The Best of Sonoma County
Sonoma County is a mecca for three different types of fanatics–foodies, winos and bike fiends. I was lucky enough to grow up in this beautiful part of California’s Wine Country and I’m forever indebted to it for instilling in me a love of cuisine, grapes and bicycles. My first job was at a winery, my first mode of transportation was a bike and my first trade was a line chef in a Sonoma County bistro. Many Backroads guests on our Wine Country trips find themselves with a day or two to spare in my native land, and I (of course) think that I know how to spend it best. Allow me to share what I would do if I had a few days–and a few dollars–in Sonoma County.
First of all, I would eat, and I would start at Dierk’s Parkside Café in Santa Rosa. I first discovered this delightful breakfast joint years ago while on an informal and ill-advised mission to eat at every diner in Santa Rosa. Dierk’s was my sixth spot in three weeks, and I had very low expectations. “Parkside Café” was emblazoned on an old Pepsi-Cola sign across from a notoriously seedy park on Santa Rosa Avenue. But I was hungry, and had already been to the nicer-looking spots in town. I was not expecting what I found inside. Fresh, inspired and lighter-than-usual dishes–like smoked salmon egg tart in puff pastry and duck confit with potato hash and scrambled eggs–round out a menu of diner classics. Nowadays Dierk’s is well known and they’ve abandoned the old sign, but they still serve delicious traditional breakfast fare with a Sonoma County twist.
Lunchtime brings with it an entirely new set of possibilities. I’d be tempted by a ribeye sandwich from Mac’s Delicatessen or a chicken sandwich with special dressing from Howard’s Café in Occidental. I might even want to drive up to the Alexander Valley and visit the Jimtown Store. But in the end I’d head to the cute hamlet of Graton and see my friends at the Willow Wood Market, a café-cum-general store serving everything from polenta to egg salad to smoked salmon. I could also visit the nearby galleries and gift shops along Main Street to buy some unique souvenirs.
Finally comes dinner. Sonoma County has hundreds of excellent restaurants, from Cloverdale to Petaluma. We have three Michelin-starred and 14 “Bib Gourmand” restaurants. But I would, at this particular moment, choose The Girl and the Fig in Glen Ellen. With simple, fresh ingredients prepared creatively yet without pretension, this is the definition of Sonoma County cuisine. There are numerous, equally good options around, such as The Farmhouse Inn, Zazu, Willi’s and Rosso, but, at this moment, my heart lies in Glen Ellen.
Of course, you can’t eat all this great food without drinking equally delicious wine. Sonoma County is known for its pinot noir (near the coast and up the Russian River Valley), its Chardonnay (both along the coast and in the Carneros region, which is southeast near the San Francisco Bay), and its Cabernet Sauvignon (from the northern part of the county, especially the Chalk Hill region). But the best part about the wine from Sonoma County is drinking it straight from the source. Williams Selyem in Healdsburg specializes in pinot noir and has lovely grounds. If bubbles are more your thing, head to Iron Horse (provider of sparkling wines to the White House since 1985) just north of Graton. There you can enjoy a flight of sparkling wines while you gaze over the Santa Rosa Valley.
Perhaps the most precious gem of Sonoma County is the biking. With hundreds of miles of rolling, curving back roads that pass through redwood forests, savannahs, vineyards, hamlets, rivers and coastal plains, there’s something for just about every cyclist. Beginners might enjoy following the Joe Radota Trail, starting in Santa Rosa and winding along the eponymous creek, through the aptly titled Llano plain and ending in Sebastopol. If you have a little more energy, continue (after some urban detours and a couple steep hills) up to Forestville, where you can grab a coffee at Sunshine Roasters before you head back. If you’re up for a longer ride, start farther west in Occidental and head up over Coleman Valley Road. This challenging route brings you up out of the Salmon Creek Watershed, through oak, redwood, and fir groves to coastal dairy farms, affording astounding views of the Pacific Ocean.
Finally, if you want to feel like a pro and ride the routes that native cyclist Levi Leipheimer trains on, then by all means attempt the Los Alamos grade. In three and a half miles you’ll climb 1,700 feet, which is not insane but is a challenge. But the best part is that you get to ride along a barely driven road that takes you up a chaparral-clad coastal mountain overlooking Jack London’s Valley of the Moon. After flying back down those three and a half miles, be sure to reward yourself with a famed Pliny the Elder beer at Russian River Brewery in downtown Santa Rosa.
These are, of course, just my favorite things to do in Sonoma County. Growing up here, learning to cook here and commuting by bike here does give me some authority, but I’m sure many other people would give you many other equally delightful recommendations. The best thing to do is to spend a few days in Wine Country with a bike and a healthy appetite. You’re sure to discover amazing things along each ride and around every corner.