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Monday, April 22, 2013

Discovering Eastern Sonoma County: Wineries, Jack London's Beauty Ranch, and landscape art

After writing this blog for the past seven years a perk that began a year and a half ago was being recognized not just as a personal blogger, but as media. Since then I'm sometimes invited to attend press events. When the invitation to attend the Sonoma Spring Scramble media tour arrived in my inbox I was only too happy to reply YES!

This is a long, I-wanted-to-take-you-with-me post so I highly recommend pouring yourself a glass of wine, preferably from Sonoma County if you want to take an online, vicarious travel experience to its utmost extreme, or peruse the pictures and read what catches your eye.

Since the Scramble kicked off at 8:15 AM in San Francisco I did something I haven't done in at least two decades, I decided to use public transit taking the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (better known as BART) to arrive at the Ferry Building on time. I reasoned I'd be driving up and back in rush hour traffic, would pay $30 to park my car all day and another $16 on gas so the $11.30 round trip ticket on BART seemed like the better choice.

If you don't live here or ever visit the Bay Area you should skip this part.

I had no clue how BART worked so here's a little tutorial in case you've ever wondered.

  1. Arrive at the BART station. It can run late so be sure to add a cushion if you need to arrive at a specific time for a special event.
  2. Park in the correct lot.
  3. I paid $4.00 (normal price is $1.00) for a single day reserved spot in case the lots were full.
  4. Enter the station and purchase a ticket. The machines do not give change so bring exact change or you'll receive a credit on your ticket. NOTE: Keep your ticket out and run it through the ticket gate. Be sure to retrieve it from the top of the stanchion as you'll need it for your return trip home.
  5. Take the escalator up or down to the platform depending on which station you're at.
  6. Watch the overhead lit signs. They will tell you which train is pulling into the station and give updates on arrival times in between.
  7. There are seats and rails and hand straps to balance yourself if only standing room is available.
  8. You'll need to keep your ticket handy to swipe as you exit the station at your destination.
  9. Take the stairs or escalator up or down to the street level when you arrive at your destination.
I also took half a Dramamine for motion sickness. I figured between the train, riding a shuttle all afternoon, and a ferry ride back it would be the wise thing to do.

I arrived at the BART station at 6:36 AM and made the 6:45 AM train. It dropped me off three blocks from the Ferry Building at 7:38 AM.

Since I had a little time I walked over to the Acme Bread Company to get a small green olive roll, then to the Cowgirl Creamery, our meeting place, and ordered a Raspberry Spritzer. FYI: The Cowgirl Creamery has moved to the west end of the Ferry Building. It's now beside the Acme Bread Company.

Soon both the organizers and other travel writers began to arrive.

When we were all there we hopped onto a Pure Luxury Transportation shuttle and left the city heading over the Golden Gate Bridge to Petaluma, located at the southern end of Sonoma County.

Our destination was the Free Public LIbrary, a research library and historical museum in downtown Petaluma where we received a warm welcome from Marie McCusker, Executive Director of the Petaluma Visitor Center and Paul Clary of Clary Ranch Wines.

That morning I learned the movie American Graffiti was filmed in Petaluma. If you're fan you can see this display full of memorabilia at the library. Other notable movies filmed in Sonoma County include: The Birds, Scream, A Walk in the Clouds, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Howard the Duck.

A light, everything-was-produced-in-Petaluma breakfast buffet had been prepared for us! We enjoyed:

Row 1
• 2010 Keller Estate "Oro de Plata" a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
  2011 Fogline Vineyards Sun Chase Vineyards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
  2007 Kastania Proprietor's Reserve Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
 (All three wineries are part of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance)
• A wine pour
• Breakfast pizzas from Rosso Pizzeria

Row 2
• Pugs Leap farmstead goat's milk brie cheese

Row 3
• Rouge et Noir's World Champion triple cream brie cheese
• Pastries by Della Fattoria
• Yogurt from Bellwether Farms

I particularly enjoyed the goat's milk brie from Pugs Leap. The texture was a bit more firm but just as smooth and creamy as traditional French bries. And Rogue et Noir's brie had me melting into a puddle of cheesy happiness right there in the library.

I sampled the Potato, Egg, and Pancetta pizza after noticing a slice with no pancetta. Pizza for breakfast. I loved it! You'll spot Rosso's breakfast pizzas at the Sebastapol, Windsor, Healdsburg, and Santa Rosa Farmers Markets. Lunch and dinner pizzas are served in their brick and mortar locations in Santa Rosa and Petaluma.

At this point I'd been busy nibbling, taking pictures, and chatting with Mark Pasternak co-owner (with his wife Myriam) of Devil's Gulch Ranch. I'd visited the Devil's Gulch Ranch website in the past so I was really happy for the opportunity to meet him as he poured wine for us. The ranch raises rabbit, pigs, sheep, quail, premium wines, and asparagus. Their meat production methods are by far much more humane than typical commercial factory farms. A testament to the quality of the meats they produce is the list of restaurants who serve their products. It's a veritable who's who of high end and high quality restaurants and butcheries.

After breakfast we split up into three groups. One toured west Sonoma wineries and the city of Bodega, one headed north to Healdsburg, and our group headed east visiting the first commercial winery in California, a historic state park, and a unique art and retail center before we all regrouped to catch a ferry back to San Francisco.

Kalid was with us all day and was a terrific Chauffeur. He drove safely, kept us on schedule, and even helped Sara with some packages at lunch. If I ever needed to recommend a wine country transportation company I'd have no problem recommending Pure Luxury Transportation and Kalid as your chauffeur.

Founded in 1857

Our first stop was Buena Vista Winery. The first premium winery in California. Buena Vista is steeped in a rich history that has a very colorful past. The winery's founder, Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian who immigrated to America in 1840 was in search of "purple gold" unlike the miners of his era. In his heart he knew that Sonoma held the perfect "terroir" (a combination of climate conditions, soil, and topography) to create the distinct wines he knew the region, with it's diverse microclimates, was capable of. In fact, it's now known that Sonoma County has more soil types than the country of France. Just a small insight as to why this region is so prolific in its ability to produce premium, award winning wines.

The self-proclaimed Count of Buena Vista took us on a tour of his estate. He was friendly, quite animated, and a terrific performer so if you have the opportunity to have him as your tour guide you'll enjoy a more in-depth and entertaining experience than walking the grounds on your own.

We were treated to a tasting in the wine cave.

First The Count told us about his life. How he enjoyed both victories and defeats working as California's premier commercial vintner. In the photo above he showed us how some of the historic Champagne Cellar was made of bedrock, while other sections were made of stone chisled into blocks and set in place with mortar. The top photo clearly shows the difference between the two types of stone wall. Also noteworthy, the wine cave was hand carved directly into bedrock by laborers.

And right there in that beautiful wine cave he told us about his horrible death in the jaws of a Nicaraguan alligator, which is why you'll find an alligator mounted to the ceiling in the gift shop that our Count Haraszthy warded off with his walking stick.

And though he didn't touch upon a description of the large barrels, bottle racks, or the sculpture in the Champagne Cellar, I found them too beautiful to pass by without taking pictures to enjoy later when I reminisce about my visit to the winery.

If you visit be sure to look down as you walk along the courtyard. The stone work is marvelous and at times set in beautiful patterns, particularly in front of the Champagne Cellar.

Despite embracing its rich history, the winery also showcases a beautiful, ultra modern, biodynmaic fountain in its courtyard. The Vortex Fountain pulls water through expanding the molecules, releasing their energy to the property.

This fountain was added by the winery's current owner, Mr. Jean-Charles Boisset, a native from the village of Vougeot, Burgundy, France. His passion was strong enough to not only purchase the Buena Vista property but to also embark on a restoration project of such magnitude that he restored the winery to its former glory, reopening the buildings that had been closed to the public for decades.

We were treated to two more tastings in the courtyard before it was time for us to go. With our cameras full of pictures and after saying thank you to our wonderful escort The Count (aka George Webber, a character portrayal speaker and host of "Radio Theater of the Wild West") we were forced to depart because we had a busy schedule to keep.

Our next stop was very brief. After arriving in Glen Ellen (neither a city or town but a CDP) we parked beside Jack London Village (a former grist mill now home to a handful of shops and restaurants) and picked up boxed lunches from the Olive Vine restaurant to enjoy at our next stop.

Along the way there our guide Sara told us we'd be visiting Jack London State Historic Park. A lightbulb went off in my head. "Do you mean where his house is?" I asked. "Yes!" she replied. 'Wait a minute. Are we visiting the place with his tree? The historic tree that's going to be cut down this year?" I asked. She replied there was a tree but didn't realize it is going to be removed.

Jack London's oak tree is approximately 400 years old and 50' high.

The tree is sick due to (among several afflictions) Sudden Oak Death, an incurable fungus. I only knew about the tree because I'd recently read an article in the news and had immediately added it to my 2013 bucket list of places to visit before it's chopped down. If the diseased tree falls, there's a good chance it will damage or destroy the historic cottage where the famed author lived.

London named the property Beauty Ranch and you only have to be there moments to understand why.

It felt special and another place to add to my personal list of Sonoma's sacred spaces. I first experienced this peaceful feeling while spending a day alone on Baker Ridge in the Russian River Valley at Thomas George Estates last May. It also happened at Truett Hurst watching baby salmon swimming in the Dry Creek and again while touring the vineyards at Medlock Ames in September when we caught a glimpse of Katie & B's block through a stand of trees. At Jack London Park it was walking to the lower picnic plateau, just behind the cottage, beside a wall of ferns, and the ground covered with Miner's Lettuce that I felt that same sense of peace.

Jack lived here from 1911-1916. 

There wasn't time for us to take an inside tour of the cottage but I was able to hop up onto the porch and take a photo through the window of the author's bedroom. Sleeping on a sun porch would definitely put you in rhythm with nature as you would fall asleep each night gazing at stars from your bed and wake each morning to the rising sun.

It was beside the cottage in a picnic area that we enjoyed our lunches and learned more about Jack London, Beauty Ranch, the Petaluma Gap, and Bennet Valley from area locals. Our speakers were:

Row 1
Row 2
Truly sublime.

Being a supertaster makes it hard for a gal to enjoy dry wines, thus I was surprised when I tasted "Kismet" by Frostwatch Vineyard & Winery. For me, it didn't have the strong, sour or chemical taste to it that every other dry wine I've ever tasted has had. Instead its flavor was soft, but not sweet, bright, refreshing, and quite different than anything I've tasted in the past. I wouldn't say I need to acquire a taste for it because I enjoyed it immediately, but to be able to pair a wine with a meal is such a foreign thing to me it will take some getting used to once I'm able to purchase a few bottles of Kismet.

"Kismet is a fortuitous blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, the two varietals that make up the famous white wines of Bordeaux. Reflecting its cool climate origins, the Semillon adds unmistakable richness without sapping the verve we love in good Sauvignon Blanc. A novel and aromatic white, the Kismet pairs well with a variety of lighter summer fare but crisp acidity and Semillon spice insurer that it will continue to develop over the next 12 to 18 months."

The other wines offered that afternoon were: a Chardonnay by Three Sticks Winery, a 2011 Pinot Noir by Highway 12 Vineyards & Winery, a Serres Valley 2010 Zinfandel by St • Francis Winery and Vineyards, and "Solstice" a 2010 red blend by Benzinger Family Wines.

While I had expected to be taken by the large oak tree in front of the cottage, what enchanted me more was the grove of trees behind the cottage. Sitting at the picnic benches wasn't what did it. It was stepping down to the lower picnic plateau and seeing the Miner's Lettuce growing in plentiful numbers before me, while knowing the stone wall with ferns peeking out from each crevice was behind me. With views of the stables and vineyards I felt so at peace. It made me want to go back and spend an entire day in that one space because (for me) being in a calm and tranquil space with my camera is like working in a state of conscious meditation.

The open-air, historic winery ruins hosts shows and weddings.

And right across from the cottage is where the Broadway Under the Stars performances by the Transcendence Theater Company are held. They are a 501c3 nonprofit, professional, regional theatre company made up of musical theatre artists with Broadway, National Tour, International Tour, Film, and Television credits.

Honestly, I could have stayed here all day and will definitely return again to do just that. There's so much to see and experience at this historic park including a museum and more ruins. There's also the modest gravesite of Jack London himself whose cremated ashes were laid to rest in a particular location as a gesture of kindness.

It was a day of discovery that wasn't over yet so after a brief walking tour of the property we got back on the shuttle to visit our next stop.

We headed to CornerStone Sonoma, a retail and art space where we stopped by Park121 a café, grill, and market to enjoy several desserts and coffee. My favorite of the three desserts we tried was the Triple Cream Cheese Brownie. It reminded me of the flourless chocolate cake I love to bake but with a rich smoothness that I'm sure has something to do with the cream cheese. Definitely a must try if you're a chocolate lover and stop by to enjoy a leisurely meal at Park121.

After our dessert break we had time for a quick walk around the property which is semi-encircled by a white picket fence being blown into the air, a detail you can't miss while driving west on HWY 121.

With an event tent for weddings and parties, shops, a restaurant, two tasting rooms, and gardens of landscape art Cornerstone is the most unique of spaces:

"Cornerstone Gardens is an ever-changing series of walk-through gardens, showcasing new and innovative designs from the world’s finest landscape architects and designers. The first such gallery-style gardens in the United States, the nine-acre Cornerstone Gardens was created as an inspiration and resource for people interested in gardens, garden design and art."

My companions for the day from left to right:
  • Terry Adams: Producer for KGO Radio's "On the Go" (A special thank you to Terry for helping me figure out how to take BART back to Fremont that day and for the chocolate you shared with us on the shuttle that afternoon.)
  • Monica Conrady: Writer and Editor for the Romantic Traveling Newsletter
  • Me
  • Coco: A classically trained opera singer and author of the Opera Girl Cooks blog
  • Christine Sarkis: Senior Editor at Smarter Travel Media
  •  Sara Cummings: Director of Communications for the Sonoma Country Vintners who was also one of our hosts and our personal guide for the day

Our final stop was the Larkspur Ferry Terminal where we were catching a ferry to return to San Francisco's Ferry Building, our starting point that morning. All three groups re-grouped and more fun began. First, our hosts gave each of us a bottle of wine!

Sadly, just as we were about to board the ferry, there was a winetastrophe! I'm not sure whose it was but I had to take a picture. I guess the only thing worse than breaking a bottle of wine in public is to break a bottle of red wine. Note to self and lesson to all: Always place bags gently on concrete when transporting wine.

This was the ferry. I had to take the exterior picture after we docked in San Francisco because I couldn't get this view from the Larkspur port. Inside the cabin was very spacious with large tables that we made good use of with libations and snacks.

Along with cheese, crackers, nuts and dried fruit, and my favorite Jimtown Fig & Olive spread we enjoyed three more wines. Good thing I was riding BART and not driving home.

The wines were:

2007 Clary Ranch Sonoma Coast  Pinot Noir
2006 Armagh Sonoma Coast Syrah
2008 Azari Sonoma Coast Shiraz
 (All three wineries are part of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance)

Also on the ride back prizes were awarded for photos and tweets posted that day on Twitter #SoCoRamble and for a trivia quiz we took on the ride back.

I won a Starbuck's gift card for my photo of Diane Kleinecke from Frostwatch Winery which was awarded best "Wine Grower" image.

I also won a ticket to go wine tasting on the Wine Road after ending up on the winning team of four for the 21 question trivia contest.

But wait, there's more. Just when I thought things couldn't get any better I was awarded the "Spirit of Sonoma" prize for embodying the spirit of Sonoma. Seriously! It was a hoot and a half and I was so excited I can't even remember what the judging criteria was! LOL. The prize was a pass for two to attend the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend's Taste of Sonoma at MacMurray Ranch! There will be 200 Sonoma County wineries and 60 chefs and local food purveyors all waiting to infuse and feed me (and a guest) with the best of Sonoma's wine and food culture!

You can be sure I won't be bringing my husband with me. You know, the guy who doesn't drink wine and only likes regular hamburgers on normal white buns, regular bottled ketchup, normal yellow mustard, green salads made only of iceberg or romaine lettuce, and Coca-Cola.

At this point I have no idea who I'll bring as my guest. Probably best would be a note-taking, meat eating assistant, with basic photography skills who can help me document the event for the blog. If I can't find a suitable volunteer with good penmanship skills (a sample of your handwriting will be needed before I can make a final decision) I'll post a contest link in a future post and will choose an assistant at random.

Our hosts Birgitt Vaughan (Toursim), Sara Cummings (Vintners),
Karissa Kruse (Winegrowers) and Tim Zahner (Tourism).

A tremendously HUGE thank you to Sonoma County's "Trio" of Toursim, the Vintners, and the Winegrowers for the enjoyable afternoon and prizes. As Sara told us throughout the day our excursion was like a first date, an opportunity to gain a little insight into Sonoma. If we want to get to know it better, future dates are required. I was already in love with Sonoma so finding more reasons to visit isn't a hardship. I guess if I visit and buy a diamond ring we'll be officially engaged. In fact, with my new little trailer almost complete I can just see myself spending more and more time exploring every nook and cranny of Sonoma County.

And this wraps up another adventure as I continue on my journey to live life to its most fun and flirty potential!

Our final toast with Sonoma County Tourism's Tim Zahner.

How to get there:

Free Public Library - website
20 Fourth Street
Petaluma, CA 94952

Buena Vista Winery - website
18000 Old Winery Rd
Sonoma, CA 95476

Jack London State Historic Park - website
2400 London Ranch Road
Glen Ellen CA 95442
View entry, parking, and tour fees by CLICKING HERE

CornerStone Sonoma - website
23570 Arnold Dr.
Sonoma, CA 95476

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