Sunday, October 19, 2008

Eight-and-a-half Hours in the Sonoma Valley

We’ve dubbed the day the “First Annual Food and Wine Classic.”

The conference is over, and fifteen of us have stayed on in the San Francisco Bay Area to, quite simply, wallow in all its gastronomic delights. And, we’re really good at wallowing, especially when it comes to food.

Sonoma is that place I’ve never quite gotten to, but almost everyone who mentions it, says they find it even more appealing than the Napa Valley. With that kind of endorsement and the assurance that there will be a vineyard every mile or two, I’m ready to roll.

We divide up into cars and I am paired off with a formidable team of culinary adventurers. Our genial host, Papa Bear is at the wheel, and I serve as co-pilot. Princess and Dairy Queen – both from Chicago – take the back passenger seats.

We leave the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge behind us. The clouds part, the morning is glorious and we cross into the Sonoma Valley, passing herds of dairy cows and gently rolling hills of taupe and brown heather. Papa Bear peppers the trip with an encyclopedic knowledge of the region. We are heading towards Petaluma, which he tells us is “the former chicken and egg capital of the world.” For the breakfast fans in the group, this is good news.

As we pull into Petaluma, Dairy Queen is distracted by the many antique shops that line the classic Hometown USA town center where the movie “American Graffiti” was filmed.

“You can’t swing a dead cat here without hitting an antique store,” says Papa Bear. Many of the shops are located in former chicken hatcheries along the main thoroughfare.

We disembark close to our first stop and immediately note a distinctive barnyard aroma that permeates the town. It is as though the agricultural spirits of California are welcoming us with a warm and gamey embrace.

We enter the bakery and café, Della Fattoria, located at 141 Petaluma Boulevard. One of our tour leaders, Shannon, says it offers “the best bread in the Bay Area.” We crowd around a large rustic table where we lunge into a tasting of thick, crusty slices of artisanal breads served in wooden bowls with steaming cups of coffee. There is olive bread, semolina bread, and walnut bread, but we all fall instantly in love with a Rosemary Meyer Lemon Boule, deeply infused with herbs and fresh citrus flavors. We scoop the remaining slices of bread into a shopping bag to sustain us en route.

Our culinary caravan continues into Santa Rosa and we make a left hand turn at a weather beaten sign and continue down a rutted country road. A few turkey vultures swoop overhead.

Stepping out of our cars, we are greeted by a flock of song birds and a community of sociable Holstein cows. We are at a bucolic dairy farm, home of the Joe Matos Cheese Company.

The diminutive dairy is painted robins egg blue and inside, the Matos family – fifth generation cheese makers from the Azorean island of St. Jorge – produces small batches of a Portuguese-style farmstead cheese. The shelves behind the counter are well-stocked with cream-colored wheels of cheese, and there are faded prints on the wall that depict scenes from the Azores.

We stand in the noon day sun, savoring the pale yellow slices which are tart and buttery. Our colleague, Buenos Aires Gus, passes around the shopping bag filled with bread slices and provides a translation of the cheese making process from a Matos family member. We get a glimpse inside the creamery, where curds are being cooked and turned by hand, and heavy concrete weights are used to press the wheels of cheese. The cheese is pressed for two days, and then aged for a minimum of two months.

By now, it is lunchtime and we are famished. We stop in Sebastopol at the Hopmonk Tavern, where an autumn chicken salad is washed down with a glass of pale, California-style ale that tastes herbaceous and refreshing.

The meal concluded, the Dairy Queen abandons our little entourage and goes with Buenos Aires Gus for ice cream (he is addicted), so we pick up our friend Nola who takes over the vacant back seat. We outpace the group and arrive ahead of them at St. Francis Winery and Vineyards for a tasting.

Nola, Princess and I sample a variety of reds, and are quite taken with a Cabernet with deep flavors of chocolate. I take note of a quotation by Robert Louis Stevenson – “Wine is bottled poetry.”

We continue driving along the legendary Valley of the Moon Highway, passing districts made famous by novelist Jack London. Alongside us, vineyards creep up clusters of hills, reminiscent of the wine regions of France.

As the sun starts to pull slowly behind the mountains, we arrive at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards for a champagne tasting. We pull together tables on the outdoor terrace and gaze out over the vineyards, where the grape vines are planted in endless, precise rows.

Papa Bear pops a few corks and we sample three luscious varieties – an all-Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc 2004, a pale blush Blanc de Noir and an elegant dry Brut. If the company and the adventure haven’t been intoxicating enough, this stop certainly is.

The vineyards take on a magical, late-afternoon glow, the wind picks up over the valley, and I once again sense that distinctive barnyard aroma, this time mingled with the sweet scent of wildflowers and smoke. It smells invigorating and alive!

In the evening, the group dines on exceptional flatbreads at a restaurant in Mill Valley, and it should be no surprise at this point, that I completely fail to note the name of the establishment.

As we conclude, only a single slice of flatbread remains on the table as evidence of our culinary odyssey through the Sonoma Valley.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Maryann said...

That bread looks so good :)

Kathy said...

What a lovely day! All that bread looks so tempting.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I often drive from RI to the markets in Fall River, Mass., where there is a large Azorean population, to buy St. George cheese. For me the cheesemaking would have been the highlight of the day! Are you and your colleagues already planning your second annual food and wine exploration?

Anonymous said...

It's a testimony to our true foodie passions and friendship that we managed to consume such an abundance of flavors, sips and savors. This meeting 'festival' will be hard to top. We owe Bay Bonnie and her hubby a huge hug for planning this remarkable event.

Papa Bear said...

The flatbread restaurant in Mill Valley is called Small Shed Flatbreads and uses only organic ingredients confirmed by Marin Organic. It also markets local small lot wines. But the Hoegarten Belgian beer on tap is for me the perfect match for the Mad River flatbread made with house-made fennel sausage and grilled red onions. Having our friend documenting this entire voyage made the entire tour much more fun!

Helene said...

I'm jealous. What a great trip.

Bon Weekend said...

I'm sorry I missed your culinary adventure (and that Rosemary Meyer Lemon Boule!), but I had my own...and it featured a lot of figs! Fig scones...roasted fig salad...fig jam...fig ice cream. Sonoma was grand!

Cakespy said...

I proclaim this the most delicious day you've had yet! That bread looks just gorgeous--of course the cheese, the' all looks pretty "up there" in terms of nosh-ability!

Susan from Food Blogga said...

It's such beautiful country, and you've captured it in your photos, TW. I love to have a picnic at a winery with bread, cheese, and fruits. It's so simple yet so satisfying.

Andrew Abraham said...

What a great trip... my kind of trip...traveling and food...