“Il faut cultiver notre jardin” —Candide
In one hand I hold a Meyer lemon scone with cranberries and white chocolate, in the other, a warm foccacia with shitake mushrooms, roasted garlic, Jack, Swiss and smoked Gouda, and in my eyes I see warm sweet sticky buns. “Sonoma is not monochromatic. It’s kind of a rainbow,” shares Margo Van Staaveren, renowned winemaker of Chateau St. Jean. Thus begins my ride along the Bohemian Highway.
Sourdough thrives in Freestone because of the quality of air. At Wild Flour Bakery 800 loaves are baked and devoured every day. Everything is organic. Why is it so good? I ask one of the bakers as I shamelessly devour a pink lady apple and cheddar scone. “We’re all really in love with the bread that we make, and with each other, and with the family that we build, so there’s a lot of soul in everything we do.” Next door at the Freestone Artisan Cheese Shop I sample the most luxuriously spreadable Mt. Tam triple cream from Cowgirl Creamery, and a semi-soft Brewski washed in Bison Brewery Organic Chocolate Stout from Weirauch Farm & Creamery. I’m told that everyone is experimenting with everything right now. There is wonderfully rich grassland, diverse microclimates, and a commitment to making artisanal products matched by a desire for high quality.
Across the road is the Osmosis Day Spa, renowned for its Japanese meditation garden, massage pagoda and cedar enzyme bath. Michael Stusser combined his love of Japanese aesthetics, the message of Zen and the feel-good relaxed culture of Northern California to create a transformative experience of immense therapeutic value. Immersed in a mixture of ground fragrant evergreen cedar, rice bran and live enzymes that, combined, generate their own metabolic heat, I am profoundly relaxed. Sipping an infusion of clover, spearmint, yarrow and digestive enzymes I stroll through manicured Japanese gardens to the calm sound of trickling water. Inside a wooded pagoda my Chinese meridian alignment massage awaits me. The aim is to replenish my Chi flow through energy pathways. Nurtured and relieved, I am then treated to a customized blend of essential oils on a series of acupressure points to deepen healing potential and vitality. Bergamot to balance brain hemispheres, Blue Tansy to calm the mind, Mandarin to calm the heart, Helichrysum, Altas Cedarwood and a host of others to release stagnant energy and induce an easeful revitalized calm. I don’t know what I was supposed to do the rest of the day, but cancel all my appointments; I am too relaxed to care.
Sonoma is wine country. Chateau St. Jean offers a portfolio of 40 wines. “Sonoma really supports being able to make wines of different varieties,” Van Staaveren tells me. With more soil types and sub types than all of France, “You can actually do it all here, so you have to go after it. The temptation is too great to pass up.” The tasting bar selection reads like a restaurant wine list, including a lemony buttery 2010 Reserve Chardonnay; a full-bodied Reserve Malbec blended with Merlot and Petit Verdot to round out a finish of violets, black berries and a trace of licorice. The star is the flagship wine, Cinq Cépage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot. Van Staaveren selects the best fruit from each of her vineyards. This is the creme de la creme. Each varietal is barrel-aged separately and then blended to a sensuous full fruit with raisins and spice. At dinner at Cafe La Haye, the 2010 Reserve Pinot Noir’s notes of raspberry and rhubarb with a floral essence are accentuated by quail with a porcini couscous stuffing.
Part art space, part food and wine market place, The Barlow is an eclectic microcosm of local Sonoma artists and artisans showcasing their craft within re-purposed warehouses in Sebastopol. At Zazu Kitchen + Farm we order bacon caramel popcorn and a side order of thick-cut bacon dry-cured with brown sugar for 21 days and finished with 12 hours of applewood smoking. I am told the pigs are treated so well and are so clean they’re practically kosher, and everyday of their lives is a happy one, except for their last. Like farm-to-table on steroids, not only do they use multiple farms across Sonoma, but the menu also lists “u-pick if you like” items from their own backyard garden for guests to feel more involved in their dining experience. Spirit Works Distillery hand crafts their red winter wheat-based organic whiskeys and gin. Their Barrel-Aged gin is smooth with an essence of vanilla, butterscotch, smoke and spice. They’re the only distillery in the U.S. that makes sloe gin, and they make five different kinds. Sub Zero ice cream offers a selection of ingredients from a variety of cream to an array of toppings that we choose and watch as they’re whipped up and flash frozen before our eyes. Woodfour’s farmhouse-inspired Sour Ales and their French-Belgian styled Saison pair with their farm-to-table menu including local cheeses, oysters and tender slow-cooked chicken. We peruse local wine shops for tastings, Guiyaki’s organic yerba mate, and the Tibetan Gallery and Studio of crafts and 24-carat gold canvas. At the arcade-themed Warped Brewery, we sample Clear The Flag, a smooth persimmon rye beer inspired by Super Mario Brothers. (At the end of each level Mario has to jump over a flagpole that he can never seem to clear, but he keeps trying.)
Sonoma has become an important microbrewery region. The Russian River Brewing Company originated the Imperial IPA that spawned the hop-forward west coast style. Lagunitas Brewing Company has the second highest capacity of any craft brewery in the U.S. Some of the first craft breweries are from Sonoma, and now there are more than 30. They not only brew some of the best beer in the U.S., but the best beer from the broadest range of styles—some of the best sours, farm-house style beers and wild fermentation. Wine culture, food culture and beer culture enjoy a lot of interplay in Sonoma.
Sonoma attracts such a diverse pool of creative interest-oriented people who pursue their hobbies and their passions. It would be hard to find a cynic, a pessimist, or a naysayer here. This is a culture of “Yes.” Everywhere I look I see that industrious can-do American spirit that says, “I’m not just going to make two or three wines, I’m going to make 40;” “I’m going to create a beautiful Japanese garden, with a bath of cedar shavings;” “I love beer and video games, I’m going to combine a brewery and an arcade.” These are people who dream and say “why not.” The dominant ideology and attitude encourages it, and it so refreshing to be in such a beautiful landscape cultivated by those who appreciate it, and who actively follow where their imagination wherever it leads them.