A Wine-Tasting Staycation in West Sonoma County

The signature salmon dish at Corks restaurant at Russian River Vineyards.

If the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 29 and the shoulder-to-shoulder squeeze in tasting rooms have left you anything but relaxed in the Napa Valley, there’s an antidote to that.

It’s Wine Country in West Sonoma County in the beautiful Russian River Valley.

Picture the Napa Valley before big-time tourism development took hold. Or even Lake Tahoe back in the day with its natural, picturesque scenery dotted with cabins rather than sprawling, gazillion-dollar resorts. That’s what this region of Sonoma County is like, from what I saw on my first visit there recently. It’s a little like stepping back into time, when wine-tasting still had a small-town feel to it all.

Soaring redwoods will leave you humbled.

I was invited to be a guest of Russian River Vineyards in Forestville, to come taste wines and stay for dinner at the restaurant, Corks. It’s the only restaurant at a winery in the Russian River Valley. So, it’s easy to see why it’s become a popular locale for weddings.

The drive there is breathtaking, as the Gravenstein Highway (116), winds through soaring redwood groves, whose lush canopies provide plenty of shade so that this part of Sonoma County remains fairly comfortable even on days when the rest of the region is sweltering.

Some of the oldest Merlot vines in Sonoma County.

Russian River Vineyards.

The winery's towers that add to its old world charm.

The breezeway to the restaurant.

If you’re used to the often ostentatious, faux Mediterranean wineries of the Napa Valley, you’re sure to’ find Russian River Vineyards a nice change of pace. The property is an 1890’s historic farmhouse. Its exposed wooden timbers lend an authentic sense of place. The Merlot vineyard at the entrance is among the first such vines of that varietal ever planted in Sonoma County, dating back to 1963.

Over the years, the property has changed hands a few times. Three years ago, real estate developer Chris O’Neill, and his wife Barbara Sattler, took it over. Today, the winery produces about 2,000 cases total of 11 different varietals. Production is done at a custom-crush facility in Sebastopol. But plans are in the works to build a green production facility on the grounds in the near future.

A taste of the stainless steel-fermented Chardonnay.

The winery is known in particular for its Pinot Noirs, with their fruit-forward dark cherry and blackberry aromas and earthy backbone. The winery also makes Charbono, an Old World Italian varietal that’s rarely grown in the United States; and a golden Botrytis Chardonnay that tastes of honeysuckle and is a little lighter in body than other dessert wines. The tasting room is open daily. There’s a $5 charge to taste, but the fee is waived with any wine purchase. Additionally, on Thursdays in the restaurant, corkage is waived if you want to bring your own bottle from elsewhere.

The rustic property boasts an organic garden and chickens. It also raises pigs occasionally, which are fed scraps from the restaurant until the animals are large enough to be featured on the menu, themselves.

Executive Chef Todd Davies has been overseeing the restaurant for the past year, which is open daily for brunch and dinner. The Idaho-native is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park and has worked under such acclaimed chefs as Charlie Palmer and David Burke. He’s also the former executive chef of San Francisco’s now-shuttered mc².

Enjoy a meal at a white-tablecloth-draped table inside the comfortable dining room or on the brick patio under the shade of a big umbrella like my husband and I did.

The menu showcases California cuisine with local ingredients. This is not a place to come if you want cutting-edge molecular gastronomy cooking or precious tasting menus. The food is hearty here, with good-sized portions of familiar fare such as Caesar salad ($10), crispy eggplant napoleon ($11), and Angus New York steak with sauteed spinach ($29).

Mozzarella, tomatoes and olives.

An amuse arrived in Chinese soup spoons, holding a zesty bite of tomatoes, mozzarella and olives.

My first course was white corn soup ($10) with a swirl of creme fraiche and a garnish of prawns. The soup was creamy, but with a slightly coarse texture, and was sweet with summer corn flavor.

Creme fraiche garnishes a summer corn soup.

Heirloom tomatoes with goat cheese.

My husband’s heirloom tomato salad with goat cheese ($11) was simple and satisfying.

His roasted pork loin ($24) was from one of the pigs raised on the property. Cooked conventionally, rather than in today’s almost de rigueur sous-vide method, the meat had some chew to it. It lay on a lovely bed of creamy cannellini bean and corn ragout.

Roast pork with corn and cannellini beans.

The seared Taku River Sockeye salmon ($27) is one of the chef’s signature dishes. The rich flesh had been cooked maybe a minute over, so that it lacked the wonderful medium-rare center it so deserves. Alongside were plump mussels, prawns, favas and a crisp risotto cake.

Dessert brought an outstanding rendition of strawberry shortcake with textbook-perfect biscuits that were sturdy but crumbly and tender.

A triumphant shortcake.

Devil’s food cookies — a tad over-baked and dry — ended the evening.

Chocolate cookies for a finale.

A half-hour’s drive awaited us as we headed to the Elim Grove Cottages in Cazadero, where we had been invited to stay the night by owners, Mark and Elizabeth Weiss. Nine years ago, he gave up his hectic life working in tech in Silicon Valley to run this establishment with his wife, a school teacher.

The door to our charming little cottage.

The pretty path outside the door.

You feel a little like you’re winding your way through the woods to grandma’s house amid these small, storybook-like cottages that are surrounded by redwoods.

Mark will greet you with a freshly-baked baguette from Raymond’s Bakery on the premises. Yes, a bakery just steps from your cottage. The baked goods may not be quite as refined as what you’d find in the big city, but they make for a fine way to wake up in the morning with a good strong cup of coffee.

An apricot jam-smeared fougasse.

A breakfast bear claw.

There’s also a fire pit in case you get the hankering to make s’mores at night.

An antique stove decorates the main room of the cottage.

We stayed in the Creekside Cottage with the red door ($165 a night). The front room boasts a cute antique stove for decoration. There are two small bedrooms, each with a full-size bed covered with quilts. For a charming touch, each room has a few stacks of cookbooks — both new and vintage — for perusing.

We tucked in for the night, sleeping soundly in a peaceful Wine Country that still feels like the country.

A Visit to Another Part of Sonoma County: A Visit to Chef Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg and to Quivera Vineyards

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Date: Friday, 26. August 2011 5:26
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Bakeries, Chefs, General, Restaurants, Travel Adventures, Wine

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  1. 1

    What a beautiful and peaceful place! Nice meal too. Sonoma wines are wonderful.



  2. 2

    how fun the strawberry shortcake looks divine!!

  3. 3

    Hubby and I were talking about going to Napa next weekend but we hate the traffic and crowds! I’m totally gonna consider coming here instead!

  4. 4

    Sonoma is for wine; Napa is for auto parts.

  5. 5

    SkinnyGirl: You slay me! Too hilarious.

  6. 6

    Visiting Napa is on our list for a long time! Well, one day we’ll make it happen! All the food looks delicious and beautifully presented .

  7. 7

    What an amazing experience! The food…the wine…just fabulous!

  8. 8

    That farm house is so great! That would be such a great experience, and a lovely break from city life.

  9. 9

    It all sounds unbelievably delightful! Gorgeous photos.

  10. 10

    such a great place, and the food looks amazing!

  11. 11

    I really like the Russian River Valley. We used to belong to a wine club there, and I always enjoyed picking up the wine! It’s a little too far with the toddler right now, but I look forward to going back one day. And I’ll keep the restaurant and the cottages in mind!

  12. 12

    Oh my, this place is so picture perfect. As you said, got the “turn back in time” kind of feeling. Now, I want to go wine tasting so badly! All the food there looks so delicious too. I’m amazed the prices are so reasonable too. Let me send your link to my hubby to see if he’s interested to visit! It’s hard for him to say no. hehehehe… ;)

  13. 13

    The salmon looks so beautifully seared and this place looks like such a quaint and lovely part of California. It also reminds me of beautiful country towns in New South Wales.

  14. 14

    What a beautiful and very serene place, Carolyn! One of these days, I would take my wife there on a spontaneous weekend getaway. Thank you for sharing this post. :)

    Have an enjoyable weekend!

    ~ ray ~

  15. 15

    That strawberry shortcake looks so lusciously amazing! :o

  16. 16

    We just spent the day in this area yesterday. We visited other vineyards, but I agree its a beautiful area. I’ll have to try all your recommendations. We hit up one of my favorite bakeries, Wildflour in Occidental – have you tried that one yet?

  17. 17

    OysterCulture: Oooh, I haven’t been to Wildflour. But I may be back in that area later this year, so I’ll have to go check it out. After all, I can’t miss stellar baked goods, can I? ;)

  18. 18

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