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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

It was a beautiful morning—cool but with the promise of warmth soon to come, and heat not long after that. There was mist hanging over the vines, and disembodied, otherworldly voices calling out now and then in Spanish. We’d met at the barn and now MacLeod was walking me through the property, stopping to chat with various foremen and workers, handing me grapes to taste, and generally talking without pause, like the born raconteur that he is. About the grapes, the wine, and the soil, and about the rocks in the soil (there were many of them when he bought the land, dug up and removed with backbreaking effort). He was wearing an old Monsanto Roundup–branded windbreaker—he retired from the agribusiness giant in 1979; the vineyard was his dream, a “retirement project” that became the family business. He explained, all irony aside, how the vineyard was now going organic.

A few days later, we returned for an open-air wine tasting. My wife, father, daughter, and I sat at a picnic table in the shade of a huge old oak tree in the middle of the hilly vineyard with MacLeod and his daughter-in-law Marjorie. We picked some grapes and compared the taste of the sweet juice with the wines they eventually produced, taking measure of the winemaker’s alchemy. It tasted like magic.

The best restaurant in Sonoma County, everyone will tell you, is called Cyrus. It’s in Healdsburg, just off the town’s glossy, picture-perfect central square—a small park surrounded by well-tended boutiques, gourmet food shops, bookstores, and Charlie Palmer’s Hotel Healdsburg. It was one of those late-summer evenings when the sun seems to be setting for an inordinately long time, and everyone seems inordinately happy—even the local protestors. They were an NPR-ish group, in this case, with cheerful signs urging the passage of President Obama’s health-care reform plan. They were preaching to the converted, and didn’t seem to mind.

At Cyrus, my wife and I ordered champagne and three varieties of caviar to start off—it’s that kind of restaurant. In fact it’s an extravagantly over-the-top, eight-course-tasting-menu-or-bust kind of place, and thoroughly enjoyable to boot. The food is fresh, local, and very elaborate. We had seared hamachi with tomatoes, melon, and cucumber; we had foie gras with plums and cashews; we had madai with corn and scallions in a ginger-shiso sauce. And so on. Everything dazzled. Each course also came with a different wine, presented with a flourish by the sommelier.

“I want to give you something you can’t have at home,” said Douglas Keane, the chef, when I interviewed him later. “You’re not paying me to slice a tomato—people are coming for the experience.” His wife’s parents have a small farm outside of town where they grow about half of the restaurant’s fruits and vegetables and raise chickens. Keane and his business partner Nick Peyton make a point of emphasizing their connection to the land, through the farm but also through the many local purveyors they use—including Pugs Leap, as it turns out. And so no, despite the caviar cart, Cyrus does not represent what I half-jokingly call the “Napification” of Sonoma. “Napa is the land of trophy wineries, Parker Points, and lots of money,” Peyton said. Sonoma, on the other hand, is low-key. Keane smiled: “Sonoma is home.”

Cyrus isn’t the only restaurant in Sonoma that has its own farm—after a while it starts to seem like they all do. We had lunch one day at French Garden Restaurant, in Sebastopol, where the food was simple and fresh, much of it grown on the owner Dan Smith’s farm down the road. He operates a produce market at the restaurant on Sundays.

Smith grew up on a farm in Petaluma, a few miles south, and he’s a staunch proponent of the idea that west Sonoma is the real Sonoma: “We’re way more laid-back—not as glitzy. But we have all the beauty out here—we’ve got the coastline and the redwoods.” He’s right: western Sonoma is stunning, and a touch scruffier than the manicured luxury you can find in Healdsburg, say. But the truth is that the whole county is more agriculturally oriented than Napa, where the land values dictate that you grow grapes, and only grapes.

Another night, we had dinner at Zazu Restaurant & Farm, a casual and self-consciously funky place in Santa Rosa. The narrow room is lively, with copper-top tables and a long bar. The staff is young, tattooed, and coolly professional, a combination that caught me off guard at first; I asked the waitress to describe the “mushroom raviolo” and she told me in a rather firm voice that if I’d just wait for her to finish going through the specials, she’d explain. And so it went: she was no-nonsense from beginning to end—and by then, I’d decided I quite liked the tough-girl style of this place.

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