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Dining in Sonoma: A Work in Progress

The Restaurants and Food Shops Are Better Than Ever, but That's Not to Say They've Arrived

April 28, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

With its roster of old wine families and new millionaire winery owners, Napa Valley is practically a brand name for the California wine country lifestyle. Brash and publicity savvy, Napa had all but eclipsed its more retiring neighbor, Sonoma County, which until recently had but one "luxury" hotel and restaurants that were more local hangouts than destinations for visitors.

Not so anymore. In recent years, Sonoma has added a few elegant country inns, such as Gaige House Inn in Glen Ellen and Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant in Forestville. Healdsburg, once a charmingly retro little town at the hub of the wine country, now has two boutique hotels with great style and comfort, the Duchamp (named after surrealist Marcel Duchamp) and the new luxury Hotel Healdsburg. Las Ventanas in Cabo San Lucas has plans to open a resort near Kenwood.

It's all quite a change from the days when the choices were limited to the rather grand Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, nondescript motels or fussy bed and breakfasts where you were likely to find teddy bears in your bed and baked brie for breakfast.

Day spas--surely a sign that the narcissistic well-heeled are nearby--are sprouting up all over Sonoma. The county also has a growing list of home-grown restaurants and "have knife, will travel" types who migrated from big city restaurants to open their own in the Sonoma wine country.

For the record, I'm not wild about losing the old Sonoma to the "wine country lifestyle," with all its rampant hype and commercialism. If you've experienced Sonoma's better known neighbor at the height of summer, when cars are bunched tighter than grapes along Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, Sonoma wine country is bliss. It's hard to imagine how to improve on the experience of looking at the big blue sky over Sonoma's Alexander Valley, with cotton candy clouds hovering just above the gentle hills and rows of well-behaved vines following the contours of the land, a riot of yellow mustard in flower at their feet. The valley's narrow road makes lazy swoops past farmhouses and wineries that look like what they are, not postmodern fantasies or tricked-up faux French chateaux.

Sonoma's little farms supply the Bay Area (and Napa Valley) with everything from gorgeous produce, herbs and exotic greens to tender lamb, suckling pig and free-range poultry, along with luscious stone fruits and heirloom apples. Yet with all this bounty, Sonoma restaurants have never quite lived up to their potential. Few are at the level of top restaurants in the Napa Valley. You can't find the equivalent of the French Laundry or even Pinot Blanc, Joachim Splichal's St. Helena restaurant.

That said, there is a new energy in Sonoma, and more choices than ever before.

Once-sleepy Healdsburg is emblematic. It's now hordes of well-dressed people strolling around-- and around--the plaza. Yes, I did catch the Porsche or two rumbling at the stoplight. But the town hasn't given in entirely to tourists. Mixed in with the gaudy stores selling grape tchotchkes is Toyon Books, a wonderful local store run by passionate book lovers, a fabric shop where local quilters congregate, and a coffee roaster.

The best argument for staying in Healdsburg is the Downtown Bakery & Creamery. Founded by Lindsey Shere, then the Chez Panisse pastry chef, and Kathleen Stewart, who is now the sole owner, the old-fashioned country bakery makes the best sticky buns on the planet. Freckled with cinnamon, the tender yeast dough is robed in a buttery burnt sugar caramel. If you stay at the Duchamp Hotel, they come as part of the complimentary breakfast on Sundays. Or sneak down from your room at Hotel Healdsburg and across the square to nab some still warm from the oven.

The bakery has a wonderful down-to-earth aesthetic. It hasn't been gussied up to fit some magazine stylist's idea of what the wine country should be. All the artistry goes into the breads and pastries themselves. Taste polenta pear tart, fabulous eclairs, handcrafted breads and pies featuring local fruit. In the summer, stop in for some of the fresh-churned ice creams made from Sonoma County eggs and cream. There's also an open-face apple galette with a short, crumbly crust and sweet-tart Sierra Beauty apples that have been cooked down to almost an applesauce.

Oakville Grocery saw Sonoma's potential long ago and has had an outpost in Healdsburg for several years. The shop is bursting with enticing foodstuffs for the pantry, and its deli counter puts out an attractive spread of fresh salads, roasted meats, sandwiches and most everything for a wine country picnic.

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