News from Sonoma
Most people come to Sonoma to taste wine during the day, eat at one of the great restaurants we have here in town, and then crash early to do it all over again the next day. But what if you want a little nightlife after your meal? Despite what the kids call this place – Slow-Noma – we have plenty to do here after hours.
On weekend nights you can always find crowds at Murphy's pub enjoying some good ol' Irish cheer, with Hunt trying to keep the crowds from spilling onto the sidewalk. Or people sitting out at the Swiss Hotel with Jean, the ever-attentive server, bringing out rounds for tables who can sit outside and people watch until closing. Then if you're feeling adventurous after consuming some liquid courage, you can always wander over to Town Square or Steiner's – what some might call “dive bars,” but in the most endearing way – to top off your night. And sometimes on Saturday nights, Steiner's turns into a raging dance hall where you can go get your groove on if you're feeling a bit footloose-and-fancy.
But in a town where a significant majority works in the hospitality industry, weekend nights are not even the best nights in Sonoma. Believe it or not, Tuesday nights are THE nights in town. Tuesday nights from Spring through Fall, we have farmers' markets in the Plaza. Now, I know you must be thinking, “Really? A farmers' market? That's the best you've got?” But Tuesday markets are different. Not only can you buy fresh, local, organic produce, you can do so while listening to live music, enjoying dinner from one of the many food vendors, and walking around sipping wine or beer or whatever libation tickles your fancy. Some people get there early and snag a picnic table, bring a couple coolers of food and booze, and camp out on the plaza for several hours. And at sunset, when you are no longer permitted to drink outside, the party moves indoors. Murphy's always has live music on Tuesdays and you will be sure to find good-spirited crowds of people at whichever watering hole you choose to visit.
So next time you're visiting Sonoma, think about enjoying a little wine country nightlife. You just might be surprised what this little town has to offer.
Here in Sonoma, tasting room guests ask Colin and me on a daily basis where they should eat. It’s honestly hard to have a bad meal around the Plaza, but there are a few places that are spectacularly good and not as well known as the girl & the fig. Meaning you may actually be able to get a table!
In alphabetical order, they are:
El Dorado Kitchen
405 1st St W
Sonoma, CA 95476
This is the only place in town where I don’t feel over dressed. While it certainly isn’t required, the chic dining room inspires you to look like you mean it. This is my stand-by spot when I’m in desperate need of an expertly-made martini and some oysters. The food is reliably excellent, as is the service, and it’s rare that you can’t get a table with a small wait.
They also offer a six-course tasting menu for $65. Enjoy it with a bottle of our 2003 Alexander Valley Cabernet, which was just added to the wine list!
Harvest Moon Café
487 1st St W
Sonoma, CA 95476
This is an inspired little restaurant. Owned and operated by Nick and Jen Demarest (both formerly of CHEZ PANISSE, PEOPLE!), they focus on local, sustainably-produced food that always surprises, but never challenges. And I mean that in the best way possible. The menu changes throughout the week, so you’ll have myriad new choices when you eat there and decide you must go back to the following night. It’s that good.
You’ll walk right past it if you blink, so keep your eyes peeled for the small window and metal chairs and table out front.
Hot Box Grill
18350 Sonoma Hwy
Sonoma, CA 95476
Good food is the through-line at Hot Box Grill. Some dishes are stick-to-your-ribs American comfort food, and then there are the short rib lettuce wraps with rice noodles, mint, chilies and peanuts. Portions are uncharacteristically generous for wine country, so take extra care to save room for dessert; they’re every bit as good as dinner. You can also find chef Norm Owens at the Tuesday night Sonoma Farmers' Market slinging some killer duck fat fries and burgers.
452 1st St E
Sonoma, CA 95476
If you’ve never experienced Portuguese food, think Spanish cuisine, minus all the ham and add a great deal of salt cod. The menu is formidable, but just embrace it and order with abandon. As with tapas, many of the plates are small and meant to be shared. Colin touts the virtues of the chorizo-crusted scallops, and I can never refrain from ordering the wood-fired oven baked Bacalhau.
A word to the wise: LaSalette happily waives corkage on Hawkes wine if you tell them we sent you!
Often times in the wine world, we see vineyard sites designated to a certain AVA (American Viticulture Area) and we wonder how on earth these arbitrary lines were drawn. Can we really tell the difference between a Cabernet from Rutherford versus Oakville, often times being only a few hundred yards apart? Despite what professional wine snobs might say, there is significant political influence in where these boundary lines are drawn and, therefore, there can be a substantial disparity between where the appellation boundaries lie and where the climate shift is most acute. The Sonoma Coast is one such AVA which literally covers most of the western parts of Sonoma County that simply didn't fit into another AVA. This fact has led many Pinot producers to the north to distinguish themselves as the “true Sonoma Coast” where the climate is much more extreme.
The other day I visited a winery which is in the “true” Sonoma Coast, and just finding the place was an incredible challenge. Winding through narrow, mostly one lane coastal roads, around mountains and along jagged ridge lines, eventually rising above the layer of heavy marine fog you will find Flowers Winery. When Joan and Walt Flowers opened the winery in 1989, everyone told them they wouldn't be able to grow anything in such a harsh environment. Today, the winery produces some of the most sought-after Pinot Noir in the world. In fact, the estate is surrounded by some 27,500 acres that, just a few months ago, achieved its own appellation status as the Fort Ross/Seaview AVA (although it should be noted that only about 500 of those acres have planted vineyards).
Sonoma County's newest AVA encompasses two ridge lines, scattered with vineyards, as well as the valley between the two which actually is a small finger of the San Andreas Fault. So the two ridge lines were created by tremendous energy which compressed the rocks and turned them into soil. The estate's proximity to the fault is what accounts for the amazing terroir and minerality distinctive to the wines from this tiny area. We tasted four of their wines: Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, and the Seaview Ridge Estate Pinot Noir. Wow. The Sonoma Coast Chardonnay has nice citrus flavors and great acidity up front, but the minerality on the finish is what gives these wines such a distinctive character. Very Chablis-esque. The next two were also exquisitely made, but not my cup of tea. And then the Estate Pinot Noir. This wine has wonderful dark fruit up front, amazing, delicate, earthy flavors like moist, moss-covered forest floor that carried the wine to a similar amazing mineral finish. As the wine developed in the glass, it also had some great spices coming out like clove and cardamom.
If you can make the trek out to the “true” Sonoma Coast, I would highly recommend Flowers. The view and experience is just as breathtaking as the wines are delicious.
Before moving here, I’d been shacking up in Marin at Chez Mom, recovering from a soul-destroying run in LA.
After a few months of incubating, I (re) met a boy I had been in school with as a kid. He lured me up to his cave with promises of chanterelles, which we did indeed find and cook together. We made pasta with eggs from his chickens, listened to folk records and drank good wine till the wee hours of the morning. And thus began the best, most transformative, goodness-of-mankind affirming year of my life.
Downtown has fancy clothing shops and restaurants. It also has houseware stores that seem to cater exclusively to the domestically underdeveloped. I’ve known some pretty useless people in my life, but I would never condescend to the point of gifting them a large plank of notched mahogany designed to hug them through the stressful task of evenly slicing a baguette. This item actually exists on the square and it costs $85 even though I’m pretty certain it was made for pennies by small brown hands in a land far, far away.
Suffice it to say, I was pretty cynical about Sonoma when I first arrived here. On the surface it can feel like a place that dismisses poverty as a liberal myth. A bubble filled with Chardonnay Brittle. Yes, billionaires buy vanity vineyards here. Yes, my neighbors have a pool shaped like a Roman horse head. And yes, Tobias has witnessed a tourist reporting a duck being “assaulted” by another duck in the plaza after witnessing the (albeit unfortunately) rough act that is duck mating.
But this isn’t the real Sonoma. For all the perceived affluence it’s actually a country town. Most of the people I’ve come to know here are small business owners and food producers of one ilk or another: cheese makers, farmers, beekeepers, bread bakers. People with long standing family traditions of living close to the land and community as well as younger urban transplants with a primal longing to get their hands dirty.
As much as I’d love to fall into the first category, I’m closer to the second. Somewhat of a farm groupie, I’m afraid. But I’m fully enjoying working on my street cred which over the past year has included rattle snake slaying and butchery, snail farming, vegetable gardening, wood-fired oven building, chicken rearing and mushroom foraging. Nothing in my life as a cook has been more inspiring or satisfying than working with food I’ve grown, hunted or found myself.
I’m quietly giddy about my life here.
I remember visiting my (now) home for the first time. It’s in a valley just over the hills that sit north of the plaza. In my opinion, it’s the most beautiful spot in Sonoma. We have acres of forest and volcanic fields that overlook the valley. There are creeks and springs that bubble out of the cold lava that covers the hillside to the west. You can take a walk and stumble upon massive mortars that were carved into rocks hundreds of years ago by American Indians. I fell in love with the place and fell in love with the demands of living here. Making a fire if you’re cold, driving into town to send an email, getting up to feed the animals whether you feel like it or not. After living in cities for years, struggling so hard to feel relevant only to find again and again that everybody is 10 years ahead of you, this place feels like such a gift.
People here don’t seem to care that I knew nothing about chicken brooding 2 years ago. And they don’t treat enthusiasm or eagerness like a communicable disease. If you’ve got something to offer (or you’re willing to learn how to have something to offer) then you’ve got a seat at the table. Lucky for me I make really good pie.
Thank you Sonoma, for indulging me over the past year. You’ve graciously eaten my fried snake and burnt bread and trusted that the mushrooms weren’t poisonous or mind altering. And thanks to all the wonderfully generous people who have inspired me, taught me and welcomed me into your wonderful community. Here’s to many more.
That’s my news from Sonoma for this week.
Also Nascar happened - all over us.
I mean fudge.
At least on Father’s Day.
The tasting room was a ghost town this Sunday. Corinne and I assumed it was a slow afternoon on the square until we were proven wrong on my sandwich trek to the Sonoma Cheese Factory.
Crying babies, confused husbands, women shouting, strollers colliding and a line two wide and twenty deep at the fudge counter. Guernica – Sonoma style.
What is this link between vacationing and fudge? Or is it Father’s Day and fudge?
My dad would surely have chosen wine. Loved it so much that he can’t touch the stuff anymore. Times - they are a-changing.
But it proved to be a productive day, if not a busy one. Lot’s of boxes packed and glasses polished. The hum of the AC unit was music to my ears as the temperature climbed outside.
Saturday was a local’s day. Friends and neighbors came out to enjoy wine and killer flat breads courtesy of Mike Zakowski and his mobile wood-fired oven. The lovely folks from Tin Barn and MacRostie stopped in as did a number of other familiar faces.
My boyfriend and I were scheduled to attend an opening at the Di Rosa Art Preserve that evening but the sun, long day and high heels compelled me otherwise. Perhaps this week. Had a very nice evening with two of the artists who did the current installation there and I believe they’ve fabricated a life size plane crash? Sounded like a lot of fun.
At our Hawkes Downtown Sonoma Tasting Room we share a wall with The Girl and the Fig restaurant. It presents the only negative to working here, which is that every day I am taunted by the unrelenting, heavenly scent of grilled meat that creeps over the fence, into my olfactory nerves and up to my brain where it undoes all the thoughtful “I can get my protein from leafy greens and legumes” rewiring I’ve done in an attempt to go vegetarian. Before I know it, I’m considering, really considering buying beef from the mobile steak salesman who keeps showing up to offer Corinne and me half priced filet mignon. Perhaps it’s for the best. My only vegetarian friend is now a dumpster diving, card-carrying freegan who insists that the Basque Boulangerie throws away perfectly good, if slightly moist Dutch Crunch. I do not want to end up like that.
This past Saturday, the divine aromas were coming from the Hawkes driveway, where Oakland based Boffo Cart helped us kick off our first Street Food Saturdays event.
From 2pm on, Rhasaan Fernandez served up perfectly ripe organic grilled peaches with goat cheese as well as flatbreads stuffed with lamb merguez, yogurt sauce and a crisp garnish of chopped radish and herbs. Guests paired the tasty eats with our ‘08 Home Chardonnay and ‘06 Alexander Valley Cabernet in the warm Sonoma sunshine. I fell off the wagon but good, consuming my arm’s weight in sausage, but what can I say? I was swept up in the jovial spirit of the day.
Next Street Food Saturday (June 18th) we’re delighted to have my friend, a god of natural leaven, flour and fire, Mike Zakowski making wood-fired flatbreads with market fixins.
If you live in the ‘Noma and you’re not familiar with Mike's work, you should be. He and his lovely girlfriend Christy are staples of both the Friday and Tuesday Farmer’s Markets where they sell perfect wood-fired loaves, freshly baked pretzels and schiacciata – funky looking flatbreads with savory sauces and garden greens. On my last market visit the schiacciata was topped with a garlicky fava been puree, fire-singed arugula and aged Asiago. As they’re sturdy enough to be held in one hand, my preference is to eat them standing up with a glass of something delicious.
Hope to see you on Saturday at Hawkes on First Street West!