Two full days in Wine Country is not long enough.
I already knew that in planning this past weekend’s jaunt to Northern California to celebrate our first wedding anniversary.
But my husband doesn’t have many vacation days, so we were going to have to make this work. And it really is entirely possible to see, drink and eat a lot in two full days.
Here’s the catch, though: My husband has never been to Wine Country. Ever. So this was all going to be new to him. That put a little more pressure on me to find the right things to do, wineries to visit and restaurants to patronize.
That’s the thing about traveling. When you’ve been there before, you can eliminate the “usual” stops. The observation deck at Willis Tower in Chicago, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. (The Eiffel Tower, though… You can see that every single time you visit Paris…) Then you can focus on more of the experience of the place. You can leisurely walk the city streets or bike through neighborhoods, you can stop at hole-in-the-wall eateries and try something entirely and strangely new.
But when it’s your first time, it’s hard to skip the iconic stops.
So that was my challenge on this trip. To plan something where we hit the must-sees while balancing a new and different experience that wouldn’t seem to, well, touristy.
And in two days, don’t forget.
So here were my highlights (in no particular order):
1. Eating at The Girl and the Fig, Sonoma Hotel, 110 W Spain St. in Sonoma, 707-938-3634
Just about everyone who knew I was going to Wine Country suggested we eat at The Girl and the Fig, a charming eatery right in Sonoma Square that boasts simple but elegant rustic French cuisine. It has long been on my must-go-to-once-in-my-life list since my first visit to the area nearly a decade ago. It’s just been bumped by so many of the region’s other incredible restaurants.
Since it was our first wedding anniversary, I thought — briefly — about booking reservations at the iconic The French Laundry. And I’ll tell you why I didn’t. For starters, it’s pricey, with nine-course tasting menus at $295 per person. And during the weekdays, the restaurant only serves dinner, starting at 5:30 p.m. Reservations must be made at least two months in advance, and it doesn’t accept walk-in guests at all.
I know my husband. He would have thoroughly enjoyed dining here. But it’s a bit fussy — he would feel uncomfortable wearing what he’d want to wear (board shirts and a T-shirt) here — and we’d be locked into a chuck of time we just didn’t have. We wanted to spend time on the farm where we were staying, and getting back there after sundown would’ve allowed for that.
It was a bit of a quandary for me since I had always wanted to eat at The French Laundry. But I decided on the alternative — The Girl and the Fig — and trust me, it was up there on my list, too.
What I really loved about the Girl and the Fig was its relaxed approached to well-excutived, delicious food. It wasn’t stuffy or pretentious. It wasn’t trying to be trendy or mind-blowing. It was just great dishes using the freshest ingredients done perfectly. You really can’t go wrong with that.
2. The Full House Farm, 1000 Sexton Road in Sebastopol, 707-829-1561
In booking a place to stay in Wine Country, I found two options: a quaint private room — with separate bathroom and entrance — at a home in Sonoma, about five minutes from the town center, or a fully equipped trailer at a working farm in Sebastopol.
I let my husband choose.
He chose the farm. (Of course.)
Full House Farm is a 23-acre working farm in the rural area of Sebastopol, which was once a plum- and apple-growing region. Today, though, it’s full of vineyards, though some small farms, like this one, still remain.
Full House Farms is a three-fold operation: it offers programs with horses — owner Christine Cole is an equine expansion coast; it runs 90-minute farm tours where you learn about sustainable living and meet the horses, goats, sheep and chickens that live here; and it’s got three vacation rentals, one of which is a fully equipped trailer.
The trailer — and I have more photos on my Facebook page, if you’re interested — is a 34-by-11-foot caravan that boasts a full kitchen, dining area, living room with recliners, a flat-screen TV with dozens of DVDs, a king-sized bed, a bathroom with shower, and even a washer-dryer. It sits atop the farm’s 23 acres with sunset views — or views of the fog rolling in, which is what we mostly saw — and a hot tub.
Oh, and there was free WiFi, too.
Not bad, right?
You even had access to an organic garden just outside (above photo), where you could pick spinach, lettuce, broccoli, beets, basil, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries — anything you wanted to eat or cook with.
Guests can take the farm tour for free, where you meet several of the horses on the property. (That’s 30-year-old Rowdy, above), the 75 chickens that produce fresh eggs, and the goats that are raised here for its milk.
The farm sells its products, too, at a little yellow kiosk on its property. (It’s all done on the honor system.) You can buy fresh eggs, fresh goat milk, goat milk yogurt and cream cheese, and other farm products like jams, jellies and honey. Cole even made some tasty caramel treats using goat milk cream. So good!
3. Sparkling wines
I’m not much of a wine drinker. But I do love anything effervescent.
So of course, I was smitten by California’s sparkling wines, of which this area produces some of the best.
California wineries sold nearly 9 million cases of sparkling wines in the U.S. in 2014. That’s more than all of the sparkling wine imported here combined.
And while there are wine snobs out there who prefer the French champagne and Italian Prosecco to California’s sparkling cousin, I love them all equally.
(And, just to be clear, there are many French champagne houses with sparkling wine operations in California, including Taittinger Champange with Domaine Carneros, G.H. Mumm’s Mumm Napa, and and Moët & Chandon’s Domaine Chandon.)
4. The tour at Domaine Carneros, 1240 Duhig Road in Napa, 707-257-0101
While I enjoyed the brief tour we got at Cakebread Cellars in Napa, it only prepared us better for the grand tour at Domaine Carneros, the impressively opulent winery in Napa that specializes in methóde champenoise sparkling wine. (Though it does offer a rich and complex Pinot Noir, too.)
This winery was founded by the family behind the famous Champagne Taittinger in 1987 on this 138-acre parcel in the heart of Carneros in Napa Valley. It produces high-quality sparkling wines ranging from the classic vintage-dated Brut cuvée to its Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs, which retails at more than $100 a bottle.
What we learned on this tour was that the estate grows certified organic grapes, with 95 percent of its fruit coming from its estate vineyards. The company prides itself on being sustainable, using recycled water, harnessing renewable energy and composting.
And while the wines are divine, the location — this stunning château atop a hill overlooking lush vineyards — is unbeatable.
5. The tasting room at Iron Horse Vineyards, 9786 Ross Station Road in Sebastopol, 707-887-1507
There’s really nothing like it — and the wines are even better.
The tasting room, if you want to call it that, at Iron Horse Vineyards are probably responsible for more people ditching their corporate jobs to work at a winery than anywhere else.
This place is gorgeous.
This small, independent, family-owned winery is in the heart of cool Green Valley, 13 miles from the Pacific Ocean, with 160 sprawling acres of vine on rolling hills. Its speciality is sparking wine, but it’s also got a great Chardonnay and Pinot, too.
In fact, its sparkling wines have been served at the White House for five consecutive Presidential Administrations.
I’m surprised the White House hasn’t considered moving its government center here.
Thanks for following us on our weekend jaunt to Wine Country! To see more photos, visit my Facebook page or click here.