By: Tom Flynn
It’s no secret northern California is blessed with sun, coastal breezes, unique terrain and great soil. Add chilly nights and warm days, grapes are going to grow. Usually when good grapes are available, some mad scientist is on-hand to turn them into good wine. The rest of us are in line to drink it. So it’s been in Northern California for about 150 years.
Good wine needs good food. When you are in Sonoma and surrounding regions, there is plenty of it. But people visit, buy wine and take it home. Ramekins Culinary School and Inn provides the cooking expertise to recreate the California wine country experience, great food and wine, in your Texas home. Ramekins can be your home base to the wine country. It’s small; just six well-appointed Texas sized rooms over the cooking school. But it is a couple of blocks from the Sonoma town square, has relationships with wineries, purveyors and the finest restaurants. Their attentive staff is ready to assist in creating the perfect wine country getaway.
I’d never seen a raw, dead, naked duck. Three hours after it was put on the counter, my wife and I could butcher it and use the bones to create stock. We rendered the fat and made duck confit, roasted the breasts and cooked all the trimmings for a fabulous French meal. Individual, hands on classes, which usually include a meal, run $60 -$120 per person. Ramekins premier wine country experience is a four-day retreat filled with classes, tours, meals and a private dinner at French Laundry, just voted one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. The four-day program includes lodging and costs about $4,000 per person.
Fifth Street Farms is a French inspired organic garden. The large old farmhouse and barn were built in 1875. Curving walkways lead you through the gardens and around the pond, orchards and trellises. Little helpers, goats and miniature horses, are nearby, ready to help clear the garden in the fall.
Culinary Gardener Andrea Davis oversees 5thStreet Farms. She meets with chefs to determine their produce needs in the kitchen and creates a year round growing program to supply their restaurants and catering businesses. Plants are started from seed in the greenhouse and transplanted in the gardens. To keep a steady flow of product, she plants each variety in succession. Throughout the growing season she has a crop ready to harvest, one that will be ready soon and one just planted. When a crop is harvested, she replants with new sprouting plants from the greenhouse.
When your thirst for organic garden knowledge has been quenched, wander past the pool and into the ancient old barn. It is filled with Cuban artwork. From giant displays created and installed by Cuban artists to the most intricately carved humidors ever made; the barn has two levels of viewing pleasure.
Dairyman Bob Giacomini built a thriving milk cow business. His daily commute is from his home, which overlooks Tomales Bay, to his dairy operation. It takes him five minutes on his private road. Yet his four daughters had no interest in taking over the 700-acre milking operation; they each found a home in the corporate world. So Bob was ready to sell and retire to Hawaii.
Bob made one last attempt to bring his daughters home to the farm. He knew they didn’t like the milk business, but wondered if they would enjoy using the milk to create new products. After some research, they learned no one in their region made blue cheese. They set out to produce quality blue cheese for local upscale restaurants in 2000. Each year they now produce 750,000 pounds of Point Reyes Farmstead Original Blue Cheese and distribute it in each of the 48 continental US states, Hawaii and on both Canadian coasts. And all four daughters work on the family farm.
The family uses 70% of their milk to make cheese. The quality of the cheese comes from the freshness and quality of the milk; milk so fresh it was grass a couple of hours ago. The cows have their own dietitian who determines supplements they need to accompany the organic grass. Bob looks world wide to source quality supplements at low prices.
The farm is giant sustainable project; nothing goes to waste. Power and hot water come from methane rising from cow dung, hay is harvested two- three times each summer and turned into winter food, excess manure is sold as fertilizer. Excess milk is sold to a distributor; wastewater from milk in the cheese factory is pumped out to irrigate the fields. The goal is high quality cheese at affordable prices.
Drink It- Up-and-Coming Wineries
The sons of a nut farmer are working in the vineyards to continue the family’s farming tradition. Scribe winery is a work in progress.
In 1858 Emil Dresel, the son of a famous champagne producer, bought land near Sonoma and built an excellent wine business. The winery thrived until it was shut down during prohibition. When the Mariani brothers purchased that same land a few years back, it was a dilapidated old turkey farm.
Today the old turkey barns are gone and fantastic wines are being made. Scribe produces about 4500 cases a year, most which are purchased by diehard fans for about $40 a bottle directly from the winery. The next big project is to restore the 1800s Hacienda, which will serve as a welcome center to the property. Until then, picnic tables under the giant old tree on the hill will remain the official greeting place.
Sonoma’s newest winery features modern buildings with an old world feel. Majestic views are accented with clean wines from winemaker Jesse Fox and “farm to tasting table dishes” from the kitchen. Ram’s Gate is huge; several events could be held simultaneously without bumping into one another, unless they clash over the stock of Pinot Noir.
Napa Valley is home to the Carneros Inn, one of the top 25 romantic getaways in the world according to Travel and Leisure Magazine. Full service spas, pools, restaurants and reception facilities rest on 27 acres in the middle of Napa Valley farmland.
Each room is a free standing cabin with adjacent courtyard. The luxurious accommodations feature indoor/outdoor showers and tubs along with fire pits in many of the courtyards. Though the property is large, it is arranged so it’s never a long walk anywhere. And the walkways are beautifully landscaped and feature stunning views of orchards and farmland.
The Boon Fly café is the most popular eatery on the property, attracting guests and many locals. The rustic, regional fare is tasty, plentiful and creative. The Bacon Bloody Mary is served with strips of bacon instead of celery. Chicken and waffles, Boon Fly Benedict with jalapeno hollandaise and designer flatbreads are popular here.
If you want to eat it, cook it, tour it, drink it or romance it, California’s wine country is waiting for you. Just do it!