How to Spend It in... Sonoma Valley
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Although we were both born and raised in LA, it is Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco, that we call home. The first time we visited we were 23 and just married – in Mendocino, also wine country – and as part of our honeymoon we treated ourselves to dinner at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Driving south through California, we pulled off the highway and headed into Healdsburg, a pretty city in the heart of Sonoma County. We fell in love with it right away. As a young couple we moved around a lot: we lived in Japan for a while, and also in Henley-on-Thames in the UK when Kyle was working at The Fat Duck. But over the years we kept coming back to Sonoma. Eventually we moved here: we didn’t have jobs and just decided we’d figure it out.
There’s something undeniably special about Sonoma. It is most famous for its wine and beautiful vineyards, which undulate all the way to the ocean. But in among all the grapes you’ll also find lots of small organic farms that celebrate Sonoma’s amazing soil.
At first we leased a five-acre farm where Katina grew the produce for our restaurant, SingleThread. Recently we’ve bought our 24-acre “forever farm” where we’re building a house for us and our two daughters.
For us, Healdsburg is the beating heart of the county but many of its other small towns are special too. Sonoma city has an incredible history: it’s the location of the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt, when a group of settlers tried to break away from the Mexican authorities and declare California an independent republic. At Sonoma Barracks you can see where the first Bear Flag was hoisted.
To take advantage of the landscape we’ll get up early and hike in the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. It’s seen some fire damage in the past few years but there is still a lot of old growth and the trees are truly massive. The early-morning fog leaves everything looking wet and bright.
Our restaurant is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so we might take the whole team out rafting or canoeing on Russian River, which flows through Healdsburg and out to the coast.
Or we’ll head to Shell Beach, where the river meets the sea. Sonoma’s beaches aren’t like California’s white sandy ones; they are rocky and cooler. We’ll take the hounds, an odd couple called Murray and Bertie, and hang out, exploring tide pools. Sometimes we’ll take the team foraging – for forest mushrooms in autumn, or for delicious sea plants in summer. The edible landscape here is hugely important to us.
We have a family meal at the restaurant every day and we cook at home a lot, but we still like to eat out. Our number-one place is an amazing Mexican restaurant in Sonoma city called El Molino Central, where we’ll eat on picnic tables. We tell everyone to order the fish tacos – the fish comes in a beautiful, very crispy batter – and drink local Chardonnay. In wine country even the smallest wine lists have excellent wine.
Mexican food is great throughout California but especially so in Sonoma County. We often grab tacos from the stalls in Healdsburg and eat them on the run – flavourful, slow-cooked Al Pastor pork ones at Guadalajara; fish or shrimp ones at El Sombrero; or mole tacos at Casa del Mole, which is tucked away in the back of a Mexican market.
In Healdsburg is a casual Italian place called Campo Fina, with an outdoor pizza oven and a bocce court. The menu changes seasonally, and on our last visit the pizza of the day came with burrata cheese from a local maker, young and tender broccolini and preserved lemon.
Most days one of us will go to Quail & Condor, a bakery set up by two chefs who used to work at SingleThread. It has become a town hotspot and there is always a line out the door.
While neighbouring Napa is big and bold in both its wine and wine-tasting experiences, Sonoma is rustic and relaxed, with up-and-coming wineries run by dynamic winemakers. One of these is called Reeve, where the low-key tasting takes place in the shade of some old oak trees overlooking the vineyards. A chef makes pizzas in an outdoor oven and there’s a beautiful let’s-hang-out vibe. Another is Lioco, which has a cool tasting room right on buzzy Matheson Street in Healdsburg.
But traditional winemaking families still have a place here. Kistler is one of the county’s most iconic wines and its tasting experience is great for understanding Sonoma’s terroir. You can really taste the difference between, say, a coastal and an inland Chardonnay.
To break it up we might go for a craft beer at Russian River Brewing Company. It has a cult following and people come from all over the US, standing in line for hours to try its new releases.
On Saturdays after the Healdsburg Farmers’ Market, which is incredible quality, Katina might then stop at Copperfield’s Books or Jam Jar, which is great for little gifts. There could be a trip to Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone. The cedar enzyme baths and Japanese Zen Gardens there are divine.
We hope visitors to Sonoma County will stay with us. Dinner is clearly the main draw but breakfast is a thing too – it might be why we created the inn in the first place, and we put the whole firepower of the kitchen into it. We only have five rooms, so if we’re full we’ll send guests to the new Montage, a big resort hotel that’s great if you really want to get away from it all, or to the classic Les Mars, which is cosy and right in central Healdsburg. The best off-the-beaten-path place to stay is the four-bedroom villa at Reeve winery, which is an agricultural farmstay with beautiful views over the vineyards, a great pool and a very California-meets-the-Med vibe.
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