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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

The food was remarkable—proudly local (Zazu, as advertised, also has its own farm), with strong flavors and interesting, unfussy preparations. We had three different kinds of house-made salumi with a dry sheep’s-milk cheese and some olives, a large salad with tomatoes and pole beans, a rack of lamb with quinoa tabbouleh and coriander chutney, and sesame-crusted tuna.

The coastline in Sonoma is wild. As you drive down Highway 1, dipping and swooping and then skimming along on tops of cliffs, the ocean roaring and gleaming below, you realize there’s a reason they film sports-car commercials here. At Goat Rock beach, in Jenner, the waves crash into large rock formations looming offshore and then race up the sand, retreating with salt foam and seaweed in their wake. This is not the sort of water you swim in, unless you’re a dog, or wearing a wet suit. It’s the sort of water you look at, trying to spot seals or maybe an otter. I showed my daughter the massive Arched Rock, through which the waves have punched a natural tunnel. She took note but soon went back to collecting rocks and shells, an activity she can apparently do for hours and hours.

This is the beach of my childhood. At Jenner, the routine was always the same: sometime in the late afternoon, around four or five, there’d be an expedition to the beach. There were different dogs over the years, but they all loved the beach, and we’d pile into the car and drive over to Goat Rock. We’d amble up the beach and back again, throwing a stick for the dog. Back at the house, meanwhile, there’d be a bridge game in progress, and dinner cooking, and we’d return just in time for cocktail hour. I remember eventually being old enough for the famous “1-2-3,” which was M. F.’s drink—gin, Campari, and vermouth, on the rocks. After a brisk, windswept walk on the beach, the perfect thing.

This time, we drove down the coast to Bodega Bay, a slightly kitschy fishing town with lots of small hotels and vacation rentals. This is where Hitchcock filmed The Birds, and it’s a good place to buy fresh crab. We stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant called Terrapin Creek, which opened in 2008.

It was a real discovery: a tiny little place, nondescript really, with an open kitchen and café tables. The menu was eclectic, with crab cakes and a pulled-pork sandwich and a cassoulet. There were also oysters, local sardines, and osso buco. We ordered glasses of white wine and the most amazing fish stew, with salmon, rock cod, and potatoes in a light tomato-and-fennel broth. The restaurant is run by Andrew Truong and Liya Lin Truong, a young couple who bring an Asian influence and a light touch to their high-end comfort food.

On our way back to the house, we stopped at Wild Flour Bread, just outside Bodega Bay in Freestone. The place is a local institution, and my grandmother recalled how Jed Wallach, the owner, had installed the enormous brick wood-fired oven years ago. “Now we’re going to see some real west-county hippies!” my dad said, in the sardonic manner of a former Berkeley hippie, as we pulled up. The bakery was bustling and busy, with kids underfoot, and sweet smells, and we walked out with a couple of dense and crusty sourdough loaves.

M. F. moved to Glen Ellen in 1971; her friend David Bouverie, a dashing and aristocratic Englishman, had agreed to let her build Last House, as it was called, on his ranch. The two-room palazzo (which Bouverie designed—he was also an architect) was hers for life; after that it reverted to his estate, which he had donated to the Audubon Canyon Ranch, a nature conservancy. Today, the 535-acre preserve is open for guided nature walks and seminars on spring and fall Saturdays by appointment. The old barn houses maps and exhibits about the local birds and flowers.

Last House is not open to the public, but the man who lives there, John Martin, offered to show us around. He was Bouverie’s maintenance man for years, and now works for Audubon Canyon. As we walked in, it was for me one of those ineffable moments when you return to a place years and years later, and it’s totally different, and yet it’s exactly the same, and then again you’re totally different, too (and yet also exactly the same, in some way). Anyway, it’s complicated. We wandered through the house like ghosts, and I wound up on the terrace, looking out at the familiar view.

The landscape here is stunning, wild and dry. The long driveway is flanked by rows of gnarled old oak trees covered in lichen—they looked magic-realist somehow, ancient and alive. The sun was bright; hawks were wheeling in the sky above. In Sonoma, I thought, it all comes back to the land, the source of inspiration and sustenance. For cheese makers, chefs, farmers, and idealists of all kinds, and for travelers, too, Sonoma is a place for growth and creation, for cooking and eating, for life’s essential pleasures.

Luke Barr is T+L’s news director.

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