Napa Valley and Sonoma County Travel Guide
Lodgings, eateries and wineries
The southern borders of Napa and Sonoma counties are approximately 60 and 50 miles, respectively, north of San Francisco; Napa's eastern border is about 45 miles southwest of Sacramento. The much larger Sonoma (1,604 square miles) lies west of Napa (787 square miles), bordering the Pacific Coast. Santa Rosa is the main city of Sonoma; Napa is the main city of its namesake. Among the larger towns: Sonoma, Healdsburg, Sebastopol, and Petaluma in Sonoma; St. Helena, Calistoga, and Yountville in Napa. Napa is fairly compact, with all of the towns and vineyards stacked in a pretty straight line down the 25 miles of the valley. Sonoma sprawls, and contains six different regions: The southern Sonoma Valley, also known as the Valley of the Moon, encompasses the towns of Sonoma, Glen Ellen, and Kenwood; southern Sonoma includes Petaluma and surrounding towns; central Sonoma encompasses the area around Santa Rosa; the Sonoma coast borders the Pacific from Jenner to Bodega Bay; the agricultural Russian River region includes the towns of Guerneville, Sebastopol, Occidental, and Freestone; northern Sonoma includes the towns of Healdsburg, Geyserville, and Windsor and the wine-growing regions of the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys.
Napa and Sonoma Basics
Telephone Numbers: The area code for all numbers is 707.
Closest Major Airports: San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Santa Rosa.
Airport Car Rental: The major companies have offices at all four airports.
Luxury Driving: Specialty Car Rental, which is based in San Francisco, offers such vehicles as the Audi TT Roadster, Jaguar XK8, and Porsche Boxster. 800-400-8412; www.specialtyrentals.com.
Best Time To Visit: April-June, September, and October, although the fall grape harvest, called Crush, brings out even more visitors and traffic, particularly on Napa's Highway 29. Also February, when the crowds thin out and the yellow mustard fields contrast with the vines.
Remember That: That For such a popular area, there aren't many high-level hotels. Booking as far in advance as possible is recommended.
Besides flying into San Francisco, Oakland, or Sacramento, there are commuter flights into Santa Rosa and a private airport in Napa. Depending upon traffic, driving to southern Napa and Sonoma from San Francisco or Oakland takes about an hour.
There are two north-south routes through Napa:
Highway 29, which connects all the dots on the map and usually clogs up with traffic, particularly in season and on weekends; and the parallel Silverado Trail, which the locals generally use to avoid 29. There are several marked crossroads, such as Oakville Cross and Rutherford Cross. One of the best is Pope Street in St. Helena because it has a traffic light; otherwise, trying to make a turn south onto 29 can take strong nerves and a long time.
The main route through Sonoma is Highway 101, which usually bottlenecks around Santa Rosa, regardless of the time of day. (101 is surveyed closely by the highway patrol; take notice of unmarked white cars.) Another major north-south road is 116, which winds through the Russian River area down to Petaluma. The major east-west routes are Highway 12, which is generally a two-lane road; 37, which leads travelers heading north from 101 in the direction of the towns of Napa and Sonoma; and 128, also known as the Alexander Valley Road, which connects Geyserville across the county line to Calistoga and is a beautiful drive.
Chef Jan Birnbaum, a Louisiana native who trafficked in fancier food at San Francisco's Campton Place restaurant and New York's Quilted Giraffe, revisits his roots doing good-time fare here; that accounts for the lively (at times loud) scene inside this restaurant, and for some of the liveliest food I tasted anywhere in Napa. We loved the perfect pear salad with radicchio, endive, Gorgonzola, and spiced pecans and the oven-roasted squid salad with white beans, olives, frisée, and arugula—both exquisite blends of flavors. The main courses were just as good: fried catfish with lemon jalapeño meunière was greaseless, tender, and sweet; the simple-sounding brick-oven-roasted chicken was well-spiced, crisp, and juicy. One of those rare places where everything is as good as it should be—or better. $100. $ 1457 Lincoln Avenue; 942-2275; fax 942-5338; www.catahoularest.com.
Artist Carlo Marchiori is Venetian, which explains the frescoed ceiling in his gallery depicting the Ptolemaic constellations and his hand-painted plates adorned with commedia dell'arte faces ($200 each; platters $1,300). But the American West shows up in other works, such as a painted cabinet with legs made of antlers ($4,600). Every Saturday from May to October, Marchiori allows visitors into his Palladian villa just north of town to admire the rooms decorated with trompe l'oeil frescoes. 1206 Cedar Street; 942-3900; fax 942-3939; www.catoga.com.
Wappo Bar Bistro
Various people in the area told me that they loved going to Wappo, but no one could quite recall which dishes they liked. Perhaps it's because Wappo's menu is so schizophrenic, with dishes from Greece, Vietnam, Spain, India, and Italy. Or perhaps they were being polite, because we weren't terribly impressed with anything we tried—the Vietnamese spring rolls, the day's special gazpacho, and seared Chilean sea bass with garam masala that was, curiously, coated with sugar. We decided that what everyone really liked was to sit outside on the romantic vine-covered patio, sipping wine and nibbling. $70. 1226 Washington Street; 942-4712; fax 942-4741.
Bistro Don Giovanni
It was a freak heat wave in the valley and no one felt like eating complicated food. So the crowd here, large because the bistro is a favorite of locals anyway, was S.R.O. We waited in the garden overlooking the vineyards (and also Highway 29, but the vines help you forget) punctuated by sculptures until we could get a table outdoors. There we sat for a couple of hours, listening to Italian love songs booming from the music system, eating carpaccio, beet and haricots verts salad, lusty spaghetti with clams, and pappardelle served with Sonoma duck Bolognese, olives, and aged provolone. Maybe we were dazed by the heat, but Tuscan comparisons kept cropping up and we let them linger. $70. 4110 St. Helena Highway; 224-3300; fax 224-3395.
Di Rosa Preserve
"You're late . . . " remarked René di Rosa, as we hurried in to join the tour in the first gallery of the 53-acre preserve that showcases his extensive and idiosyncratic collection of contemporary art. It should hardly have surprised us that Di Rosa was keeping an eye on the clock. This preserve is such a personal statement that he watches vigilantly over its every aspect. Do not expect to rush through, though—you'll need at least two and a half hours to tour the collection by tram. At the outset, David Best's extravagant cars encrusted with found objects nearly overwhelmed my senses for anything else; by the tour's end I was close to speechless. I was also in awe of a man who devotes himself to collecting contemporary Bay Area artists, fostering many careers in the process, and then shares these 1,600 or so works with the public. The Di Rosa preserve is an unforgettable experience. $10, arranged by appointment only. $750 for a private tour with the curator, Richard Reisman, and Di Rosa. 5200 Carneros Highway; 226-5991; fax 255-8934; www.dirosapreserve.org.
Striking, thought-provoking works are the cornerstone of Donald Hess' modern art collection on exhibit in this soaring gallery space carved out of a turn-of-the-century stone building at Hess' winery. Along with the Bacons and the Stellas, two particularly arresting works are Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz's army of headless figures in burlap and resin and Argentine artist Leopoldo Maler's flaming Underwood typewriter—which I at first thought could be the fantasy of a writer having a bad day, but it is actually a much more serious political statement reflecting the murder of Maler's uncle, a journalist, at the hands of an Argentine death squad.
4411 Redwood Road; 255-1144; fax 253-1682.
Robert Mondavi Winery
This titan among wineries is known for its educational programs. But during growing season, March through November, they offer customized, once-a-month programs for individuals—walking the vines, crushing grapes, and, of course, tasting wine. Daylong programs (which should be arranged at least three months in advance) begin at $350. 7801 St. Helena Highway;
226-1395; fax 968-2174; www.robertmondaviwinery.com.
Oak Knoll Inn
Luxury inns set directly in a vineyard are very rare in these parts, but its prime location is the first asset of this stone inn surrounded by 600 acres of Chardonnay grapes. The second is owners Barbara Passino and John Kuhlmann, innkeepers who go all out for their guests, from stocking the most complete supply of drugstore items I've ever seen to arranging nightly tasting sessions accompanied by such a bountiful hors d'oeuvre spread that I was tempted both times to cancel dinner out. The four rooms are furnished in a style more funky than elegant—brass beds, dark velveteen chairs, framed posters—but they are comfortable and spacious. (Best view: room six with a 12-foot cathedral window facing the vines.) Plan to spend at least one lazy day here; the pool setting by the vines is so seductive I regretted having to go out. $350-$495. $ 2200 East Oak Knoll Avenue; 255-2200; fax 255-2296.
All country stores should be like this. This roadside grocery has been a general store since 1881, but it evolved into a gourmet emporium over the last 20 years under the co-ownership of vintner Joseph Phelps and Steve Carlin. Lining the packed shelves are local products such as Sonoma's top-rated DaVero and Napa's Harrison Vineyards olive oils (among many others), haute preserves and condiments, an array of local artisanal and international cheeses worthy of a big-city cheese specialist, a good selection of local wines, charcuterie, olives, hearty sandwiches, baked goods, and some items you don't expect to find, such as the delicate Spanish white anchovies, boquerones. 7856 St. Helena Highway; 944-8802; fax 944-1844; www.oakvillegrocery.com.
Auberge Du Soleil
Even without the soleil this is an unquestionably romantic setting. Perched on a hillside overlooking the vineyards in the valley, the scenery is pure postcard. The terrace takes supreme advantage of it and so do the rooms (the best views are to be had from the Alsace and Picardie cottages, rooms three and four, along with the 1,800-square-foot cottages Champagne and Loire. You might want to avoid Normandie and Provence, which provide better views of the new spa (hopefully—it should be completed by mid-November) than of the valley.
The room decor at Auberge du Soleil is not what one would generally expect in such a romantic wine-country setting—as envisioned by the late designer Michael Taylor, it may come across as jarringly contemporary and severe to some: terra-cotta tile floors, raspberry couches in clean, sharp lines (and not particularly comfortable), modern paintings by California artists. (There's a special emphasis on art here, reflected in the paintings in the rooms and sculptures in the olive grove.) But even for those who have a preference for softer edges, misgivings vanish with a simple look outside. A member of Relais & Châteaux. $550-$2,500. 180 Rutherford Hill Road; 963-1211; fax 963-8764; www.aubergedusoleil.com.
Given Ken Frank's reputation with the original La Toque in Los Angeles, we expected some lively, inventive cooking. Unfortunately, our dinner here didn't measure up. It was Mother's Day, so the room itself was lively, but the choices on the prix fixe menu were, in many instances, unexciting. "Smooth artichoke soup with true morels" had virtually no flavor, the same problem we experienced with the sautéed snails, a dish that ought to have benefited from the ingredients listed—garlic, parsley, and porcini mushrooms—but, oddly, tasted only of the snails. Seared foie gras and rare tuna served with Vidalia onion marmalade and sherry worked well together, as did the Liberty Farms duck breast with apple-celeriac purée and red wine. For dessert, crêpes with sautéed strawberries and chocolate cherry cake were also fine, if not remarkable. If such a bland reaction had occurred at the end of a week spent eating my way through Napa, I might have suspected taste-bud fatigue, but this, unfortunately, was the very first evening. $167. 1140 Rutherford Cross Road; 963-9770; fax 963-9072; www.latoque.com.
There are many private gardens scattered around the Napa vineyards, but none approach the sheer artistry of Molly Chappellet's. The author, landscaper, designer, and co-owner of Chappellet Vineyard has devised an astonishing patchwork of flowers and vegetables on a hillside overlooking Lake Berryessa. Violet pansies underscore the gray-green of artichoke leaves, zinnias and snapdragons mix with arugula and fennel, cabbages emerge from flower beds. There are many lessons here for any gardener. Generally closed to the public, but available for tours for members of the Pritchard Hill Club, who also receive six bottles of Chappellet wines four times a year. Membership, $122. $ 1581 Sage Canyon Road; 800-494-6379.
Dean & Deluca
I resisted going into Dean & Deluca because I felt it would be merely a copy of the New York original. When I walked in, it did look familiar—the spare metal freestanding cases packed with jars of oils, the cases of neatly stacked produce, the artful displays of international cheeses, meats, prepared foods, cakes—but the selection was so exceptional that I couldn't hold its satellite status against it. Plus, there are two particularly nice touches: a back room filled with an excellent selection of area wines, and barrels of pickles imported from Guss' Pickles of Delancey Street. 607 South St. Helena Highway; 967-9980; fax 967-9983.
Visitors to this eponymously named store encounter antique furniture every bit as flamboyant as its Austrian-born owner, ranging from a massive 17th-century Italian oak carved chair ($2,800) to a gilded Regency mirror ($1,950) to Indian miniatures and Venetian glass. But Hills is particularly well known for painted furniture, such as a German cabinet displaying country scenes from 1800 ($1,950). Generally open from Friday through Sunday, but days vary. 115 Main Street; 963-0919; fax 415-921-8048.
Green Valley Cafe
From the outside it looks like a coffee shop, but locals know that there's marvelous, earthy Italian food inside. During lunch I enjoyed the ricotta-filled spinach ravioli with walnuts, cream, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and nutmeg, as well as a mixed green salad with Gorgonzola, a dish that in itself isn't unusual, but getting the combination of ingredients right is—here they break down the chunks of blue cheese into small, creamy bits that adhere to the greens. A minor point, yet illustrative of the care they take. $40. $ 1310 Main Street; 963-7088.
I. Wolk Gallery
In addition to curating the sculpture garden at Auberge du Soleil, Ira Wolk showcases the best of local artists, such as Kate Solari-Baker, who renders closeups of Napa grasses and vignettes of the Napa River. The gallery also features artists from Santa Fe and other areas of the country. 1235 Main Street; 963-8800; fax 963-8801.
Tweed looks to Greece, Persia, China, and Japan for inspiration for his ceramicware, delicate thrown porcelain that is finished with celadon and dark tenmoku glazes. His pieces are classic, elegant, and one-of-a-kind. Custom orders can be placed for dishes ($25-$50 apiece) or for larger pieces such as platters, which Tweed prefers creating. ($100-$500.) $ 3524 Silverado Trail; 968-9360.
Meadowood Napa Valley
"Country Club" is the way that I heard Meadowood described over and over, and it's true, in the best sense of the words. There's a real ease in these gray-and-white shingled lodges containing 85 rooms and spread out over 250 acres, where you can have breakfast on the terrace overlooking the golf course, consider playing croquet, or opt instead for a grapeseed wrap at the spa. Country club could also describe the room decor—sedate and somewhat plain with a gray-and-white-striped couch and dark bedframe as the predominant touches—although I liked the sense of space, particularly in the hillside terrace lodge rooms. A sophisticated note: the breakfast menu offers cappuccino in European and American strengths. Rooms, $345-$3,000. 900 Meadowood Lane; 963-3646; fax 963-3532; www.meadowood.com.
The Model Bakery
Bread made the old-fashioned way—hand-formed and baked in traditional brick ovens—is the focus here, and it is worth lining up for (which you'll probably have to do, given this bakery's popularity). We sampled the crusty sourdough, fougasse, and walnut, and all were sensational, as was a slab of thick-crust pizza with the area's rich tomatoes. My only regret: they were sold out of the pain du vin. Next time. $2-$4. 1357 Main Street; 963-8192; fax 963-2464.
St. Helena Antiques
Brothers Richard and Paul Larson specialize in 19th-century French antiques such as porcelain artichoke plates ($400) and armoires (one, ca. 1820, $13,000), but there are so many different items from other countries and centuries that it's hard to pigeonhole the store. During my visit I found Chinese student chairs, 19th-century French brass watering cans, huge 19th-century Greek urns for olive oil and olives, and one of the most singular items I have ever seen: an antique (exact age unknown) iron vessel for carrying olive oil on a camel ($785). There are also vintage wine-related antiques—corkers, presses, and wine-bottle cleaners. 1231 Main Street; 963-5878.
A mélange of international home items, mostly from Brazil, France, and Asia, fill this store. Many are one-of-a-kind and very high-level. The best choices during my visit: an antique mirror framed by squares of a vintage tin ceiling ($1,400) and a painted, reclaimed ironwood rooster hutch ($13,475) from Brazil. 1350 Main Street; 963-5556.
Taylor's Automatic Refresher
This may look like an ordinary hamburger stand but it serves the ne plus ultra burger; that's why locals, including the chefs of internationally known restaurants, are always here standing in line. Since this is California, there are items such as an ahi burger (served with ginger-wasabi mayo), but we went for the basic burger and it was perfect—charcoal-grilled, delicious beef crowned by their version of a secret sauce. Plus the best milk shake I've ever had—white pistachio, the day's special, derived its flavor and texture from chopped pistachios, not artificial flavor. Burgers, $3.99-$8.99. 933 Main Street; 963-3486.
Every person I questioned in Napa called this their favorite restaurant. And after just one visit, I had to agree. Chef Hiro Sone is a master of fusing Asian flavors and European preparations, something many chefs try with varying levels of success. But every bite we took of Sone's dishes elicited an involuntary "wow." A terrine of local foie gras was set off perfectly by a spicy Fuji apple salad, as was a silky tuna tataki with a daikon radish salad and Ponzu vinaigrette. Grilled fillet of salmon with Thai red curry sauce was fiery, rich, and slightly sweet—a perfect balance. Grilled lamb with hummus, tabbouleh, raita, and ratatouille is Sone's nod to his wife (the pastry chef) Lissa Doumani's Lebanese heritage; what could have been an ordinary meal was instead a delicately seasoned, soft-as-butter tenderloin set amid vivid renditions of those familiar dishes. Doumani's contributions, a raspberry brunoise tart and strawberry tart, were so luscious that we didn't leave a bite. $75. 1345 Railroad Avenue; 963-8931.
Since we had foolishly strolled in without a reservation, we were seated at the bar, but that was fortunate because we got to see what everyone else was eating. It all looked great and we were starving, so we ordered practically everything we saw. The meal started nicely: oven-roasted polenta with local Bellwether Crescenza cheese and wild mushrooms in a rich balsamic reduction was so delicious that we scraped every bit of the sauce off the plate. The braised, smoked short ribs were just as good. But then we ran into trouble: The pappardelle with roasted lamb was so salty, greasy, and heavy that it was inedible, and the organic spiced chicken was too spicy and, again, too salty. We didn't fare much better with dessert—a gelatinous, rubbery lemon tart. I'd heard the food here was inconsistent but didn't expect such fluctuation within one meal. $65. $ 1050 Charter Oak Avenue; 963-4444; fax 963-1233.
Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant
"The students aren't cooking here . . . that's a terrible misconception," explained one local when I mentioned that I thought this West Coast branch of New York's Culinary Institute of America had the same setup—students training to be chefs—as the headquarters in Hyde Park. Swiftly corrected, I learned that the chef here is Todd Humphries, formerly of San Francisco's Campton Place. So we couldn't blame the disappointment of our meal on inexperience. The surprise hors d'oeuvres (on this day, bites of foie gras, roasted duck, roasted tomatoes, and such) were a fine beginning, but the main courses, a dry rotisserie pork chop with a chamomile-infused pork jus and grilled breast of chicken with a ragout of mushrooms and mustard sauce, were by turns uninteresting and unpleasant. Perhaps they should let the students cook. $72. 2555 Main Street; 967-1010.
The eight friends at the next table having a riotous birthday celebration set the proper tone for this cheerful bistro, with its yellow walls, baskets, and ceramic animals. This is the perfect, relaxed place to come with friends—and everyone I met in Napa Valley does. Philippe Jeanty earned many fans in the nearly 20 years he headed the kitchen at Domaine Chandon, and those fans followed him to his own place. Don't expect wildly inventive dishes, just expert renditions of French classics such as quenelles with lobster sauce, coq au vin, and a novel spin on daube de boeuf, the classic beef stew, this one made even richer with beef cheeks. I also loved the service. On my second visit, when I slipped in the door only a minute before the kitchen closed, there wasn't a trace of Gallic vexation, just a warm welcome and an unhurried pace throughout dinner. No wonder everyone loves it here. $70. $ 6510 Washington Street; 944-0103; fax 944-0370.
Thomas Keller's second restaurant, ostensibly an homage to French brasseries, is also a place for diners who can't get into his first restaurant, French Laundry (see below). I had heard mixed things about Bouchon from locals—that the food was inconsistent, that it was a calculated brasserie, not a bistro that flowed from the heart like Jeanty's, but also that it had its fans because it stayed open late. All true. It's terrific if you're after a petit plateau of shellfish as opulent as you might see in Paris, and one of the finest lemon tarts around. And since I had this meal for lunch at four p.m., I appreciated its flexible hours. $56. 6534 Washington Street; 944-8037.
This was a top-notch dining room when Philippe Jeanty was in the kitchen. Robert Curry, his sous-chef, is now in command, but judging from a recent lunch, the quality seems to have dipped in the changeover. The fried soft-shell crab was soggy and greasy, apparently not having been cooked in hot-enough oil; the mussel salad with Yukon gold potatoes, Niçoise olives, mâche, and pastis-parsley vinaigrette tasted dull and flat, as did the mesquite-grilled Paine Farm squab with fingerling potatoes, English peas, and fenugreek sauce. An adventurous-sounding menu, but the execution reminded us of country-club food. $80. 1 California Drive; 944-2892.
Since he assumed control of the kitchen here, Thomas Keller has achieved godlike status among American chefs. In fact, there are supervisors at Meadowood whose job it is to contact incoming guests two months ahead of time to arrange their reservations at the French Laundry. The night of my dinner, a friend who'd always wanted to dine there drove in from Nevada; two others closed their store in San Francisco to come up for the night. To say that there were high expectations is an understatement.
Therefore, as the four of us tallied our reactions throughout the four-hour, nine-course tasting dinner, it was surprising how little enthusiasm we felt for the various courses. Apart from the salmon tartare and crème fraîche in a sesame cornet assembled to look like an ice-cream cone, only one offering, a silky, vibrant pickled oyster with cucumbers and osetra caviar, excited all of us; mostly our taste buds were deadened by too many rich dishes layered with cream and obvious and recurring luxury ingredients such as truffles (wonderful, but overkill when they turn up three times).
In spite of the elegant stone-house setting, perfect service, exceptional wine list, and a few virtuoso combinations, I had to agree with the locals who had told me that they never eat here unless they have someone in from out of town whom they have to impress—generally by simply being able to get in. Prix fixe, $80, $90, $105. 6640 Washington Street; 944-2380.
Gordon's Cafe And Wine Bar
Breakfast at this folksy country store is a Napa institution. Sally Gordon is a warm, welcoming hostess and the breakfast, served cafeteria fashion, is first rate: sensational scones, muffins, coffeecake, omelettes, and side dishes such as "spuds de la maison." There are newspapers for lingering over, and linger is what everyone does. Good sandwiches and salads appear on the lunch menu. Dinner, however, is more of a mixed bag. Served only on Fridays, and a set menu with limited choices, it's pretty much luck of the draw. The raves that I'd heard were not borne out by the choices I had: a good salad of arugula, ripe peaches, and smoked prosciutto; a plain, overcooked pork chop accompanied by corn, Parmesan bread pudding, and very bitter greens; grilled mahimahi; and a watery strawberry-rhubarb galette. Dinner, $76; the breakfast entrées run about $7. 6770 Washington Street; 944-8246; fax 944-8030.
A reliable spot for casual food—slow-smoked BBQ pork sandwiches, Cobb salads with grilled chicken, grilled hanger steak, and one of the largest, and best, lemon-lime meringue pies I have ever had. $50. 7399 St. Helena Highway; 944-2424; fax 944-0828.
Villagio Inn & Spa
My initial impressions were not auspicious: prefab modern low-rise structures housing bland rooms; grounds decorated with plaster replicas of Roman ruins and with fountains to drown out the traffic from Highway 29. And indeed, as accommodations go, Villagio Inn would only measure up if you have consumed so much at the French Laundry that it's impossible to drive more than a few blocks. I did like the spa, though, especially packages such as the "essence of the valley": a grapeseed body polish, mud wrap, and aromatherapy massage. Ask for Ken. Rooms, $275-$400. Treatments, $40-$230.
6481 Washington Street; 948-5050.
Boyes Hot Springs
Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa
My arrival here was a bit depressing. Boyes Hot Springs is a down-at-heel town, and the Inn is right smack in the middle of it. Valet parking was backed up (one attendant trying to handle 20 cars), there was a long line at reception, and when I finally did check in I had to ask for my room number and then how to get there. Directions (or a bellman) were not forthcoming, so a bathrobe-clad guest standing next to me volunteered to show me to my room.
In all fairness, I arrived in the middle of changes at this well-known hotel. The finishing stages of a $20 million expansion including the creation of 30 new suites, a new entrance, and an enlarged 40,000-square foot spa, plus the arrival of a new general manager, had perhaps thrown the staff; the helpful guest mentioned that he'd stayed here several times and had never seen the service so shaky. Excusing that, however, I still had misgivings about the place after two days there: Rooms have bland, standard-issue furnishings, and no views.
Troubling also is the heavy business the hotel does in conferences and other large groups, which, to judge from the construction of new meeting rooms (bringing the total to 14), will only increase in importance. Groups were clogging the lobby every time I passed through, an off-putting situation for a solo guest. And checkout was as difficult as check-in due to the long line at reception again.
The one bright spot was the spa, which is soothing and beautiful, the 50-odd treatments a mix of the expected and unusual. But simply bathing in the mineral waters that flow up from 1,100 feet beneath the inn was enough for me. (One caveat: The locker rooms are upstairs and also separated from the spa building by a long outdoor corridor. At most times of year, that won't matter. But during an unseasonably rainy cold snap in May, having to race down that stretch after a treatment undercut its intended relaxation.)
All in all, the spa's enhancement was an exceptional addition; the next time I visit I'd like to spend the day there, but find lodgings somewhere else. Rooms, $249-$1,200. Treatments, $55-$398. Highway 12 at Boyes Boulevard; 938-9000; fax 938-4250; www.sonomamissioninn.com.
I was here to try the enzyme bath and the first surprise was that it wasn't a bath at all. The Japanese treatment that spa owner Michael Stusser imported actually involves a redwood tub filled with cedar fibers, rice bran, and 600 active plant enzymes. Lying in it, I felt like a termite. But after the maximum 20 minutes, I began to feel relaxed and less achy; the idea is that the enzymes work as a cleansing, de-stressing agent in conjunction with your internal organs. Between that, the herbal tea, a session of de-stressing music on headphones, and a massage out-of-doors in the open pavilion accompanied by the gentle rushing of Salmon Creek, I was far more civilized on my way out than I had been when I came in. Combination of enzyme bath and outdoor massage, $155. 209 Bohemian Highway; 874-1108; fax 874-3788; www.osmosis.com.
Wild Flour Bread
I'd never thought of bread as an adventure, but it's just that at this creative, artisanal bakery. Jed Wallach fell in love with good bread while in France restoring stained glass at Chartres Cathedral; five years ago he started baking what he'd loved—and took off from there. Now there are about 40 combinations, all starting out with a sourdough base, with about nineof them featured on any given day—breads such as the crusty fougasse with blue cheese and onions or a rosemary and Kalamata olive wheat loaf. Wallach also makes the most addictive sticky buns that I have ever tried, and sensational pizza on Friday and Monday afternoons. $3.75 for sourdough, $4.50 for sticky buns, and $5.50 for the specialty cheese breads. $ Open from Friday through Monday only. 140 Bohemian Highway; 874-2938; fax 874-2135.
It's almost worth having lunch at this elegant château, reminiscent of a Burgundian estate (though the distinctive towers are apparently local), just to enjoy the ride up the driveway, curving through the grapevines, with the château revealed at the end. When you get there, the additional rewards are picture windows looking out over those vines and Martin Courtman's straightforward, perfectly prepared dishes using Sonoma's estimable local ingredients. Wild mushroom soup drizzled with white-truffle oil was rich and full of flavor; Sonoma Muscovy duck breast in a duck-stock reduction laced with maple and honey, accompanied by a corn flan, was similarly vivid, with a harmonic balance of flavors. Lunch served daily, $50; dinner from Friday through Sunday, $68. 400 Souverain Road; 888-809-4637; fax 857-4656. www.thegirlandthefig.com.
Applewood Inn &Amp; Restaurant
There's a dearth of luxury inns in this corner of the Russian River Valley, for that matter, in all of Sonoma County; at least that is the only way I could explain the wealth of superlatives lavished on this inn by so many in the media. The 16 rooms run the gamut from small and somewhat dreary in the otherwise charming 1920s-era Belden House, to more spacious but a bit bland and modern in Piccola Casa and the new Gate House. The most interesting room, as described (it was occupied, so I didn't get to see it, unfortunately), is the penthouse of Piccola Casa, with an iron bed and a terrace overlooking the grounds. Most views are of other buildings or, as in my case, a bit of the woods, the road—since the inn is located right up against it—and the driveway.
Another negative: the much touted, recently enlarged restaurant produced one of the worst meals we had had anywhere in the area: a tasteless fennel and carrot soup, galantine of local roast chicken with a stuffing of chorizo, accompanied by steamed mussels in a "smokey" (that's the way it's spelled) tomato broth that tasted primarily of sausage, and a roulade of salmon and prosciutto that was not only undercooked but also unpleasantly flavored. Rooms, $135-$275. Dinner, $74. 13555 Highway 116; 800-555-8509; fax 869-9170; www.applewoodinn.com.
Gaige House Inn
Not your normal, everyday bed-and-breakfast, this 15-room Victorian house blends Asian furniture and accessories with Ralph Lauren linens. I loved it. The owners, Ken Burnet Jr. and Greg Nemrow, look after their guests with great care without venturing into typical B&B smothering. Room to get: Creekside, with picture windows and a patio overlooking Calabasas Creek, is furnished with Berber rugs, a stone fireplace, beige silk throws, and leopard-print chairs. The great and imaginatively composed breakfasts include artichoke-and-pistachio blini with smoked salmon, asparagus, and saffron cream; their creator is chef Charles Holmes, formerly of the nearby Kenwood Inn & Spa (see following page). There is one drawback, however: In the main house, directly fronting the street, you will be hearing traffic. $250- $395. 13540 Arnold Drive; 935-0237; fax 935-6411; www.gaige.com.
The Girl & The Fig
Everything about this place is colorful, from the bright yellow walls and Technicolor paintings to the ingredients in the refreshingly uncomplicated dishes. Figs, naturally, turn up a lot, as they did in a luscious coarse pork and pistachio terrine accompanied by figs macerated in a balsamic vinegar reduction, or the fig salad with arugula, local "Laura Chenel" goat cheese, pancetta, and a port vinaigrette. The main courses are generally fig-free but no less delicious, particularly a braised leg and pan-seared loin of Sonoma rabbit with a densely flavored artichoke sauce.While I was eating here, I kept thinking that I was in Woodstock, or at least an idealized Woodstock. (In Napa Valley, specifically St. Helena, I kept thinking that I was in East Hampton.) This is the earthy side of Sonoma at its best. Dinner only, $65. 13690 Arnold Drive; 938-3634; fax 938-2370; www.thegirlandthefig.com.
The domain of Christopher Dever and pastry chef Lindsay Ayers, both formerly of the Sonoma restaurant Deuce, Saffron is a modest place serving straightforward dishes. But I had one of my best meals in Sonoma here, starting with a superb salad: arugula and mâche with baby beets and blood oranges in a citrus vinaigrette—simple, perfectly balanced, and bursting with local flavor. Mussels in (naturally) a saffron broth followed, along with a massive slab of roasted pork tenderloin in a whole-grain mustard sauce, and Meyer lemon cheesecake with a cornmeal crust (diners are divided on the crust; I vote "no"—too gravelly). Hearty, competently prepared, and unpretentious food. $68. $ 13648 Arnold Drive; 938-4844; fax 938-0298.
With its smart decor and jazz playing in the background, this restaurant seems more SoHo than Sonoma. But the signed jeroboams representing the local wineries mark Bistro Ralph as a vintners' hangout. The small menu is straightforward but well done, with such dishes as Liberty Farm duck breast with Bing cherries, basil, and balsamic vinegar at dinner and a grilled New York steak salade niçoise with a zesty tomato-basil vinaigrette for lunch. But some just come for the sundae—an elemental pleasure consisting of vanilla ice cream and melted Valrhona chocolate that solidifies in chunks. $75. $ 109 Plaza Street; 433-1380.
Owners Kathleen Stewart and Lindsay Shere (formerly the pastry chef at Chez Panisse) create state-of-the-art sticky buns to round out their assortment of lemon tarts, fruit galettes, and nonpareil French breads. My only complaint is that the ice cream in the creamery doesn't measure up to the offerings on the bakery shelves. $1.30-$3.00. $ 308 A Center Street; 431-2719; fax 431-1579.
A refreshing change from the typical Healdsburg Victorian B&Bs, this hotel, which opened in July, is a collection of contemporary cottages, six of them identical, with blond wood bedframes, a black-and-white color scheme, and huge modern bathrooms with stainless steel counters. More individual are the four cottages devoted to artists, my favorite being the Andy Warhol suite, with its Marilyn lithograph, undulating turquoise futon in the living room providing color and shape, and Japanese soaking tub. While I was there the hotel was a work in progress, but owners Pat and Peter Lenz were on the right track, providing a soothing and sophisticated environment, including a glamorous pool, a Continental breakfast with pastries from Downtown Bakery, and as much mothering, and privacy, as you may need. $250-$300 weekdays, $275-$325 weekends. 421 Foss Street; 431-1300; fax 431-1333; www.duchamphotel.com.
One of the most beautiful settings in either Napa or Sonoma, this vineyard has at its center a Renaissance-inspired villa surrounded by a hillside carpeted with flowers. There's also a separate Italian-French parterre garden that changes colors four times a year. We were there in May, just as the 200 or so rose bushes were blooming. Spectacular. 8761 Dry Creek Road; 433-6700; fax 431-1742; www.ferrari-carano.com.
The Berkeley store sells unique household items, but this Sonoma outpost caters to the outdoors in a dramatic setting overlooking the vines. Moroccan baskets, French zinc planters, Italian terra-cotta pots, birdbaths, gardening tools, and a few trees and plants are among the items filling the barn and surrounding gardens. Open Thursday-Monday. $2-$4,000. 516 Dry Creek Road; 431-1063.
You could spend hours picking through this 105-year-old country store. The shelves in the front are packed with everything from 35-cent chocolate pansies in foil, Chinese brocade slippers, and fifties toys like Uncle Milton's Ant Farm to every top olive oil and jam produced in the valley. In the back are mirrors, vintage birdcages, and lamps, such as a restored Mitchel Lumitone radio lamp from the forties ($275). The nearby barn holds larger antiques such as a turn-of-the-century Carrara glass icebox ($1,975). All that and delicious sandwiches to go, some made with the store's famous olive salad. $ 6706 Highway 128; 433-1212; fax 433-1252; www.jimtown.com.
Who was that mystery vintner? No one back in the kitchen seemed to know, but others in the restaurant certainly did, because they kept sending him bottles of their vintages to taste. He had so many glasses lined up that it looked as if he were conducting a professional tasting. And maybe he was. This tiny, eight-table hole in the wall is a local favorite for its daily changing menu of fresh, original flavors. I loved the braised chili chicken with semolina gnocchi and the apple, pear, and apricot crisp, the best crisp I had anywhere in the region. The restaurant's name is both a description of the ideal customer and a play on words, since they're located in the Raven Theater, a fact that I realized when someone opened the door to the theater lobby and the restaurant was flooded with the aroma of popcorn. $50. $ 117 North Street; 431-1770.
Kenwood Inn & Spa
I can dream about Tuscany at the drop of a hat, but it's especially easy to do in this atmospheric, golden inn styled like a Tuscan villa and situated on grounds draped in ivy and dotted with fig and persimmon trees. Of the 12 rooms decorated with Italian antiques and countryside colors, the best is the Suite, with its carved-wood tables, olive-and-gold brocade drapes, straight-ahead views of the vine-covered hills of the Kunde vineyards, and terrace overlooking the swimming pool and fountains. (The fountains are an attempt, not entirely successful, to drown out the traffic of Highway 12, unfortunately right in front of the inn.) A small spa offers massages, including one for couples that's called "ti amo." Rooms, $285- $395 weekdays, $325-$425 weekends. Treatments, $50-$290. 10400 Sonoma Highway; 833-1293; fax 833-1247.
This roadside café may not look like much, but it's a local favorite for the best rotisserie chicken in the valley (juicy and flavorful, stuffed with herbs and garlic) and made-to-order pastas and salads. The day I visited was rainy, but there was a steady stream of customers catching up on pasta and gossip, all to a soundtrack of samba and jazz. $26. $ 9049 Sonoma Highway; 833-2690; fax 539-6255.
The Inn At Occidental
"You'll either love it or you won't. No one ever has a lukewarm reaction to Jack's," a friend said mysteriously as I headed off to the Inn at Occidental. Before I went up to my room I could see what she meant. Owner Jack Bullard must have cleaned out every flea market and antique store in California and New England (his former hunting ground), snapping up whirligigs, doodads, and folk art, because every square inch of this whimsically but aggressively decorated 19-room inn is crammed with them. All the rooms have themes and names. The Quilt Room, where I stayed, could just as easily have been called the Giraffe or Scissors Room because the wall above the fireplace is painted with affable-looking giraffes, and a five-foot-long pair of scissors hangs on another wall. The Costume Room features clowns' costumes, a wombat coat, and mannequin standing lamps. In the Folk Art Room are croquet wickets in the form of jockeys. For those who prefer simplicity to themes, the Tiffany Room, the original bedroom of this 1877 house, has simply a fireplace, a canopy bed, and a collection of vintage Tiffany silver. $180-$255 weekdays, $190-$270 weekends. 3657 Church Street; 874-1047; fax 874-1078; www.innatoccidental.com.
John Ash & Co.
The views from the patio are of vines as far as the eye can see. So despite the fact that the founder of the restaurant that bears his name doesn't cook here anymore (he has become a consultant to Fetzer), it seemed just the right place to be on a sultry afternoon. And it was, even though the food was uneven. Chef Jeffrey Madura cooks the local Sonoma duck perfectly and balances it with lively flavors; his crisp vegetable-studded Asian duck breast salad in a hazelnut vinaigrette was a triumph, as was the fromage blanc cheesecake. The barbecued chicken pizza with red onions, gouda, and cilantro, however, was a sweet, gooey disaster, and the roasted organic chicken was oversalted and accompanied by an unpleasant cream sauce. Next time I'll take the suggestion offered loudly by a man at a neighboring table: Come for brunch and stick to the simpler items. $83. 4330 Barnes Road; 527-7687; fax 527-1202; www.johnashco.com.
"I try to get perfection with every pair," explains cowboy-boot artisan Michael Anthony. That's the reason why every inch of his boots is handstitched and hand-finished, and why customers such as Jay Leno and George Lucas are willing to wait ten to 14 months for their boots. The hallmarks of these boots? A perfect fit, top materials (such as a German calfskin that only Anthony imports to this country), and designs tailored to the wearer's lifestyle, rare in a Western boot. $1,500 (calfskin) to $6,500 (alligator). By appointment. $ 227 North Main Street; 823-7204.
Mom's Apple Pie
The way Betty Carr explains it, being widowed forced her into the business world, and what she knew best was baking pies. And she's right about that: Her pies are exceptional. Located in the middle of apple-growing country, she makes the best apple pie I have ever had, sweet, tender, and cinnamony—with the flakiest crust. There are other pies as well, but Betty often has to resort to frozen fruit. Go for the apple. $2.25 a piece; $9.95 a pie. 4550 Gravenstein Highway North; 823-8330; fax 823-5615.
It was 101 degrees and we needed ice cream. But after we tasted the homemade ice cream at this store in downtown Sebastopol, we found reasons to return to Mimi's even in cool weather, and even when faced with the maddening prospect of navigating Sebastopol's maze of one-way streets. This addictive ice cream (and sorbet), in such free-form combinations as cinnamon crumb cake and hazelnut fudge, is sold in a really sensible way, by the ounce, so you can have precisely the amount that you want. 6902 Sebastopol Avenue; 823-5902.
Cafe La Haye
Despite all the good reviews I'd heard, I wasn't drawn to Cafe La Haye at first. The menu seemed spartan and plain so I kept trying other more ambitious places in town, such as Meritage and Deuce (both of which were disappointing). Eventually I relented, and was sorry I had waited so long. Everything was expertly prepared, and composed of wonderfully fresh local ingredients: a salad of mixed greens with spiced walnuts, blue cheese, and roasted chioggia beets; luscious tagliarini with artichokes, oven-dried tomatoes, and Kalamata olives; La Haye's signature grilled pork chop with hot and sweet mustard and mashed sweet potatoes. They were all prime examples of how these dishes ought to taste, and so much more satisfying than the efforts of chefs who try to be inventive—and fail. $60. 140 East Napa Street; 935-5994.
It was Sunday and everyone at this restaurant was looking for a reason not to get back on the road. One clear deterrent was the weekend's weather, which was dismal and better forgotten. Everyone ordered lavishly—bottles of better wine and Champagne and more courses than they'd planned. In the middle of this raw, stormy day, the starkly decorated room took on the air of a party. And it was fitting; the menu deserves it. Chef Michael Dotson cooks creative but sensible food, very much in keeping with the tone of the historic, now refurbished, Sonoma Hotel, of which the restaurant is a part. I loved the roasted local Wolfe Ranch quail with heirloom beans, shaved fennel, spring onions, and mustard dressing and the rich chocolate soufflé cake with caramel cream. In better weather, there's a great garden in back. $58. 110 West Spain Street; 939-6955; fax 996-7014.
Inn At Cedar Mansion
"He'll never make his money back," I kept thinking as I looked at the $1.5-million-plus renovation lavished on this five-bedroom Victorian a block off Sonoma Plaza. But regardless of the financial wisdom involved, I applauded innkeeper Bob Kowal for doing it. This is now a gorgeous place, furnished by San Francisco interior designer Jeffrey DeSousa in a safely elegant style—fourposter beds in beautiful off-white linens, French armoires, stacked antique suitcases and baskets, restored marble fireplaces, and crystal chandeliers. It has a glamorous pool with outdoor tables (a superb setting for breakfast chef Sarina Miller's artistic presentations), and is probably the only B&B I've ever seen with a tennis court on the premises. Best room: the Veranda Suite, which contains a planter's bed with a draped canopy, a fireplace, and its own veranda. $365-$445. 531 Second Street East; 938-3206; fax 935-7721; www.cedarmansion.com.
Vella Cheese Company
"Don't you ever go home?" asked a regular customer of Ig Vella's, after encountering the septuagenarian owner of this cheese company late on a Sunday. The answer, obviously, is no. Being hands-on is necessary for Vella, as it was for his father, who founded the company in 1931. Vella Cheese has diversified production in recent years, but the cheese to get is the nutty, well-aged Special Select Dry Monterey Jack at $6.95 a pound. $ 315 Second Street East; 938-3232; fax 938-4307; www.vellacheese.com.
The small 1940s bungalow is unprepossessing from the outside, a deceptively simple setting for chef and co-owner Raymond Tan's complex, seasonal cooking, developed while working with Nancy Oakes (currently at Boulevard), Gray Kunz (formerly of Lespinasse), and Daniel Boulud. The menu changes weekly, but one item rarely does and shouldn't be missed: the signature sizzling black mussels with sweet-pepper curry sauce and sautéed pea sprouts in a cast-iron pot—a terrific mix of sweet and sharp flavors and sinewy and crunchy textures. Another vivid dish I sampled: green-fig-stuffed quail with braised homemade bacon and summer savory, in which the flavors commingled without losing their identities. I can see why this restaurant is a local favorite. My only caveat: The tables were pushed too close together, creating a deafening noise level. $70. $ 275 Windsor River Road; 838-0162.
Fourth-generation vintner Robin Lail has amassed quite an address book. As part of her side business, called Connections, she opens her book for clients—to arrange private visits to wineries and gardens usually closed to the public; set up dinners so that clients can meet locals who share their interests; and, when clients show up in high season without reservations, to book guest cottages on estates truly not open to the public. Fees vary by itinerary and start at $1,000. 1 967-0707; fax 963-7519.
Everyone knows about the Wine Auction held in early June each year. But visitors to Napa from March to May should check the window of Steve's Hardware, on Main Street in St. Helena, for postings of weekly wine auctions to benefit local schools. The auctions are held in area wineries, and some of the same wines auctioned at the Big One in June are also available here—for a fraction of the price.
Liz Porter is a savvy, well-connected resident who specializes in tailoring itineraries, introducing visitors to people of similar interests, and organizing your driving schedule so you don't wind up zigzagging all over the county—a more important bit of help than it might sound. Fees vary according to specific arrangements. 939-9669.
The Sonoma hotel scene is mostly one of B&Bs of varying quality, but the level will likely rise over the next two years. First up: Charlie Palmer's Hotel Healdsburg, a small hotel and 70-seat restaurant set to open on Healdsburg Plaza next spring. At least a year away should be Sonoma's first true luxury resort, the reopened Timberhill Ranch in Cazadero, to be redone by the management team behind Vermont's top-rated Twin Farms.
Disclaimer: The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication in Oct 2000, but we suggest you confirm all details with the service establishments before making travel plans.
About This Guide
Hotel Prices High season double occupancy, from the least expensive double room to the most expensive suite.
Restaurant Prices Three-course dinner for two without beverage, unless otherwise noted.
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