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SAVORING SONOMA / RESTAURANTS

Superb finds close to the vine

June 01, 2005|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

Whenever I get home from a wine country jaunt, it doesn't surprise me to find bottles of wine wrapped in my sweaters or skirts or a bottle of olive oil tucked in a sock. It just means my ever-resourceful husband has run out of room in his suitcase. The fact that he offers to carry my bag is the dead giveaway.

On a recent four-day trip to Sonoma to check in on the restaurant scene, instead of flying to Oakland or San Francisco, we decided to drive. Hey, with no weight limits, the mind boggles at how much wine and other goodies you can fit into the car. Along the way, we acquired some wine, true, and a stash of books.

But two days into the trip, the entire back seat of the car was occupied by four enormous terra-cotta lemon pots. It took several of us an hour to figure out how to fit them in after trying every possible configuration. I also managed to squeeze eight rare clematis plants on the floor behind the front seats, along with braids of garlic, a few dozen pretty Araucana eggs -- and a single peacock egg, and a bottle of olive oil, in the spaces between.

Whenever I have a chance, I make a point of stopping in at the Gardener in Healdsburg, the country outpost of Alta Tingle's original shop on 4th Street in Berkeley. I always find something original for my table -- a ceramic bowl from Provence, carved walnut salad servers or a linen tablecloth. This time I picked up a twig trivet and those huge lemon pots. Tingle brings in the high-quality terra cotta from Tuscany herself and has both traditional and contemporary shapes.

I also plan a morning around a visit to Chalk Hill Clematis Nursery. The drive out to Chalk Hill Road is through some of Sonoma's most enchanting wine country, deep into this sprawling estate, which also produces its own olive oil. You could order by mail, but by visiting the nursery, you can buy bigger, more established plants, including some of the rarer varieties that may be listed as sold out on the website. In all, they grow more than 250 varieties. Everything I bought is thriving and flowering all over the place.

Though I already knew many of the places I wanted to visit, the Sonoma Farm Trails guide helped us map out some shopping pit stops, though it was serendipity that led me to my best find on this trip.

Stopping in for a late breakfast at Della Fattoria Downtown in Petaluma, I happened to park across the street where a weathered farm table in the window of Chelsea Antiques caught my eye. Downtown Petaluma is filled with antique shops, but this one seems to specialize in furniture that would fit right into your kitchen -- rustic farm tables, spacious armoires, pharmacy cabinets and all sorts of storage bins.

Just inside the door I found a 100-year-old butcher block table on a walnut base that had just come in the day before. The surface was gouged and hollowed out with use, but not so much that you couldn't use it now. For more than a year, I'd been looking for a work island for my kitchen and here it was. I talked to the owners about giving the top a light sanding and adding a lower shelf to stack my copper pots. To gain a few inches in height, they suggested adding some metal wheels.

Because they couldn't do it right away, they offered to deliver it -- which was just as well. The car was just too full for my final souvenir.

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