where to eat and drink in Sonoma County
CultureMap Wine Guy Chris Shepherd journeys to Sonoma County to sample region's best wineries and restaurants
Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day. When Chris expressed interest in writing about wine-related topics for CultureMap, we said yes.
In this week's column, he shares his favorite wineries and restaurants in Sonoma County, California. Take it away, Chris.
I don’t need to tell you this, but it has been hot. When it’s hot, it’s time to get outta town! I love to venture out to wine growing regions for relaxation. My wife and I recently hit up Sonoma County for some new experiences and new places to try.
Our first stop was a winery that I have forever wanted visit — Rochioli, which is near the Russian River. You must book a tasting there prior to arrival, but it’s worth it because of its majestic views of the vineyards, lots of knowledge, and four killer wines — Sauvignon Blanc, a rocking Chardonnay, Rosé of Pinot, and the Estate Pinot Noir.
They refund the price of admission if you purchase two bottles, which you should. They make other wines that are very special and only go to their wine club, which I attempted to join and was informed that they will reach out to me in 5 years when my allocation is ready, so . . . I will be waiting. And waiting. I’m still waiting. It will be worth it. I know it. I’m still waiting. It will be delicious.
For lunch, we went to the new Montage Hotel for a quick bite, and it was a beautiful setting. I’m going to need some lottery money to stay there, but it was really pretty. The rooms seem to amazingly float in the trees overlooking the valley. The chicken schnitzel and a burger did fine to keep us going and on our to our next spot.
A bunch of tasting rooms are nestled away on the square in Healdsburg, but we were on our mission to taste at Marine Layer. It’s only been around for a few years, but they have it dialed in. Let me run you through the lineup. Vermentino that I would absolutely love in very large formats because it was delicious and so easy to drink as well as rosé, three different Chardonnays, three different Pinot Noirs, and a sparkling rosé.
I was really impressed by what they are doing in such a short time. Each wine definitely shows its terroir. And they have a very reasonable pricing structure. If you get your hands on them, you won’t be sad about it.
Next, head on over to Sebastopol for a winery I have loved from afar for quite some time. Pax Wines is doing amazing work and has a deep portfolio of wines. From very classic wines to fun and funky — a little bit for everyone. Go there for Trousseau Gris, Vermentino, Chenin Blanc, some of the finest Pinot Blanc in all the lands, Charbono, and some Grenache-based wines, but you can’t come here without tasting the Syrah. So well balanced and delicious, I would say Pax is one of the kings of Syrah making. This was an absolute terrific experience.
We were recently invited to a winery party at Cruse Wine Company. Michael Cruse is a young, super talented winemaker. He has some of the best sparkling wine skills I have ever tasted. He gets it.
Some people make sparkling wine and it’s good. He makes stunning sparkling wine. From the Cruse Tradition to the Cruse Sparkling Rancho Chimiles Valdiguie, they are all elegance in a glass. He is also the guy that makes the uber-elusive Ultramarine. Good luck finding that but when you do, get it! It’s like when angels open their wings and sing Dead & Co songs to you, just heavenly.
Michael also produces still wines that are full of depth and flavor. Monkey Jacket should be on every by the glass section of all wines lists. It’s a blend of Valdiguie (think Gamay), Petite Syrah, and Carignan. The blend changes every year and, at $25, you should crush this. He also produces some Tanat and Syrah that are very elegant and fantastic food wines. They’re great with tacos. How do I know? He had one of Oakland’s best taquerias there serving beautiful tacos.
We must not only drink wine — we must eat as well! We stopped in a local charcuterie producer that I really like called Journeyman. They produce some of the best salumi around, and little did I know they have a salumi club where they ship you meat! Hell yes, I signed up! Didn’t know meat clubs were a thing but I’m sure as hell happy they are!
The last meal we had in Sonoma was a special one. It’s a place that I have been waiting to try called Animo in the city of Sonoma. There isn’t a lot of info on their website because they don’t have one. It’s really small — maybe eight to 10 tables. Animo is Korean- and Basque-influenced with a stunning wood-fired grill with food that is all meant to share. Definitely my kind of place. The flavors are subtle but deep and developed.
Our first bite was grilled hen of the woods mushrooms served with a dome of yuzu and warm egg yolk. Then cacio e pepe with uni, followed by the Manila clams with chorizo, saffron aioli, and banging nuoc cham!
Entrees are big and bad ass. Whole crowns of slow-roasted duck that are cooked over that beautiful fire and plenty of steaks, but the thing that caught our eyes was the whole turbot fish. It was perfection with crispy skin, the meat was so filled with gelatin, and the sauce was so light and clean. With a side of kimchi fried rice with Katz’s Deli pastrami and a fried egg put us right where we needed to be. They offered one dessert only, a Basque cheesecake that was so creamy it must have been made from the tears of unicorns. It was a fantastic meal.
All in all, get to Sonoma County. It’s big and spread out with so many microclimates and amazing food. You want Pinot Noir and Chardonnay? Go to Russian River and the Coast. You want Zinfandel? Head up to Dry Creek Valley. You want Syrah? Go see Pax on those Sonoma hillsides. It’s a beautiful place of wineries, orchards, cheesemakers, farmers and fisherfolk. Ever heard of Hog Island Oysters? Yep, that’s Sonoma too.
Safe travels, my friends.
Contact our Wine Guy via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Shepherd won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2014. The Southern Smoke Foundation, a nonprofit he co-founded with his wife Lindsey Brown, has distributed more than $10 million to hospitality workers in crisis through its Emergency Relief Fund. Currently, he's working on a new TV show called Eat Like A Local that will air on KPRC beginning in September.