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Sonoma and the New Face of California Wine Country

House-made salumi and pickled grapes at Zazu Restaurant & Farm, in Santa Rosa, California.

Photo: Catherine Ledner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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