EXPERT • March 2018

Insider’s guide to Napa and Sonoma

With recent wildfires causing devastation throughout Californian wine country, we get the lowdown from the locals who know this bucolic grape-growing region is still very much open for business

Enologist, Caroline Hoogenboom

Oenologist, Caroline Hoogenboom

Winter and spring are a beautiful time to visit wine country, and this year is no different. The air is crisp and the hills are a lush green after replenishing rains; the mood is relaxed, with local winemakers unwinding in trendy restaurants before the new season begins. For such a haunt, try Cadet Wine Bar (pictured) a great place to enjoy a glass of Napa wine and soak up the local vibes. Another favourite, Southside Napa is perfect for relaxing on the patio with one of their tasty toasts – the grilled strawberry with whipped mascarpone and honey is a must. In the Oxbow Market, C Casa offers casual, artisanal tacos, and I can’t say no to the skirt steak and roasted fingerling combo. Also in the Oxbow, you’ll find Five Dot Ranch Cookhouse, serving up a great selection of locally sourced beef, while the best ‘dinner with a view’ spot lies at charming Angèle.

Winery owner, Mark Mazzoni

Winery owner, Mark Mazzoni

As a fourth-generation winemaker, my journey to Geyserville, Sonoma County, began when my ancestors moved here from Italy in the early 1900s. The town itself stars two Italian restaurants, a hardware store and one cocktail bar – and that’s just how I like it! It’s a charming, vineyard-nestled town where my winery, Zialena, produces delicious wine among our old vineyards. For food, however, you’ll want to head to the Italian hangouts, Diavola for perfect wood-fired pizza and Catelli’s Restaurant (pictured above), which boasts more than 100 local wines on its list. Cocktail bar Geyserville Gun Club is also well worth a visit, as are local wineries Stuhlmuller Vineyards and Mauritson Wines in Healdsburg. Renting a car? Drive between Calistoga and Geyserville through Knight’s Valley and Alexander Valley on Highway 128 for one of the most beautiful vineyard-adorned journeys in all of wine country. 

Master Sommelier, Matt Stamp

Master sommelier, Matt Stamp

If there’s one reason to visit Napa, it has to be the world-class wineries. A current favourite, Matthiasson, produces wines that tend towards gulp-able and delicious, instead of overweight and overpowering. Then there’s Frog’s Leap Winery, an organic estate in Rutherford producing wines that belong on the dinner table. Excellent Merlot and Cabernets are made with old-school winemaking principles at their heart and the estate gardens make for a lovely afternoon stroll, glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand. Porter Creek, with its quaint tasting room, is full of Sonoma County charm; Scribe Winery (pictured above), an old turkey-farm-turned-winery, and off-the-beaten-path Young Inglewood are also well worth a visit.

Co-founder of Spirit Works Distillery, Ashby Marshall

Co-founder of Spirit Works Distillery, Ashby Marshall

I’m always on the lookout for great cocktail spots and special eateries that source their menus locally – not difficult here in foodie Sonoma. Zazu – our neighbour here in Sebastopol, Sonoma County – is a super-fun restaurant that farms its own produce with a vegetable garden on site. Did I mention it also has delicious and inventive cocktails? Another true gift added to the county this past year is my favourite, Ramen Gaijin. From bowls of handmade ramen to delicate yellow tail sashimi and a very cool bar, it’ll have you feeling like a local in no time. In Healdsburg, Valette (pictured above) is a restaurant and bar I wouldn’t be able to live without. Think Pernod-steamed scallops and its wonderful ‘Trust me’ four-course menu, featuring local liberty duck with hibiscus gastrique. 

Local photographer, Michael Housewright

Local photographer, Michael Housewright

Having photographed vineyards and wineries in Sonoma County for many years, I can say one of my great joys is the bucolic charm of our northernmost appellation, Alexander Valley. On a par with Napa for outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon production, this valley hides the outstanding Blue Rock Vineyard. Its exclusive new tasting experience (appointment only) allows guests to spend around two hours surrounded by 100 acres of estate vineyards and a selection of delicious food, all paired with its exquisite wines. I have photographed this winery in every season, and can safely say that any time of year is idyllic for sitting among the olive trees, drinking wine and watching the estate’s visionary owner, Kenny Kahn, grill wagyu beef over the oak stave fire.

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This article has been tagged Food + Drink, Destination