An unexpected discovery in Sonoma County

Dramatic mountains, Pacific Ocean air, epic meals and world-famous wines—what more could a foodie possibly want? Earlier this year I, along with my best friend of more than 20 years, took off for an adventure to explore California’s Wine Country. Our goal was to enjoy the sun, the water, the food and wine and to reconnect while we created a new chapter in our book of life. What we discovered during this trip was that our friendship lies deep, as do the roots of this community. The intertwining nature of the Sonoma County family was so local, beautiful and, most important, resilient. It wasn’t what we expected nor was it what I originally set out to write about.

The last four years haven’t been an easy journey for my best friend’s family. Her youngest at the age of 7 was diagnosed with leukemia after weeks of doctor appointments and unexplained sickness. It brought them to their knees in an instant. I vividly remember the pit of my stomach coming to my throat as she called me from the hospital, frantically thinking about how our support system was going to need to change immediately. The “it takes a village” needed to be enacted.

Fast-forward four years and he is recovering well with few side effects, living a relatively normal life of an 11-year-old. Our trip was a celebration for all of the dedication and hell my best friend had been through. It was a time for her to step outside of her comfort zone and for us to reconnect and reflect.

On the Road to Adventure

In all my travels, I maintain that the drive from San Francisco to Sonoma is one of the most breathtaking and life-changing routes in the country. From the awe of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge to the views of the ocean thrashing against the rocky cliffs, the seal breeding bays to the oyster bays and the winding curves can lead you to a soulful experience difficult to describe. Standing amongst the redwoods, arching your neck upwards to catch a glimmer of the sunrays coming through the trees more than 300 feet tall, you feel like you are in another world. You might actually have a moment where tears stream down your face because nature has so much power and serenity.

While we were planning our trip wildfires raged throughout Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Butte, Solano and Sonoma counties, burning more than 150,000 acres, destroying thousands of homes and businesses and taking the lives of more than 40 people. As we kept in close contact with the local businesses and Sonoma County Tourism, they indicated that now more than ever they need visitors for survival. These are the regions where our adventure took us, discovering the love of community, the love of another, the love of Wine Country.

upper left: Angelo Servino; upper right: Crista Luedkte; lower left: Susan Porter-Bass; lower right: Colleen McGlynn
upper left: Angelo Servino; upper right: Crista Luedkte; lower left: Susan Porter-Bass; lower right: Colleen McGlynn

First Stop: Tiburon

Around the bend from the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County is Tiburon, once a bustling railroad town, now quaint with magnificent views of San Francisco and Mount Tamalpais. Adorable boutiques, historical significance, outstanding California cuisine and personalities invite you to be a part of their daily lives and stories.

The Waters Edge Hotel wraps its arms around you and hugs you from the inside out. It is a bayside sanctuary set upon Tiburon peninsula, bestowing breathtaking views leaving you relaxed and unplugged. The hotel is designed to give you the comforts of a coastal home with fireplaces in every room, spa robes, freshly baked cookies and delicious locally prepared breakfast delivered daily to your room. Every evening local cheese from local makers like Cowgirl Creamery and Vella Cheese Company are paired with local red and white wines for guests to enjoy inside or on the balcony facing the bay.

Next door to Waters Edge, Angelo Servino sits with us at his restaurant, Servino Ristorante. This beautiful older man is dressed in a grass-green sweater with a red and khaki scarf, cappuccino in hand, while speaking with a perfect Italian accent. Without missing a beat he makes certain that our experience, an event, is something that isn’t just appetizing, but outstanding—and that it was.

“The appetite comes while you are eating” goes a popular Italian saying that speaks to the truth of a really good meal. Dates grilled and stuffed with gorgonzola and wrapped in prosciutto; burrata with smoked salmon, avocado purée and pea shoots; lacinato kale salad with blood oranges; ricotta salata with sherry vinaigrette; hand-rolled gnocchi with mint, butter and shaved Parmesan paired with a signature Italian cocktail, the Negroni. Simplicity with local Marin County freshness cultivates your senses and transports you to another time, another place.

Walking through the entryway is like stepping into a family-owned trattoria in Italy. Angelo shares his story of love and loss and how it all led him away from Italy to Tiburon. As all good stories go, love is involved. More than 40 years ago while in Italy he caught a glance of a women who in an instant stole his heart—an American who spoke no Italian and Angelo who spoke no English. French! They both spoke broken French, enough to fall madly in love. Kathryn at the time was studying in Chicago and enticed Angelo to move to the United States. Eventually they ended up in Tiburon, married.

“Tiburon is on the same plane as Italy. It is similar in weather and terrain, so it was home to me,” says Angelo. Italian food was a natural fit for this region and for Angelo and Kathryn. Now celebrating 40 years here, Angelo speaks lovingly of the adventures over those years including moving locations to where, since 1999, he sits on the waters edge. Jovially he says he got the restaurant, but he didn’t get the girl.

As with many restaurateurs, the hours and pressure can place a strain on relationships of any kind. In the end, Angelo’s best friend got his girl, but more than 40 years of love shine bright in his eyes as he tells of his continued love and affection for Kathryn and how he rose from a difficult time to continue gifting his talents of story-telling and Italian cuisine—and their sons, Natale and Vittorio, who continue the tradition of running Servino Ristorante. And well, I might add.

Servino Ristorante
9 Main St.
Tiburon, CA

Waters Edge Hotel
25 Main St.
Tiburon, CA

top to bottom, left to right: Boon Hotel, famous biscuits; Boon Eat + Drink, braised Brussels sprouts;  Della Fattoria, breakfast; The Drawing Board, vegan carrot lox; El Barrio, drinks; The Shuckery, raw oysters
top to bottom, left to right: Boon Hotel, famous biscuits; Boon Eat + Drink, braised Brussels sprouts; Della Fattoria, breakfast; The Drawing Board, vegan carrot lox; El Barrio, drinks; The Shuckery, raw oysters

Second Stop: Sonoma

Sonoma County has over 60,000 acres of vineyards and 425 wineries. The ability to grow many varieties of grapes spreads wide and far due to the topography of the land, which resembles French and Italian growing regions. Agritourism is an aspect of everyday life.

Preparing for our trek through Wine Country, we found one necessity is to make sure you have a cooler stocked with local cheeses, meats and sweets to pair with the world-renowned wines around every bend. Vella Cheese Company is located on a side street where a residential neighborhood begins, only blocks from the historic square of the city of Sonoma. The stonewalled building built in 1904 was originally built to house a brewery, however, in 1931 Gaetano (Tom) Vella began the Vella Cheese Company.

They take great pride in their all-natural ingredients and sourcing their milk from Merten’s Dairy, a local family dairy farm. Vella Cheese Company was the first solar-powered business in Sonoma and they are committed to waste diversion, recycling their whey byproduct back to the dairy farm to feed the cows. All of their cheeses are highly regarded and many of them are award-winning. They are most known for their dry Monterey Jack, a cheese developed and sold during the Gold Rush in Monterey by Californian David Jack.

While Vella Cheese Company has the cheese, we visit Basque Boulangerie Café a few blocks away for freshly baked breads, sandwiches and not-to-miss strawberry shortcake. The café sits on the historic square since 1994, yet it was started in 1956 as the Sonoma French Bakery. It is a second-generation bakery specializing in sweet French or Parisian-style breads, Danish, morning rolls and more. The pastry chef has even been recognized on the Food Network for her famous beehive cake, a sweet Danish sponge with custard, caramel and topped with honey-almond praline and powdered sugar.

Although my friend and I have not seen any fire damage on the roads we had driven, it becomes evident at that moment that the wildfires that raged through Sonoma were still on the minds of local residents many months later: Handwritten signs attached to the building spelled out “Sonoma Strong” and “Thank you to first responders.”

Vella Cheese Company
315 2nd St. E.
Sonoma, CA

Basque Boulangerie Café
460 1st St. E.
Sonoma, CA

The view from the Waters Edge Hotel
The view from the Waters Edge Hotel

Tiburon Artisan bread baked in a brick oven at Preston Farm
Tiburon Artisan bread baked in a brick oven at Preston Farm

Communal Tables at Della Fattoria in Petaluma
Communal Tables at Della Fattoria in Petaluma

Third Stop: Guerneville

Guerneville and the Russian River Valley, a place where cell phone service can be sketchy, bicycles are everywhere, hills are mighty, rivers flow deep and a small town is a small town. Historically known as a logging community in the 1800s, a summer getaway hotspot (much like the Mountain Lake Lodge in Dirty Dancing) in the 1950s and ’60s, attracting a strong gay clientele from the Bay Area in the 1970s and ’80s.

“It was a place that gay men who contracted AIDS sought as a place to live out their lives during the ’80s,” says Crista Luedtke, active business leader, Guerneville advocate and someone trying to lead the way to make Guerneville a getaway destination once again.

Crista is a spitfire who says it the way she sees it and showcases her commitment and admiration for the town.

She is a winner of “Guy’s Grocery Games,” now one of the judges on the show, has been on “Beat Bobby Flay” and has an award-winning documentary about her life called Empire on Main Street. Crista is impressive.

She’s not a chef but is a sister to one, and ultimately is an entrepreneur who can see beyond what is in front of her, as Guerneville was a town often flooded by the river without much interest.

Much of what is Guerneville today was sparked by her efforts to create a “lumberjack chic” district with fashion-forward spots to escape for food, entertainment and ultimately retreat to for the night. Russian River Valley produces some of the best wines in the U.S., with redwoods towering in the backdrop and biodiverse local farms. In Guerneville Crista has worked to help bring the community together, growing local economy through tourism.

Crista is the proprietor of Boon Hotel + Spa, Boon Eat + Drink and the Mexican-themed cocktail lounge El Barrio, and the founder of the Big Bottom Market. Boon Hotel + Spa, named sweetly after her rescue dog, Boon, was previously a miners’ camp and an unsuccessful resort and spa, when Crista purchased it. It needed heavy lifting to make it the Zen-like woodland retreat it has come to be. Crista talked about the weeks and weekends of friends and families coming together to paint, fix and build everything up to its current state. Each room allows you to unplug (literally—no cell service was available), unwind by the saline pool, fix a cocktail at their honor bar or listen to the vinyl in each room (Flashdance may have been front and center during our stay at Boon).

She recognized that great food was essential to the growth of the community. Crista’s love for food and all things local prompted her to embark on the journey to bring exceedingly delicious cuisine to the town. Boon Eat + Drink is a now vital to the town as is El Barrio, which sits right next door to Boon Eat + Drink. El Barrio is an upscale craft cocktail bar specializing in tequilas, mezcal and bourbon cocktails that satisfy the finest palates. The El Picaro (Vida mezcal, Jamaica, ginger, lime, jalapeño and soda) became our happy-hour drink paired with the Tres Amigos: their house chips and three homemade salsas. And we recommend indulging in whatever mezcal shots the bartenders recommend.

Boon Eat + Drink is a small but cozy spot that doesn’t need much room to wow any patron. At Boon, Crista made the choice to source all wines from the Russian River Valley to further her local support. The Carignan from Porter-Bass complements her simplistic dinner menu: arugula salad with shaved fennel, radish and toasted brioche topped with a Vella Dry Jack cheese; Boon-style Brussels sprouts garnished with red chili flakes, garlic and lemon; and polenta lasagna seared with sautéed veggies, rainbow chard, ricotta salata and marina sauce. Between El Barrio and Boon, we have no room for dessert, but if we had indulged, I am sure it would have blown our minds.

The next morning at the Boon Hotel + Spa breakfast is brought to our room: French pressed coffee, fresh fruit, local yogurt and granola and Big Bottom Market warm biscuits with butter and honey. Simple and blissful. The biscuits are the most amazing I’ve ever consumed: simple, yet full of flavor, just like everything Crista touches.

Having enjoyed a glass or two of Porter-Bass wines the night before, Crista suggests that we visit the winery. We head over the river and through the woods to this beautiful valley where an organic vineyard sits nine miles from the coast. This valley collects a lot of sun and heat, protected from the wind by hundreds of olive trees. Porter-Bass Winery is a dedicated Biodynamic farm using cover crops and animals to continually increase the acid in the soil and maintain the proper balance and produce clean and light wine.

Almost 40 years ago Susan Porter-Bass and her husband packed their belongings, bought this land and moved from their lives from Ithaca, New York, to Guerneville. Her husband, a retired architect, built the charming home located in the middle of the vineyard. Their son, Luke Bass, is the current winemaker. The entire family is dedicated to a gentle process of winemaking, enabling the expression of the grape while protecting and revitalizing the environment.

Boon Hotel + Spa
14711 Armstrong Woods Rd.
Guerneville, CA

Boon Eat + Drink
16248 Main St.
Guerneville, CA

El Barrio Bar
16230 Main St.
Guerneville, CA

Porter-Bass Winery
11750 Mays Canyon Rd.
Guerneville, CA

Colleen McGlynn of Davero Farms and Winery leading  a stray piglet back home
Colleen McGlynn of Davero Farms and Winery leading a stray piglet back home

Fourth Stop: Healdsburg

About an hour northeast of Guerneville is Healdsburg, known for its small-town charm, award-winning wines and unparalleled food. Nestled along the Russian River are rolling hills covered in stunning vineyards. It is the gateway to three premier regions for wine growing: the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley.

Our initial stop takes us to the hot, dry area of Dry Creek Valley, where we stumble upon Preston Farm and Winery. Lou and Susan Preston are committed to protecting the environment and creating a sustainable farm producing more than just outstanding grapes. A white gate dripping with flowering trees opens up to a French courtyard filled with picnic tables, bocce ball, roaming cats and people enjoying Preston olives, bottles of wine and fresh hearth bread. This vineyard has seen more than 45 years of evolution. Years ago the Prestons decided the stand-alone winery needed to become a farm dedicated to diversity and now harvest organic crops including strawberries, nuts, olives, radishes, lettuces; they also raise pastured livestock. The dedication of the farm can be admired by the honor market attached to the tasting room, which includes handmade artisan bread baked daily in a wood-fired oven. They proudly share the love of this diverse farm and the hard work they apply daily to doing work the old-fashioned manual way. So much so that the day we arrived, Lou Preston was resting as earlier in the week while baking the hearth loaves of bread in their wood-fired oven something fell on his foot, nearly cutting off one of his toes!

As we leave the farm, each of the curves through the Dry Creek Valley inspire gasps as each opening is picture-perfect with vine-covered hills and blue skies resembling the Bordeaux region. Our last winery of the trip includes the DaVero Farms and Winery. It sits in a valley and smells of wisteria. DaVero, a word translated from Italian means truly, sincerely. And truly enchanted is it.

Founders Colleen McGlynn and Ridgely Evers designed a beautiful tasting room that connects to an area where wisteria hangs over communal tables, and if you look out about 50 feet an enchanted, hand-woven willow circle created by Colleen serves as a peaceful temple for wine drinkers. Across the street are olive trees grown from cuttings brought over from Italy, artichokes blossom throughout the flower beds, multiple composting bins lead us out to a dirt pathway circling the field of pea shoots adjacent to a pig pen where big mama pig and the piglets make chatter. As we walk with Colleen discussing her passion for what was once a small vineyard and now has turned into her life, a stray piglet appears on our pathway. Without a beat we all jump into trying to corral the piglet back into the pen after his great escape into a buffet of pea shoots.

We believe that the most important place in life is the table, and that the most important ingredient in a meal is the people at that table,” Colleen says, capturing just how special this place is. The wine, the Meyer lemon, the olive oil and the running of the pig have made it an absolutely perfect afternoon.

Preston Farm and Winery
9282 W. Dry Creek Rd.
Healdsburg, CA

DaVero Farms and Winery
766 Westside Rd.
Healdsburg, CA

Honor system instructions at the Farmstore at Preston Farm and Winery
Honor system instructions at the Farmstore at Preston Farm and Winery

Fifth Stop: Petaluma

Our tour of Sonoma County ends in one of the oldest cities in California. Petaluma hugs the Petaluma River, is home to the famed Cowgirl Creamery and multiple Michelin restaurants and celebrates the well-preserved historic iron-front architecture. We explore the Petaluma Seed Bank of Heirloom Seeds, experience the entertainment of oyster shucking and enjoy breakfast at an Italian-inspired café.

The Drawing Board, known as a feel-good-food kitchen, gives a nod to clean unforgettable dishes. Each dish is orchestrated to provide remarkably colorful palettes bursting with flavor, texture and touching all senses. This funky restaurant reaches deep into ingredients that appeal to many lifestyles. One of those dishes is the Carrot Lox, a vegan twist on a bagel and lox including señora levain covered in cashew cream cheese, topped with nori, mandoline carrots and microgreens. Other notable noshes include chickpea fries with a Serrano cream, Larb Gai wraps and a panna cotta with vanilla, rose, citrus, cardamom and pistachios.

Across the street a golden light illuminates a window with the name The Shuckery. Walking towards the entrance we can see the staff dressed in gray T-shirts and denim shucking aprons. Quaint, cozy and offering up one of the most precious indigenous ingredients of the California coast: the oyster. Seating at the bar offers patrons the opportunity to watch and engage with the shuckers who shuck, the chefs who cook and the sommelier who pours you the perfect pairing of wines. The oysters are not the only ocean dwellers to devour: Jose’s Dungeness Crab Cakes and the Day Boat Scallops are both perfection for a seafood lover. It is connected to the historic Hotel Petaluma, where the best part of the night is shifting to the Shuckery II next door in the lobby of the hotel. Here an oversized fireplace blazes while we appreciate a Sonoma Portworks Petite Sirah Port along with conversation of resilience, empowerment and the love of fine wine with co-owner Jazmine Lalicker.

Italian baked breads and espresso call us to Della Fattoria. It welcomes us with large hanging chandeliers, red walls, high beamed ceilings and shared tables. It’s quite possibly the finest breakfast/brunch spot in downtown.

“One of the best thing I get to say is that the strawberries for the jam are grown just two miles away,” says Kathleen Weber, owner of the café, ranch and bakery. You will find their handmade Italian bread in and around San Francisco and throughout the entire wine region with a nod from Bon Appetit as one of the top 10 best bread bakeries in the U.S. All of the bread (more than 13 types and all Italian) is created with organic flour and a natural starter, baked in wood-fired brick ovens. The lick-the-plate-clean menu consists of farm-to-table ranch twists like the ham, egg and Gruyère cheese Croque Madame, eggs bennie with Caggiano ham and housemade hollandaise and, of course, hot buttered toast with that housemade strawberry jam. All scraps and unused breads are taken back to the ranch where it is either composted or fed to the chickens.

“We come from a farm and we want our soil to be healthy and our food clean,” says Kathleen. Which seems to be the truth of the people of Sonoma.

The Drawing Board
190 Kentucky St.
Petaluma, CA

The Shuckery
100 Washington St.
Petaluma, CA

Della Fattoria
141 Petaluma Blvd. N.
Petaluma, CA

Jennifer Rubenstein and Carrie  Juvan, best friends for over 20 years, at Hotel Petaluma
Jennifer Rubenstein and Carrie Juvan, best friends for over 20 years, at Hotel Petaluma

Afterglow: The Connections

The people we met, the laughter we shared and the stories of connection still resonate with me. We randomly chose people to interview and places to dive into to create a local experience and it took us down a path that integrated every person and place in the most beautiful natural way. Kindness, community, togetherness, acceptance and love drove this trip in more ways than one. Our most important takeaway from this adventure was that everyone is more resilient than ever could be imagined. For me, this was what this trip unintentionally created: a story of two best friends of more than 20 years becoming self-aware of their strength individually and together, proving in the end how remarkably resilient we actually are, especially when love is involved.

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