and cheese version).

Blue Bottle drip set-up & espresso machine

What surprises is the Blue Bottle Coffee menu straight down to New Orleans’ Iced Coffee (perfect on a hot Wine Country Summer day). You can get your individual drip or a cappuccino, happily savored with a tamale made from local ingredients.

The place looks plucked out of LA with palm trees and all, but exemplifying Slow Food sensibilities. The shock is the quality level (which costs a little more than an average taqueria, though still under $10)… and the Blue Bottle. You, too, can have your Blue Bottle and homemade tamales in a Mexican food joint. Sonoma is lucky to get this lovably quirky new addition.

Pork Schnitzel Sandwich & White Corn Soup

LOKAL – Just off the Sonoma square, Lokal has been getting some love lately from SF folk like Michael Bauer. I’m in when you say Eastern European/Hungarian food, difficult to find done well anywhere, much less in Wine Country.

They won me over with shelves full of records/LPs in the dining room, then with sunny, back patio picnic tables. There’s a fine selection of beers making the patio beer garden-reminiscent. Service has it’s kinks, including a pricing discrepancy on their menu it took awhile to work out on my bill, but the food is a pleasure and is now a favored stop in downtown Sonoma.

Warm German Potato Salad

They make a mean German Potato Salad ($5), sweetened by grilled red onions, punchy with mustard, maintaining a fresh profile despite starchiness. A Summer special of White Corn Puree Soup ($3.50 a cup) is sweet and bright. Count me in on the Eva Gabor’s Pork Schnitzel Sandwich/”Rueben” ($12). You almost forget there’s no pastrami in there with a breaded pork cutlet layered with mustard and sauerkraut. There’s a satisfying savoriness here reminiscent of a great Rueben. Lightly crunchy brown bread and house pickles seal the deal.

Mondo’s menu

MONDOMondo, a short drive from downtown Sonoma, has the largest beer selection in the area: 23 on tap and more by the bottle, with a little beer garden courtyard through the restaurant. A couple years ago, this was a sausage and burger joint.


White corn salad & a beer

The burgers remain but there’s also the kind of bar food that puts a grin on my face: plump Jalapeno Poppers ($7.50) oozing with cheese and shreds of carnitas (pork). There’s fatty Braised Beef Brisket Sandwich ($9.50) piled with crumbly blue cheese and shaved red onion. For a little healthy balance, try specials like Sweet White Corn Salad ($5) tossed in lime, cilantro, red peppers and red onion.

This is a welcome Wine Country respite where you can break from excess wine for beer and cheap, gourmet bar fare.


Grilled Asparagus Salad w/ Farm Egg

DIAVOLA PIZZERIA – Though these gourmet charcuterie/pizza/rustic Italian spots are a ‘dime a dozen’ in SF, it still helps that in a town as tiny as Geyserville there’s one dining destination like Diavola. In a high-ceilinged, century-old storefront, brick walls, wood-burning oven and wood floors lend it a country kitchen feel by way of Italy.

Salami Platter

Kudos for being open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. There’s nothing that I haven’t seen here before but it’s all done well. Grilled Asparagus Salad ($13.75) is a Cali-farm type dish we often see done superbly in the Bay Area. Here it’s asparagus and arugula topped with pancetta, truffled Pecorino cheese and a fried egg. It’s a fine Salami & Cheese Platter ($13.75), reflecting meats they’ve been making in-house with select cheeses.

Fabulously addictive Inferno Pizza

Pizzas shine, and while the Sonja ($16) isn’t the best version of a fresh prosciutto, mascarpone and arugula pizza I’ve had, the Inferno ($15), on the other hand, is one of the best spicy pizzas ever, balanced with the sweet of roasted red peppers and tomato against hot Italian peppers.

Don’t go out of your way if you live in SF near many similar restaurants, but on your way up in this northernmost stretch of Sonoma County, it’s a worthy stop.

Written by in: Around the Bay | Tags: ,

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