Paradise Found

In the new American vernacular, Napa and Sonoma have become synonymous with the good life—and rightly so, reports Richard Nalley.

As California's wine and food playgrounds, Napa and Sonoma counties are something new in America. These are farm communities like only a few others in the world, places where agriculture has been elevated so far beyond its traditional role that it has become artistic, international, an event. From these two neighboring counties, with their sweeping Pacific Coast landscapes of rumpled hills, abrupt knolls, and contour-planted mountainsides, comes an unlikely cornucopia, everything from "cult" Cabernet Sauvignons to ultrarefined olive oil to expertly aged goat cheese—all American products that only a generation ago didn't exist, because the audience for them didn't exist. The ground, as it were, hadn't been prepared.

The bull markets of the eighties and nineties swept through Napa and Sonoma like beneficent tornadoes, leaving behind oases of luxury hotel rooms, locally provendered restaurants, and wineries aimed at world connoisseurs. But these have thrived only because of the exploding interest in wine and food in this country. They are surfing the same wave as all the glossy chef magazines, cookbooks, wine Web sites, and kitchenware catalogues. Though Sonoma and Napa grow only a fraction of California's wine grapes (about one-tenth between them), their manicured vineyards, famous wineries, and sunny, close-to-the-earth lifestyles have assumed leading roles in the imagery of this new wine and food culture. The remarkable thing is that the places themselves live up to the dream.

As the first soil-wise European immigrants to arrive here in the 19th century instinctively understood, these are two of the more blessed places on earth for growing finicky, thoroughbred wine grapes. They are sunny and warm, but their proximity to the Pacific Ocean and joint frontage on San Francisco-San Pablo Bay to the south provide cooling onshore breezes that drop the temperatures at night and prevent the grapes from losing their precious acidity. The rains hit mostly in the winter, allowing a long, humidity-free (and rot-free) growing season and—usually—a dry harvest. The twists and turns of the hills create pockets with special conditions of soil, sun exposure, and temperature that perfectly suit the needs of fine wine grapes.

We take it for granted these days that the best wines coming from Sonoma and Napa are among the world's most prized, but baby boomers can easily remember when that was far from true. The wasted years began with Prohibition, which stopped the California wine industry in its tracks. Though a few quality-minded wineries struggled back to life here and there, as recently as the 1960s the foremost image of California wine wasn't Robert Mondavi but a white-haired gnome in lederhosen ("That leedle ol' winemaker . . . me!") in the commercials for something called Italian Swiss Colony. The wine was neither Swiss nor Italian but California's own acknowledged specialty: generic plonk. What has happened since then in Napa and Sonoma hasn't been so much a growth curve as a tectonic shift.

But as these elite counties have come into their own they've also grown apart. Napa and Sonoma are not peas in a pod—they're more like a pea and a pole bean. To begin with, there's the scale of the places. Napa Valley, the famous grape-growing portion of Napa County, is self-contained and easy to grasp: It's essentially one 30-mile-long garden, from one to five miles wide, with just two parallel north-south roads. Drive up the main thoroughfare, Highway 29, and Napa's attractions are strung like beads on a necklace, from Francis Ford Coppola's Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery (formerly Inglenook), to Opus One Winery's post-Aztec temple, to the western campus of The Culinary Institute of America.

Sonoma County, a winding, brake-pumping drive across the Mayacamas Mountains to the west, is something else altogether: a vast expanse of land nearly one-and-a-half times the size of Rhode Island. Sonoma encompasses numerous wine valleys—Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Alexander Valley among them—plus the Carneros district, where Sonoma and Napa join at their southern tips. But Sonoma is also a place of deep redwood forests, a craggy, wave-lashed seacoast, and farmers raising everything from succulent Gravenstein apples to aquaculture oysters to secretive herbal crops that fall under the jurisdiction not of the FDA but of the DEA. Visiting Sonoma requires a map and a focus, or at least the willingness to get blissfully lost. While a tour of Napa Valley is linear and well signposted, travel in Sonoma County can include dropping in at a local firemen's pancake breakfast to ask where you misplaced Highway 1.

The argument over which county makes the better wine can rage back and forth, and each stakes its special claims to stardom (for Sonoma, it's old-vine Zinfandel and Pinot Noir; for Napa, Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style blends). But for whatever reason (perhaps because it got out of the blocks sooner and in a more unified fashion in promoting itself), there's no question that much of the stardust has settled on Napa Valley, which has evolved into a luxury-lifestyle showcase. Pharaonic new weekend châteaux dominate the hilltops, and restaurants exude whiffs of spiffed-up Provençal or Tuscan country chic. And while Sonoma is about the local bounty of the kids-and-balloons farmers' market in Santa Rosa, Napa features the hushed crush of Dean & Deluca—a transplanted Manhattan gourmet grocery that's stocked with world delicacies and as stylized as a fashion shoot.

There are plenty of Type A personalities in both places—despite appearances, farming at this level isn't exactly a laid-back endeavor—but, from very similar beginnings, these two great American "wine countries" have matured into contrary cousins with different dreams of paradise, one version starring Martha Stewart, the other Jimmy Stewart.

Naturally Napa

"People here truly want other people of talent and energy to succeed," says Daphne Araujo of her adopted home, Napa Valley. We're sitting about 90 feet underground in Araujo Estate Wines' spotless hillside barrel caves, where chilled crab salad with a honey-tangerine vinaigrette arrives amid flickering candlelight, the plates having been finished somewhere just out of sight by San Francisco star chef Traci Des Jardins. This is one of the array of "hospitality events" preceding the annual Napa Valley Wine Auction in early June, and the luncheon is sprinkled with prospective bidders—San Francisco investors, Silicon Valley venture capitalists—some with their pulses already elevated by the Nasdaq's biggest one-week gain in history.

Araujo is telling me how her husband, Bart, leapt at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in 1990 to buy Napa Valley's Eisele Vineyard. The vineyard, tucked away in a fold of the hills off the northern section of the Silverado Trail, was elevated to superstar status as the source of Joseph Phelps Vineyards' luxury-priced Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon and Insignia bottlings. When the time came for the Eisele family to sell the property, Phelps got first crack, but he balked at the price (feeling, perhaps, that he was being asked to shell out top dollar for a vineyard his own promotion had made so valuable). Instead, Bart Araujo, a Santa Barbara homebuilder, emerged with the prize, and became the latest wealthy outsider to buy into the Napa Valley dream.

The Araujo 1997 Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (which accompanies the stuffed squab) is an instant, all-senses lesson in why Napa Valley is Napa Valley. Rich, broodingly dark and supple, it exudes a high, sweet, crushed-fruit note so appealing it reminds me of a cartoon image, the beckoning finger of aroma that lures hungry characters toward warm baked goods.

But as I sip it, I find myself thinking of the Araujo not just as a wine but as a symbol of the new Napa Valley, and only partly because it's an extraordinarily layered and sophisticated Cabernet. Araujo is one of the new cult wines that have turned the Napa Valley aristocracy on its ear. It's not that Caymus or Silver Oak or Château Montelena are having a moment's trouble selling their own pricey wares. It's just that upstarts like Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, Colgin, and Araujo have seized the sizzle off the steak. Boosted by stratospheric ratings in tastemaker Robert Parker's newsletter, The Wine Advocate, these eyedropper-production wines feature prices soaring well past $150 a bottle, and waiting lists just to get on their mailing lists to buy a bottle. In these boom times for Napa, the heavy hitters wanted something fresher, more exclusive, more hands-on-artisanal in appeal. No problem. Napa Valley could do that.

The morning after the Araujo luncheon brings one of those vivid, cloudless, and sunstruck skies that seem to forever hover above the North Coast wine country, at least in the summertime. But all the action is in the shade. Under the massive white tent pitched across the Meadowood resort's ninth fairway, the 20th annual Napa Valley Wine Auction is going a little gonzo.

As even jaded auction veterans "ooh" and "ah," a lot consisting of ten magnums of Araujo Estate Wines Cabernet—not even two full cases of wine—is going, gone for $270,000. That seems extreme until ten magnums of Harlan Estate are bid up to $700,000. But just wait: Here's one six-liter bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon . . . $500,000? Why not? When a particularly over-the-top lot is hammered down, a crew of banner-waving volunteers in New Year's hats plunge between the crowded tables, leading camera crews to the bidder amid blaring, triumphant music from the sound system. By the end of the day they'd had a relentless workout.

The charity auction, which had hoped to break 1999's record of $5.5 million, nearly doubled it. On a day when many enthusiasms were indulged, the Über-bidder was one Chase Bailey, formerly of Silicon Valley, who plunked down $1.7 million, explaining, "My wife and I love great wines."

Driving through the valley late that afternoon, I noticed that the nearly constant traffic that plagues the place these days had let up. I dawdled on a tour of the crossroads, reflecting once again that Napa Valley, traffic or no, can justly lay claim to being the world's most beautiful wine country. The place may strike a Sonoman as being overly groomed and manicured, but to most of the rest of us it is almost heartbreakingly lovely—with the fog creeping over the southern vineyards at first light, the vivid yellow mustard flowers in late winter, the deep, shimmering green of the midsummer vines framed by rugged brown hills. Over and over in Napa you round a bend, or look over your shoulder, and glimpse its quirky geometry from another perspective that makes you catch your breath. Even the light here seems particular—as though the heavenly dispensation that lavished such rich gifts on the landscape also decreed that only the softest, most luminous gold sunshine could strike it.

The ultimate privileged square foot in the privileged expanse of Napa Valley is a seat at Thomas Keller's French Laundry— perhaps America's most sure-handed restaurant. Once you locate the entrance to the little stone building (down the side street, through the courtyard), you leave the outside world behind. It is a restaurant whose dimmed lighting and homey rooms foster a serene intimacy, and whose deep upholstered chairs invite you to settle in. A tray arrives holding "ice-cream cones," cornets filled with salmon tartare and topped with crème fraîche. There's also a glass of Billecart-Salmon Champagne to take off the road dust. All this before you've said a word.

Lunch ranges from a palate-expanding fennel sorbet on a bed of tapenade to an eggshell filled with an eggy white truffle custard to a "lobster sandwich with peas and carrots"—it's in a wonton and topped with fresh pea shoots and a carrot-and-ginger sauce. In dish after dish, Keller's flavors ring true. If the presentations look fussed over, the tastes are uncluttered and pure, laser-focused. In a restaurant that seems to have nearly a one-to-one personnel-to-diner ratio, the food passion is palpable in everyone you speak to; loads of information is being communicated here. I ask one of our waiters what bottarga is, and he returns a few moments later with the thing itself, concerned I hadn't understood him. (It's a dried cod roe that Keller shaves over Yukon Gold blinis so whipped and light they almost hover over the plate.)

The French Laundry is the apotheosis of Napa food culture in the way Harlan Estate or Araujo is of Cabernet Sauvignon: Talented individuals have found their way here and gathered around one another. And it may just be, as Daphne Araujo said, that the community wills them to succeed.

Sonoma Sublime

"Napa's P.R. engine has always been superior to Sonoma's," notes Patrick Campbell, proprietor of Sonoma Mountain's star red-wine producer, Laurel Glen. We are sitting at a jostling taco stand in Santa Rosa, Campbell sipping a rice milk and cinnamon horchata while I fumble with gooey barbecued beef from a rapidly disintegrating tortilla. "Of course," he adds, "Napa is just easier to understand. Sonoma's diversity is a strength in other ways, but it's a P.R. weakness. It makes our message harder to get across."

When you're there, however, Sonoma is communicating messages all the time. As we drive back to the little frame house that serves as Laurel Glen's in-town office, I keep tension on the rope lashing Campbell's kayak to the Saab's roof rack. A workday is a workday, but in Sonoma County that doesn't mean you can't fit in a little steelhead fishing, mountain biking, boar hunting, horseback riding, abalone diving, or sea kayaking too. But before Campbell can get to his paddling he must hold a wine tasting for the visiting journalist.

And a solemn and impressive affair it is. First we root through a pile of cardboard boxes to find the bottles we want. Then we stand around discussing Mexican food, the Sierra Club, and his days as a graduate student at Harvard while spitting wine into the kitchen sink. And what wines! Laurel Glen's 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon, which is made from stingy 33-year-old mountaintop vines, is smoky, graceful, superextracted, and perfumed with the essence of red berries. The '92 Laurel Glen is even more remarkable: a harmoniously knit wine with notes of chocolate, earth, violets, and black plum. The '97 fetches $50 a bottle, but it's easily the equivalent of many Napa Valley wines priced in the $75-$100 range. Napa's smoothly humming machine rolls on.

I am contemplating the diversity of Sonoma County a few days later as I lie on a massage table beside a burbling creek. My masseuse at the Osmosis spa has just led me down a rhododendron-lined walkway and through a sliding Japanese gate; we've emerged in a hidden wood and entered a small room open to the breezes with screen windows all around. There's no sound but birdsong, the creek, and the occasional leaf alighting on the roof.

As I lie on the table, my thoughts drift over images Sonoma has impressed on my memory: The redwoods north of Cazadero that made me understand the words "natural cathedral" (interlocking branches draw the eye upward, as do the ribs of a barrel vault, and all beneath is dark and hushed); a raucous afternoon at the Crushers minor-league baseball game in Rhonert Park, with cheers led by the goofy purple Abominable Sonoman mascot and smoke from grilling sausages wafting over the grandstand; the handsome white houses of the old timber barons' row on Santa Rosa's McDonald Avenue, one of those old neighborhoods that seem like the Technicolor vision of a perfect small-town America.

But although it's less obvious than in Napa, prosperity has caught up with Sonoma too, and signs of change are everywhere. Driving around, you notice how many wineries are building or sprucing up, and concern has flared as orchard crops like apples are giving way to even more vineyards. New money is pouring in, from outside the wine business and from within, altering the old assumptions. Gallo of Sonoma, for instance, bought the lovely ranch estate belonging to the late actor Fred MacMurray and brought in earth-moving equipment from the Alaska Pipeline. Millions of dollars—and considerable community protests—later, the ground has been stripped, scraped, sculpted, and homogenized, its appearance altered so radically it could enter the witness-protection program.

Money is rolling elsewhere too. The luxury resort Timber Hill has closed down for a multimillion-dollar upgrade, while the lobby of Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is practically unreachable behind all its renovation. Remote outposts like the town of Graton are being touched up with Napa-esque "wine country" looks. In boutique-free Geyserville, Catelli's The Rex, a red-sauce pasta joint open since the late Juras- sic period, gave way this spring to sleek, spare Santi, with its fine sweetbreads and risottos. Even the once-bohemian Osmosis has taken the leap from the shaggy '70s to become a polished spa of the '00s.

Still, there's plenty of old-time Sonoma left to savor, as I realized during an afternoon of touring vineyards with Russian River land baron Warren Dutton. A barrel-chested man in cowboy boots and an Indian belt, he reaches out to shake hello and his hands are colored a vivid turquoise up to the wrists. Dutton has been adding blue food coloring to a reservoir to block the UV rays that promote algae bloom, and the stuff won't wash off. For the time being, he's an art happening.

Dutton Ranch is among the most famous vineyard names in California, designated on the labels of many prestige winery bottlings, including Pinot Noirs from Kistler and Hartford Court and Chardonnays from Merryvale. As we visit his various holdings (sweeping vineyards in hidden valleys and on the crowns of far hills) we discuss the changing scene: How the town of Graton, to which he moved in 1964, has essentially been bought by an entrepreneur named Orin Thiessen and upscaled, storefront by storefront; how Dutton's Rome Beauty apples last year sold for $70 a ton (it cost $35 a ton to pick them), while his top grapes fetched $3,000 a ton, leaving no doubt at all about which way that dynamic is headed.

As we drive up to the new Taylor Lane vineyard owned by Dutton and winemaker Steve Kistler, I develop a new vision of what I'd do with my lottery winnings. Set high on a hilltop, surrounded by big redwoods and smaller rolling hills, with manicured Pinot Noir vines, the vineyard looks out over the cliffs to the whitecaps of the Pacific, with distant views of Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands.

After a few minutes of walking around, feeling the ocean breeze, I pick up the conversation again about the potential Napa-ization of Sonoma. "No," says Dutton. "We'll always keep the down-home style around here. Look at Graton: You can get lots of good food there, but I bet you won't find one restaurant in town with tablecloths."

Of course, these days there are plenty of places around Sonoma with tablecloths, but Dutton's point is well taken. Sonoma's own idiosyncratic version of down-home style is not in any danger of fading away, not in this lifetime.

In Napa and Sonoma counties, the good life can assume an endless number of pleasurable guises. Above: Cabernet Sauvignon grapes await the Crush in Napa Valley. Opposite page, left to right, top to bottom: Chef Hiro Sone's croquette of "Laura Chenel" chèvre with artichoke salad and tapenade, from the St. Helena restaurant Terra; country-club ease at Meadowood Napa Valley; homemade donuts from the 111-year-old general store Oakville Grocery; Napa's cheerful regular haunt, Bistro Jeanty; a Harlan Estate bottling; barrels of Chardonnay aging at Donald Hess' winery; flitting among the lavender in Molly Chappellet's garden; after the enzyme bath and before the deep-tissue massage at Freestone's Osmosis spa, in Sonoma; and contemporary work by Bay Area artists in situ at the di Rosa Preserve.