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We have visited many parts of Sonoma and Napa Valley and probably have driven or visited Valley of the Moon without even realizing it.
Jim “The Travel Organizer,” who last wrote about Dubrovnik, Croatia, Split, Croatia, Krk, Croatia, Koper, Slovenia, Mendocino County, California, Auckland, Oslo, the small German town of Speyer and Deidesheim, Oahu, Napa Valley, Venice, Singapore, Bangkok, Sonoma County and Myrtle Beach, is a former resident of Sonoma and here are his tips should you visit.
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Unless you are a big Jack London fan, you may wonder exactly where this exotic-sounding location is. The first clause in the previous sentence is your clue. In 1913, enigmatic author Jack London, author of Call of the Wild and White Fang, wrote a novel titled The Valley of the Moon. In it, Billy and Saxon Roberts, a working class couple living in Oakland, leave the violence and disruption of labor unrest in the city in search of the idyllic home of their imaginations Saxon calls “a valley of the moon.” (Book 3, Chapter 11). According to the Native American tribes who first lived here, “Sonoma” means “valley of the moon” or “many moons.” I’ve written about Sonoma County in another destination report but only residents (which I was) and frequent visitors will know that Sonoma County contains 17 distinct wine-growing regions, the largest of which is the focus of this report. As Jack London wrote, “This is the Valley of the Moon….That was what the Indians called it for untold ages before the first white men came. We, who love it, still so call it” (The Valley of the Moon, Book 3, Chapter 18).
Organization of this destination report
In this destination report, I will describe some wonderful and unique wine tasting experiences driving in a straight line along the 19 miles on either side of Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and the town of Sonoma. I’ll also suggest a restaurant in both towns and some very interesting non-wine-related activities along the way, giving readers more than enough ideas for an easy day trip or a weekend getaway from San Francisco.
Rated in the top 20% of restaurants in Santa Rosa by TripAdvisor, this family owned and operated restaurant in Santa Rosa’s Mission Plaza Shopping Center at the western end of our route serves up dependably tasty and reasonably priced North Indian cuisine. It’s easy for Indian food to be greasy, but that’s not the case at Pamposh! Food can be ordered mild, medium or spicy but beware; even medium packs plenty of heat! Tips: You can purchase a certificate good for $25.00 off a minimum purchase of $50.00 (Sunday-Thursday) for $10.00 from Restaurant.com, effectively saving you $15.00. In addition, Pamposh is a Dining Rewards Network restaurant, so you can earn redeemable miles on 7 airlines, discounts on gas or 5%-10% cash back. It is also a Yelp! cashback restaurant (5%) and offers 5% cashback through the Dosh app. Best of all, these rewards (with the exception of Yelp! and Dosh) are stackable, so the savings can be significant.
St. Francis Winery
What was the best restaurant in the U.S. in 2015, based on more than 5 million user ratings spanning 11 years? Surprise! It was a winery – St. Francis Winery – and, although 2015 was the only year OpenTable ranked a “top 10” list, St. Francis’ Wine and Food Pairing has remained on the top 100 lists in 2016 and 2017. You can view the 5-course pairing menu for this tasting by clicking on the link in this sentence. St. Francis also offers a free, self-guided vineyard tour which is very enjoyable.
Tips: Make your reservation as far in advance as possible; space fills up quickly! If you collect OpenTable points, you can earn 100 points by clicking here to make your reservation. Choosing the 11am or 1pm timeslot and letting the experience serve as your big meal for the day helps justify the splurge and softens the blow ($72/person) to your wallet.
If you need to burn off the calories (or metabolize the alcohol) from your 5-course wine and food pairing, you can walk from the Sun to Pluto at the Robert Ferguson Observatory by turning onto Adobe Canyon Road from Highway 12. There you will find PlanetWalk, a 1:2.36 billion scale model of our solar system. Even at this scale, the roundtrip walk covers some 4½ miles. The trail was badly damaged in the 2017 fires but has been restored. The observatory is home to all 3 basic telescope types, the largest being a 40-inch reflector. “Star parties,” which start at dusk, are offered throughout the year. Admission charge is just $3.00/person; parking is $8.00/vehicle.
St. Anne’s Crossing Winery
Just past the intersection of Highway 12 and Adobe Canyon Road is St. Anne’s Crossing Winery. The wine tasting here allows one to truly appreciate terroir, the French concept of place reflected in the glass. Sit on the patio while an entertaining wine educator helps you understand the nuanced differences between the winery’s 15 different zinfandels, sometimes coming from vineyards planted just a few miles apart. Tip: St. Anne’s Crossing belongs to the Wilson Artisan Wineries family, a co-owned group of 10 boutique wineries and 2 Healdsburg Bed and Breakfast properties. If you like the wines from any of these wineries enough to join the club, one of the benefits is complimentary reciprocal tasting privileges at all the others for yourself and up to 3 guests. During the summer, club members enjoy complimentary table reservations for any summer music concert at member wineries; the 2018 season included 16 concerts at 4 different wineries.
Mayo Reserve Room
The food and wine pairing at the Mayo Family Reserve Room in Kenwood is not to be missed. This experience pairs 7 Mayo Family Reserve wines with tapas-size “bites” prepared and served by Executive Chef John Locher who opened Prelude Restaurant at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, CA and was Chef Instructor at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Miami, FL. Our tasting included:
- Japanese pumpkin squash bisque with 2016 Reserve Chardonnay($45),
- housemade kimchi and chicken stew with 2015 Roussane ($40),
- wild mushroom and Camembert arancini (stuffed, deep-fried rice ball) with 2014 Reserve Pinot Noir ($40)
- smoked pork pupusa (Salvadoran tortilla) with 2014 Reserve Zinfandel ($55),
- red-cooked chicken wings with 2013 Syrah ($40),
- roasted vegetable ragout on bleu cheese bruschetta with 2013 Reserve Meritage ($50) and
- avocado panna cotta with 2017 late harvest Gewurtztraminer.
At $50/person, the 7-course food and wine pairing at the Mayo Family Reserve Room is a phenomenal value. Reservations can be made through OpenTable Thursday through Monday at the top or bottom of each hour and earn 100 points. Pick a timeslot around the lunch hour and let this experience serve as your big meal for the day.
Quarryhill Botanical Garden
The next 4 stops in this itinerary are all in the hamlet of Glen Ellen (population 784). Quarryhill Botanical Gardens, which has been called “a Noah’s ark of rare and endangered species,” is home to one of the largest and most important collections of plants from eastern Asia in the U.S. More than 90% of the trees, shrubs and flowers found here were grown from seeds gathered on 29 expeditions to China, Japan, Taiwan, Tibet, Nepal and India. The grounds are open from 9am-4pm daily. Tip: Admission for self-guided tours (app available for download for 99 cents) is free for seniors, students and active military on the first Tuesday of every month.
Following your GPS to 6725 Enterprise Road to Coturri Winery is an experience you won’t soon forget, from the drive up Sonoma Mountain, to the winery’s “driveway” (only for 4-wheel drive vehicles with high ground clearance – seriously!), to Tony himself! This is the complete antithesis to the grand tasting rooms on the valley floor – visiting here is like going “back to the future.” Tony’s wines were grown organically long before it became fashionable to do so; they are also unfiltered and free of any additives. Tony’s father learned the art of natural winemaking during Prohibition and today is passing the craft onto his son, Nic. Pictured here is one of the latest “experiments” at Coturri Winery. Those various-colored jugs weigh down glass discs to minimize evaporation from the real stars of the show – large clay vessels called amphorae, each holding the equivalent of 2 barrels, which are buried, eliminating the need for refrigeration during the fermentation and aging processes. This is the way wine was made for millennia and the way some wine is being made again at Coturri Winery.
Note: Visits here are by appointment only which can be made only by e-mailing Tony at the address on his website; there is no telephone number to call.
The Fig Café & Winebar
There’s a lot to love about our “go-to” restaurant in the Valley of the Moon – The Fig Café & Winebar. Corkage is always free, which we appreciate immensely because that means we know we are going to love the wine we have with dinner. They have a daily prix fixe menu consisting of 3 courses for just $29. Their truffle fries with tarragon aioli are nothing short of addictive. My wife loves their mussels in white wine sauce and I order their steak with bleu cheese butter and frites every time we visit.
Tips: You can redeem OpenTable points for gift certificates here even though The Fig Café & Winebar doesn’t take reservations. So go early (opens at 5:00pm every night) or be prepared to wait for a table.
Jack London State Historic Park
This destination report began with a reference to Jack London; you can also visit his estate, “Beauty Ranch,” which encompasses 29 miles of hiking trails on 1,400 acres off Arnold Drive above Glen Ellen. Highlights of any visit here include the House of Happy Walls (home to the Park’s museum), the ruins of Wolf House (Jack’s dream home which burned to the ground before he had a chance to live in it), the cottage (where Jack and his second wife did live) and Jack’s gravesite (located along the trail between Happy Walls and Wolf House). Admission is $10/vehicle. Tip: A free, docent-led tour lasting 60-90 minutes covering the story of Wolf House and Jack’s gravesite leaves the House of Happy Walls at 11am and 1pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Another free, docent-led tour of Beauty Ranch, focusing on the life and work of Jack London, departs from the cottage (which you can visit before or after your tour for an additional $4/adult, $2/seniors and students) at 1pm on weekends. Confirm your tour ahead of time and allow up to 3 hours for your visit, especially if you will be joining one of the tours.
From rare and endangered plant species to a walk across our solar system, from north Indian to French-inspired California cuisine, from avant-garde food and wine pairings to “old school” winemaking, the Valley of the Moon has it all!
About the Author:
I organize things; it’s what I do! I enjoy the natural adrenaline high of travel as much as the next person but I also try to limit the likelihood that the surprises I experience along the way will be unpleasant ones. To this end, I spend more hours than most preparing for each trip. Fortunately for me, I enjoy the anticipation of travel as much as the experience of it. The focus of my trip reports will be to help those who read them to enjoy high value experiences — maximizing enjoyment while minimizing cost. I’ve been a minister, nonprofit agency executive, professor and consultant; my “job” in retirement is planning our next trip. If you would like additional information and/or recommendations, please feel free to contact “The Travel Organizer” via email.
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